Posted on April 28th, 2012 in process
Readers are certainly pretty damn useful. No, I’m not talking about YOU lot, silly. I’m talking about those privileged folks who get to read the book and comment as I’m writing it. Yes, every writer needs some of those beta readers, as they are charmingly called, with overtones of software not quite ready for market, in order to keep the old ship moving in roughly the right direction, hoping to avoid the writerly scylla and charibdis of over and under-confidence, on the one hand ruined by self-indulgence (wot, me?) on the other, paralysed by self-doubt. In my case, I have three readers as well as my editor. Mum, Dad, Brother. If you can’t trust your family, who can you trust? Don’t answer that.
When I first started writing I did it in extreme secrecy, scared to lay bare my sensitive innermost ramblings to the world. But after maybe six months working on the loose collection of drivel that would later become sharpened into the modern masterpiece that is The Blade Itself, I felt the need to consult some kind of outside authority, to get some guidance as to whether what I was doing was utterly worthless or not quite utterly worthless. My mother worked as an English teacher, an educational publisher, is widely read and possessed of razor-edged critical faculties, particularly where her own children are concerned. My father was an academic and university administrator, also widely read though in somewhat different areas, perhaps. My brother is like an older, less handsome version of me, also widely read and with a more than passing familiarity with genre. I knew they’d tell it to me straight. And they have, ever since. I can’t articulate how vital discussing my writing with them has been, especially in those early days before landing a deal. They helped me work out where I was going right and wrong, both at the micro and macro levels, and in giving me the confidence to continue, as well as just convincing me that there was actually something there worth working on. Hey, even if I never got published, it was a fun point of conversation within the family. Mum tended to look at the detail of the way I was writing, Dad tended to look more at the plotting and development, Brother gave a less detailed summing up. Usually I’d write blocks of four or five chapters, revise them carefully to my own satisfaction, present, discuss, revise.
Over time they’ve had less to say, as I’ve started to get a better grip on the basics and my editor has naturally become the more important influence on what I’m doing, but they still read each part as I finish it and make suggestions and observations. They tend to be relatively general things these days – I’m worried about where you’re going with this plotline, I thought this sequence was flabby, I thought the pacing was off here, I thought this character wasn’t working that well. Generally I don’t act immediately on anything they tell me, but make notes and try to bear it in mind going forward and when I come back to revise. Sometimes I’ll disagree with them. Sometimes they’ll disagree with each other. But I’d certainly consider carefully when they did agree with each other. I think the most important function these days is the simple affirmation that what you’re doing is moving in the right direction, is basically good (whatever definition of good you choose to use). Confidence can be a pretty plastic thing, and especially at the start of a project I find I’m prone to be very worried about whether what I’m doing is going to turn out right. A set of reliable readers are invaluable in getting you over that hump…