Thursday, November 16, 2017
The Delights of Beta Reading
I don't have a long list of hobbies. Mostly they revolve around words in some way. My work is words and my play is often words, as well. Houston, we might have a problem. (What is play, Precious? What is RELAX??)
Near the very top of that list is beta reading. Through beta reading I've gained several friends– including my two best friends– and seen the deeper side of many people, the side not readily shown to the public. I rarely have the time for it that I'd like anymore (it's called being an adult), but I still alpha read for my three favorite contemporary writers and occasionally beta read for others.
But why? What is it about beta/alpha reading that makes me love it so much, even when I'm so busy with other things that I can only fit bits and pieces of it in for weeks at a time? What kept me going from offering to beta a ridiculous number of books one year to gradually whittling down the list to the people whose work I most love or about which I am most curious?
A love for stories and for storytelling runs strong in my blood, and I exult in releasing that through writing. But there is a unique and powerful joy in watching others do that too. Especially if the author is a favorite of mine. There is an indescribable wonder in being able to give an author feedback that will help them. There is an elation in watching a book come out in full published splendor, knowing where it began and seeing how it has been refined to be shown now in shining glory.
It's not all fun and games and cheering someone on. It's not all sunshine and rainbows and free books to read. It’s actually a very serious charge. Each book is a part of their author's soul. So when they hand it to you, they are entrusting you with a part of themselves. Handle with Care might as well be written all over it in red Sharpie marker. Through their story, you see a part of them that is not always readily seen elsewhere.
It took me a few years to settle into a comfortable style that combined my preferences with what authors need. Early on, I tried too hard and wasn’t honest enough. I saw the flaws but tried to only focus on the good. Feedback should DEFINITELY highlight the good parts, but if there are areas that need work, those should be pointed out too, else the beta/alpha reading won't be helpful enough. It needs to be honest and yet encouraging.
Sometimes, especially with books that have a good core but the execution is sadly lacking, it’s hard to figure out how to be honest without being harsh. It’s also hard when I love a book and know that it really is good, to make sure the author knows I'm not just 'gushing'. There’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about something I love, but for an author to know I seriously examined and analyzed the work, the love has to be backed up with specifics over what I liked and WHY I liked it so much. I have to have rational explanations to be helpful.
It's also frustrating when the feedback you gave seems not to have helped the author at all, or worse and most frustrating, when you spent hours working on feedback for someone's book and the author never responds even to say whether they liked it or not/it was helpful/it wasn't helpful. *cue irritated beta reader who privately declares never to read for that author again*
Above all, the thing I love most about reading or critiquing other authors' work is the sheer delight of helping an author see their work through the eyes of a reader, and then to watch them bring their work to completion.
That’s what started me on the road of beta reading, and then alpha reading. (It's also what prompted me to transition into the world of critiquing [more analytical and technical than beta reading] as one of my editorial services.)
It's hard work sometimes, and definitely a challenging balance to try to walk most of the time, but the work is more than repaid when someone tells you that your feedback was invaluable, when someone comes BACK to you and specifically asks you to read something else they wrote because what you did before helped, or when you hold in your hands a book you first saw as a half-feathered first draft, and it's fully feathered now and ready to fly.
That's when it's time to grab your friends by the throat and tell them, ‘YOU REALLY NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.’
That's honestly the best part of it all.
Do you beta or alpha read for authors? What's your favorite part about it?