Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Terrible Twos-day: Beta vs. VHS - Part II

Yesterday I discussed the first of two schools of thought when it comes to editing our WIPs: the School of Betas. The school where the teachers gently hold your creation in their hands, helpfully mark it up with red pen, and hand it back saying, “Again. This time with feeling.”

But, not every writer agrees with the use of Betas. *pause for collective audience gasp* It’s true! I’ve read their advice online exclaiming, “Don’t show your work to anyone under any circumstance!”

This group of writers vehemently oppose the Beta way of life. Instead, they are strict believers in the Vamp and Hide System, or VHS. (Yes, I made that up, so I wouldn’t start throwing that term around expecting people to know what the fark you’re talking about, unless you have a penchant for people looking at you like you have two heads.) They vamp and revamp their work all on their own and hold it so close to their chest that their skin begins to grow around the edges of the pages, fusing creator with creation in a grotesque display of paranoia. (Ew, that was gross. Sorry.)

The thought process that drives a VHS user is simple: no matter who your Betas are, once they have their grubby little paws on your unpublished - extremely vulnerable – manuscript, there’s nothing stopping the Beta from stealing your ideas, your words, your babies. Instead, the VHS-ers trust in their own abilities to write and edit the perfect story until the time comes for them to boldly submit their work with only a single set of eyes ever gracing its pages.

Wow. That’s intense, right? Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that the VHS-er is wrong or convoluted in their way of thinking. In fact, I still haven’t decided which school I’ll be attending when I’ve reached that glorious false-sense-of-manuscript-perfection.

My inner (and quite possibly over-trusting) literary soul cries out for the use of Betas. I need to know what others think. Did the story work as well for them as it did for me? Is there anything I’ve failed to explain properly? Did I over explain in some areas? Are there plot holes I’ve blinded myself to? And, damn it, I want to know if it’s genuinely good!

But my soulmate (who is always wisely cynical) says I shouldn’t be bandying my ideas about a circle of people I barely know, like a lukewarm version of Hot Potato where the players get to hold it as long as they want and take a hunk off here or a slice off there. I shouldn’t trust anyone not to sell my baby on the black market or run away with it into the night, cackling at their good fortune and my na├»ve trusting ways.

Maybe there are ways to use Betas and not have to worry about the security of your ideas. What about using people who are knowledgeable in the craft of writing, but who aren't pursuing novel writing careers? Or using Betas who are in a different genre than you.

Or maybe there's really no reason to worry at all and the people we meet on the wonderful world of blogging are just as I am: out to connect with other writers and sincere in my wishes that they succeed just as I hope to.

So, which school do you attend? Beta or VHS?


  1. I find this a very interesting topic--a cynical relative of mine was astounded that I intended to put my short story up at a writing group site for feedback. "Aren't you afraid they'll steal your idea?" Me, nope--I'm a pretty trusting person. So far it hasn't come back to bite me on the rear, but who knows, maybe I'm due. I guess I fall somewhere between the Beta and the VHS (Love the terms, by the way). I'd start with a trusted critique partner then, if you can find one, a trusted and/or recommended Beta. Mostly because I know for a fact, no matter how polished I get my work, I will need several sets of eyes on it before it will be remotely ready to be submitted to anyone.

    The other thing that makes this topic current for me is that I'm in the middle of my second manuscript as a Beta reader. I follow a site where you can sign up to be a Beta reader or where you can snag a Beta reader for your own work. Like you, I'm not exactly an expert for the technical side of writing. I'm a reader. I can give the author an idea of what works and doesn't as far as the plot goes, the characters, etc., but from the perspective of a reader. Anyway, being a Beta is a really cool experience, if nothing else.

    Oh, and I'd like to add, I have not yet been tempted to steal the other authors' WIPs. Just sayin'.

    Sorry about the length of this...maybe I need to write a post of my own about this...

  2. Jenni, please don't apologize for the length of your comment! I'm really glad you shared so much of your current experiences and opinions on the topic. Could you please give me (us) the URL of that Beta resource site you mentioned? I'd like to look into that, since I don't know anyone personally that I could use.

    I also like that you mentioned that you have had no desire to steal anyone else's ideas that you've Beta'ed for. I think that's important to take note of. Even though we can look at all the other un-pubbed writers as competition, I think for the most part we're all a very supportive bunch. We sincerely WANT the others like us to succeed in their own right. Now, if we were a bunch of showgirls, we'd probably be pushing each other down flights of stairs in order to nab that leading role. ;)


    It's actually a Writing, Publishing, Social Media and Community, and there's a forum attached. One of the forum topics is Beta reading. I don't know how active it really is, but that's where the two authors I have/am Beta'ing for found me.

  4. I used to be concerned about this, and truthfully my wife still is, but I've come to realize three things that set my mind at ease. First and foremost, all of my Beta readers write in a totally different genre than me, so the opportunity to purloin story idea's is minimal. Secondly, I have built a rapport with them before considering them as Beta's. In essesnce, I establish a sense of trust first. And lastly, I believe that overall there exists a writers code of honor, which says thall shalt not use another writers idea's as your own. Sure, there is bound to be a few bad apples, but hopefully my first two considerations protect me from them.

    So obviously I DO believe in Beta's. The rewards FAR exceed the risks!

  5. Excellent points, DL. (And it's nice to know I'm not the only one with a cynical/paranoid spouse.)

    I like the idea of using people in a different genre. Not only for the reason you mentioned, but if someone in another genre sincerely likes your book, then it's says a lot that you had the ability to hold their interest where it would normally not be held. Second, you're right about creating a rapport with your chosen Betas. No one wants to screw someone over if they genuinely like them and wish them well, and vica versa.

    That's why, in the very near future, you will be forced to choke down (and like it) a Paranormal Romance. ;)


  6. I'm a beta type. I'm not afraid someone is going to turn around and steal my novel. I'm using other writers as betas, first, and we're generally reviewing other's work -- I just feel like it's a community and a certain level of mutual trust is appropriate.

    Plus, beta reading helps sooo much! I'd rather take on a modicrum of risk to have the best possible product.

  7. Thanks for weighing in, Guinevere. I think I've come to agree with the Beta school as well. *my literary soul cries shouts of joy*

    I think you're all right about the writing community being one of mutual respect and honest-to-goodness well-wishers. I don't want to see anyone fail in the publishing world. When I hear that someone got signed or published, my heart swells for them and it only increases my hopes that "if it can happen for them, it can happen for me." There's billions of readers out there and there's room for all of us.

    Thank you everyone for all of your great input. I can't wait to enroll in my school of choice. :)

  8. VHS vs. Betas -- girl, you are too clever! Love the comparison!

    I honestly don't hand out my work to alot of people, simply because I want it to be MY work that's going to an agent/publisher/whatever. I feel that my work needs to shine on its own, to stand or fall, without a large amount of input. It may sound crazy, but there it is. Because when I got that publishing contract, well, then I knew that I had done it, not anyone else.

    Now that I've gotten a publisher, though, I have to say I LOVE my editor. Would I want my unadultered work out there for everyone to see -- heck no! Having another eye I trust to get mistakes, clarify things, pick up gaffes is priceless.

    I think it all comes down to personal preference, and how people like to work. I also subscribe to the view that while it's nice to have other people's viewpoints, 'too many cooks can spoil the soup', so having your work read by too many betas may be a bad thing as well. Look at Stephenie Meyers' writing -- some people LOVE it, others have criticized the living daylights out of it (I personally got sucked into the storyline). It's all subjective, which is good and bad.

    In short, I think it's good to have someone else look over your work, but I keep it limited so as not to get too many ideas jumbled in my head :-)

  9. I use Betas. They even write the same genre as me (I think it helps because they really know when I'm being cliche, etc.) I don't really worry about them selling my work, because like DL, I built a rapport with them first. I "know" them all. Plus, they have me read all their stuff too, so it's like a circle of trust. :)

  10. I would say at this point I choose neither but it's been a very interesting topic and when the time comes around I should definitely research it!!

  11. Gina:

    My two cents, for what it's worth (here's a hint: two cents)?

    Always use somebody to read it.

    You can never as the writer truly see the forest for the trees.

    Find someone to give it to.

    If that's a group of "betas," cool. If it's a spouse or a friend, awesome. An imaginary friend is even better!

    If you're ever worried about copyright or theft, just make 'em sign a document that says, straight up, "I won't steal your shiznit, yo."


    -- c.

  12. Nicole: I knew you'd appreciate my 80s analogy! *lol* I totally get what you're saying about wanting what you write to be yours only. (Which is also one of my husband's arguements.) In the past when people have read my work, I liked hearing their suggestions, but I refused to use them no matter how much I loved them. Instead, I used it as a reference and put things into my own words, in my own style. I also agree with the idea of keeping it to a select, trusted few. Too many ideas would be overwhelming and unproductive, I think.

    Tiana: I like the idea of building that "circle of trust" (was that a Meet the Parents reference? lol) with your Betas by offering to read their WIPs, too. It's kind of a "I'll trust you to scratch my back without leaving gaping claw marks, if you'll trust me to do the same" kind of thing.

    Jen: I hear ya on the whole sitting on the fence thing! That was my motivation for discussing this particular topic. But I think I've found a happy medium with the help of all my commenters. I hope you find what's right for you when the time comes!

    Chuck: Due to the exchange rate between the Land of Terribleminds and Passions on Paper, your two cents always comes out to at least 5 bucks! I love your "forest for the trees" reference and I believe in it whole-heartedly. The few times people have looked at my schtuff, they've brought things to my attention that I just simply didn't realize (see obnoxious French Beta scenario in Part 1). And you're right, if anyone is truly unsure about sharing their work, a signed piece of paper is as good as gold. So, thanks for the 5-spot, Chuck!

  13. I have an award for you! It's a funny one...;)

  14. I think I'm on the Beta side BUT I'm very selective and only let limited people see my work. People I trust. Luckily, the blogging community is awesome, and I've met some great, honest, trustworthy crit partners!

  15. Betas all the way!

    I agree with DL, I think there's an unspoken honor code among writers that we won't steal each other's stories. And really, if someone's a writer they probably have a ton of their own ideas they're busy with anyways.

    Worse case scenario, someone steals your MS and publishes it. They flop after the first book because it wasn't their talent. You, on the other hand, write dozens more and become a bazillionaire.

    Or something like that. ;)


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