You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
That’s kind of an old chestnut at this point, but it’s true nonetheless – doubly so when you’re shopping your book to agents and editors. Many of us, I think, have this romantic fantasy lurking in the back of our minds of writing the Great American Novel (or whichever country you call home) on our first try, wowing everyone who sees it, prompting a bidding war that ends with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Okay, maybe that part’s just me. At the very least, we assume that, with the right idea and a solid grasp of the fundamentals, we can come up with something that will grab an editor’s attention. Oh, sure, the book might need some work, but surely potential buyers will see it as the diamond in the rough it truly is, right? …right?
Yeah. Not so much. Trust me: as a writer, you need a second pair of eyes (and a third, and a fourth), and preferably well before you stop shopping your book around. I’m not just talking about proofreaders, either: you need someone to point out when the things that seemed so incredibly clear in your head are actually really difficult for the average reader to understand, when characters come off as obnoxious or unrealistic or boring, when dialogue is stilted and awkward. And while your close friends and family members may be able to offer you some useful advice, you shouldn’t count on their unbiased opinions. That’s where beta readers come in. And the sooner you bring them in, the better.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a little while to accept the concept of the beta reader. In retrospect, it should have clicked straightaway – I mean, my father’s a computer programmer and software tester. I myself have ended up pursuing a career in the software industry, specifically working as a QA tester, and I was participating in volunteer playtests even before I started doing it for a living. But we’re talking about books! Not software! Not video games or database systems! Books are art! They are too pure and wonderful and sacred to be sullied by such base ideas!
If you’re serious about writing, you need to learn this lesson right quick: your book is not pure, wonderful, or sacred. It may be art – time will tell – but for the time being, it’s work. It’s something you build methodically, piece by piece, until you come up with something that won’t blow up in your face. It’s a machine. And if you want that machine to perform well in the demo – as it were – then you need to test it.
Look, I tried doing it the other way. I tried writing my novels in a vacuum. I told myself that yes, of course, absolutely I’d let my friends and family see it…when it was ready to go off to the editor. And everyone else could just wait until the book came out. Maybe that works for some people, but honestly, they’re a rare breed. I joined a writing group a couple years back, and honestly – my work is the better for it, simply because they see things I missed. They tell me openly and honestly what worked for them and what didn’t. They point out boring passages and character moments that didn’t go over the way I thought they would. They force me to think about background details I failed to fully define. They keep me honest, insofar as any writer is honest. And I honestly can’t imagine trying to write Fall without them.
So how do you find beta readers? Well…despite what I said, your friends (and possibly your family) are a good place to start. If you have friends you trust to give you honest, objective criticism, you should definitely ask them to take a look at your current project. They might also be able to introduce you to other beta readers – I lucked out there myself; my friend Katie introduced me to the aforementioned writing group, which she’d already been attending for some time. While I do trust Katie to give me honest feedback, we’re also honestly in sync on a lot of stuff…sure, we have our disagreements, but I think our brains tend to work in the same way. And while I do consider the other members of our group friends, I’m not as close to them. We don’t share all the same interests (though many of us are fans of genre fiction to some degree, and geeky in our own special ways) and we definitely don’t think entirely alike. As much as I value Katie’s feedback, and as much as I love it when we’re collaborating on some project or another or just bouncing ideas off each other, it really does help to get some opinions from people I don’t speak with every day.
Past that, there’s the whole wide world of the Internet. There are TONS of writing groups and circles and trapezoids out there, and a whole slew of people who are only too happy to volunteer as beta readers. You might also look into writing workshops in your area – at the very least, they’re a great way to meet other writers who live nearby, and maybe you can forge your own group out of that. There is, quite literally, a whole world at your fingertips. You just need to take a look.
However you find them, though, you do need those beta readers – as surely as software companies need beta testers. To quote another old chestnut, any job worth doing is worth doing well. Maybe you’re one in a million. Maybe you don’t need anyone to review your masterpiece before you unleash it upon the world. But why take that chance? It’s better to spend the time passing chapters around to beta readers and soliciting their feedback than risk sending a potential agent or slush pile editor some shoddy half-baked novel that may never see the light of day, isn’t it?