I CAN Do This

As many of you know, I’ve had two manuscripts out with beta readers recently. Last week, I got comments back on my novel Death Out of Time from 4amWriter, aka Limebirdkate. I cannot believe how lucky I was to have someone as talented as her go through the manuscript. Kate could teach a Master Class in Beta Reading.

Am I going to gush because she told me how good it was? Nope. Before getting to my main point, I’ll briefly gush because she pointed out how much work it still needs.

Confused? No need to be. This wasn’t a final draft. It was only a second. And since I haven’t been at this anywhere near as long as someone like Stephen King, I knew there was a lot of work ahead. I knew some things weren’t working as they should. I knew my main characters needed revision. And there were other things I suspected. Kate caught every single point that concerned me—and a lot more. If we’re going to publish good, well-written books, we need that kind of feedback on the work-in-progress.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been going through all the stages of feedback grief that Kourtney Heintz covered so well in a recent post. That’s what writers do. Actually, that’s what we all do when someone else critiques our efforts. Show me someone who claims constructive criticism doesn’t sting just the tiniest bit, and I’ll show you someone being just the tiniest bit dishonest.

But there’s something in these experiences that makes me think maybe I can do this—that maybe I can write a successful novel. (And by successful I mean an enjoyable, interesting story that some number of people beyond close family and friends would like to read. Monetary success is a whole other unpredictable beast.)

You see, ten years ago, or even five, a beta reader’s comments would have been more than I could bear. No matter how carefully someone constructed his critique, no matter how supportive he was that I was on the right track, I might have tucked the manuscript in a dark corner of a closet and never touched it again. I might have quit writing. At best I would have quit hoping that anyone else would want to read my work.

But that isn’t happening today. I’ve been going over Kate’s comments, absorbing them and thinking about how to address them to improve the story. And the ideas are flowing. They’re not necessarily all good. I have to think through how each would affect the entire story. I’ll throw some of them away. But they are flowing.  And I’ll think of more. And that means I’m moving forward. I’m not quitting.

And no one ever wrote and published a novel by quitting. We can’t succeed at anything by giving up before we’ve reached our goal.

Maybe this is a late burst of maturation and confidence in my life. Or maybe nothing creative ever took such hold of my imagination before. But whatever it is, I’m rolling up my shirt sleeves and getting down to the business of rethinking and rewriting. Draft 3 will be better. It won’t be the end. But I’ll be a few steps closer to writing a good story.

Maybe I can do this.

Have you surprised yourself by sticking to something you didn’t think you could do? Or kept going when others thought you would just give up or fail?

A Spammy Smile for the Day

I really enjoyed this thread, please keep posting info like this.” — Just a nice comment on my Fun With Spam post, right? What made me smile was the “name” of the commenter—Poopyface Monger. It sounds like someone’s five-year-old came up with that one. 🙂

46 thoughts on “I CAN Do This

  1. I’m glad you’re being mature and constructive in how you’re responding to the critique. A critique isn’t an assessment of a person’s writing talent but a tool to help them identify where they need to work in the next draft of their novel. I’m always surprised when people get emotional about feedback instead of just identifying what advice they’re going to take, what advice they don’t agree with and just getting on with the next draft!

    Poopyface Monger, hmm, now there’s an idea for my next child!

    Like

    • I think as Kourtney mentions below, writers have to be ready for feedback. And often we’re not when we first get it. Writing this post and seeing the comments I’m getting so far is leading me to another one about how we should approach it. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I think there are things both writers and beta readers/critique partners should keep in mind and understand. Both parties need to understand what is expected to help minimize misinterpretations and hurt feelings.

      I’ve been fortunate with my experiences, but many others haven’t. I hate the thought that a bad experience might drive a developing writer away forever. But I think new writers (and I’m still in that category!) must learn how important an objective reader’s constructive criticism will help us become better writers.

      And as for that name for your next child—please don’t tell them where you got the idea! I don’t want them chasing me down to pay for their psychiatric visits! LOL! 🙂

      Like

  2. A lot of what you described I can totally relate to. When I first joined a critique group six years ago and someone said they “hated” my main character, it really hurt. First, it was an inappropriate criticism, and second, I wasn’t used to hearing criticism. Over the years, the critiques have become more and more helpful, and I’ve become more and more open and seasoned. So helpful! I wouldn’t trade those comments for the world. Good luck as you revise.

    Like

    • That is the kind of experience that can shatter a young writer’s confidence. A person who says something like “hating” a main character may not understand the right way to critique. Or it could be jealousy and sour grapes from someone who never had publishing success. The first person can learn to approach things more respectfully and constructively. The second should never critique and should be avoided in the future! I’m glad you didn’t let it stop you from writing.

      It takes time to develop a “thick skin” even for criticism that is phrased and presented perfectly. We’re human. We all feel a sting when someone suggests we could’ve done better. (What do you mean I didn’t get it perfect the first time!?) But we do learn. And if we’re going to put our work “out there” for the public, we’d better be ready for comments from people who don’t like it. Because there will be some!

      Like

  3. Just as I was thinking “She’s able to take the critiique as a postiive instead of a negative because she’s older and wiser now,” i reached this part of your post—->, “Maybe this is a late burst of maturation and confidence in my life.” I really think that’s the key to accepting constructive advice and criticism and not feeling insulted by it!

    re: your discussion generating questions at the end: Yes, I have shocked myself by sticking with my sobriety for the past (almost 6!!) years and I’ve wracked my brain to understand why this time’s been different. Again I think it goes back to the point you made so eloquently about bursts of maturation and self confidence….

    I have no doubt we WILL read your novels (and i bet you feel in your gut we all will, too!)

    I’m glad I stopped by here this morning…starting the day with a postitive affirmation is always good!!! 🙂

    Like

    • Those six years are awesome! I know people who repeatedly fall back into the old habits—they are so hard to break. And you’re right—it takes something in each person, like maturity or understanding or desire to reach another goal to make that change for good. Sadly, some people I know will never recognize something like addiction is a problem for them.

      Some days, I question whether I’m getting wiser. 😉 But more often than not, I do think time and experience give us more perspective and understanding. We just have to be ready and open to learn the lessons that they’re teaching us!

      Like

  4. Excellent Post! I love it. It was just what I need. I have what I think to be a good 3-4 book series in mind. It will take awhile, of course, and there are other considerations; however, this post may well help me get through some of the toughest parts – revision.
    People wear out after a bit; we get discouraged. I get discouraged. Now, at least, I may start and finish the first novel because I know it won’t be good enough…well said!
    Namaste,
    Scott

    Like

    • Thank you! Revision is tough. And it’s preceded by the toughness of getting that first draft done. Have you read Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird?” She point-blank describes “shitty first drafts.” It sounds harsh, but every prolific and successfull author will say that’s as true of their 15th book as it was for the 1st. As Kourtney points out below, all writers tend to think that we’re finished when we first type “The End.” And we’re not. Not by a long shot!

      But when I get discouraged, I will find amazing encouragement and support here with my blogging cohort. We cheer each other on. We celebrate each other’s successes. We offer support when someone doesn’t win the contest or the agent didn’t take on the book. We will critique or beta read for someone if we feel we can.

      If you don’t yet follow some of the people who comment frequently on my posts, you should check out their blogs. Because they can really help with those down days and have a lot of good ideas and advice to offer.

      Writing is a long journey. But when we find those supportive friends and colleagues, the road isn’t as hard and we have some great times along the way!

      Like

  5. For me, the key with criticism is to take it as you described, a tool. A necessary one even, if I’m going to get to the point of publishing. No one’s first or even second drafts are perfect, and I don’t think that it matters how long you’ve been at the game. It’s just human nature, we are imperfect. For me, that somehow just drives me forward, the push to make the manuscript better, to shape it into something more than it was.

    Like

    • Feedback is so vital, but so many people have negative experiences with it. You’re right—we are imperfect. But it’s so much easier to think that way about someone else and not ourselves!

      It is so easy to e-publish these days, and too many new writers either don’t know they need feedback or they think they’re “above it.” I wonder how they feel when the slamming reviews come in on Amazon or Barnes and Noble? Far better to have a few people point out areas for improvement before letting the world see something that isn’t ready!

      Criticism is tough, but because you recognize its value and want to make your books as good as they can be, you will succeed. 🙂 (Okay, I can’t guarantee monetary success, but you will succeed in writing good books!)

      Like

      • Oh, how right you are. For so many (maybe all) of the reasons you mentioned, I have not yet published Bound. I could have, certainly, but I refuse to put work out there that I haven’t put through its paces and had at least a couple of test readers go through. I want what goes out there to be my best, and it’s not just because of the threat of negative reviews. Those will almost certainly happen anyway because you can’t please everyone. Part if it is being aware that I want to make a good impression on my potential readers. I want it to be a good start to what I hope will be a long relationship. Getting people to try a new author isn’t easy, and I feel like it would be even harder to get them to give me a second chance if I’m not sufficiently careful with the quality of what I put out there.

        I’ve heard some people say that it doesn’t matter because you can just update after you revise it, but how many times will the person still have your book if they didn’t like it? And how likely are they to go back and read it again if it wasn’t that good in the first place? I feel like you make a bond of trust with your readers that you will tell them a good story to the very best of your ability, and like all other kinds of trust, it’s difficult to rebuild once you break it. I don’t want to do that, so I prefer to get the feedback and improve before I send it out into the wider world. Otherwise, I’m doing all parties involved a huge disservice.

        But maybe I’ve just been thinking about it long enough to gain perspective on the subject of critiques and such. I recently explained to my mother that writing is end to end criticism. It never stops, from concept to post-publication. To be honest, I tend to believe that if you can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t be trying to publish your writing. Harsh maybe, but it’s true.

        Like

        • Those are all excellent points and perfect illustrations of why we shouldn’t rush to publish. Some old truisms come to mind. We only get one chance to make a first impression. A bad reputation is hard to change.

          Like you, I want my readers to keep coming back to my new works. And the last thing any writer should want is people telling their friends and family not to bother reading a work.

          I think you’ve done a great job of setting your goals and laying out the framework for reaching them!

          Like

  6. JM, I think you raise a really important point. Writers need to be ready to accept feedback. There’s a lot of pressure to put your work out there and get feedback, but it’s hard to hear and it does hurt. I wasn’t ready when I first received it. It took me a while to sort it out and see the merits of what the person was saying.

    I almost feel like a waiting period should be required from the finishing of a draft to the request for feedback. Just to give the writer time away from the manuscript. Because when we type “The End” a part of us really thinks it is the end and doesn’t realize this is the start of the revision process. 🙂

    Like

    • Hey, Kourtney, feedback is tough. That’s the honest truth. You described it so well in your recent post (I had to link to it!) But I honestly believe we can’t make our books as good as they can be without it. Too much story is in our heads. We will leave out details we should give to the readers. We will go on about “pet points” or things we know a lot about and bore the reader. We need that objective reader (or readers, preferably) to point out such things before we shop the manuscript to an agent or e-publish it directly.

      I like your idea about stepping back from the manuscript before it goes to the reader. That distance can help ease the sting. And we shouldn’t rush into making changes when we get the feedback. Kate and I have bounced further ideas off each other before diving into our manuscripts. Change begets change, and we have to think through the ramifications to the entire story line before we go charging in.

      I really am going to do a post about what feedback should be and do’s and don’ts for both the reader and the writer. And if you don’t mind, I’ll suggest that cooling off period! (with due credit to you!) 🙂

      Like

  7. What a positive way to approach the revision process. And I loved the following line: “Show me someone who claims constructive criticism doesn’t sting just the tiniest bit, and I’ll show you someone being just the tiniest bit dishonest.” Even when constructive, it stings. My first instinct is to put up my defenses and start justifying why I did this or that. But after a while, I realize, oops, maybe I’m wrong. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. It helps all of us going through the same type of experiences. Oh, and for the record, I’m jealous. Poopyface Monger has never stopped by my blog. And with all of my scatalogical references, I find that hard to believe.

    Like

    • I recognize that instinctive reaction! 🙂 If we’re all honest, I bet most of us feel that way. But we have to get past it if we’re going to make it as published writers. I’m not saying we’ll ever stop feeling the initial sting of a critique. But to be successful we’ve got to buck up and recognize good suggestions for revision and find a way to incorporate them into the next draft.

      A good beta reader critique is not a personal judgement of us or the work. It’s a helpful tool (as Julie described it above) for making our work the best it can be. It should be a positive and helpful experience (after we get over our initial bruised egos that the work isn’t perfect). And I plan on spending a good chunk of the afternoon sketching out potential ideas for changes to my story based on Kate’s excellent comments. 🙂

      And shame on poopyface for not stopping by to visit your blog. He’s missing out on some great posts! And he should be giving us all a laugh and smile as we empty our spam queues! 🙂

      Like

  8. This is wonderful progress, good for you! It’s brilliant to get an honest, unbiased and constructive opinion. I’m googling Beta Readers as I type this comment to you because I’ve never come across this before… how do you go about getting someone to do this for you? Would you recommend it? Do you view it as risky in any way (or just in the sense of having your pride knocked)? 🙂

    Good for you! 🙂

    Like

    • First, I do recommend it. Second, yes it can be risky if you don’t get the right person for it. Honestly, there are some people who should not offer critiques—those who can’t leave out personal opinions about the subject matter, those who have an axe to grind because no one has published their attempts, those who were savaged when they started writing and now think everyone should be….

      I haven’t looked for on-line critique groups, but I know they’re out there. One thing to remember is that some of them focus on exchanges of a few pages of manuscripts at a time. A full-blown manuscript beta read takes more time and effort than some of those sources may offer. If anyone reading this comment has suggestions, please feel free to share in the reply!

      One of my beta readers is the woman who leads my mother’s writing group. If you’re lucky to have a connection like that, you might want to talk with them. If you’re in a writer’s group, you could talk with another member to see if he or she would be interested in exchanging manuscripts.

      The beta reader I mentioned in this post is part of my blogging “cohort” as I call it. We follow each other’s blogs, and we both follow some of the same fellow bloggers. At one point she expressed an interest in learning more about this book, and I asked if she’d be interested in being a beta reader. I am so glad she was! We were able to exchange manuscripts, and the experience has worked out very well.

      If you don’t know any other writers in your area that you could work with, I think asking a blogger who you’re familiar with is a perfectly acceptable approach. They should also be familiar with you. This kind of critique should be handled sensitively because it’s human nature to have a hard time accepting criticism. I wouldn’t rush into asking a stranger to be a beta reader, and we shouldn’t take it personally if someone declines.

      To me, one of the most important things to do when you find someone is to make sure you each understand the goal. Your reader should know if this is your first or third or whatever draft. If you have specific items in mind (e.g., character development, finding plot holes or inconsistencies), be sure the reader knows that. At the beta reader level, you’re not looking for a full-blown manuscript editor. That’s later in the process, and you’ll probably hire a professional for that. (Of course, if your beta reader is such a professional, you could later hire them for the serious edit.)

      It’s all right if your beta reader doesn’t normally read your genre, but they shouldn’t despise it. So make sure he understands what you’re writing. He has to be able to keep his personal views out of the read. For example, I can’t read pure horror or books about psychotic and sadistic killers or horrific child abuse. And I couldn’t provide an objective read on a manuscript covering those subjects. I would have to decline if someone asked me to read something like that.

      And before I put you and everyone else to sleep, I should cut off this reply! Do keep researching the topic and don’t rush into it. And if anyone else has suggestions or recommendations, please feel free to reply in this thread!

      Like

      • Thanks you so much for making the effort to respond in such a helpful and thorough way, I really appreciate it. This all sounds like extremely sound advice. I think the trust issue is an important one as well as defining the goals/boundaries. I’ll put this advice to good use. Thank you again. I’m so pleased you’ve had such a positive experience this time round, that’s very encouraging and well deserved. 🙂

        Like

        • You’re very welcome! When I started this blog, I knew one of the key things I wanted to do was be supportive and encouraging of other unpublished writers like myself. There are plenty of people out there who are happy to knock us down. I don’t know if any of us will “make it” in the publishing world, but even if we don’t, writing is something we love to do (and are often driven to do, even if we don’t fully understand why!). And I enjoy getting to meet other like-minded people like you here in the blogosphere.

          I’m getting some ideas for a series of posts on beta reading/critiquing, which I hope you and others will find helpful. 🙂

          Like

  9. I think the best sign is that a lot of the criticisms were in areas where you already perceived problems. That means you’re developing an ability to self-critique. I’m not sure whether really experienced writers need beta-readers. At least a copy editor, always, but beta readers?

    Like

    • Hi Carol, that self-critique is something I’ve been thinking about. Hopefully it does mean I’m beginning to see for myself where I need improvement. But I’ve still got a long way to go on that road!

      Since I’m not a really experienced writer, I can only fall back on what I’ve read from some of them. And they continue to have people critique/beta read their drafts. Even a prolific author like Stephen King still has someone who reads his drafts before he does the final version for his publisher.

      Now, King needs far fewer drafts than I do, but as he notes in his book “On Writing,” when we live with a novel so intensely, we can be blind to mistakes, inconsistencies, and such in the work. We need that fresh set of trusted eyes to show us what still needs some work. Of course, I’m sure his reviewers find far fewer issues that need to be addressed in the second draft than mine do! 🙂

      Like

  10. Ackk! Growing pains!! This kind of feedback (from someone you can trust!) is absolutely invaluable, don’t you think? It’s writer’s gold jm! It does sting though, no doubt, but how does one proceed, or learn, without this kind of helpful insight? You could have spent years going in circles otherwise. The pain of it all is worth it in the end though. And now, you can use this information from limebirdkate, and your own gut feelings, as a catalyst to move forward in a way that otherwise you might have missed–or at the very least detoured away from–losing valuable time in perfecting the work. That is one downside for us late bloomers–we don’t have the luxury of time that some of these young writers have. They began in earnest years before we did. 😉

    Like

    • It is absolute gold for the writer! And you’re right—I have plot revisions to make. And it’s much “easier” to do that now rather than do my own changes without feedback at this stage only to find out later that I was on the wrong track all this time. “Easier” of course being a relative term! I can’t just jump into revisions because I have to give serious thought to how plot and character changes will affect the entire story.

      And, yes, if I would’ve started this when I was younger, there would have been more time to develop my skills and craft. But we won’t let that stop us, will we! 🙂

      Like

  11. I always know how promising a manuscript is after I have read it, critiqued it, and sent it back home–when I can’t stop thinking about it. That is what is happening with your ms. Throughout each day since I returned it to you I have had these flashes of your characters and specific scenes and snatches of dialouge flow through my mind. Sometimes I think, ‘oh, I loved that’ or I’ll laugh out loud, or I’ll savor a moment. That’s the sign of a great story.

    I think self-critiquing is extremely difficult–someone above had asked about that. And you’re right, even the best authors turn it over to a trusted reader. The key is trusted reader. If writers are ever lucky to find just one reading partner they can always bounce their work off of, then that is all you need, in my opinion. I don’t think a manuscript needs to do the rounds of various types of writers, genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds in order to get a solid review.

    I also learn something new each time I critique a novel or short story. And I love that. I love knowing that there’s more out there, constantly changing and growing, and I get to read about it and see if it works. Almost always I come away with a spark for a new story idea, or a twist on one of my own characters, or just in general feeling the urge to write.

    It’s also nice to know that as solitary as this writing business is, that we can reach out when we need to for help or support. Blogging has been wonderful for that, yes, but honestly having engaged in this recent beta-reading with you, I feel so much stronger about my own work as well as feeling more confident towards helping another writer.

    Keep up that awesome work! 🙂

    Like

    • WordPress really needs to put a “like this comment” button out there. I don’t have one, so instead I’ll just say “Here, here”

      Like

    • For anyone still reading the comments on this post, I have to be honest—I probably had a much easier time reading your manuscript than you did with mine because you are so much farther along on your story than I am on “Death Out of Time.” And the quality of your writing and storytelling is outstanding. I don’t think it will be long before a request for a full manuscript results in an offer of representation.

      With this post I really wanted people to see how important it is to let another set of eyes give us an honest critique of our work. We have to swallow our pride and fear and do it. And then it’s okay to feel a bit of discouragement or grief when the reader’s comments come in. But our real growth as writers comes when we put down the chocolates or alcohol or other comfort food/drink of choice, recognize the good points raised by the reader, and then let the ideas for improvement come through.

      And I hope I get to see the next version of Ally and Ben’s story! Because I’m wondering how they’re doing and what changes you might be introducing to their lives. 🙂 Their story is sticking with me, too, and I’m already impatient to see the sequel!

      So I should probably make one last point here and hope others see it, too. (I’ll also work it into that series on beta reading). I don’t think that initial manuscript critique is the end of the process. As you said, when we find someone we can trust with our work, the idea exchanges continue. And that hopefully flows through a number of successful books for both parties. 🙂

      Like

  12. Yes, you can do this, JM! How awesome of Kate to beta read like a pro and how awesome of you to consider her critiques and suggestions. That alone show how you both are well on your way! Congratulations! 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks, Christy! 🙂 It’s been such a positive event, and I want other new writers to see how important it is to get feedback and also what it should be like. I cringe when I read about other writers’ terrible experiences with readers. I wonder how many just give up writing when they shouldn’t?

      Like

  13. Solid post with realistic info. Love this part because it’s so true:” Show me someone who claims constructive criticism doesn’t sting just the tiniest bit, and I’ll show you someone being just the tiniest bit dishonest.” But it’s best to just get out the bandages/chocolate because you need feedback. (And it’s hard to find “good”readers that can be objective – ones that want to improve YOUR book..not have you write like they would…is that at all clear? They need to be sample readers with your book instead of writers…not much better…) Anyway, once you find readers you respect, hang on to them!
    Sounds like you have really grown through the process. YEA
    (and the comments are as interesting as the post.)

    Like

    • Yes, your point about objective readers is absolutely clear—and it’s vital for the beta reader to know that! The review isn’t about how he would write the book or how he’d have the characters interact with one another. It has to be an objective critique of what is and isn’t working in the other writer’s book. And not everyone can do that.

      I hope to keep the good beta reading relationships going—because I know they will make my writing better. (And it is time I do some growing up, but not too much. 😉 )

      Comments are often my favorite part of a post. There are usually some great insights and discussions that take place and that can really add to the original post. And I envy bloggers like you who can consistently make witty and clever replies! 🙂

      Like

  14. I remember one occasion at my writing group when the first person called upon to critique a piece of my work admitted that they hadn’t liked it and thought I could do better. There were a few nods around the table and from there on in it was like a set of dominoes falling; one after another everyone set about pulling my work to pieces. It was awful. I didn’t want to argue – everyone is entitled to their opinion – so I just sat there and took it. In the end I put it down to pack mentality – everyone jumping on the critiquing bandwagon. These people were usually very supportive. Maybe the piece really was dreadful, butI’ve learned that there are better ways of getting this across. Yes, criticism does sting, and we have to develop thicker skins if we want to succeed. Great post. 🙂

    Like

    • I’m glad you didn’t stop writing because of that experience. Some writers would, and that is a terrible thing. One of the things I will stress over and over again in my beta reading posts is the importance of tact and respect when doing a beta read. And really, that should extend to all types of critique, even for a few pages or a group of writers just putting together a group.

      And there are times when we should decline a request for critique. I’ll be getting into that more, too!

      Like

    • Hi, thanks, Stuart! When I get a chance, I’ll spend some more time with your blog—it looks interesting! If the novels have any success, much of it will be thanks to the supportive community here and the critiques and insights of talented writers like Kate (4am). 🙂

      Like

  15. We are not conditioned to take criticism well. It’s takes an effort – and a thicker skin – to accept critiquing as useful feedback. Great post. And I’m going to check out your posts on beta reads.

    Like

Comments are closed.