Some days, writing is hard.
I’m not even talking about the deeply emotional, soul-searching stuff like the Hemingway quote about bleeding all over your typewriter. (If you’re doing that to your computer, get yourself checked by a doctor. Get your computer checked, too–they’re not waterproof, let alone blood-proof.)
I know, it’s supposed to be as easy as pouring words onto a page, knowing they’re garbage, so that you have something to sculpt or reshape into actual quality. It’s dumping sand into the sandbox so you can eventually build your little castle.
Like that kid in the sandbox, the castle of words I see in my mind is often quite different from what everyone else sees in the real world.
A little outside perspective is necessary.
Enter the beta reader!
Beta readers are the folks who get to see first (and second, and fifth) drafts of a novel. They’re the trusted friends and fellow writers who have the opportunity to give the vitally important reader perspective to a novelist. They can let a writer know what parts are working great and what parts need more work, long before the draft gets submitted to a publisher or to a self-publishing service.
If you’re working with a publishing house or agent, you’re probably paying for editing, or it’s part of some arrangement with your creative overlords. If you’re self-publishing, it can be liberating to avoid all the hurdles and onerous steps of the traditional process, but you’re also left in desperate need of that outsider perspective.
I’ve been blessed to have several beta readers along the way, each of whom helped make my efforts better. One of them, a friend named David, just came to Okinawa for a month-long, work-related trip, and we had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth as I look at my meager efforts on book 2.
David is a great example of how to be a beta reader. What does he do right?
- He gets into the setting and questions world-building.
“If your magic system works this way, then how do you have an economy? It can’t be based on precious metals if people can simply conjure metals.”
“It would be difficult to be a classical atheist or even agnostic in a world where people literally manifest symbols of power granted from the Divine, so have you thought about how that might change social interactions and expectations?”
The messages in the pic above are another example, this time questioning the details of the magic system. While I had an answer, I also noted that I didn’t communicate the concept clearly enough in the story to prevent the question from being asked.
- He challenges the writing when it doesn’t fit the character.
“You made your main characters sound like middle school girls playing around and laughing when… I mean, the town might not still be on fire but several buildings are still smoldering, and Lyllithe just got kicked out of her religious order, not to mention the attack in the woods… that whole dialogue feels wrong.”
A beta reader can also tell you which characters are hitting the mark and which feel forgettable.
“You’ve got Lyl and Jo, and they’re great… and then there’s… uh… Blade Guy with the knives, and Mage Guy who casts spells, and the Other Guy who is scarred. I don’t know anything really about them, and so I don’t really care about them yet.”
- He offers tough but fair criticism that is genuinely constructive.
Feedback like “You’re trying too hard” or “this is bad” is terrible, as it doesn’t offer any corrective option. Feedback like “I liked it” is so vague that it doesn’t identify any positive quality to capitalize upon. I suppose no feedback at all is the worst sort.
Instead of any of that, I get moments like, “One thing to do in the future may be to pick a single metaphor or simile. There’s a lot of instances where you choose two, where one might have done. Like a child caught between two slices of cake, or pieces of candy.”
Feedback on the actual writing is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing what makes a beta reader good, but I put it last for this reason:
Writers need this kind of attention to the quality of their writing, but a grammatically correct manuscript might still be full of plot holes and flat characters.
David and I talked on the way to the airport yesterday, as he is headed back to the States. “It’s a unique experience,” he said of reading my book and peppering me with friendly, well-intentioned grief. “It’s not every book I read where I know the author and can message them with challenges or questions about their work. It’s not like I can email Stephen King and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here?'”
Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to hear… preferably before we publish.
If you want to support a friend who is a writer, offer to be a beta reader for their work… then follow through.