Beautiful Betareaders

(Okay kids, this is gonna be a long one, so buckle up and keep your hands in the ride at all times!)

This past weekend was my brother in law's birthday, and as a result I got a little tipsy in his honor Saturday night. When Tony drove me home at 2am, he went straight to bed, poor sober little boy that he was. I was wound tighter than a drum, so I stayed up awhile annoying folks on yea olde Facebooky. (If you were one of those folks, I formally apologize...) I also started this blogpost, but I wasn't tipsy enough to finish it. In other words, I realized I was treading on dangerous territory, so I pulled out and decided to try again in the morning when I waznt tiping leek a drunken monkee.

So here we are, sober, if not a little more tired, ready to tackle this topic. And what is it, you ask? Simple, trusting and employing reader feedback. Allow me to rewind a little to explain where I am coming from with this.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a super duper cool and awesomely fun convention. While I was there I was on a panel or two, which suited the attention whore in me, even if I was uber nervous considering my company on a few of these panels. But names, folks. Big people. One of the panels was about reworking a story to improve it's sell ability. Nothing new about that, but we did breech  subject that made more than one writer cringe and hiss and almost boo.

What was it? Taking in reader feedback and using it to improve and even change the direction of your work.

One author said that it was his story and there was no way anyone else was going to tell him how to write it. I couldn't agree more.

Another said that she couldn't understand how I 'let' readers control me like that. How could I let them change the voice of the story? Simple enough, I don't. Because that wasn't what I meant.

Personally, I love reader feedback. I want my beta readers to laud me, yes, don't we all? But more importantly I want them to tell me what is wrong with the work. Not the simple editing stuff, gods' know I need an editor to text a message to the spouse. I want to know about plot development, characterization, and dialogue. That is what good beta readers do. Now, I don't incorporate every suggestion, sometimes none of them at all. But I find that if more than one reader, or in the worst case every single reader, has the same issue or problem with a story, then perhaps I have failed as an author in getting that particular point across. And maybe I should change it.

I let the idea go with the end of the con, thinking that I am a small potato anyways. Of course I need all of the help I can get. I'm new at this! (Well, sort of new..)

Until a few days ago, when I came across someone else complaining about readership influence on the tone and direction of a series.

In this case, an author listened to reader feedback and changed the ending of her series based on what the readers wanted to see happen. The woman’s blog (who reported on this horrible thing) said she was appalled at the idea of it. How dare this other so called author let the readers tell her how to write! Then she went on to quote the names of famous books and authors and asked us how different those stories would've been if the readers had the nerve to control them. Scads of folks backed her up with kudos and comments, agreeing that the author voice is too precious to allow such defiling.

And again I am on the other side looking in, because I can see the value of both.

For example, Railroad! is a webserial, which means I post a chapter or at least 2k words at a time. But it is written in novel form way ahead of time. That way I get to edit and get artwork done in time for you fine folks to enjoy its posting properly. Another reason I write it ahead of time, is because I let a group of beta readers have at it, and ask them to tell me if it makes any freaking sense! Writing it chunk by chunk, in between other projects, flavors the work with other worlds and atmospheres. So, by letting folks who read it in a clean chain, I get the benefit of not only someone spotting continuity errors, time changes and the likes, they also let me know how the characters are coming across. One reader said, of Volume four, "Why was Dodger so downhearted in this one? He just seemed, so hopeless."

Oh, that's right, because I just wrote Skin Trade, a weird west world in which every thing pretty much sucked. So Dodger comes off as a wee bit melancholy. Sorry. Tweak that a bit. Sound better? Thanks!

And I don’t limit it to betareaders either. I love for folks to ask me questions about the characters. Questions maybe I haven’t thought about before and I can answer in the series. Folks ask for more of Ched, they get more Ched. What about that cook? Hang on because he will feature heavily soon. Having that connection to the reader, that the story is as much theirs as it is mine, makes it all that much more fun for me.

But apparently I am committing some kind of high sin by taking reader feedback into my work. Readers are there to appreciate, not create. The author has a voice that shall not be persuaded. Yet…

Serializing novels began as early as the 17th century, but the Victorians really brought the fad home. It allowed them to produce lengthily material that the common man could purchase in installments instead of never affording the finished bound book. Some submitted entire novels to be broken apart, but some … ah, some wrote month-by-month, waiting on reader feedback to see how certain characters were received and where to take the story. They allowed reader interaction to shape the story, not control it, but help focus it.

They loved to hear what the readers wanted, because the readers paid the bills.

Apparently L. Frank Baum was especially sensitive to the children who wrote him. He would include comments in the forwards of his books about how so many folks wanted to see this character more or learn more about this one, and thus he wrote it.

And then there is Lovecraft, my main mad man. He encouraged other writers to write in his worlds! Not only did he interact with these readers, he gave his blessings to use his ideas to write their own stuff. Wow. Just wow.  (Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the same thing, but Lovecraft is always worth mentioning.)

All of this aside, I must add that I have written work that I let no one read until it was ready for edits, and then I asked only for general opinions, and nothing more, because I knew the story was exactly the way I wanted. And I have written stuff that I’ve sent round the circle asking for deep sifting, to work out the loose rocks and bring out the gems. I think both works. Each story will tell you what it needs, one or the other. Don’t discount the help of reader feedback as more than just yay or nay.

I guess my point of all of this is simple; yes an author has a voice, but we also have ears. And unless we are just writing or ourselves, we should really learn to employ both.

For more info on serialized fiction, check out the wiki page.

A big thanks to all of my betareaders. I wouldn't be half the writer without you.

And a second big thanks to all of my readers. I would be nothing without you.

Later taters,