Beta Reading Articles
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Beta Reading at HASA: 1. Someone told me I should get a beta reader…
Not everyone has or needs a beta reader. Some writers (oh, how we mere mortals envy them!) are capable of producing beautiful stories entirely on their own. For others, whether new to writing or highly experienced, having a beta reader – or more than one beta reader – is a key part of the creative process.
One of the reasons for these different viewpoints is the difference in skill and temperament between writers. Some writers simply do not wish to share works in progress even with trusted friends or are not interested in receiving any criticism from others which may change the way they write. Others are using fanfic to hone their general writing skills; they are looking for in-depth comments on their work that will allow them to tackle issues of writing style, character or plot development, or pacing. There are no right or wrong answers here and everyone should be free to use the level of beta-reading support that they feel is appropriate for them.
A second reason for writers using beta reading in different ways is that there are many kinds of beta reader. Here are some common types of beta-reading input:
Basic proofreading and language
Here, a beta reader will point out spelling mistakes and grammar and punctuation errors. They may also suggest where sentences might be punctuated differently to make your meaning clearer or where they think you have used a word incorrectly for the meaning you were aiming for. A proofreading beta generally does not comment on the content of your piece, only on the formatting.
In addition, authors who are not writing in their native language may want help in expressing ideas in idiomatic English, while English speakers who do not hail from Britain but who wish to avoid obvious non-British usage may want someone to pick up on sentence constructions and vocabulary that sound odd to the British ear (“gotten” being a prime example). All of us may want someone to identify obvious modernisms that break the Tolkienesque mood we may be trying to create.
This type of beta reader will help you deal with the complexities of Ardaverse. Tolkien’s writings are vast and intricate, there are contradictions even within the books published in his lifetime, and it’s very easy to overlook something quite obvious. A canon beta will save your blushes by pointing out everything from small descriptive details (Denethor sat on a black chair not a black stool) to major issues that might require a complete restructuring of your story (Denethor couldn’t take Boromir to a private ceremony in the hallows that once housed Elendil’s tomb because this had become the Halifirien beacon site).
Everyone has their own perception of characterisation of the canon characters and a good characterisation beta won’t force their ideas on you. However, they may present evidence from the books that you haven’t previously considered which will make you re-evaluate your own ideas about characters. They may also be able to share general insights about political and interpersonal relationships that will help your characters to behave in a credible manner.
Writers of fanfic often use their stories to explore some of the darker areas of the human psyche where most of us thankfully have little experience – but this means that we sometimes present characterisations that are unrealistic or possibly even offensive to those who have had those experiences. For instance, kidnap victims can end up identifying with their kidnappers and even carrying out acts they would have previously consider immoral on their kidnappers’ behalf. However, you’re probably best reading up a little on Stockholm Syndrome and understanding why this happens before you attempt to include it in a story. At a more trivial level, I am a single woman with no children who is the younger of two siblings. I therefore have limited experience of childbirth or small children. Those of my betas who are married with children are great at helping me get these aspects of my stories right.
Culture and race detail
Most of us have our favoured races and cultures and know a great deal about them. Sometimes, though, we have to write about characters from other races and cultures. We need to turn to experts in those areas to help us get both the psychology and the practical details right. I am obsessed with Gondor and think I have a pretty good handle on the Numenorean psyche, but I struggle horribly to wrap my head round how Elves think. Yet I often wish or need to include Elven characters in my stories. Having a beta who understands Elves and who can suggest my Elven characters are not behaving in an “Elven” way – and what they should be doing to come across as credible Elves! – is invaluable.
There are many areas where Tolkien didn’t provide the details we need to flesh out our fanfic and we have to extrapolate. It can enhance readers’ enjoyment if we extrapolate in a credible fashion. While Middle-earth is not the same as our world in various eras, there are similarities because Tolkien was drawing on historical models for certain aspects. For example, Rohan has a definite European “Dark Ages” feel, without providing an exact correspondence; the Shire has a sense of rustic 18th and 19th century England. Obviously HASA’s resources sections and resources forums allow you to ask specific questions, but a beta with appropriate historical knowledge can help you use those facts in ways that will make anything from your swordplay to the numbers and functions of the servants in the Steward of Gondor’s household sound convincing.
Thanks to Marta for naming this one. As she said at HA: “Sometimes you can know too much about your character of choice. If I have an OC with dark hair and grey eyes, that might, to me, make it obvious he's Númenórean; to others, that may be less obvious, and perhaps I need to spell it out more carefully. But if I'm not told this by a beta, a lot of times I don't realise it; after all, it's painfully obvious to me, and I certainly don't want to insult my readers' intelligence by labouring every obvious point.”
Plot, pacing and continuity
As authors, the logic of our plots is generally clear to us. Sometimes we forget to make it clear to readers. A beta reader can pick up on instances where event B doesn’t appear to flow from event A. It’s possible you need event C (perhaps a character’s thoughts or actions) to show how the two are linked. Of course, sometimes we write things that just don’t hang together as a plausible plot (often as a result of canon, characterisation, culture or race or “historical accuracy” factors).
Similarly, sometimes we put in too much detail and the story gets bogged down. Other times we don’t put in enough and we leave readers confused as to what is happening. A beta reader can help you identify places where you may bore your readers with too much information and places where you may confuse them by leaving out key details.
A beta reader can also pick up on continuity errors. You may have put in subtle clues about the weather that suggest your characters are travelling north, but your departure point and destination indicate they are travelling west. Or (this is a particular bugbear of mine) a needed item appears conveniently out of thin air at the right moment (was someone carrying it in their pack, was it lying on a table or did Gandalf really magic it up?) There is a famous dictum for dramatists that if they are going to produce a gun on stage, they should be prepared for their characters to use it. Similarly, if someone is going to get shot in the last act, you should at least explain how there came to be a gun (or perhaps I mean a bow and arrow?) to shoot them with.
This goes beyond basic proofreading to suggesting that you may wish to recast sentences where your meaning is unclear, which are difficult to read fluently, or which simply seem inelegant. A good beta will gently try to cure bad stylistic habits, such as endless sentences with multiple conjunctions or a tendency to overuse adjectives.
Inspiration and encouragement
Sometimes our beta readers are just people to kick ideas around with and get inspiration. (Warning: if one of your beta readers is a HASA Challenge Manager, this is extremely dangerous!) Lyllyn said in a discussion at HA, “I enjoy the discussion about stories, and the ideas that spark off each other to create something beyond what I could do myself.”
At other times, they can provide the encouragement to get us through the bad patches when our story feels bogged down or we hate every word we’ve written. Cheryl said in the same discussion at HA, “I've written stories that I've threatened to trash because I had times where I was overwhelmed by the complexities of plot, and the encouragement and clarity of a beta reader/friend/confidant helped me regain my focus and finish something that I was very proud of.”
And Beth Winter had the best, last word: “As for hashing over plot etc with betas – well. I am kind of reminded of a certain group of writers at a pub about half a century ago... About the only thing that's changed is that we're now more prone to using e-mail, livejournal comments and instant messages, but there are still people who get their best ideas once they talk things over with someone.”
You may not need or want all of these different aspects: it depends on your own knowledge and what you’re trying to achieve in your stories. It’s also often the case that one beta reader will be able to handle several aspects (and will probably do so automatically, unless you ask them only to comment in specific areas). What is clear is that, before you go looking for “a beta reader”, it will help if you know what kind of beta reader you want.
It’s also worth noting that beta-reading does not necessarily have to be a mutual activity. I have three main beta-readers with whom I swap detailed beta work and who see my stories from first draft. There are a couple of other people I work with where I have provided detailed betas on some of their stories, but who only see my stories when they are nearly ready to be released into the wild. What I appreciate is their ability to act as a fresh pairs of eyes (especially in terms of “obsession patrol”) when my main betas and I have got too close to a story.
Finally, HASA offers, through the forums, the opportunity for readers to leave brief comments on stories, praising what they liked and pointing out brief suggestions for things authors might do differently. This is also a form of beta reading (although not nearly as intensive as the typical beta-reading relationship). Writers usually welcome this kind of input and it may well lead to a more in-depth beta relationship. However, they should not expect that everyone leaving comments in their forum will wish to engage in detailed debate about their stories. People leaving comments should also be aware that authors may welcome comments in general but are free to reject specific suggestions.
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