My friend John said something to me the other day, and it got me to thinking. First of all, FYI, John is one of my local friends who agreed to be a “beta reader” for my novel’s first draft. In the publishing industry, beta readers are usually family members or trusted friends–sometimes even agents, if you’re lucky enough to have one that cool–who get to read the book before the writer has even started editing it. They get to see the good, the bad, the ugly…the grammatical errors, and their number one job is pretty much this: IS IT CRAP? Yes or no.
If the answer is yes, then the writer has two choices: they can either go back to the metaphorical drawing board and start afresh, or they can take their nebulous young creation down into the metaphorical basement and start hammering away at it–which is essentially, as torturous as it sounds–and come back with (hopefully) something that much less resembles literary excrement. There is also a third option, wherein the author (let’s say a veteran like Stephen King, who I’ve heard still uses beta readers to this day) listens to the beta readers’ feedback, takes another look at his first draft and says “Thanks, but I’m keeping it. Because I’m frigging Stephen King.” (At least, that’s how I imagine the man talks. “Fetch me my Wheetabix. I’m frigging Stephen King!”)
But let’s roll back a second and look at this from the beta reader’s–or as I like to call them, “beta units”–perspective. Especially when they’re in the position of reading the work of an as-yet-unpublished author like yours truly, being a beta unit can be really scary. Or, as my beta unit John put it, “I’m going to be honest, I was really scared when I started reading your book. What if it had totally sucked?” What if, indeed? I had never stopped to think about it before, but what if–as I myself sometimes fear–the idea isn’t nearly as cool as the writer thought it would be, or the whole thing is just poorly mimicked fan-fiction crap?
Much like Karaoke singing with a casual acquaintance, I imagine it would be jarring and uncomfortable to find out that your new friend majorly sucks at their chosen profession. Because what do you say, when they want to take their talent and parade it out in public? Should you be cruel to be kind, and let them have it, risking your friendship and hurting their feelings? Or should you lie through your teeth, and tell them “it’s the next Twilight!” (By the way, whoever has said this to one of their friends in the last few years, I hope you’re happy with the fallout.)
For my part, I like to think I’m the kind of writer–and the kind of person in general–who would rather know the truth, cruel as it might be, than go on thinking I’m great at something just to be harangued later in a public forum. But do my friends and beta readers know this? And if not, how much are they really holding back? Yet another question for the universe.