I am closing in on finishing my 14th novel. By which, I really mean that I just finished my rough draft. So, as most authors know, the real work begins: soliciting feedback, rewriting, planning for launch. And I absolutely, positively, could never finish without beta readers.
I do have a few critique partners who read chapters along the way as I write, but for the most part, I wait until I have a complete rough draft before sharing it. That’s because I am a pantser who changes a lot along the way, so it can be frustrating and sometimes a waste of time to share rewritten material over and over again.
My favorite description of how the novel writing process typically goes was written by bestseller Lisa Gardner in Plotting the Novel: Otherwise Known as The Real Reason Writers are Neurotic, which you can get from her website. Her description is hilarious, and oh, so true! And it’s how the process works for me every time, except that I rarely create an outline, so my process is even more chaotic. But it’s true that, like Lisa, I always start off thinking I have a brilliant idea, and then, as I work on the dang manuscript over and over, I inevitably end up thinking I have a worthless book that nobody will ever want to read. (We writers tend to be an insecure lot.)
For Cascade, my sixth Sam Westin novel, I wanted to use the experience I gained years ago at the Writers Police Academy of crawling through a collapsed building. My novels mostly take place in outdoorsy settings, so I had an avalanche destroy a ski lodge. And my Sam Westin books include wildlife, so I threw wolverines into the mix (not in the ski lodge!). But did I really have a story? As I wrote and rewrote the scenes, I began to wonder if I’d totally forgotten how to write at all.
This probably happens to every novelist who does not suffer delusions of grandeur. By the time I reach the rough draft stage, I’m so bored with my characters and plot that I want to throw the manuscript in the trash. Every scene, every conversation seems repetitious. But I know this largely comes from thinking, rereading, and rewriting the same material over and over again. At least I hope it does.
So, I really rely on a handful of beta readers to tell me whether or not I’ve created a novel or I should just stick to weeding my garden from now on. Some authors have a whole team of alpha readers to read the first draft, and then a different team of beta readers to read the rewritten version. I like to think that now I’m a little more efficient than that (probably a delusion of grandeur), so I generally skip the alpha step and go straight to beta readers.
These brave souls are willing to read a rough draft and tell me what they like, what they hate, and where I went totally off the rails. (This does not replace a thorough copyedit, by the way; I always hire a real pro for that as a last step.)
I am now in the “Help Me with my Rough Draft” phase, and I can only hope that my beta readers save me again. Meanwhile, I’ll be weeding my garden.