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With A Little Help From My Friends

May 3, 2010

At some point every writer is going to consider releasing their work to a third party to be read and critiqued. If the first person to read your story after you is a judge or editor you are doing yourself and your work a disservice.

Very few writers are able to get the required distance from their work, to edit objectively.

Marie Bilodeau, author and guest reviewer for Absolute Xpress’s 3rd Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC) earlier this year, had this to say about the stories which did not make the cut:

Some (stories) had vital flaws that might have been caught with careful re-reads and test readers. Others needed some refinement and growth, and a good copy editor. Some just had too much crammed in there for a thousand-word long story. As readers, we need some familiar footing to find our way to your characters and plot. I was personally pissed off with some stories – they were so good, but those fundamental flaws lowered their ranking.

Bilodeau’s words rang true to me – both as a writer and an editor. You cannot under-estimate the value of beta readers or colleagues who will edit and critque for you.

My story “The Chameleon” won a place in “Thieves and Scoundrels” the anthology compiled from the 3rd FFC. It went through a rigorous external critiquing and editing process at the hands of six test readers. While the main story didn’t change, certain elements did – characterisation and plot were both tightened, the language and imagery was honed. When you are working with just 1000 words you need to put every single one of them to work and those who are not initmately attached to the story can show you were to make the cut with the least amount of disruption.

For me it was another example of how a good story can be made great (and make the publishing grade) with the help of some friends. It has taken me a long time to get to this place after I was on the wrong end of a bad critique (not unlike many writers) when I was young. But I’m glad I’m here now and I am grateful for my tight-knit group of beta readers.

I still feel like a lamb awaiting slaughter once the thrill of sending my work goes out and the interminal wait for comments to come back. Yes, it is terrifying but it is ultimately worth it. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing six lessons I’ve learnt, tip toeing through the mine field as an emerging writer, a beta reader and an editor. From why to let your work out and to read the work of others, to developing the thick skin required and chosing your beta readers.

I held back my work for too many years. I hope you don’t make the same mistake.

Image: Nancy Bea Miller via The Genre Cookbook

Jodi Cleghorn would prefer to be an empowered writer than a butchered carcass. Jodi’s short story “In Their Own Good Time” is making the beta reading rounds and she’s accutely aware of the doubt and triumph which is inherent in this part of the writing process. You can find more of her musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. May 3, 2010 1:17 am

    I look forward to these posts.

    Having my work beta-read by a few readers/writers has helped me go forward immensely in the last year and a bit.

  2. adampb permalink
    May 3, 2010 2:02 am

    Writing Fiction Friday has been a good way of getting over the fear of people reading my work; for a long time I imagined writing but was afraid of the idea of people reading my work. I read this site for a while before venturing to take part, afraid of what people would think of my writing (draft material as it is). I have appreciated the encouragement and criticism from other writers, giving me a group of potential beta readers when I get the chance to polish one of my pieces. Still scared about sending stuff for competitions and anthologies – feel I’m not “good enough,” BUT I have also come to understand that rejection is what comes to a writer in great big tomes.
    I will not be afraid.

  3. May 3, 2010 3:25 am

    Bravo Adam!

    Blogging was my first step to putting my work out. I began with a My Space blog and then ventured across to Blogspot when I wrote my first [Fiction] Friday. Like you it was a safe space to write and share my first draft material. There used to be a guy who contributed, when I started out – and he always told it, the way it was. I would both fear and hope he’d stopped in to read what I had posted. Such is the double inner-life of a writer with work in circulation.

    I also started going to a writers group and it is very in your face in person. They truly keep you honest!

    It was only the end of last year, with some prodding and needling of those around me, that I began submitting material on a regular basis and I became rather reliant (still am) on my beta readers who really push me to take my writing to the next level.

  4. May 3, 2010 4:04 am

    Thoughtful stuff as ever, Jodi, and I look forward to the series of posts you have planned. As you say, sending your work out there is scary at first, but the benefits will outweigh the fear tenfold.

    I am slowly coming round to the idea of rejection as simply an opportunity to redraft and send stuff out again. In fact, I received a rejection this morning and the editor was kind enough to give me some positive and critical feedback that has me thinking of how to rework the story for submission elsewhere. Such a big part of writing is taking on board the criticisms and thoughts of others and using them just as we do any writing tool in our kit, to make the work better.

    Rejection can be your friend.

  5. May 3, 2010 4:17 am

    To reverse the coin, critiquing other people’s work also has to be learnt. Not only how to say things positively, but also how to recognise weaknesses etc. I’m speaking from experience having just sent you my comments on the story you sent. Somehow, what I wrote seems woefully inadequate when compared with the comments you have made on my work. I suppose experience comes in here. All I could do was try and say how I felt as a reader, not an expert editor. But it’s something I would like to try and develop.

  6. lostlibrarygirl permalink
    May 3, 2010 4:20 am

    Thanks for sharing this information. As a new writer, I’ve found that there is a large gap between what we put on paper and what is swimming in our minds. Having another set of eyes to bridge that gap is priceless.

    I look forward to the upcoming six lessons. Your advice is always spot on. Congrats on the publishing.

  7. May 3, 2010 7:43 am

    PAUL: – critiquing and editing is something which *is* learnt and it gets easier the more you do it. Getting yourself on the “beta reading circuit” (for want of a better word) is really the best thing you can do (and thank you for your wonderful comments on my story!) as well as going for the light and shade when commenting on things like [Fiction] Friday.

    I was lucky enough to be a part of a six month critiquing course last year through the QWC and learnt a lot, watching what and how others critiqued (especially our tutor). It really gave me the confidence I needed starting out with CW last year.

    Every reader has a gut reaction to a story, an opinnion of the characters, the beginning, the ending and what goes on inbetween. We’re all natural born critics and editors!

    I’ll make sure when I write my post on critiquing others work to give a simple check list for those starting out. But a really simple one is – what did you like/what works, what did you not like/what doesn’t work, what do you think could be improved and in your opinion, what should the writer do next.

    And the best rule of thumb – it is always and only ever about the writing… never about the writer!

  8. May 4, 2010 2:10 am

    Nobody can create ‘perfect’. Practice of imperfection will someday give birth to a masterpiece!!! Well this was what I read somewhere and just felt that it should also be here.

    Am looking forward towards your further posts Jodi. Lots of information yet to come. Thanks!

  9. May 4, 2010 6:18 am

    Sunny -motherhood taught me the art of imperfection. And it is wonderful.

    I have a dear friend who gives herself permission to write badly before she starts out… and thsu defies her inner censor so she can write.

  10. May 4, 2010 11:50 am

    So where are a few places to start submitting some short fiction?

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