Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Finding Beta Readers

Writers produce great work the first time out, right?  The masses flock to our brilliance because we're just that damn good.  I know my own work comes out polished and in final form from the moment I put pen to paper.

What's that you say?  You dare call bullshit on me?  I can't believe you don't understand my brilliance!
(My first draft can be found in there)
Certainly I think my work is good.  I know what I'm trying to get across, but this leads to a problem - I can't objectively evaluate my own work.  I even find that when I try, I argue with myself:

"That's not well written in this spot.  Your action sequence makes it unclear who the hero is."

"Bullshit!  It's as plain as day that Rick is the one pulling the Soldiers together and leading the counterattack."

"Counterattack?  Is that what that was?  I thought they were repelling an enemy attack."

"They did.  That's why they're now on offense."

"That's ridiculous.  You give no indication of offensive maneuver and make us think the action never transitioned."

"Bite me, you pretentious idiot.  You'd get it if you weren't so stupid and caught up on form.  Everyone else gets it."

"What everyone else?  No one else as seen it."

"Uh, yeah but...blow me!"

That's when I need an honest broker or two.  A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold.  You need to find someone who is an avid reader and can be brutally honest without completely crushing your ego.  I've sought out beta readers in the past, and it's harder than spinning that first date into a long term relationship.

There are several people I've given my work to who have yet to finish the novel in their hands...three years later!  I feel like a nag asking whether they got back into it or not, so I've given up on most.  These are friends who enthusiastically told me they were interested, but that interest soon fell off the face of the Earth.  One person in particular told me that Salvation Day was great, but she had to stop reading when some of the questions asked by the main character hit a little too close to home and made her start questioning her own faith.  Basically, she said I had too much of an impact.  Talk about a pyrrhic battle.

Other beta readers have fallen into one of two categories - either they were real nice and told me everything was wonderful without being specific about what they liked, or they said they hated it, again without being specific as to why.  I'm a big boy, and I can handle it when people don't like my stuff.  Tastes are subjective, and not every piece of advice is going to be incorporated, but I can't evaluate that advice if I don't get it.  If a beta reader liked the novel, I need to know why.  How did the characters resonate with them?  Did the setting of each scene create an emotional reaction?  In what way did the opening sequence capture their attention?  Likewise, if they thought it was shit, I need to know the reason.  Did I take too much for granted in not describing the action?  Was the main character not sympathetic enough?  Did it just not flow well, creating instead a bumpy experience?

This is the kind of feedback a good beta reader can give.  I just wish more people understood that I truly want to know rather than just having my ego stroked.  I want that when I publish and readers flock to what I'm selling, but in order to get there, I have to know what to fix in the here and now.  Maybe new folks I'm reaching out to will help.

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