May 27, 2010

A fic is only as good as its Beta

Yes, another ranting post from me so deal with it...

TODAY, I am talking to you about the ROLE of a good beta. For this post I feel some musical accompaniment is appropriate, and what better to show the role of a good beta than Florence and The Machine's KISS WITH A FIST?????

WHAT? SUE, do you mean a Beta is not there to just tell me I am awesome and fix my commas and spelling? (Ooooo, can I call myself a beta now?)
OH NO, children, gather around and listen now, Auntie Sue has some things to fill you in on. HERE, of course, is the evolution of WHY I was inspired to write this LONG, LONG post (do not fear, my dears, you will be rewarded for all of your reading today! Read everything like good girls and I give you pictures of pretty men to look at!). I was asked, before, by Lambie to do something about Betas.
You all know Lambie right?

If not, Lambie writes and betas for several authors. She has a terrific grasp of the English language that I could only hope for.

Many of you know that I have lots of friends in fandom. Most of my friends are authors; several are also Betas.

THIS post is inspired by a fic that I read this weekend. I will not name this fic, I will not tell you the name of the author, I will only say this:

The fic I read needed a beta

It needed a beta so bad that I wanted to beg the author to allow me to at least correct the spelling issues (and if I can find spelling issues THAT is saying something. Remember, I have burned out editors due to my poor spelling. Ask my dear friend, T! I feel for anyone who EVER has to correct my work and I lavish them loads of love and attention *MWAH* to T and Hannah!).

It needed a beta to fix the story's inconsistencies. It needed a heavy hand to ask the author, 'WTF?'.

Ok. Enough about that fic. NOW, let's talk about what makes a beta, a good Beta. 
A Beta is MORE than just a bestie who will stroke your ego and tell you your story is good. A Beta is MORE than just someone who tames commas and uses spell check. A Beta is MORE than just someone who says, 'Yay, you!'.
  • A GOOD BETA will challange you as a writer.
  • A GOOD BETA will question your story.
  • A GOOD BETA will say, "WHAT is your motivation behind this? WHAT do you want to say?"
  • A GOOD BETA will make you rewrite things.
  • A GOOD BETA will tell you when your writing is shit.
WHY does a bestie not make a good Beta?
A bestie is not interested in making your writing better. A bestie will tell you things that you want to hear to protect the friendship. They do not want to see you get upset, or discouraged.

NOW, I am not saying that a GOOD BETA is gonna tell you everything about your writing is shit. A GOOD BETA will help you see what is good, and what is not good, about your story.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE of needing a good Beta, and we all know we have seen this: A GOOD BETA will tell you when your male lead sounds like a chick. I have a serious, serious issue with men sounding like women, with a penis! Seriously, chicks with dicks are not attractive! At least to this reader they are not. Men do not think the same way women do. So if you are writing a male character, you need to NOT write your lead male as though he thinks like a woman. IF you do not know how a man thinks, then you should reconsider writing from a males POV!

As you all know my hubs, @cryptthing aka Dave aka my snookipuss, reads fanfic. I have to tell you, he rolls his eyes, and downright guffaws, at some of the things he has seen women write from a man's POV.

ANOTHER THING, when a beta tells you to rethink your writing, LISTEN TO THEM! Granted, their opinion is their's, but you need to try to look at your story objectively. Step outside yourself, and be critical.
I help my kids with their homework, and when I read some of their answers or stories, I remind them to think about the reader. As an author, you need to give the reader details. You need to explain things to the reader, as though they have never heard of the world before. EVEN if you are writing fanfiction!
THIS is especially true if you write for AUH. You are creating a whole new world (I hope).

So enough of my babbling, let us get to the words from those more experienced about Betaing (is that even a word?).

I have collected, for your entertainment AND education, 3 Beta's.

Two are Beta/writer/readers, 1 is a BETA ONLY (a rare animal indeed! Be nice to her, we do not wish to frighten her off).

FIRST UP, I give you Lambie. Remember, this post was kinda, in an offhanded way, her idea. Actually, Lambie wants me to do a regular thing, talking with betas. I think it is a good idea, I think betas should be honored, as the unsung heros of fandom. Now I just have to come up with some Qs to interview, SO keep an eye out!
Now ONTO Lambie. For those of you who have not figured out who she is, allow me to give you a few words.

Need anymore?
I didn't think so...


A beta.

The most valuable person you can have when it comes to fic writing. They’re the ones that will tell you exactly what your story needs for it to work.

But they need to be impartial.

I’ve been moaning at Sue for ages to do something on her site about Beta’s, because I truly believe they are the most underappreciated people in the fandom. They do so much, and unless they themselves are a well known author they simply get forgotten.

They don’t just give your chapter a quick glance. They dismantle, reread, restructure and make it flow. As an author you know what you want to say, you may even think you wrote it, but the Beta will tell you if that really is the case.

And that’s sadly why a friend is not always the best choice.

Can it work? Sure, but you have to be totally honest and be willing to set friendship aside when it comes to the dynamics. Not everyone can do this, and that’s why an impartial beta could be best for you and your story.

Would your friend really tell you if your story idea for snake charming Edward sucked? Would she tear it apart until it looked like it bled from all the red penned corrections? Would she be able to make a seemingly clunky sentence run much more smoothly?

It can be daunting to send you work to someone you know nothing about, but groups like Project Team Beta are there to make your work readable. They want it to be its best because it has their name endorsing it.

I also don’t believe you can self Beta. A second set of eyes can see far more than yours alone.

I’ve actually had both kinds. My first beta was someone I didn’t know at all, and then a subsequent one was a friend. The one I have now however, is the best of both worlds and wouldn’t trade her for anything.

She is the one I have most faith in.

I have staked my claim on her!

We grew to be friends because of our constant interaction and the amount of fic I send to her. I appreciate her honesty when it comes to my work, and even though sometimes it can hurt to see my writing with red corrections all over it I know she’s made it better. She makes it readable. She has no fear of crossing out my incoherent ramblings and telling me its needs to be rewritten.

That’s why I adore her, and that’s why your beta can be your friend…but it’s not always best for them to start out that way.


Now for Autumn's comments. For those that do not know Autumn like I know Autumn, let me tell you about her.

Have you read 'Cocktails and Dreams'? How about 'I only want you for your body'?

Yeah, you have also probably seen us talking on Twitter about REAL SEX. Yes. Autumn and I have a thing for REAL SEX, that does not require one to be a yoga master, with a photographic memory for the Kama Sutra.

Do you need a beta? Simple answer: YES. I don’t know a single writer whose work is not improved by having the input of at least one other person (and sometimes several other people) before posting. There seems to be a trend in the fandom lately of writers going it alone, and in nearly every case that is a huge mistake. Speaking as both a writer (with two betas and two pre-readers), and as a validation beta for Twilighted, I can’t emphasize enough that no one is perfect. No one. In this short essay, I’m going to cover three points: what a beta does, why you need a beta, and how to find a qualified, experienced beta (and why that’s important). In the course of this, I will refer to my own experience and that of writer friends. Everyone’s experience isn’t the same, but I think we’re a fairly representative lot.

What does a beta do? That can be a different answer for each person. At the very least, a beta can help you be sure your story is technically correct, helping with any spelling, grammar, punctuation, or tense issues you might have. In my work with Twilighted, those are the main reasons a fic is rejected. This is where a well-educated and trained beta is invaluable. In my case, I have commavomit. I stick those suckers in everywhere in my own writing, and I don’t see the mistakes the way I do in the writing of others. I also have issues with ‘its/it’s’. I know the difference, and never make a mistake when handwriting. However, my mad typing fingers always ad the apostrophe, even if it’s incorrect, and even knowing that I don’t see the error when I review my own work. I am a painstaking reviewer – nothing leaves my ‘puter until it’s been read over numerous times – but still I miss that mistake. My beta knows that (poor girl) and looks particularly for that problem, and looking for technical issues is her primary role.

Some authors have more of a ‘writing in harmony’ relationship with their beta, where the beta is almost a co-writer, helping with outline and story line issues. This is fairly common, as well, and can really help if you get off track. I plan my stories out pretty thoroughly before I write, so this is not a primary role of my beta; however, she has offered advice and asked questions that have helped me clarify points that seemed obvious to me, but not so much for the reader. Because we have a relationship built on trust, and I respect her immensely, I’ve not ever rejected anything she’s suggested. Jen is a wonderful writer as well as an excellent beta, and I’d be a fool to ignore her. How far the writer wants the beta to go in that role (of co writer) should be established early in the relationship, but there’s no reason it can’t change if the writer’s needs change. A good beta will not try to take over your story. Respect is key.

Why do you need a beta? There are two main reasons: first (and I touched on this in the last topic), we all make mistakes. It’s inevitable. Even the best-known authors’ works go through a stringent editing process before you ever see their words on paper (or your Kindle). The nature of our brains allows them to see what they know should be there, even if what’s actually on the page is different. One of my other favorite mistakes is spelling she wrong – ‘seh’ instead of ‘she’. Some weird finger thing, I guess. Anyway, I often do not catch it in review. My beta, though… she does. Every time. Because she isn’t looking at her own work, her brain is not filling in those blanks and making those corrections, as mine does.

Secondly, every author I know ‘lives’ their story in their own head, both before and while they’re writing. As a result, you may ‘see’ a reaction of a character but forget to describe it accurately, or even at all. Example: in my story ‘Cocktails & Dreams’, I had a short bit where Bella takes a sip of beer from a bottle, and a tiny drop escapes and trickles down her face and neck. Edward sweeps his finger from the neckline of her tank up her neck, gathering the drop, and sucks it off his finger. I ‘saw’ Bella’s reaction, but stopped there. Jen immediately questioned that, saying the reader needed to know how Bella reacted, because she thought it was crazysexy (lol). Anyway, I expanded what I had written and got an immediate reward by the tons of mentions in reviews of that exact bit. She made a good scene immensely better by helping me see the readers’ side of things.

How do you find a qualified, experienced beta? This is a complex topic. First, what do I mean by qualified and experienced? Basically, this is someone who is educated in basic writing technicalities and painstaking in looking for errors. In addition, they should not feel constrained from giving the writer their honest constructive criticism. And there’s the rub. Many writers I’ve worked with and read will pick their bestie, thinking that is a good idea because that person ‘knows them’. Big mistake, in many instances. First, because many besties are not qualified in editing or have no particular aptitude for editing, and second because most besties feel constrained from giving an honest opinion, especially if it’s negative. Your friend doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, right? So it’s more than unfair to expect them to start with something that’s so close to your heart (as most writers’ stories are to them).

My experience? My first story submitted to Twilighted was rejected, by no less than vjgm, for problems with punctuation around dialogue (the most common error we see as validation betas). I was discouraged and disappointed, as I’d been writing for years (and had even been published a time or three, years ago), and thought about quitting. I said so to vjgm, and she sent me a very nice email, encouraging me and telling me to find a beta. So. Step two. I went to the Twilighted writing helps section on the forum, to the beta page, and connected within two days with Jen. We started from the beginning on a very professional footing, with her understanding that I wanted her honest appraisal. We have since become friends, but because we started professionally, it is still not a problem for her to tell me when I make a mistake.

Finding a beta can be a challenge, I admit, but there are a few resources. First, look at the beta thread in the Twilighted forums. There are often people offering their beta services there. That does not mean that they are qualified, heaven knows, but it’s a start. Ask them their qualifications, but don’t be seduced by a degree – a professional degree bodes well, but doesn’t guarantee editing accuracy. See if you can make an arrangement with a prospective beta to test drive their services for a chapter or two, preferably having a third party also help you evaluate the prospective beta’s skills (this is where submitting to Twilighted can be helpful. If the beta’s skills aren’t up to snuff, you’ll surely find out). Another option is Project Team Beta. There were problems with this group a while back, where people not qualified to beta were being used as betas, but I’ve been assured that they’ve overhauled their system. A third option is to ask a writer that you admire or a friend you know that writes well who they trust as beta. Some writers guard that information jealously, but others are glad to share resources. Even if the person they recommend can’t do the job, they may have connections that can help you find a good fit.

Do you need a beta? The answer will always be ‘yes’. Both for your own peace of mind and for the benefit of readers who are eager for a good story, well-told. Soapbox minute: we are becoming a nation of semi-literate people. So many people no longer read at all, or read very little. If nothing else, using a beta (editor) confirms that the writer cares for the state of the reader’s mind. Sure, we can usually decipher a poorly written story, and might even get some enjoyment from the raw material, or see the storytelling ability beneath the poor grammar/spelling/punctuation. Imagine, though, how much more we could get if we weren’t deciphering, if we could read a straight ahead story without wincing at the problems within. Or worse yet, not even noticing the issues, because that’s what we’re used to.


And now, finally, I give you Lambie's beta, Maylin. Like I said, a Beta-only person is a rare animal in fandom. Most betas are also writers.

1) What possessed you to become a beta?
I fell in love. With a new story, “We the Forgotten” by Humanshield (Fats). I got all fangirl over her and we geeked over BSG and bonded over a mutual conviction that Harry Potter should have died at the end of Deathly Hallows. When she started posting on she asked if I would beta for her .

The fandom has been great for me – so much reading for free, such great people. Betaing was a way of being involved that didn’t require the talent and commitment that writing did.

2) What do you see as the Role of a good beta?
I am not a writer. I see the author as the alpha and the beta is there to back up and support not to rewrite. The author has their own ‘voice’ that needs to be heard. This personal style can sometimes supersede the bounds of what would be considered correct grammar or spelling.

While a good standard of English is necessary, a beta also offers another perspective – that of the reader. They spot inconsistencies, omissions or confusions. They have a general overview form which they can give feedback. Things the author can sometimes miss because they are too close to the narrative or too caught up in the creative flow.

A beta is an enabler, a listening ear, and a critical eye. As such they need the trust of their authors. I am so lucky that the authors I beta for are intelligent, compassionate, strong women whose work I admire immensely.

3) What would you say to an author who insists they do not need a beta?
It’s none of my business really (unless I am judging a competition). I might disagree but if that is their standpoint who am I to argue? Funnily enough the authors who probably least need a beta are often the ones who are most insistent they use one.

However I think authors whose first language is not English have a more difficult time and would always recommend they use a beta who is a native English speaker.

4) When you read something an author sends you, and you do not think it is very good, or it could be worded better, how do you go about telling the author this?
I think it is important not to be subjective (unless you are asked outright) – we all like different things so if I think it isn’t very good there will be others who disagree.

As far as wording is concerned I usually just query if this is what they really intended and maybe suggest an alternative. There may be a reason it is written that way.

5) How do you deal with an author who is sensitive about what they have written? For example, you as the beta want the author to rework something and they cry... or something.
I am a firm believer that anything can be said in the right place and in the right way. Of course I can’t always do that. It is all down to the relationship between beta and author.

I’ve only needed to do this when validating contests. If I have been respectful to the author and aware of the effort they have expended; if I have been factual and not opinionated then there is little else I can do. They may well have other issues going on and I can sympathize but in the end I have to be able to step back and let them deal with it themselves.


AND there you have it.

So do you think you still do not need a beta? I hope that this has convinced you otherwise. There are plenty of ways to find a beta.

Project Team Beta 

Also advertise on Twitter! Ask people! Ask around! The worst someone can say is no.

Another idea is to advertise on TwiFicNews.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments here. I will do my darndest to find you an answer!

THIS has been a PSA from SYTYCW.


Anonymous said...

I'm the first to admit that I need a beta. I already have one, but I went to PTB in seach of another. I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself a good writer, but i've been told that my writing has improved a lot since I first started writing.

I believe it was Lambie who mentioned that people don't read as often as they used to. I'm the opposite, I never read a book in my life until six years ago and fell in love with it. I've since read at least one hundred books and countless fan fiction stories.

To all you beta's out there. I appreciate what you offer the fandom, more than you'll ever know.

Melody said...

I am not a writer or a beta just a reader. I love your blog Sue. Keep up the good work. Love you too Lambie but I think you alread know that. Smooches girls.

maylin said...

LOL - Just to prove the point. Having just read this article again, I noticed I had written form instead of from. I can't tell you how many times I had read through it before submitting. I obviously should have used a beta...

Four String said...

Grr! I just typed a response and I lost it. Anyway...

I just got a pre-reader, Starla and she's awesome. She thinks of different ways to work plot, characters, etc. She also lives in the area where my fic takes place so she's perfect. I'm pretty good at dealing with grammar, tense and punctuation so I mainly need that extra set of objective eyes. I really need to rewrite my very first chap since I didn't pick a tense and stay with it, but once I did chap 2, I did.

As a beta (I beta Empty by Hev99), I am blessed. Bob is already great at plot, characters, consistencies, etc. She mainly just needs me to red-pen her commas, spelling, tense and very, very British sayings. lol!

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