Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Few Unkind Words About Beta Receiving (for writers)

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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:

Be Kinder.

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.

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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.

 

 

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Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Few Unkind Words About Beta Reading…

Statler-and-Waldorf-ShoppingUp to a few months ago I’d never heard the term ‘Beta- reader’ and honestly I kind of hate it. I’m not kidding. I get the relationship between it and the whole computer program, game-playing culture and I’ll freely admit that it fits but ugh. It sucks. But it still fits so we’ll run with it until something a little more poetic comes by. Anyone? Please? Come up with something better. It grates on me. So fix it people! Please your weird blogger.

Anyway. For the time being we’re going to run with it.

I get the concept. You have a few select readers – or victims – peruse your erstwhile completely untested and frequently quite unfinished manuscript to work out the kinks. Sort of like sending the babe off to kindergarten – if kindergarten was Lord of the Flies. Which it sort of is isn’t it? Writers need this sort of thing. Nothing flies when it first tests its little wings. You have to give it some time, some encouragement, let the people you trust shower some advice and attention on the little feller and get some air under its wings. That’s what it’s all about. In theory at least.

UNFORTUNATELY…

Many folks seem to think that beta reading is a nice way to sharpen their critical teeth on someone else’s work. You get the input back and within the first sentence you can practically envision that reader furrowing their brow as they slip on the tweed jacket they’ve reserved JUST for this purpose. They clamp the pipe they don’t smoke between those sharpened teeth and then they bite. Hard. Right into your little bird that hasn’t done a thing to them except peep hopefully at them. They seem to think that this is their chance to show their chops (choppers) at VALID LITERARY CRITICISM. Like that’s actually a thing. Like that’s exactly what they should be doing.

Well stop it. If that’s you… close your salivating mouth. Save it for the book review published to much imagined praise in the anals of the New Yorker. (Yes… that is what I meant.) Here’s a tip: YOU ARE NOT HAROLD BLOOM. And even if you are Harold Bloom this is not the time for it. Your basic job, that you have been entrusted with, is to be helpful. No matter how godawful the thing you’re reading actually is you are NOT permitted to say things like ‘why are you wasting my time’ or ‘didactic’ or ‘good lord, you should really think of doing something else.’ You may think these things and that is perfectly fine but your job is to be helpful. You are reading for concept, flow, tension, character. You are reading for compassion. Act that way. Be critically brilliant somewhere else on your own time.

Now I’m sure we’ve all sat in some tiny room at one point or another around a table at which we are being fed piecemeal to the class and masticated by a professor whose own books didn’t sell well enough to avoid having to teach. How did that feel? Good? Nah. I’m guessing it sucked. Was it actually helpful? In my case I can say all it did was puff up my own writerly ego and made it don armor against such stuff. You know how it goes: first it’s “good lord that hurt like lemon juice on a bee sting.” Then it’s like “oh yeah? what the hell do you know you little turd. Wait till I get a chance to review YOUR stupid story…”

Do not give a writer an excuse to grow a whopping ego. It’s pretty much the worst offense any writer can ever commit. They start thinking stupid things like ‘I am the author of the universe.’ or worse ‘I made that.’ If you are Beta Reading you first goal should be – really – to help said writer to put down that ego. The ego is the biggest impediment to decent writing there ever was. Which is amazing considering the best writers ever had MASSIVE egos. Maybe that’s why. They somehow managed to put it away while writing then looked upon their own works and thought ‘dang. I’m pretty awesome.’ and then they believed it. As Ricky Roma put it in Glengarry Glen Ross: “your job is to HELP US. Not FUCK US UP.” 61586534_640

To do that you need to have some compassion. Realize that the person behind the excremental piece of trash that you are slogging your way through is trying to do the best they can. They are doing the best they can. AND THEY CHOSE YOU to help make it better. Why? Yes. Because they kind of think you’re at least a little bit awesome. That’s called respect. What happens when you dance around on their blessedly ugly little bird? They stop thinking you’re in any way awesome and now think you’re a total turd out to kill the things they love. And why would they think that? Because you just did. Congrats. Douche.

So have some respect. You wouldn’t go up to a friend who just had a baby and say ‘Awww… Congratulations… but seriously, don’t you think it’s not too late to abort?’ If you are I’m guessing you don’t have too many friends and have gotten used to being punched in the face. And besides, I know you think you were a virgin birth that came borne fully on a sun-beam to the tune of angels but really you came out kinda tiny and gross just like the rest of us. Harold Bloom might be a titan of literary criticism but at one point he too was a geeky little book nerd and you still aren’t him. So have a little humility and appreciate when someone wants you to read. Take it seriously. If you don’t think you can reign in that penchant for critical brutality (or worse yet, think it’s somehow necessary to ‘toughen someone up’ – sadist) then DON’T AGREE TO DO IT. It’s that simple.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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