Guest Post: Peter Orullian
Writers are the worst judge of their own fiction. And that works both ways. Meaning, often a writer’s story that he thinks is amazing… just isn’t; likewise, something he’s written that he thinks is crap… is the awesome.
A beta-reader is a person who reads that early draft of something the writer has written, and offers commentary and critique.
Some writers don’t use beta-readers. And I wouldn’t say a writer can’t succeed without them. But because I believe writers are the worst judge of their own work, I’ve come to feel beta-readers are worth their weight in books. The good ones, anyway.
See, all beta-readers aren’t created equal. Some are little more than fans who want the book as soon as they can get their hands on it. A good beta-reader, on the other hand, can help a writer see the flaws—as well as the successful bits—in a manuscript.
Often, this amounts to the fact that the writer is seeing the full story in his head, and so he fills in the gaps that aren’t actually on the page. So, because the beta-reader doesn’t have the story in his head, he can point out the absences. And, like I said, also help a writer see where the story is really singing.
So, now comes my story about one particular beta-reader. Steve Diamond.
Some context, first, though.
Steve hated the original version of THE UNREMEMBERED. I don’t know this because I read the review. I know it because he sent me an email letting me know in advance of him publishing that review that it really wasn’t his favorite book. We traded a few civil emails on the topic, and then fell out of correspondence for quite some time.
Then, a few years later, when I finished book two, TRIAL OF INTENTIONS, I got to thinking about who I could trust to give me a good read of the manuscript. I contacted a few people I know, and a few I didn’t. I’ll tell you that these various folks—like I said above—are not all equally good beta-readers. Not by a long stretch. Writers learn, over time, who the good ones are. And they cull the herd, so to speak.
As an aside, let me explain how that mostly goes. It’s not that the writer—not the ones who care about improving both the book and their craft, anyway—is looking for “yes men.” What the writer needs is someone who’ll give honest feedback aimed at improving the book. Some beta-readers take the opportunity to try and outsmart the writer. It’s as if they decide that the fact that they’ve been asked to read the book necessarily means they’re “all that.” And typically their feedback smacks of their own reading preferences and bias.
A good beta-reader is looking at how the book in front of them—regardless of whether they actually like the writer, or the genre, or the story—can be improved to be the best book it can be. This is a rare gift. And my experience is that many of the beta-readers who believe they’re good at it, aren’t.
Now, it’s also true that some beta-readers aren’t the “hard-hitting” feedback type. They’re general readers who primarily give simple reader reactions. These are valuable, too. But you don’t need a hundred such beta-readers.
The other rule of thumb—cribbed from Stephen King—is that if you give your book to ten beta-readers and all ten come back with varying feedback, ignore it all. At that point, you’re just hearing individual tastes. But when several of the ten call out the same stuff, you’re advised to take a closer look at those bits.
So, back to our story…
When I created my list of beta-readers, I had Steve Diamond on it. And I reached out to ask him if he’d do it. I think if he’d been a denture wearer, he’d have dropped his teeth. Why, I imagine him thinking, in the name of all that’s good and holy would you want me to read your book, after my feeling about your first novel? I think in reality what he said was, “Are you sure?”
My answer has two parts. The first has to do with what I said above: I wanted an honest read from someone who I thought I could trust to focus on how the book could be improved, not what he wanted the book to be. The second part of the answer is simple: I want to continually improve as a writer. This second part matters to me. And real conversation with people who care about books and the craft, and who can have those conversations without sounding high-minded or sanctimonious—unlike some of the not-so-good beta-readers I described above—well, those are the people I seek out.
I’d heard from a friend that Steve might fit this bill. And he agreed to read TRIAL OF INTENTIONS. He gave me some great feedback on the book, calling attention to things I’d intended—not to make a bad pun—but just hadn’t gotten down on the page. But more than that, he and I had long conversations over certain elements in the book. Those were wonderful, protracted phone calls, when I was in the deeps of revision.
Then, just after I’d wrapped up TRIAL OF INTENTIONS, something happened. I got the chance to do an Author’s Edition of THE UNREMEMBERED. I called up Steve and asked if he was game to re-read the book. It’s hard to tell whether he grimaced—because, as I say, it hadn’t been his favorite book—or if that sound in the back of his throat was something more predatory. Whichever it was, he agreed.
He couldn’t start right away, though, and I couldn’t wait. So, I got going on my own revision of the book. By the time Steve started reading, I was nine chapters in. This is important, because as he’d send chunks of the book, I’d laugh, because most of his objections were in passages that I’d already cut from the book entirely. And in other places, my own eye had sharpened, so that we were often pinpointing the same weaknesses.
The point here is that if a writer pays close attention to good feedback—not that you accept it all whole cloth—but, you know, really pays attention… he’ll improve. And that may have been the most rewarding part of the process.
Of course, Steve pointed out things I’d overlooked—many of those I worked on, some I left because they were as I’d intended. But the larger lesson in all this, for me, is that a good beta-reader can have an impact beyond a single book. But like I say, that’s a rarity. And not, frankly, what a writer is looking for in every beta-reader. Again, because sometimes you want simply to hear their reader reactions. That’s valuable stuff, too. With other beta-readers, though, you get more.
So, when the ARCs for Author’s Edition of THE UNREMEMBERED went out, and Elitist Book Reviews got a copy, Steve obviously couldn’t read the book. Conflict of interest and whatnot. What did he do, then? He assigned it to an even harsher critic than himself. Just great, I was thinking. But, I’m happy to report that the new reviewer liked the book. A lot.
Seems a happy ending, no?