Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Terrible Twos-day: Beta vs. VHS

I originally said that Terrible Twos-day would be an informative post on two things that knowledgeable professionals say writers should never do. I’m not abandoning that theme entirely, but rather twisting it into a discussion on two schools of thought that continue to plague me when it comes to my book: Do I use Betas or the VHS?

When I was a wee lass in Small Town, Wisconsin, my family stepped into the future and became proud owners of the latest and greatest technology: the VCR. (The very first videos we rented were The Muppets Take Manhattan and WHAM!’s Greatest Hits Videos. Don’t judge me!) When you rented videos, you had the option of renting a Beta version or VHS version of your desired movie. The type of VCR you owned determined which version you rented for your viewing pleasure. To this day I have no idea what a Beta version of a VCR looks like, or what the difference between the two are (nor do I particularly care).

Nowadays, when I hear the term Beta, it’s linked to a new-and-improved version of software or hardware or Tupperware that hasn’t had all the bugs, kinks and wrinkles worked out yet. Therefore, they label it “Incredible Thing You Must Have version 18.0 Beta.” This tells us they want us to take it for a spin and let them know what we think is great, and not so great, about their latest and greatest Thingamabobber.

So how does that apply to our writing?

It doesn’t.

It has to do with our editing. The people that read your finished manuscript are called your “Beta Readers,” or more affectionately, “Betas.” Here’s an example scenario of why some (most?) writers use Betas:

Writer: YES! Finally, my manuscript is complete! I’ve poured over every last word, every tiny comma, and there’s nothing I could possibly change, add, delete or embellish to make this better. Here, my lucky little Betas, read and bask in the literary glory that is my polished book.

Beta #1: Ooh, this was really good, but I think it would be even better if you changed this, this, aaaaaaand this.

Beta #2: Yes, and don’t forget to make this part a little clearer and this part a little stronger.

Beta #3: Right. Oh, and also, I don’t think this is necessary to move the story forward…or this…oooooooor this.

Writer: Well, button my britches, you’re all absolutely right! I’m so glad I had fresh sets of eyes to point out my story’s weaknesses that I couldn’t see for myself. Now my book will be even better. Thank you, Betas!

In summary, Betas can read and analyze our work more objectively than we can. We are the mothers, painstakingly dressing and primping our children for their big debut to the world. We look at them with blinded pride and say to anyone who will listen, “Look at what I have created. She is beautiful beyond compare and I have dressed her in the finest clothes and styled her hair in a unique and wonderful way.” Then the photographers – or Beta Readers – show up for the photo shoot and says, “Sacre bleu! Zees will not do! Ze clothes are so last season and her hair ees like she stuck her fingair een ze light socket. Tsk tsk tsk. Non, non, non. Come. I will fix and zen she will shine like ze Eiffel Tower, non? OUI!”

(I’m not sure why the Beta Readers were French in that scenario, but you get the picture.)

But if we’re going to use Betas, who do we chose? How do we know they’re qualified to take on such a task in the first place?

I could tell you all day long how knowledgeable I am in the world of fiction writing and my role as a Crit Partner or Beta Reader would be invaluable to you. But I’d be lying. I’m not qualified in the least! All I can tell you is what I liked or didn’t like as a reader. I’m not worth a damn as an editor, unless we’re talking spelling errors. I can catch those with my eyes closed. But when it comes to technical writing? Sentence structure? Nope, don’t ask me, ‘cause I have no idea.

And, maybe I’m completely off the mark here, but I feel like 99% of the people I’ve met through the wonderful world of blogging are in the same position I’m in. Finding their writing voice and struggling to finish their current books or projects. We’re not published. We don’t have years of success under our belts. We’re newbies, novices, hopefuls, students. From reading snippets and teasers, I’ve discovered so many people whom I truly think are talented writers with bright futures ahead of them. But others seem to like my snippets as well, but again, I’d like to reiterate that I am not qualified to be a Beta, so raw talent doesn’t necessarily mean I have the tools to refine my work or anyone else’s.

I know a lot of you have Betas already. What were your reasons for choosing those people? Are they personal friends of yours? Are they internet friends whose work you admire? Give me your thoughts on the School of Betas.

**Because this post ended up being so obnoxiously long, I’m breaking it up into two days. Part two will air tomorrow morning, where I’ll discuss the VHS option of editing your work. (the following is said in a ridiculous New York accent---->) Frankly, the whole thing is making me a little verklempt, so I’m giving you a topic to talk amongst yourselves: Tupperware. It’s neither Tupper, nor ware. Discuss. (One million points and all of my love to the person(s) who can tell me what that’s from!)**



  1. In my experience, I've come across Beta's with different strengths and I use them that way. I'll employ one beta (although it could be several) who will concentrate on grammar, sentence structure, word usage, etc. A very detailed analysis. But another Beta(s) will read the book more like a normal reader, keeping an eye out for pacing issues, Black Ice, plot holes, characterization problems.

    So far I've seen great results utilizing their strengths in that manner. But you are right about it being critical to find the right Beta's, because it is from their feedback that your manuscript will truly improve.

    Great post! :)

  2. This is something I'm very curious about, too! Thanks for bringing it up, Gina.

    I think I'm a "reader" Beta at this point. It would be difficult for me to give important avice since I'm still fining my own way.

    Can't wait for the next part!

  3. Saturday Night Live! I don't know the lady's name but it was Mike Myers as a lady. As for Betas, I have no comment and no idea, but I enjoyed your post. It was like a comedy special.

  4. "Clara" (otherwise known as my sister, Panj)...you win all my love and one million points. Congratulations!!!


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