I did something I thought I’d never do: I hired a beta reader to help with the beginning chapters of my second novel.
I’d been struggling for months, with no end in sight. I was literally making myself sick with the worrying and the obsession. I had, no exaggeration, over twenty takes of the first chapter.
And I couldn’t stop. Because, think of it: There is no limit to the possibilities. Any book could have any number of successful openings. And even when you do find a successful opening, there’s always that nag in your mind that there might be an even more successful opening if you just keep at it a bit longer.
Which is why I couldn’t stop obsessing. Which is why I wrote and rewrote that damned first chapter over and over again, and some of those drafts were almost identical except for one or two paragraphs, and I’d print them out and read those paragraphs over and over and compare them and try to decide which one worked best, etc., etc., etc.
I’d end up slumped on the couch eating too many pretzels and binge-watching Netflix or, if it was still light outside, I’d put on my Hokas and head out for a run.
When I received an email from my agent stating that she needed my novel in two to four weeks, I knew I needed help. I needed to stop the obsessing, buckle down, finish the best that I could and hand the book over to wiser minds.
But the thing is: I wanted my book to be as wise as it could before I handed it over to wiser minds.
So I hired a beta reader. I gathered all of my drafts, blended them together, with three first-chapter options, and sent them off (okay, I obsessed about them for a day and then sent them off).
Here’s the reason why I chose to hire a beta reader instead of asking writing friends for help or begging blog followers to please, please read my book and tell me if it made sense: I wanted to ensure that I would receive as honest of an assessment as possible. I wanted my beta reader to have the freedom to be brutal, if need be, to tear down my chapters, to say: This doesn’t work. This sucks. This has to go.
Because, here’s the thing: It hurts when someone brutally critiques our work. It’s agonizingly painful, and it’s difficult not to become defensive, to lash out and declare: But my book is perfect! My dialogue is perfect! My character development is flawless!
In the same vein, it’s equally difficult for writing friends and blogger friends to give one another truly honest and (dare I say it?) harsh criticism because, face it, we all live within the bounds of social convention, and those conventions tell us to be fair and kind, to “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
As writers, we don’t need “nice.” We need the tools to produce better and stronger work. And while most of the time we are able to figure out our own stumblings, when we can’t it’s good to know that there are others who can objectively and fairly point them out for us.
And, trust me, reading some of the beta reader’s comments and suggestions hurt. It was painful (painful!). And knowing that I had to omit well-loved scenes, quicken the pace and drastically change the first and second chapters wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. Yet it was exactly what I needed to hear.
Of course, a beta reader isn’t God. You don’t have to follow every suggestion, make every change. In fact, you don’t have to listen to any of the suggestions or changes. But having another pair of objective eyes, and ears, can open up invaluable insights. It can help you to “see” your book from the perspective of another reader, one that doesn’t necessarily have your same values or likes and dislikes and one similar to the readers that may one day pick up your book at a bookstore and browse through the first few opening pages.
And yes, I’ll admit that at first I balked at the idea of paying someone to read my book. But in the end, the monetary exchange enhanced the deal. It verified that my book mattered. That my characters mattered. That my story mattered. That if I could spend $120 on a pair of running shoes and $90 to suffer through a 32-mile race, I could damn well spend $150 for someone to guide me through my book’s weak area, help tighten the prose, omit weaker scenes and end up with a tighter, richer and more rewarding story.
Cinthia Ritchie is a recovering journalist who writes and runs mountain trails in Anchorage with her dog, Seriously. She’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, two-time Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and recipient of a Best American Essay 2013 Notable Mention. Find her work at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Best American Sports Stories 2013, Evening Street Review, Under the Sun, Water-Stone Review, damfino Press, The Boiler Journal, Panoplyzine, Barking Sycamores, Clementine Unbound, GNU Journal, Foliate Oak Review, Deaf Poets Society, Mary, Theories of HER anthology, Grayson Books Forgotten Women anthology and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released from Hachette Book Group. She blogs about writing and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com.