Friday, August 28, 2015

What to Do About Too Nice of Beta-Readers (And Why You Might Want Them)

Unlike men, you can change beta-readers.

A beta-reader has become, unofficially, a person who reads your work in order to give feedback, but isn’t exactly an editor either. Usually, they’re used to tell the author the reader’s perspective on the piece, sometimes offering up solutions. They may or may not work professionally in the literary field. Originally, a beta-reader was intended for a final draft before print, the last line to catch any major problems. Today, many writers will use them at various places in the process.

A man is a person who refuses to read your work, but will tell you he did anyway. At least if you’re dating him.

Finding beta-readers, editors, or anyone to give you any sort of feedback is extremely difficult. (Finding men is not.) Getting someone who agrees to read your work and actually does is like not finding a Twilight book on the used rack—possible, but you’re going to have to try really hard.

Agents will often just send back form rejection letters. Sometimes, if you’re willing to pay, you can get a more intimate feedback, but that’s always sketchy. Writers’ groups are a decent place, but many don’t have the time to respond to a full manuscript and can only read it in parts. Combine that with ever shifting members, and what you’re going to end up with is a lot of, “I don’t like this one word,” because they can’t give you a bigger picture issue when they’ve only read three pages mid-story.

You can go online, but directly asking your 3,000 Facebook followers if they’ll read a chapter will often result in crickets. Posting it on a forum may or may not lead to results, and then you have the problem of not knowing anything about the people you’re getting the information from. It’s a lot like trusting the parenting advice from Yahoo answers. And still you have the issue of no one’s going to read an entire novel to jot a few comments down. And while self-publishers have more to worry about when it comes to theft, emailing your full manuscript to a complete stranger always can be nerve wracking.

Plus, no matter where you go, it’s still going to be difficult to get someone to put in the time.

So what do you do when you finally get someone to not only agree to read it, then actually do it? What do you do when you find the feedback is… well, extremely lacking?

First…

Don’t expect them to tell you you’re good or bad at writing.

One of my myriad of rants is about the words “good and bad” in terms of writing. I don’t believe in linear quality, and I promote specify when it comes to discussing art. Saying Fifty Shades of Grey is “just bad” discredits the important fact that it worked extraordinarily well for many people. For a writer to just dismiss it limits their view of what art can be to what they already think it is. It doesn’t mean that they have to like it, but you can see why it would be more beneficial to be clear about what is bad about it and why so many people don’t care as much about those aspects as you do.

So my friend, who heard the rant many times, was pulling up her writing from high school and wanted me to read it. She started with, “Will you look through it and tell me if it’s any g—” then stopped.

“Tell me what you like and I can improve?”

That is an important distinction.

No, I can’t tell you if you’re any good, don’t put that responsibility on me. This is one of the reasons your betas might be too nice. If they get the feeling that any criticism will make you want to quit, of course they’re not going to say anything.

Also, while I can tell you if I like it, I can’t always know how other people will feel, and I definitely can’t speak for its potential. That’s up to you. I can give you my opinion as far as, “Here’s how I felt, this is what made me feel that way,” and even perhaps, “These are the elements I would expand on,” but no, I can’t say if you’re going to be a successful novelist or give you a blanket assessment about your natural talent. I will admit that if you’re looking for me to say if you have an inherent ability now, the answer is probably no. I would be acting a lot more shocked and gleeful if you did.

If you go to a reader, know what you’re there for. Are you asking whether or not you should be a writer? That’s for introspection. Are you asking whether or not you should continue with this story? Ask yourself why you would or wouldn’t you. Are you asking if the story is good as it is? Tell them that. Are you looking for a bit of an emotional pick me up? Let them know.

Don’t put your all your dreams on the shoulders of someone else. Learn to discuss it openly with yourself first. You want people to stop being nice, you need to not put all your emotions on their opinion. Release some of the pressure and they’re more likely to open up.

Once you’ve decided what you want from them, then you can…

Listen what they have to say.

Contrary to the rest of this article, I will suggest that whole, old-fashioned idea of just listening should be initially applied. Let them talk. When they say, “It was good,” wait. Don’t speak a single word, don’t let them off the hook. Make eye contact, show you’re ready, and do not verbalize anything.

If you can get them to talk naturally, their responses will be more genuine, less influenced by external factors, thereby more constant with what other people will feel. Sometimes all it takes is for them to panic about filling the silence that they’ll let their censor down.

After a time, if they still haven’t said anything, find something vague and encouraging to say, like, “Go on.”

Remember that no matter how great your book is, someone will always have an opinion on something. People love to give advice, so if they can’t come up with anything, they’re obviously choosing not to, and that yes, if your book is really “good,” they will be pretty excited about it. Note that saying, “It was good,” in a sort of apathetic way does not mean it was bad, but it definitely means they didn’t love it.

If you can’t get them to naturally speak, it becomes time to…

Take charge.

Criticism is a skillset, no matter what anyone tells you. Some believe that criticism is about expressing your opinion as bluntly and unthoughtfully as possible, but effective criticism (whether that be reviews or feedback), is analytical, logical, specific, and thorough. Statements like, “It was boring” is not as useful as “I couldn’t get invested in the character.”

But academia doesn’t recognize the importance of teaching criticism, often prioritizing keeping the peace over efficiency. They will promote the idea of shut up and listen, instead of the most important aspect of a critique: an open dialogue. It also often tells children what their opinions should be, and then to argue those pre-existing notions.

When we add in the whole “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality most readers use to judge books, you have a large population of people who don’t know how to analyze their feelings, trust them, and articulate them.

There’s a decent chance they’re being too “nice” because they don’t know what else to say. They don’t know how to give a critique.

Don’t treat them like a teacher who tells you what you did right and wrong. Treat them like a peer, and remember that it’s not uncommon for you to be the expert in the situation. Even if they are an experienced writer, it doesn’t mean they know how to give their opinion, and it doesn’t mean that they know everything about what you’re trying to do.

Instead of just throwing yourself at their feet, control the session to go as you want it to. Introspection before feedback is so important because you can’t take control if you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to have a general idea of the story’s strengths or weaknesses first, and an idea of what you’re concerned about. What are you afraid of people’s reaction being? Where do you feel you could use work?

Discuss it.

Even if the person absolutely refuses to say something negative, it can be immensely helpful for you to just speak your thoughts out loud. In most cases, however, talking will encourage your reader to express her opinion too.

Don’t try to expedite the process.

You don’t need to get all the criticism of your book immediately. It’s going to change over time, and fixing one problem will often fix others, or evolve them into totally different issues. That’s the good thing about someone who is being far too nice to you. People who are hesitant to give criticism will tend to give the most important, big picture criticism, where people who are more than willing tend to give thousands of comments on tiny details.

What’s bad about that, you say? Well, mainly that your book will change, as I said, and so their fixation on whether you should use “slightly” or “lightly” won’t matter when the whole scene is cut, and it’s not uncommon for these line editors to miss the more subtle, but more important issues, like continuity errors, plot holes, or a lack of character arc.

Sometimes you’ll get feedback that is thorough with details and big picture issues, where the critic is experienced, specific, and exhaustive, but that can be overwhelming. In those cases, I’ll go through and read their big notes first, make changes, and then find their little notes to be useless because the lines have already been altered to help the larger issues.

If you have a “nice” reader, many times you know you can take their criticism seriously because they’re so disinclined to be negative (versus the people who love tearing you apart and may not be giving you any credit). If they only have one thing to say, it can mean a lot. Sure, they too might be compelled to state, “I want you to rewrite this one sentence,” but if you can get only one important piece of feedback from them, that’s all you need.

Groom them.


Don’t expect everyone to be useful immediately. We all need time to adjust and to learn how to collaborate with each individual. You can’t force a person to read your book, but you can develop a relationship with the person who is willing. Be patient and take your time. Let them know that you really don’t want, “It was good.” Be honest about what you need from them, direct them, have a conversation, be willing to listen, and over time you’ll often get a person who is extremely helpful in your career. Tell them how you feel about their responses, tell them what you would rather see. And if you like their praise, but want more, explain that. You would be surprised how much you can work with a person who wants to be nice.