Beta Reading 101

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading this year.

Okay, yeah, I’ve been doing more beta reading this year than ever before, and I’ve learned a lot. I have writer friends now whose work I’m eager and happy to read. Plus, I’ve had more finished projects of my own this year, so I’ve needed more beta readers of my own—and hunting for reliable readers for your work is always a worthy challenge.

I KILL YOUR PLOT LIKE IT’S THE SHINY RED DOT.

There’s more to beta reading than just reading. If you really want to help the author, you need to keep a few things in mind. And authors, if you want to get good critique partners and beta readers, you should help them to help you.

1. Know what kind of feedback the writer wants/needs. If this is draft two of five, line editing isn’t going to help that much. On the other hand, if they’re about to submit this work to a publisher, a suggestion for a huge plot change might cause a meltdown of epic proportions. I’m not telling you not to be honest here: by all means, mention the flaw in the plot if you find one. If you find only one typo in the whole work, be sure to flag it.  But I’m telling you not to waste their time or yours by searching for edits they don’t need and won’t incorporate.

2. Read quickly. If it takes you six month to read someone’s work, you’re not helping them. (Unless they say that’s fine.) Plus, if you read that slowly, you’re going to forget details of character and plot, and you’re not going to be able to offer thorough feedback.

3. Read with the author’s voice in mind. It may be tempting to make changes to word choice, imagery, or other stylistic aspects, but that’s not really your job. Unless such an element hits appallingly far from the mark, resist the urge to make suggestions about voice. This is the author’s baby, not yours, and what you think is clever they might fine lame.

4. Read like an editor, but keep a more general audience in mind. Your typical reader of a novel pays attention to four big things: character, motivation, plot, and pace. They want to like the protagonist and her friends, fall in love with her boyfriend, and hate her boss. They want to understand why the protagonist makes the decisions she does, why the antagonist works so hard to thwart her, and root for the choices the protagonist makes. They want an exciting, surprising (but still believable) plot, and they want it to unfold at a pace that keeps them turning pages. Part of your job is to help the writer make all these things happen for their readers.

5. Be honest, but gentle. If the book sucks, don’t say, “YOUR BOOK SUCKS!” That’s like bitch-slapping a puppy. Writers are vulnerable. Be nice. Say what didn’t work for you, and why. Give suggestions for improvement. The flip side of this hot potato (yep, mixing metaphors on purpose!) is that you can’t help an author if you’re not honest, and sometimes that requires a little brutality. If something doesn’t work, they need to know so they can fix it. Just remember to be kind and helpful in your brutality. Like a dentist.

6. Explain your reasoning. Do this for both negative comments and positive. Authors need to know what works as much as they need to know what doesn’t, and telling them why you liked the parts of their book you liked will help them see what is good in their work. Likewise, explaining why things don’t work will help them improve. Plus, you seem like a jerk if you don’t explain. And no one wants to be a jerk.

7. Remember that subjective taste plays a huge role in this business. The character you hate may be some other reader’s dreamboat. This is part of why you need to explain your reasoning—it will help the author sift through feedback and determine what changes she actually needs to make, and how. Ask yourself how much your suggestions hinge on your personal taste, and alter them accordingly.

8. Don’t take it all so personally! This goes for both readers and writers. Readers, this work is the author’s baby, and there’s no way they’re going to perform every piece of plastic surgery on it that you suggest. Their ideal here is more important than yours. And writers, remember that your betas (generally!) are here to help, not to sabotage you. These criticisms aren’t actually insulting the fruit of your loins: they’re critiquing, as a potential consumer, a piece of commercial work. Your work will be better for your readers’ help.

And finally…

HUGS AND PUPPIES FOR ALL! Critique partners, generally, are friendish (not to be confused with fiendish) sort of folks. Do your work, then have a laugh and get a beer. These relationships are important. You’ll move on to another piece of work, and a good CP will be there to read that one, too.

I lurve you, CP!

How to Be a Helpful Critic

I had a big post planned today on the women of Supernatural, but I’m sad to say a beloved cat of mine passed away this morning. She was 19—we’d been friends since I was 8—and lived a happy life, but I’m obviously heartbroken all the same. So instead of new content today, I’m reposting one of my most popular posts of all time, which originally ran in December 2010. Enjoy!

I’ve been thinking this week about how writers help each other. This thread over on Reddit, specifically this comment, made me wonder if we’re doing ourselves any favors.

While I realize that there are writing groups who help and support one another, many writers who try to help other writers do more harm than good. I’ll be bold and throw something out there: inexperienced critics fall into two camps, neither of them particularly helpful. We’ll call them the enablers and the hypercritics.

Enablers encourage bad habits in other writers in order to justify their own bad habits. I tell you it’s okay that your first novel will be 300,000 words, because then it makes it okay that my book will be 200,000 words. We’re so nice that we hurt each other rather than help. The enabler will tell you that your space-vampire-steampunk-erotica is really good and that the world needs more space-vampire-steampunk-erotica, just like it needs more space-werewolf-steampunk-erotica, which, incidentally, is what they’re writing right now. Or they’re the people who are so timid in their criticism that they won’t tell you when something doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes things just don’t work, and saying, “It didn’t work for me,” doesn’t help the writer. Critiquing is already so subjective that saying, “It’s probably just me that didn’t like it,” gives the writer an excuse to say, “Well, that’s just him. Other people will appreciate it!”

Hypercritics attack other writers to make themselves feel better. I call your work a load of crap because that makes me superior to you, and if I’m superior to you, then I’m definitely a better writer than you, and I’ll get published way sooner than you do. Hypercritics will also latch onto your use of voice in first person and trash it for the fussiest reasons, because they’re insecure about their own first person voice, or they don’t like first person, or because that’s the only thing they feel confident enough about to criticize.These are the people who, once published, tell you how impossible it is to get published, and talk about ‘wannabes’ and ‘professionals’ in a condescending tone of voice. There are writing forums filled with hypercritics: avoid them like the plague. Yes, it’s hard to get published, and yes, it’s good to be realistic, but don’t piss on someone’s dream!

What kind of a critic are you? I’ve been known to act as both. I tell people it’s okay that their book is too long because my book is too long, and I make fun of people who attempt a ‘literary’ voice because I’m not brave enough to do it.

And look: I just hypercriticized my criticism, but it’s okay, because I don’t have a lot of practice.