The Beta Conundrum

I’ve written about this before.  My preference is for betas that are readers as opposed to betas that are writers, because, ultimately, I’m writing towards readers not my fellow writers.

Now, arguably, there’s some overlap there since most writers are going to be readers as well.

The problem with my approach is finding enough betas to read my stuff.  Especially during periods when I happen to be fairly prolific.  So, I currently have one novel and two short stories out with various betas.  I was thinking about finalizing another short story today, but then realized that I don’t have anyone to send it to right now.

And you have to be somewhat gentle with your betas.  You can’t just keep dumping your writing on them or they’ll start ducking your calls.

The nice thing with writer betas is that they generally have work of their own that they want you to look at.  So, it becomes a tit for tat situation.  “I’ll read your novel if you read mine.”

(Of course, early on I did that for someone who never did get back to me about my novel…I really wish people who did that would say, “I stopped reading at page 121 and just never could bring myself to come back to it.”  At least then I’d know something.)

My issue with writer betas is that, depending on who it is, they sometimes want to start fixing what they perceive as the problem.  I don’t want someone to fix my “errors” for me.  I want someone to say, “The transition here threw me” or “I have no idea where we are right now” or “I read this sentence three times and it still doesn’t make any sense to me.”

I don’t want them to write a new transition from scene A to scene B.  Or to rewrite that sentence.  Because maybe the solution to that sentence is not to fix it, but to put in enough information earlier in the story so the sentence makes sense.  How to fix it should be my call as the author.

(I put errors in quotes there because writing is very subjective.  And sometimes I think writer betas are keyed in to find issues that aren’t necessarily issues.  So, I had a comment recently that I was telling not showing when I described a character.  Well, it was a secondary character that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with, so, yes, I was telling. Because I wanted to.)

(I’m immediately leery of anyone who starts using those types of buzz words.  I’d much rather someone said, “this scene read flat to me” or “this is supposed to be an action scene, but I didn’t feel invested in what was happening” than “you’re telling here not showing.”  But I’m difficult that way….)

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I’ve been debating joining a writing group lately.  And I’m just not sure I want to do that.  It’s hard to join a group of writers when you don’t know the level of their writing.  Will they bring you up to their level?  Or pull you down to their level?  Will they encourage and support you?  Or tear you down so that you don’t want to write ever again?

And I don’t think being published is a clear indicator of where someone is in their writing.  Even professional publication.  There’s such a wide range of professional publication and such a variety of types of stories that you can’t necessarily assume that someone who is professionally published is a better authority on your story than you are.  It can be actively harmful to have someone who writes a different style trying to critique your work.

I also worry about idea bleed.  It’s almost inevitable that writers who are reading each other’s work are going to feed off of one another’s writing to a certain extent.  And I don’t want my writing to sound like everyone else’s.

I know I can’t write in a vacuum.  I sent off that 15,000 word short story for some beta reads because it’s either really good or sucks shit and I couldn’t tell you which.

I think I mentioned this before, but I had two stories that I finished about the same time and I thought both were equally strong.  One has been getting rave rejections and the other has been getting form rejections.  I have no idea why.  (Ok, I have some notion–likability of the central character, subject matter, and use of touch–but in terms of writing level I don’t think they’re that different from one another.)

So, as a writer you need others to see your work.  But you have to be very careful who you choose.  And what you listen to from the people you do choose.  There’s this fine line between arrogance and confidence that you have to walk.  Too much arrogance and you dismiss legitimate comments that could improve the story.  Too little confidence and you listen to advice that weakens the story.

I don’t know.  I think, for me, that the best thing to do is to keep honing my ear and eye so that I can be my own best beta.  And then to develop a wide enough network of betas to get independent feedback on my own gut instinct.  And I think for now that I’ll stick with readers as much as possible.

That may be a mistake.  Only time will tell…

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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