Pure Terror: Reflections on the Beta Reading Process.

Two months ago, I hit a wall while editing my novel. I was just done. I had been tucking and tweaking its chapters into shape, polishing its lines – line by line, fact checking and generally editing it to death. Then I reached the point where, in my eyes, there was nothing left to do. So, I figured it was time other people read it so they could tell me what else I still needed to do.

There’s some real mixed messages when it comes to the effectiveness of beta readers and critique groups. There are some big-time authors who praise critique groups, Ursula Le Guin, Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed (Chuck and Cheryl are actually in the same writing group… I guess…diversity is important), while others, like Stephen King, believe these types of groups are problematic because they can be filled with bad advice that can smothering your creativity and authenticity. Chuck Wendig recently said that the problem with critique groups is that they are made up of other writers – not editors. Therefore, all their feedback is stemming from a place of this is how I would write it.

Obviously, beta readers and critique groups are different. Beta reader get your manuscript in its entirety and read it alone and discuss the feedback with you one on one. Critique groups however, reader only a slither of the manuscript and discuss it with you in front of a group that has also read your work. Despite the potential cons of beta reading, I figured it was time someone (other than me) read the book from start to finish.

I was selective in the people I chose. A few were writers, a few were professional within the same industries as my characters, one was the perfect example of my target audience, and two were casual readers. The beta readers were a mixture of ages from 27 to 70, male and female, medical professionals, tradies and self-employed folks. If everyone said, “Chapter one’s not working,” then chances are its not.

It’s hard to verbalise what it feels like to attached your manuscript to an email, type the beta reader’s email address into the TO: bar and hit send, but it’s mostly pure terror. A part of you is excited that someone is going to read your work, they’re going to be exposed to a creative project that previously only you knew about, and now you can talk about it together! The other part of you is cringing with the idea that they’re going to think you’re stupid and your book is stupid and now they have to read the stupid book and pretend it isn’t stupid, it just needs “a little more work.”

I’ve been working on this novel for four years. Two of those years were pretty casual. I wrote around work, travel and the responsibilities of life. It was a hobby completed in the fringes of time. Sometimes I’d work on it for an hour every day for an entire week, sometimes two months would pass between sessions.

Looking back, that first draft was just a wordy outline. About 60% of the plot has remained the same, but 95% of the words within the document have changed. It’s impossible to guess how many of those first draft sentences have stayed untouched, but at a guess, I’d say…like…five?

The next two years were much more intense thanks to casual employment and full-time study which allowed me to make the project a priority. If I wasn’t working on the book, I was thinking about the book. I interview primary sources, did all those dorky “get to know your character exercises” (stop laughing! They actually work!), figured out the novel’s timeline and basically polished every sentence while also trying to fix things like plots holes, consistency of voice, characterisation etc.

Over these four years the novel’s word count went from 100,000 to 80,000 to 25,000 to 60,000 then back to 80,000 again.

The point is, a lot of time went into this project. So, I was going to be pretty gutted if a beta reader came back and said, “This. Is. Stupid.”

To clarify, people have read sections of my work. As part of my studies, we had to participate in critique groups. So, several of my chapters have been read and critiqued and the whole experience was really positive, but no one has read the whole book; and it’s a lot easier to write a good 2,000 word chapter and a lot harder to write a good 80,000 word novel.

So, yeah. Pure terror.

About a month passed and with a mixture of relief and agony, the reply emails started coming in and discussions over coffee were had. The general feedback was that chapter one and two weren’t working.

This was not welcomed news.

Chapter one was pulled from the middle of the book to provide contexts while also complying with the writerly advice of “start in the middle of the action.” The chapter has undergone three or four major edits and about thirty minor edits. Chapter two (the original chapter one) has had five major structural edits and about 60 minor edits. Seriously.

Beginnings are definitely the hardest.

You have to introduce your world (even if it is set in this one), provide enough background for events to be comprehensible, slip in a problem, a killer opening sentence and introduce your cast of characters that the reader will immediately love, like, or at least find intriguing enough to justify further reading.

I was faced with the reality that I may have edited the life out of chapters one and two, turning them into a couple of dead betties.

Thankfully, the feedback regards chapters three to twenty-three were less intense. A suggestion here, a comment there, the remark “I’ve certainly reader stupider,” were all very useful.

The feedback from industry professionals was also valuable. Though I’d spent consecutive hours interviewing three different professionals within their respective industries, a lot of those conversations were around deepening my own understanding of their work. Thankfully, whenever something unrealistic or just plain wrong occurred in the novel, these sections were highlighted and useful suggestions on what I could do instead were made.

There was positive feedback to. For instance, one beta read singled out a particular chapter that made her cry. This chapter centres on a personal experience I haven’t personally experienced, so it was a relief to learn that language bridged that river.

I felt like I walked away from those conversations with a clear and concise “editing to do list”. A month before, the book had felt just done (shrugs), but now I could see what areas needed to be re-examined and which were working just fine.

If your manuscript is starting to feel just done, forwarding it on to some beta readers may help highlight the areas that need further work. Be selective in who you pick though, like don’t pick someone who is confident enough to say, “This is totally the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

Image: Reading by Brendan Murphy

 

 

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