The Importance of Beta Readers


The picture on the right is entitled Our Dutch Waitress and is by MD Winkler. It is used in accordance to his Creative Commons license.

When writing your next masterpiece, nothing is more important than getting that story read by early readers — sometimes called Beta readers. And I don’t care how thick of a skin you have, getting comments back will be hard.

I know what the writing hind brain is thinking, you see: what it wants to hear when you send early copies out to friends and family asking for comment, are comments along the lines of “it’s perfect! Brilliant! You don’t need to change a thing.” But what you need to hear is something a lot less blindly positive. Because eventually, if you’re lucky, your story will be published, and it will go out into the wild, where it will be savaged by critics a lot less conciliatory, who have been handed the red meat of mistakes that some of your overly positive Beta readers missed.

Case in point, I’ve now finished the second revision of The Dream King’s Daughter. It was a substantial rewrite, that added 12,000 words to the original manuscript, deleted two characters and elevated another in the narrative. You’d think my work here would be done, wouldn’t you? But it looks like at least another rewrite is in the offing.

For one thing, the story is set in Saskatchewan, and I’ve never been to that beautiful province. I’d like to go, and I might even spend a week there next year if I could scrape up the cash. I’ve done research on various websites, read some literature, looked at Google Maps and checked out photographs, but for the nitty-gritty details, be they cultural or geographical, I’m largely talking through my hat.

Which is why I asked Saskboy to get me in touch with an actual reader in Saskatchewan. And it has been a perfect experience, for while she has been effusive in her praise, she has caught some serious mistakes which reveal the author to be an Ontarian impostor.

For instance, when I used dinner to describe a meal after 4 p.m., she said:

“As in rural Ontario, Saskatchewan uses supper for evening. If I invited you to dinner, you would come six hours too late. Dinner is a main meal at noon. Consider yourself invited, but come at the right time. So lunch is safe for noon, but supper is for night anywhere in Sk. (Info to confuse: people here can say lunch for a snack or smaller meal, anytime such as “mid-night lunch” at a wedding.)

Another one, where I use the phrase “the field behind the plow,” aping a line from a Stan Rogers song:

Regarding the “plow” in Henderson’s dream. It would sound more natural to say “working the field” or just “working”. It would be someone’s granddad who would say “plow” like with a team. “plowing” would bring it a bit nearer Mr. H’s generation. Those two paragraphs don’t match Saskatchewan. I asked my husband since he grew up on a farm, he says it sounds like Southern Ontario farms with tractors and plows.

But she caught something even bigger, which has forced me to rethink the structure of one of the chapters. The way the story is structured, Aurora dives into Matron’s car at the end of chapter two, and drives off, into the sunset, into the night, and indeed, into the next morning, before Polk wakes up in the back seat and convinces her to stop.

The problem, says my Saskatchewan reader, is that this is at least twelve hours of driving. And the farthest north we can go and still have wheat fields is Northern Pine, Saskatchewan, near Meadow Lake Provincial Park and the Bighead Indian Reserve. According to Google Maps, that’s only a five hour drive to Saskatoon. Driving south overnight without stopping would have Aurora and Polk within three hours of Billings, Montana.

Oops. Clearly Saskatchewan isn’t as big as I thought it was.

This is why it’s important to research these things thoroughly or, failing that, handing your story off to somebody who would know, and wouldn’t be afraid to correct you.

So, now I have to figure out how to alter the story. But fortunately there are ways around this obstacle. Maybe they arrive in Salvadore’s trap at sunset rather than sunrise. Maybe Aurora is knocked out and stays unconscious overnight. Maybe they get trapped in a dream, and are forced to wonder why it’s taking them so long to drive anywhere (“eighteen hours?! We should be in Wyoming by now!”). That’s what revisions are for.

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