In my previous blog post, I discussed the idea that, once you’ve written your manuscript and got it to a point that you’re reasonably pleased with, you need to show it to other people. No matter that you might feel naked in doing so, exposing your deepest thoughts to the eyes of others – it has to be done. I’m not just talking about people in the industry – I’m talking about people around you, friends and family who are representative of the actual audience you’re hoping to reach. And so this post is dedicated to my beta readers, and their place, in my opinion, as an important part of the writing process.
I wasn’t familiar with the term when I started writing but, as I started to trawl through the blogs and community sites, people kept mentioning their ‘beta readers.’ I was familiar with the concept but had no idea it had a specific name. When I started writing about Ambeth, I had a couple of good friends, one in Canada (who was also a writer) and one in Australia (who I knew would tell me if it was crap), both of whom agreed to read my efforts and be honest with me about what they thought. So they slogged their way stoically through the monster effort that was my first draft, both offering comments and insight that helped me greatly, as did their encouragement to keep going.
I’m careful with whom I share my work, of course. I’m also lucky in that I’ve had quite a few people, friends and family who, once they found out I had written a book, asked to read it. And it is a scary feeling at first, entrusting your words to others. I felt the same way publishing my blogs, that I was putting something of myself out into the world for others to see, but it’s quite a liberating feeling once you get past it. So since then I’ve shown my work to many more people, friends I’ve known for years and new friends recently made. I’ve even connected with a couple of fellow writers through this site and we’ve done a book swap, a wonderful way to share work and offer reciprocal insight. One thing I’ve learnt about beta readers is that each of them will offer you something different and it’s important to take whatever they give you with a smile, as it’s all valuable feedback on your work. I had one friend read my book critically, looking at the language to check for repetition. Yet others looked at spelling, or for holes in the plot, adding sticky notes and hand written pointers to show me the errors I’d missed despite my many edits. The teen readers were especially meaningful as my main character is fifteen years old.
One of my readers, bless her heart, read the first three chapters and said ‘Do you really need these?’ Light bulb moment! I did not, or at least I could condense most of them into just a few pages - and so I have a much stronger book, thanks to her honesty and fresh viewpoint. And I’m still surprised by the comments that come back to me, with things I hadn't considered. There are mysteries to be solved in my books, clues I’ve scattered through the text and I’ve enjoyed being asked about them and offered theories that sometimes lead me in new directions.
Beta readers are invaluable when it comes to understanding who your audience are. Although once again you may be surprised – my books, technically speaking, are YA, but readers of all ages are enjoying them. However, that does seem to be the way of things with YA these days, that the stories reach a much wider audience than originally anticipated. Understanding your audience will help you to sell your book, whether to an agent or as a self-publisher, so feedback from your beta readers can help you discern whether you’ve hit the right note or not.
All my readers so far, despite their many and varied viewpoints, have enjoyed my book and that is giving me the impetus to press on, to keep working towards publication. And that, I think, is one of the greatest gifts a beta reader will give you – the encouragement to keep moving forward. So cultivate your beta readers and keep them close, and remember to thank them for what they do, for they are an important part of the process.
You can read more about Helen’s experiences as a writer on her blog. She is currently working on the fourth book in her series, The Ambeth Chronicles, with the final two parts also taking shape. More books are waiting behind those. She is yet to find an agent.