Have you ever watched one of those Gordon Ramsey cooking shows or any one of the dozen or so ‘fix this whatever’ shows they have on TV these days? You know the ones: A troubled business is falling flat on its face and needs outside help in the form of some Uber-genius in the field to help them straighten their shit out? Have you noticed the first thing said ‘expert’ sets out to do is pull the owner/manager/whatever’s head out of their ass? Have you noticed, as viewers, that the problem is almost always right there, staring you in the face while the owner/manager/whatever is completely oblivious to it? If you are a writer I can absolutely guaranty that you have been that Owner/manager/whatever at least once – so convinced of your own work that everyone else must be wrong. But you’ve done at least one thing right – you’ve gotten outside help. Now don’t screw it all up by assuming that person is an idiot.
Last week I yapped extensively about the evils of Beta Reading. I can’t remember what I said but I think it was along the lines of ‘be kind’. Which shouldn’t be too hard to understand, really. At least i don’t think so. After all of the feedback it got on the NaNoWriMo FB page I figured I had to write a little bit of a follow-up on how to RECEIVE a beta read and it goes a little like this:
So a Beta reader just tore you a new asshole. So they think it all sucks. So they think your character is a one-diminsional piece of library microfiche. So what? Does it make you feel bad? Do you feel like someone just punched you repeatedly in places that hurt? Probably. So what are you gonna do about it, punk? Well… You’re going to be kind. Not to whoever read it, because really they don’t need your kindness. You aren’t going to turn around and beat them with rolled up, tacked together copies of your manuscript. You might want to, particularly if they are the sort of readers I mentioned in last weeks post, but you probably won’t. Nah. You’re going to be kind to yourself.
It’s a draft for starters. If it were perfect you wouldn’t have hunted for those Beta Readers, would you? You would have submitted it. So some part of you knew that it wasn’t quite ready for publication or query letters or whatever. Some part of you was hoping that your Beta would be wise and just and wonderful and noble enough to hold you by the hand and tell you what you needed to hear. The other part, of course, is bound and determined to not listen. But you will won’t you? Because this little hunk of words is your baby and you know it needs help to fly. It needs to be fed. And it needs to fail.
The other part is your ego that likes to protect the whole chunk of you and everything you survey – even the nasty and totally wrong parts.
The truth, as I like to think about it, is that birds fly by learning how to fall really well. You’ve got to trip a few times before those wings learn what they’re for. That’s what Beta’s are for. Sure. Some of them are for turning you into a weeping puddle on the floor. If they do that (as I already mentioned) they are dirty, bad, Beta’s and you can feel free to pummel them into submission with the aforementioned rolled up manuscript. But know that you’re the one attaching your ego to your work and it’s your ego that’s fueling that sniffling.
Quit sniffling and get to work.
Consider what they said. Did they completely misunderstand something? It’s possible. Not every reader is going to ‘get it’ and not every one who ‘get’s it’ is going to like it. There isn’t much to do with things like that except move on or compare their comments to another Beta and see where they agree or where they disagree. Do they have a point? Can you see what they are saying or what they’re getting at with their comments? Yes? Great! Now you’re on your way to doing something about it. No? Well… try it again or figure out if they are wrong or off point. It happens. Beta’s are people and they can often get things wrong particularly when they are being deliberately obtuse or socratic in their methods.
Whatever happens, be kind. Mainly to yourself. You did the best you could. If you could have done better you would have, right? Someone is telling you which feathers are out-of-place, maybe that the wing angle is all wrong, maybe that the heights you’re trying to jump off of is suicide. It isn’t personal. (Unless it is – see above) It’s suggestion and you can do with it what you like. Have a dialog with your reader if you think they’re wrong or didn’t understand something. Maybe there is something they missed. Maybe they had it on the nose but whatever it is the process isn’t finished when they give you the full report and sit back in their comfy chair waiting for the fireworks to start.
Oh and cancel the fireworks. Cancel the drama. Step down from the battlements of your defense. That’s your ego talking and chances are pretty good that it’s full of shit. Ego’s are like that. If you find yourself getting all tight in the shoulders and wanting to fire back at someone – don’t. Take a deep breath. Relax.
And get back to work.
There’s a fine line between ‘being defensive’ and ‘explaining’ and you’re the only one who can see it. A reader may think you’re being defensive and it might piss them off. Which you don’t want to do. On the other hand you may be trying to help them ‘see’ what direction you were heading, your flight plan. That’s okay. But again, perception is everything and if they think you’re being an ungrateful little shit then you’re back in the nest looking down. Figure out where and what triggers your defenses and… this is going to sound stupid but it’s true: deactivate them. They aren’t going to help you with what you need to do. Keep your eye on the goal – you want your little birdy to fly into the world all noble like a fucking eagle. What happens when no one helps and tells you what’s wrong? Well… ahem. You might end up a smashing financial success (not naming any names) but a seriously flawed and migraine producing writer.
Please please please don’t do that. Becoming a smashing financial success is the surest way to insulate your idiotic ego under layers of equally stupid justification and puffery all while flying like a drunken skunk in a leaking dirigible filled with other people’s hot air.
Be kind. Most particularly to yourself. The world isn’t going to end because someone doesn’t like your book. Your book is not you. It’s a product of you. I know that sounds like ‘well, DUH.’ but I can’t tell you how many artists. writers, musicians I’ve met (mostly in my younger days) who LOVE to make that mistake and associate their work as some living embodiment of themselves. That’s a sure way to lose your marbles because I guaranty that people won’t like it. They will attack it. If you’re that close to it you’re going to be in a lot of trouble, psychologically speaking. And frankly why would you want to? This is supposed to be fun, remember?
Your Beta is your mission control, your air traffic controller, sometimes even your flight engineer but in the end they can only draw up the plans, they can set the flight path or tell you that you’re nuts. If nuts is who you are and what you want to be then jump, little birdy and spread those wings. Pay no attention to that big brown and green thing rushing up at you because, gosh dern it, you’re flying! (if only for a few seconds.) If you want the advice, the guidance, the designs for the wings then listen. Really really listen. With your ears and not with your mouth. It’s still all up to you in the end and it ain’t going to kill you. I promise.
Whatever you do, the book or story or painting or jazz riff or whatever it is fly’s on it’s own. Your part will be done eventually. You will hopefully learn how to be better than you thought possible. You will have learned how to take advice and criticism and not crumble. You’ll actually be a better person. But you won’t be there when it jumps out of the nest. You’ll watch from the sidelines, cringing, hoping, wondering, begging it to open up and fly like you know it can, but whatever happens it’s not you that’s doing it. You made the thing but where it goes from there you have no control over. Will it fly to the moon and back? Will it make it to your front porch? Will its amazing shadow inspire those below to look up in awe and wonderment? Who knows? It’s not up to you. All you can do is give it the best you’ve got and everything you know how – borrowing a little here and there from others – and see what it can do.