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Game, 101 - Beta Reading.


I could be wrong, but I believe there's a Hemmingway quote that says, "your first draft is shit." Do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, since I don't have a problem with it.

The idea is that in order to get a work of premium quality into the hands of the reader, the first draft is raw material needs to be refined and polished. Tightened. All the good stuff. And all the things an author should be doing before anyone else gets to see the work. Sounds good on paper, right? Except for the part where the author may be too close to the work to see what's actually wrong with it. What can help at this point is a fresh pair of eyes - a beta reader. Someone who can pick up on the typos you've missed, the plotholes you've walked over, the continuity errors you've sailed through. You get the idea.

Everyone's got their process, so I'll introduce you to mine. All part and parcel of Game, 101.

1. THE FIRST DRAFT. This, for me, is the bread-and-butter, the all-important, the bottom line, the alpha-omega. Because you can put it in whatever flowery terms you want; "I'm working on a new book" or "This one is going to be about" or "Wait til you see this one" - all of which is, well, all well and good except for one thing:

Do you have a FINISHED draft - yes or no?

And it's that simple. Such a basic stat doesn't lie.


Note that I didn't say, 'is it a tight and polished draft?' - after all, this entry's about beta reading. But we're starting at the beginning of that - which is the finished draft. As in the whole story, regardless of how sloppy, plotholed and shitty it is. But if you're an author that values your product/audience/name/whatever noun you want to put here, you need to tighten that draft. And because I write my drafts at high speed my work is littered with typos. Continuity errors. Plotholes. So I want to read through it again and clean all of that shit up. Will I do this as soon as I've finished the story? Hell, no. Because:

a. I've just written a story so I need a break (where I can down my Jack and Coke from my 'Get Shit Done' glass ...and I really need a 'Got Shit Done' glass) and

b. taking a break from the story means I can go back to it with fresh/er eyes.

How long a break do I take before I go back to it? Maybe the better part of a week or two. And when I DO go back to it, the basic clean-up may take a fair amount of time. But remember that I'm going back to clean up a finished draft. Which is, for me, a damned sight easier and faster than trying to write a tidy draft as I go. So once I've tidied the draft, is it good enough? No. Because I need more pairs of eyes than just mine.

2. THOSE WHO BETA READ FOR ME. These are the people who see my first draft once basic clean-up is done and offer constructive criticism on any and everything; setting, narrative, pace, realism, characterisation, etc. This is why basic clean-up is so important - because you want your beta reader's work to be as easy and enjoyable as possible. How is that possible if you present them with the sloppiest shit that you couldn't even do a basic clean-up on?

They can also catch the typos, plotholes, and continuity errors that I might have missed. What's important for me in a beta reader isn't so much that they like my work, but that they understand it - that they 'get' the story I'm trying to tell and how I'm trying to tell it. Where do 'you' find beta readers? Look among your friends and peers, for a start. Chances are that if they 'get' you, they'll 'get' your work. I have go-to beta readers, my friend Terri (MVC - Most Valuable Critter) along with author/essayist/reviewer Kit Power, in particular. These are a couple of people who I love to bits and never fail to bring good work to the table.

So while I've finished writing a story, it'll be days or weeks before I start editing or writing another one. What do I do in that time? Relax, for one. Read, watch TV or film, play bass, go out, etc. What else do I do?

3. I BETA READ FOR OTHERS. I'm aware that whoring myself out to beta read may surprise a number of people - and certainly surprises a number of my peers when I tell them this is something I do readily and willingly. Why? Let me break it down for you:

a. IT KEEPS ME SHARP. When I'm looking at someone else's work, I can do this with a keen and critical eye. Realism, pacing, setting, etc. - the whole nine. The more I do this, the more attuned I am to what to look for and excuse or excise in my writing. Generally, when I beta read for people, I'll pick the two biggest elements in terms of what I feel needs improving on the most, e.g. realism, dialogue, etc. Addressing the biggest elements, I feel, will lead to the biggest and quickest wins for that author. In addition to calling out what isn't done so well, I'll call out what is: giving the beta read more balance.

b. IT HELPS ME 'AUDITION' NEW BETA READERS. This is not the only thing I look at in a beta reader, but their work is part of the indication as to whether they'd be a good fit to read and critique my work. Do they have the same creative sensibilities when it comes to pacing? Are their scenes eerie or blatant? Supernatural? Psychological? Inventive? Etc.

c. IT HELPS MY PEERS. Not everyone can be so altruistic. There's the time aspect; some people don't have so much of it. As per the saying, 'your mileage may vary.' But, it helps others. And, while I don't mind helping others to a point (because that's how I'm wired), I would prefer to get back to my own writing. Which means...

d. IT ENCOURAGES ME TO WORK FASTER ALL AROUND. This, for me, is a good thing. Because, as prolific as I might be, I don't have nearly enough work in the marketplace and I sure as hell don't have the reach/acknowledgement I want with said work. So because I might beta read more than some of my peers, it also means...

e. I'M MORE LIKELY TO GET A BETA READ FOR MY OWN WORK. Which comes in handy, especially if you're some kind of prolific. Note that when I get a beta read, I'm always grateful for the time and effort taken on it, but it doesn't mean I automatically accept all of the critique - no. I'll cherry-pick from that criticism so it helps me deliver the best version of my work in line with my vision. After all, I wrote the story, so, yeah.

Note that when I do beta read, I'll take on work which I can comfortably do. It's not my priority and I'm sure as hell not going to run myself into the ground doing it. But I do reap a degree of benefit whoring myself out, as it were.

There you have it. Beta-reading game. 101.

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