Monday, February 27, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 41 -- The Need to be READ...

Wow, my post no. 40 really stirred up some discussion! Bring it on!

I think I understand why that article inspired a lot of commentary. The urge to be read is something most writers feel. Writers like Emily Dickinson who are content to write totally or mostly for themselves, with no urge to share their work, are in the minority. After all, what is writing but the urge to reach out, to communicate with our fellow beings? To entertain them, tell them a story, educate them, enlighten them, frighten them, gladden their hearts and minds...for the vast majority of writers, this is WHY we write. To share. To communicate. To reach out to our fellow beings.

But as my post 40 discussed, sometimes writers choose poor venues in their efforts to be read. I've seen writers pop into Aol chatrooms begging all and sundry to "read my story! Please! Please!" There's an edge of real desperation there. Needless to say, this is not the best strategy to gain readers and useful feedback, any more than posting on those "blind leading the blind" sites.

So...what are some better ways to be read, short of being published and having your book on the shelves in the local Borders?

Most professional writers I know solve this problem by having one or more trustworthy BETA READERS. What's a beta reader? Well, obviously, since I'm the first reader on anything I write, I am the ALPHA reader. My "beta readers" are the second readers. My editor at Harper would then become my "gamma reader" and you, the reading public, are the "omega" or the "final" readers.

I have two or three beta readers I regularly call upon to read a book, or, once in a while, a section of a book, to give me feedback on how well I've told the story. Victoria is actually one of my beta readers. My other usual beta reader is my longtime friend and collaborator, Kathleen O'Malley. Both Vic and Kathy have good storytelling instincts, and are profressional writers. They read the book, praise me when I've done things right, but, FAR MORE IMPORTANTLY, they let me know when I have goofed up. That way, I can fix the problem(s) in the manuscript before it goes off to my editor in New York.

I am lucky that both Vic and Kathy are professionals, and can read with an experienced, critical eye. Such beta readers are to be treasured, trust me. They are NEVER to be subjected to fits of sulking, outthrust lips, defensiveness, or any spells of "golden-words syndrome." (This is an ailment suffered by many beginning writers. The ones who succeed recover from it, and are glad to have done so.)

Where can you find a good beta reader? Well, your writers' group is a good place to start your search. You'll need to look for someone on roughly the same level as you are, who is as serious as you are about writing well enough to be published. You'll need to learn to ask the right questions to help "train" your beta reader in helping you to identify problems. Orson Scott Card, in one of his excellent books on writing (I think it's the book he did on writing science fiction and fantasy, you can probably get it used, and I highly recommend both of his books) describes how he trained his wife to act as his beta reader.

Obviously, being a good beta reader requires some work on the part of the reader. One esstential component of a good beta reader is that he or she must FIRST be a READER. Trying to train your engineer spouse whose favorite reading material, like Scotty's, happens to be "technical journals" is probably a lost cause. The beta reader must also be able to be objective about what they're reading. Generally speaking, Mom is not a very good candidate either, (except for Victoria's Mom who happens to be a professional editor in New York!).

Why, you ask, should anyone take the time and trouble to become your beta reader? Aha! Well you may ask! They can do it for a variety of reasons, but unless the person loves you and has a vested interest in your career (as Mrs. Card does), the main reason is that YOU, in turn, will read THEIR manuscript and do unto them as they have done unto you. I serve as a beta reader for both Kathy and Victoria, in my turn.

Tit for tat. Back-scratching. Beta reading.

It's important not to have too many beta readers. Nothing is more confusing to a writer than getting five or six conflicting comments on a scene in a story or book. Three "betas" is probably plenty. (I generally have two.) I also have a specialized beta reader who reads my stuff for military accuracy. Steve doesn't comment much on the characterization, the style, etc., that's not his baliwick. But the battle scenes...!! The sword fights! The fist fights! The cavalry charges! The spaceship battle formations! Oh, yesssss...Steve has a LOT to say about those.

I think by now you're getting the picture. I'd be happy to discuss the matter, or make a second post on the subject if y'all feel one is needed.

Stay warm, keep your powder dry, and write on!

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos
www.accrispin.com

2 comments:

Sam said...

It's nice to have a good Beta reader (I call her my critique partner) she's absolutely essential to my writing. Lucky are those who find them!

James Goodman said...

I love my Beta readers, they have brought helped me to take leaps and bounds in improving my craft. I can't imagine where I would be without them.

Great post...