Friday, March 25, 2011

Balance and the Beta

Nathan Bransford got me thinking the other day, as he often does. He posted about finding the balance between writing and real life, which of course is always a problem for writers since we tend to live in our heads and shove the real world under the rug. But this led me to think about the process of writing, and more importantly, the process of editing and revising.

When I went to hear Lauren Oliver speak at a bookstore a few months ago, she mentioned that she had learned the importance of knowing when to trust yourself and when to trust your editor or beta. When it was time for the Q&A portion of her talk, I just had to use the opportunity to ask her about that.

"That's a lesson I haven't learned yet as a writer, so I need your advice," I explained.

Truth moment: The voices you hear as a writer define your writing. Not just the voices you hear speaking as characters, but the voices that give their opinions on everything you do. Those voices are the voices of your betas, your other experimental readers, the various blogs you read for advice, agents, teachers, etc. Hell, they can even be your mother's voice.

The problem with that is that these voices can often be negative, hindering, contrary to your own, and downright silencing. And the problem with THAT is that these voices are often the loudest voices you hear. 

But how do you know when to tell all those other voices to be quiet and listen to yourself, and when those other voices are right?

Lauren's answer was helpful. She talked about developing a good relationship with a primary beta who knows your goals, your style, and your capabilities, and won't interfere with those things as they give critique.

Great advice, but what happens when that person gives you advice you don't agree with? Or what happens with that person loves what you wrote, but a couple of other readers didn't?

That's when the idea of balance comes in. Weigh opinions, weigh your feelings on it, consider the sources (of both!) and see which way the scale tips. Here's what I have discovered works best for me:

  1. Get to the root of your reaction. - If you had a really negative reaction to the critique, figure out why. Was it because you feel strongly that making the suggested change is a bad idea? Or... is it possible you reacted strongly because you know deep down that your beta is correct?
  2. Know your beta. - It's not enough for your beta to know you. You also need to know your beta well enough to know what her tastes are, if she has strong opinions on certain issues, if something in her life affects her reading of the tale... Many factors go into the formation of her opinion. If it's likely that she's the only one who will bristle at it and you like it, leave it in.
  3. Same goes for you. - Why, exactly, do you feel so strong about that passage the beta told you to delete? If you're working out some personal issues, even subconsciously, they sometimes cause a pause in the flow of a story. If you're grinding an axe and the character doesn't need to, drop it. It'll do you AND the story some good.
  4. Consider the source. - If the critique came from someone other than your beta, ask yourself if this person is really the intended audience of your book. If you're writing a horror story and a reader tells you it's too gory, even though she prefers to read series romance, then why the hell does her opinion matter anyway? She's not going to buy your book when it's on the shelves.
  5. Take those preconceptions and shove 'em. - Even the best of us go into reading with expectations, and when the writer fails to meet those expectations, the reader can feel let down and frustrated and it won't matter how brilliant the story was as is. It's human nature. We all want certain things to happen, and when they don't, we get pissed. So really examine what angle your beta is coming from. Does she have a pre-conceived notion that X should have happened instead of Z? But THEN you also have to ask if her opinion is just anger that she didn't get her way or if she may have a point. Did you set it up for one path then take another? (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer). Did her way better serve the purpose of the story? Should you...I don't know...maybe consider her way?
  6. Consider the WANT. - You know how badly you want to write, how badly you want to write well, and how badly you want the validation of being published. You know it because it occupies your mind 24/7. But no matter how much your beta loves you, supports you, and wants this for you, she can't possibly know that constant WANT. There are days that she's just not going to be into reading, no matter how brilliantly you've written it. She doesn't feel that never-ending drive that you do to read and pick apart and make better. On those days, BOTH of you need to just step back and wait for critique on another day. And help yourself from the get go - tell your beta as much about the story as you dare to give away before you send anything for critique, and if the story isn't really her thing, find someone else for that one. You might as well not waste your time and hers if she'll never be into it.
Hopefully, those things help you figure out which side of the scale goes down, and which side goes up.

Most importantly, though, do yourself a favor and find a way to counteract the negative. The negative critique may be right, and if so you've got to do what you can to make the story better, but regardless, the negativity adds up. It adds up, and it's loud. So balance that with a few people in your life that love everything you write. Yes men, if you will. Don't rely on them for critique because they won't be the type who can do that for you, but rely on them for a confidence booster whenever you need one. Indulge in that. But... more on those cheerleaders later.

Go. Balance the critiques. Write.