Beta-Reading and Not Being a Nice Person: A Primer

The biggest and best lesson I ever took away from the writer’s group I attended years ago was this: Don’t be the nice guy.

This would seem counter intuitive, I guess.  People usually attend a writer’s group to find a welcome space for a creative endeavor, a place where they can “be” writers–whatever the fuck that means–and to seek encouragement.

The writer’s group I attended between 2006 and 2010 did not subscribe to that theory.  Thank god.

See, this writer’s group had a simple theory behind it–if you’re bringing work to the table, you ultimately want to submit that work to an editor for acceptance and payment.  Most editors are overworked and few are paid for their time.  They can’t and won’t hold your hand through the minor and major reasons why they rejected you.

This is where the writer’s group came in.  The eight or ten people–most of them writers, a few who have edited things, one a librarian–put on their editors-at-large caps and pulled out their knives.  They cut your story down–nicely, but, if something didn’t worked, they told you in exact detail, no pulled punches.  Occasionally, this yielded some mean comments, to the extent that someone, privately, had to be told to cool it, but not often.  At all times, the writer had to sit there and listen and only ask questions for clarification.  They could not argue.  They were told this from the jump, as well as the fact that, as with editors of anthologies and magazines, these were just the opinions of that person.  Take or discard what you wanted.

But the important thing was the criticism–the hard, specific point any one person made within the piece being examined.

There are a lot of problems with writer’s groups, particularly when it comes to perception and reception–the feeling of producing so you feel like you’re contributing, keeping in check your own views on writing versus the actual writer’s, the tendency to criticize something on the fact that you may not read that specific genre–but I never left that lesson behind.

Don’t be nice.  If there’s a problem with a piece, don’t dress it up and obscure it with (almost certainly over-extended) niceties, don’t think about the writer’s feelings.  In all honesty, fuck the writer’s feelings.  The only thing that matters is the story–what the writer is trying to get at.

So, I don’t beta-read for many people.  I actively avoid it, and, when approached–as I periodically am–I always wonder if they want the hard shit, or they want the equivalent of a pat on the head and a “good job!”  I get it–artists are neurotic as fuck about what they do because it is inherently personal.  No matter how hard or punk rock a person tries to be, we’re all knees-shaking middle school boys about to step onto the dance floor for the first time and we’re all terrified someone’s going to laugh.  I get that.  I’m like that, myself.  Art makes everyone thin-skinned.

But, when I beta-read, I don’t care.

I have a cadre of tight beta-readers–people whose opinions I trust to be honest (if unpleasant) and people who can trust I will do the same.  If I make one of them cry or laugh or feel something, it’s a pretty good barometer.

Recently, I was asked to beta-read Damien Angelica Walters’s 2nd story collection Cry Your Way Home, due out this September from Apex.  Damien and I go way back and we’ve been beta-reading each other for years.  She wrote the introduction to my book Bones Are Made to be Broken; I ended up as an oblique easter egg in a novel.

Beta-reading a collection is not the same as a single story; you’re not looking for mistakes or problems with characterization, flow, or development.  Instead, you’re looking at the overall flow, the balance of this-type-of-story versus that-type-of-story so that the entire book feels cohesive.

This is not as easy as it sounds (and also why I don’t actively pursue editing jobs as much as I did years ago; too emotionally exhausting).

A lot of the pieces in Damien’s book are well known and I’ve beta-ed them before; reading them again was like visiting with old friends.  She had a list of maybes, along with a list of definites and wanted my view on both.   Knowing Damien’s style, I girded myself for gut punches and still fell for them–as I hope you will too.  Sometimes reading Damien’s work is like being transported to a slightly-fantastical place while under the influence of a mild fever–you can recognize a lot of your world, but the odd parts are even more enhanced due to your mental state.  That’s how Damien bites you.

So, I read the pieces, one by one–starting with the pieces she would, quote, “die if they weren’t included” in order to get a feel for what she was looking for.  And then, having that idea in place, moved on to the maybes.  These were stories that, if it was my book and they were my pieces, I would cut.

This isn’t easy and here’s the hard truth of beta-reading for the beta-reader (which is nothing more than an unnamed editor): you don’t keep everything you like.

This is the truth of writing, as well.  Sometimes you cut the line you love, merge the character you most identified with, streamlined this subplot that you feel added depth to the narrative.  There are a host of reasons why, but the best and only reason, really, is that it helps the book.

To do that as a beta-reader means you have to say, “I like this.  Cut it, anyway.  And here’s why.”  If that’s hard for your own shit, have fun doing it to someone you respect and love and admire.

But you do it because you were asked to and, ultimately, you want your colleague to do well.  Art is not a zero-sum game, and never will be.  I want Damien or anyone I beta-read to succeed.  I want the story or the book to be read and appreciated over and over again.  It doesn’t matter if it’s my work or not.  Art is just as personal to the audience as it is to the creator.

So, I read Damien’s books–the definites, the maybes, the old friends–and made my suggestions in as clear and definitive view as I could.  I hated doing it and thanked the gods that she concurred with many of my opinions (Damien’s sharp as fuck), and, like with her novel Paper Tigers last year–you’re going to want this goddamned book.  I hope Apex gets their pre-order up soon because, when it does,  order the damned thing.  You will not regret it.

Also, go buy Paper Tigers.

And, what the hell, go buy Bones Are Made to be Broken.

Cheers.

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