|Doubtful Relations Title Page|
I call this process beta testing and the volunteers beta readers. These terms are used in different manners, so I need to define my terms.
For a few years during my career, I managed a group of software developers. In that environment, alpha testing encompassed the work the group did internally to make sure the software (new program or update) was doing what it was supposed to be doing. When we were reasonably comfortable it was, we performed the second level of testing, beta testing, named after the second letter in the Greek alphabet.
In beta testing, we put the software in the hands of real users in a real environment. We knew the program was not perfect. We were still fixing a list of known bugs (and periodically adding to the list). However, the product was sufficiently close and stable that we needed to expand testing past our myopic vision and turn it over to our users to point out flaws and issues we were too close to the program to see.
For example, let’s say you create a new way of cooking omelets that utilizes the energy from your morning workout. You develop a recipe that includes a list of ingredients and tasks, but fail to include the step in which you remove eggs from their shells. That step is obvious to you, because you always do that. The cook might not realize that your new technology still requires the separation of egg from shell and ruins the omelet. Your directions are not clear.
The combination of plot development and character motivations in a novel take the place of directions in a recipe. I ask beta readers to let me know of plot bumps or holes and of characters who do something that seemingly does not make sense. I will have already addressed any problems I discovered on my own as well as those indicated by my alpha reader, who has read the manuscript at a much earlier stage. [Some writers use critique groups as their alpha readers, others use a trusted writing partner or friend. I rely on my life partner, Jan Rubens.]
I know flaws remain in the manuscript. I have not yet polished the language, and because I have made changes to a draft of the manuscript immediately before releasing the beta version, I may have introduced new typos and included a sentence or two that might make one wonder if I had flunked English as a second language. Readers can ignore those kinds of problems, as long as they are not too frequent, and instead concentrate on the main issues of plot and character.
Unlike software beta testing where, as flaws are corrected, updated versions are periodically released to the users, I now typically have two discrete passes for beta readers. What I have so far described is the first pass. Once I have the manuscript in “final” form—perhaps ready to submit to agent or publisher or for self-publication—I will ask a different set of folks to read the manuscript looking for anything wrong. This is beta testing in the sense it is a real product placed in real users hands in order to receive feedback prior to publication. However, by that point I am in the final steps of my quality control process and readers should not be finding any major problems. I hope they will find the stubborn typo or homonym error, as well as any formatting issues. Perhaps because these tasks are so different from the first beta readers’, I should refer to this group as my gamma readers?
The third volunteer was so disgusted with a major character that she stopped reading the manuscript with 60% still to go. Since the character in question acts in ways real people act, I need to look beneath the reported problem. (Tom Wolfe writes best sellers about people I don’t like and don’t much care about, so the issue is probably more than that the character is not emotionally attractive.) When considering this one reaction along with other beta reader observations, I must determine if I have not sufficiently defined that character’s motivations so her actions make sense. Or perhaps I have insufficiently defined other characters’ motivations so their reactions to the unlikeable character are understandable. Either way, this reader’s reaction to stop reading will have done me a great service.
Unlike a piece of software, there are no absolutes in the writing business. What one person sees as a flaw, other readers may love. When I review all the comments, I must do so with the filter of my own understanding of the story and remain true to my writing style and voice. I know the comments include excellent suggestions that I look forward to implementing. I know they will contain hints of problems that will require me to ferret out their underlying causes to solve. There will be individual reader preferences that I will need to ignore to stay true to myself (and sane, since some comments invariably contradict other comments).
I can’t wait to dive into the next draft.