Monday, October 3, 2011

Why We Need Betas

MIRRORPASS is out with betas at the moment. Not line-edit betas, mind you, but full-draft betas who are reading the thing in entirety and won't give me feedback for weeks.

It’s agonizing. I am in the painful position of knowing there are mistakes in my novel, but needing feedback before I know how to fix them. MIRRORPASS is no longer an early draft. Gone are the days when I could explain that, yeah, Aria’s motivations suck right now. But does the pacing work? Now, everything needs to work. I have this insane urge to write my betas an email/confessional about all the things I know are wrong, how I intend to fix them, and do they have any additional advice on the subject. I want people to take me seriously.

I feel like people will think, “this is a mistake, see; right here. Mistake. Why hasn’t she taken care of this yet? Didn’t she realize it was here? This lady must not know how to evaluate her own work. She can’t be as serious of a writer as she thinks.”


As I sit here, gnawing my fingernails and resisting the urge to clutch MIRRORPASS to my chest, a teeny tiny voice inside me keeps asking why this is important. Why I need betas. Why I need them now. Shouldn't I just keep editing until it's perfect? Then betas can send me a bunch of lovely comments with a few suggestions, and I can tweak, and we're all happy again.

Why do we need betas?

I get why we need readers, but do they have to be professional readers? Wouldn’t my friends work just as good? They know me. They know I’m serious. Plus, I could give it to the teens I know, and get bonafide YA feedback.

There are a million reasons to justify why not to have a beta.

I can be an easy step to skip.

But we need to admit there are some things a beta can do that we never could, and that having constructive criticism is essential. For my own sanity, I have hashed through some reasons why this was a good idea and I need to stick to it.

Betas see the product we hand them, not everything it's meant to be.

Part of a writer’s job is to find the truest way to tell the story they’re telling. In that process, we often learn all the untrue ways to tell that same story—rewritten material, cut material, material we considered, unwritten backstory. We know the entire scope of what the story is and could have been. This can make us accepting. It can leave us feeling like our current words accomplish something they actually don’t.

Lucky for us, betas see our story exactly how it is now. A good beta can also intuit what we were trying to accomplish. If something is missing, they can point it out.

Betas won't accept bad writing as our writing habits.

Let me unpack that. Every writer has their own voice. We develop this over time, learning what works for us, and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, we also pick up bad little writing habits along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the two. Voice, or bad habit? Does it work, or doesn’t it?

Enter betas. If something isn’t working, they’ll notice it right away, because it mars their experience. We often end up entertaining bad habits along with the good, and betas can point this out.

Betas see patterns. Even the accidental ones.

Some patterns are good. Pacing is basically keeping an eye on the unfolding patterns in your novel, organizing them to create buildup and resolution. But no writer can be completely self-aware. We all create patterns. Some are intentional, some we understimate, while some are a complete accident.

Example. MIRRORPASS has a lot of action, a lot of losing or gaining consciousness. I thought I was handling it until a beta pointed out that every one of my first five chapters ends with Aria falling asleep. I was like, what? Seriously? I’d been (over)using unconsciousness as a dramatic tool. Editing the redundant scenes allows the necessary ones to shine.

Betas save the day, again.

Betas know about the unfulfilled promise

This one, I need to thank Janice Hardy for—if you can find her post on unfulfilled promises, I’ll thank you, too.

In simple terms, when a writer brings an element into their novel, they make a little promise to readers. The promise says, “if you keep reading, you’ll solve this mystery,” or “this plot thread is going somewhere,” or “this character has a purpose” or “trust me, the characters do get out of this mess.”

Readers trust us to keep these promises, at least the major ones. Broken or unfulfilled promises result in reader disappointment. This is most often described as feeling “a lack of resolution.”

Know what I’m talking about now?

The crazy thing is, writers make promises all over the darn place. Half the time, we don't realize it. Worse, we thought we got them all, but missed some crucial underlying promise that leaves readers feeling cheated. Writers may intend for things to wrap up. But readers and betas, who are emotionally invested in your work, have the unique ability to experience your story as it unfolds. If a promise is left unfulfilled, they feel it.

So, what do you guys think? Did I convince you betas are worth it? (More accurately, did I convince myself?) Let’s be honest. With or without betas, your/my book will never, ever be perfect. But betas can improve it. Simple as that.

Everyone has different blind spots versus skills. Now you guys know why I need betas, so it’s your turn—why do you need betas? Got any examples? My suffering will be worth it in the end, right?

Truly and always,
-Creative A


Couple things. I tried super hard to edit this post to a reasonable length for you guys. So I know it’s still a little long, but now you know at least I tried!

Second thing. I don’t really believe betas will think that stuff about my novel; I’m not having a breakdown, or going all Bird By Bird or anything. I just underestimated how tough this would be.

Lastly, for anyone who is confused, I actually wrote this post a month ago, just haven’t gotten it up until now. So if you’ve already heard me talk about going over my feedback—that’s what’s up with the discontinuity.


1000th.monkey said...

Great post :) I always appreciate my beta's, even if they are airing out all the horribly stupid mistakes still clinging to my MS.

...though I definitely understand the moment of worry/fear ;)

Hope your feedback was everything you hoped it would be!

Creative A said...

Hah. Thanks! I had a couple tough comments, but now I have a very motivating list of edits to make as a result, and like you said, I definitely appreciate the input now that the worry/fear moment is over!


Claire L. Fishback said...

Love to hear other people have "beta readers" like me! I use my betas to tell me if my book flows smoothly, if the characters are consistent and true, and if there are any plot holes. I also have a line-by-line reader who pays closer attention to grammar, spelling, etc. After working on the same project for so long a writer almost knows "too much" about the work. So I like to get feedback from people who don't know every single minute detail about the back story so they can tell me if there is enough sprinkled throughout, or if they still have questions about things that are going on.

Great post! Really enjoyed it!

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