Advice On Beta Readers – Yes, They CAN Be “Too Harsh”

This is a long one, folks.

As writers, we prepare ourselves for inevitable truckloads of criticism. This may come from editors, agents, family members, or some jerk on Good Reads. It’s important to develop thick skin, and to realize that harsh truths help us improve.  I don’t believe that writing “what’s in your soul” automatically deserves publication, or that “there’s a reader out there for everyone.” I believe in formulas, literary traditions, and that being skilled in your craft is what makes you worth reading outside of your friend circle.

That being said, “too much criticism” can happen. And so can wrong criticism.

For my whole life, my dad has been the patron saint of red pens. Even when I was 11, he wasn’t afraid to rip apart what I’d written. Honestly, he’s probably the reason I never finished anything until I started writing fanfic. Whenever I got excited about a new WIP, or gave him the first couple chapters to read, he popped that balloon of joy and brought me down to the realism of “hey, this plot makes no sense and your characters suck.”

As an adult, I felt I could handle his harsh words. More than handle them, I felt like I needed them. That I’m ready for them. And as I’ve been writing proficiently for a while now, I felt like I’ve escaped many obvious pitfalls he noticed in my childhood writing.

However, as I just received Dad’s 100% negative and perplexing critique of my first 30 pages – and the notice that he’s basically given up reading the book and he’ll probably be skimming the rest – I came to a disappointing and important realization: just because criticism is harsh doesn’t make it good.

For example – my father claims to “rarely invest mental energy in ensembles where six politically correct and diverse characters do the work of one protagonist.” That is obviously a matter of taste, but he makes that claim like there’s something wrong with stories like Independence Day, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, or The Goonies. Shoot, even one of my –our – favorite movies is It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. These are the stories that shaped me as a storyteller, and keeping that tradition alive is not a flaw. It’s not even a choice. It’s the heartbeat of my work.

Not to mention the  overt sexism, racism, and homophobia in such a statement. My protagonist is a half-Iranian gay man. His sister is half-Iranian. One of my characters has a severe leg disability and walks with a cane. Another one of my protagonists is an attractive, seductive woman who is just as powerful, good, and important as the virginal sister character. First of all, representation matters. Period. Second of all, these aren’t arbitrary characteristics thrown in for diversity’s sake. In the case of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, that’s just who they are in the lore. In the case of my human protagonists, Connor and Clara, their diversity is realistic (rarely is an American just ‘white’ these days) and both their heritage and Connor’s sexuality tie into their character arcs. Connor was a Special Forces soldier who got hit with the consequences of DADT. It’s not exactly the type of gay character that’s often represented, and that fall from grace is what kicks his story into motion. Additionally, their mixed religious heritage contributes to Connor and Clara’s open-mindedness about the mythological figures they encounter.

So I must realize that it’s not my story’s problem if Dad wants to make one all-powerful 45-year-old white dude save the day by himself. I am interested in writing about the dynamics and relationships between people, not just a single flat hero solving some plot points. This is something I know I must stay true to.

Thus, beneath the cut, I have a few more words of advice when it comes to picking beta readers – and how to be a good beta reader.

1. Make sure your beta readers are open to diverse characters if you have them. You’d hope that people can look past their own prejudices in order to be objective (to my mother’s credit, despite disliking Connor’s gayness, she was able to ignore it and finish/enjoy the book). But if your beta is going to have a temper tantrum at reading characters with a different phenotype, they will lose all objectivity in their read. The beta will read your characters with antagonism, and hate them no matter how redeemable and relatable they are.

2. Be very clear with your betas about what kind of editing you want them to do. I intentionally omitted copyeditors and English majors from this round because the book isn’t ready for them yet. But if your betas stray – like my Dad’s perpetual line-editing and grousing about writing style, despite the fact that I don’t want my style edited in such an early draft – then you should probably ditch them. You are the writer. You are the boss. You get to decide what you want help with, and your betas should respect which opinions are helpful and which are unwarranted. About 90% of my Dad’s complaints are about style, and I’ve told him twice that’s not what I need at this moment.

3. Your beta should be excited about your book. Not just excited about helping you, but excited about the project itself. As I’ve said before, my friend Greg is the perfect beta for Paradisa. He gets it, he likes it, and he offers fun/constructive ideas for change without getting offended if I leave them. Yet, I knew going into this that Dad does not like fantasy, and he apparently doesn’t like ensemble adventures either, so he’s the last person who should be reading Paradisa. I know that he’s excited that I’m writing and he does want to help, but that’s not enough. Your beta needs to be able to connect with the book, get excited about it, and enjoy it enough to critique you with love.

If your beta hates the genre and the book, their advice will not be useful. They will be so obsessed with making your book into something they would normally read (“cut the wizards, add more literary passages, throw in a Dean Koontz prologue”) that they might as well go write their own book. Bringing me to…

4. Your beta should not have an ego. They should not presume that they know how to tell the story better than you do. They should trust that they’re in capable hands with you, the author. It’s obvious that Dad is “fighting” the book. He complained about the third-person narrator ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by getting inside of the character’s heads, when my book is written in third person limited. That’s what it’s supposed to do, and it is consistent from page 1 to page 155. He keeps trying to steer it towards third person omniscient, when that’s not what the book is.

5. Your beta should not be a Yes-man. Alternatively, it isn’t helpful to have a beta pat you on the head, tell you that your book is going to sell millions of copies, and have nothing constructive to say. It’s good to have cheerleaders, but leave these people out of your editing process. Or, pick critical cheerleaders, like my buds Greg and Alyssa, who will enjoy your book but still offer tips.

6. They should have something positive to say. It’s okay if they don’t like your book. Perhaps they were excited about it at first, but trudge along and decide it  isn’t for them. Perhaps there are a handful of fixable errors that ruined the experience for them. But everyone has something nice to say, even about the works of art they hate the most. I hated Black Swan and Looper, but I can still praise Natalie Portman’s acting and Looper’s slick cinematography. I can also recognize that it’s a matter of taste, and most people enjoy those films just fine. The fact that Dad has nothing nice to say is just unrealistic, and it makes his critique feel forced and inauthentic.

7. There is a difference between being brutal and being critical. This is probably the cherry on top of my Dad’s problematic editing – he is unnecessarily mean. He is cruel and sarcastic and nasty just for the sake of it. I’m not sure if he’s trying to get me ‘used’ to the brutality of an agent or editor, but I’ll tell you something – most agents I’ve encountered via twitter, WordPress, etc, are very nice people. Their form letters are polite. If they decide to offer you a partial or a full, they’re as excited to read your book as you are to send it. On top of that, agents and editors are professionals. I don’t care if they’re brutal – I will take a much deeper look at their advice than Dad’s, because they’re professionals in the literary industry and they know what they’re talking about.

8. Show the good betas appreciation. On the whole, my beta readers have been absolutely fantastic, and I owe so much to their help this month. I plan on rewarding them with some sort of gift, and by offering my own beta services to them. Good betas are hard to find – obviously! – and if you want to build long-lasting relationships with them, treat them with respect and patience. On top of that, expand your beta bubble by asking your betas if they’ve got friends interested in your book. My mother and Alyssa have both found a few people interested in reading for Round Two, and it’s great to have objective readers who don’t know me personally :)

Alas, this is the first time I’ve offered a draft to readers, so it’s all a learning process! And hopefully my trials will help you when you pick your own beta readers!

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