Meet My BFF (Beta Friend Forever)

When I first started writing novels, I had no idea what a beta reader was. I’d been writing scripts for decades and the proof was in the first read-through. If people laughed or cried at the right times, I’d done my job. If not, I could tweak the script.

Novels were a whole different beast. There were so many rules about structure and conventions that I’d never learned–even with a degree in English! All I knew was what I liked: depth of character, a poignant message, and beautifully crafted language.

By some truly divine blessing, my earliest cyber interactions with other new-ish independent authors included “meeting” a woman named Michelle Isenhoff. I don’t even remember exactly how it happened (probably on Twitter), but I read one of her fantasy novels (Song of the Mountain) and was absolutely smitten. I’d never read such beautiful prose written for younger readers. With simple vocabulary, she crafted powerful images that sparked my imagination. Later, I read one of her many historical novels about the Civil War, The Candle Star, and was further blown away by the detailed research she wove so seamlessly into her story.

I was fangirling in a big way.

Somehow–again, I don’t remember how–we began conversing through emails and Facebook, and she agreed to take a look at one of my manuscripts in progress. I don’t know how I got so lucky as to claim some of her time, but she’s been my favorite and most faithful beta reader ever since. My Beta Friend Forever!

Here are just a few reasons why I find Michelle Isenhoff’s input so invaluable to me:

  • I already 110% respect her for her mastery (and diligent work ethic) in the craft of writing. She knows whereof she speaks.
  • She is not afraid of a long, arduous revision process, so she doesn’t give scant, fluffy, superficial feedback. She knows that making a novel into a work of linguistic art means sweat, tears, and copious amounts of caffeine.
  • She enjoys and understands the elements of many different genres. This is handy because I have not locked myself into one genre. She’ll follow me from fantasy sci-fi to a contemporary romantic comedy to a cozy, comedic mystery and know what she’s looking for.
  • She doesn’t try to write my book. By this I mean she doesn’t offer suggestions like, “You should do ___” or “If it were me, I’d ___.” She respects the different roles of reader and writer.
  • With that in mind, she gets into my head to find out what my vision is for the story, then steps back as a reader to see if I’m accomplishing that. When I flounder, she can go into a hybrid mode that allows her to ask the kinds of pointed questions that guide me to my own solutions for times I miss my mark. I cannot stress enough how much this means to me.
  • She is honest without ever being cruel. She can give me feedback that may mean a major remodel of the manuscript in such a way that I feel empowered and excited to face the challenge instead of defeated by the enormity of the task.
  • She pays attention to the minutiae. There are times she’ll catch a single word that doesn’t carry quite the right nuance–the kind of thing others would pass by as “good enough”–and help me find just the right replacement. This is where I admire her greatly. Her own “rough drafts” are rarely shared for the beta stage until they’ve been gone over with sixteen different varieties of fine-toothed combs.
  • She’s my friend. I know. There are some people who say you shouldn’t get feedback from friends and relations because they’ll just tell you they loved it and offer no real help. But look at the preceding list. She has become my friend because she does these things, and because, over the years, our conversations about our characters have evolved into conversations about our life experiences. This builds a relationship of trust and caring that means I always want to be there for her as she has been for me.

I promise she didn’t ask me to do this. It was a spontaneous outpouring of gratitude for many years of writing-related friendship. With all that said, I honestly, truly, really very muchly recommend her writing to you. Look her up on Amazon–the two books I mentioned in particular, as well as her Recompense dystopian series. If you’re a writer, you’ll see immediately what I mean about the attention to her craft. If you’re an avid reader, you’ll have just found your new family favorite (because she has many genres available).

Have you ever gotten to know an author you admired?
What did you learn from him or her?