As I am in beta stage, I’ve decided to try sharing my experience in the form of some insight/advice. So, in this post, I’ll look at some selected cases and what you can get from them.
For the purpose of this post, I’ll ignore grammar/typo issues as there’s not much to analyze.
I would say it like this: If one person says there is an issue, it’s an opinion you should consider. If two people say the same, it’s a warning. If three, it’s a problem. So, if multiple betas tell you a scene is not working well, you should consider it. If they tell you why it’s not working, even better, because you have more to go on.
It gets a bit trickier when the betas agree on the fact that a scene is not working but the reason why they think it’s not working differs.
If that happens, it might be a hint that the scene’s purpose is not clear and each of them saw that purpose differently. Just as in the abovementioned case, it’s a good hint to have a look at the scene.
If one beta says a scene rules and the other it falls short… well, it’s a damn hard case of mixed feelings. And it’s not like you could choose one (and definitely don’t go the easy way of choosing the one who agrees with you) and move on.
Even if the feedback seems to be contradicting, there’s still a chance you can learn from it and get a nudge in a spacific direction. Give it a good thinking through: if the reason why one (or more) reader(s) think a scene falls flat is not the plot, then there might be a different issue: the scene might be told too passively to be interesting, or suffer issues in flow to the point it eclipses the good parts for a sensitive enough reader.
Another aspect might be individual tastes – and while you can do little with those, if you get some idea what the taste of each reader is (based on how they comment different plot points), you can use it to edit a scene closer towards your target audience by changing its focus.
It could, techically, fall into the above case. If a scene stirs the reader’s imagination but falls flat plot-wise, it leads to a strange situation: it might suck to cut a weak (plot-wise) scene when it paints a vivid picture. It might be just as bad to keep such a scene for the scenery when it moves the plot nowhere. If the scene really fails plot-wise after you give it a thorough look, you can cut it – and use the great descriptions when the place appears the first time post-cut. Just remember to check for possible leftover mentions of the now-deleted scene.
By the way, there are some reason why keep deleted scenes saved somewhere.
Lack of detail/clarity
One of the challenges in writing is that the author knows the story inside out. They know why they reveal something when they do.
The readers don’t know this. A good beta will tell you when they feel like they should know more about something.
The tough part is looking at it and try to get in their mind: how much do they want to know and what it means for you. Is it a sign that your careful and slow hinting is frustrating, or genuine curiosity about a character/place/magic system/…? That’s quite the question – and finding an asnwer might be even harder. A writer wants to spark curiosity (and thus engagement) but definitely not in a frustrating way.
Too much detail
I’ve mentioned the ‘details issue‘ some time ago. It’s not just potential info dumps but also small things readers might eventually overlook because they have minimal impact on the story (for me, custom names of days/months/measurement units are something I forget within seconds). Another issue comes with flashbacks: a flashback should help to understand the main story, not to draw attention away from it. Using it to reveal something important from the past (especially if it comes into play soon) is good, random backstory sliver… not so much.
One of the most dreadful feedback to process is when the reader doesn’t seem as engaged by the story as you hoped. Tracking down why is it so might be a challenge if they don’t tell you outright – sometimes it might be one of the abovementioned (distractions by details/backstory, lack of clarity) but it’ll always be tricky to decide how to handle this: is it a general flaw in your writing, or is the reader’s genre preference influencing how they feel? Worse, the issue might be related to more than just a single scene/chapter and thus require a deeper anylysis of the flow and pacing. Drawn-out or hectic passages are something to look at, as is motivation of the character.
This might be easy to underestimate and a minor problem but using a modernism in historical/fantasy setting might look way out of place. In romantic/intimate scenes, the choice of words can help set the tone for the scene (from sensual to rough) – and mismatching the words and the scene’s tone can hurt the scene. Using less-known (or too complex) words in a fast-paced scene might not be helpful at all – you want the reader to be drawn into the action, not to look up an unusual word in a dictionary (whether physical or built-in an e-reader).
I think I have exhausted myself on what come to my mind regarding beta-revealed issues, even though it’s possible I’ve forgot something. If that’s the case, let me know in the comments – and feel free to share your own tips and experiences with beta reading, from either side.
See you next time!
Great tips, Tomas. I especially like how you determine if a scene is a problem by how many betas mention the same feedback.
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