Betas in Action: My Critique Session

FINALLY!!!!

I met with my beta readers, Deb and Cynthia, today to go over the revised first book of my series. And let me tell you, they were spot-on perfect.

First:  they talked about the good. My initial version of this novel was in third person, and they both loved the change to first. They loved my MC’s voice and her sarcasm, they liked being in her mind and knowing her thoughts, and they liked seeing the growth and change she undergoes. They liked some of my secondary characters a lot, especially my comic relief team. 🙂

Second:  they got down to the nitty-gritty. And what was amazing was that they both had pretty much the same things to say, and that we were able to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they saw.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene (if you don’t know Latin, that means “note this well!”):  if your betas agree on the same thing, that’s something you need to fix.

Those Blasted Secondary Characters:  One thing they both agreed on, which was something that had already been in the back of my mind, is that two of the secondary characters do not play a huge role in the story. They will play BIG roles later in the series, so I had to introduce them now. But Deb and Cynthia felt they were too peripheral, and that I had two choices. A.) Make them more important and put them in scenes where we get to know and like them better, or B.) Eliminate them. I will have to do some thinking on that, especially since I’ve never seen myself working in waste management. But. Secondary characters have to play a role:  they can’t be window dressing. So we brainstormed ways to give them solid roles in the story.

See? Betas are good! 🙂

“Oy! You’ve said this already!”:  They also picked up on some key phrases that I overuse. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have that problem,” HA!!!! We all have “go-to” phrases that we revert to when we’re writing, even subconsciously. You need to train yourself to look for them. Sometimes they’re scattered throughout the manuscript, and it takes a fresh set of eyes to find them all. And sometimes, just some time away will let you see that you’ve used that same phrase four times in two pages. Ahem. Not that I did that or anything.

A Different Perspective:  Betas are also good because they have different knowledge and backgrounds than you do (or they should, if you’ve chosen properly). Deb teaches psychology, and she had some great suggestions for the massive conflict that forces my MC to break up with her boyfriend. Things I hadn’t even thought about, because I’m a historian, not a psychologist.

That inevitable “What the fruitbat?” moment:  One thing that did catch me off-guard was the sudden emphasis both Deb and Cynthia had on my MC’s family. They appear in just one tiny scene at the end, but they both felt that my MC’s entire family couldn’t hate her. (My inner writer is still saying, “Hmm. I remain unconvinced. I must think upon this.”) But Deb made a very good point:  she said, in effect, “When I read this, it made me stop reading and wonder why her entire family were jerks.” And one thing you never want to do is take your reader out of the story. Therefore, Deb’s reasoning was absolutely valid. As a beta, remember, one of your key tasks is to help the author make the story better. In the end, I think we all agreed on the fix.

I’m not saying it was always easy to hear the criticisms. There were certainly instances where I felt my inner writer rise up and say BUT I LOVE THAT AND IT’S NOT COMING OUT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY YOU MEAN, MEAN PERSON!  Wait. That was my inner drama queen, sorry. It was my inner writer that made me sit back in my chair, carefully consider everything they said, and admit that they were right. Or at least, that their opinions had validity. 🙂

And the clearest example of this was the vehemence with which Cynthia hated my ending.

I love my ending. It took days to craft into perfection. It’s bold. It’s full of intrigue and danger, and sorrow and sacrifice. According to Cynthia, it’s also full of crap.

For one very good reason, though, which she explained (and with which Deb agreed):  because there’s no real resolution to the largest problem. Yeah. I know. It hurt to even write those words. I was trying to blame the fact that Cynthia just got married on her insistence on a happy ending. But damn it, she made a good point:  we never really solve the mystery of who killed Someone Very Important, and we need at least one bloody thing resolved in this book. Not everything gets to wait until Book #381 to be explained or solved. 

So we spent quite some time going over Who Really Killed This Very Important Person, and why, and how to impart that information. As Cynthia put it, “Erin (my MC) is throwing everything away, including her academic career, to help this girl. It has to be for something.” So now my job as the writer is to incorporate those changes in a way that makes sense, is true to the story, and yet enables us to still have a bit of a mystery. Yay!

All told, this was such a great session. This wasn’t about them telling me what was wrong; this was about us working as a team to make the book better. When you, the writer, come into a critique session with an open mind and a willingness to admit your betas have a point (because if you don’t, then why did they just waste their time reading your manuscript?), magical things happen. And when your betas come to the session with both the good and the bad, and the confidence to state both equally and give their reasons for their opionions, magical things happen. Magical things = Your Book Gets Better.

I know mine will. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

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