Beta-Readers: You Need Them

After some time and introspection from my first round of sending query letters to literary agents, I have chosen to make considerable revisions to my first completed novel. No small part of my decision came from the feedback I received from beta-readers. This leads to this recent post, and advice I have after having just experienced its merit: all writers need beta-readers. 

At first, I was not sure if I should have recruited any editorial assistants to help me. Even after multiple edits of my work, there was only so much I could do to criticize it, only so many places I could spot problems. In my case, of course, I could always spot issues because I am more likely to criticize my own work than any other person’s. If anyone had given me the privilege of supplying their drafts with numerous red marks, I can assure you that I am ten times worse with myself. One day, someone told me I needed to just turn in my first round of query letters. Being very new to the process of seeking an agent or publisher, I did just that.

Then I pretended my novel no longer existed and worked on my second novel. They say fixating on the first novel after sending the query letters would reflect poorly, and this is very true. If someone only plans to have the one work sent out, that does not look like someone who will stay with a person representing them, or help publishers and agents succeed in their own work.

It was when I worked on my second novel when I started to realize how much better my first novel could be, even after all said and done. I noticed additional things I wanted to do with it; I found new inspirations from further readings on Hindu and Southeast Asian stories to nuance the world I was building. This prompted me to make changes that would overall transform the first novel enough into a different story. Thankfully, I did not have many query letters out there, and I had immediately come clean about how significantly different my work would be. In this, I only held gratitude, for the entities in question were open to this, something I know can vary from company to company. It was not a decision made lightly, as said before, and I would not recommend it to anyone who can help it. 

After speaking with some friends who had published books already, they strongly insisted on having beta-readers. This need for critique became more important. There was always going to be me doubting every decision I make on a work. Another pair of eyes, on top of being another look, would not see the same flaws I would. It also became important to understand that everyone has blind spots, no matter how critical one is of their own work (we are human). Ergo, the additional pair of eyes may spot where something is clear in my own head, but not others.’

Still, I do not take the request for beta-reading for granted. Editing, in general, is not an easy task. If it is not difficult, it is time-consuming. After having done my share of beta-reading others’ works, including a thesis and dissertation for some of my colleagues, I know it at the very least takes time from one’s day (and sometimes night). For one person, I was an editor for both one’s dissertation proposal and a final intended work. I am thankful for knowing the person in question made it in the top ten dissertations in a library journal because it felt like a success story. If nothing else, I knew I did my job when my supervisor pointed out the dissertation to me, unaware that I knew the person until I said something. 

This perhaps also played a part in my reluctance to seek early critique sooner, and not merely being afraid of what my friends might think of my new hobby. I did not want to feel like I was a burden to anyone. In the end, I did what one of my friends would say, as ‘putting my big girl panties on,’ and looked for beta-readers among friends. I looked toward ones I knew would give me honest feedback.

And the best news? I found a few who were very dedicated to the work, people I have told repeatedly I would pay to have it done. While I did not make enough to pay them the standard editor fees, I wanted to make sure they knew I appreciated their work. There goes not a day where I am not thankful or not expressing gratitude for all the hard work these souls have done for me. 

I have not regretted the decision one bit. Even as I remain hypercritical of what my work is like, or what some feedback might mean for myself (never the person editing), I am always happy with each round of edits. A week in, and already we are 1/5 through my critical (beta) reading of my first novel. With my second novel, I have some who provide me feedback while I write it, and I am already almost 7,000 words into it after I started it a few weeks ago. One particular beta-reader has truly, significantly improved the quality of my work. Will it be perfect when we are done? As Jacqueline Carey has said in her own blog, there is no perfect writing, especially for beginning works. I have to remind myself of this in the process while putting my faith in the process itself. 

This experience has also served another lesson: I have to keep writing. As stated in previous posts, I have opened a door that can no longer be closed. In this journey I have embarked on, beta-readers had been a great blessing. Every return of drafts marked in red reinforces the fact I found someone who cares as much about the work to provide ways to make it better than the first, second, third, or even fourth, fifth, and sixth draft. For anyone who is new to the process of writing, publishing, and so forth, please take advice from someone who did not follow it initially: beta-readers are a boon not to take for granted.


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