What the heck is a beta reader, you ask? Beta readers are those lovely souls who read drafts of manuscripts prior to publication and provide feedback. They are the ones who find all of the plot holes, inconsistencies and gaffes. The best ones also couch their critiques in lots of hugs and “but here’s all the stuff I loved” comments. (Writers – especially this one – have fragile egos.)
Getting feedback from beta readers is a little like seeing a picture of yourself after you’ve only been catching glimpses in the mirror: “Oh my god, is THAT what my novel really looks like?” Writing is funny that way – you get to know your characters and their world so well that you lose objectivity and need others to help bring it back.
In your mind, your characters’ quirks, motivations and emotions are so obvious that you forget you haven’t translated everything in your head fully to the page. I had a few readers on Some Flew North who kept saying that my main character was inconsistent and too passive. My main character grew stronger through each round of drafts as I explored her motivations more, but she still has a long way to go, in part because I should have listened better to my early beta readers.
Beta readers also catch glaring errors, of which I have legion in all of my manuscripts. Like when a character’s middle name changed – twice – during the novel. Or when another traveled three hundred miles roundtrip (on foot!) and was back home in two days. Or when another one kept running his hand through his hair. Seriously. Every other page. Him with the hair. And even though this character has really good hair, it was a little excessive.
I can get manuscripts to a certain point (usually the third or fourth drafts for me) and I know I can’t get them any further without having several other pairs of eyes reading them and giving feedback. So no, I couldn’t do what I do without beta readers.
I’d like to end with a roll call of my beta readers – any omissions are my own error. The gratitude I feel toward them is without measure:
Jen, Sara, Sarah, Alyssa, Asli, Erika, Diane, Amanda, Kari, Jeff, Don (he knows why) and Leila (who also knows why).
And especially Chris, first reader and best love.