Inner Critics and Beta Readers

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.

Keep going.

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.

18 thoughts on “Inner Critics and Beta Readers

  1. I do not know where I would be without you right now. As a followup to your post – those little words of praise you gave me in lieu of the novel have literally inspired me to keep going with it. I was planning to abandon it. And now I won’t, because you believe in it, and it’s made me realise that I should believe in it too.

    Beta-readers are the angels to the head-biting, ear-gnawing inner editor. Both are neccessary to balance the other out, or else we’re well and truly cosmically scuppered.

    All the awards for this post. So true, and full of your usual dose of awesome.

    Planning to read Isabel and Watching IX when I come back from interview. Let me know if you want a beta-reader-person for either. I’ve already decided I’m hijacking “Weapons of Chaos” whether you like it or not. It’s killed me. I want to make it so that it’ll do it to EVERYONE *evil laugh*

    1. I would be happy to have you for WoC. You should know that by now. (And you know I ALWAYS need help with Watching. Isabel I’m planning to abandon for a little while, as I just don’t feel ready to write a book like that at this stage.)
      I’m glad you’ve decided to finish it. It would have been sad if I had to set Shamsiel on you, since he’s still rather bitter re: ending of WoC and wants some revenge. He’s not fussy about who is on the receiving end of it.

      1. Oh gawd . . . Shamsiel, please don’t eat me. Iloveyou. Go and bite Raphael or something, HE deserves it the *desced into incoherent snarling and chewing of tables*.

        Also, if he wants to kill something, he can have Olwyn. Because she’s a scary bag lady with red claws and she worries me.

        As for WoC, yay! Although I would have loved to have tried my infiltration tactic . . . not that it’s very good . . . :P

  2. Trying to banish my inner editor was a major reason I chose to do NaNo this year – and it even kind of worked. I didn’t make it to 50k (and I still suspect that most of what I wrote is crap – largely because I didn’t do enough research before November), but I wrote more in November than I did in the rest of the year prior to that (not counting schoolwork), and I was mostly able to ignore the editor as I wrote, so I’m calling it progress. :)

  3. And now I”m scared of what you will think of my little novel… I’m one on the opposite end of the spectrum who tends to have no idea how to kill her darling because she finds it so hard to step back from gobbling it up like an indiscrmanet reader to edit it….

    I suppose I did a decent job on my phoeixes, in their first pass… *meh* I’m luke warm. :}

    So which should I read first when I get around to reading your novels? WoC or Watching IX? :}

  4. I think I’m a pretty hard judge on my writing, too… I mean, I’m usually fairly happy about how something turned out when I finish, but then I’ll look at it later and think of all the things that I left out.

    Also, CHECK THY NANOMAIL. :D

  5. I was having a furious battle with my inner editor this NaNo. It wouldn’t shut up, and I remember at one point I deleted several pages and rewrote them three times. Needless to say, I didn’t win, but that could also be attributed to the fact that my laptop crashed repeatedly. More often than not, however, my inner editor does tend to agree with my beta reader, so I can’t completely shut out its opinion.

  6. Is it bad to be completely confident that your novel is awesome and it only needs polishing… from the outset? Because that’s how I am. Every time I finish a novel, I think, “There, now, that wasn’t so bad! This part and this part need work of course, but the rest of it is wonderful!” I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just too self-confident.

    Be that as it may, I need a beta reader.

    1. I still think that sometimes, but having rewritten Watching nine times means I’m pretty resigned to editing everything until I die. I’ve so far written two books where I now think they’d probably only need one fresh draft, maybe two tops, to be decent. Given that I’ve written 11 first drafts that’s not a lot…

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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