Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Beta, beta . . . boom!

Writers need readers. We all know that. Being a shy person, I've long cherished the role of writer, tapping away on the keyboard in sheer isolation, until those final words . . . 'the end'.

Readers can be exceptionally helpful throughout the writing process, though, and especially at 'the end'.

Whenever I've finished that fabulous-to-my-eyes first draft, I dive into NOVELS_L, an online critique group, part of The Internet Writing Workshop. Here writers can submit chapters, read and critique other chapters, and in a kind of 2-for-1 exchange (2 reviews for every sub), gain feedback from seasoned readers at the chapter level.

But when the whole book is nearly ready, then I'm hoping to find a good beta reader, someone I trust and someone I know will give me the deepest kind of feedback on how I can strengthen my story.

Here, risks abound. For if the beta reader is too critical, you might find yourself not editing or writing at all. That happened to me once. Oh, I'd rather not go there again.

Beta readers will tell you what works and what doesn't. They can function at least at two levels -- micro and macro.

At the micro level, a good beta reader can find typos, grammatical and punctuation errors you really should have caught at this stage, and even extra spaces (for those of us still struggling with one space after a period instead of two). She or he will also spot when you've suddenly reverted to calling a character by a previous name. Oh, those little proofreading and editing inconsistencies that plague us all.

At the macro level, a good beta reader will delve into the structure of the novel itself, the character arcs, the underlying meaning of the theme and how well it translates into shaping the conflict and action of the story.

Julie Glover, in her very useful article, "When the Book Isn't Working," says "Sometimes we've been over a book so many times, we can't see it fresh anymore." That's the moment to reach out to a beta reader. Julie suggests that we might keep the questions as simple as: "Where did your interest wane, even a bit? Which characters did you relate to? Did any characters feel one-dimensional or unnecessary? Where do you think the story could be strengthened?"

I've lost count truly of how many times I revise a novel before it's released into that wider world of readers. How I write requires patience for these seemingly endless rounds of editing and revision, for I want my stories to be good enough to move the reader with compassion for other lives and other times.

Writers: Have you used beta readers? What have you gained from this experience? Would you recommend it to others?

Read more about:
The Internet Writing Workshop
Julie Glover's "When the Book Isn't Working"