Over the course of four years, I’ve subjected my soon-to-be-completed novel to over 200 critiques of various chapters. I’m not sure if that’s brilliant or insane of me, but I know I’m not alone. Like many other writers, I’m in multiple critique groups. One is composed of 20-30 published writers, led by a more established writer, who listen to a chapter being read out loud, critique it together, then provide individual mark-ups. In another, when it’s led by my favorite writing teacher, at least 60 writers are in the room with the chance to weigh in. In my smallest and most demanding group, my entire book was critiqued by two Pushcart nominees and a writer/editor/publisher. But with this particular novel, I’d never allowed myself the thrill of real readers, until now.
Last week, I had my book read by a Chicago-area book club that has been meeting almost once a month for over 25 years. They read all different kinds of books and are excellent readers, but they’re not writers, editors, teachers or script doctors. In this instance, they acted as beta readers. I’d also call them real readers.
Real readers are the kind who let go, who are in for the ride. They leave you excited messages about how much they loved your book. They get all worked up about your characters, sometimes worried about them, sometimes upset, asking you questions like how could she do that? Your characters seem as real to them as they do in your head.
This is the why we write, isn’t it? To have the characters we imagine take on life in other people’s minds. We want readers to care about them, to be affected by them, to find themselves pondering their problems. To be transported, to be entertained. To laugh or shiver or cry.
Readers are the prize, and for the most part you want to save them for the final product. When your work is in process, you should seek out the best critiques you can possibly find. But when you think your book is ready, before you start submitting to agents and editors, and the often discouraging realities of the marketplace, don’t deny yourself the thrill of a few real readers.
They give a writer hope.