Sun 8 Aug 2010
Writing is a solitary occupation, but the truth is, we need other people if we’re going to grow as artists. We need readers, yes, but before we get readers we need first readers. Beta readers help give perspective on our work, tell us when we’ve gone astray, or when we’re being self-indulgent. But it’s a tricky thing finding them. I find it incredibly difficult to ask people to read my stuff. Makes me all squirmy inside, and acting all squirrely on the outside. Not a pretty picture.
That’s one advantage of belonging to a writing group, whether in person or online. Everyone knows what they are there for—or should. If it’s an online group, you slap it up on the site and wait until someone decides to take a look, and you get out there and start doing critiques yourself to build momentum. If nobody does take a look, it’s a pretty lonely feeling, throwing you right back on the solitary occupation thing. There’s no easy answer for that except to keep trying. Maybe you’ll get lucky and build relationships that will allow you to swap whole novels rather than parts thereof.
Swapping whole novels, though, is hard. Not just because it’s asking someone for a much larger commitment of time, but because it’s not just a question of finding anyone, anywhere who will read your stuff. These kinds of relationships are, or should be, built slowly over time. It’s an issue of extreme trust, handing over your work to someone else. Of finding people you jibe with, who are on the same page, so to speak. If you’re not both looking at critiques in the same way—for instance, wanting the full editorial treatment vs. a light overview—it can cause serious ruptures and a lot of pain. Establish that upfront, that’s my advice (for what it’s worth). Make sure you want what you say you want, and make sure you’re willing to take in the criticism and consider it rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.
“They’re all fools! They don’t understand my subtle genius!”
You’re allowed to have the knee-jerk reaction, everyone does, but you’re not allowed to act on it. You’re not allowed to actually speak out loud that first burst of emotional entrenchment when someone has nailed a problem with your manuscript. The ones that hurt the most are often the ones you suspected were wrong all along but hoped no one would notice. Since somebody did notice, it’s time to suck it up and make the changes, not spout off. Spouting is unprofessional, and even if you aren’t yet a pro, taking fair and honest criticism with the gratitude it deserves is a vital skill to cultivate if you want to improve your work. Fair and honest criticism is a gift from the gods and should never, ever be taken for granted.
These relationships also change over time as one-time partners drift away to other interests, divergent paths, changes in life circumstances. Even writing groups lose their efficacy over time as everyone gets so familiar with each others’ work that it’s hard to view with fresh eyes. The pot needs to be constantly replenished or it boils down to a sticky sludge. Finding those blessed first readers is a never-ending process. But it’s wonderful when it works. It’s a blessing when it works.