Inner Critics and Beta Readers
Charley is the worst judge of her work. Ever. In the history of ever.
Most of you know Charley. She’s my beta reader (she’s read about three copies of Watching, each one slightly different to the last). She’s my co-writer (on St Mallory’s, although we’ve also collaborated on some humorous projects in the past, and have a couple planned). She’s completely bonkers and has a crush on several of my characters (STAHP, Charley!).
And she is the worst judge of her work on the planet.
The entire way through NaNoWriMo, she complained. “My novel is useless!” “My plot makes no sense!” “My narrator is a whiny idiot who never does anything!” Halfway through week two, she hated it so much she wanted to quit. But, being the NaNo veteran that I am–and that she should be by now–I whipped out my week two motivational speech, yelled it in her direction and persuaded her to keep going.
Charley, Cathryn and I have a December 1st Novel Swap in place, where we send each other our unedited work for the others’ amusement and entertainment. Charley described hers as a monster. A failure.
And I read it. I wasn’t expecting anything much. For a start, she hated it. Plus, I read her novel from two years ago during our first novel swap and… meh. It was definitely a first draft. But this one? It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty damn good. To be quite honest, if I had picked it up unknowingly, I wouldn’t have known it was a first draft (aside from the fact it ends on A FREAKING CLIFFHANGER), let alone a NaNo novel. If I’d picked it up in a bookshop I wouldn’t have thought, gee, where were the editors on this?
I suddenly felt completely insignificant. Yeah, I wrote well over three times what Charley did, but hers was good. I cared about her characters. Two of her main characters are now my OTP for all time.
I’m using this to illustrate a point (and not just to embarrass Charley, honest). We, as writers, suck at evaluating our own work. Either we’re so in love with our story that we fail to see the flaws and the plot holes and the completely incompetent writing, or we hate it so much that we can’t see how good it really is.
You know, I look at my essays and I think, this sucks. And yet my friends tell me it’s good. Why? Because I can’t see what’s good about my own work.
We’re all so critical. Denizens of the NaNoWriMo forums talk about the inner editor – that voice that sits there and says, “That sentence wasn’t right. Cut it out. Write it again. No, this doesn’t work. Delete this entire scene.” IT’S NOT A HELPFUL VOICE. When you are trying to write a first draft, you have to ignore that voice, because if you don’t, you’ll get discouraged and it won’t ever be finished.
I’m glad I told Charley to carry on because as it is, I think she’s got the makings of a freaking awesome novel and I will do whatever I can to help her see it through to completion. That’s where the internet, and all the writer buddies I’ve made because of it, have changed so much about the writing process. Without the internet I’d still be at the “write one chapter and delete it all” stage, as I was four years ago. It’s very hard to write a novel without someone who sits there and says, “Look. The inner editor is wrong. I believe in this novel.”
And yeah, sometimes you need someone who doesn’t believe in your novel, so that you can prove them wrong. But, in the long run, it’s encouragement and support and critique that you need. It’s people who read your novel, which you thought was a monster, and tell you that actually, it’s pretty good.
If someone likes your first draft enough to yell at you for not having finished it, then you’re onto something.
Sometimes I write something and I think, “I’m not sure that works.” I pass it onto beta readers or friends and they say, “No, this scene’s fine from the reader’s POV.” Or they send me a lovely polite email that basically says, “That chapter sucks. Try this.” (I love those emails. They try so hard to be nice but I’d rather they were straightforward.) I can’t tell if it works because I’m looking at it from my perspective: the perspective of someone who thinks she knows the characters inside out and who has some preconceived idea of how the story will play out.
Your beta readers read the story for what it is, not what it might have been or how it plays out in your AU headcanons (alternate universe mental digression from original plot, basically, if you’re not a Tumblr user or fanfic reader and have no idea what I mean there). They know whether it makes sense or not.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to let someone else read your work before you throw it away. Because they might tell you to save it, and it might be a brilliant book just waiting to be polished.
Your inner editor is persuasive but in the end, it’s only when your beta readers start agreeing with them that they’re right.