Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alpha Reactions to Beta Readers

Four of my six beta readers have turned in their notes on The House That Nobody Built. A fifth also had, but withdrew hers to do a more detailed reading. The sixth is by far the busiest of an already busy group, and for at least two weeks of the reading period I was hanging out with him, so really I have to shoulder some of the delay. He intends to deliver his by mid-January.

This week I began earnestly analyzing my critiqued copies. I’ve managed to pound one 470-page manuscript per day, which feels mildly satisfying. Despite taking two solid months away from the manuscript, anything they ask causes some paternal part of me to sit up and answer. I know my baby’s cry.

The knowledge feels mildly satisfying, but also a little freakish. They question the spelling of a name, or an awkward sentence, or what constitutes personhood to an astral being, and I know exactly what they mean. Dozens of times I’ve seen the merit and changed it immediately; dozens more I’ve made a note to examine specific context after I finish aggregating the responses. Even when the beta readers dislike something, I enjoy it.

Their dislikes can still be kicks in the gut. I take them personally. I don’t pretend otherwise; I’m a marshmallow, of course I take this personally. But in addition to pangs of personal pride, I’m personally grateful that they called me out on vague plot points and failed jokes. They strove to make this a better novel. My goal is to make this the best thing I’ve ever written. They are helping me toward that which I worked the hardest in 2011. This is personal.

Sitting down to pizza with one beta reader, he recounted how I underdescribed settings for his taste. After three minutes, he broke off to say how unnerving it was that I’d been smiling through all his criticism. I wondered if I hadn’t offended him by not appearing offended. Maybe for him the critique felt like delivering a beating, but I was in a frame of mind to reflect and reform. This made me eager.

It may just be that I’m weird. I know I vary in some ways. I’m at peace with this god. Frankly, if I succeed as a novelist, my work is only going to get weirder. The House That Nobody Built is as conventional as I get; I am not coming any further along the bridge to my culture. I don’t get anymore comprehensible than my sentient ball of snakes, my unconfident confidence man, and my Succubae Hit Squad.

That’s why I’m so grateful to these beta readers, some anonymous and some public, some personal friends and some professional acquaintances. They put unreckoned amounts of time into honing what is essentially me.


  1. I was asked to be a beta reader for a friend. There was so much wrong with the manuscript that the first ten pages were packed with detailed commentary. I made super sure to explain why I was making the comment I was. I burned out and set it aside after page 30.
    He asked if I was done and I told him that I had only gotten through the first third. I sent it to him at that point and I think he was overwhelmed and a little hurt. Then told me he only wanted me to read and give my thoughts.
    It's great that you take critique so graciously. Each edit is really a gift of that person's time and thought and never intended to be hurtful. Only to be helpful.

  2. I don't think anyone can take criticism of their work non-personally. It is your baby, it's an outward expression of the very core of you. But I'm learning. And after the initial teeth-gnashing and wailing, I settle in and take a more critical look at my work. It has only ever enhanced the work.

    Thank goodness for honest beta readers. You're lucky to have them.


  3. Avadonja, beta reading a deeply flawed manuscript is dreadful in multiple ways. Who wants to tell a friend or colleague that there is such a fundamental problem in their work? I guess I'd want to, just to be able to help them, but there's no pleasure or even neutral emotion to it. Lucky me, none of the betas seem to think my book sucks. But I'm glad that I know smart people upon whose judgment I can rely.

    Spot, writing so much short fiction publicly, and going through the submissions processes to so many magazines, and running through college lit classes doubtless helped me through the teeth-gnashing infantile phase of writing. Especially for a marshmallow like me, it took a lot of time to toughen up. Toughening is essential to high reform, though. Here's hoping I pull it off. Theta readers will help ensure it.

  4. I'm always a little afraid when I turn in something I've beta read. Not everyone takes it so well, so it was a pleasure working with you.

  5. It's such a breath of fresh air when a writer takes the critique you've given and can have an intelligent conversation with you about the things you liked or didn't like. A novel is a deeply personal thing, but you have to be able to take critique if you want to make it to the next level.

  6. TS, it was a pleasure to work with you, too. Thank you particularly for fielding all those questions I shot to you in December. I can imagine some people getting annoyed over so much correspondence.

    Danni, when I've beta read I've always found in the mark of an amateur to fight the critic. On the writer side, I'd much rather know what led someone to their conclusions than argue them into believing my intentions, even if I conclude that the critic was wrong.

  7. I'd rather have thoughtful critique than not. Sometimes what's crystal clear to me leaves someone else puzzled. Besides, they are pointing out flaws, inconsistencies and mistakes in my writing, not telling me that I'm hideous looking or that I have bad breath.

    (At least not yet.)

    A good and trusted beta reader is worth their weight in gold.

  8. That last line gave me tingles... what a poignant way of thinking about critique.

  9. Sounds like the process has been successful thus far, best of luck with it going forward. I'm excited to read the novel someday.

  10. Asking for beta readers is asking for a hell of a lot. But it's also a privilege to be asked by someone you respect. I'm really intrigued about a John Wiswell novel. Also, I read your review of the Ethan Coen book - sounds good.

  11. Personally, I can't have more than two or so per piece, it just gets so darn confusing! Kudos to your adept handling of such varied feedback. John, I'm very excited to see this come to fruition. Yours is some of the best work around. Adore it.


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