The Value of a Beta-Read

Whew.  It’s been ages since I felt like I could justify blogging.  In my absolute dream life, I picture myself floating serenely out of bed (before a few laps in my heated, indoor pool, natch) and heading down to my beautiful library-slash-office, and writing from 9am until 5pm, at which point I’d close the computer and cherish my family time.

I guess some writers – good, established ones, or at least the rich ones who can afford to – do do that.  But for me, writing is never-ending.  I do it as soon as I get up.  I do it while the baby naps.  I do it while the toddler watches TV.  I do it while my husband takes the kids to the shops.  And when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing.  I wake up in the night to jot down plot points or dialogue or just things that come to me and which might be brilliant, might be a pile of shit.  I can’t risk it; I write it down.  So when I’m not physically holding children, I feel like I should be working on my novel.  Blogging just falls behind the wayside, because it’s non-essential.  But not blogging makes me feel a bit weird and guilty, so….

What’s wrong with us?  All of us, I mean?  Why do we always put so much pressure on ourselves to be doing something that we are not currently doing?  Sigh.

Anyway, onto the topic at hand.  I recently sent my completed novel to be read by a professional editor.  I paid for the service, but I’m really glad I did.  Before she read it, I think six other people had read it – and I’m so grateful to them all.  Their feedback was lovely, and really encouraging, but they are my friends and family and as every writer is continually reminded: They Will Not Tell You If It’s Shit.

So, before I pressed on and self-published 130,000 words of crap, or gave up altogether, I took the plunge, checked my bank balance (a mistake) and sent it off.  It took my beta-reader about a month to get around to it, but she sent me a four page write up of what worked, what didn’t, what could be cut, and the areas a traditional publisher would likely want changed.  It was brilliant.  She told me some really positive things, most importantly, that she really enjoyed reading it.  I mean, that’s all an author wants, right?  That and a million pounds?  Totally standard.

She also gave me some very useful – and not at all discouraging – criticism.  Characters needed to go.  My main character needed to grow a backbone.  My love interest needed to be a bit more….loveable.  (He’s a killer – it was a tough re-write).  The whole thing needed to be significantly shorter.  My baddie needed to be less like a James Bond ‘mwah-ha-ha’ villain.  All things I can work on (and have worked on – I attacked the third draft like a beast).

The main sticking point she mentioned – and which I have always suspected was going to be difficult – was putting it in a particular genre.  It’s romance, but a bit of an odd duck of a romance.  The hero, Maxwell, is a very non-standard sort of romantic hero, in that he doesn’t want to have a relationship.  Or sex.  Or any kind of friendship.  Then there’s the themes in the book – murder, suicide, bullying, references to domestic abuse….  I genuinely didn’t have ANY OF THOSE THINGS IN MIND when I started to write it.  I don’t know where they came from.  I don’t know where the story came from, all I wanted to write about was Nina and Max, but I needed something to hang them on and….  Poor Nina.  Poor Max.  Anyway, the themes meant that my attempts at a romantic comedy were a bit off the mark, but it’s not quite a thriller…  And it can’t be ‘Women’s Fiction’ either (that catch-all genre) because in order to make it so, I’d have to lose Max’s point of view, and that would break my heart.  I love him (even if nobody else does).

So.  I guess it’s closest to a romantic suspense, and that’s probably where I’ll pin it for now.  In the future, I’m going to make sure I know what genre I’m writing in before I start writing.  Also my advice to other aspiring authors.

My beta-reader was amazing, though, is what I’m saying.  Not only did she give me amazingly clear direction, she also gave me back my confidence and love for a story I’ve been dragging along for 2 years, and was starting to lose faith in.  Many people in writing communities don’t pay for beta readers, they just share critiquing favours, and that’s amazing.  But I don’t have that network yet, and in my case, paying an editor was well worth the money.  Once I can scrape together the money to pay for it to be properly edited, I’ll do another round.  (You pay per word, another MASSIVE incentive to cut it down!)

And then, maybe early next year, I can finally publish this little baby of mine.  I’m excited and also terrified, but most importantly, I’m motivated.

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