Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beta 101: How to be a Beta

Of all the inboxes, on all the sites in all the world…she walked into mine.

Okay, so maybe my adventures as a beta didn’t begin so dramatically. But narratives without drama are like 50Shades of Grey without the Twilight references…they just don’t work.
My life as a beta actually began quite by chance. I read a story, and the more I read of the story the more convinced I became that the author was really onto something, if they could just push themselves to write outside their comfort zone. In a move that was very uncharacteristic for me, I sent the author a private message that was brutally truthful, pressed send and prayed I wouldn’t find myself on the receiving end of a flame worthy reply.  To my shock her response was positive. Becoming her beta was such an organic process that it’s hard now for me to remember who asked whom, but it doesn’t really matter – the result was still the same. We agreed, tentatively, to begin the process together and I’ve never looked back.

It feels like ages since that initial email but, in reality, it’s only been a year. In that year I’ve learned so much. Working with Sam (yeah…that Sam) I’ve learned a million big and small things – how to support someone else’s dream, how to push someone to a level they didn’t think they were capable of and a lot about myself as a writer. It has been one of the single most rewarding experiences of my life – and I’ve gained a lifelong friend in the process.

So, now that all the mushy stuff is over, let me share with you what I’ve learned about being a beta.

1.    You’re  a beta…not God
You’d be surprised at how many people get the two confused! Working with an author, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day the creative direction of a story, the vision for what it’s going to be, is theirs alone. You can assist, cajole, challenge and support but you cannot do it FOR them. In the beginning of our beta partnership I’d return Sam’s stories chock full of red corrections. Corrections aren’t wrong (if you’re betaing for someone with grammar issues PLEASE markup that manuscript! Friends don’t let friends post crappy work), but my corrections went beyond grammar and punctuation. I would change whole passages to fit what I felt was the best way to write the story. Sam and I think similarly so it didn’t cause many problems but eventually I had to learn to trust Sam’s voice – let her tell the story. My job wasn’t and isn’t to tell the story for her, but to help her see the areas that can make her story better – and then let her do the work. In the end, as a beta, your influence on the story should make it a better version of the author’s own voice. It shouldn’t sound like you.

2.    To Thine Own self Be True
I’ve received many requests to beta. When I receive them the first thing I do is research the author’s work. There are some things I don’t feel comfortable or capable of betaing (graphic violence, slash, incest, rape or thriller/mystery/murder). If the author leans toward these things I politely decline the invite and, if I can, direct them to someone else. Is it because I think I’m better than them? Absolutely not – it’s because I know myself and what I’m capable of. I can’t help an author write a great violent scene because my brain doesn’t work that way. 

As a writer I want to see other writers do the best they are able to do. If I don’t believe my influence will accomplish that then I do them and myself, a disservice to accept the beta request.

If you’re going to beta, you have to know your limits.

3.    Manage Expectations
There are some authors who want to post four times a week. There are some writers who want you to return their story with edits inside of 24 hours. There are some authors who expect you to SPAG their work (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) but leave the content alone and some authors who expect you to comment on the content of their story. Not being clear on the author’s expectations, and yours, right out of the gate can doom the beta relationship to failure before it even begins.

 I was very fortunate to beta for someone who, like me, has a very busy life. She was happy to get the story back whenever I was finished with no real urgency or pressure. And if she did need something in a specific time frame she was very good about letting me know when she sent it so I could plan accordingly.

Managing expectations also means understanding the writer you’re working with. If you beta for a 15 year old whose first language isn’t English you have to make allowances for that. You can’t read a love story written by a first time teenaged writer and expect it to read the same as something from a 40 year old seasoned writer. Challenge the author but make sure your expectations are realistic.

As easy as it was with Sam and me, I’m fully aware that many beta relationships fall apart based on unmet expectations. For that reason I recommend that anyone deciding to beta get all the expectations out on the table before making a commitment to the partnership. Determine (and put it in writing if possible) how often the author expects to post, what turnover time they expect for editing and exactly what kind of editing  they want. And once those expectations are laid out do your very best to stick to them. If they have expectations that you don’t feel comfortable meeting then be clear and upfront about it. It’s sometimes an awkward conversation but it saves a lot of headache and hassle in the long run.

4.    Don’t bite off more than you can chew
I have been very guilty of this. I was honored when someone asked me to beta. I have a beta for my own stories and I know the reason I have him (shout out to @DwynArthur) is because I have immense respect for his skill in storytelling. To have someone see me that same way felt good – really good. Good enough that it became harder and harder to say no. Being the regular beta for two people was okay (I beta for my beta…I know…weird), and even the third person was a stretch, but not impossible. However, after the third person I took on I tried to take on a fourth – bad idea.  I ended up unable to help the way I planned, had to direct them to someone else and there were hurt feelings all around.

When you beta for someone the work can often be time consuming. If they are working on multi-chaptered fics or some stories require more attention than others you can find yourself spending more time betaing than you do writing your own stories or realize that you aren’t giving as much time or energy to each authors story as it deserves.

Every author deserves your best effort and you can’t give your best effort if you’re stretched too thin. There are going to be times when the difference between being a good beta and a great beta is as simple as three words – no thank you.

Learn from my example – don’t bite off more than you can chew.

5.    Zip Your Lips
I wouldn’t think that this point was necessary but I’ve heard some horror stories that make me feel obligated to mention it.

When you become a beta there are times that an author will share with you the direction they see their story going, potential story lines they’re working on and/or outlines for sequels. In the world of fan fiction there are many storylines that have been used and re-used, even so, when the person you beta for shares story ideas with you it is your responsibility to keep those ideas to yourself. By bringing you into their creative process they trust you to maintain confidentiality and when you share ideas that aren’t yours with anyone outside of that partnership it can carry the sting of a betrayal.  Even if you are sharing it with someone you trust, or someone you think the author would benefit from interacting with, you should never do so without express permission from the author.

6.    A Steady Diet of Cotton Candy…Only Gives You A Toothache
Compliments are nice, but as writers we cannot live on a steady diet of “that was awesome – don’t change a thing!” If you’re asked to beta for someone who doesn’t agree with that…RUN!!

There is one thing you have to be able to do if you’re a beta, one of the most important things in my opinion. If you’re going to beta then you have to be comfortable with telling the truth…the whole truth, even when it’s not the prettiest truth in the world.

Everything that the author gives you, no matter how good of a writer they are, isn’t going to be Pulitzer worthy. Sometimes they’re going to send you work that is (as I term it) lazy writing. Sometimes they’ll give you stories with plot holes as big as Texas and sometimes the work may be all around bad (harsh? Yes…but ask any beta and they’ll tell ya it’s true). So what do you do when that happens? Some would say that you just point out the good stuff, correct some of the bad stuff and wish upon a star that they’ll get better. I don’t agree with those people. Real writers who get real betas want real critique. Real critique – positive, encouraging, honest and effective – makes us better writers and isn’t that what we all want?

As a beta it’s tempting to throw a bunch of feel good words at the author but sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. If there is a plot hole it’s your job to point it out. If one of the characters is lying flat on the page, it’s your job to point it out and help them bring life to it. If their grammar rivals a first grader…yep, you guessed it; it’s your job to point it out. It’s scary at first, but if they came to you then they trust your judgment and appreciate your insight.

There is an amazing author who sometimes critiques my work (he shall remain nameless but I think he knows who he is). In the beginning I’d read his critique and to be honest, it stung – more than a little bit. He told me what I did right but he also told me what I did wrong (I hate being wrong). But as hard as his words were to take, his advice is something I carry with me into every story I write. It felt like swallowing rainwater at the time, but it made me a better writer.
One of the most amazing things I’ve ever read from Sam (and she’s written a lot of amazing stuff) was a very emotional scene. She sent it to me with her usual message “Dear Dee, This is awful, I hate it…you probably will too” or something along those lines. I didn’t hate it, but I knew she could do better. I sent it back to her with a little direction but no words of my own added. I was blunt and honest. I told her what was working and what wasn’t and refused to let her accept less than she was capable of. It was a hard conversation. I think she must have re-written and re-sent that scene at least five times. At one point I thought we’d both pull our hair out, but when all was said and done I read the scene and literally cried – it was just that beautiful, and I know that she was proud of what she was able to accomplish.

There are probably a million more tips I could give you on being a beta but I think I’ve pulled on your ear long enough. The last thing I’ll say is this, the relationship between a beta and an author comes in many different forms, but no matter how you find them or they find you I can only hope that you’ll be as lucky as I have been and that your beta partnership brings out the best, not only in the author, but in you.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how being a beta or finding a beta has worked for you? Leave us your comments or tweet us at @BlogFanfiction.

Author: Dee Miles, Staff Blogger


I told my beta not to bite her tongue and two years later we are still at it!

I loved this post. Very informative and enlightening. Def will help in my search for a beta!

damn i wish you were my beta... but we have other plans. we gotta get to it.


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