The huckleberry pie turned out tasty, if a little soupy, and my beta readers stayed till 9:30 talking over the tale. I took three and a half pages of notes. Then I stayed up until 3 AM thinking over what they said, and naturally I can't concentrate upon much else today. The new ideas have kept my mind busy separating concepts into categories and plans.
Having people read and give critical feedback on any work that you put this much effort into is an emotional experience, and no two ways about it. As important as the input is, it's hard to listen to others' opinions on it, knowing that at any moment someone could challenge your own vision for the story. I knew I'd be a little overwhelmed by the end, and I was, but it was both necessary and worthwhile.
Short of hiring actual professional editors, I probably had the best beta readers imaginable for my kind of novel. They're four intelligent, gifted writers who read a lot and all have at least some familiarity with the children's/young adult and fantasy genres. Each of them brought a unique perspective that I found helpful.
They drew my attention to several holes that I could immediately respond to with "Oh, duh" because the sense was so obvious it could only have been missed by the cross-eyed stare of a writer absorbed in her own work. Other points of criticism are really making me think. They also brought up excellent suggestions that I never would have thought about, that gave me a new understanding of different aspects of the story--a kick-start to the creative process; I'm always startled by the new ideas that readers have for expanding upon the details. Of course, the single biggest criticism was "Not enough detail"; apparently I'm a little over-the-top with the "unexplained vistas" thing. :P
I'm looking forward to playing with their ideas, strengthening the weaker sections and giving the mythology more depth. And the fact that all of them said they liked or loved the story itself--its heart, its concept, plot and characters, themes and voice--gave me encouragement to make the further revisions.
Many, many thanks to beta readers Annie, Jana, Katrina, and Heather; also to alpha readers Mom, Beth, and Briana. Also to my first reader, Lou. And by thanks, I mean: seriously, you people are wonderful and I can't tell you what it meant to me to have you care enough about my little book to talk it over with me the way you did.