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19 December 2006 @ 10:11 am
Christmas Wish of a Non-Native Writer ( who travels a lot between fandoms)  
If suddenly a little Christmas Elf appeared on my writing desk, and told me he'd grant me one major fandom-related wish for 2007 (but really just one, so I'd have to chose carefully), I wouldn't ask for one of the big things. No sudden disappearance of all soulless badfic. No sudden and unexpected rise in the popularity of my own pieces, caused by mighty BNF wizards praising and reccing my work wherever they go.

What I'd really like instead is a good, trusty beta-reader. One who shares all the fandoms I write in. Who is a native speaker of English and has a good feeling for punctuation and language. Who instinctly gets how I write. That I want my stuff to be efficient and honest, with a small spark of beauty, but not necessarily "easy reads".

Someone who only asks me to elaborate or to change that bloody semicolon into a full stop where it is indeed neccesary and an actual improvement.

One of my all time favourite sentences is "The sight of her whale bone corset was enough to unman him completely." (Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill). This is what I, theoretically and within the limits of my own capabilities, strive at. The whole tragedy of a Welsh farmer's marriage to a vicar's daughter wrapped into no more than fifteen well-chosen words.

I know that other writers could and would pull an amazing, breathtaking two page scene out of that. But I couldn't. Because it simply wouldn't be me. And some beta-readers get this at once, while others just don't, simply because their own reading tastes and experiences happen to differ (which, of course, is perfectly normal and 100% legitimate ;-)).

Probably, the best way to avoid the problem of differing tastes and preferences would be to stay patient and to try finding the one beta you really "click with". But if you switch between fandoms a lot, this one true trusty beta just doesn't happen. In my experience, at least; other folks may have been luckier.

More often than not I find myself in a situation where I have to rely on the generous offers of strangers, which is nice, on one hand. Over the years I've met some amazing people that way. (I'm waving at you, you know who you are :-)) But on the other, it is a nightmare. Whenever you send off a story for beta-reading, you send it into the unknown, never knowing what you will end up with.

There have been cases in which I disagreed with the original beta's assessment of my story so badly that I tried to enlist as many other folks to read the damned thing as I possibly could. Only to end up with a more balanced idea of where the true strengths and weaknesses of my story might lie.

It's becoming more and more of a habit lately, and more and more of a burden. Too much trouble to go through with tiny little ficlets, seldom longer than 1000 words. If I as a German weren't so dependent on native speakers to correct my language and grammar, I'd probably give up on betas completely, at least with the shorter stories.

On my hard drive, there is this tiny 850 word vignette I wrote out of a sudden mood, during lunch break, in less than an hour (yes, I seem to be getting quite fast these days *g*). No idea whether the text is any good. What I know, however, is that if that tiny little thing had been written for a German audience, I would have published it on the very day that I wrote it. Maybe with a pause of five or six hours to ensure I catch most of the typos and odd wordings with the second re-reading. Then I simply would have lent back and enjoyed the reactions, regardless whether they would have been positive or negative.

But as the text was written in English, as a spontaneous answer to a very specific request, the whole act of writing, revising and posting has turned into a process of several days. (Haven't gotten the story back yet and am fearing the worst in terms of 'story will probably come back turned all upside down and thus cause only more unnecessary trouble for anyone involved'. To tell the truth, I actually don't really feel like publishing the damned thing anymore at all, because the sheer joy of the moment has ceased sometime between Monday morning and now.)

Please, Christmas Elf. I want that trusty, multi-fandom, English speaking beta so badly.


ETA: Just got back the story in question. And based on what one can see at a first superficial glace, it hasn't been butchered at all, but quite to the contrary, skillfully edited. I might not take all of my beta's suggestions, but certainly most. Phew, so at least with this ficlet all my usual beta-angsting was totally unecessary. Yay :-)
galadhir on December 19th, 2006 01:04 pm (UTC)
My position on beta reading is this: I hate doing it. It drains away any desire I might have to write myself. I'm also - except in the case of non-native writers - genuinely not sure that it's necessary. I don't have a beta reader myself, for both of those reasons (ie, if I had one myself I would feel more obliged to do it for others.)

So when I do beta it is because I have weighed up the writer's block that it causes me against how much I want to see the other person's story. I used to try to force myself to be unselfish about it, and beta whatever people wanted me to beta, but I've since realized that the depression and wish to run away from any form of creative writing whatsoever, for *weeks*, are just not worth it.

So, while I might willingly cast an occasional eye over something in order to catch non-English grammar, I honestly couldn't commit myself to anything more than that for fear of stopping myself from writing at all.
Bimo: Obi_povbimo on December 19th, 2006 02:21 pm (UTC)
I'm also - except in the case of non-native writers - genuinely not sure that it's necessary

I'm pretty much inclined to agree that the status and general necessity of a beta-reader tend to get somewhat exaggerated sometimes ;-)

Recently I re-read on old German story of mine, 'Angel: The Series', originally published in 2001, and though the story never went through the hands of a beta, the only two things I realized while reading were (a)Wow, just three typos/mistakes in over 2500 words and (b)Hey, content-wise and stylistically this might easily be one of the coolest things I've ever come up with.

I hate doing it. It drains away any desire I might have to write myself

As for feeling blocked or drained due to beta-reading somebody else's work: This is something that only happens to me if the author in question and I tend to function on completely incompatible wave lengths. Usually, my only two non-negotionable No-Nos are beginners and stories which happen to lie too far outside my usual fields of interest. But otherwise I enjoy beta-reading.

It's getting beta-ed by the wrong persons that kills my creativity. The worst beta-experience I ever had almost felt like a stylistic rape and even if the whole affair occurred years ago, I still remember that sentence, typed in red letters, like it was yesterday: "Oh, and btw. I took the liberty to switch all your passive sentences into active." Thank you very much, I had chosen passive voice for a reason, fully aware of the effect this would have on the text.

On the other hand, good betas (and I've had some really good ones over the years, unfortunately all scattered across different fandoms) have done truly amazing things to stories about which I had initially rather bad feelings.

So, I'm kind of torn on the issue. And as a non-native unfortunately left with very little choice ;-)
galadhir on December 19th, 2006 04:33 pm (UTC)
I have sent some of my fics off to beta readers (usually in order to get them into archives which demand the names of your two beta-readers, and check with them that they read it). In one case I altered the story to take into account what one beta had said - then realized that, although it had answered an implicit question in the text, it had resulted in the ending being diffused and losing its punch. So I put it back to how it was. And in all the other cases it's mainly been people 'fixing' my sentence-fragments and other stylistic devices, again in ways that I usually just put straight back how they were.

If I was to have a beta, I would hope for a kind of meta focus - you know; does the plot hang together, do the characters seem in character and are their actions sufficiently well explained etc. But so far nobody's done that, except sometimes in reviews after it was posted :)

I don't know why I find it so draining. Even if I'm betaing a story that - as a reader - I would *love*, I still find the process of looking over it analytically and questioning everything, exhausting and somehow soul destroying. I suppose, in part, it's because I'm constantly questioning how much of my reaction is my own preferences. Stopping myself from re-writing it the way *I* would do it is difficult. But yes, like you, the more the author's vision (and style) grates against my own, the more difficult it gets.

I wish I did enjoy it! I would like to beta read for you - except that I know by now that if I *did* offer, I would end up hating and resenting it and doing a bad job.

But if you ever need a quick read through to see if any sentences lept out at me as being not-quite-English in expression, I can certainly do that :)
Cavendishcavendish on December 20th, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC)
In defence of an honourable trade
In defense of an honorable trade

Let me at first put two main ideas plainly: First, I think much of I have written would have been half as good as it was when finished had it not been for people who read it and invented time and creativity on their part. Secondly, I myself, given the time, enjoy beta reading because in a way it is taking part in and sharing the creative process, trying to make things better.

Imaging, for a second, Eliot and Pound, easily the two greatest poets of their day. Where would "The Wasteland" be without Pound's edting (that is deleting almost half of the original text!)? Or, if you are the romantic type, would the "Lyrical Ballas" have become as important a collection if not for the collaboration of Wordsworth and Coleridge?

I believe beta reading a discursive process of equals. If I say sentences to a fellow writer like: I do see a break here / this passage is imho superfluous One of my favorites) / I do not get this or that change in perspective / I feel the motives of your main character are a bit unclear (all this being things I say at times) it not a verdict on the text, it is just an observation I happen to make. It may be simply wrong. It may be, on the other hand, prove helpful.

People tend to correct or criticize for a reason. I do not think the do it as "stylistic rape" to use your wording. If someone changes all the passives into actives, on might consider he thought the language to artificial, unnatural or what have you. Of course I can, as a writer, say, that I wanted it this or that way. Still, I do get a valuable insight (after being angry for, say, two or three hours ;-) ) into the effect my style has on certain readers, an insight which I, as a writer, can well use.

Writing is, was and will remain "a craft" and we should be damn glad if we have someone to call "the better craftsman"


Oh, and PS.: Maybe it is must me being not in Fandom: But has every beat reading to be made a a member of the fandom in question? just wandering ... ;-)

(Deleted comment)
Bimo: Terra_incognitabimo on December 22nd, 2006 02:56 pm (UTC)
Re: In defence of an honourable trade
I've had very good luck asking writers who's work I admire to beta for me - I find if they're writing stories I like, then their priorities are similar to mine

Hmmm... I've always been somewhat hesitant to ask people upfront, because I would hate the thought they felt compelled to proofread for me just out of politeness.

I think you are very right about the basics, though. Interaction, communication, seeking out like-minded people.

I'd be glad to beta for you, if you're still looking for someone. You might look at my work and see if you think our styles are compatible. . .

You have no idea how honored I feel by this :-)

While the ficlet which caused the recent fit of unnecessary beta-angst is now out and published, I'd love to get back to your offer with the longer story I'm having still in the oven, if that is alright for you *g*
Carmarthencarmarthen on December 22nd, 2006 07:30 am (UTC)
For me it really depends on the story and the beta-reader--I only use one for about half my stories, mostly the longer ones. I've had a few beta-readers who helped me make my work dramatically better, and others who didn't really offer much in the way of commentary (and not necessarily because the story was so perfect--it wasn't).

I also love beta-reading myself, although I don't have much time for it.
mrs_norringtonmrs_norrington on December 19th, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
I have never been a beta, and I'm not even sure if I would make a good one. I know I make my fair share of mistakes, but I hope that I manage to fix most of them. I only write in the Potc fandom currently, so I suppose that's another quality I don't measure up to. However, I would offer my services if you find yourself without one.

I'm generally attached to my computer a large amount of the time, so getting it back quickly shouldn't be a problem. If you need help, just ask. I'll be glad to assist, though I will be away from my computer from December 28 to roughly January 12 or 13. I'll be in Munich during that time with a group from college.

Merry Christmas!
Bimo: Terra_incognitabimo on December 21st, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC)
I'll be glad to assist, though I will be away from my computer from December 28 to roughly January 12 or 13. I'll be in Munich during that time with a group from college

I you like, I'd love to get back to that offer with the longer story I'm currently working on, probably sometime in mid January. PotC, mild Norrington/Elizabeth romance with lots of Governor Swann and historical details.

I'll be in Munich during that time with a group from college.

Munich, Germany? (I've been there a couple of times to visit a friend and it's such a fascinating city to be in :-))
mrs_norringtonmrs_norrington on December 21st, 2006 08:12 pm (UTC)
Just let me know whenever you've got it ready. I'll be glad to help.

Yes, I'll be in Munich, Germany. We're going to several places in the area as well as a side trip to Salzburg, Austria. My German isn't too great, but I promised my professor that I'd try to speak it whenever possible during the trip. Here's to hoping that I don't embarass myself too greatly! :)
Bimobimo on December 21st, 2006 08:19 pm (UTC)
My German isn't too great, but I promised my professor that I'd try to speak it whenever possible during the trip.

Frohe Weihnachten und eine gute Reise! :-)
mrs_norringtonmrs_norrington on December 21st, 2006 08:35 pm (UTC)
Ich verstehe das! Danke. Frohe Weihnachten!

Ich bin sehr aufgeregt. Wir gehen nach Nuernberg, Muenchen, Salzberg, Herrenchiemsee, Neuschwanstein, und mehr.

Sorry if any of my grammar is incorrect. I'm still learning that stuff, and I'm learning it slowly.
Vashtanvashtan on December 19th, 2006 05:40 pm (UTC)
Can't help you, sorry ...
... I'm too far out, my English should be roughly the same level as yours, and I follow no fandom.

but if I find somebody like that, I'll tie him/her up and send them over for betaing. :)

Merry Xmas!
The Espresso Addict: coffee cupsespresso_addict on December 19th, 2006 07:46 pm (UTC)
If you want your beta just to fix grammar problems perhaps it's wise to tell them so -- speaking as a former beta, it's pointless them wasting time considering structure, characterisation &c when all the author wants is reassurance about writing in a second language.

I agree with the comment that the fannish culture is perhaps overcentred around betaing. Personally, I routinely use editing beta readers only for gift stories, where the story tends to get written in a hurry, though I have used American readers to do the opposite of Britpick on one or two of my US fandom stories.

I often get people to help upfront with brainstorming, but that's entirely different.
Bimo: Seven_riddlebimo on December 21st, 2006 08:11 pm (UTC)
If you want your beta just to fix grammar problems perhaps it's wise to tell them so -- speaking as a former beta, it's pointless them wasting time considering structure, characterisation &c when all the author wants is reassurance about writing in a second language.

Hmmm... I believe you are right insofar that the key to a successful beta reading experience really seems to lie in being clear (and honest) about goals and expectations.

Personally, however, I'd always be afraid of imposing far too narrow limitations on my betas by telling them to just take a look at grammar and spelling. What if somebody accidentally caught a major plot hole or confusing paragraph but had to keep silent about this?

It's really not the least invasive corrections that I'm after, but the ones which are necessary to get my initial piece of writing into its best possible shape ;-)
The Espresso Addictespresso_addict on December 22nd, 2006 01:46 am (UTC)
It's really not the least invasive corrections that I'm after, but the ones which are necessary to get my initial piece of writing into its best possible shape ;-)

You're probably stuck with trying to build long-term relationships with those betas who work for you...
Unovis: Trust meunovis on December 21st, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)
You can try me.
Carmarthencarmarthen on December 22nd, 2006 07:35 am (UTC)
Finding a good beta is hard even within your native language, especially for the multifannish, so I sympathize. I'm not in all your fandoms, but I'd be happy to beta PotC for you (or do grammar reads on just about anything--I'm pretty quick about grammar).

Judging by that sentence On the Black Hill looks beautifully written, but judging by the Amazon blurb it would probably just make me horribly sad.
Hmpf: fanatichmpf on December 8th, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
ah yes. It took me years to find mine. I had various betas before beccatoria, but somehow, I was never entirely happy with the result. You know that feeling when you *know* there's something subtly wrong about some part of your text, and you hope the beta will tell you what it is and how to fix it? beccatoria is the first beta of mine who actually manages to catch these things.

My solution to the multifandom problem is: find a beta you trust on language/style/narrative approach issues and keep them; then supplement with a person from the new fandom in question for character/canon issues. The second beta doesn't have to be someone you click with all that much on a language etc. level, as they only need to catch the kind of stuff your primary beta can't.