This morning my bestie, partner in crime, and the better half of my brain-brain -- two bodies, one brain -- wrote this post about her journey while I wrote All The What Ifs. It's made me nostalgic and reflective. I can't help but stand in awe of the last five years -- FIVE FREAKING YEARS -- and the journey we took together. From that first fate filled afternoon back in 2011 when I sent her a silly daydream that had been nagging at me, to now when I'm a published author, and all the places in between, I'm humbled by the experience and her commitment to me.
Overtime our lives changed in good ways and not so great ways. We lost loved ones. We laughed and cried together -- both in person and through text messages. We hugged and swooned and bonded a million times over as we sought to give Ashley the story she deserved. And while I wrote the words, Kim loved each and every one of them. And man, did she put up with a LOT. From reading the same scene countless times in the same afternoon because I made one small tinker to a sentence, to countless emails and texts filled with self-loathing and doubt, Kim's faithfulness to me and Ashley never wavered.
She is my ideal reader. She is my first reader. She IS what made All The What Ifs a good story. And her role is key to my journey.
Writing can be a lonely endeavor. It can feel pointless and often it's hard for a writer to see the forest through the trees. Which is why having beta readers is pivotal. Without Kim and her willingness to take this journey with me, All The What Ifs would not be complete.
But it wasn't just Kim who helped me shape All The What Ifs. Over the last five years, I've had the honor and privilege of working with thoughtful, honest, and encouraging betas and my wonderful editor Miranda Boers. I've also crashed and burned with just as many betas. Truth be told, it was my fault for not establishing clear boundaries and guide lines. For not speaking up and making sure we were both on the same page.
Here's what I've learned -- through trial and error -- over the last five years makes for a great beta/writer relationship.
First and foremost, when looking for a beta it's imperative a writer and her prospective readers understand the commitment made on the beta's side and the patience needed on the writer's side. When deciding if you'd like to beta read for someone, the potential reader MUST be honest with themselves and the writer. Do they really have the time to make the commitment to read your manuscript? Will they follow through and send you feedback in a timely manner? Will the feedback have substance to it? Will they make it a priority or hide when they fall behind? Will they keep you posted when life gets in the way and the reading falls by the wayside? Honesty, honesty, honesty at all times is not only important but pivotal on the beta's side. On the same note, a writer needs to be understanding and patience and not take it personally if a reader is unable to keep the commitment or has fallen behind. As a writer we are asking a lot of our betas. We are asking them to make our word baby their priority. They have lives. They have work and loved ones and their own passions and problems. Life happens and we need to be able to roll with it, because as hard as it is to remember, it's truly not all about us and our novel.
So you and your beta have honestly discussed the commitment needed and agreed that you can establish a good working relationship. Now it's time for some diligence -- you guessed it -- on BOTH sides. For a beta, this part of the journey is simply stated but time consuming and challenging because it can be boiled down to: just read. Read like your life depended on it. Read like YOU wrote the words. Read, read, and read. Be diligent in communicating with the writer as you hold their hand during the process. Let them know where you are at, what challenges you are facing, and don't be ashamed if you get behind. And my dear fellow writers, be diligent in your gratitude and understanding. Never forget, you are asking a person to take time out of their life to make your work a priority. Often they are unpaid, under appreciated, and rarely given the credit for helping establish your story. Show them your appreciation, they deserve it.
We've reached the moment the beta and the writer have been waiting on -- with baited breath, no less -- for months, your beta has finished reading your word baby! Now comes the hardest part, feedback. Writers' egos are fragile. We're a temperamental people who say we want criticism but really what we're dying to hear is all the parts you loved most. So here comes the handholding and general, 'you're awesome' portion of the relationship. Betas, grab those pom-poms and pepper your fragile writer with encouragement and 'I loved this part so much it hurts' feedback! BUT BE SINCERE. You are not doing a writer any favors by telling them something is good when in truth it stinks. Express to your writer what you think they did right and don't hold back.
As a beta, honesty is the scariest part. How do you tell a writer that the use of snot in a scene makes you want to vomit? How do you encourage them while gently letting them know they're head hopping and can't seem to keep their tenses straight? Here's my take on this, by asking you to read a writer is saying they trust your opinion and if they are truly looking to improve, if they truly want your honest opinion then it stands to reason they are dying to hear what they can fix, what didn't work for you, and how you would make it better. Now, this doesn't mean they will always agree. Maybe they really like snot. Maybe they feel the snot sets the scene. So they'll keep it. But it's more likely they never really thought about how disgusting snot -- in general -- is and how using it conjures up unpleasant thoughts and should be forever banned from tender moments between two young lovers. And if a writer is really, truly, 100% looking for honest feedback, despite how uncomfortable and terrifying and heart wrenching it is to have someone pick apart your word baby, they will trust you and respect your opinion which leads to...
It is pivotal on both ends. Writers, respect your betas. You asked them to read your work for a reason. So when they say something doesn't work or they suggest doing something a different way, don't let that knee jerk reaction of 'what the hell? can't they see what I intended?!' get in the way. Approach all feedback with a keen eye for good advice and try your best to check your fragile ego and your heart at the door. And betas, always remember, what is being placed in your hands is a small piece of the writer. By asking you to read for them, what they are really saying is, 'hey, I trust you. I think you could add a lot to my story. I'm scared as hell and most of the time I don't know what I'm doing, but despite all that, can you help me? Can you hold my hand and let me know if I've made a fool of myself or if this could potentially be something worthwhile?'
In the end, betas are a MUST. If a writer is serious about creating a worthwhile tale, they will have to seek out trusted readers to help them shape their story. The beta's job is an important one. It's a job they should take on with a clear understanding of the commitment they are making and the knowledge that they are helping create something. They will forever be apart of the journey. And what an adventure it will be.