Saturday, July 24, 2010

Giving Something Back: Beta Reading

When I was going through draft after draft of Lharmell last year I had so many people reading it and giving me feedback. Mostly friends, friends of friends, family, randoms that I'd meet at my favourite club, an author, my YA teacher, classmates. Several of my friends gave it to their fathers quite independently of one another too, telling me they thought their dads would like it, and they did! (Am I writing for the wrong market?!) Two of my friends read it very early on and then told everyone else how much they loved it, and it went almost viral in my circle. My book club even chose it one month. (But I don't recommend that as it's the most nerve-wracking experience having fifteen of your nearest and dearest picking apart your baby all at the same time. One at a time is the way to go!)

Because of the generosity of so many, I've felt like I needed to repay the universe in kind by doing some beta reading for others. Beta reading is common amongst book bloggers. Being a beta means proving feedback on an unfinished project. It's a vital part of the creative process because as anyone who's ever created anything knows, it's possible to be so close to your own work that you can't get any perspective on it. I imagine this is the way for most writers.

But beta reading can be a fraught activity. First, it takes away from your own precious writing time, as well as from all the delicious books in your TBR. Second, there's the actual critiquing. Whether you're close to someone or not, framing a tactful response can be challenging. I had the good fortune to have a lot of my preciousness knocked out of me during a writing course (oh that first week, when someone circled all my adverbs in red and gave it back to me; I nearly died...) and I understand the value of good, honest criticism. I can't stand it when people are blowing smoke up my ass. I want the truth! I'm truthful when I beta read and I've had some wonderful experiences helping other writers. But some others...If you are honestly ready to have someone critique your novel, it's vital to understand that they

a) might say something you don't want to hear, no matter if they're the Tact Queen or not (not that I am, but hey, I try) and

b) You don't have to listen to a goddamn word they say. It's your choice whether you take that feedback on board. And thank them for their efforts. They just read your book.

Probably the best way to be a beta is to approach the person who is doing the writing and offer to read it. I've practically hounded a few fellow bloggers for their novels. "Write and I shall read! I think you'd be amazing! I want to help!" You guys know who you are ;)

And dad, if you're reading this, finish your bloody sci-fi novel. I'm waiting!

Do you beta read? What has been your experience of it?


  1. I've never beta read for a novel but I have done shorts and queries. It was all done on AW so thankfully they knew what they were getting into posting their stuff for critique so they were reading for it. I sent my novel out to a few betas and really only one proved really helpful. The others provided some interesting tidbits but they ended up flaking out on the bigger picture so the help only went so far. I don't belong to a critique group or anything so finding a solid beta that'll give me the help I need/want is hard. That manuscript is out on sub now but I don't have too high of hopes for it. First round resulted in nothing but form rejections. If I get the same from the second round, I'm trunking it and focusing on the rewrite/enema I'm working on of another novel I wrote. I think my chances with that one are much, MUCH higher and I think I finally have the story spot on (the first draft I ended up abandoning about 3/4 of the way through the edit when I realized I didn't like my MC because she was the most boring out of all the characters, I also realized I was writing for something not my own, it just wasn't organic but I love the story too much to let it die so I've started rewriting it and I'm loving it, I just need to read back through my old manuscript as it's high fantasy and I can't remember most of the world I created, bad I know).

  2. Oh, beta readers! They make the world go round. I have three beta readers and three crit partners and I don't know where I'd be without them.

    I'm like you--I want the truth and I can handle the truth! Well, usually. One of my crit partners is really thorough. She picks apart everything and asks really hard questions. I love her for it. It's making me a better writer.

  3. Donna, it can be hard to get betas to focus on what you want to be critiqued. But they might make some interesting points about other things, stuff that you hadn't thought were problem areas. Good luck with the queries!!

    Jade, DON'T they! What would we do without them?

  4. I'm currently a beta reader and I really enjoy it! It's nice to know that the people who send me their work trust me enough to read it and critique it. I admit it can be hard but just being part of the process is very fun and it's always interesting when you recommend something and the person whose work you're reading goes, "I didn't see that but you're right!" It's an awesome experience for me, at least :D

  5. I do and it's really hard work. It's a totally different experience to reading and reviewing a book and I didn't get that the first time I did it. It's also been a great learning experience for my own writing.

  6. Penguin--It's definitely fun to be part of the process! And awesome when you say something that can really help someone.

    Alexa, very different to reviewing a book isn't it! And you're right, a very good learning experience. We're so used to seeing polished novels.

  7. I don't really have any experience with betas to speak of, but I think I should soon! Besides for being reallyextremelyohmygoodnessfrustratingly stuck on my WIP, I also really like giving feedback for others' works, and have had many tell me before how thoughtful and useful my comments were. I feel like I want to venture into the online world of the writing community, after being so long in the reviewing side!

  8. Betas are the best thing for a stuck WIP Steph! Come join the dark side :D

  9. My only real experience with beta reading was when I was doing my creative writing course, but since we were working on a different person's WIP each week, I never really got to hear whether I'd helped anyone out on their next draft. I found the process stimulating though (both reading and also have my work read) and for every person that didn't understand what I was trying to do, there was a comment that made me see what the readers were seeing.
    I've given stories to friends to read but they tend not to be very critical, and I don't want to give stuff to them having told them specific things I'm concerned about, because that might draw their attention unnecessarily to something that isn't actually a problem.

  10. I've lucked out with finding excellent betas on AW and yalitchat. It took me awhile but having a beta reader is an important part of the creative process. I recently posted about this myself. I give my beta's specific questions and I have different betas - peer authors, age/sex of the chosen audience, and random betas. Don't give up on finding some good ones.

  11. I've beta read for a fair few people now and it's been really helpful in sharpening my own writing. I'm not attached to the work, so I can easily suggest where to change, whereas in my own, it's harder to be objective.

    And, I have my betas ready to go for me when I, ah, finally fix the (mess) wonder that is my WIP :) Can't wait :)

  12. I've got a friend I switch with for beta reading. She's honest and has a great eye for detail. I love the things she catches - stuff I might never see on my own.

  13. I think you must post at weird times - you never show up in my news feed when I have time to look. I'm going to have to start making a more conscious effort to stop by.
    Anyhow, I have rarely been asked to beta read a book, and it makes me kind of sad, as I think that I would like to, despite the cons.
    The times I have, though, it was very hard to critique because the style wasn't the kind of writing style I normally get into, and so it was hard to determine what might really be long and what was just me.
    It really can be hard!

    I hope Lharmell is going well and that you are enjoying I, Robot! Love that book!

  14. Sigh - not many more words on pages yet, but I am starting to understand the culture of the space faring Wyrms. I still haven't worked out how they get into orbit though!

    My big problem is when I write dialogue it sounds ok - until I re-read it and it's clearly drivel!

    If you're enjoying Asimov, read Nightfall - a classic. Then try some Vernor Vinge - he wrote the only SF detective come love story I know (and it works) - Marooned in Real Time.

  15. I used to beta read. Never for anyone I know in person - I couldn't be mean enough. Lots of my friends do have me edit their academic papers. I'm vicious but useful.

  16. I probably should already know this, but what is AW?