Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Beauty of Beta Readers

There was a short period of time after I finished typing the first draft of my novel that I thought, “I can do this all myself.” Luckily I only spent a few stubborn days thinking that I could do all my own editing and rely solely on the advice of family and friends to perfect my book. The truth is you can’t get the unbiased, critical evaluation of your book that you need doing only this.

I spent a few days searching the web, reading any article or blog that I could find that talked about self-publishing. The one thing they all had in common was that good editing is crucial to having a good book. The only problem with good editing is that the rates many editors charge is higher than I’d like. I have yet to hire a professional editor, but I have realized that getting a fresh set of eyes on my novel is absolutely necessary. I just needed to find a way to do it that wasn’t going to make me go broke. So, I decided to start by finding someone to beta my novel.
A beta reader is basically someone, usually not a professional editor, who looks over your work for free. They offer a critical eye to help fix spelling and grammar mistakes, and to offer suggestions on the story line. I found a beta reader just by talking to other aspiring authors online in forums. Goodreads.com is a great place for authors and readers alike to connect with people who share the same interests in books. Both my beta reader and I were looking for help on our manuscripts so we decided to swap and beta for each other.
Having another person read over your unpublished work can be a scary thing. Just the thought of someone telling you that any piece of your book, your baby, isn’t done perfectly is enough to break your heart. Even though you know you have mistakes; even though the reason you gave your book to another person for the purpose of finding those mistakes, it still stings every time they point one out to you. I think, besides the cost, this fear is what may keep many authors from hiring an editor. But in reality you simply can’t edit your own work. We all know that we’ll miss things in our own work. But, until you actually have someone point out to you all those little mistakes that need to be corrected you won’t really understand. And, it’s those little mistakes that can turn a great story into something unreadable.
Writing the book is the easy part, that’s the part where you can feel free to skip over details or say things a little sloppy because you’re trying to get it done. You just keep writing not wanting to lose the rhythm, but once it’s finished that feeling of accomplishment for actually having it complete can make you forget that you glossed over things just to get it out. There are so many things I said that became quickly overused phrases. It was like I got a phrase in my head and then kept forgetting that I’d already used it. I needed someone else to read my book and point out to me that there was something I said too often. When you read your own book you can’t catch overused phrases, they don’t stand out as familiar because the entire story is familiar to you.
So, despite the mild discomfort that reading someone else’s criticisms brought me, I found having a beta reader to be a worthwhile experience. I know my novel is better because of my beta's advice. And, of course it’s not all negative. The little comments, “I liked this,” “good imagery here,” “this made me laugh,” it’s these notes among all the corrections that remind you why you wrote the story in the first place; for someone else to enjoy it.
My novel still has a lot of work that needs to be done to it. However, I’m still planning to publish Into the Deep this summer, but with the motivation to do it right.
As for my experience of being a beta reader, I have to say I enjoyed that as well. I had the opportunity to read a book for free and actually tell the author about the things that I wished would have happened differently or what I wished I had more details about. If I could have done that with all the books I’ve read Mocking Jay may have had a happier ending and the honeymoon scene in Breaking Dawn would have been more than a paragraph.  I know I didn't catch every mistake in her manuscript, but even with having little editing experience just by reading her book for the first time I was able to find things that she missed.
It’s a great feeling to finish a book and feel a part of the literary world; it’s also a great, but entirely different feeling to have been part of another piece of work and give your feedback to another person in hope of making their novel better. All around I think beta readers are a wonderful tool for authors.