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Thread: The world's most dangerous beta

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  1. #1
    Recently discovered writing is hard E.Murray's Avatar
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    Nov 2010
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    The world's most dangerous beta

    I've had somewhere around a dozen beta readers for multiple novels (and done beta work for nearly as many). There's one overriding thing I've learned in the process - fear the "encourager".

    My initial reader knew she was the first one to read my first attempt at writing a book. The text was sprinkled with a balanced 50-50 mix of "ha! good line!" and "I'm not quite feeling John's motivation. Can you strengthen it a bit?" At the end she gave me a super encouraging wrap-up and praised all the things that were good. She said I definitely had a good story with some tweaking. So I spent a couple weeks on a re-write, carefully preserving the things she liked and adding things here and there to address the "weaknesses". Then I sent it to 30 agents (over the course of a couple months). Got 2 partial requests! And 30 rejections.

    I decided I needed a fresh set of eyes. This time, I got a brutal critter. The mix was about 10% "hey, that was nice" and 90% "what the hell is this guy doing? Has he forgotten everything that came before?!? What an idiot." And she was right! The story sucked. My second reader pointed to the same problems as the first one, but now I could see that John really was an idiot, not just a great character who needed a couple lines to clarify his motivations (as implied by reader #1). I felt stupid for burning all the best agents. So I took a hatchet to the whole thing, without even considering preserving the "nice lines". Know what? It got exponentially better. Now, I look specifically for harsh (but fair) readers. Sure, it hurts, but it's like working out. If you aren't willing to endure the discomfort, don't expect to improve. You have to seek the pain.

    Here's why. As a writer, I want to think that my stuff has merit, so I cling to positives. When a reader says, "This bit is hilarious," I say, "I know! I was so proud of it!" And my tendency is to hope that overrides some of the negatives (as in hoping that the hilarious bit justifies a chapter that drags otherwise... it doesn't). And when you find something that needs fixing, don't state it as a suggestion - such as "you might want to think about this character arc". Say, "This character arc doesn't work. You haven't earned the change of heart you're trying for."

    My claim? There's no place for "nice" in beta reading. I think it was Uncle Jim who said that a reader is the most selfish person in the world. We go to a book looking for something to entertain us. The author's hopes or situation or background don't matter a whit. So as a beta, you can't think about the author's feelings if you want to improve the story.

    Note that this isn't the same thing as being rude. You can still be mannerly (for instance, it's not OK to attack the writer). But don't hold back a comment about the story just because you're afraid of hurting the author's feelings. If part of it blows, say so (with only minimal sugar). Don't go back and think, "I've given six negative comments in a row. I need to find something nice to say." If there are seven negatives in a row, point them all out with no apology. It's supposed to be writer and critter working together to find weak writing and kill it.

    The world's most dangerous beta is the one who cares about your feelings.
    Last edited by E.Murray; 02-04-2014 at 07:02 PM.

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