The Priceless Value of a Good Beta Reader

I started writing Polishing the Bones fifteen years ago. A student plugged an idea into my head and I chased the story. Chased it through its original incarnation as a nanowrimo book (National Novel Writing Month). And then, from there, I just kept on chasing it through different version and visions and revisions. The original draft is a train wreck of overdramatic, oversimplistic plot holes and too much misery. But I had a handful of characters I liked. I had a handful of ideas that I liked. So I kept writing and editing and revising.

And then I started sending. Query after query went out and…yay for me….over a hundred rejections later, I am the queen of failure.

Yay for me!

I put Polishing the Bones on my mental bookshelf. Started writing short stories. Found my comfort zone within the short story cycles. I even published one (Look for “Put On, Put Up, Put Out, Put Away” at Bottom Shelf Whiskey). But Polishing kept yelling at me.

One more time. One more try. Just one more.

Over the summer, I read a book…a murder mystery with a feminist social commentary twist. The book was okay. I wasn’t as enthralled as NPR had suggested I should have been. But one character was a failed journalist, a writer who had intended on writing the next great American novel. And he didn’t. But his goal was interesting. Write two pages a day.

Two pages a day.

I can write two pages a day. Heck…just hitting my mark with this blog is close to two pages a day (if I’m hitting my 1000 word mark which is my intention but I don’t know anymore).

And so, Polishing came off the mental shelves. I started poking at it. Giving it another chance to breathe.

And then, I had my son do a beta read on the first ten pages. Ten pages that I was super proud of because they were new and fresh and different from what I had written before.

I gave him a handful of questions:

  1. Can you connect with the character?
  2. Where does the novel drag?
  3. What do I need to improve?

My son came back with some amazing points.

  1. He can’t connect with my main character. He didn’t even know her name and found that he didn’t care about her. She was basically an observant axel in the middle of a merry-go-round, watching the horses go up and down but never interacting with them.
  2. Because she was just an observer…he didn’t really care about what was happening because she needed to interact with the other characters.

OW!

Talk about taking a step back and licking the wounds for a little while. It hurt. I’m not going to lie. I hope that if my son reads this he will know that his criticism was probably some of the best I have received. Because it was honest and from a good heart…he wasn’t trying to destroy. He was answering the questions I had asked.

So I went back one more time. One more round of letting my character act and react. What does she want to do when X happens? How would she respond?

And…the words just started to pour out of my fingertips. I lost hours while sitting at my desk and watching the shadow puppet show in my mind. I felt the heat of the late May sunshine in my novel while shivering a little in the crisp AC of my home office. I could hear, once more, the rambling of the creek.

This has not been a great week. For reasons that I can not and will not divulge, this has been an incredibly painful week. And one of the ways that I pushed through was my writing. I hit a point where I couldn’t look at my first chapter anymore. I knew it needed some final points, some final edits, but I couldn’t see them anymore.

So I contacted my hiking partner. I chased down a colleague. And I sent them files or handed them pages. And then I mentioned my writing to another colleague who asked to read. So I sent them to her. And then I asked one more colleague to read.

And then I sat on my hands and waited. Waited….

I told them all that I have been rejected over a hundred times. I am “wearing my big girl panties.” I can take the criticism. I can take the rejections.

Beta reader number one came back. I have her pages in my backpack and I’m ready to frame them. She showed me where I hit a bit of a drag. But, most of the time, she responded exactly the way I wanted at all the right places. She underlined sentences that she thought were lovely. She loved my character and could connect with her.

I almost started crying in my classroom. I bent my head down, almost in a prayerful submission, and rested it on a cold desk and held my colleague’s hand because it had been such an awful week.

And then, two hours ago, beta reader two came back with pages. And she connected with my character as well. She cared and wanted to read more. She was interested in where the story was going. She was anxious and didn’t like being anxious. That’s okay. That’s going through pages with a razor tipped edit and peeling out a handful of words here and there. I can do that. I can do that.

The value of a good beta reader is beyond measure. I have had amazing readers and editors and each have fed me in different ways. Each has motivated me and renewed me and strengthened me. I did not think that my journey with Polishing would take this long. But I am thrilled that it has. Because what I am reading now is so much better…so much more real and so much less of a neurotic, emotional roller coaster ride.

Most of all, a good beta reader is the person with whom I can be my quintessential self. I can be vulnerable and allow my most terrified sense of self to quake under their eyes and they will touch the back of my hand and show me what needs to be changed. And then they will tell me the sentences that they loved. And I can feel my soul rise as I look at my pages, at my words, and hear the voices telling me to try once more. To push once more.

I have poems that I need to edit. A short story that is close to being ready to go out. I need to send. Need to write. Need to send out these little bits and pieces to the world so that I can build my foundation.

Because next year…I am going to start sending out again. Polishing will find a home somewhere.

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