Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How To Beta

What is "beta-reading"?
Beta-reading is the second line of defense for a writer. It's like editing, but you're getting the corrections and opinions of somebody who represents actual readers, not a completely disinterested, non-invested, third party whom you are paying to tell you everything wrong with your book. A beta-reader works most of the time for free, and a lot of times the ones who agree to beta are either huge fans of the genre, so are predisposed to like your book, or they are voracious readers looking for an excuse to read a free book and directly tell the author what they think, before the book goes to print. (Guilty!)
Yes, this is kind of what I have been doing instead of writing another chapter to excerpt for you all. I have been reading a book which I am bound not to divulge prior to its release... But when it comes HOO DAWGIES HANG ONTO YOUR BUTTS because I will be super-duper excited to share it!! (Can I at least say it's a sequel to a book I have already reviewed?)

Anyway, I decided that today's post will focus primarily on the concept of beta-reading, not just because I have been the beta-reader, but also this year I have been in the business of seeking out beta-readers and editing a previous work (something I have not had a lot of practice doing; typically, my habit has been to finish a project and either abandon it for the next one or scrap the whole thing and rewrite it completely...) in preparation for publication! (ICYMI: "Princess of Undersea" will be included in an anthology to be published next year! Stay tuned!)

Anyway, back to beta-reading.

It's really an involved process—or I would like it to be. As a writer I know how it is to be so attached to this character or that one, or so steeped in a particular version of the story that, were anyone ever to object to it, I would be completely at a loss as to how it could possibly occur any differently. (This has happened to me before, and I have literally blocked that particular story from my mind... Have not thought about it in years!) 
At the same time, as a reader I also know what it is to be reading a published book and thinking, "Really? I mean, really? Did you have to do that? Did she have to say that? I am confused, why is this even in the book?"

Ergo, when I sit down to beta-read, I am marking the spots where this happens. I am combing for typos and repeated language (something no writer should feel compelled to do), I am looking for those spots that would make me roll my eyes in disgust at the character who should have been the hero of the scene. 
I am looking for those points where the info-dump is so boring that I just skim over it. I am looking for the confusing word choices, and also for the excellent ones. I am looking for the bad literary habits (such as using an apostrophe when the word ought to be plural... Makes me want to go all "Pulp Fiction" on the writer!) and reading twice to catch the glorious and devious moments of foreshadowing that readers will doubtless miss on the first time around... While at the same time making sure the story is worthwhile enough that readers will want to read over and over, just to prolong the experience. I am the front-runner well aware that I am representing everybody who will be reading the story after me, so I want their experience to be the best possible.

In short, I am the sort of beta-reader I want to be reading my books. 
There is a quote that goes something like, "If you are looking for a certain kind of friend, be the kind of friend you want to have." I think it applies in a lot of situations, including this one; if I want a certain kind of feedback on my work, I need to be giving that sort of feedback to others. If I want comments on my blog, I should be commenting on other people's blogs, too. (I do, and I am!) 

A beta-reader should read the book at least twice. The first time, to gauge the overall experience, and the second time to really get down to brass tacks and find all the little spots they missed. ALL of them. If there is time before the deadline (because often, a writer looking for betas has a deadline; I don't, but that's just me) then the beta-reader can set the book aside for a few days, and come back to read it a third time with fresh eyes. But the first and second reading should be done in quick succession. The third time is only if you are completely obsessed with the characters and would rather read a book three times than anything else.

A beta-reader should offer suggestions whenever possible. This is not to presume that the writer isn't doing their job, or that the beta-reader knows more about how the story "should" go than the writer who freaking invented the characters and the world does—but again, knowing myself and the "stuck places" I can get myself into when it comes to generating ideas, I know that I would greatly appreciate this kind of help in my writing, if anything is amiss. When I highlight a passage that has missing punctuation or a weak word choice, I offer the writer options of other words that would work better in the context; when I don't like a certain detail, I start coming up with possible solutions that I believe would strengthen the narrative. Who knows? Maybe my suggestions will help the writer in more places than just the one I am editing. Plus, often times correction is easier to swallow when it's less of "You're wrong!" And more of "Have you thought about it this way?"

Above all, a beta reader should absolutely be engaged in the reading that they are doing. There is something to be said for the writer to actively produce something worth reading... but even then, the beta-reader should let the writer know that their writing is that boring! The first time through, the beta reader should be focused on the emotions in their reading. How do they feel about the characters? How do they feel about the circumstances? Does the flow of the story make sense? Does the writer explain concepts in an understandable way? Does the ending leave readers wanting more, or feeling like "enough already"? 

The second time through, the beta reader is reading for mechanics—repeated words, foreshadowing, misspelling, dropped punctuation, word choice, etc. Now that the reader is fully apprised of the events and the plot arc, it shouldn't be such a distraction, so the reader is free to focus on line by line, on the actual words of the story, not just the feeling of the story. 

So to sum up: how do you beta? Read; read intentionally; read with a purpose; learn to analyze and understand what you're reading and be aware of why you might be feeling a certain way. Beta readers are the foremost when it comes to a writer testing out their works on a non-related prospective audience member. A writer takes a beta's advice very seriously, so if you have something to share, even if it's going to change the whole direction of the story, do share it. We writers want people to be engaged and delighted by what we write; a beta reader can be the key to helping us do exactly that.

Sure, when I sent out my novel to beta-readers, I had a list of questions from somewhere that looked like they would be useful, and the answers I got back from the few who finished are definitely insightful (not quite in the way of suggestions, but definitely food for thought!)–but really, the burning motivation at the center of every post I publish on this blog is just this:

Is my writing interesting and are the stories worthwhile?