Why Beta Readers Are Crucial to Making a Great Novel
Writing a book seems like it would be a solitary activity. The movies have us believe that an author goes off to some idyllic cabin in the woods, or in the south of France like the character Jamie did in Love Actually, with a typewriter in tow. Then they spend every waking minute banging out a perfect novel on that typewriter with no bottles of white out anywhere in sight.
OK, first of all, I literally cannot fathom writing a novel on a typewriter. I do not know how all those novelists who have come before me have written on anything other than this awesome touch screen Dell laptop that my excellent husband got for me. However the idea is the same. I don’t write in some gorgeous little stone cottage in Marseilles. I write with my laptop propped on my lap while Todd’s watching TV. I write sitting out on my deck on a nice evening after work, before the mosquitoes come out, I write on planes. I write everywhere.
But contrary to what the movies would have us think, it’s not just simply bang out the book and three minutes later we’re at a signing with a line out the door at a Barnes and Noble in New York City. There’s a lot more that goes into it than that. Authors get by with a little help from their friends.
I am in the midst of writing Before the Music, the prequel to Beside the Music. But Beside the Music was born in a lime green journal that my friend Heidi in Wisconsin gave me for Christmas one year. I carried that journal around for a year and in it I hand wrote the first draft of Beside the Music. Then I spent years refining it on various laptops that Todd brought home for me. (My man keeps me up to my ears in the best technology. Literally the best friend an author can have.) I hired a manuscript coach. I hired an editor. Then when I signed with my publisher, the book was edited and proofed again.
Now that I am my own publisher, things are a little different. I am still bashing out Before the Music with every spare moment I have. On November 1, 2017 I completed the first draft. I did a few more passes through it, and then in December I sent it off to two friends for beta reading.
So, what’s a beta reader? It’s someone you trust to read the book and give you an honest opinion about what needs to improve. My betas were my friend Gail Ward Olmsted, and my other beta reader is an old friend from my study abroad time in Australia, Lincoln Todd.
To effectively work with beta readers, you need to set the ground rules. Because my characters are Australian, and the story takes place in Sydney, I wanted Linc to read for use of Australian slang and locations in and around Sydney that make more sense for the story. Linc came back and told me that my use of the word “bloke” is completely off base. And also, they don’t say “asshole”, they say “arsehole.” I know, from having lived in Australia for a year, that nobody throws “shrimp on the barbie.” As they call shrimp “prawns” there. When I had a scene where Keith, my main character, put steaks on the barbeque Linc told me that it’s OK to cook steaks on the “barbie” but they don’t put shrimp on them.
Then for Gail, I wanted her to look at the overall story. How are my characters behaving? Do they make sense for the situations they’re in? How’s the pace of the story? She told me that Tamsen, Keith’s wife, to radically changed from being the cool girlfriend to a complete psycho harpy. So I need to work on Tamsen’s transition a bit better, as it’s a key part of Keith’s overall story arc.
It was refreshing that they were able to take what was in my head and turn it on its ear for a few moments and force me to look at it from a fresh perspective. I am so thankful to Linc and Gail for having taken the time out of their lives to help me in this fashion. They are helping me to improve as an author, and that’s incredibly important and meaningful to me.
Now I am rewriting and refining before I send it off to an editor I’ve hired to get the book ready for its eventual publication. If you’re working on a novel, get your betas lined up. Feedback is your most important tool you have.
added on 02.26.18