One of the best perks of being a part of a writing community is getting to see great work first. I was lucky to have three great writers (and wonderful people) offer to beta read a novel I am working on (Rob Hart, Leah Rhyne, and W.P. Johnson) and in return, of course, I offered up my time to return the favor. This is how I got to be one of the first people to read Hart's next book, City of Rose - which was hardly a chore. I get more excited every day the release date comes nearer. This is also how I got to read what will become W.P. Johnson's debut novel, A Song For John.
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I've known that Johnson had chops for a long time, enjoying his short fiction and essays for the last few years, and I knew he had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into A Song For John, so when it finally showed up, I didn't feel the trepidation I sometimes feel when opening a file from a friend. The worst case scenario when beta-reading for a friend is the discovery that your friend cannot write, or their story is plain bad. I was spared this scenario in favor of an engrossing horror novel with fantastic characters and tons of cool music references. In many ways, it felt like someone had written a novel just for me.
When I started taking my writing seriously I joined the LitReactor website and got involved with an ill-fated anthology project that had one fantastic upside - I found my "people." There comes a time for every writer when a workshop style round of critiques is less helpful and the need for focused feedback from peers who "get" what you're doing is necessary. I've been lucky to beg and receive feedback from a tight group of great writers that always seem to be around when a story isn't working or is nearly finished and needs one last set of eyes on it.
Beta reading is a part of the process I don't think gets talked about much. I know many writers choose to skip this step once they've hit stride, and that's fair enough, but for those first few projects, when you don't have an agent or publisher on your side, willing to over look your silly mistakes, it's better to hear it from a friend. The added benefit is, of course, getting to be "first" when writers you know have a new project that's almost ready to go. If you've ever felt like you loved a book "but", this is that rare moment where your "buts" matter.
For me, the trade hardly seems fair. Rob Hart and W.P. Johnson both gave me great notes and tons to work with on my subsequent draft, but both of their books were so good, so enthralling and fun, that instead of feeling like I'd returned a favor, I felt like they'd done me yet another. I got to be one of the first people to taste their words and experience the worlds they created - and I get to tell everyone, "Oh yeah, I read it, it's good" while they say, "But it's not even out yet!" (Aside: Leah, lady, send me a book to read!).