An interesting comment came up, regarding one of my beta stories on my Patreon. It was a short story — not, perhaps, the most common thing I write these days (though there’s a myth partially completed which would beg to differ) — and the reader didn’t care for it. It’s not that he thought it was bad… it’s that it didn’t work for him as a story, because there wasn’t significant character development in the story itself.
This is valid, I should mention. I’m not debating the reader’s reaction — I’m trying to let it inform my editing process. I sometimes want to make it clear I don’t think a given reader is wrong when they react to my stories, because they can’t be wrong that way. Our reactions are personal and subjective, and the whole reason for soliciting comments on these things is so that I learn what different people take away from a given story, and figure out if I need to change that takeaway somehow.
At the same time, this particular story is a 5,000 word action set piece. It’s self-contained, in that a completely new reader would be able to parse the story, work out the characters and the relevant bits of their past from context, and see a coherent beginning, middle, and end. But the reader’s right — this is a story where character changes are external rather than internal, for the most part. While there’s changes that should be made — including ones to bring out the character’s reactions — the story is… well, a story where two women in the super villainous lifestyle kick each other in the head a few times.
What makes this interesting to me is what the beta reader can’t possibly have — context. Because this story’s meant for Interviewing Leather: an Anthology of Perspective… and though it’s an anthology of stories rather than a novel, they’re inter-related — designed to be taken as part of a whole instead of necessarily on their own merits. They’re more Winesburg, Ohio or Lake Wobegon Days than a thematic anthology of unrelated stories. It’s not just that it’s all set in the Justice Wing altiverse — it’s that they’re all related, in one way or another, to the “Interviewing Leather” article written by Todd Chapman and published in Amplifier magazine in that altiverse.
There are three ‘phases’ the anthology covers — ‘before’ the interview, ‘during’ the writing, and ‘after’ the publication. “Like a Shot from a Cannon,” for example, is in the ‘Before’ section — very before, really, as it’s the last days of Dynamo Girl. “Diverged in a Wood” is in the after section, as we see how Leather’s referenced sister reacts to the article, and see a bit of how Leather herself does as well. “Being the Steve,” which will come out in the next couple of weeks I hope, is set ‘During,’ and lets us see the interview taking place from the point of view of someone as close to the fringe as possible given everything.
Complicating this is order and placement — the stories aren’t going to be in chronological order. It’s a patchwork. The book opens with “Interviewing Leather” itself, which makes sense. Its name is in the title. After that, ‘Before,’ ‘During,’ and ‘After’ stories will be interwoven with each other — sometimes meaning
The story the reader reacted to — “Debriefing Leather” — is set in the After, as the title suggests. And it’s a self-contained story, like I said above. But it has a role in the anthology beyond its linear placement. It bridges things. It opens up a narrative arc or two, and continues a narrative arc from the Before section.
And that’s the thing that’s unfair to beta readers — because by definition, they’re seeing the individual pieces of the anthology, instead of the anthology as a whole. It’s not that they lack cultural context — they lack the context of the text itself.
I’m reminded of a Con I attended many years back. I was on a panel with a webcartoonist — a panel that discussed the critical discourse in webcomics. And he and I ended up in a ‘vigorous intellectual discourse’ about whether or not a webcomic should be assessed, interpreted or reviewed before a significant amount of the work was up. I said it should — the reader was having a response, and the text was active, and this is what we had to work with. His feeling was that it was inappropriate — it could prejudice or color the work in the eyes of other readers when the critic hadn’t had a meaningful opportunity to understand the work as a whole.
And here we are.
For the record, I stick to my original position. If a work should only be interpreted as a whole, it should only be released as a whole. It’s impossible to keep a reader from reacting to what they see, and there is no way to prevent interpretation, critical analysis, or reviewing when there’s an actual text to work from.
So what about my own beta reader and his reaction to the work?
Honestly, I guess I have two responses to that:
- The work isn’t being released a story at a time — it’s being shown to a subset who, among other things, are getting a chance to respond and comment. This is why these stories aren’t heading to Banter Latte — they’re ultimately meant to be seen in an anthology, so I’m going to publish them to the general public in that form.
- It is incredibly value to have eyes looking at the story without that contextual perspective — because it means the people reading “Debriefing Leather,” “Like a Shot from a Cannon,” “Diverged in a Wood,” and several other pieces are doing exactly what this one reader did — reacting to and interpreting them as individual stories, which isn’t something I’m capable of doing. I know the context, but authorial intent and ten bucks will get you a pretty decent drink at Starbucks. Having folks read these stories and react to them outside of the Anthology as a whole allows for a much stronger editorial pass.
So, it’s not that I’m angry or upset at that reader. I’m thrilled, as I have been with all the criticism (much of it negative) that I’ve gotten to date in the beta. It lets me make the fiction better before it ends up ink on a page. (Or e-ink in a kindle.)
But it’s a little fascinating. The critic in me hasn’t had a lot of chance to consider the theory of criticism lately, but the Patreon experiment has, among many other positive things, given me a perspective on writing I hadn’t really thought about before.
Regardless, I need to get back into it — not Leather’s story, though. I’m taking a Leather-free week, which sounds disturbingly political. I’ve been spending time over in 023SG, and in particular right now I’m working on “The Home Front: Homecoming” #4, which is moderately late in geological terms.