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Friday, June 7, 2013

Beta Readers

The other day, I was farting around on the website of one of my favsie authors, C.S. Friedman. Because her website says that no one can link to the "essay" I was reading without written permission, I'll do the wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more thing an only vaguely refer to it in Opposite Land terms: she totally didn't write a blogo-post on her idea on the types of secondary readers (commonly not referred to as Beta Readers), and I'm totally not referring to this essay/blog post/whatever in anyway. I'm also totally not mocking the lack of sharing and linking on what is read freely on the Intarwebz. 

Still heart you mightily, C.S.

Anyhoo, with that out of the way, the idea got me wondering about Beta Readers.

I guess I should first define "Beta Reader." Commonly, it's someone (or someones) who read your shiny new piece o' work, usually novel length, after you're done with it and give you feedback. Yep, that's it. Hence, the Beta part. I guess that makes the author part of the Alpha wolf pack.

Some writers have different types of Betas. Like Betas that are connected to you by friendship, or like your mom, or sig other and who can tell you "that was brilliant and keep it going. You're a shiny snowflake of awesomeness." Or Betas that're also doing this writing thing, and are part of a serious critique group, to give you serious feedback, and serious suggestions on how to seriously kick more writing ass. But that's only for good critique groups. And really, I've been in both good and bad ones. One so bad that they suck out your soul because it isn't how they would've written it and obviously if it's not what they would've written then it's complete and utter shit and you should just kill yourself now. 

I'm paraphrasing.

So why do writers need Betas? Really, it's because we're too close to the work. It's like staring at an Impressionist painting with your nose inches away from it. All you can see are the brush strokes and colors. Somewhere along the way we obsess over using a bold blue swatch or a dark green one, and we lose the ability to step away. Betas are those people who stare at the whole painting, er, novel. They see that the ocean you've been painting looks more like the sky, and can tell you that.

Does every writer need a Beta, or Betas? Probably not, but we're a needy lot, we authors. Maybe a tad overwhelmed by the whole picture.

My first Beta experience was by hounding my younger sister to read whatever tiny blurb of crap writing I'd farted out when I was a grade schooler...er, up to high school. Eventually, even the bonds of love and sisterhood were not enough. She said something I should've heard long before, "You never finish anything! I don't want to read it if you can't finish it."

Taking this writing thing more seriously my first year of college, I decided that I would only show my writing to serious critique groups, and/or my creative writing classes. After all, I thought, real writers don't show their writing to anyone else. If you're serious, you don't need pep talks. You need to be slammed head first into a brick wall of how wrong everything is. And that's precisely what I got. In my creative writing classes, I watched as everyone's work was mercilessly torn to shreds by ravenous English majors. It wasn't like, "This part didn't work for me." It was more like, "This part is stupid. WTF?" (I actually had WTF written in the margins of one story).

Limping away from it with my fragile writerly soul barely intact, I'd decided simply not to show anyone my work until I was good enough. How was I to know when I was good enough? Obviously, I hadn't worked that part out. I joined another critique group and learned how preciousssss a good critique can be. I tried submitting for the first time ever and received excellent feedback from editors. I also learned that yes, I sometimes just need to hear "that was cool and keep going." Somehow, I'd skipped that part of my Beta experience. But I believe every now and then a nice pep talk isn't a bad thing. 

Here's to stepping back and seeing those paint strokes turn into an ocean.

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