Today's guest post comes from Jodie Bailey, a fellow writer whose comments about submitting her work to beta readers before she turns them in prompted me to ask her to share about that process here. What are beta readers and how can they help an author? Read on!
When I finished my first “real” novel (and believe me, there were a lot of “real” duds before it), I discovered writing the book was the easy part. The hard part was letting someone else read my baby and tell me everything that was wrong with it.
I thought about it for a long time, then decided the only way to get over the fear of possibly hearing “this is complete garbage” was to hand it to someone and make them read it in… front… of… me. My amazing friend/fellow English teacher Shannon did just that. She sat down in a booth across from me, took the three-ring binder I handed her, and sat there for an entire day as we worked our way through that book.
Have I mentioned I totally love her?
Shannon was my first critique partner, and now that I have a fabulous critique group, she’s one of my beta readers. A couple of years ago, I’d have said there wasn’t a difference, but four books later I know there is, and I make sure both lay eyes on my novels before my agent sees a word.
I write in a vacuum, finishing and revising and editing before I ever let anyone see my work. The first ones to see it are my critique group, truly formed by the hand of God working through the touch of ACFW. These are the ladies in my life who know my writer’s heart. They know how it feels to sweat black ink drops onto white paper. They have studied craft beside me and know how to follow the rules—and when to break them. They have the amazing ability to read my work and love me enough to say, “This doesn’t work for me. Maybe this would fix it.” They appreciate what I’m trying to say, but they recognize fatal flaws and refuse to let them go simply because it might hurt my feelings. They’d rather risk pain than see me lose a contract because they were too nice to say something. I love those ladies. They make my writing what it is.
As much as I love my crit partners, there is a big issue with them. They never get to read my work as a whole. We sub in pieces, sometimes out of order, a few pages a week. There’s something lost when you read that way, so after I’ve revised based on their comments, I call on my “first readers.” Typically, I post a message on my Facebook page that says, “Hey, who wants to read an unpublished novel and be mean enough to tell me if it’s bad?” I get an eclectic group, and I pick a varied five (whom I trust!). I want them to read like regular readers then call me up and say, “Hey, at page 72, I really got bored.” Or, “I need more of the conversation that happened on page 81.” They tell me what makes them want to read on and what makes them want to stop. They’re not reading line-by-line, scene-by-scene. We write for the glory of God and for our readers, and we want to know we’re reaching them. My “beta readers” look at my story as a whole and give me a pretty good idea how the general population will see my words.
For me, both of these groups are vitally important. We love the words we pour from our hearts onto the page (we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t!), and we will never be able to read them with a truly unbiased eye. If you don’t have a crit group, get one. If you have a crit group and no beta readers, find some. You’ll be amazed the directions they can take you. The New Living Translation of Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.” As for Shannon, she suggested I add a scene to that first novel, because she needed clarification on an issue. I wrote that scene, and out of it an entire new book was born. When it comes to having others read our work, God knows exactly what He’s doing…