Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Post: Alpha, Beta, Cappa… Oh, Hell, I Was Never in a Sorority

There’s that saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the same thing holds true for a book. Every writer has beta readers. They might be tied to you by blood or marriage, and you might extract their services through guilt or friendship or payment in baked goods, but if you're writing, there's a good chance you've asked someone else to read your stuff. You're desperate for feedback. You bite your nails and send your baby manuscript off to preschool, hoping the little guy remembers to say please and thank you, and doesn't end up being the kid who tears his pants off and pees in the potted plant in the corner.

You want the best for your work. You want it to shine.

And that's a scary thing.

It's easy to forget how scary it is when the shoe's on the other foot. Beta readers come in all shapes and sizes. You get your fantastic ones, the ones who do a line edit, give you a commercial vision for specific scenes, and brainstorm plot points or character traits. The ones who want to help you along. You find your crappy ones, with an ax to grind, who hate you for using words like "was" or anything resembling an adverb. The ones who make you long for a match and a bottle of kerosene.

Sometimes, both the writer and the reader come away from the process feeling unpopular and outcast, the kid who's been sent to the corner of the class when it was really someone else who ate all the paste.

I love being a beta reader. I did it before I had an agent, and I still do it. I might not be fantastic, but I care about the advice I'm giving, and I always try to give it my all. I wouldn't have an agent without the amazing support of my own beta readers. This writing process is a journey, and I'm definitely not out here on my own.

So here are some tips from both sides of the fence:

For writers:

1) Say thank you. Even if you disagree, even if your reader agreed to read your entire manuscript and they only read one page. Even if you think the reader is an idiot. Say thank you. It was their time. They gave it to you. Appreciate it.

2) Know what you’re asking for. Beta reading isn’t like sitting down with the latest John Grisham. If you want a line edit of a 100,000 word manuscript, that's going to take a lot of time. It takes 6 – 8 uninterrupted hours to read an average-length novel, period. That right there is a full day of work for most of us. That doesn’t include time to offer insightful comments throughout your manuscript or reading more slowly because you don't want to miss a crucial word. You wouldn't ask a complete stranger to give up an entire day to come weed your garden for free. Start small. A few chapters at a time.

3) Polish. Polish, polish, polish. Or, if you don’t want to send a polished manuscript, be up front about it and state your expectations. It's not fair to say something is ready for submission and then shock your reader with a manuscript that looks like it was written by a third grader on a bender.

For readers:

1) Say no. Seriously. Most of us want to help people. Most of us want to say yes when something sounds appealing. But if you don’t have time, you don’t have time. I have a toddler, a full-time job, and I write. (That’s not a complaint, just a reality.) It breaks my heart to say no to people. But I know it would break theirs if I said yes and didn't deliver. Even beyond that, if you get into a project and it's not for you, say so. I had one guy send me a sci-fi manuscript that might have been the greatest thing since the work of Isaac Asimov himself. I don’t read a word of sci-fi, so I'm absolutely the last person who should judge it. I didn't let it sit in my inbox for months, feeling guilty that I didn't feel comfortable going through it. I just told him it wasn't for me and explained why. No hard feelings.

2) See the forest for the trees. Take off the professor hat and really think about what you're reading. Is it possible that passive voice worked for that sentence? Did that adverb bother you just because it’s an adverb, or was it really inappropriate? Is that really a POV switch, or is it just a stylistic way of writing? As writers, we're desperate to latch onto something concrete, because so much of writing is judgmental and subjective. But because it’s so subjective, the rules don't matter all the time. Try not to act like they do.

3) Don’t beat a dead horse. If you're seeing a recurring problem throughout the manuscript, send it back to the writer and ask if they'd like to revise and resend. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration ("Gah! Stop making your teenagers talk like it's 1934!") and you’ll offer the writer a chance to improve without reading the same comment 400 times.

4) Be nice. Enough said.

5) Be honest. This one is a little more complicated. It's easy to say, "OMG, this is amazing"—even when you don't mean it. It's hard to say, "You have three hundred pages of beautiful writing, but not one lick of plot." You think you’re being nicer by saying the first. You’re not.

My beta reader has been my critique partner for four years. We met on a writing forum, and started small. Now I can't imagine writing a word without planning to let her read it. It's a fantastic partnership, built on trust, respect, and a shared desire to get published. In case you're wondering, she read this blog entry.

And now it’s better because of it.

Brigid Kemmerer is an urban fantasy author, represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. She finds time to blog in between her day job and her son’s diaper changes, at www.brigidkemmerer.blogspot.com.

21 comments:

  1. Great advice. Learning what each reader brings to the table helps when you decide what really needs revising. I'm judging contest manuscripts now, and have to remember this stuff.

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  2. Excellent points. I learned some of these the hard way.

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  3. This is a wonderful post, with absolutely wonderful advice!!! :) Excellent job, Brigid!!

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  4. Amen!

    I'd like to add an addendum to #2, if I may:

    Please remember that this isn't your story--it's the writer's story. Just because you would have introduced, say, ninja monkeys as a diversion while your MC grabbed the crown jewels doesn't mean that the llamas doing the can-can don't work just as well.

    If you want to make a suggestion about, say, ninja monkeys that has nothing to do with the spelling of ninja, please couch it as a suggestion instead of an edict and explain why you think it's a viable option.

    Saying, "The llama thing didn't work for me--try ninja monkeys," isn't particularly helpful.

    Instead, perhaps something like, "The llamas are hilarious and do their job here, but I'm wondering how Gladys found so many trained ones? Since Gladys has that psychic connection with the ninja monkeys, that's what I was expecting. It's just a suggestion, but would the monkeys work here as an alternative distraction? Are you holding them in reserve? Or are the llamas important later?"

    This could open a dialogue, in which you may find that the head dancing llama is the brother from another mother to the head ninja monkey, who doesn't want the bad guy to know about their secret order. Yet.

    I'm just sayin'.

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  5. Great advice, all of it. The line between #4 and #5 for readers is a fine one, but it makes all the difference for the writer. It's where you have to ask yourself WHY you're reading the pages in the first place.

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  6. Great post!

    I think you're dead on about trying to beta read for a genre you don't care for, too. You won't be able to spot overused devices or themes or you might think something is a cliche because you see it so much in the genre you love. If at all possible, you should be plugged in to the market for which the book is intended. Unless you're just proofreading.

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  7. Can you and your CP adopt me?

    Seriously, awesome post. I think it behoves both parties to have some discussion beforehand about what is required and what can be realistically offered, then another conversation whenever it needs to adjust.

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  8. Well done, Brigid! I particularly nodded my head wonky on "See the forest for the trees." Great balancing act you've got going here.

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  9. Thank you all so much for your comments! I'm so excited that my entry was picked.

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  10. Sound advice for people at both sides of the support network.

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  11. Excellent advice for a great beta relationship. Now I just need to find a beta!

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  12. Well done, excellent and valuable info. Thanks!

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  13. Wonderful advice. I love my alpha and beta readers. They are the reason I'm even still trying to be a writer. They have vastly improved my technical skills, bolstered my confidence, and continue to pester me to finish the partial manuscripts they've seen.

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  14. Great Post. I would add a caveat based on a recent experience of mine. It helps to figure out if the author is really serious about writing and serious about getting real feedback or whether they're just playing at writing and it's simply all about the ME-centered drama of playing at writing a novel. HUGE difference.One is all about the work; the other is all about Me! Me! Wonderful Me! Proceed with caution.

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  15. Your post was excellent and full of very sound advice. I have been asked to review quite a bit of work by other authors because I am also an English teacher (and people think I have extra time??? Or that I know all the answers???) anyway, sometimes it is difficult for me to just give the manuscript back without trying to fix it all. This really cuts into my own writing time. I may refer some of these folks to this post!
    www.tracykraussexpressionexpress.blogspot.com

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  16. Thanks again for all the comments, guys. Churadogs, you're so right. Sometimes it's all about the tire-kickers. They're hard to weed out -- but once you give them the low-down on what needs work, it's pretty rare that they come back for more.

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  17. Brigid: Yup, likely the tire-kickers don't come back. However, there's hope even for them. Consider "Julie & Julia" Julia Child was all about The Food. Julie was all about . . . Julie. Julie cooking food, Julie making a mess of the food, Julie pitching a melt-down fit over some food. But Julie got a book contract out of it and a successful movie contract and later another book contract. So, if you're lucky, you can have success as A Writer focusing on The Book. And, if you're lucky, you can have success focusing on The Self. The trick, I suspect, is making sure you're clear which is which.

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  18. Great post. Really nicely done - helpful and clearly stated. I've been on both the giving and receiving end of beta help and it definitely makes it a more productive and ultimately more satisfying experience to understand the etiquette.

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  19. Hello,

    I found your blog while looking for some information on google, and wondered if you could help me out. As a beta reader - have you ever been required to sign a contract? I'm getting ready to push out my own WIP, and I'm wondering if that is something that is largely done.

    Love your blog, very clever!

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    Replies
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