Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Midwifing a Story: Beta Readers and Critiquers



A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps the writer to make the story more fully what it is intended to be. A while ago, I wrote about Trusted Readers, the unsung heroes of this process. Sometimes they receive thanks in the Acknowledgements page of a novel, but rarely for a short story. Now let’s talk about more visible helpers: beta readers and critiquers.

Most of the time, there is little functional difference between beta readers and critiquers. Both read a story in draft form and respond with comments and analysis. Unlike a Trusted Reader, a beta reader or critiquer is usually either a writer or someone knowledgeable about the internal workings of fiction, like a professional editor. So the feedback may go more along the lines of technical criticism and less a generalized “this didn’t work for me.” A  beta reader acts like a Trusted Reader-with-expertise, whereas a critiquer focuses on pinpointing weaknesses and often suggesting solutions, many times in a workshop or other group setting. For this blog post, however, I’ll use the terms interchangeably.

Critiques often take place in a structured setting, such as a workshop. My first experiences with exchanging critiques were done through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, a by-mail-with-newsletter forum run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury (back in the 1970-90s or a little beond, if I remember correctly). I’ve also attended ongoing face-to-face workshops, as well as weekend groups at conventions. All have involved both giving and receiving critiques. Like many writers, I have cultivated a small group of “go-to” beta readers. Although it’s often not stated explicitly, the understanding is that over the course of time, each of us will critique a story from the other. 


For me, and for many other writers, a workshop format is invaluable, especially at the beginning of our writing careers. (Workshops also have pitfalls, which is a whole other topic in itself.) For those of us who have difficulty seeing the faults in our work or understanding writing principles from books, having a patient, sympathetic fellow writer “to explain things in words of one syllable” can boost our insights and progress tremendously. Learning how to look critically at someone else’s work trains our “editorial eye” and helps us to see our own stories more objectively. Finally, workshops foster camaraderie and offer crucial support along the lonely road to publication. Many of those other beginning writers from SF & FW have gone on to notable careers – we “came along” together, learning from one another.

Yet another thing that distinguishes critiquers is the granularity of the comments. Sure, you sometimes get sweeping “this character never worked for me” but you are more likely to get a detailed list of all the inconsistencies in motivation that caused a lack of connection for that character and how that affected other aspects of the story. Depending on where the writer and critique are in their careers, comments may come in the form of shorthand, relying on the shared jargon of the craft. A Trusted Reader might say, “I got pulled out of the character’s head,” and a critique might abbreviate the same observation as “POV bobble.” (See The Turkey City Lexicon for useful and occasionally humorous examples – Idiot Plot, Handwaving, and Infodump, for example.) Such shorthand is more than a convenience, for it assumes the writer understands the principles of storytelling and prose craft and knows how to fix them

A beta reader may or may not make suggestions as to how to improve a story’s weaknesses. Much depends on the relationship between writer and reader, as well as how the request of a critique was framed. Many writers strongly object to such suggestions, seeing them as attempts to rewrite the story according to the beta reader’s taste and vision (not their own). Others feel that even the best-intentioned suggestions impair their own creative solutions. Some go so far as to eliminate a suggested change, no matter how good it is, just because it came from someone else. Yet other writers are happy to see possibilities other than the one that didn’t work.

Beta readers offer a “second pair of (knowledgeable) eyes” that furnish feedback before a story is submitted to a publisher. Sometimes editors freelance; that is, they do not acquire books, but they work with a manuscript as if they were preparing it for publication. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that has arisen partly with advent of self-publishing, partly from the increasingly competitive market in traditional publishing (and the need to fine-tune and polish a manuscript to present the most professional presentation possible). Such editors may do much of the work of a publisher’s book editor, but they do it before the sale, not after the publisher is committed to the book. They are one of the few legitimate examples of a writer paying money before publication (the antithesis of Yog’s Law: “Money flows to the author.”) For all the benefits of hiring a freelance editor, there are drawbacks: they cost money; they may envision the project in a different way than the acquiring or book editor; they may teach or mentor but they do not offer the opportunity for the author to practice critiquing skills herself. Still, many of them have superb professional editing credentials and are worth every penny under the right circumstances.

If you’ve detected a bias here, it’s real. Because I learned writing craft from in-person workshops and by exchanging critiques with writers of about the same skill level, I think in terms of learning to see and to do at the same time, and I value the fellowship of a peer group of writers. Other than running your story off on a mimeo machine (which tells you how long I’ve been at this) or paying a printer or vanity press, there wasn’t any self-publishing. If you wanted your story professionally published, you had to sell it to a publisher, who hired editors and (most of the time, anyway) hammered your prose into shape (and handled cover art, marketing, etc.) Now that we have both electronic and Print On Demand formats, I believe the need for critical feedback is even greater than before. It’s all too easy to take a rough draft with plot holes you could drive a tractor through, format it, and slap it up on an ebook site. It’s up to us, the writers, to make sure that whichever route we take, we do not compromise on quality. Since I’m as blind as the next one about my own work, I cherish my beta readers (and send them virtual roses and chocolate, not to mention praises in the Acknowledgements page of the published book!)

The painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797

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