My first beta reader got back to me with comments on the manuscript last week. We had a great chat about her impressions of the book and I ran to the ms, renewed and eager to fix some of her concerns and amplify some of her favorite bits.
We sussed out one issue I had been dealing with – the nature of my villain. She’s a radical, but she’s also a hypocrite, and I’m walking a very fine line with how I represent her. I’m not against her politics, but I am against her lack of integrity. It’s a tough game to play, especially as my book is about lesbian culture; I don’t want to vilify or shame any character by what they believe in, particularly since I try to represent so many different versions of feminism through my characters.
My reader mentioned to me how much she liked certain characters and how much she was annoyed by others. Luckily, this lined up well with the way I intended. What I didn’t intend though, was her observation that “All the good characters are more ‘butch’ or androgynous, and all the bad ones are more ‘femme.’”
It was strange to see what she was talking about at first, that my main love interest is more androgynous in temperament (whatever that means), and that Lexie, my protagonist, spends a lot time outdoors and doesn’t really understand women- therefore making them ‘butch.’ Then on the flip side, a lot of the more antagonistic characters (if not the villains, necessarily) are more femme.
Upon closer inspection, I’m not sure I agree with my reader. Perhaps superficially, yes. And after having a pretty intense conversation about female masculinity and writing as a representative for a whole community and movement, then I’m sure we were both more apt to be sensitive to such things.
My point in telling this story isn’t to hash out whether I’m gender profiling my characters. It’s to point out the importance of good reader feedback. My reader really liked the story- we had a long conversation about the intricacies of it, and while it started by me asking certain questions (“How did you feel about the love scenes?” “Could you tell who was talking without the use of names?” etc), it quickly evolved into a conversation about the book as a whole. We ended up chatting about it as if we were in a book club together- exploring the text, parsing out its meanings
In short, this conversation gave me exactly what I was looking for- perspective. By seeing her enthusiasm for the book (she has a crush on the love interest – YAY!), we were able to get into it as if it were its own entity and not my version of Gollum’s ring (preeciousssss). I could talk about it both emotionally and objectively, reading the text as a text, and not as some vestigial organ.
Reader #2 is in my kitchen now, and we’re gearing up for a big ol’ convo about it. She’s a professional editor, and judging from her color-coded notes, I’m gonna get a brain full of input.
Choose those readers wisely, kiddos. Find people in your demographic and outside of it. Find people who are not only invested in you, but invested in story telling and a culture of reading. Find people who want your book to shine. I’ve got them, and they’re making me better for it.