Doing the Beta Bop
Since I’ve been both giving and receiving beta-reading this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits. I’m going to explore this over a series of posts, including meditations on the mutual benefit of trading beta-reading other writers’ work, interviews with my own beta readers as well as writing colleagues, and conversations about the tricky passage from raw draft to finished work. I’ll be posting these on Wednesdays.
Things that I learned from my betas
It’s a little more obvious what a writer gains from receiving beta reading, so this post explores my own experience with that. Next week we’ll look at the benefits of giving beta reading.
Beta readers are awesome for recognizing patterns that indicate deeper themes and obsessions. Sometimes I don’t see the patterns in my work until someone else points them out. In Necromancer and Barbarian, my beta Truant noticed the vessel of the resurrection as a symbol, a simplification like a drawing or a scientific model; she reassured me that the internal monologue with the short-history-of-the-world wandered in a useful way, remaining firmly anchored to the story. She also pointed out symmetries in Erika and the Vampire: a so-called friend tries to procure the main character for sex, and then for death.
The specific feedback of beta readers suggests structure for subsequent revisions, both in positive and negative directions: by telling what’s there, and by pointing out the stuff that doesn’t work. For example, Erika and the Vampire, which is short by my standards (a mere 10,000 words) should probably read mostly as a series of scenes. I came to that conclusion because it was the scenes, the specific conversations and actions, that most strongly resonated with the readers. Erika’s own thinking about her world and circumstances also came in for commendation, but I want to be sure they’re strongly grounded in a really strong story. I’ve learned to ask myself if am I using narrative summary to avoid pain or conflict; those summaries should bridge from one significant scene, not elide the real events of the story.
That brings us to the question of foreground and background. In the raw draft of Erika, I think I did too much history-essay-type back-story, rather than letting it come out in casual asides. In dystopic worlds, the horror lies in how people casually accept the background, as in “Just that time of day, they would shoot the hostages outside the city wall” and further, “you could set your clock by it, when you heard the first crack of gunfire,” alongside the picture of someone glancing at the clock and setting an egg timer.
The hardest part of revision is letting go of the first-draft version. I have to treat a draft as free-floating ingredients that can be altered, because I get attached to ‘this bit that I liked’ or ‘this bit that somebody else liked.’ I have to think about the story as a whole living organism that isn’t fully formed yet. The hard part is thinking: it can get even better. Beta readers’ reactions can help me to see the story that’s suggested by the first draft.
Different kinds of beta readers
I have a variety of readers, including ones who hardly ever give me written notes. Beta response doesn’t have to be written to be good. In the case of the beta reader who doesn’t write a lot of comments, we just talk about it after they’re finished, and then I write down what I remember. That’s helpful because generally the things they bring up are the ones that stick in their memory. The aftertaste is a really important part of the effect of the story.
Different kinds of starting conditions
Necromancer and Barbarian has five beta readers in all. Three are uncontaminated, and know only the premise of the story. The other two know the villain by name, and have listened to me carp about him since November. They read Necromancer and Barbarian knowing who the villain was, so they were judging how well I’ve set it up. In January, I read them the character interview, in full more or less. This is the first time I’ve set out to write anything like suspense, so those two viewpoints are equally valuable.
Next week: What I get out of being a beta reader