There is no lack of advice for writers, including right here at BVC. We’re a bunch of writers, so we talk about writing, whether it’s how to deal with bad advice or rough and mean critiques, writers in community or writing groups, or buddies, but sometimes I think it can be worthwhile to talk about beta reading and collaboration.
There is a fundamental divide between beta reading and collaboration. Though this divide seems obvious especially to writers, I discovered that it isn’t always clear to non-writers. This can seem especially fuzzy when it appears that the beta reader is enthusiastic and puts in a lot of work. A couple times I’ve been asked at a panel for new writers something like, “If someone reads the book before it’s finished and makes suggestions, why doesn’t the beta reader have her name on the book’s spine, too?”
The questioner was right in understanding that a beta reader is somebody who in essence gives a review before the work is finished. What the questioner didn’t understand is, like a book review, a beta read cannot change the work.
A beta reader can write a twenty-five page, single-spaced critique, but it is completely up to the author of the piece to decide whether to heed any of it, part of it, all of it, and how to heed it. The beta reader gave an opinion, no matter how impassioned, but had no control over the final text. Some writers consult numerous beta readers. (Some workshop the same novel for years without ever submitting it anywhere.)
A collaboration means more than one person is making decisions about where the story is to go. There are all kinds of collaboration. I myself have participated in a number of collaborations, and each one has been different from all the others. There is that same exhilaration of creativity, without having to labor all alone. One also isn’t making the decisions alone. They are negotiations.
Some famous collaborations were written in fun, like the sixties takedown of popular literature, Naked Came the Stranger. More recently in the science fiction and fantasy world, was the egregiously and triumphantly awful Atlanta Nights, by “Travis Tea”. (I don’t know who gets the royalties for Naked Came the Stranger, but proceeds from Atlanta Nights go to the SFWA Medical Emergency Fund.)
Not every collaboration is a spoof, obviously. There are all kinds of collaborations, from the junior-senior-writer ones where the senior writer might provide an outline and the junior writer does the majority of the writing, which the senior then vets, to the trading-off-of chapters type. Or collaborations in which two writers fashion every scene together. Or there are the letter games, like Sorcery and Cecilia.
A lot of writers invented variations on the letter game—including yours T. Another writer kid and I got ourselves through the hideousness of eighth grade by collaborating on three young adult historical adventures. It was a real relief during those days of industry-sized schools and bullying to arrive expecting a new chapter (written in code) in my locker. We loved the third one so much that we laboriously typed it up and sent it to a publisher—whereupon it came sailing right back. (Looking at its yellowed pages now, I think, too bad Alfred Knopf didn’t have the vision to take it as a fine example of howlingly awful writing. It makes Atlanta Nights look like art.)
There are plenty of good collaborations out there, of course. 800 pound gorillas in the fiction world, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, collaborated on Good Omens in 1990, a collaboration so successful it’s still in print and selling briskly. There are numerous other writers teaming up to collaborate; the fun of planning and executing a story together really can halve the work and increase the enjoyment.
There are also innovative Net collaborations, like Eric Flint’s 1632 series, and the disastrous but interesting wiki fiction experiment, A Million Penguins, sponsored by Penguin Books a few years ago.
Like the Penguin project, not all collaborations work out successfully. The first year that Dave Trowbridge and I collaborated on our SF space opera, Exordium, our agent was so dismayed—having recently had to preside over some bitter collaborative break-ups, including one between a married couple—that she made us sign an agreement before she would look at it. At the same time, one of my favorite space operas ever, The Price of the Stars, was being written by a married couple, Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald.
I remember one science fiction collaboration early in the days of the internet that ended up with the two writers each suing the other for control of the project. I also had a collaboration end, many decades ago, when the other person shifted from negotiation and planning to issuing directives on where the story was going and what I could and could not do with my characters. The fun was gone, and the project fizzled out. This can happen when each writer’s vision bifurcates, and one seems to feel more invested. (Or their opinion is more privileged.)
Someone finally has to decide if two writers disagree about the shape, a plot point, a character, or even a sentence; most successful collaborations are the result of successful negotiation between creative minds. But beta reading, to bring this back around, means that only one person makes the decisions, shapes, writes, and polishes the story. Others can comment, but all decision making is done by the writer.
With the Internet so easy, there are all kinds of collaborations going on. There are also many writing circles where writers can find beta readers, a vast improvement over the past when the writer was either forced to use people in her environment, or risk sending the (usually single copy) of the manuscript off to a pen friend.
New methods of beta reading are being invented by writers. One of these is going on right now, by our own Judith Tarr, who ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her young adult fantasy, Living in Threes. As part of her campaign promise, she intends to rewrite the book and post its progress online, so that other writers can see her process. I’m participating as the beta reader—I, too, will be watching eagerly as she shapes the story into its final form.