I’m sitting here in a friend’s living room while she reads my manuscript. I’ve voluntarily subjected myself to this, of course, having given comment-making rights on the Google Doc to a half-dozen or more people, to suffer the slings and arrows of their…
Hold up, I didn’t write that.
Anyway: welcome to a necessary part of the revision process. BETA READERS. And it is goddamn terrifying.
I’ve spent a lot of time staring at this manuscript, cursing it, praising it, hacking it up and smashing it together, facepalming and headdesking, and now here we are, the point at which other people get to do those things without actually having to deal with any of the repercussions. I hated this piece when I wrote it, loved it when I finished it, loved it when I pulled it out a year later to revise, then started to hate it again.
That’s not quite right. I don’t hate it. I’m just… I’m less confident than I was before, shall we say. But that’s probably because I’ve dissected the damn thing within an inch of its life, looked at all its pink and squishy parts, poked around in the viscera, cut some things out and shoved some things in, and hopefully sewed it back up without leaving my watch inside. And the bitch of this is that I know it’s still not good enough. I know that no matter how good this draft is, it isn’t going to be good enough until the beta readers go through it, punch holes in my character motivations, poke fingers into plot holes – possibly make me cry – and then I go back through and I fix the damn thing.
This is why you need good beta readers. Not kowtowing friends who squee “omg this is so goooood” at you – no matter how nice it feels, it doesn’t feel good anymore when you know you’re not improving – or the ones who have nothing to say. You want people who are writers, who are good readers, who know what make a story work and what doesn’t. You need, for lack of a better term, developmental editors.
So find some. Love them. Bribe them with chocolate and beer and, if necessary, sexual favors.
Why am I so nervous? I am, after all, about to ship this out to a couple dozen strangers who have nothing better to do than decide the fate of the random, unsolicited query letters and manuscripts that arrive on their desks every day. I am putting my work into their hands, saying, PLEASE JUDGE ME, and that’s fine. That’s fine. It has to be, doesn’t it? Who am I to think myself so important that I deserve my very own ISBN?
Because fuck it, right? I’ve got things to say, and someone’s bound to like them. Because there’s always a market for books, and I like to write. Because I like to write. Because I don’t have a Plan B. So I’m going to sit here in this chair, occasionally chew on a fingernail, put off starting my next project, and just feel the panic sitting on my chest like a sandbag, feel it rattle and buzz in my lungs like a crop of cicadas.
Because beta readers, ladies and gentlemen, are important. They’re your lifeline. They’re the ones who tell you what’s crap and what isn’t and why they don’t believe your protagonist’s motives. The ones to tell you she needs a new job or that you have to introduce a female friend or your bartender’s stupid or a million other things. They’re your reality check: you’ve spent so much time with this manuscript, maybe plotting and graphing, maybe just word-vomiting out a year ago, that you’re at the point where even you hate looking at it… it’s time for fresh eyes to come in and point out all the things you knew were wrong with it (but gave up on in frustration) and all the things you couldn’t see because you were too close.
They are, quite possibly, the most important step other than writing the manuscript. Make sure you treat them right.