The mysteries of beta reading, or mapping what isn’t there

I am currently beta-reading a number of first-draft novel manuscripts. Over the last three years of National Novel Writing Month, I have been privileged to acquire a small group of first-draft beta-reading friends. Those relationships have grown slowly, out of talking about subjects that excite us, or sharing plots, or just beefing (more rarely, gloating) about the writing life. Trust takes a while to build, and there’s still the terror of handing one’s brainchild over to someone else, lest it be revealed in the light of day to be a monster.

The difficulty of the first draft is that it is a first attempt, a sketchy map of the territory, a roiling soup of raw ingredients, a list of things to do. The most interesting thing of all is the thing that isn’t there. Some parts compel and then end in mid-air; scenes that ought to sing fall flat.

In a word, something’s missing.

Mapping that thing, finding the missing key, divining the intentions and desires of the writer–or guessing at them–and supplying the thing needed: that’s the trickiest business of all. Too often, we can mistake the writer one is reading for the one we meet in the mirror in the morning.

Equally challenging is to map what is there, in particular, the details that strike an emotional chord. That’s the great utility of in-line comments:

“This is the place where I started smiling, and this is the place where I laughed till I couldn’t breathe.”

“This brought tears to my eyes.”

“This detail is really hot.”

It’s the hardest kind of feedback to give, because it’s so very intimate and self-revealing. But fair is fair; the writer has revealed herself/himself in the writing. The beta-reader provides the voice from the other side of the page: one reader’s reactions. Technical feedback is useful, but emotional reaction is the heart.

The shadow side:

“This felt murky.”

“I’m not sure what’s going on here.”

“This creeped me out.” (Well, that could be good news, if one is a horror writer.)

Writing is another face of reading, and reading mindfully is the toughest kind of reading there is.

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