Sound the trumpets! Strike up the band! Last month I reached a milestone in writing my novel. I had a draft that was as good as I could make it. The story was complete. The characters were developed. There was lots of conflict. The historical setting and facts were in place. It felt good.
But not so fast. What do I know? Just because I like the story doesn’t mean anyone else will. The real test is in what readers think.
So I took the next step and put my manuscript in the hands of two groups of beta readers – people I’d gauged to be thoughtful readers, representative of my target audience. One group includes members of my own book club. I looked to balance the fact that these women know me really well with other readers who were not so familiar. The second group was the Prose Crows, a lively book club that had invited me to join them last February when they discussed my memoir Growing Up Country.
Along with the manuscript, I gave these volunteer readers a list of questions for reaction. Questions that ranged from overall reaction to the story, to story structure, and character development. Because I’m writing historical fiction, I also probed whether there was too much historical detail or too little and if they spotted anachronisms. I encouraged candor, assuring them I could take it. Whatever “it” was.
Letting go of the manuscripts made me anxious. My stomach roiled. My blood pressure rose. The feelings were akin to watching my five-year-old walk off to school alone for the first time. For the past month, my heart has been pushing out of my chest and into my throat. Anticipation – eager or anxious – can be uncomfortable!
Over these five weeks, I’ve lived with my vow not to revisit, revise, or rewrite even one word of the manuscript. Instead, I’ve focused on marketing, gardening, the incessant rain, pretty much anything to keep from thinking about reader reactions. By next Monday night, I’ll have received all the feedback. Then my baby will be back in my hands again. Then I’ll know what has to happen next. I am excited!
I know many authors use beta readers for that first level of market reaction. How have you chosen them? What guidelines have you given? What has been your experience?