Skirt the negative reviews: Find great beta readers!
by Patrick Hodges
If you’re going to be a writer, you are going to get critiqued. In that respect, it’s no different from being a filmmaker, a musician, a painter, or a sculptor. As long as there has been art, there have been art critics. It’s the nature of the beast.
For writers and authors, these critiques can come from friends and family – of course, these critiques may not be totally honest, unless your family, you know, hates you – and ultimately, they end up hurting you in the long run. Your goal should be – should always be – to turn out the best product possible. So before reviews start pouring in from people who have no interest in whether you succeed or fail as an author, you may want to engage the services of beta readers.
What is a beta reader? Quite simply, it’s someone who is willing to give your work the once-over and give you honest, constructive feedback about it before you send it out into the world. It is, you hope, someone whose judgment you trust, someone with a discerning eye who will neither kiss your posterior nor stomp on the sand castle that is your hopes, dreams, and aspirations of becoming a successful author. This person is someone who will point out not only your book’s strengths, but also its weaknesses, perhaps offering suggestions for how to solve said weaknesses.
Let me be clear – if you write, you WILL get bad reviews. No author alive can please everyone. And those readers, many of whom have no concept of how hard it is to sit down and write a book, will not hold back in ripping the end-product of months, even years, of blood, sweat, tears, and caffeine addiction to shreds. They can hide behind an anonymous computer pseudonym or username and tear your book apart like an 8-year-old boy tearing the wrapping off his largest present on Christmas morning. Some of them will have valid criticisms; others will go all “mean girl” and attack the author directly. God bless the Internet.
After publishing my first book, Joshua’s Island, I was able to bang out a rough draft of my second book, Ethan’s Secret, in a matter of months. How was I able to do this? You guessed it: beta readers. Thankfully, being part of the author community allowed me to make the acquaintance of literally dozens of fellow authors, with many of whom I developed an incredible rapport with over a matter of months. In many cases, all it took was reading their work and reviewing it, and having them do the same for me (see my post about review swapping). Many of them were willing, even eager, to read my latest book, free of charge, out of respect and appreciation.
Needless to say, without their help, Ethan’s Secret would not have been as coherent, as emotion-churning, or as good as it is. Yes, some of them didn’t give me that much feedback other than “It’s fine,” but some sent my manuscript back to me with notes, corrections, and suggested improvements all over it. And I heeded about 90 percent of their feedback. One of my characters wasn’t developed as fully as I’d liked, and I had a subplot going that just wasn’t working, so I removed that subplot entirely and gave that character more “screen time.” And wow, the story is so much better because of it.
Authors, like musicians, movie stars, and visual artists, tend to have big egos. Let me tell you right now – I don’t care how many damn 5-star reviews you have, or how many awards you’ve won, or how many blog tours you’ve done. I don’t care if you’re on Oprah’s Ten Best of the Year list. You cannot write a book and publish it with no feedback whatsoever and believe that it’s the best thing since sliced bread. (Unless you’re just that narcissistic, in which case, knock yourself out, jackass.)
Getting negative feedback hurts. It does. It stings like a mother. That’s why I said you should get people you trust to read your work before it hits the Internet. People whose judgment you trust and value, but who aren’t going to coddle you. After all, the gushing praise you received from friends and family won’t amount to a hill o’ beans when that first 1-star review comes in, will it?
So before you hit the “Save and Publish” button on Amazon, do yourself and your future readers a favor and make sure you are putting forth the most polished, coherent, mistake-free product you can. Suck it up, thicken your skin, check your ego at the door, and make the damn thing better.
Patrick Hodges lives in Arizona with his wife of fourteen years, Vaneza. After doing weekly columns for entertainment-related websites, he has turned his attention to writing fiction. He is passionate about sending positive messages to young people. Joshua’s Island is his first novel. A sequel is in the works. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “like” him on Facebook.