Beta Readers, Visiting and Otherwise

Apparently there have been too many maps recently (or so says my co-conspirator Erica), so as I’m not in the mood for another Influences post yet, I suppose this will be a miscellaneous non-map-related post.

Let’s see.

I’m hosting two friends for the next two weeks — my cover artist and my most nitpicky beta reader — so my schedule will be a bit wacky, but I’ve already managed a reasonable amount of Book 3 writing today.  Approximately 1,600 words.  Not a great increase, but it finished out Chapter 11, which is the chapter I stopped on about a year ago, when I went back to book 1 for the final editing push before self-publication.  So just getting back to Book 3 and getting that chapter finished has been good progress.

Of course, the break from writing Book 3 means that I’ve had a lot of divergent thoughts in the meantime, so already the chapters are changing from how I had outlined them.  Obviously that’s not a bad thing, but I always feel concerned about text bloat.  Over-concerned, some of my friends and betas would say; I think I delayed Book 1 by a year or so because I went through a period of slashing-and-burning a lot of the text to try to reduce the word-count.  I ended up going back and reinserting almost all of the stuff I’d cut, though perhaps in pruned form.  Thus I can’t really say whether the slash-and-burning helped or hurt, but it certainly drew out the process.

This reminds me of a book I read recently, so this part of the post will now become a mini-review: Exile, by Betsy Dornbusch.  It’s relatively new, and I gave it two stars on Goodreads, because while it had some interesting concepts, it felt like she (or one of her editors) did the same thing to her text that I did during the slash-and-burn: she cut out everything that explained anything.  When I did it, I was operating under the mistaken assumption that a lot of the material in my head was on the page–that a lot of these ‘extra’ explanations were unnecessary because I had already explained things, or that I wanted stuff to be more mysterious.

The problem with being mysterious, as a fantasy writer, is that about 90% of your story exists only in your head, with the other 10% making it to the page.  You, as the writer, know what’s going on; you know the connections between characters and events; you know the eventual culmination of everything you’re foreshadowing and plotting.  The readers know crap-all of that.  They only know the words that land on the page, not the shadows they cast in your mind.  So it’s easy to edit your work into incomprehensible opacity by removing things you think are too telling, but which in reality are the only hints your readers are getting about what’s going on.

Exile gave me that problem.  I was reading it and constantly working to puzzle out what the hell was going on–why the main character was suddenly so important, why anyone was interested in him, why people were suddenly giving him magic items and armies and loyalty and sex.  He was in a position a bit like my main character, Cob’s, in that he was an outsider in a society he knew very little about, so the author could easily have had him ask questions or at least think to himself ‘this is weird, I’ll try to figure this stuff out’.  Fish-out-of-water is an easy, easy way to feed necessary information to the reader just by the character’s attempts to understand.

But this main character never pursued any thread, just went ‘oh I’ll wait and see’ or ‘oh I guess this is what they do around here’.  He even had companions who knew he was a newbie to this territory (as he was otherwise pretending to be a local, and how do you even do that when you don’t know the first thing about the local politics and situation–when you don’t even ask?), and he barely ever asked them anything, and just sucked up what they told him like verbatim truth.

I was so ready for that easy acceptance to turn around and bite him on the ass.  I was hoping for it!  There seem to be seeds throughout the book that he’s being manipulated by one of his companions, and if that was happening, it would have made some of the later revelations so much more interesting — and so detrimental to him, so that the confrontation with the revealed villain would have been an actual freaking conflict.  But no, the companion turned out to be basically what he said he was, and then there were thirty pages of extraneous combat, and I closed the book with a resounding ‘meh’.

Some people seem to like it.  I just really suffered while reading it, thinking of all the places the plot could go, all the twists it could have had, all the detail that could have been added so that the place and the people would actually seem real.  None of it panned out, and I was really disappointed and deflated by the end.  It’s the first book in a series and I just have no interest in continuing it.  There is nothing in it that I have any desire to pursue.

But to relate that to the topic of overediting, it felt like either the author was trying to be too clever and mysterious, or some overzealous editor had taken a weedwhacker to it to remove anything extraneous — anything not directly related to the action or the dialogue.

It was just….  I don’t even know.  And then the useless characters, and the sudden godly involvement, and…

Sigh.  Obviously this is not a proper review, more of a rant or reflection on a writing issue.  But since it’s an issue I’ve struggled with and (hopefully) overcome, I do feel the need to address it where I see it.

This is why beta readers are so important.  They can point at a passage you’ve just disemboweled and say ‘I have no idea what’s happening here or why’, and if you’re wise, you’ll look at that part again and fix it.  That’s also why it’s important to have good beta readers, not just yes-men or -women — people that are confident enough in the genre and their own reading history and their relationship with you that they’re willing to tell you ‘stop and look at what you’re doing before you ruin it all’.

People that you trust to give you good advice, and whom you respect enough to look into their concerns and accept that you might be wrong.

I’d also recommend having a reader who doesn’t normally read your genre.  A former coworker offered to read my books (shout-out to Nancy!) even though she’s not a fantasy reader, and that outsider perspective helped me a lot in making sure I was writing coherently.  I don’t want to be a writer that you need a degree in Fantasy Readership to get through; I want to make sure that all my terms and concepts explain themselves during the course of the story.  One of the things I’d tell her whenever she was worried that she wasn’t understanding something just because she doesn’t read fantasy was that I have no control over who picks up my book — mine could be the first fantasy novel someone ever reads.  I don’t want to scare those people away by writing such an esoteric story that a non-fantasy reader can’t sink their teeth into it.

I also told her that since every fantasy world is different, every fantasy author needs to go through the process of defining their core concepts to their reader so that the reader — even if a fantasy veteran — understands the foundation of this new story.  A dragon in one series is not the same as a dragon in every other series; Our Monsters Are Different, as the trope goes.  It doesn’t take an info-dump of legendary proportions to get these differences across.  Sometimes they can be slid easily into conversation or the characters’ thoughts and observations.  But it is essential for the reader to know what you’re talking about when you say ‘monsters’ or ‘elves’ or ‘magic’, to know what it means in the context of this story, because your world and the worlds of your neighbors on the bookshelf are not the same at all.

So it was helpful to me when she pointed out things she didn’t understand, which I would then examine to see if I could explain better or more simply.  It was also extremely satisfying to me when she started to get into the story and the world, and caught on to some of the higher fantasy-concepts that I was worried I hadn’t explained well enough.  Five stars, would employ again.

To get back to my visitors, we’re working on Book 2 material right now — the cover art and the final beta — and I’m hoping that the two weeks they’re here will get us some good solid progress.  I’ve already changed a lot of material based on the nitpicker’s recommendations, including some incidences of really lazy characterization — one of those situations where I had put in the placeholder text and when I went back to it, I kind of said ‘meh, good enough’ and declined to fix it.

Maybe I didn’t know how to fix it at the time; maybe I had a shallow perspective on the character.  The latter is more likely, it being Lark.  She gives me trouble.  I vaguely know what I want from her, and I know where she has to be in the future, but she’s not a character that I’ve ever played seriously, and sometimes she fools me with her pretty-young-lady act so that I forget about the mind churning under the facade.  I started writing her like…not the comic relief but the complainer, the party girl, when she’s supposed to be the social leader and the voice of reason and diplomacy.  Well, she’s all of those but I was falling more on the shallow side to the point that I’d forgotten the things she actually cares about, her real goals and concerns.

So I’ve amended that and I’m really grateful to my nitpicking beta reader for pointing that out, because otherwise the scene would have been a horrible hole in her characterization.  And by thinking more deeply about her, I’ve figured out a better option for her future than the one I was planning.  It’s not all that off from the previous idea but it’s a lot more proactive.  She’s a minor character, yes, but that doesn’t mean she’ll just go with the flow forever.  She has more brass than that.

I think that’s enough random musing for the moment.  To cap the post off, some pictures of my book on our Staff Picks shelf at the library where I work!

staffpicks1 staffpicks2

 

 

The book is in our Local Collection (for self-published authors who live in the vicinity), which is something I think all libraries should have just to promote the creative folks in their community.

And it got checked out that same day.  Yay!

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About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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2 Responses to Beta Readers, Visiting and Otherwise

  1. tktrian says:

    “That’s also why it’s important to have good beta readers, not just yes-men or -women — people that are confident enough in the genre and their own reading history and their relationship with you that they’re willing to tell you ‘stop and look at what you’re doing before you ruin it all’.”
    Whenever we are beta-reading for others, it’s always terrible to pick apart someone’s hard work and then we’re crapping ourselves, wondering if they’ll return the favor with interest when we send something of ours to be beta-read. But it’s better to be honest, even if it hurts, because it’s going to hurt more to release a manuscript (or self-pubbed work) out into the world with possible mistakes, confusing scenes etc. just because the beta-reader didn’t have the heart to point it all out.

    • One of my best beta-readers drives me a little bit crazy with her nitpicking, but once I stop being defensive about the work and start thinking about what she said, I usually end up tweaking things for the better. It’s really important to listen — to get past yourself and your protective feelings toward the work — and actually understand what the readers are experiencing. Because it’s not what you, as the writer, get from the story.

      And yeah, really important to extend that courtesy to others you beta for. They need to know when what they’re doing strikes you wrong, because it might be completely unintentional. You don’t want to set someone up to fail because you were afraid to point out the big plot-hole, etc.

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