Over the last half a year I’ve been reading a lot of other writer’s works. I have a method I like to employ when critiquing a work of literature (I wrote about that last month and what it means to be a critiquer, which you can check out here: https://cosmicfantasies.com/2019/02/14/advice-for-those-critters-out-there-who-want-to-give-better-critiques/). What I focus on is the story first and how it flows throughout the entire work. Sometimes, I’ll note something off as a comment in Microsoft Word (just highlight that section, right click, and choose ‘new comment’ and, voila!, a helpful thought!) but my main thrust is how the story works for me. Do I like that Character A completely dismissed Character B’s concern about that oncoming threat? Is the conflict engaging me and allowing me to suspend my disbelief? Or is it so egregious of an oversight that I just can’t move on without writing my own sermon about the merits of what’s just been written?
It’s a real challenge. Because, you don’t want to be mean. You want to help the writer in question improve. I find that a lot of people are very nervous about critiquing a work. They’re too afraid they’ll hurt the writer’s feelings and cause them to quit writing altogether. What has happened for me, personally, though is that a lot of people I’ve critiqued and Beta read for really found my thoughts insightful and shone a light on issues they didn’t even see despite multiple rereads. And I find that’s true myself. I can go through my book dozens of times and still miss something nagging little plot point that someone will helpful point out (usually one of my Beta Readers).
What I’ve also found is that people have false conceptions about what it means to be a Beta Reader. In a prior post from last month (https://cosmicfantasies.com/2019/02/15/my-experiences-with-online-writers-groups/) I ruminated about online writers groups and why I don’t find them as helpful as they should be. For the most part, the ‘readers’ there will offer you one of two responses: A) Oh! I loved reading that! I think it works very well (a variation of this response is: God, that sucked. Stop writing. I only read this for the points otherwise I would never have bothered), or B) they’ll completely rewrite your offering how they would write it, cutting out large, important parts to your narrative. Which is why I ultimately suggest just ignoring online groups. They’ll only cause you misery and irritation. The whole issue, though, is that they don’t separate reading from writing (I suggested in my post they didn’t know how to read, and I stand by this, but for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, everybody knows how to read, they just don’t focus on what it is that they enjoy about it that makes them want to read it or turn away and can rarely express it).
I was talking to another writer I am casually acquainted with, and she had the suggestion that writers make miserable Beta Readers because writing is different from reading. Now, I just said, ‘…they don’t separate reading from writing…’ and what I mean by this is that most beginning writers tend to have this thought that when they read, they need to correct what they see. They assume that what they’ve learn, everything they know, is the only correct way to write. They don’t take the time to be an effective reader. After all, that’s why you want to write, right? Because you love reading. You love stories. You love the art of literary gunslinging. You want to be a: wordslinger. But that will never be accomplish if the writer in question is unwilling to partake in that one, crucial element of being a writer: reading.
On Scribophile (and Fanstory and all those sites too) too many self-published authors with a few sales are there to muddy the waters, confuse the new recruits, convince them that since this writer ‘published’ and that writer ‘published’ then their advice is much more important than just a community working together to improve their craft. Instead, you have cults of personalities ruling the roost and nobody is really improving. Talented writers are given bad advice and they hack at their story (hack at it until nothing’s left!) and then find themselves with only a shell of the tale they wished to present because the focus wasn’t on writing, it was on the personality. And it’s because of those experiences that I refuse to let myself become one of them. I don’t know everything about the craft. Hell, half of the time I have to rewrite entire sections of works that don’t work because I miss a crucial (though easy to misplace) piece of the plot. It could be a simple phrasing that holds a different meaning altogether, contrary to what the story is saying, or an overarching MacGuffin that, for some reason, doesn’t come across as important as it should. I have people argue with me about what I want out of reader saying that I’m talking crazy! I argue that the story in the Beta Read comes first, the grammar second. Yet, time and time again, I’m countered with: ‘If it’s hard to read, you don’t have a story.’ And, sure, a really rough draft to read is miserable on your reader. However, if you’ve done your diligence, you’ve already presented a readable draft and what you need then is, ‘How does the story read?’
And there, my friends, is the sticking point.
We’ve all been hardwired to approach reading as a case study in grammar. Beta Readers that are out there, mostly concentrate on the grammar of the piece over the piece itself. I had a debate with my father-in-law over the matter. His argument, if a painter is painting a work of art, he doesn’t just stop and ask someone, ‘how’s it coming along?’ Because, for him, it still isn’t done. But my counter was, ‘yes, but the artist wants to know if he’s on the right path. You’re thoughts could lead to a eureka moment he never anticipated!’ And every artist I’ve ever know loves those eureka moments (though, it’s true, there are some cagey ones who won’t let their precious see the light of day until they think they’ve nailed it. And others who’ll just squirrel it all away because none of it is right). And so that’s how I approach a Beta Read. But few others will. Because they’ve been conditioned to focus on grammar first, story last.
Let me bring this home. I’m currently Beta Reading for someone I met a few months ago online. I suggested I’d read her story even if she didn’t want to read mine. Fortunately, she’s giving it the once over now, but I’ve been reading for the last month and I have a few things to say. Her grammar is gorgeous! Her turn of phrase astounding! I’ve seen few writers with her depth of literary understanding. The story stinks, though. It has plenty of brilliant thoughts and concepts and ideas that would make Isaac Asimov sit up and take notice. But those concepts with their pretty little words are irrelevant when the very thing that needs to work is broken: the story. And I’m struggling how to point this out without looking like a complete asshole. I’ve put in some humorous responses (which my wife thinks makes me look like an asshole anyway) and pointed out what doesn’t work and why. To be clear, I’m approaching this as a reader of the genre she’s working with. It all started out so strong, but has devolved into a myriad of conflicting concepts and desires.
And I blame online sites for it.
Because I know (just know!) she’s been writing and rewriting to please the masses rather than herself. And it’s disheartening. Because I can see the good story lying underneath, awaiting its surfacing. But she’s spending all of her time on the grammar. Not the meat of the work.
Let me tell you this, my second draft has a strong, solid story if I do say so myself. But the grammar needs a lot of work. I’m not worried about it yet, though. Because, as I’ve referenced in a past posting, that’s just the damned paint job. The skeleton of the novel needs to work first regardless of fancy words and excellent sentence structure.
I hope my words won’t be taken as harsh when I complete my latest Beta Read. It’s a dangerous thing to do because sometimes people will never talk to you again because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear (lost several contacts because they couldn’t hear what I was saying) but I have to be honest and showcase what wasn’t working for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t point out where it’s really good, of course. Oh no, no. If I’m enamored with something, I’ll make it known. But as a reader, I like what I like even if my writing isn’t extraordinary. I just hope to be as good a writer as I am a reader.
So, my thoughts on Beta Reading are this: if you’re going to Beta Read, be a reader. Read the story first, make suggestions on grammar second. Because this is a trial run to see what’s working and what’s not in the story. Sort of like Test Audiences for movies. The movie might be in a workable form, but sometimes audiences aren’t into what’s being presented. Meaning another cut has to be rendered. That’s a Beta Read. The test read before looking to push for publication. Your job is to express how the story makes you feel. Sure, it might still be a little rough. By all means, point that out. But don’t make that your primary focus.
And always, always thank the writer for giving you the opportunity for the read. Even if they hate you for it.
Oh, and for the record, if you’re a writer who thinks writers shouldn’t be readers, then get out of the business now. Because writers are readers and writers read to be better writers.