The Importance of Multiple Betas

I had several people read the second draft of my novel, then I put all their comments into one document, and that’s the file I’m working from now. I put an initial at the beginning of each comment so I’d know whose suggestion it was, then went on my merry way.

Following Monday’s post, another writerly rule of thumb is that if several people tell you a certain scene or passage isn’t working for them, even if they can’t tell you why, you need to rework that scene. If only one person does, it could just be that person. (That gets into dangerous territory because in theory that one person could represent a large amount of people, but that’s something I fight with myself about. I don’t want to get into that here. Unless you want to, of course.) What’s amusing to me is when two people have polar opposite reactions.

I recently came to a flashback scene where an important piece of information is revealed about several characters. The flashback is split into two parts within one chapter and probably totals three or four pages. I know some people think you should never ever use flashbacks, but I like them and only use them a couple times. (I swear I avoid info dumps.)

One of my readers told me I needed to condense the flashback into a couple sentences. Said it went on way too long and pulled the reader out of the story. Another reader said they loved the layers of my story and how I’m slowly unpeeling them to reveal information.

Two totally different reactions to the same piece of writing. Both from writers I respect, and ironically, writers with similar writing styles and genres.

So which opinion would you go with?

(I’ve actually made my decision, I’m just curious how you would handle it.)

About Melanie Hooyenga

Writer. Designer. Jock. Reader. Wife. Puppy-Mama. SCBWI member since 2015.

20 Comments

  1. Of course it depends on your gut instinct! I’ve also learned that sometimes it isn’t a scene that needs to be changed, but just a few words within a scene. It’s a rare reader who actually KNOWS what’s wrong with something – they just know something is wrong, and you have to ferret it out.

    My beta readers were enormously valuable to me – among other things, I found out that readers were perceiving one character as older than she was – changing a few key words took care of that.

    • I’m definitely following my gut on this one.

      That’s funny they thought your character was older. I had one reader who must have been projecting personal issues onto my characters because the one that I wrote to be cold and stand-offish they kept giving me suggestions for making her warmer (like that wasn’t my intention) and the character that IS warm and loving, they kept giving suggestions on how to emphasize how cold she is.

  2. “If in doubt, keep it,” is what I generally go with. 😉

    If, at a later time, an editor wants it changed, it’s not a big deal to slash it out. 🙂

    Adam

    PS – ANOTHER serious post! OMG!

    • Adam, that was actually running through my head when I had to make the decision. I can only HOPE an editor gets her eyeballs on it someday.

      We’re two for two!

  3. JLC

    As a reader, I don’t mind flashbacks if they are integrated seamlessly into the story. But I don’t like more than one or two/book. I’d rather have the characters reveal past info during a conversation or a past memory briefly described as they are approaching a situation that reminded them of that memory.

    As a writer, I haven’t written flashbacks and usually will refer to a past event during one of those conversations/memories mentioned above.

    But each writer has his or her style, and each reader enjoys certain types of styles. If it works in the story, and is either it’s own chapter, or seamlessly added to your book, then go for it! 🙂

    • I agree. I don’t like a ton of flashbacks, and I think mine may have appeared as an info dump, even though that’s not how I intended. So far only one reader has said anything, so I’ll see what happens with my next round of readers.

  4. Nadine

    Ooh, that’s a toughy. I guess I would go with what you feel strongest.

    I have a similar situation with my WIP but I’m leaning towards going with the the side that takes the least amount of work. Bad, I know…

    • lol. See, that’s what I’m afraid of. It’s much easier to leave it alone. 😛

      You aren’t completely afraid of the work though, from what you told me you’ve changed since the draft I read. 🙂

  5. Trust your gut!! I love that idea of consolidating the comments into one. I usually have them seperate and have to keep looking back… That’s a good way to do it ;o)

    Long live the flashback! I have one in my story so far, it’s really the only way the reader can see one important character, well since she’s dead. So, you have to weigh the impotance too!

    Whatever decision you make is the right one ;o)

    • Erica, it really makes it a lot easier. I have two documents open at a time and transfer back and forth. If it’s a super simple change I just make the change and don’t even add the comment.

      I still have some comments I need to add from a reader who took a little longer, but I haven’t reached those scenes yet so I keep putting it off. I may try to tonight…

  6. kevin

    i would go with whatever the prettier one said. LOL! Ok, regardless of the truth of that statement, I find I always like depth in my stories. I can’t say yes or no with out elaborating, let alone try to tell a story. So, I would go with the lengthy answer. Apparently, I can’t pick left or right without elaborating either…

  7. bigwords88

    Everyone who has acted as a beta for my work has managed to uncover problems I had managed to gloss over (or miss entirely), so they are invaluable. Not everyone has picked up the same problems, but they have all managed to make the work stronger. Fresh eyes on a novel are one of the best ways to strengthen a story.

    Every opinion is weighted against the person’s skills and strengths, although I tend to listen to everything which is suggested – there is always room for improvement.

    I have a feeling my dedications page is gonna be rather long…

    • All very true. I didn’t mean to gloss over these points by talking about this. I choose my betas carefully and for particular reasons, so they’re opinions are extra important to me.

      It actually took me awhile to realize I didn’t have to blindly make every suggestion. But I’ve had some big things uncovered, as you said, by each of them, and often not by the person I’d expect.

      So yes. Betas = invaluale.

  8. allen parker

    I hit this occasionally. One thing I noticed is that the problem may manifest itself to two people in different ways, causing them to have opposed opinions.

    It might be that if you look at this, you will see that the flashback length is correct, but that some of the details slow the process and feels like the information is being poured over them rather than sifted out slowly while the story moves along.

    The betas may not really know why they saw this as a problem, but the answers they gave were the closest they could come to describing the situation.

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