The Beta Read Saga #3: Takes One to Know One: Confessions

Have you ever heard one person find fault with another person–and receive the often well-deserved response of “Takes one to know one”? Well, it seems that for writing, there’s some truth to that comment. Though we might rephrase it as “The shortcomings I see most clearly in others’ writing are probably my own worst shortcomings.” Yep. Confession time …

Confession #1: My WIP needs more self-editing than I thought

One of the major reasons I wrote my work-in-progress (WIP), especially the section on self-editing, relates to when writers ask me to “edit” their work. I take one look and realize they’re not ready for a full edit. Usually they’re thinking of proofreading, since that is mostly what they experienced back in their school days. My job, then, is to educate them on what editing really involves. And to encourage them, before a formal edit, to do a lot of self-editing work, ideally with the help of a self-editing team.

There’s been times I’ve shaken my head and wondered (arrogantly, I admit): “How could you think your manuscript just needs a quick proofread? I wouldn’t be that self-confident about my work.” Or would I? Honest admission: Now that I’m going through the beta read experience myself, I’m feeling much more sympathetic to those writers. I knew, before sending out my manuscript to my beta readers, that my WIP, which had already gone through several self-edit drafts, perhaps had a few tiny issues. But I reasoned to myself, “I’m an experienced writer, even if not a book-length writer, and I’m an editor, too. So how much more work could it possibly need?” Well, surprise, surprise.

For example, whatever made me think some writers’ group feedback on the first chapter of the fiction part of my manuscript would be good enough that I wouldn’t need input on the following chapters? First chapter is good? Awesome! Surely the rest will be fine then, right? And yet, I’m the editor who believes in doing a sample edit of the first chapter of other writers’ work—then recommends said writers study that feedback and rewrite their whole manuscript before I edit it. Actually, I still think it’s good advice, but I evidently didn’t expect I’d need to take my own advice and do mega rewriting myself. Oh my.

Confession #2: Knowing about writing doesn’t always equal writing well

Yes, I know all about “conventional fiction writing norms,” though it was thoughtful of one of my beta readers to remind me about them. After all, I have taught fiction writing to school students, edited fiction writing, studied literature, and taken university-level writing courses (with a 97% final mark, in case you’re wondering. Oh, perhaps you’re not? Huh). Anyhow, so can you imagine how perturbed I felt when informed there are some major issues with my plot development, characterization, flow, tension and conflict, and resolution? (It’s unsatisfying, apparently.)

See, I can easily get up in a class or workshop, draw a story arc diagram on the board, explain it, and then analyze—with someone else’s writing, of course—what works and what needs to be fixed. Ha! What I really need to do, apparently, is post up my own writing alongside the story arc and let my students do the analysis. Yikes. I can picture right now their rascally enjoyment in pointing out the teacher’s shortcomings to the whole crowd.

Confession #3: I need to “kill my darlings” — details and words, both

I love doing research. I consider myself—okay, let’s face it, I pride myself—on being a lifelong learner. Whether I’m teaching writing, editing writing, or just reading a piece of writing or watching a film, I have to admit I often take a bit of perverse delight in noting when there’s been a lack of solid research. (Side note: My husband, who prefers to just enjoy movies, hates it when we watch a movie together and I point out all the “errors.” I have had to learn to restrain my comments occasionally to keep our marriage intact.)

Now, I did do a lot of research for my WIP, but it turns out I may have overdone it. Or at least have fallen too much in love with the details. It seems I dislike “killing my darlings,” be they details or words or both. Can you believe it? More than one (alright, actually several) beta readers have informed me my story sounds like a boring history book. (Yes, I admit it, the very thing I had my lead character make fun of in the first chapter.) One reader suggested, indirectly to prevent my hurt feelings I suspect, that “… some writers seem to be showing off how much they know about a topic.” Oh dear. That couldn’t be me, could it? Yet another beta reader noted, more to the point, “You just couldn’t resist packing it all into the narrative… though it offers very little in terms of advancement of the plot.”

Oh cruel, cruel words! I sat up, back straight, chin up, and argued to myself: But I love words. I love research, I love details. I love wordplay…. I’m not wordy, am I? It’s just my friendly, conversational style. (Yes, and in fact, it’s “personable and folksy; resonates with readers” as another reader put it. Thank you for those comforting words, kind friend.) Oh! And my use of details comes from being a natural-born teacher, born into a long line of teachers. These are all good qualities, aren’t they? What? Maybe not?

Confession #4: I often don’t live up to my own advice

One of the most outstanding aspects of my WIP—or so I have tried to convince myself—is my wonderful “checklists.” Now, most of my beta readers (so far at least; I’m keeping my fingers crossed) have complimented me on most of the checklists, though they have helpfully pointed out some repetition, a few gaps, and a few questionable or difficult-to-understand bits of advice. And truly I am grateful for those kinds of feedback.

But my readers have also pointed out that I haven’t always (okay, frequently haven’t) lived up to my checklist advice. As one reader said, “I suggest you take a hard look at your Fiction Editing Checklist and scrutinize (brutally if necessary) your story.” Yep, when I read that suggestion and other readers’ similar if gentler comments, I initially felt they were being pretty brutal themselves.

But then I reflected, knowing myself as I do, that sometimes I need some brutal advice to shake me up and make me obstinate enough to dig in and do some major rewriting. “Okay then, I’ll show you! I can do this!” Though I must also confess that at the same time I felt like chucking the whole project in the garbage and taking up a new hobby other than writing. Something pleasant, like pressing pretty flowers to make bookmarks, which wouldn’t result in such honest feedback.

Stepping out from the confessional booth

Okay, so it’s definitely time for me to leave the confessional booth. Time to engage in some acts of penance, or at least get to work on applying my beta readers’ excellent advice. Time to do the intensive self-editing that my WIP is all about—and which it turns out I have plenty to do. One reader, comforting me I suppose, told me that her first book took nine years to complete. Great! That means I only have seven and a half years to go. What a delightful thought! Somehow, acts of penance like fasting, abstinence, and even self-flagellation seem like they might be more bearable than self-editing. But I doubt they’ll do much for my WIP. Maybe I could take a good stiff drink to get me started on my self-editing. Oh yeah, I quit drinking, and for good reason. Let’s see. A box of dark chocolates, then. And ready, set, go!

Why not check out the entire series of my Beta Read Saga? Here are the links: