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Thick Skin and Vulnerability: The Glories and Perils of the Pre-Reading Team

Updated: May 11

I started my long-form writing journey as a fanfiction writer – a little known fact, these days. As a first-time stay at home mom, I read voraciously when my son was napping and my small home taken care of, and I found (along with millions of others) a profound love of the Harry Potter universe. The fifth book had been released and, having devoured it but still hungry for anything I could find, I went to the Internet-of-Yore and started searching for any nuggets available. As you might imagine, I quickly found my first online fandom and, with it, fanfiction. After devouring many well-written fics and many not-so-well-written ones, I found I wanted to write after a years-long hiatus brought about by a writing professor a Texas A&M University (that’s a tale unto itself). I embarked upon a novel-length fic meant to envision what I predicted and hoped for the sixth book in the series.


So, I wrote and started posting on some of the more popular archives (Mugglenet, anyone?) and some of the not-so-known ones. I found a group of like-minded friends, and we started trading reads and reviews with one another, and thus I was introduced to both the horrors and the near-instant gratification of fic reviews. Once I had gained something of a following, I posted and was almost immediately hit with feedback. Much of it was good, and I would grin and hurry off to write the next chapter, hungry for more. That praise started to slowly win me back the confidence I had lost in university and gave me a reason to persist.


Then there was the critique, and let me tell you, that took some getting used to. As are many writers – maybe even most of us – I am a highly sensitive and emotional person. And to put my work out into the world, those hours spent tapping away while my son was napping or strapped to a Snuggie across my chest or being tended by my partner, that careful research of canon events, dates, and histories as they were known at that point…that was a major leap of faith, because I knew that even as I got that sought-after praise, I would also get those comments from those who hadn’t enjoyed what I had written.



A proofread piece of paper on a purple background, with a pencil.


I won’t lie. Those were hard to take, especially at first. I took every comment to heart, and a lot of it hearkened back to that writing-class trauma, wondering if I was even good enough to put those words to paper (or screen). With some encouragement from friends who had been in the instant-feedback game longer than I had, I started to be able to tell the difference between constructive critique, people who just didn’t gel with my writing style, and flat-out haters who desired nothing other than to tear down any writer they got their hands on. Things got better, and my writing improved by taking the constructive critique to heart and learning from it until I started looking forward to that almost as much as I looked forward to hearing from my die-hard fans.


As I began to take the writing more seriously, as it became a full-blown hobby rather than just something I played with, I gained my first beta readers – people from my writing group willing to read my work before I published it and offer commentary and sometimes corrections before I sent it into the world. And once again, my skin had to thicken as not only anonymous fic readers, but writers I admired and emulated began to seriously critique my work. (Fun fact: my current editor for the Ilbeor saga started working with me as a beta reader for my fanfiction.)


And again, I got better, both at writing and at taking that critique. I didn’t realize it then – all I thought then was that I was writing fic more people might like, fic with fewer typos and errors, a noble pursuit to be sure – but these beta readers with their expectations, critiques, and pushing were actually teaching me the fundamentals of writing long-form fiction.


As Ilbeor began, constructing my team came about naturally. After my experience in the fandom, I would never have thought to publish anything that hadn’t been read, critiqued, and professionally edited beforehand. My first readers were alphas, though I didn’t actually know to call them that yet. I had one cheerleading alpha (thanks, Mom), one who caught the typos and praised the allusions (looking at you, Kā), one who reminded me to keep heart in the story even as I wrote tragedy (there’s Crystal), and one who questioned every decision I made regarding plot and characters (yep, that’s my partner, Jeff). Together with my editor (who advised me while refusing to read anything more than excerpts until it was done), they formed the foundation of the team that made me keep writing Messengers of Ilbeor when the going got tough, showed me where I was going astray, and eventually encouraged me when I realized it wasn’t quite what I wanted and decided to do an almost complete rewrite. They were there for the baby steps as I tested the waters of epic fantasy, they were there as my confidence grew, and they were there when I almost shelved the entire thing. I meant what I said in the acknowledgements: Ilbeor could not have happened without these men and women.


After publishing Messengers of Ilbeor and embarking upon my next two projects, From the Sundering Snows and Court of the Seven Dances, I constructed my alpha and beta teams with more confidence and a greater idea of what to expect as well as what I needed. And even with that knowledge and the knowledge of how essential these pre-readers are, I still tremble as I send those emails with the chapters of the novels-in-progress: there’s a vulnerability there that exceeds even publishing my work for anyone in the world to enjoy and respond to. What I send my alpha teams, and a little less so to my beta teams, is pretty raw: it’s the writing as I initially conceived it, unedited, unrevised…and though I intellectually know all these things, I still feel that pull of wanting them to adore it and crying a bit inside (and sometimes outside) when they don’t.


But it’s the “don’ts” that makes me better. It’s the parts they don’t love, don’t respond well to, that give me a glimpse into what a reader might think upon experiencing the story. From repetitive words (thanks, Elle) to misplaced spice (thanks, Ruby), to bits that I understood but did not give enough context for in the story (thanks, everyone), every bit of their loving critique makes me a better writer and makes the story more engaging. None of them are paid for their assistance, and all of them are so invaluable I wish I could send them a check for a million bucks – because behind every critique, edit, praise, and complaint is the knowledge that my story means enough in their worlds, that my story holds enough promise in their minds, to make it worth the work. And I am so grateful for that.


I know some authors who don’t employ pre-readers, though most of us do to some extent. I can completely understand that perspective, and sometimes I question making myself so very vulnerable in that fragile time during the writing of a new story, or even just after it. But from my fanfiction days, now two decades come and gone, to my new life as a published author, I know that vulnerability is worth it – both for the praise that makes me glow and the critique that makes me better.


I know that, even if I were to become a bestselling author in my autumn years, nothing with the name T.J. Klapprodt will ever be published without alphas and betas reading it even before my editor gets out his sharp red pen, and before my copy editor does the final pass. No amount of success and no amount of confidence could ever overtake staying in touch with my pre-readers’ perceptions, praise, and critique – and that’s a hill I’ll die on.

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