Being an Autistic Beta-Reader – For Authors for Mental Health Week April 1 to 6th – Charity Auction (picture of a woman reading with a thought bubble of a brain and a question mark).

I’ve spoken previously about how to beta read, and my own personal flaws when writing, but today I want to talk about what it means to be a good beta reader, and how to receive that feedback, as someone who is autistic.

It took me many years to work out exactly why some feedback was wonderful and at other times lacking. Both how I responded to feedback given about my work without letting my doubt overwhelm me, and then how I gave feedback to other people without being blunt or critical. Pinpointing exactly what I needed to do has been a little bit of a challenge, both as a beta reader, but also as an author receiving feedback.

Gif of a character from Schitt’s Creek asking what they are supposed to do

I wanted to start first and foremost with how you receive feedback as someone who is autistic with the following points;

  1. Not all of it is going to be great.

I know. Probably not what you want to hear after you’ve read your work so many times, you’re blue in the face, you have nightmares about it, you can recall the scene vividly. But sometimes something sounds OK in your head – but when you say it out loud to other people, it can come across differently.

Every time we look at beta reading/editing, we are talking about specific word choices, dialogue that’s never been spoken, action sequences never fought, visual landscapes that don’t exist anywhere but in your mind.

Your beta readers and editors have made a choice to help you so when they point out something doesn’t flow, rather than feel like you’ve done something wrong, ask yourself the question; you can see it clearly because you know, but if someone were to give you just this paragraph would you be able to comprehend it?

Try reading it aloud, or if you have a good beta reader they may point out suggestions to try.

2. How do you address this feedback?

One of the things I did with somewhat ease once I got over the personal rejection, was removing my ego/emotion from the piece. What was the feedback and possible solutions? Why wasn’t it working?

Gif of a man under pressure saying “It’s not working.”

Chances are if they left a comment, if multiple beta readers were leaving the same comment, I had something that hadn’t come across quite as I envisioned. There wasn’t the emotion, a landscape was lacking, or the plot didn’t quite carry conviction.

This is where it comes back to the words you use. The way you phrase things. Sometimes the pictures you see in your head and the emotions in conveys don’t quite carry the same depth you want. Sometimes that’s about word choices, but sometimes its about talking about how we feel, and making sure the characters not only feel it in expressive “emotional beats” but that their reaction is appropriate contextually. I’ll talk more about how to address that specifically below.

3. There is SO much to do!

It is very easy to look at a hundred, two hundred, THREE hundred comments and think.

Wow. I suck. That’s it I am CLEARLY not a writer.

Man talking to another man in a car saying; They make this too hard, man.

One of the tricks I do when I get back a script is I just read the feedback. I scroll through all the notes, take it on board without letting myself feel too much about it… and then I go away. I leave it alone. For a week. A month. Maybe more.

I find my brain needs time to absorb. To get over my own ego but also to leave the hurt objectively behind after I’ve put in so much work. Because I’m not the only one who’s worked hard here. They’ve just spent hours, days, even months going over your story with a fine tooth comb to help make it perfect for you.

These people aren’t out to hurt me, they are trying to help make my work better.

So how do I make that work better for someone else?

This is much easier than you would think and harder too.

Ever read a novel and think… well that wouldn’t have been my first word choice?

Some of that is opinion and some of it is about genuinely using the wrong word. But when you’re looking at ninety thousand words that’s a LOT of word choices. When we put all those word choices together, there is a LOT of intent in what we’ve done.

Genre, setting, pace, plot, characters.

How do I tackle that as a beta reader?

  1. I’m Autistic

I’m already conditioned to be an observer of human behavior, and to me, that means that I’m already going to be a good beta reader because when a character acts out of character, its usually very obvious to me. If an author has decided they want a character to do something for the plot, say something, and it doesn’t seem right, it sets off all these alarm bells in my head.

Man, waving his hand, saying “Alarm bells are ringing.”

This can extend towards the plot as well. When characters make assumptions or draw conclusions, my first question is going to be how did they get there and if there isn’t enough evidence to suggest a reasonable method I will point it out.

But when I point out these inconsistencies with the character I’m going to provide alternatives. I’m going to be able to go back to comments after discovering the who the villain is and say; right, I got you now, but this still sticks a bit awkwardly, so what if we…

And when I say I come up with solutions, this is where my out of the box thinking is your friend.

2. Creative Solutions

You do not have to use mine, or any other beta readers suggestions.

You don’t. No, it doesn’t matter that they put all that work in, you don’t have to if it doesn’t ring true to you.

But what may be worth doing is finding out what, if not that? The scene obviously didn’t work as it was, and the suggestion is a bit far out and not in theme with the keeping of your story arc, so perhaps thinking on all possible options and picking one suits.

This is a real moment to put yourself in the characters shoes on your decision making, feel what they feel, and use your intuition to guide you.

3. Emotional Beats

I fully acknowledge I use this phrasing after the fabulous critique Natalie Crown gave me for my first autistic book. It wasn’t the wording I used when I wanted it in my own work but it was something that is necessary.

As an autistic I often bottle my own emotions up, or they outburst in ways that don’t make sense to a neurotypical and this is where I can come a little unstuck as a writer, but am actually better at as a beta reader.

Because I want to know how characters are feeling. I want to be able to gauge whether they are afraid or happy or challenged by whatever they are going through.

This is where the Emotional Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman is going to be really useful. Rather than single word expressions, eg, he was confused, you can put other expressions such as; fumbling, tuggin an ear, trailing off when speaking, rapid blinking, glancing around as though searching for answers.

The important part is where and when you put these in, and this comes to my above point as a reader. Your beta reader will help you identify these when they are lacking to convey the depth of a scene and what you want the characters to feel.

Man wiping his face with money saying; “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic.”

There are downsides to being an autistic reader and I’d be remiss if I didn’t have a warning. We’re very good at assuming. We are usually information hoarders. We know a lot about the world. Some of us find it easy to envision a scene if you say ‘they entered the library.’

This isn’t necessary helpful when your scene is lacking minute details to state what kind of library, a public one, a rich person’s private library, the book hoard of an every day reader? But so too if you leave it too bare and we can’t paint it in our heads, well be there for world building tips to help place us where we think an ever day reader needs.

We can also get caught up in the details, in perfectionism, in making sure we’ve covered everything.

It’s why it can take me months to get back to someone one with their manuscript, but why, when I’ve left hundreds of comments, I will also leave heaps of nice things. I am genuinely delighted when I see clever phrasings. I like to scream in the comments when characters get their justice, or stuff up. My honest reaction to those scenes tells you that I’m invested. That I want the best for the characters, the story. That I want to invest the time in your story.

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, next week for #AuthorsforMentalHealth on April 1st I have a beta read up for auction, starting at the princely sum of $10. The money from the auction will go to Beyond Blue. Please feel free between now and then to reach out to me if you have any concerns, I’ll be happy to help talk about how I can help you with your book.

If you’d like to know more about some of the feedback I’ve had, you can find it on my testimonials page, or on this thread for Twitter.