Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Good News is Bad News

     That's right, I said it (typed it).  You don't want the good news.  It's horrible and of no help to you whatsoever.  

     At least, that is, when it comes to your story.
     Now, yes, you definitely want to get some sort of positive feedback on your story.  It's important to hear that your beta readers are connecting with your characters, enjoying your plot, and all that jazz (If you don't care for jazz, you can substitute your favorite genre here, hip hop, rock, alternative, country, what have you).  While you are still mid-project, however, taking in feedback in order to improve your work, good news is only so good.

     From first draft to ready for submission, you have to be ready to tear your story apart.  I know, it's your baby and reworking plot, killing a character, changing the opening line, or cutting dialogue, makes you feel like you're living out "A Modest Proposal" (It's by Jonathan Swift, go read it).  All you really want to hear from your beta readers is how much they loved the story, how fabulous your characters are, and you shouldn't change a thing because it's all perfect.

     No, it's not.

     It's not perfect and that's not all you want to hear and you and I both know it.  In all of our works, there is always room for improvement.  Dialogue can always be tweaked, character can always be deepened, conflict can always be increased, and syntax can always be adjusted.  We strive to make every change in our works changes for the better.  Writing is rewriting.  It's an oft-repeated adage and that's because it's true.  It's why you don't send an agent or an editor your first draft (Good heavens.  The very thought of sending in my first draft is embarrassing.)  Okay, so we all agree that our work is never perfect (Unless of course you're sitting there saying, "Are you crazy?  All of my work is always perfect!  The first time around, to boot!" in which case we don't agree at all and in fact very strongly disagree on several different levels but not one of which is my sanity.) but what do I mean when I say that we don't want to hear about how great our stories are?  I'm getting there.  I know it may not seem like it but I am.  In fact, I'm getting there right now.

     No, seriously, I am.

     If your beta readers have nothing but good things to say about your work, they're not good beta readers.  The point of a beta reader is to help you work out all of the kinks in the system, find the bugs, the flaws, search and destroy, shock and awe!  (Sorry, carried away.  I like explosions.  Part, but not all, of the reason my sanity is never questioned.  My mother didn't have to have me tested.  Bazinga.)  Are you giving your book to the your best friend Mary Sue (A huzzah to you if you get the reference.) who never has an unkind, critical, or opinionated word to say about anyone or anything?  News flash: Mary Sue is not a good beta reader.  All Mary Sue will do (Dr. Seuss jokes may be inserted here.) is tell you sweet nothings about how much she loved your story and it's fantastic just the way it is.  As flattering as that is, and as great as it feels to hand your manuscript out to a dozen Mary Sues and receive such feedback at every turn, I have one question for you.

     How are you going to improve off of positive feedback?

     By the time you've passed your manuscript off to beta readers, your brain probably starts oozing out your ears every time your look at those double-spaced pages.  You need beta readers to catch what your revision-wearied eyes are missing.  A beta reader should be looking critically at your characters, your plot, your sentence structure, everything.  

     Now, when I say "critically" I'm not talking about unkind criticism.  Completely negative early reviews are just as horrible as completely positive ones.  I'm talking about the type of criticism that approaches a work with a critical eye, ready to praise and evaluate both honestly and objectively.  

     These are the type of beta readers you need to seek out.  Friends are fine, but they had better be friends who aren't afraid to share their opinions with you.  A good beta reader will tell you that plot point B does not follow plot point A and your main character is great but his/her love of My Little Pony doesn't jive with that daytime job as a gumshoe.  See what I'm talking about?  Yes, your beta reader should encourage you and praise what you are doing well.  That's motivation to keep writing and a morale booster at the end of a long, hard journey to complete a story.  A good beta reader should also tell you where improvements can be made; an outside perspective will see things you didn't and your story will wind up being that much better because you had a helpful beta reader.

     One final note: take your reader's comments with a grain of salt.  This is still your work.  I have ignored as many suggestions as I have taken to heart and I've never been sorry.  I only offer my stories to readers I know and trust to help me make my story as wonderful as possible but at the end of the critique session I am still the writer.  I know my story and I am the only one who can make the final decision.  To be fair to my work, I try to approach the story with the same honesty and objectivity I have asked of my beta reader.  I come back to the story ready to rip it to shreds if that's what is needed.  Most of the time, it doesn't come to that, but with that attitude prepared, I am ready to absorb all of the suggestions my beta readers have and work them into my story so the end result is something I would be proud to send to an agent or an editor.

     Look for a beta reader who is kind enough to be honest, even when the truth is going to hurt a little (or a lot, let's keep going with the honesty theme).  Mary Sue is your enemy when it comes to this part of your writing process.  You've put so much into your manuscript; don't skimp on the final steps before submission.  You and your story deserve the best beta readers available.  Mary Sue isn't it.

     I'd love to hear from you!  What do you look for in a beta reader?  Care to share some of your good and/or bad beta reader experiences?  Go ahead and tell on Mary Sue, it's okay.


  1. I am so very impressed with your commitment to give your ms, your own baby there, the tough love to make it the finest. Not easy, and the Swift reference was right on!

  2. Thank you! No, it's definitely not easy but I have to remind myself the story will be better for my hard heart. Glad you liked the Swift reference! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  3. Hi Hadassah - I found you through Twitter. What I look for in a beta is someone willing to give it to me straight - the good and bad. Also, it helps if they're willing to rip your MS to shreds if the thing stinks. LOL =D

  4. Hi! I'm a new follower.

    I've been very lucky with betas. I have both some very close writerly friends as well as some online betas, all of who are extremely honest. I'm with RaShelle--someone who gives it straight.

    But I also look for betas who are on the same place as me on the learning curve or further along in understanding the craft. It's important to surround yourself with crit partners who know more than you--who really push your learning with every critique.

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