Friday, October 24, 2008

The Importance of Beta Readers

Last night I got through the last of three edits of my next manuscript. (Yay! And there will be chocolate celebrations in the land!)

All three edits were done by ladies in my critique group, women I've known for many, many years. All are published. Two are Whitney Award winners (here and here), and the other has won many awards of her own, including a Best of State medal for her teaching.

Qualified readers, no?

Absolutely. They're all excellent. So why did I bother getting all THREE of them to read the book? Because the more eyes, the better. I've known that for a long time, but this round, the truth of that was even more apparent.

For example, on the most basic level: typos.

Most typos in this manuscript were things that spell check wouldn't catch (like "an" when I meant "a").

I fixed a bunch in edit #1. Going through the second edit, I was surprised at how many new typo corrections it had. And I went through #3, and the same thing happened: she caught a bunch that had been overlooked by #1 and #2. Of course, they all caught many of the same ones.

Each of the three edits caught at least ten typos that neither of the other two did. (We won't discuss how embarassing it is to have that many typos caught in the first place.)

Another reason multiple opinions is good is because sometimes they conflict. With one opinion, it's hard to know whether you as the writer agree with it or whether most readers will see it that way. But with three, if two agree and one doesn't, then you can often have a good idea whether the passage might really be working. One person's quirk doesn't mean that the section needs fixing.

I found this aspect particularly fascinating this time around. One reader marked a passage, saying, "I don't get this," while the other two starred it, writing, "Great!" or "Love this!"

Then there are the things that you as the writer were blind to but all three of them point out. By the time you see the same issue scrawled in red for the third time, you can be pretty sure that it needs fixing.

And of course each one pointed out lots of things that none of the others did, things that resonated (you can just feel it when someone hits that target—you know they're right, darn it), so I'll definitely add or fix those things.

One issue I'm struggling with this time around is making truth believable. I think it was John Grisham (although don't quote me on that) who said that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.

Here's the tricky thing: While this book is fiction, I'm drawing from a lot of real experiences, feelings, and events from women I've interviewed who have been through a husband's deployment. (That's what the book is about: five characters who become close friends while their husbands are in Afghanistan, and the trials each of them face.)

So when two of my readers mark a passage (based on something that really happened to a woman I talked to) and they call it unrealistic, what do I do?

I can't very well argue, "But that's how it really happened to so-and-so." Who cares? It's a novel. Fiction. And a reader shouldn't be pulled out like that.

So I need to figure out how to handle a few of those "real" elements so they sound more believable (even though they're accurate as they stand . . . ironic, I know).

I have a few minor tweakage revisions left to go that they pointed out, and then I'll be ready to submit. I'm pretty close now, and that's exciting.

I promised to have it turned in by Halloween, and I will, even if it means clicking "send" on midnight after my trick-or-treaters go to bed.

And then I'll celebrate. I'll try not to raid their candy stashes!


Kristina P. said...

I'm excited to read your new novel! I agree, the more eyes the better.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Congratulations on nearing the finish line.

I like your perspective on beta readers. With the manuscript I just finished, I wasn't sure who would be the best person to go to for feedback because it was my first outing, so I used a scattershot approach. I began to figure out whose opinion would be really valuable and knew who to send the final drafts to. I agree that more opinions helped me a ton.

And I love that (maybe) John Grisham quote. So true and definitely so ironic.

Cheryl said...

Ditto on the John Grisham quote. Real life is always more unbelievable than fiction.

I love reading about your writing process. In a way, I'm envious because I haven't even finished a first draft yet. Of anything! Okay, that's not true. I guess I have a few books finished, but nothing publishable, you know? But it's good for me to see authors I admire (as a person? There you go!) explaining their writing processes. It gives me hope!

Alison Wonderland said...

Lucky you for having such great critiquers. Someday I'll get my own group.

PS my word verification is "pickl" I just think that's fun.

annie valentine said...

There's a fine line between following your gut and listening to your readers. You're right, reality doesn't always make sense. Is it critical to the story line? I've been with a good critique group this past year and four times out of six will end up agreeing with the majority in these cases. But if it isn't true to character it just isn't true to character.

Or you could simply flip a coin. You'll know what you want to do before the penny hits the dirt.

Annette Lyon said...

Annie, Definitely--learning when to listen to critiques and when to trust your gut can be tricky.

The good thing is that I've been with these ladies in a critique group for nearly 9 years now, so I've reached the point of being able to make the calls pretty easily. There are times I've ignored suggestions from every single one of them for one reason or another. And of course, other times I just know they're spot on.

And sometimes I'll take their diagnosis (this chapter doesn't work) but find a different--and better--solution than they suggested. Good luck with your writing and your group. It's quite a ride, isn't it?

Karlene said...

Readers are worth their weight in gold--literally.

And raid the candy stashes. I used to charge my kids a tootsie roll tax. That's what they had to pay me to take them out on Halloween night.

Julie Wright said...

I loved this post! So many times my readers save me from embarrassing myself. I wouldn't manage without them. And Like Karlene, I charge my kids a troll toll when they come home on Halloween. I get to raid their bags by merit of the fact that the troll must get her toll!


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