Wednesday, August 24, 2011

You beta watch out, You beta not cry

The clock never saw it coming
Back before my "three-week productivity" moratorium ninja-vanished into a sprawling, three-month social media boycott, I had planned on writing about how I beta-read LSH's Hellhound. 1. Because I'm notorious for coming up with brainchildren and then shunning them like the demented leper babies they are, 2. because when the Mighty ScribeBot gives a suggestion, it must needs be obeyed! because 3. See point number one. I'm beginning to suspect that LSH is, in fact, an alien cyborg with some kind of advanced topic-generating implant for a brain. Maybe if we beat her with a blunt object, she'll explode like a pinata full of Hershey's kisses and helpful advice......No, I have not tested this theory.


Anyway, I had planned on talking about Hellhound. Now (because I'm fickle and inspired) I'd rather talk about what makes a good beta reader.

Didn't this house have an ocean view...?
So, you've finished that 10,000 to 10,000,000 word 9-headed monstrosity that has been consuming your life for the last year or ten years. What is the first thing you want to do..? (Besides feed your dying pet, take a shower, say hi to neglected family members, or check if the sun's still warm...) Yes! SHOW SOMEONE! Whether you're a saga spinner, a drabble drafter, or somewhere happily in between, it is important to have a second set of eyes suffer the sight of the creature you've birthed writhing and screaming into its paper crib. And, while most of you are probably thinking "Yeah, Raven. Like..Duh?" I think a lot of people forget that it is equally, if not more, important to find the right beta reader for YOU.

You Beta Watch Out

Life's crazy, the world is small, and the Internet is vast. Sometimes the first people to volunteer their insight aren't necessarily the best ones for the job. Sure, while I believe that all feedback should be coveted like a female classmate in the computer science department, let's not forget a few other key points:
  • Is your volunteer familiar with your work? 
Once someone knows something, it's pretty hard for them to then "unknow" that something--without the aid of blunt-force trauma-induced amnesia and/or date-rape drugs. It doesn't matter how convincing your sister's argument is for how she had *gasp* no idea that your villain would jump out of the closet at the end of chapter three, even though his name was Chuckles and his description somewhat reminded her of your creepy Uncle Charlie. She's lying. Granted, depending on what you write, it may not be critical that your beta reader approaches your manuscript with virgin eyes. But say--you were writing a mystery-thriller where you worked really, really hard to keep your readers guessing until the very last page.. You should probably reconsider enlisting your roommate (whom you had already told in a drunken stupor two weeks ago that it was Colonel Sanders, with a breast fillet, at the uptown Dairy Queen). Really, your roommate will not thank you for sneaking up behind him with a lead pipe or for slipping ruphalin in his coffee just because you can't bear the thought of him not reading your story. It's not his fault; you spoiled it for him!
  • How well does your beta know you? 
There's a reason why inside jokes are only funny to the people inside. Remember that, ultimately, your goal is to tell your story to someone who doesn't know you. If your narrative relies heavily on your own voice, why not let someone who doesn't know that voice try and make sense of your words? After all, the basis of writing is communication and you want to communicate to as many people as possible. (Right?) It's great if you have friends who can decipher your intentions just by seeing the color you made your protagonist's hair, but, at the end of the day, the outsider's perspective is the only perspective that matters.
  • How much does your beta love you?
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that just because our loved ones are our loved ones, they will always do what's best for us and give us the brutal honesty that we need. Your loved ones are smart people who know that if their criticism is going to be what reduces you into a disheartened, weeping pile on the floor, they will also have to be the ones to come along and mop up the pieces. I'm not saying you should fling your final draft at people who don't give two flips about you either, but there's a reason why Mom's your #1 fan.
  • Do they have the T-I-M-E?
What do you mean you only have 24?!
Beta readers have day jobs, taxes, homework, children, dentist's appointments, and circadian rhythms too. Don't ever forget it. If you need feedback and you need it NOW, sneaking 30 pages of your latest novella into your best friend's senior thesis is not the way to say: "I value you...and your opinion." I don't know how many times I've promised a friend or acquaintance that I'll read their story, then my ISP goes haywire and I'm working overtime every Saturday for a month and, suddenly, four-months fly by and I haven't even peeled back the cover page. To their credit, the poor souls I've done this to have never chased me down with baseball bats, but I'm sure it was pretty annoying for them to have a promised set of eyes disappear without warning. Do yourself a favor. Never hold your breath and always have back-ups.
  • Do they even like to read (what you write)?
Mom may be your #1 but there's another more important reason why I would never ever EVER hand anything I write to my mother--she has absolutely no tolerance my genre. Asking my mother to read one of my stories would be like asking a blind man to evaluate a painting. Sure, after much face-palming for both parties involved, you might glean some highly dubious, highly opinionated impressions of the piece. They may even be able to make educated--albeit unsubstantiated--assessments of the quality and texture of the artwork. But will they be able to tell you whether the play of light and dark in your composition creates a harmonious balance that is unique within your creative sphere? Or that, in order for the Shadow Lord to have used that +7 Ungodly Spell of Mountain Sundering in scene 12, his arms would have needed to have been screwed on backwards and brandishing your +5 Plot Point of Narrative Cohesion?

Will they even enjoy having to give you feedback? As a kid, my mother used to tell me that fantasy (as a genre) "makes no sense" to her and that elements of paranormal and science fiction, not only weird her out but, disgust her. (This is, of course, the same woman who watches war documentaries, where half the footage consists of people running around with their pancreases about their ankles, on a regular basis.) So, much as I love her, I do not talk about writing with my mother. It spares me of her unhelpful opinions about my interests, and it spares her of her hyperactive parental piety.

You Beta Not Cry

Of course, before you start beaming your friends and colleagues with your 25-pound manuscript, there are always the questions you should ask yourself too:
  • Am I ready for criticism?
I'm not going to beat this dead horse. No one likes a defensive whiner. If your gut instinct is to counter every comment your reader thinks up, you're probably not ready. If you feel the need to justify your in-story decisions when your reader tells you something is confusing or nonsensical, you're probably not ready. Don't just take my word for it, here's an excellent post on when you should ask for a critique. For better or for worse, are you ready to take it like a champ?
  • Who am I writing this story for?
Not everything written is written for everybody. And I'm not talking about genre or content or even appropriateness. This is not the same question as "who are you writing to". I mean just that: Who are you writing for? Are you writing this story for yourself or for progeny? Did you have a particular family member or friend group on your mind when you picked your POV characters? As a kid I had the mindset that, if I wrote something and I was proud of it, naturally I'd want to show it to as many people as possible. Well, the older I get and the more I write, the less this has been the case. I think it was right around the last year of college that I realized that my first blog was not for public browsing. I don't think I wrote any of it for anyone except me. So I took it down. Be sure you know your personal objectives too before you start mashing the Send All button on your ListServ.
  • Who are you writing to?
O rly...?
Since I mentioned it before, I might as well play Captain Obvious here. Hopefully, if you've made it as far as the critique stage, you already know who your target audience is. Sometimes stories do take on a life of their own though, and a YA action/adventure might mature into an adult epic fantasy. This is a great place for your beta reader to come in. An impartial bystander can often identify things at-a-glance that could otherwise take hours of careful consideration on your own part. It's a little bit like losing or gaining weight gradually over time. You might not even notice it since you see yourself in the mirror everyday, but an old friend who hasn't seen you since college can point it out almost immediately. Are you open to adaptation?
  • What kind of feedback do I need from my beta reader?
It's always good to let your beta reader know. Sometimes you might just need a specific something just to keep on keeping on. If I'm beta reading, I always ask. Do you only want to hear positive things for now? Do you only want first impressions of villains? Do you want me to be on the lookout for tense changes? Does someone need a hug..?
Don't make your beta reader dive 3,000 words deep into a thoughtful, hand-written analysis of the internal conflict of your protagonist's motivations before you reveal to them that what you actually wanted was a glorified spellchecker. (Refer to note about beta readers having LIVES.) We will not hesitate to KEEL you...

Remember: Your beta reader is only there because of you and, to have a good beta, you must be a good alpha.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    Still Alive

    Yes, World. I am, in fact, still alive. And to prove it to myself, I am writing this emaciated, skimpy little post to guilt myself into actually updating within the next 48 hours...

    Thanks so much to all my fellows who haven't already dropped me like a hot potato for disappearing without a rhyme or reason.

    Yours inconsistently,