This is a follow up to the Tips for Betas Part 1 that was posted to this community on the 20th of June.
Happy Fourth for all the Americans out there, and I hope the rest of you are having a good Friday! For the second part of my Feature on Working with Betas I'm going to delve a little further into the relationship between the writer and the beta. It's a two way street, a give and take relationship that requires both sides to be invested in the work to get the best finished product. What follows are some notes taken from my years of being both beta and writer of fanfiction and original fiction, and some information on critiquing in general.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship
Finding a beta can be hard. Most people seem to settle for a friend — someone whose writing they admire or someone to whom they're just comfortable showing the fruit of their efforts — but not everyone has that sort of peer base available. If a person doesn't have someone readily at hand to tie up and keep in their closet for beta work, that person is often sent to the far reaches of LJ to look for a fandom friendly individual willing to help a complete stranger, and feeling out a new person in a situation like that can be hard. There are places that a writer may go specifically for fandom friendly beta help. One of the more general ones is fandom_betas, but there are usually fandom specific comms, like sg1betas for Stargate SG-1 and sga_beta for Stargate Atlantis.
The relationship between a beta and a writer is a delicate one, which makes it important to set up the rules ahead of time. This is not only imperative in the latter situation, but also in the former. As a prospective beta you may feel the pressure to keep the writer happy. Especially if you're dependent on the writer for weekend entertainment or rides to work. Find out exactly what the writer wants before you read the story. Flattery will likely get you many things, but if a writer ends up posting a story that you've betaed and finds out from other comments that there are still many things that could be done to improve the story, you most likely won't be asked for help again.
For the writer's part, it is good to know ahead of time the kinds of things the story needs help with. A writer can think the work is a masterpiece, but there's usually still at least one or two things that might need a quirk here or there or a beta would not have been requested. It is good for the writer to keep the beta informed of the things that might need help. This can be done in the form of questions like these:
1. Does the nonlinear style work?
2. Any direction for fixing the Daniel and Mitchell interaction while keeping an appropriate level of tension? (There seems to be something off there.)
3. Does the ending work? (I'm a little concerned that it should be, uh, happier.)
It's important as well that the beta style matches a person's writing style. Someone who writes novel length stories and wants an excruciatingly indepth beta will be disappointed if the manuscript comes back with minor notes. Likewise, someone who is only interested in spelling, punctuation, and grammar (SPaG) may be offended if the beta sends their work back with a list of questions a mile long basically ripping a hole in every inch of their plot. Find out if your writer wants you to be tough on the story. Yes, toughness often makes for the best finished product, but it's also important to remember that along with a story, you're dealing with an ego, and those are sometimes easily damaged if the writer is not prepared.
In setting the rules you should also find out what the writer's preferred beta style and format is. Will you be co-editing documents in Google docs? Do both the beta and the writer have Word so that files can be easily transferred? The beta and writer should also talk about whether they will be transferring the file back and forth, or if both parties should be on hand for real time information relay. I have done beta work for people who did not want to hand over the entire manuscript and would rather I sit with them as they IM the story to me in chunks and perfect each paragraph one at a time. This is fine for minutiae in SPaG, diction and canon, but makes it difficult for a beta to look for stylistic inconsistencies or the overall story arc. Personally, I prefer to have the entire work in front of me so I can read it several times before forming concrete opinions and mapping character development. In the future, I would turn down a request to work in real time. The final product will be a reflection on the beta as well as the writer, so it is important to set the rules early and stick to them so that the process goes smoothly for everyone involved.
The First Blush
The key to working through the honeymoon period in a beta/writer relationship is communication. Once you've laid out the rules for the process it is imperative that both sides feel comfortable in being able to voice their opinions and ask questions. Some of the more common questions betas should ask themselves when deciding what to notify the writer about are:
Did the plot make sense?
When dealing with canons or created worlds that work in much the same way as the one we inhabit every day, it will be easy to notice if something in the plot goes awry. By all means, let your writer know that the giant alligator that erupts from the bay half way through the story and eats fifteen people and then is never mentioned again is out of place and disruptive to the narrative. However, when dealing with canons that include elements of the surreal anyway, it's a little harder and may require several back and forth conversations. If the writer is working in the Mighty Boosh universe, for instance, it's not a detraction from the story if the green grocer happens to be an alien shaman in disguise. This is something that the beta needs to know going in, and is another reason why it is important for a beta to be familiar with the canon in which the writer is working.
Anachronisms and Alternate Universes
Alternate Universes (aka AUs) can be a touchy subject for everyone involved. Some people feel that there's only so far you can remove a character from their universe before you might as well be writing original fiction. Others can't push the boundaries of characterization far enough. Make sure that you and your writer see eye to eye on this issue before you try and give indepth crit on characterization that could alter the entire vision for the work.
Anachronisms are another piece of literary technique that should be talked about before hand. Some genres, like steampunk, are built around anachronism and trying to bend one time period to the technological abilities of another. Sometimes anachronisms are just quirks of the writer, but it's important that they have a place in the story or they will detract from the narrative and can confuse the reader. Placing Shakespeare in the Victorian era instead of the Elizabethan can be a premise for AU if it is the central conflict of the story, but if Will appears in the story in all the trappings of the 1800s and it's never explained or even addressed the reader will most likely assume that there was shoddy research done on the writer's part.
Is there a hook, conflict and resolution?
Otherwise known as the reasons WHY the audience will want to read the story. I'm as big a fan of existentialist literature as the next person, but just because I happened to enjoy Waiting for Godot doesn't mean the average reader will want to sit through a fic in which Crowley and Aziraphale do nothing but stare at each other over their empty bottles of wine at the Ritz for 20,000 words while the writer displays a keen, Dostoevsky-an sense of detail. This also relates to pacing. The author could have written a wonderful story in which our angel and demon once again save the world from itself, but if the writer throws that 20,000 word bit in the middle it will pull the reader out of the story and take away from the impact of the piece. Not every writer is going to be willing to go back to the drawing board on something that just isn't working, and as a beta you can't control that. You can give the writer the best information you have though, in a tactful manner.
Telling and not showing. / Can narration be cut down?
In trying to emulate a style that they have seen in the past, new writers can be unnecessarily wordy or repeat information in loops. This takes away from the pace of the story and will leave even otherwise impeccable dialogue as the glue lost between large chunks of text.
When I was taking creative writing classes in college I joked with one professor that he needed to stamp 'show not tell' across my forehead backwards so that I'd be reminded of it every time I saw myself. Don't be afraid to do this to your writer. If you run across large blocks of exposition, suggest ways that the writer would be able to work that information into the story through the voices and actions of the characters.
Another instance of show not tell is the info dump. Writers often know a lot about the world they are creating or working in, and because of this it's hard for them to differentiate the information the reader needs from the information they think it would be neat for the reader to know. This happens a lot at the beginning of stories. A writer may spend four paragraphs explaining how Howard Moon and Vince Noir met if Howard was a bin man and Vince studied fashion at St. Martins. While it would benefit the reader to know this, it is more important to set the scene at the beginning of a story. All of those interesting bits of information can often be relayed in setting and context, and don't need to be explained flat out.
Also, beware situations like this one:
”You're an irresponsible sycophant with a God Complex! I don't know why I even put up with you now that we've got the ball rolling on our own. We can do without you Colonel!” Ed ranted and worked out his frustration while Roy stood calmly behind his desk. The problem with Mustang was that he thought he knew everything and liked to lord it over everyone. Ed and Al could do better on their own, without having the military yank their chain every step of the way.
We can gather from Ed's diatribe that he is frustrated with Colonel Mustang and don't need the narrator to spell it out for us. We can also glean that Ed feels that Colonel Mustang thinks pretty highly of himself and enjoys using it to his advantage. In this instance we can cut down the narrative and make the piece stronger by letting the actions of the characters speak for themselves.
Another part of setting the rules is to make sure you have the boundaries set up for the relaying of personal impressions. Sometimes a writer will like to hear about particular impressions that the beta had to certain sections of the text or the overall flow of the story. These can help the writer to capture a particular feeling, but may be seen as an overstepping of bounds if the writer and beta are new to each other. Before you give unasked for opinions or advice be sure to check and see if the writer is comfortable receiving that information. Also, don't forget that everyone likes to know what they did right. Even if you are only giving the cursory SPaG beta, leave the author notes on things that were done correctly. Was that one-liner really good and character? Did the last bit of narrative make you laugh out loud? Let the writer know. As well as beng just as helpful as any other criticism, it can often help to temper it.
Working Together to Make it Happen
The flipside of all the hard work that a beta puts into a piece, is what the writer then does with the information that the beta has passed on. A writer must be ready to take responsibility for the work that they have presented to a beta. There's a certain amount of pressure involved in showing off one's little, word-crafted children to someone, whether we know them well or not, and because of this it's very tempting for the writer to be flippant about the beta's suggestions or the work when faced with something that challenges it. In general, challenge is good. It helps us to grow as people and as writers, and some writers are willing to take whatever challenge you can throw at them. Other writers would prefer to be handled delicately and are looking for more encouragement than nit picking. It is important to remember as a beta, that at the end of the day the work is not ours. We will try and bring it to the best form it can achieve, but the writer will have to be the one to take ultimate responsibility for its polished existence.
The best thing a writer can do is take criticism with an open mind. The writer has asked someone for help, and as such it would be rude to completely ignore all of the information that has been relayed. There are instances in which a beta and writer just don't mesh and the writer should feel free to look for someone who works better with their personal style. However, it can't hurt to take the information the initial beta gave you to heart and consider it at least.
At the end of the day, after a hopefully open dialogue, and when confronted with a piece of work covered in literal or metaphorical red ink, what a writer needs to do is take a deep breath, and then take at least some of the beta's advice. Remember that betas aren't meanie heads. They don't get their jollies by making a writer feel worse. It's harder at times to be a beta than a writer, because they walk a thin line between being helpful and being resented. Even fanfiction can be a highly personal endeavor, and a harsh critique can throw up a lot of defense mechanisms, including the ever popular 'I'm just doing this for fun!' No one likes to be told that there is more work to be done, but there is a reason that the writer went to the beta in the first place. One can only hope that the writer will use the information to the best of the writer's ability, just like it was given to the writer to the best of the beta's ability.