You know that point when you’re eyeball deep in a beta read, and it’s obvious from the type of advice the other person is giving you that they haven’t read many books in your genre? Yet the beta reader pretends to know exactly what they are talking about?
I’ve had a several of those.
The beta swap I’m doing right now (as of writing this) is that kind of beta. And, judging from what I’m reading in exchange, she hasn’t done much reading of anything. She’s trying that thing that a lot of aspiring writers do that never works – she’s trying to be different. And it’s not working.
And she’s doing this thing where she’ll read maybe a few pages at a time. She stops in the middle of chapters and paragraphs and then asks questions about characters and scene and setting that I’ve totally laid out earlier in the story. She’s not doing the developmental edit that I wanted/asked for/need. She’s nitpicking word choice and dialog tags. We started this beta swap in FEBRUARY. It’s September.
In the beginning, she would only read if I read. We used google docs, so she could see what I had read. I would read a chapter at a time (because I can’t stop mid-chapter. It’s like eating half a cookie.) And then she would immediately read like a paragraph or something.
Frustrating? You bet your half-eaten cookie it’s frustrating.
Anyone that’s wandered through the online communities for writers knows how many unpolished, poorly written, poorly thought-out, never-going-to-be-a-bestseller manuscripts there. The one I’m reading is one of them.
But what do I do?
It’s one thing to tell someone that their MS has a major plot hole, or that the romantic interest needs fleshing out, or that their main character doesn’t seem active in the plot, or that their transitions are rough, or that they overuse “like,” or that their dialog tags are annoyingly repetitive, or that their magic system isn’t clear.
It’s another thing entirely to try and explain to an inspiring writer that her writing is abysmal and in need of serious work. I don’t know how to do such a thing.
Writing a novel is a perfect balance of sentence art and grammar; narration and action; suspense and romance; scenery detail and world building; side character and side plot; adventure and magic. All these things are coupled with properly used words, and an extreme attention to what is being said, and how, and why, and to whom.
Writing fiction is 40% what you’re saying, 60% how you say it. It’s 30% what you say, 70% what you don’t say.
Too much scenery detail is drowsy. Too much action is impersonal. Too much narration is boring. Too much of any one thing throws off the balance.
There are a lot of books out there, traditionally published and self-published. The best of the best of the best are those that get that ratio perfect.
Harry Potter was a great book. It was a great book because of the characters and plot and the writing. It was a well-written series. Twilight had a good plot, but the writing killed it. (Think how great Twilight could have been if Rowling had written it. Yeah. Now think how horrible Harry Potter would have been if Meyer had written it.)
So… how do you explain to an aspiring writer that their writing itself is what needs the most work? I’m not sure there is a nice way to say it. Any way gets the message across, and telling a writer that they’re not a good writer is like… it hurts, man. It hurts just thinking about it.
My first book sucked. I am aware. I have accepted this. I had a few betas that skirted the issue, and a few that told me what I needed to hear – that I needed to work on my writing. I didn’t like what they said, but it helped me the most.
So, if you’re ever stuck in a situation like I am, remember to be encouraging and truthful. Nothing is impossible. You could be the worst writer today, and become the best writer of tomorrow. But you have to want it. You will have to work hard for it. And you can’t EVER give up.
One thought on “Beta Blues (#?)”
Oh, man. Is there any way that you can tell that beta reader thanks, but this isn’t working? If the beta reader isn’t helping (and it sounds that they’re actually doing the opposite), maybe it is best to let them go.
As for giving feedback on terrible writing… I had a few of those in college workshops, where I had to be quite polite. I do what is called a sh-t sandwich 😬 I wrote where they did well, then where they needed improvement, then ended on what I enjoyed.
That’s what I would do, anyway. It can be difficult to receive any sort of feedback from people who have little experience, and it can be just as hard giving feedback to someone who has (very obviously) not committed themselves to learning the craft. It’s also difficult to give feedback to people who treat their writing like a precious perfect baby! It is never perfect, especially for the beginner author.
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