One of the great things about beta reading other writers’ work is that it gets me out of myself and lets me leave my own stuff alone for a while. Now let’s get down to cases: most writers have a seriously narcissistic streak, and I have had some very unfortunate experiences with people who want me to read their stuff, but find some excuse to duck out of reading mine, everything from trashing mine when it’s my turn, or being unaccountably “busy,” or finding an excuse to end the working relationship before my turn comes around.
Lately, my luck has been very much better, in two respects:
The writing colleagues with whom I exchange beta reading regularly are hard-headed professionals, in the sense that they’re about improving their work and have no illusion that the first draft is the last. It’s the raw material, out of which a final work is carved. And they recognize the same benefits in beta-reading as I do: which is to say, that it’s easier to see the structure of somebody else’s work than your own, and that there are many different ways to write a novel.
That, and a number of pairs of us have set up formal barter arrangements for beta-reading.
I also have some number of beta readers who are not writers themselves, but passionate readers who have developed keen editorial antennae. Many writers confuse editing with copy-editing or line editing, but the most important editing for a novelist is at the grand scale: structure and logical plotting, which are the province of the developmental editor and the continuity editor. And it’s those beta readers I take as role models, because they have no particular esthetic program of their own, only a taste for stories that work.
What do I get out of beta reading other people’s work?
First, thorough immersion in a different approach to storytelling, different material, and often new genres. I’d never written horror or action/adventure before I read my buddy Devin Harnois, who infected me with such enthusiasm for her wild monster romps that I’m trying new things. She writes swift, clean ruthless prose; compare the length of her typical Six Sentence Sunday snippets to mine, and you’ll see what I mean. She does a lot of showing rather than telling, and most of her novels could be adapted to screenplays without extraordinary exertions. My writing looks different to me after reading hers, and I can apply her characteristic virtues (concision, spare and elegant action, muscular plotting) to enhance mine (layering and four-dimensional depth).
Dealing with somebody else’s problems can cast light on your own. Recently, I beta-read the second revision of Devin’s forthcoming novels Taming the Darkness and Not My Apocalpyse, came back to my own work and found that numerous editing and structuring problems had resolved themselves while I wasn’t looking. The structure in her work stands out because it’s different from mine; when I returned to my story, I could see what I hadn’t seen before. Learning to look at scene and chapter structure in someone else’s work teaches you to look at it in your own.
That brings us to another benefit. Working on somebody else’s editing issues is a useful form of procrastination that actually feeds the Muse. Whether with drafting or revision, I invariably hit a point where I literally can’t see what to do next. Going away and working on something else is really helpful at this point; it gives my brain the opportunity to solve the problem for me while I’m not looking. There’s a natural rhythm to creative work, conscious effort and unconscious digestion, that sets us up for what’s popularly called “inspiration.” Novelists, mathematicians, visual artists, and engineers all attest to the experience of working very hard on a problem, turning away, and getting the answer when they’re not looking.
My favorite method for beta-reading:
- Go through once, purely as a reader, making preliminary comments on things I notice (as embedded comments).
- Follow up on a second pass to pick up anything I didn’t discuss before (particularly structural issues like chapter openings and endings, pacing, and plot resolution)
- Write an overview of the ‘aftertaste’ of the story.
- Follow up with the writer in an on-line or in-person chat. Dialogue draws out insights that don’t occur to me consciously when it’s me alone with the text.
Starting next week: Interviews with beta readers!