Tag Archives: Beta readers

The Alpha in Betas

Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.

Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.

Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.

By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.

Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

Booker’s Seven: Progress Report

Way back in October, I introduced the plan for my 2011 NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org) project, which I refer to as Booker’s Seven. Christopher Booker suggested that there are “Seven Basic Plots” from which all stories are built. So, with a group of 6 other writers, I have embarked on a project to write seven stories each, each story following one of the plots and with a few connecting features between our versions. So my “Robin Hood” story is a Quest, someone else will be writing it as comedy, someone else as a tragedy, etc. To further link us, everyone’s Robin Hood story will have a main character called Robin and a first line of “It was a dark and stormy night.” The other story ideas have a set main character and first line too.

Here’s my list of stories, along with their progress so far.

Story Idea

Booker Plot

Progress

Colonisation Overcoming the monster To be Edited
Wild West Voyage / Return In Editing
Concert Tragedy Awaiting Beta Readers
Road Trip Comedy Awaiting Beta Readers
Stargazing Rebirth Awaiting Beta Readers
Robin Hood Quest With Stage 2 Beta readers
Phoenix Rags to Riches With Stage 2 Beta readers

Which brings me to a more general point about writing. Leonardo Da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Paul Valery said the same about poems a few centuries later. I am far from the first to apply it to writing stories.

Colonisation is about as raw as my writing gets. In spite of the admonishment of nano HQ, I can’t write blind – if I make a mistake while writing, I’ll got back and correct it. If I turn up a load of complete nonsense in a word war, I’ll delete it there and then and rewrite that paragraph. But I don’t go back and proof read until after the fact, so I haven’t touched Colonisation since November.

Wild West I have read through once and dealt with the typos and the silly spacing and a few bits of glaringly bad wording, but I still want to go through it at least once more before before anyone else sees it. I want to balance out the plot better, flesh out a few characters and deal with the fact that the POV is all over the place.

Then it can become like Concert, Road Trip and Stargazing, ready for a first few critical and conscious readers to look over it. These three are waiting because my first beta readers tend to be my amazing writing group, and I can only take so much of their attention! They are 100% worth waiting for. They don’t pull the punches, they are not afraid to tell me something is dreadful, that they didn’t understand it, or that huge chunks need to be ripped out and pissed all over! And to me, that’s exactly what Betas are for.

Once they’ve done that, my editing process starts again. I have to go back over the piece and really hone it before sending it out to slightly gentler Stage 2 beta readers. Hopefully these guys won’t find anything to hate, or if they do, it will be something I’ve decided it’s worth having readers hate. But they still have a crucial role in critiquing, because they are my last line of defence before I abandon the story and send it out into the world.

In reality, of course, they hopefully will find something(s) to fiddle with, and there are a few ideas in my head I’m still working through. Phoenix, for example, still doesn’t sit quite right with me, so when I get it back from my Stage 2’s, I’ll probably tweak it again and find some Stage 3’s to send it to. But that’s my right as the author, NOT to abandon it!

Those of you who’ve stuck around for a while are probably wondering about my previous NaNo projects, the novels: Phoenix Fire and Eric. PF has in theory gone through Betas and is ready to abandon, but actually I think it needs me to pick it up as if it’s a first draft, and start editing from scratch. I certainly aim to do so before I try to publish it. Eric is not as far along, I’ve finished the phase 1 editing, but now I need to start moving chapters around and filling out plot points. He’s at the same stage as the Wild West, but whereas a 7,000 word story can go through the whole process in just over a week, a novel takes disproportionately longer, and Eric is more than 10 times the length of Wild West!

When I’ve finally abandoned Booker’s Seven though, I’ll be right back on his tail. I love Eric, and I really want to get him to the stage where I can share him, first with the trusted few, and then one day, I hope, with the world.

8 Comments

Filed under Booker's Seven, Writing