Question: If a book falls in the forest and no one’s there to read it, does it still stink?
Answer: Most likely.
Perverse Process: I know I’ve been lucky. I’ve had fantastic beta-readers throughout my journey. Not everyone has such good fortune. In my role as a moderator for the Writer Unboxed online community, I see it often. Writers are looking for readers. For what is a story without someone to tell it to? The problems come when writers seek said readers too early. No reader deserves to slog through first draft material. And let’s face it, early drafts typically suck. And yet novice writers almost always subject some poor undeserving reader (usually a close friend or a relative) to work that’s not ready to be shown. It’s part of the process. I did it too.
How those early readers of your amateur drivel handle their role can be critical, especially if the writer is sensitive, emotional or has a fragile ego. Feel free to laugh. Of course it’s a joke. (For those who aren’t writers and didn’t get it: We’re ALL sensitive, emotional, fragile souls—why else would we spend most of our waking hours exploring the emotions of people we’ve made up and then hope that others will connect with what we’ve found?)
Honesty Ain’t Easy: I said I’ve been lucky and this includes my draw of early beta-readers. When I finished my first draft, I didn’t belong to any critique groups and I didn’t really know any other writers. And yet some friends and family kindly offered to forge into the murk. A few gave up. A few avoided me afterward. A few pretended it had never happened (“Manuscript? What manuscript?”). But several brave souls either made it through or had the courage to tell me they’d stopped reading and why. To the reader, those who made it through were kind and insightful in telling me it needed work. But more importantly they also showed me there was promise. I continued to work because they kindled hope. It was a special gift.
B-Company Betas: Over the course of seeking a second round of betas, I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and for that I am grateful. After learning there was work to be done, I set about studying the craft and I joined an online writing community. Then I tackled revisions. I did fare much better with the next round of betas (as did they—the work was evidently and necessarily much more palatable). I learned from the first group that I might actually have something. From this next group I started to gain some insight into genuine reader expectations, as well as a bit of traction and enthusiasm for continuing to work (rather than just hoping everyone would say they loved it). I learned something unique from each reader in Company B. They were critical not just to moving forward, but to knowing I could improve it and being excited about it.
Brass Tacks Betas: I’ve written about how fortunate I feel to have connected with my editor/mentor Cathy over on WU (read it here if you haven’t). Because of Cathy and my evolution as a writer, the books all underwent significant revision before this next group of betas, particularly book one. Now we were starting to make them into what felt more like real books. Among the next wave of readers to hit the beaches were my writer friends. Now I was getting real critique (of the variety many of you receive in critique groups as you move along). Telling rather than showing, poor grammar mechanics, adverbs in dialog tags, and just plain clunky writing were all noted and polished.
Right Reader Revelations: After the Brass Tacks round of readers, I did another total rewrite and went into submissions for the second time. Throughout the process I’d been zeroing in on my Right Reader, and providentially I found several readers at this point to fit the bill (females—often younger/new adult females—who are voracious readers and favor epics with romantic elements). Now I felt like I was swinging for the fences. Although the submissions did not yield an agent, I did get a few requests for pages and some encouraging feedback. So no home run. However, the feedback I was receiving from the Right Reader betas made it clear I was solidly connecting with the ball. I felt more certain than ever that this was a story that would find an audience.
Inspirational Beta: One of the Right Reader betas actually inspired this post. She’s an acquaintance I see a few times per year. Several months ago we got to talking at a party about our mutual love of Hunger Games and George RR Martin and she asked if she could read. I sent her book one, but rarely saw her afterward and only in mixed company. All I really knew was that after each of the first two books, she requested the next. What more could I ask? I just ran into her the other night at a chamber of commerce meeting. During the keynote presentation she saw me outside the dining hall at the bar (where else?). Her smile would’ve been enough, but she ran over and gave me a hug, and gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received: “I can’t wait until these books are popular so I can tell everyone I read them first.” I’m still smiling about it.
Let a Beta Be: If you’ve never used beta readers before, a bit of advice (besides striving to offer them work that’s ready to be read). Offer as few guidelines as possible. I usually say something like, “Just read it for flow and for feedback I’ll happily take whatever you’re comfortable giving, even general feelings.” Every beta reader I’ve had has given me something different.
I’ve had betas point out plot inconsistencies, help me change a few names, offer suggestion to keep elements in greater suspense. Betas have helped me make my MCs more likeable and my antagonists more despicable. I’ve even had a former teacher who did a complete line edit of the entire trilogy, meticulously marking and noting every single typo and grammar error (thanks Aunt Cindy!). A few have mostly offered enthusiastic encouragement—which is vitally important, believe me!
The Road Goes (Ever?) On: I’m not sure what will happen with the trilogy, but I am absolutely certain the books are vastly improved and that they continue to be a viable possibility because of my beta readers. I’m thinking most have honestly enjoyed being a part of the process. I’ve been amazed by the uniqueness of their perspectives and I love the process of distilling their various opinions to plot a course forward. I dare say a few of the earliest readers would be a bit shocked by what the books have become.
Couldn’t Builda Betta’ Beta Team: In the interest of personally and publicly showing my gratitude, here is a list of my fabulous Team Beta (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone—forgive me if I have!): Dan Brake, Marsha Carroll, Tawn Horton, and Amy Murray (Early Readers); Cindy Deane, Jenn Gardner, and Colleen Murray (B-Company readers); Kim Bullock, Valerie Chandler, and Heather Reid (my Brass Tacks/Writer Team, aka The WU Mod Squad); Keaghan Cronin, Laura Kieda, Eileen Kochanny, and Deb Wagner (Team Right Reader). And last but oh-so-importantly, my lovely wife Maureen Donnelly Culp, who inspires and supports me every day, and without whom the trilogy would not exist.
I cannot thank you all enough for your gift. Whatever comes of the trilogy, you have not only helped to improve my manuscripts, you’ve made me a better writer and have brightened my life.
Your turn. Have you been a beta reader or had beta readers for your work? How has it affected you?