Readers in a book shop sitting on bean bag

Beta Readers are too valuable to ignore

Let me tell you a tale about beta readers, or one beta reader and one book of mine in particular. OK, before I continue, I’ll allow you recover from the shock of me writing more than one blog post in a six month period. Shocking I know.

So, I had pretty much considered my third novel (the fairy tale one) done. To the point where I was busy crafting the submission letters to publishers. That’s how done I was.

Now, I’d read the novel and though it was quite long (130k words) I couldn’t really find much to cut. In fact, later drafts seemed to add more content. Everything served a purpose. Tough. Yet, I had a niggling.

Two beta readers ploughed through the book and really enjoyed it. There were some corrections and insights I needed to act on, like certain characters dying and no one really caring all that much, but overall I felt it was solid.

A third beta reader, likely in my target demographic of prime YA reader, still (at time of writing) hasn’t gotten back to me. Apparently there are only a few pages to go, but exams and life got in the way. This… is not great news. I can accept excuses around distractions and such, but they’re really excuses to make me feel better. What I want to write is a book that grabs you until the last page.

A fourth beta reader said it was the best thing I’d written so far and that I’m good at what I do. Which, depending on how you read it, could be a positive or negative. I haven’t dug deeper (I tend to pester beta readers after they’ve had time to digest things) so we’ll see what comes of that.

But the fifth beta reader, well, the fifth beta reader was a revelation. This blog post is mostly about reader number five.

You want readers to have a reaction. When I heard one reader cried at a certain point, well, I took that to be a good sign (and then rushed off to check with other readers to see if that part of the book was too much.) What you don’t want is a “yeah, it was good.” reaction, because that gives you nothing. That’s the path to mediocrity. Either rave about parts or bring up problems you found. Even hate the book.

So reader number five was taking a long time to read, longer than I’d usually suspect. Eventually she came to me and said she’d started it twice and was having issues with the main character. She abandoned it once and decided to give it another chance when the weather was better and her mood too. Nope, same issues remained. The main character was toxic.

Now, this may sound like the worst of news. A toxic main character? Nobody wants to root for someone toxic. A bad ass or a complete dick, yeah sure, even someone completely evil may have some supporters, but toxic? Oh no. I did not want that.

My character’s internal monologue was pure frustration around the issue of the female protagonist. It was pretty bitter and toxic, and, when I read it, I thought it made sense, but, as a reader approaching the story with your own experiences, it was completely out of place.

What was the problem? Well, while I was writing the book, I was dealing with the end of a very toxic friendship. So, as writing is all about expression, I found myself channeling my own thoughts into the main character. When I re-read the book, I thought those thoughts were very real and valid. The fifth reader thought they were valid too… for me, knowing the details of this toxic friendship I was trying to extricate myself from. But the thoughts weren’t valid for my main character.

The moment it was said, it struck me as a pure eureka moment. Those times that make creative work so exciting, when pieces just start falling into place and the synapses fire. It made perfect sense. And suddenly my character felt more genuine.

See, the male character is a teenager with very little experience with women. When he meets the female protagonist, he should be awkward and a bit overwhelmed. He doesn’t really know how to deal with the feelings inside him, and he struggles. You essentially have this nerdy guy who is pretty decent and genuine but has no idea how to act, yet, does have some theoretical knowledge going on.

So, I have bits in there where they both have to change their clothes in a forest and he’s having this internal battle about looking over in her direction, where he knows he shouldn’t, but, but, he’s so damn curious and full of hormones. That sort of stuff I still feel is pretty genuine and it will likely remain. Most of my female beta readers found it kind of hilarious, so, we’re grand there.

But, the character seemed to have a major chip on his shoulder. He definitely did, because I know at the time of writing I did. I was in this toxic friendship (and I use the word loosely) where every conversation revolved around the other person and the same inane points were made over and over again, so when the boy and girl in the story go on a long hike, you find this thread running through his head around the points of “why is everything about you?” and “why are you wasting my time with this same old drivel.” Now… the adventuring in the book takes place over a few days. The boy and girl barely know each other. No way is the boy going to voice the same thoughts as I did after a year of a horrible manipulative toxic experience.

It made no sense. And without the context, it made the boy seem like a bitter spiteful toxic creature, one who merely needed exposure to a woman before turning into a monster. That was definitely not what I was going for. Rewrite!

The second point my dear fifth reader made… why do we not hear what the girl is thinking as much? Now, there are parts where we get a glimpse into the girl’s inner monologue, but, those feel somewhat limited. There was an air of mystery I wanted to create, where her secrets are slowly discovered by the boy. But, it’s an odd case of expecting the reader to understand her progression through the story via the boy’s perspective. In my head it went a bit like – Boy sees girl in state A; Boy witnesses girl doing X; Boy sees girl in state B. And the reader was kinda meant to go “Oh, because X was happening, the girl ended up at B.” But, where is the richness of hearing the girl go through that process in her own words?

The female protagonist is by far the stronger of the two. It’s not a case of a silent wall-flower character. Yet, I made the book lean very much on the side of the boy. And, that, well, that pretty much removes the ability for a lot of readers to relate.

And I think it’ll be more fun to give the lady an inner voice that the world can hear.

My takeaways from the fifth beta reader – I should go back and make it more fun. Because, I tend to be quite good at making things fun. I hope.

So there you have it, a rewrite prompted by a beta reader who was brave enough to be honest and critical just in the nick of time. I’ve no doubt that the book will be stronger because of it.

FrankBeta Readers are too valuable to ignore