Farewell to a beta reader: my life preserver and sinking anchor

Writers need beta readers because they are a mixture of life preservers and anchors; on the one hand they point out the little things we can do to fix the draft, and their enthusiasm keeps us buoyant. But on the other hand they drop anchors on us, comments that can sink us into editing despair, such as, “I really hated what you did to so-and-so. Are you sure that’s the direction you want to go?”

Well, seeing as how the next three books depend on that plot development . . . no?

Drat.

Writers value their beta readers because they do an enormous task for literally nothing: they read through our drafts which we think are near to perfection, point out how far from perfection they really are, then we thank them for their hours of work only by mentioning them in the back of the book and sending them a bookmark and a magnet or two.

But we couldn’t do it without them. I’ve burned through a few beta readers in the past years because it’s a demanding task “grading” someone’s 180,000-word essay. I understand when they say they can’t help this time around. But I’ve never lost one completely before, until last week.

Debbie Beier was an unusual beta reader because she could see things sideways, and I’d been looking for someone like that. I feel that’s how I’ve always seen the world—from odd angles. This was particularly frustrating in English classes where everyone would read a story/poem, begin to discuss it, and I’d be completely confused as to what they thought was “important.” While they were discussing the meaning of ‘walking in the wilderness,’ I’d wonder why the author kept referring to his yellow cat. In every class I’d search for that other sideways thinker who thought the reading was potentially absurd, while everyone else fixated on its deliberateness. (Seriously, I didn’t understand half the jargon I encountered in college. Still I graduated. That should give every college freshman hope.) 

But Debbie was the sideways thinker who also saw the proverbial yellow cat, and would notice that its whiskers were burnt off, and would then speculate as to what kind of mischief the animal got into. Maybe it was because she was a scientist—a geologist who loved rocks and observing nature. She liked to turn things on their sides, figuratively and literally, to see what was really going on.

I first met Debbie in Virginia about 14 years ago, where we were neighbors and I was her visiting teacher, assigned by our ward (church) to check up on her each month. That’s when she first developed breast cancer, and I brought her meals. But I don’t remember that. She did, however, and a few years ago when I put out the request for beta readers, she eagerly volunteered in order to pay me back for those meals I totally forgot about. Talk about a lopsided investment. I was returned far more than I put in.

Debbie was diligent and incredibly thorough. She commented, she corrected, she caught my proofing errors, and she gave feedback that both buoyed me up and dragged me down, in necessary ways.

Cancer came back to her with a vengeance two years ago, but still she carried on reading and editing for me. But by last autumn, it was getting to be too much. “Send me book 5,” she wrote me. “Even though its unpolished. I need a distraction from the pain and boredom of cancer. Plus, I want to know what happens.” So I did. Even in her exhaustion and pain, she took the time to royally roast me. In particular, she was upset with what the future of a minor character. “Don’t do it,” she begged. “It’s all wrong!”

In defense, I wrote up a synopsis of books 6, 7, and 8 so she could see how the series would end, and how that minor character played a significant role. But she wrote back that while she could see where I was going, and thanks for the entire series in a nutshell, still I was wrong. Fix it.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised at that. The poor woman was literally dying of cancer, and here I thought she’d write me back a “That was so wonderful, thank you for sharing” message. Something pleasant as an exit.

Nope, not Debbie. She was too pragmatic and honest for cloying niceties. I never knew her to be conventional in anything. Dying from cancer only meant that she had to be more diligent, and, if need be, even harsher.

In November she posted on Facebook that her end was coming, and in typical Debbie fashion she wrote, that “I’ll be dying sometime or other” and that she didn’t want to be hit with faith promoting rumors or wild ideas of going to foreign countries to be healed. She accepted her fate, and accepted our prayers.

I wrote to her the following:

Debbie, I hate to see you go, but you’re going on to a marvelous adventure. You’ve done great things here, and your graduation from this life to the next will be astonishing and wonderful, I have no doubt. I’ll pray that you’ll not feel pain, but that you and your family will feel peace.

And when you’re on the other side, I hope one of the first things you find out about is dinosaurs. Exactly when did they live? For how long? What, really, went on with them and the fossil records?!

Oh, the mysteries you’ll get to re-learn! The questions that will be answered! So many people you’ll get to re-meet and re-remember! I’m so sorry this is a physically painful experience, but when it’s over–ah, it will be amazing for you.

I’ll miss you–you’ve been a wonderful help and so supportive of my writing. Friends like you are rare. But I’m also just a bit jealous of what you’ll get to see next. If at all possible, come by some time and whisper just how amazing it is, and what I’m missing.

Thank you for your friendship. Until we meet again . . .

She passed away last Monday, in Oregon. Her funeral was here in Utah last Saturday, 100 miles away from my home. As I drove down to it, I thought, “Debbie, now that you’re not in pain anymore, about that ending for book 5. You’ve had some time to think about it . . . do I really need to redo everything with that character?”

I could picture her shrugging and saying, “I said what I said. It’s your book, but that’s what I think.”

Drat. Major rewrite coming.

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Debbie’s ever kind and perennial cheerful husband Mike drove her down from Oregon to Utah to visit some friends last fall, after she learned she wasn’t going to beat cancer this time. We met at a Wendy’s, shared Frostys, talked about Virginia, and family, and dying, and shared a few laughs and tears. I took this picture from my car as they slowly walked back to theirs. But first, Debbie inspected the gravel at the bottom of this photo, found a rock that looked like a heart, and picked it up for her granddaughter. I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a pile of rocks on her coffin. Maybe they were inside, with her books.

Thank you, Debbie, for never pulling your punches, and for being utterly true and honest to the end. I’ll not only miss you as a beta reader, but also as a friend.

And if at all possible, come by and whisper what you found out about the fossil record. But don’t use your geologist words—dumb it down for me a bit. You know how I think.

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