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.

What do you do with a problem like a beta? (to be sung to “What do you do with a problem like Maria?”)

Okay, maybe I’m a bit biased this week. My betas are wonderful people (and since they’re about half of the subscribers to my blog, I need to be nice to them!). 🙂

A beta — or beta reader — is someone who reads your manuscript BEFORE you send it to an agent or editor, or self-publish it. And if you think you don’t need them, please think again. You have only to go to Amazon and look at the thousands of free e-books, written and published in what must have been two or three days, to know you do. Betas are part of what set writers apart from good writers.

In this blog, http://www.smallbluedog.com/what-makes-a-good-beta-reader.html, author Belinda Pollard lists the main characteristics of what makes a good beta reader. It’s a great read, as it really makes you think. Even if you already have beta readers, are they really the right fit? Is the new book you’re working on a different genre, that might require new betas? Are they really giving you encouraging, but real, feedback? All things writers need to ask themselves!

This post by Joel Friedlander, http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/03/5-things-you-should-know-about-working-with-beta-readers/, offers more great advice. Everyone’s different. Some will prefer to read your manuscript on their e-reader, others want that hard copy so they can make free with the red pen. And I think the most important point in Joel’s post is this:  never, ever give them a draft. Ever. Not even if your life depends on it. If you think your first draft is good enough, forget it. Put it away for a month. Then come back to it. Don’t be in such a freaking hurry. Trust me, once you look at that MS with fresh eyes, the first words you’ll say will be something like, “What the &%?@!!!# was I thinking?!”

Rule of thumb:  if you wouldn’t send it to an agent, don’t give it to your betas, unless you have a specific reason to do so. For instance, I went through 15 drafts of my latest manuscript before giving it to my betas. Then, a month later, I recalled those copies and did another 5 drafts before giving it to them again. But this time, I did it knowing there were things I didn’t like, but didn’t know how to fix, and I gave them specific instructions to read not for typos, but to see how the plot lines flowed and if there were holes anywhere. The problem is, I know my manuscript too well. I need my betas to read it with fresh eyes and no preconceptions. And that’s exactly why you need betas as well.

I hear you, I hear you:  but what if they — gasp! — steal my idea??? Trust me, they won’t.

I hear you, again:  what if they don’t read it? Yeah. That is a problem. Everyone gets busy. I get that. But you’re waiting for people to read it, because you need to make those changes. That New Year’s resolution of “finish MS and find agent!” is looming, big and red and angry on the calendar. And all you can do is sit back and give them gentle nudges every now and then, and pray that they actually follow through. Nerve-wracking, isn’t it?I know. I’m there. I’ve been there.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Give them a deadline — but not a horrendous one. Ask them what time frame they think they can have it done by. Then, extend it by at least two weeks.
  • Are you going to meet in person, or have them email you their feedback? Either way is okay, but make sure that if you are meeting face to face, that the meeting doesn’t go off-topic.
  • Are your betas really ready to read this? Sometimes, people just aren’t. If the deadline has passed and they haven’t finished — or even started — your manuscript, it probably isn’t priority and you should ask them to be honest. Do they really want to do this right now?
  • Have several betas. Don’t rely on 1 or 2. Join a writing group, where there’s peer pressure to provide timely feedback, or join an online group (links at the bottom of the page!) where you can read others’ works to earn credits towards having your own read.
  • Be a beta reader yourself! Ideally, your own betas are also writers. Be sure you’re willing to read their work as well, and make sure they know that. And if they do ask you to read their work — do it. Be constructive. Be prompt. Be positive. That will also give you an idea of how hard a job you’ve asked YOUR readers to take on. 🙂
  • Move on to the next project. You’ve given them your manuscript and they have a deadline. Now, distract yourself by being productive for the next two weeks or month or whatever.

Now. There are some sites where you can read others’ work and get feedback on your own. Here’s links to some of them:

http://www.behindthestory.org/club-faqs/

http://www.scribophile.com/

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ (not only can you ask questions on several different forums, but once you’ve had 50 posts, you can join the Share Your Work forum!)

http://www.worldliterarycafe.com/forum/125

http://thewritersguidetoepublishing.com/authors-are-you-looking-for-beta-readers-and-book-reviewers (there’s a link in the article to the group’s Facebook page)

There are probably MANY others, and your local bookstores probably know — or even host — writing groups local to you. So there’s no excuse now to publish something that’s crap! Get out there, find your betas, and get going!