Friday, March 20, 2009

Critiques, Retreats, and Alpha/Beta Readers

Rowena's post got me thinking about critique. Last weekend I was on a panel at Flycon about Alpha and Beta readers, and learned a few things (like what Alpha and Beta readers are; I hadn't heard the terms before). There's an archive of the panel if anyone wants to wade through all the posts.

So, a few of the things I learned and discussed. Alpha readers are readers to whom you give your in-progress or first draft work. In my case, the critique group I'm in sometimes plays this role. Beta readers are folks you ask to read a manuscript that's more finished, perhaps a later draft/polished final. Sometimes a beta reader is a specialist in a field your work references, and you want them to vet the piece for accuracy in that field.

The discussion made me realize that I've shifted from using my group as alpha readers to using them as beta readers. Specifically, I no longer bring novels in progress to my critique group, though what I bring them is often a first draft. The reason is that I've observed that critique on a WIP can often derail the writer. They may get distracted and decide to change the novel before they've finished it. Sometimes this results in their being caught in an endless loop of revision and losing sight of their original vision.

So I no longer bring unfinished novels to my group. I'd rather get to the end of a draft without being distracted by new ideas, some of which are wonderful and cool. My group has great ideas, and each member views things a bit differently. That's enormously valuable. I want to hear those ideas—after I've got a complete draft. Then if I want to include them, I can work them in.

Rowena's obviously got a great group of trusted peers who gather for group critique. That's fantastic and it's also unfortunately rare. I've heard from lots of writers, some on the Flycon panel, who have never found a critique group they could work with. I'm lucky on that one, but I've also cultivated my group for a couple of decades. It's not an everyone's-invited group. Those can be great, but I prefer working in a small group of known and trusted writers.

Retreats like the one Rowena went to are great for another reason. Getting away from home and all the million little should-dos and obligations is very liberating for a writer. Going to a new environment and interacting with people outside one's normal circle are invigorating. I'm going to a workshop this year on the Oregon Coast that will give me both of these.

Every writer does things differently. What are your thoughts about critique?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Like you, Pati, I'd rather put in the finished novel. By then I've worked out my vision for the book.

I may also have become too close to it. So that's where it helps having fellow writers read it. They can say what works for them and why and they can suggest other ways of doing something.

One of the writers did a word search on 'invented nouns' in the first 10 pages. I had far too many. So I'm rewriting the beginning to tone down the world building and tighten the characterisation.

Pati Nagle said...

Ah, invented nouns. Yes, a danger to the fantasy writer. I use them sparingly, only when I'm trying to get a different idea across.

One that I created for my fantasy world: conce. It's a small stone pillar that marks a place where someone has died in unpeaceful circumstances. A memorial, but not a gravestone, so I wanted a different word.

I don't like reading fantasies (or alien worlds SF) where a horse is called a hippodore or some such just to be different. A horse is a horse. Get on with the story.