Care and Feeding of Beta Readers

Writers Tears

DO: give thematically-appropriate gifts.

DO give them a properly formatted, grammatically-correct, spell-checked manuscript.* It’s annoying as hell to wade through someone’s poor grammar to try and understand their story.

DON’T respond to critiques about poor formatting, poor grammar, misspellings, or misused words with “that’s just how I like to do it.” That’s fine if you’re journalling just for yourself, but the second you give someone a manuscript to read you’re on their time and you owe it to them to follow the rules of engagement. Also, you sound like an entitled twat.**

DO include any relevant reference material. Maps (especially for alternate world settings) and glossaries are useful for understanding some stories.

DON’T foist your whole world-building bible off on them so they can be awed by your genius. They won’t be.

DO offer compensation. Some don’t want it, but you should still offer. It doesn’t have to be money. I have paid beta readers in reciprocal critiques, hugs, wine, knitted socks, and curry.

DON’T only give them what you promised if they say they loved it without reservation. Seriously, if you’re this fragile, you don’t need a beta reader; you need a therapist.

DO listen carefully to whatever they say. You don’t have to like it, but you should listen.

DON’T summarily reject or accept everything. Think about it all, and then take what’s useful. If they’re a good critic, most of what they tell you will be useful, even if you don’t want to hear it.

DO secure your baggage. Mostly, stow your fucking ego.

DON’T ask for a critique if you don’t want to hear it. Ask for something else. Some bubble wrap, maybe.

DO someone else while the beta reader is working on it. Literally anything else. Work on a new story. Write query letters. Learn ancient Arabic. Regrout the bathroom. Anything.

DON’T nag them to finish. Are annoyance and obligation really the feelings you want your story to evoke?

DO expect a reasonable time-frame for return. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ will vary according to every reader. You should talk about it when you hand over the manuscript.

DON’T expect them to drop everything else to work on it. People have lives, and they do not revolve around you.

DO treat them with respect, and thank them for their time. Really, this should be your mantra for dealing with everyone. And if it’s not, well, it’s going to take more than a writing blog to help you.

*As much as you can. Software can do weird things, but you shouldn’t do weird things on your own, and if you can’t master the rules of grammar, spelling, and proper word use, you should work on those before you go looking for beta readers.

**If that’s your ‘brand’, then please go away forever.

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Characters Are Not Webcams

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Actual photo of me.

Brace yourself. I’m about to drop some serious science on you.

Are you ready?

Okay, I’ll wait.

How about now?

Fuck, put that helmet down, what do you think science is?

All right. Ready now?

Good. Here it is: there are five senses*.

Ground-breaking? Not really. But you’d never know that by reading some books.

Characters in these books look, see, observe, stare, and glance, but they don’t often smell. Or taste. They hear, because dialogue is important, but they don’t feel. Well, except for emotional feels.

Now I get that sight is important, but it’s sure as hell not everything. I’m far more likely to have a visceral reaction to a scent than a sight. The smell of a perfume I used to wear in high school makes me nostalgic; the unique smell of a hospital emergency room–disinfectant, panic-sweat, blood, and stale coffee from the vending machine–makes me tense.

Then there’s sounds: a song you used to love, back when you were a different person; the whine of a plane’s propeller as you left; the slow, wet swish of a mop removing blood from a tile floor.

And let’s not forget the things we touch: the weight of your favourite leather jacket, perfectly worn; the stiffness of new jeans; the coolness of a metal pen as you sign that contract.

Did any of those descriptions make you smile? Did any of them make you uncomfortable? Good. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Without them, the characters might as well be dispassionate webcam observers, seeing and talking but never touching, never smelling, never tasting.

That’s boring as shit, and as writers we can do better.

*At least. The scientific community is divided on whether things like spatial awareness, etc, should be considered separate senses or uses of the five commonly accepted ones. But for this post, let’s just concentrate on the five we all agree on.

Idea Seeds: How It All Starts

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HI I’M THE IDEA FAIRY.

So, you’ll be doing something completely fucking mundane, like grocery shopping or showering or brushing your teeth. And while you’re zoning out and thinking of nothing but cereal or whether or not you should shave or floss, something appears. A scene. A character. A plot. For me, it’s usually two characters and a terrible situation, because I am a terrible person.

And you’ll pause, with a box of Lucky Charms in hand or with the water running over you or with toothpaste dripping from your chin, and look at this thing in your mind for a while. Eventually you stop asking where they came from; you just look, and see if it’s going to do anything interesting.

And sometimes it does, right away, and you can play with it while you finish your shopping or rise or spit. And sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to put it away on a mental shelf somewhere with a lot of other things and hope that someday it does.

When they get interesting, you sit down with a notebook or a laptop or the voice recorder on your bloody phone or a sharpie and your bare skin, and take notes. What it can do, what it can’t, what it needs to become. And eventually you wrestle it into a shape somewhere between what you want it to be and what you’re capable of making.

Once the writing starts, it moves again, because this thing is alive, and it’s evolving, and it’s making itself as much as you’re making it. Sometimes it won’t go anywhere because you’re looking in the wrong direction. Sometimes it’ll die because either it’s not right or you’re not, and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Sometimes dead ones come back, because they weren’t dead, they were just waiting for the right time.

And sooner or later you’ll have a story. It won’t be what you thought it was. It never is. But it’s enough.

You’ll look back, and remember that moment in the grocery store or the bathroom, and the first thing that appeared. And sometimes you’ll see the road from there to here clearly; other times it’ll be hidden behind years and edits, because you were a different person then.

And then, one day while you’re doing something completely fucking mundane, it’ll happen again.

Done Like Dinner: 5 Theories On When A Story Is Finished

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These pretzels know the end is coming.

1. When you reach the end. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know which end. The end of the zero draft? That might not make sense after edits. The end of the second draft? But what about the next round? The end of the edits? Hahaha, just kidding, edits never end.

2. When you can’t stand to look at it any more. This is when I usually send things to beta readers. So, an ending of sorts, but I wouldn’t call it done. Not with the comments that usually come back.

3. When you’re happy with it. This would be great…if there was ever a writer who was completely, one thousand percent satisfied with something they’d written. I’m not sure such a person exists outside the tales of old. Show me this unicorn so that I may ask their secrets.

4. When it’s published. This, once, was the final end. Once it’s published, you can’t change it any more. Or you shouldn’t; Pamela gets weirder and weirder with each version. But now, through the miracle of ebooks, publishers can change books after the reader buys them. Which I’m pretty sure is the opening of 1984.

5. When you have to do something else. This is my preferred level of doneness: when I could change stuff, but, really, I’d rather be working on a different project. Those sequels aren’t going to write themselves. Or that short story. Or that completely different novel.

How about you? When do you consider a story done?

Recycling From The Fail Pile

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Not Pictured: That Manuscript. This is a completely different one.

I wrote a scene for a book ten years ago.

Shit. Writing that sentence was the first time I stopped to do that particular math. Fuck. That was longer ago than I thought.

Anyway, this was my first finished book. It sucked. I mean, it’s not spectacularly bad– it doesn’t physically hurt me to read it, like some of my earlier, unfinished stories–but it still sucks. It will remain in cold storage indefinitely, or until the sun explodes and burns us all to a crisp.

But there was this one scene. I liked it. I still like it. Not the way it was written, because, dude, I was just starting out then. I had spent the previous six years writing academic papers. My fiction writing was not great, to say the least. I could over-explain like a boss, though.

But I liked the idea behind this scene. It’s one of the only parts I remember really clearly from that first book, so it stuck with me, even after the rest has been mercifully flushed down the memory hole.

And over the weekend, I was doing the brain work on another story and I realized something.

I had written that scene for the wrong book.

The one it belonged in was the one I was working on now.

So what’s the moral of this tale? Well, it’s not never throw anything away, because some of the stuff you produce will be complete garbage and you should absolutely throw garbage away.

But some things don’t stay on the compost heap. They claw their way back. And those…those you should give a second look. Because it might be a case of right place, wrong time. Write place, wrong time, maybe, if I’m allowed a moment to be completely insufferable.

Old scenes, old characters, old plots can be reused, especially if you originally created them for something that never quite came together. Break it down for spares and use the parts that work.

And let the rest stay on the fail heap. For now.

On Bad Days

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Maybe this will soften the blow of the swears I’m about to drop.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story will have days where that story turns on them, rending the skin from their face and chewing on their entrails.*

Yesterday was that day.

Today? Jury’s still out. My entrails are still scattered on the hardwood and I’ve yet to try reading the future in them.

This is the point where I suppose I should write something inspiring about how bad days make better writers, about the Artist’s Fight, about how even James Joyce struggled. Except fuck James Joyce.

Or I could do a list. People love lists. Seven Things To Do When Writing Sucks Harder Than A Closeted Varsity Athlete, maybe.

Except I don’t want to.

What I want to do is write. It is what gives my days purpose.

But I need to get this blog post done first. Not that I think any of you live and die by my words, but I made a commitment. And if there is one rule for writing, it is: finish.

So. Bad day yesterday. And if you’re here because you had a bad day, then I only have one thing to say.

So?

Bad days happen. You can spend your time navel-gazing about whether this means you don’t have it in you to be a writer, beating your breast about the difficulty, the unfairness, the grand sweeping suckitude¬†of it all.

Or you can get on with things.

Pick up your entrails, stuff them back in your body, and duct-tape everything together. Staple your face back on. Smile.

Because we’ve got work to do.

*I’d say “with apologies to Jane Austen”, but I’m not sorry. I might be an asshole, but I’m not going to add ‘liar’ on top of that.