|Questions about your work?|
Ask your beta readers.
I’ve always relied on beta readers — those friends (or just acquaintances) who can be trusted to read your unpublished work and come back to you with a shedload of honest comment and (hopefully) constructive criticism.
Sometimes I think I rely on them too much — after all, if the thing that makes a story work is a suggestion made by someone else, can it be truly your own work? Then I realise that there’s no such thing as originality in fiction, that there are only seven plots etc etc etc, and I overcome my qualms and plough on.
I suppose it began at writing classes, with feedback not just from a tutor with expertise but from fellow classmates who were predominantly readers. Then as I became more serious I moved on to team up with like-minded folk who were as intent as I was not just on being published but on writing something good. They held my hand through draft after draft and failed attempt after failed attempt, until the day of acceptance.
Now I’m a member of other groups and online forums to complement them. I might ask for opinions on my full synopsis (we’re talking 6-7,000 words here) or a part of it. I might toss in an opening paragraph with a despairing cry for help. Whatever the length, whatever the issue, someone always comes back with something helpful.
I’m a beta reader myself. I comment, as constructively as I can, pretty much whenever I’m asked. Recently, it’s dawned on me quite why my opinion, or that of someone else, makes a difference. Because it is only an opinion and often the responses differ.
But what comes back from my beta readers, and what I like to think I give as a beta reader myself, isn’t always a solution. Sometimes it’s clarification. Sometimes it’s vision.
Last time I presented my writing buddies with a problem I was pretty clear what it was. ‘I don’t know what to do with this character,’ I told them. ‘I want her in. This is why I want her in. This is what I want to achieve. Why isn’t it working?’
I confess I was a little bit upset when they told me exactly what was wrong. It wasn’t the criticism, per se. It was because the problem they pinpointed was not the one I had identified. Indeed, they thought my problem character was absolutely fine. But another character wasn't, they said. I remained adamant that my problem character was a problem because…well, because I thought she was.
Actually they were right. She wasn’t a problem. It was the character I thought was fine who didn’t fit. I was annoyed with myself for not having spotted it; I still am, because once I stood back from it, it was glaringly obvious. And that’s why we need beta readers. They see things that we don’t when we’re too close for comfort. So, a message to beta readers everywhere: thanks to you all…