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.

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