Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beta Series 1: Hello

6: the # of people who offered to beta read for me when i posted the first chapter of Butter on Absolute Write
4: the # of people i sent my manuscript
2: the # of betas who actually got back to me with comments
0: the # of in-depth discussions i had with said betas about how they liked to critique and what kind of input i needed

i am eternally grateful for the feedback i got from those first betas. (they helped me catch the attention of Agent Almost!)
but i didn’t truly know the value of a good beta relationship until i opened my email inbox on March 29th.
That’s when i got my first message from Gem.

over the next three days, Gem and i will share the process that followed from the duelling perspectives of writer and beta in a cross-over blog series extravaganza.

UPDATE: Gem’s blog is going into semi-retirement, so her original posts on this series are now copied and pasted at the end of each of my own posts. (in other words, we saved you some time clicking around the internet, and you can now read the whole story here.)

The introduction

i have always been shy about asking people to read my work. i don’t want to burden anyone or make them feel obligated. so when it came to finding beta readers to review my manuscript and offer feedback, i relied on volunteers.

the trouble with that was i’d already cashed in on those offers with the first draft, and had no one to ask for feedback when it came to the high-stakes rewrite for Agent Almost.

the timing of Gem’s email was perfect. it arrived two days after my revision letter. (i now know this timing was not coincidental. See her side of the story below.)
i knew who Gem was through comments on AW and on my blog, so i was flattered that she emailed even to say hello. i was excited to see that she was in a similar spot on the path to publishing – even better, she was a step ahead of me and could help me navigate these rough waters. the cherry on top was the half-paragraph at the end of the email, casually asking if i needed a beta for my revisions.

holy crap! was she kidding?! of course i needed a beta! I was ready to send her the book right then. but wait...


no matter how much Gem wanted to read Butter, she wanted to make sure up front that we didn’t waste each other’s time. she provided me with a list of questions (like the first step on a dating website, when you fill in your likes and dislikes). Gem’s beta quiz included things like, 'how do you like your criticism? blunt or sandwiched in praise?'
i had never thought of myself as having much say in the matter, so i hadn’t really thought about it. but now that she mentioned it... yeah, i did have an opinion – and it’s something along the lines of: “don’t lob me any softballs.”

i assured her i have skin as thick as an elephant’s and that she should not hold back. i also took the opportunity to tell her i was looking for specific feedback related to comments from Agent Almost. it was nice to be able to ask for this specifically – something i now know you should be able to do with your beta.
don’t just ask them to read. tell them what you need. if you don’t, then you don’t get the right feedback. and if they don’t want to give you that level of feedback, they should have the right to pass. (see? not wasting each other’s time)

Like a first date

a q&a can’t tell you everything though. so Gem suggested we do a test run of the first few chapters.

this was nerve-wracking. i was pretty confident she already liked the first chap, but what if she read 2&3 and thought the story just fell off a cliff? i thought i’d be biting my fingernails for weeks. but she turned her comments in less than 48 hours (despite a hangover), and i learned something else i like in my betas – fast turnaround. (i never could have finished this revision in two months if Gem weren’t so speedy with her edits.)

and her comments blew me away. from world-building issues (of course butter needs an online screen name! how did i miss that in the last ten revisions??) to just inexcusably bad writing (ick! that is cliché! why didn’t anyone else tell me? i could have taken it out ages ago!)
i should point out, Gem had many many kind things to say about the story and the writing, which was good for my fragile writer ego. ;)
but more important still were the crits. she had made some really stellar points, and those were on the chapters i was proud of. i absolutely NEEDED her input on the rough patches coming up later in the story.

fortunately, she had already emailed me an invitation to send her more chapters...

(to be continued)

and now from Gem's beta perspective:

Beta Series Part 1 – Initial Contact and First Chapters

Beta reader – ‘a person who reads an unpublished piece of fiction, on request from a writer, to look for grammar mistakes, plot holes, spelling errors, characterisation and general readability – with the ultimate aim to make the manuscript tighter and more marketable.’

So, that’s the definition. But how does it work in practice?

Over the next three days, I hope to answer this question by talking through my recent experience being the beta for the fabulous ‘Butter’. And over on her blog, EJ the author of ‘Butter’, is doing the same but from the writers perspective.

Meeting Butter
I ‘met’ EJ online in the Absolute Write forums in November 2009. She’d posted the first few pages of ‘Butter’ in the Share Your Work section – where members can get feedback on their work. The title made me click on it. The first lines made me carry on reading – see why here (READ THIS NOW!)

I was blown away. To quote some of my comments “I really really want to know what happens next”, “I was completely hooked” and “I felt overwhelming empathy for the main character”. EJ thanked me for my comments and I wished her luck finishing the project.

Now that is usually the end for me on any Share Your Work posts, but as you will see from the teaser, ‘Butter’ is a page-turner. I’d loved page one but page two was empty and I kept asking myself – “how will he get himself out of this situation and what’s going to happen next?” At the time, I was revising my own work, so I had no spare minutes to beta, but I did want to. I resorted to stalking watching EJ’s posts on AW to see how her progress was going.

The ‘watching’ paid off. EJ had a request for revisions from her Agent Almost, and what would be better to help with that than a shiny new beta reader. I emailed her saying an official ‘hi’, explained my stalking and told her that I was a week away from finishing my own revise and resubmit, so could empathise with her situation. My last sentence was my beta offer. I rambled through the actual ask “if you need someone, don’t feel bad to say no, etc etc, grovel grovel”.

EJ was enthusiastic in her response, even laughing that Butter had his first stalker. She said she would love fresh eyes! We exchanged a few polite getting to know you emails and I talked about how I like to beta.

Answer me these
I posted this a while back – the list of questions I ask all writers I beta for. It ensures both parties are clear about what they are looking for meaning no one wastes any time. I find it’s better to be honest upfront as some people just aren’t compatible as beta/writers. EJ and I laughed that the process was a bit like Eharmony!

EJ answered the questions and explained the exact things she wanted me to look out for. Her answers were a perfect match for how I like to beta – blunt, honest feedback with good explanations. We decided to do three chapters as a test to see if it would work.

First Chapters
My beta process is to do two passes of the work – first read like a reader, second read like a writer. I was so excited to get started on the three chapters. ‘Butter’ has an awesome beginning.

I have to admit to being a bit nervous when I sent over my first batch of comments because by this point, I really had to finish ‘Butter’ and if EJ didn’t think we were a good match, that would be the end of it. I re-read my comments a ton of times (after I got over my hangover – reminded to me by EJ!), typed up my email and pressed send. Then I waited.

Story continues tomorrow.


Ellen said...

This is such a great story! And makes me a little jealous, as I search for a beta-partner of my own ;)

McD said...

This was a great idea and very interesting.

Nomes said...

I loved reading this post. I find the whole beat thingy very intriguing as it's so different for evryone and so vital.

I also love the name of your MS. Butter. It's just screaming for me to pick it up!

erinjade said...

thanks everyone! be sure to comment on the beta side of the story too. it's so much more interesting!!

ellen and nomes, welcome to the blog!

ellen - i hope you end up with lots of betas to choose from!

nomes - Agent Almost said the title was one of the things that caught his eye, so that was a lesson for me - titles are important!