(Otherwise known as “learn from my mistake”)
For those of you who haven’t learned the lingo yet (and I may not have all of it right, so proceed with caution) a beta reader is someone who reads your writing before you send it off to an agent, editor, magazine, what have you. They’re your guinea pig, your canary in the mine.
And, often, for someone like me who is just starting out, your beta readers are friends or family. (Not necessarily a good thing, because generally your friends and family like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they tell you something is good when it’s not that great. Or they don’t have any comments for you, which means it really sucked. If you give your mom your story and she still hasn’t managed to get around to reading it three weeks later, even though she doesn’t work and has managed to read six bodice-ripper-type novels in the interim, it’s because she tried to read it, it was awful, and she doesn’t want to have to tell you. At least that’s how I interpret the tea leaves when it comes to my mother’s reactions.)
So, getting back to the point. (I promise I don’t ramble this much in my actual fiction writing.) Back in February I was inspired to write a short story. I had an event I wanted to write about. It was simple, compact, set over a few hours, and something that I didn’t think would work for a novel. So, I took a break from my novel and I wrote the story. Polished it up a few times. Got it in the best shape I could and sent it out to two of my beta readers. Both came back with rave reviews. One kept sending me e-mails asking about little nuances in the story and read it twice in the space of a day. Great, right? I got good feedback, they got a story they enjoyed. Win, win.
And then I went and burned them (my betas). Because I wrote another short story the other day. This one was about an idea not an event. And I read through it and polished it up, but there wasn’t much polishing to do. (In hindsight, I now realize that’s because the issue with the story wasn’t word usage or sentence structure, it was the plot. Or lack thereof).
I sent it off to my betas, all giddy that I’d written a second short story. One has not responded at all. The other initially wrote me and said it was good and he was going to read it again. I thanked him for the feedback and asked him to be critical, because I thought there was something wrong with it. Fast forward a week and he wrote me and said, “Ok, I’ve read it again. Sorry it took me so long. I’m not sure why I didn’t reread it right away.”
I’ll tell you why he didn’t reread right away. Because it sucked. It went nowhere. It explored the idea I wanted to explore, but who cares? There was no story there. And without story, the idea is meaningless.
And so I burned my betas. Next time I send them a story I know they’re going to flinch at the thought of reading it. I haven’t lost them yet, because they still have that good story to remember (and they like me as a person), but it’s close. We’re on the fence. I already made the mistake of asking one of them to read the first few chapters of the first draft of my novel, so she’s really on the edge, because the first draft of my novel was flat and lifeless.
So, the advice: As a new writer (at least for me) you’re nervous about your writing ability and you want feedback. You want validation that you aren’t smoking crack about this whole writing thing. But you need to be careful in seeking that feedback, because you don’t want to seek feedback too early. Write something and then SIT ON IT. (Not literally).
Put it aside for a week or two if it’s short, longer if it’s a novel (Stephen King says six weeks for novels, I’ve seen others recommend three months). Then, pull it out again and reread it fresh as a reader not the person who wrote it. And fix what you can. If you need input, try to get it without showing anyone the actual writing. (Question: “Hey-what do you think of starting every paragraph with ‘So'”. Answer: “That’s a really bad idea.” Result: You fix those paragraphs before you send it to anyone else. Personally, I subscribed to the on-line version of the Chicago Manual of Style so I could look up things I wasn’t sure of.)
Get it as close as you can to perfect. (The newer you are at this the further away it’s going to be; but it will never be perfect, so don’t hold onto it forever either.) Now send it to your betas. Listen to their feedback. Look for patterns in the feedback. As James D. Macdonald likes to say on his “Learn Writing with Uncle Jim” thread over at Absolute Write: “If a reader tells you that there’s something wrong, he’s almost certainly right. If he tells you what’s wrong, he’s almost certainly wrong.”
Now fix it. And learn from your betas. If they all told you you use “so” too much, and you agree, then take care of those in your next piece before you send it off to them, because no one appreciates someone who asks for advice, ignores it, and then asks for more advice.
And, of course, keep in mind that I am an unpublished no one, so you should approach anything I say with a tremendous amount of skepticism.
(And let’s hope no one finds this blog via a keyword search for “smoking crack” like they did the other day for a search of “do people really offer happy endings?” I don’t think they were talking about the same type of happy ending I was in my post. But, yes, whoever you were, rumor has it they do at certain massage parlors for just a little extra. Although you’d think the search results for something like that would find better hits than my post…Try urban dictionary next time around.)
I think the best betas are those that will tell you it sucks when it truly does. I hope the next time you are looking for someone to read your writing, you find someone who will rave when if it is awesome and criticize if it is not.
Agreed. That combination of appropriately supportive and constructively critical is hard to find (in all things, not just beta readers).