Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Tale of Four Betas

It's the first Wednesday of the month which means that it's time for another installment of Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group. Some of you may recall that I missed last month's post. Don't worry— I'm still just as insecure and neurotic as ever. Probably even more so.

Definitely even more so.

So I'm posting this month. And because I missed last month and also because this is the last IWSG post of 2011 (ponder that for a minute. Where did the year go?), I've decided to bring a little extra crazy to the mix.

That's right... I am going to talk about what has become my greatest insecurity as a writer. I am going to talk about the elephant sized chip on my shoulder and, in the process of unburdening my soul, I suspect I will be unforgivably wordy and whiny.

And, for that, I am sorry. Please consider yourselves warned and please feel free to just head on over to the next blog on the list. I really won't be offended.

So. Without any further ado, please allow me to present A Tale of Four Betas...

First off, I want to say I love this blogging community. I love reading about other people's writing journeys. It's nice to know others have the same struggles I do but I'm also genuinely excited for them when progress is made. When they have a breakthrough in that WIP that was causing them trouble or when they find an agent or a publisher. When their first books become available for public consumption. All of it, really.

And even though I'm personally not anywhere near any of those milestones (and, let's face it, probably never will be. I just can't seem to get out of my own way) I don't feel any sort of pang of jealousy over it. Well, maybe when I read about someone's WIP breakthrough. My own are just so few and far between that it causes me to wonder if my life would be better spent asking customers if they'd like to supersize their lunch order. But what really gets me jealous is when I read about everyone's awesome beta readers and CPs.

I've not had the best of luck in that particular area.

Now I feel this is the point where I should point out that when I do ask someone to read chapters for me, I will accommodate them in any way I can. Want an e-copy? Sure thing. Want a paper copy? You bet. Want a special red pen? I'll supply you with one. Want a package of post-it notes and a highlighter? No problem.

I know you're doing a favor for me. I know I'm not the center of the universe. I know you have jobs and hobbies and children (should children have been listed before the hobbies?) and any number of other things that require your attention. I understand that I am encroaching upon your precious free time and I am appreciative of that.

Which is why I always offer my betas the following out: If, at any point, you find you no longer have the time or the desire to continue reading my manuscript, please just tell me and I will understand. I do not expect that you will read my entire manuscript over night. I do, however, expect you to read the manuscript in the same calendar year.

That said, this has been my beta reader experience:

Beta #1

She used to read a lot of stuff for me. Then, in 2005, I had the brilliant (stupid?) idea to rewrite Effigy. At one point, I asked her to read the first fifteen chapters because it was so very different from the previous draft. She agreed. A couple of days later, we had a discussion about the first chapter. I haven't heard anything since.

Beta #2

He asked me if he could read the now completed Effigy. I jumped at the chance because why wouldn't I? That was in 2008. A little over a year later, he'd made it half way though the manuscript. Despite countless efforts on my part to just cut my losses (translation: me sending emails saying, "you really don't have to read any more. I know how busy you are..."), he always responded with, "No, I really like the book and I really want to read it! I just don't have a lot of free time!" But then one day, he sent me an email telling me about the writers' group he'd started with a co-worker of his and asked if I would mind reading his work. This turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back. We traded a few strongly worded emails in which I told him I couldn't handle his apathy toward me and my work anymore and he told me I was a— well, he told me I was a lot of things. None of them flattering. I admit I did not handle the situation with the grace and maturity I could have but hey, my feelings were hurt. Really hurt. And still are. You know, in case you didn't pick up on that.

Beta #3

It took me a long, long time to work up the nerve to ask B3 to be B3. She was a fellow aspiring writer and I thought for sure it would be a good thing. She would know how hard it is to ask someone to read and how hard it is to wait and wait and wait. So I sent her the first three chapters in April 2011. In May, she read the prologue and wrote me a very lovely note about how she's dying to read the rest. And that's the last I heard from her.

Beta #4

(Just so you know, reliving this is really depressing.) B4 received 14 chapters in June of this year. In October, I received an email from B4 apologizing for the lack of critiquing going on. He didn't want to pull a B2 so he promised to remedy the situation. I have heard nothing since.

And thus ends my beta reader sob story.

I know I'm not the nicest person on the face of the— anywhere. I'm moody. I'm sarcastic and passive aggressive. I'm occasionally rather irrational and sometimes downright mean. I have a carefully cultivated bad attitude. I swear like a sailor with a bad case of Tourette's Syndrome and, from time to time, drink like a fish who can't hold its liquor. I'm an incurable book snob with some kind of gross grammatical god complex. I eat too much junk food and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. I am also pathologically incapable of putting away the laundry. And after years of trying, I'm still splashing around in the shallow end of the writing pool.

So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that my once mighty group of readers (beta and the like) has dwindled to the point of non existence. They got tired of waiting, I imagine, for the day that I might make something happen. I'm getting tired too but I'll keep going because that's what I do. I shouldn't expect them to do the same.

But here's the thing: Beta readers are vital to the process. You need a test audience to point out the mistakes you don't notice because you're too close to the work because you know what it's supposed to say. You need someone to say things like, "I don't know what you were smoking when you wrote that scene but you should probably not do that again" or "Wow. That's a plot hole big enough to drive a semi though."

And I want that. I'm just having a hard time putting myself out there now. I've had a couple of offers for readers since the Great Exodus but I just can't bring myself to say 'yes' because it sucks when you go from comments like:

"I finally got a moment to sit down and open up the Prologue.......... and I am pretty excited to read the rest. I mean, I don't even LIKE this genre. I never READ this genre. I don't GET this genre. But after reading the opening to this book, I actually want to keep going..."


"This is FUCKING awesome!"



to the sound of crickets. Very, very quiet crickets. Hard not to assume that you've written a terrible, terrible book and no one wants to be the one to tell you. Hard not to take it personally. Being ignored by a publisher is one thing. Being ignored by friends is quite another. So it's hard to know on whom to take a chance. It's made me not want to take chances anymore because honestly? I just can't be brought down any lower.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Pity? Party of one? Your table is ready...

On that note, I'm out of here. Gonna go get some cheese to accompany my whine. See you next time...if I haven't permanently frightened you away that is.

P.S... if you made it through this whole thing, thanks for listening/reading. And if you didn't, well, thanks for trying.

***P.S.S... It's come up in comments that perhaps I am not willing to read/critique for other people and I can understand how the "straw breaking the camel's back" line would have lead readers to that conclusion. I wrote it badly, I think. But I always have and always will be willing to read/critique for others. When I do so, the story in question moves straight to the top of my to-do list and if a particular day only offers me a half hour of free time, then that half hour is spent on the critique. The straw that broke the back was more related to the timing of the request than the request itself. I wasn't thrilled about being mostly ignored for a year and then asked for a favor. Probably petty, I know. But I already coped to that event as not my finest hour. Anyway, carry on.


  1. That's rough, I have a critique group and we meet on regular basis or at least try to email each other stuff. Keep plugging away, there are good ones out there.

  2. I think if I get to the stage of beta-reading, I'll be in the same sort of position. Do you think that being a part of a critique group would work? That way there's a mutually beneficial outcome for everyone by critiquing each other's work?

  3. You send me four chapters, and I will have it back to you in less than 4 days.
    Promise :D

    I'm honest :D
    And fast:D
    And like your writing :D
    And am addicted to these :D

  4. "I know I'm not the nicest person on the face of the— anywhere. I'm moody. I'm sarcastic and passive aggressive. I'm occasionally rather irrational and sometimes downright mean. I have a carefully cultivated bad attitude. I swear like a sailor with a bad case of Tourette's Syndrome and, from time to time, drink like a fish who can't hold its liquor. I'm an incurable book snob with some kind of gross grammatical god complex. I eat too much junk food and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables."

    Hi, I think we might be twins that got separated at birth.

    I know your struggle. It took me two years to find the CP I have now and I just hope to God I don't bore her to death with this current WIP.

    You say you have a grammatical god complex? I need a grammar nazi and you need a pair of eyes. We should probably talk, if you feel like going down that road again. I know how hard it is to open up and let people read and then you hear NOTHING. It is why I have ONE CP and ONE beta reader.

    Much <3 M.J

  5. Forget twins, we're triplets... you me and Bonnie Rae. :D

    I would totally love to be a beta reader for you! I get how hard it is. I get how you want to hear feedback right away and not three years later. (I get antsy when I don't hear from people who want to read my stuff. Makes me feel like I offended someone.) And I have been a beta reader for a couple of people. It is harder for me to be a book reviewer than it is to be a beta reader. I want to help authors and doing reviews makes me sound snarky and egotistical. Go figure.

    Think about it. Drop me a line. :D

  6. Oh crap, I feel terrible about going on and on about my wonderful critique partner yesterday.

    When I sent my novel to beta readers, I sent it in thirds. So I got feedback on the first third I could use while they were reading the next section. I did it that way because I wasn't done polishing the rest - but I think it made it easier for them too.

    Maybe try a local writing group or class where people read a chapter a week in class and give immediate critiques. Women Writing for a Change is great if you have one nearby.

  7. That really, really stinks. I'm guessing - and it doesn't help for me to say this, I'm sure - those beta readers are major flakes and it has nothing to do with your work. Like I said, though, I'm sure that doesn't help. You NEED your readers. So sorry, MJ. I'll join your pity party any time. You're still lots of fun and, clearly, an exceptional writer.

  8. I have a few beta readers. I chose them because I respect what they can offer me in return. Honest and insightful feedback. I would not send out a beta copy to just anyone. Hopefully you can find a group you can trust that will help you write an awesome story!

  9. i truly believe in reciprocal crit. if someone crits for me, i feel like i better crit for them (or at least make sure they know they have the option for the future). i had one lady who asked me to crit her entire ms within two months, which was impossible, because it too me about two hours per five pages of her work to crit. some works take longer than others, and critting is such a time requirement. and then she only critted three chapters for me, very sparingly of comments. so, i had to cut that partnership... which was SUPER hard for me to do.

    besides that, i've had some terrific luck. but i usually exchange one -three chapters at a time. i find that having a little chunk of work in my email isn't as daunting as this big ole' ms to wade through.

    i don't know. i think anyone you team up with is going to have their druthers, and what's important for a successful partnership is trying to communicate these druthers ahead of time.

    if you would like them to crit like 10 pages a week, tell them that from the start. they'll know what you expect, and have more of an idea of whether or not they can fit it in their schedule.

    also, some scatter-brained people (like me!) benefit from kind little budgey, pushy reminders here and there. it's just the way we work. *cue cattle prod*

    if all you're wanting is readers, with very little crit advice, you need to establish that from the beginning, and they'll likely blow right through your ms. but if you aren't willing to reciprocate (like it seemed from your comment about the straw breaking the camel's back) i don't think you'll find many people who will want to give you in-depth crit... i guess i'm not sure what you're looking for. and i'm rambling. and i really need coffee. please forgive me...
    anyone see the jumper cables?!?! my brain's engine ain't turning! :P

  10. I guess I got lucky that way. I have a few editor/author friends and family members so we can keep it all in the family/friend pool. I don't have any advice at all but just know I read every word! And I read the comments too, which seemed really helpful and got you some fine potential crit partners.

  11. MJ, don't give up on finding the right critique partner! They are out there. Find someone else and try again.
    Now I feel guilty I found three awesome critique partners right out of the gate...

  12. Okay, there's a lot of great stuff in these comments and I appreciate them all. I've slowly been replying to you via email but I really just want to say I don't want anyone to feel guilty for having a wonderful CP or an awesome beta. That's what we all want, that's what we all need. Sure, I might be a bit of a green eyed girl but I would NEVER begrudge anyone their awesome magical partnerships!

  13. I didn't use any beta readers. Or CPs. Or anything. Well, that's not precisely true, because I read my book to my kids while I was writing it, and I read it in some of their classes at school, too. I caught a lot of mistakes that way. I also noted when I got laughter at the right spots.
    But I didn't have anyone that gave me actual feedback.
    Not that I didn't try. There were a few people that got early copies, some of them even asked (begged) me to let them read. I didn't hear back from any of them.

    That being said, I have an editor hat. When I have on the editor hat, I treat it like a job. That means it does happen. And I'm good. If I do say so. Just saying.

    I know you're getting a lot of offers in your comments, so I'm hesitant to chime in there, but let me know...

  14. Damn, I could have written that post. I've had good and bad crit partners, including the disappearing kind. It can really mess with your emotions when you get a bad one.

    Basically, writers are crazy. You just have to find the same crazy as you out there and hope it works out. And you may need to be more aggressive about what you want up front. Stipulate how soon you expect to hear back. If you give people enough slack, most will take it.

  15. I haven't read the comments, so forgive me if I'm repeating previous ones. I can literally feel your frustration slamming me back in my chair...and I'm sympathetic. I have not had this experience, but I have beta readers who I know very well. That can also be bad for me as I question the level of honesty that can be given when you know someone. I've also participated in an online critique group, but this is only for 15 pages at a time with a quick turnaround deadline.

    So, maybe you should search for an online reputable group or partner with clear expectations outlined.

    I recently critiqued another writer's 100,000 word+ novel within a month of the request. We chatted for two hours last weekend to discuss it according to a list of questions/statements I had made regarding plot, characters, POV, etc. So, I know it can be done. You are not asking too much.

    You've perhaps had either bad luck or unclear expectations of your betas. :)

  16. I've never had a critique partner/beta reader--mostly because I'm afraid of going through something like the situations you described here. I hope you find some good beta readers--it looks like you've got a lot of offers in the comments. :)

  17. good betas are hard to come by...
    i found my first one thru absolute write and he flaked, i never heard from him again. i thot he was selling my story! when i finally did hear from him, he had some personal stuff come up, apologized and bowed out.

    but then i found my second beta - the best ever! she volunteered in my comments. she was so fast and encouraging and insightful! i sent her a present and will be interviewing her on my blog next month =)

    personally, now when i dont get feedback, i assume the worst - they didnt like it. but i can be rough on myself.

    never give up! and i'd volunteer to crit for you, but i know my limitations! i dont feel qualified enough and i definitely dont have time! but a couple chapters in a month i might be able to will find one =)

    ps, stop by unicorn bell. it's a crit group blog!

  18. Hey MJ! I know just how you feel. WIth my first story, and mind you, before I knew of the wonderful online community, I gave my story out to beta readers who were friends. Okay, I was brand new to writing novels and didn't know what the heck I was doing... but I just wanted honest feedback. Not one single person finished it past the first chapter. I had a really hard time with it. Then, I discovered the online community. Wow. i went from no one wanting to read, to having so many I couldn't keep up. I joined Writer's Digest, where I met three super awesome CPs, all still cherished and awesome partners today. Also, I've found that by putting a blog post that you're looking tends to help. I've seen lots of writers do it, and I found one amazing CP that way (who just found herself an agent.) So the op is out there if you make it known. We don't mesh with everyone... but we can weed out the ones who don't work for us by moving on. You'll find them if you put yourself out there. Also you can try Verla Kay website for CPs. I'd offer, but not sure when I'd have a chance right now. In a few months tho, I'd love to do a trade!

  19. I've had a couple betas that I've sent my stories out to that I'm still waiting on. I think one person forgot, and the other is a friend that has 2 kids and a busy life. The friend emailed me saying she finished beta reading one story and to give her a week to type up notes. I think I need to email and ask her what happened. I also know part of the problem w/ her now is before we lived in the same town and she liked to read on paper so she'd print it out and drop off the pages when done. Now we're about 300 miles apart and I don't want her to be mailing me drafts. That's not fair to ask her to pay for that and I'm not in a position to be able to pay for it either.

    I don't think it's unreasonable to ask a beta to drop you a line if life gets busy... if they have time to even remember to do that. That's the tricky thing about betas. You have to juggle knowing that they have their own life that your story doesn't revolve around, but still bug them to know how they are doing.

  20. Wow. And I felt guilty for the time I took an entire month to beta read someone's book.

    I'm sorry you've had such a tough time with beta readers. I hope you find that perfect match, though. It makes all the difference.

  21. MJ - Keep trying! There has to be someone out there who is looking for you too!

  22. Don't give up hope. I was once in a crit group that didn't work out for me, and then I found one that was fantastic. I also found some amazing beta readers when I thought I never would.

    I also get mad when someone ignores me and then asks me for a favor in a time of need.

  23. Yes, the terrible journey of finding a reader. I feel you. Looks like there are lots of awesome offers up there. Good luck!

  24. I'm with Jolene. I've been following you long enough. Send me your first 10 chapters. I can be hard on my CPs, but I think I have a good eye for stuff. And I am willing to help. I'll need two weeks because I have a CP in front of you. That's it. And yes, you may return the favor because I trust your taste in books.

  25. "You need a test audience to point out the mistakes you don't notice because you're too close to the work because you know what it's supposed to say."

    I get you there MJ. I know how hard it is to send out your work to others to crit.

    As a consistent beta reader/critiquer, I have to admit I've sent loads of e-mails like the ones you've described. I can take up to 3 months to completely read a project. Usually I'm pretty good at sending feedback every so often so the author knows I am reading - if way too slowly.

    I can't speak for anyone eles; but I always offer to read with the best of intentions to get it all done in a week or two. Rarely happens.

    So, I gotta say I commiserate with your complaints here; as far as being on the other side goes. Once I agreed to be crit partners with about six other writers. They were to read mine, I was to read theirs. Slow as I am, my feedback always was sent to them first.

    Which sparked revision aspirations in the author's (harsh as the crits were) and I didn't hear anything back on my own writing. I only got one crit back of the six hopefuls; but that feedback was so helpful . .

    Anyway; as a critiquer, I understand where the others are coming from - sorta. I get busy too; but if I make a committment, I fulfill it; even if it is in bits and pieces.

    I'm not saying you don't have the right to complain here - boy do you, based on my own critique-offer experience. I know I have the best of intentions to get right on it; its just, once the MS comes in the e-mail, I'm almost as scared to open the novel as the author was to write it.

    This is probably not helpful. I'm just saying that I'm sure people I've read for have had the same complaint. And I have to agree with your logic; if a person says I'll read/respond, they should set the time aside to do exactly that.

    I'm glad you posted this complaint MJ. It is a reminder to me that when I make a committment, I should follow through. I do so in other aspects of my day life; why not to the author's in here too. You make a very good point.

    We all depend on each other.


  26. Thank you to everyone for stopping by and commenting. You're a lovely group.

  27. Bless you. I'm sorry you've had bad experiences.
    Have you considered that your beta readers were so in awe of your writing that it has depressed them about their own less advanced writing efforts and has made them withdraw into their shells?

    Having a test audience is helpful, though I believe not everyone bothers with beta reader and CPs they just edit their own stuff and send it out to agents.

    I've been desperate for external validation in the past. Something I'm trying hard to curb AND from what I gather successful authors seem to be saying that you must believe in your writing and yourself first and foremost.

    It sounds like you're on your way to the top, so don't let Beta procrastination distract or delay you. KEEP GOING GIRL!

  28. P.S. Check out this blog post:
    It's a great answer to your post.

  29. i know this is an old post, but i came here from today's post and felt the need to comment.
    I totally hear you about the jealousy over people having awesome CPs and beta readers. I wish i did, too. Sigh.
    And also, what the hell is up with all those betas? I have never NOT finished a MS i'm reading for someone else. Even if i hate it. I sit there and i push through and i offer constructive criticism and i wash my hands of it. I usually do it in less than two months, as well, because i hate sitting on people's work.
    I don't get your people at all. Makes no sense to me.