Going It Alone

There are all sorts of resources available for writers who want them: workshops, classes, beta readers, bars, books, peers, and people who just love to have you bounce ideas off them. They all have their virtues. Yet for some of us, it’s very hard to show what you’re working on to another person until you’re done and ready to send it off to be accepted, rejected, edited, published…  Yes, I’m one of those people.

Not entirely. I discovered early-ish in my writing career, when I was making the leap from Regency romances to Science Fiction, that a writing workshop could be a really, really, really useful thing. I have been part of a number of them over the years. I went to the Clarion Writers Workshop when it was still in East Lansing, Michigan, and it was a life-changing experience.  But when it comes to the other stuff it’s harder–it’s really hard–for me to let go and accept another person into my process. When I talk to writers who make full use of all those resources, I start to feel a little defensive. What’s wrong with me that I don’t have beta readers? There are a number of people who have offered and would, I’m sure, have a terrific effect on the work. and yet I have this weird reluctance, almost a skin-crawling aversion to the idea.

What’s up with that?

Okay, it’s not just me. I have a friend who confided that he feels the same way (although I suspect his wife is his beta reader as much as anyone is). And some of it may be that we’re both kind of old school: when I started writing the process, as I understood it, was: you sit down and write something; you edit it; you send it to an editor who (one hopes) buys it; the editor edits it and returns the edits to you*, you make the changes that make sense to you, and the wheels of publication grind slowly onward. There was, when I started writing, no intermediary “send ms. to beta-readers” stage.

So some of it is simply generational. But there are people my age and older who take advantage of such stages, to the betterment of the work. And I want my work to be better! Really. So why the reluctance?

I think it’s specific to my personal history. I have a couple of would-be writers among my family and friends. Over the years I’ve seen some of those persons come to believe, via a sort of psychic alchemy, that anything I am writing is, somehow, theirs as well. That left me with a peculiarly defensive **mine** reflex: don’t try to get too close. This is my stuff. No, you may not suggest changes. No, I’m sorry if you don’t like science fiction; that’s what I’m writing. No, no, no.

The reluctance is personally specific in a another, different, way. One of the tenets inculcated in me with my oatmeal was: you don’t put your dirty laundry out where strangers can see it. I know: in this age of internet oversharing this is positively quaint, although I think it’s an idea whose time may have come around again on the guitar. I realized only as I was writing this post that part of my reluctance to share my work until it’s done is my sense that it’s still in the dirty-linen stage and ought not be shared lest unspecified dire things happen.

And at the bottom of all this is my fear that I’m not strong enough to protect my child (read: work) and if someone makes a completely wrong-headed suggestion I’ll comply simply because I’m too polite to actually disagree (what if my beta-reader later sees the book in print and realizes I didn’t decide with the completely out-of-left-field idea he pitched? O! the soap opera of it). This, I realize, is just nuts: I have protected both my prose and my flesh-and-blood kids from all manner of things. And yet I fear that I’ll let anyone talk me into anything.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m in a knockdown drag-out fight with the current WIP. It might be useful to talk it out with someone. Yet every time anyone offers to brainstorm plot with me, or read what I’ve got so far, or be similarly useful…well, I clench up.

I’ve decided I’m overthinking. I’m not going to judge myself for asking for help; I’m also not going to judge myself for not asking for help. My process may change, but at the moment is it what it is.

And that goes for your process too, whatever it is.

* some writers will weep at the mention of the good old days when editors had time to edit, but it’s a skill still practiced out there by some few, excellent editorial souls.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Going It Alone — 11 Comments

  1. I don’t submit anything to beta readers either. Way too many writers use them, not as a audit to make sure there isn’t something they missed, but to tell them what to fix. There was a point where I showed my stories to everyone. I watched their faces to see if they laughed or smiled or reacted like they were supposed to. If they had comments, it was a call for action. It needed to be fixed because they had commented on it, so it must be wrong!

    Somewhere along the way, it hit me that I was changing stuff that I intended for the story and the stories were becoming not me. So I stopped showing anyone anything because it was important for me to learn to figure out if something was wrong myself.

    Now, even when I get critiques, I’d do rush to fix everything. I think about the comments. Some I ignore because they aren’t what I would do for the story, and others I think are right, but I do it my way rather than just fixing the words like student correcting what a teacher identified. And I cringe every time I see a writer “ask permission” to do something because that’s putting the story their writing in someone else’s control.

    • I often use my critique group’s comments on substantive things to get a sense that something isn’t working and needs to be addressed. Whether it’s on the sentence/word level or something larger, I have to make a decision whether or not 1) the cited problem is a problem for anyone other than that critiquer*, and 2) how I want to address that problem.

      Again, I think all of these forms of help are immensely valuable–I just can’t get away from the sensation that it’s a little bit like going to the market in my underwear. People may tell me it’s fine, but I’m not ready for it.

      * on a micro level, I had a guy in my critique group in NYC tell me he didn’t understand the word “barouche.” Questioning revealed the fact that he could, from context, tell what it was (a kind of carriage), and I decided I didn’t need to explain how many wheels, covered or uncovered, self-driven or not, etc.

  2. I grew up in the writing business with a critique groups and got burned, badly, by a jealous author who didn’t sell before I did. Thankfully it was a group and one of the other members took me aside and told me the other person was way out of line.

    Learning to trust a beta reader comes hard for me now, but I know I get too close to my work to know the difference between what I meant to say and what I said. Paying attention to beta readers–but not always agreeing with them–has taught me a lot about writing and myself. Sometimes making the decision to ignore the comments because I did that deliberately has bolstered my confidence in my writing.

    Good luck in finding a happy medium.

  3. Until I started the current critique group I did show my stuff to Howard, but only when I was about ready to send it to the agent (or for the first one, when I was ready to find an agent.) I thought that was the way all writers worked. Of course, I also didn’t know that SF conventions existed until my first publisher sent me to one. 🙂 More than a little unaware, I was . . .

  4. One of the wonderful things about Clarion West is that I found someone who is a perfect beta reader for me. I think I’m a good one for her, too. What makes her perfect for me is that she likes my work and gets what I’m trying to do, so that when she doesn’t think something works, I know to pay attention. But I suspect finding this level of help from a beta reader is rare.

    I do find that I need someone else to look at a story when I reach the point where I either think it’s done or can’t figure out where else to go with it.

    I quit going to writer’s groups years back when I found that I’d come home after a crit session and just stuff the story in a drawer, mostly because it got so many different reactions. (Some loved it and some hated it with equal passion.) I’m embarking gingerly on a new one (Hi, Kit!) and so far I’ve found that the crits are giving me a new perspective on a story, which is very useful.

    What I mostly need from other writers is occasional companionship and the overall sense of community. In DC we used to have a writer’s happy hour about once a month and I loved that. Gossip, market news, and general encouragement, with no negative comments about your work. That I find so very useful.

    • The community thing is hugely important. When I went to Clarion it was six weeks of (among other things) being among people who were just as focused on the things that concerned me as I was. It was amazing.

      On the other hand, hang too much with other writers and you start to believe that everyone in the world is writing a book, which can be just a wee bit overwhelming.

    • Companionship and community, yes. But I’ve finally figured out that when I write, I lay down tracks for future stories. Every little step means something in the overall scheme of things. If you ask, I may not consciously know why something went in at that point. But my subconscious knows. It may not be practical, but it’s how I write. I occasionally need someone to look at a “thing” but I don’t feel a driving need for beta readers. That may change as I shift around inside genre boundaries, but for now? I stay the cat who walks by myself.

      • That’s why I don’t like to have someone else read my work until I’m at a stopping place. I want to know if what I think I’m doing came off. I don’t think I could use a crit group for a novel in progress, for example.

        And you know, “beta reader” is a new term for me. I generally think of it as a “fellow writer who gives me good crits”.

  5. Beta reader still sounds to me like “editor without credentials” so I’m still, meh! Yet I love critique groups and got so much out of them for years and years. Most workshops (Clarion and Milford) were wonderful, too, but there was one I shall not name where…you know, it was about how brilliant the workshop leader was and not about the participants’ work. But that’s so easily solved; I just didn’t go back to THAT one. I suspect if I ever vetted a beta reader as I might a prospective editor, I might be very happy with the results there, too.

  6. I know people who need betas every step of the way, and people whose brains do so much prewriting that a beta would just confuse them. Whatever works to get the words down, and then create the picture in the reader’s mind is a successful process. (And conversely, when the project is not getting to the reader’s mind the way the author wants, maybe it’s time to review the process.)