Morgan Briarwood (briarwood) wrote,
Morgan Briarwood
briarwood

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Thoughts of the role of the Beta

Something moljn posted recently got me thinking. Her post is here, but I'll quote a part of it:

Do you have that thing where, sometimes, you start reading a fanfiction story and within five minutes it's clear that it's really bad fanfic? I mean, train wreck levels of bad, especially in the way you can't. stop. reading. [snipped] And then you check the story notes, because it might be their first fic, and it isn't, and then they thank their beta reader? And you can't believe the story had a beta reader? (honestly, it's the part with the beta reader that disturbs me the most)

I don't know what fic inspired the post, but my immediate response was: Well...yeah. But how bad do you think it was before the beta got hold of it?

Almost every time I've had someone I didn't already know well beta one of my fics, that person has either confined herself to proof-reading or has replied with something along the lines of "This is really good!" That's not being a beta. A beta is not a proof-reader: sure, stories need proof reading but anyone can do that, including - shock - the author herself. And uncritical praise, while a pleasant ego-boost, isn't very helpful either.

Did the beta of that badfic fall into one of those categories? Could be.

On the other hand, it's not a beta's job to tell a writer "This sucks, you should just delete it."

I know that some of us would be happy to take that kind of criticism from a trusted beta. I know that most writers want a beta to be that kind of honest about their fic. But really, that's not a beta's job, nor her place.

If my instant reaction on reading a fic is this sucks, that's fine. I know where my back button is. But if I read it because I agreed to beta, then I need to go further than that. Because this sucks all too often means not that it's terrible, only that it's not to my taste.

Does it suck because of poor spelling and grammar? Bad punctuation? All of the above? Right - those I can fix. Copy, correct, then read the corrected version. Huh. Still sucks.

Now why does it suck? For me a big dealbreaker is consistency with canon. If I read a fic in which Jim Ellison can fly - you know, just like Superman - it darn well better be an AU, and to really work, it needs some kind of internal logic to explain why Jim can fly. Many readers who are not me won't give a rat's ass why he can fly, as long as the story in which he's flying is entertaining. So as a beta, I need to ask myself not is this story bad because I know Jim can't fly, but what is the author hoping to achieve by breaking with canon in this way? If necessary, I might want to ask the author that question.

Hey, friend, I read your fic. But before I send you my thoughts I want to ask you about one part of the story that I found confusing. It's where Jim flies over the building to chase the bad guys. It's just...well, in canon Jim can't do that, but up until that point I didn't find anything in the fic that told me it was going to be an AU. I'm wondering if I'm being really dense and I missed something. Could you clue me in?

Something like that. And maybe she'll write back that the cape and tights in the first paragraph should have given it away...or maybe she'll take on board that a little world-building would be a good idea and make her story better.

But maybe canon isn't the problem. Maybe it's characterisation. Suppose Cordelia comes home from a long day's shopping to find Angel standing over a bloody corpse. She screams and runs away, leaving her new clothes and shoeboxes in a heap behind her.

As a reader, I'm gonna quit - hit the back button - at that point. As a beta, I am not going to tell the writer Look, Cordy wouldn't do that, it's terrible characterisation, you suck! First I'm going to look at that moment in the context of the whole fic, see if I can figure out why the writer had Codelia behave so out of character. Maybe in this case it was so she would run smack into...oh, I don't know, let's say Gunn, who will save her like a macho man and carry her off for an afternoon of hot sex. So, okay, I can kinda see what the writer is thinking, even though she's gone about it badly.

Hey, friend, I read your fic. Really hot sex! *fans self* But I think the intro could use a little work. I'm not clear on what's going through Cordy's mind when she walks in on Angel. Does she believe he's turned evil? Has he turned evil? I don't think she'd be so quick to go off with Gunn if she thought her friend was in trouble. I mean, Cordy's selfish, sure, but she does care about Angel. Wouldn't she try to find out what's going on? I think the questions that scene brings up detract from the sex/romance part. I'd suggest maybe have her run into Gunn in a different way - perhaps he could save her from a mugger? Or even some random vamp - just not Angel.

See what I'm doing there?

Sometimes, there's the question you don't think to ask. I don't like to beta (or read) incomplete stories, because for me, the journey is about the desination. I can't critique something unless I know where it's going. But I've broken my "rule" a couple of times.

One time a friend asked me to look over an unfinished fic. The chapter I read described a character observing the scene of a murder and then acting to cover it up. I assumed this meant that character had committed the murder. My assumption seemed (to me) consistent with the canon character and, as I didn't have the full context of the story, it didn't occur to me I might be wrong. So many of my comments on the chapter came from that assumption...and were useless to the writer because, to her, the whole point was that someone else had done the deed.

Now, she took on board that she needed to change the first few paragraphs to make it clearer that X wasn't the killer. In that sense, I had done my job as beta. But had I known that from the beginning there were other questions I would have raised, starting with why was he covering it up? These questions aren't faults in the fic, they are part of the mystery the writer was creating. They are where my attention should have been, as a beta, but because I assumed too much at the beginning, those questions went right over my head.

It is not a beta's job to re-write a fic to her own satisfaction. It is a beta's job to understand what the writer is trying to achieve and help her to achieve it. Seriously, I can't stress that strongly enough. If you can't get behind a writer's vision, or you find the story utterly incomprehensible, it's okay to gently withdraw, apologise and say you're just not the right person to beta this particular work. But don't dismiss it as crap, even if it is. Even the worst of badfic has something in it worth nurturing.

Many years ago, I made a terrible mistake when a friend asked me to beta a fic. The story was written in a style that I found very difficult to read, but I believed this could be fixed easily. I was, shall we say, less than subtle in getting my point across. My friend never posted the story. My mistake was twofold; first I made no attempt to understand why she had chosen that particular style of writing and second, I was a bitch in telling her what I thought was wrong. In my defence, she had asked me to be honest. Still, there's honest and there's blunt. I was a bad beta to that particular friend and I'm damn lucky we are still friends.

No matter how bad a fic is, it is someone's vision, someone's creation. You know that scene in Firefly where Kaylee and Inara are talking about the cheap sculpture in a frontier store?

INARA: Does it seem every supply store on every border planet has the same five rag dolls and the same wood carvings of... What is this? A duck?

KAYLEE: That's a swan. And I like it.

INARA: You do?

KAYLEE: It looks like it was made with, you know... longing. Made by a person really longed to see a swan.

Isn't a lot of fanfic like that? Everyone has to start somewhere, and every writer, no matter how long she's been writing, still has more to learn about the craft. Isn't it better to understand that it's a swan, and show her how to make it a better swan, than to dismiss it as a duck...and a bad duck at that?

Seems to me that if we aren't willing to make that effort, we shouldn't be offering beta services in the first place.

Tags: meta:writing
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