Forgive the pun. Or, you know, don’t.
Having done yet another round of revisions and some significant restructuring, it was time to get my book read by some people who might be my target audience. I had made some friends at the New York conference but that was nearly a year ago, and I only kept in touch with one. So I sent my new MS to her and she promised to give me feedback, but I needed to find more beta readers.
I went online and found a Facebook group called Beta Readers and Critique Partners. What a great resource! I’m so impressed by the writing community and how it comes together to support each other in our work.
I posted my blurb for The Other Me (working title) and said I’d be willing to swap with any other commercial women’s fiction, if they were full-length novels. I had several takers, which ultimately boiled down to three women who were serious about giving me feedback on the full MS. Only two of them wanted theirs read in return.
That swapping process was quite the experience. If I were doing it again, I’d definitely ask to see the first chapters to assess whether we’re a fit for each other! The harsh truth is that there are people at all stages of their writing journey in these Facebook groups, and some are better at their craft than others. I have the benefit of decades of journalism and editing experience, plus my manuscript has already been revised many times and dissected by some experts. So I was handing mine over in pretty good shape, and was hopeful that the suggested changes would be minimal.
However, the two works I received from my readers to give my own feedback on were… not in the same kind of shape. One was really quite well written, but there was no sense of a real plot. I managed to get through the first six chapters before I told the author that although I thought her style was great, she really needed to make something interesting happen. I then read her blurb and realized she didn’t have a handle on the plot at all, so I promised to read it when she had figured it out later. She seemed grateful for that and I hope to read her manuscript down the road in return for the helpful notes she gave me.
The other one, oh my goodness. It was really rough, and a totally different genre than I expected (and had been told it was). I read an analyzed all 110K-plus words of it, and giving feedback on that was a painful experience for both me and the author. As a veteran, no-nonsense newsroom editor, my approach has always been a cruel-to-be-kind brutal honesty. But in hindsight I think I could have been gentler. Although I picked out as many good qualities as I could, I also identified the many problems, which didn’t seem to go down well with the author and I felt bad.
Both my beta readers had fairly minimal suggested changes to my MS, which was great, and I was so happy they both loved the story. However, it made me aware that you kind of need your reader to also be a good writer and editor themselves. Looking back on the version I gave them, there were all kinds of issues that I can now see, which they didn’t pick up on.
So, although the online beta-reading partnership was a good and worthwhile experience, it’s no substitute for having professional eyes on your text. Whether that’s an agent who is prepared to give you extensive notes, or a freelance book editor, it’s my belief that only those who are inside the industry can really tell you if your work is any good or not.