Going to admit it right up front: I used to hate having others read my work before I had finished it. I told myself that each work had to reach a certain stage of completeness in order for a reader to appreciate it; I didn’t want to put my work out there when it couldn’t fully be understood.
The reality? Sheer terror. I was in no way ready to share my work with others. My fragile ego couldn’t take it. I couldn’t admit that to myself, but reality is reality. The thing is, I’m almost glad I couldn’t accept that. It may well have been for the best, given how long I had to go. This was the mid to late 90s, during the infancy of the Internet, so I didn’t know much about the concept of critique groups or beta readers or any of that stuff. I had never so much as met another fiction writer in real life, outside of creative writing classes, and even those had mostly been dabblers. My work underwent something of a review process through those classes, but I never got to share my longer work (what I considered to be my “real” work), so I never felt that I got the full benefit of the classes.
Cue a hermetic form of writing for many, many years. I completed several novels, but never felt any were good enough to show to others. I grew in my craft, true, but that happened in a bubble. A bubble that wouldn’t burst for many, many years.
As I said, it may all have been for the best. But if I would change anything about my writing development, that period would be it. I would love to have been able to consult other authors during the writing of such “classics” as Tidal, Mirror Untrue, Jazshael, and Wind Won’t Wait for Midnight (this one may come back one day). Those books may well be available today had I known more about this process. Alas, the future of nations, or something like that.
Many years later, I’ve come to understand that any good book is the result of a collaborative effort. Sure, the author does the heavy lifting of writing the initial draft and incorporating revisions and edits, but most books remain forever mediocre without the input of multiple viewpoints to feed and mold the work in progress.
I speak about this because I’m undergoing the beta reading process from both ends at the moment. My own book, Room 3, just went out to my dedicated beta readers yesterday afternoon (and thanks to those folks for enduring my prose), and I’m beta reading a work for Emlyn Chand, author of Farsighted.
I sometimes get this question, so I’m going to share for those folks who don’t know. While beta reading seems to mean different things to different people, in general, the process involves sending out some form of draft to readers with different specialties and viewpoints, asking for their feedback on either specific matters or more general issues about the story. This is not to be confused with editing; betas shouldn’t get too deep into grammar issues, aside from those that might affect the story, and style may or may not be addressed.
Some send these out one or two chapters at a time. I prefer to bring the pain all in one large chunk. Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Emlyn uses a hybrid approach. She describes it thus:
I work a little differently than most, I think. I have two tiers of readers–those that give me feedback as I go, and those that review a full draft. I usually go through 4 drafts on my own and then employ a professional editor (and I use the term “draft” loosely, since I’m incorporating tier-1 beta feedback in “draft #1”).
Seeing the segmented portion of Emlyn’s process has shown me that the ongoing version can have some benefit: she can take the suggestions given early on and use them to shape characters and find ideas that may build on to what comes later in the novel. There’s something really cool about that approach. I have two problems with it that would prevent me from ever using it, though. One is that, in these early stages, I guard my idea like a jealous lover. It might be a bit odd, but I feel like any outside influence might wreck my initial vision. There will be a time for others to add to that vision, but early on just doesn’t work for me. The second, of course, is that right now the approach is not realistic when it comes to my own stable of beta readers.
The disadvantage of that approach also lies in the reader not being able to see what’s going on for more than a few chapters at a time. For instance, I had some questions in my first chunk that will likely be resolved a few chapters down the line. For right now, I have to wait for those answers to be resolved, and my perspective may be different by the time I reach them.
I use the approach of sending the whole thing to avoid that disadvantage, and also because I recruit from many walks of life, and some of those folks have very packed schedules. Two are teaching full-time classes this semester, so they need some flexibility. I respect and value their input, so I try to accommodate their needs. The best thing about this phase is that I can forget about the story awhile – it “belongs” to them now, and I can move on to other works.
And that gets to what I’m really talking about, after all. A story only briefly belongs to you, and at release, it’s passed to your readers. The beta reading process gets you into that mode early on, and gives readers buy-in almost right from the beginning. While the vision may remain your own, and you retain final say on what goes and what stays, the soul and vision of others begin to creep in, making the work into more than it could be with only a single vision feeding it. Think of like a fire: it may burn well enough with one piece of kindling, but add more, and the fire burns brighter and hotter. The vision and feedback from your betas forms the extra kindling to help your story shine. That’s incredibly valuable (and gets us right back around to setting the couch on fire).