The year was 2013. I had wrapped up an early draft of my debut novel and had forwarded the samples to a couple of publishers and agents. The wait of six to nine weeks was followed by reminder emails from my side when replies flew in promptly with regrets and rejections. A couple of rejection mailers flew in so quickly after my reminder that I was tempted to believe they were auto generated. It was then that I came across this author and writing coach who also worked as a literary agent. Having attended one of his writing workshops in the past, I had hoped that this person would empathize with my endeavors and help me take the manuscript forward.
To his credit, this mentor cum agent had pointed out valid loopholes and gaps that a first-time author would not have been aware of. But the problem with this gentleman was that he pushed his solutions along with the problems he identified. And those brought new problems. Without my knowledge, in my enthusiasm to see my name in print, I started rewriting under his mentoring. Thirty percent down this second draft, I began to lose steam and the connect which I had previously enjoyed with the characters. The writing slowed down.
It was then that this stranger from one of the social networks chanced to see samples of my earlier draft and took pains to congratulate me and ask me about the progress of the full novel. This was the exact push that rekindled my interest and I shared the developments with him. Mahesh (his name) turned out to be a person who shared my interests about various subjects including history, literature and legends. After going through my journey and the latest half draft, he asked me a plain question, “Why are you turning into a scribe to your agent? Why are you letting him change the crux of your characters? As juvenile as it looked your earlier draft was far more original and endearing than this new one.”
It was then that the truth about the ownership of characters hit me. Despite my newbie attempts, my characters carried an air of independence and originality in my earlier draft. The agent’s way of looking at the story was somehow strengthening the stereotypes that publishers believed would sell. Not his mistake as the gentleman had a paid mandate from me. But Mahesh’s inputs made me think and rethink about the whole thing from an independent perspective. His was an honest reader feel.
I decided to not stick to publisher stereotypes and assert my writing the way I wanted. Now it does feel that I am making a villain out of my writing coach. He wasn’t and I did take stock of the problems he pointed out and examined them in an objective way. I rejected the solutions he wanted to impress upon me. I was also lucky to have had a few author friends who backed me up saying while I need to agree with those writing loopholes, I needed to find my own ways to fill the gaps rather than take someone else’s directions.
The process took time, given my demanding job as an investment professional and the long writers block that arose out of structural dead lock in the storyline. Contemplating, deconstructing books of similar genre, deeper reading into scriptures (Mine is a Puranic fiction) and a move and I should mention my mother’s backing which was the strongest, everything helped me re-work the basic storyline. Two years down the line I could arrive at a draft that finally satisfied me from within before I Self Published it on Kindle Platform (Honestly, I was not left with much courage to tap the doors of traditional publishing houses after all what I went through two years before). There are more beta readers who supported me through the last leg of the journey.
The experience taught me the value of Beta readers. While I serendipitously met my first beta readers, it is advisable that each author develops a network of beta readers who support the writing with constructive criticism while respecting the writer’s independent thoughts. The criticism they give needs to respect and empathize with the writer’s endeavors.
To support it with an analogy. You are a mother who just delivered your newborn. The last thing you want to hear from anyone at this stage is about the possible flaws that your child has. It can make you fly into a rage. Hearing insensitive criticism on a freshly written piece or a blog post evokes almost similar emotions from a writer. But it is also necessary that this writing piece goes out to the world as perfect as a human can make it.
A Beta reader (There are alpha readers and beta readers for those wanting to go technically deeper. But here, I chose to use the term Beta reader as a common term for both) is free from biases that might generally exist in the publishing world. Their reading experience makes them aware of the variety of thought and originality of each writer and they value it. Any author reading this post of mine will agree that writing is a lonely journey and the company of these nurturing entities will brighten it up when we need it.
Indian publishing ecosystem is yet to acknowledge the value of beta readers. It would be great for the ecosystem if it got together and created a hobby-career stream for them. Mine gave me invaluable opinions, those which mattered more than the paid advice I got from professionals. Currently, an Indian writer needs to develop his or her own network of beta readers either from friends and family, social networks or from the many budding blogging/writing clubs. My mother, husband, and a few friends are usually my first beta readers. Today, my network is on the rise. The investment of time and effort were worth it and to a newbie, a conscious effort is warranted. The beta readers are indeed more crucial than writing coaches. I can’t emphasize it more because my Beta reader saved me from becoming a scribe to my writing coach!