Someone told me once that only 50% of the people who ever get a novel idea actually sit down to write it, and of those, 50% actually finish. The numbers of finishers who actually complete an edited draft is also half of those who start.
Do I have any evidence to back up these statistics? No. They are probably exaggerated, but they get the right idea. A lot more people start writing books than finish them, and a lot less than that actually edit them. This is why I have always been rather proud of my four completed first drafts, and part of the reason I push myself so hard on revisions. I want to take myself seriously as a writer, I would one day like someone to pay me for what is currently an obsessive hobby. I was very, very proud of myself when, over Christmas break, I finally finished the second draft I had been working on throughout 2015. I was proud of my work. I was proud of my accomplishment, and proud of my book. It had a real story arc that made sense, good characters and best of all it was finally the story I wanted to tell. I was eager to move onto the next step: finding beta readers.
All the writing books and blogs I have ever read talk about how important it is to choose people to review your work who will be honest and analytical. People who won’t be afraid to tell you when you suck and save you from sending thoroughly mediocre work into the publishing world. My first ever complete first draft I naively showed to all my friends to draw out their praise, but since then, no one has read my novels (save for my brother, he loves me so much he still maintains that my feverishly written, typo-riddled first drafts are brilliant). I keep these so private because I don’t need editing in my creation process. Shutting up my own inner editor is hard enough, so this group of beta readers were going to be the first people to read this novel. More importantly, they would be the people telling me if my refined work of art would make a marketable product and could be pitched to actual publishers.
I chose my betas carefully; friends from my writing group, a friend who runs a bookstore, a sprinkling of siblings and my self-published sister, the brilliant Jaima Fixsen. I have beta read and copy edited her three books so she owes me, and I knew I could count on her to rip my book apart if necessary. I went into this process coolly, having chosen a healthy mixture of those that would be analytical and honest and those who would tell me I’m fabulous to build me up after. I converted my novel to an epub file, and sent it off.
Here is the funny thing about sending your work to beta readers. As soon as you hit send, your loving and supportive friends, your darling siblings, even your adorable 14 year old niece and doting father turn into this in your mind's eye:
A little piece of you that you have held dear for so long is now out in the world, waiting in other peoples’ inboxes to be scrutinized. It’s like taking a newborn baby and handing it naked to a group of critics who are about to tell you that this beautiful child whom you have lovingly brought into existence actually is entirely defective. Maybe you should just cast it aside.
To make matters worse, my writing time, which previously had been dedicated solely to this project was now wide open. What should I work on? I couldn’t pick up another revision, that seemed too weird. Instead, I spent weeks picking away at forgotten fanfictions while thinking every time I opened my laptop; “someone could be reading my novel right now. RIGHT NOW they could be reading it and either laughing or wondering what the heck is Elena trying to say?”
After a few weeks I calmed down a bit, remembering some people would take a while to get started, and then my first review came in. Kate, who wrote it, sent me a text to say she’d sent it. I got said text while getting into the elevator at work to go for lunch. Never had I been more excited and scared to get back into a wifi zone.
My first review was the best possible kind of review; positive, with a few ideas of how to improve that didn’t dramatically alter my story.
Are there any words more sweet than “I liked your story”? I don’t think so.
I am thinking beta readers serve two purposes; to critique, and to test your nerves. How in the world do published writers feel when their books hit the shelves?