Both J. Leigh and I have had two insanely busy weeks — doesn’t that always seem to happen right in the middle of huge and important projects? And it’s obvious that I “missed” my self-imposed publication deadline of October 4 for the release of Lords of Askalon. Part of that is life getting busy — and it’s a luxury (and a curse) of being self-published that you set your own publication schedule. But the real reason why I put off releasing the book is that I took the time to listen — really listen — to J. Leigh, my beta reader.
But what does that mean, exactly — listening to your beta reader? Doesn’t it mean just approving all those deletions and additions in Word’s track changes feature?
Don’t get me wrong. Track changes is fabulous for collaborative work like this. And for incorporating line edits, it can save a lot of time and trouble. But you don’t just give your beta reader carte blanche to rewrite your manuscript. Instead, you need to internalize the criticism and use it to make your story better. Let’s look at how this could play out, using Dr. Banner/the Hulk from the movie The Avengers (disclaimer: this is purely a thought exercise):
BR: I really want to see the Hulk become more thoughtful as the story progresses. He should start moving from “Smash everything because it’s there” to “Smash the enemy because I recognize they’re my enemy” by the end of the film, because otherwise he’s just not very sympathetic or heroic.
Writer: Ah, I see your point. Hmm. I know! If the first time the Hulk becomes the Hulk it’s purely a response to stimuli — uncontrolled and destructive and scary — and then later Dr. Banner chooses to become the Hulk to help his friends, that might convey this change in his character. That means I need to rework this first scene a bit…and really need to highlight the shift in this later scene…and…
Edits like these are macro edits, and they take more time to “fix” than word changes or tense agreement fixes. You have to take what your beta reader tells you — i.e., the Hulk (even for a big guy) is flat unless we have him develop as a character — and figure out what needs tweaking to make your story really successful and satisfying.
Remember, one of the most important things your beta reader does is to go through your manuscript like a reader. You want your story to be satisfying to your readers. If your character has hit a developmental plateau that’s becoming endless and therefore boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to convey this to you. If your plot has a massive hole in it, thus making the story boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to say so. And then you need to listen! Don’t say, “That’s hooey. My story is perfect just the way it is. You’re wrong. I’m right.”
If criticism of your work makes you cringe and feel ill and strikes at the very core of your being, then you’re in the wrong business. And if you can’t take the criticism of your beta reader, then don’t even consider actually publishing your work for the public. Take criticism as an opportunity to improve, not as a personal slight.
So, really maximize the usefulness of having a beta reader by discussing his thoughts on your work. How did this scene work? Could this other plot arc be a problem? Was this shift in character convincing? Is the ending a total flop? Is the climax intense enough? Don’t just cut and paste his line edits into your “finished” manuscript. If you’ve gone through the trouble of asking for a beta read, then make it count. Take your story from “just okay” to “awesome” by listening to what your reader tells you and considering how best to adjust.
Your readers will thank you for it.