philosophy · Uncategorized · writing

Quantity and Quality: Beta Readers in the 21st Century

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A peach ice-cream soda and a spiral ring notebook. It’s not a cup of coffee and a netbook, but the creative process is different for everyone.

Full disclosure, this blog post started out as a reaction to a talk the CEO of Telepathic gave. Her product, Hooked, is a mobile fiction app that I have a wonderful time writing for and is very unconventional. It delivers flash-fiction stories in the form of texting conversations. I’m really happy I’ve had the chance to grow as a writer under this strange constraint, and think it has forced me to grow in a way I wasn’t expecting to as an artist.

Novel-length fiction is not well suited for mobile, but Hooked stories remind me of old-fashioned radio dramas from the earlier half of the twentieth century, when you had just a few seconds to suck someone in with simple back-and-forth dialogue before they decided to change the station.
Hooked runs analytics on their stories prior to release, and Prerna gave a concise but eloquent response to the question “does data kill creativity?” It is easy to imagine that just going on whether or not people put down a story or react well to certain parts could result in formulaic or uncreative fiction, but beta-testers (or rather, beta-readers) have always been crucial to the artistic process. I don’t know what my personal artistic philosophy is on that issue, but I think it is certainly up for debate.

Some of what she said in the first half seemed very obvious to me as a writer, and as soon as she showed some of the biggest blockbuster films of the past few years, I knew that a large part of their success could be tied back into the fact that they started as books…and in some instances, that they started as community-driven stories on blogs or sites like Fanfiction.net (which is in the top 450 most traffic websites ON THE INTERNET) Wattpad, Tablo, and other sites are growing in popularity, and what a lot of authors overlook is how much joy it can bring readers to feel like they are early adopters or getting behind-the-scenes sneaks at the creation process.

Fiction has never been a solitary creation process. A good story needs a great content editor, a good line editor, and even strong beta readers before that. I think in the arts we tend to stress the quality of our beta-readers (i.e. people we personally trust or are themselves successful/experts) whereas the tech world tends to seek out beta-testers in greater quantity from a pool of potential users to determine what the experience will be for the average user. It is so interesting to watch Telepathic cross these boundaries and reimagine conventions!

I think it boils down to whether you’re trying to give the most people the best experience, or the best experience to the most people. There is something to be said for having mass appeal…obviously you’ve hit on something that is very core to the human condition and a lot of people can relate to. But how deeply do they relate to it? Some of my favorite stories are definitely ones that few, if any, of my other friends relate to. Something about them makes it feel like it is unique to me and the author has had a wonderful insight into an aspect of the human condition that only we share with a handful of other people. That’s an amazing and special experience too.
I think the world needs stories that help us fell like individuals without being isolated, as well as stories that connect us with a large range of people. I appreciate the chance I have with Hooked to tell the most people the best story I can, but also hope that through my novels I will be able to tell a story that will be an even more intimate experience for fewer people.

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