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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Q & A with a younger writer

Here's a portion of a  slightly altered (to disguise the innocent) Q and A from private messaging on Facebook, dealing with issues of revision and Beta readers and workshops.

The accompanying images are covers / jackets of my books now in print, in lieu of doing a boring post about what's in print. (And The Foliate Head is somewhat in print--that is, copies still remain at online outlets.)

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Q:  By the way, I have a question: do you use beta readers or critique partners? I am confused. I have revised a story a bunch of times, trying different directions. Got it back from my fiction teacher this week and he liked it, believed everything, and had one small fix that I agree with. Then two days later my writing group met and all three women had many more criticisms than he did. They believe a lot less of the story. I am curious to know if you just trust yourself and your editor at this point or if you have trusted readers.

This gets my head spinning sometimes. I cut something out to get at a different truth, then I find out that someone liked the part I cut out. I put it back in, someone finds it distracting. And round and round it goes.

A: Once, long ago, I did an event with a certain famous writer, and he referred to his six Beta readers, and how he expected them to drop what they were doing, read, and get back to him immediately. And I had to admit that I was the sort of person who didn't like to bother anybody, and that I almost never asked anyone to read a manuscript. Once in a blue moon somebody (in the faraway Carolina past, that blue moon reader would be Erica Eisdorfer) reads something unpublished, but in general I just don't do that. And, really, in the history of the world, most writers have not had that luxury. Even when they read a new poem or story to a group of friends, what happened would not be what we now call "workshopping." Also, I think there's a danger in Beta readers. Writing by committee is not a good idea.

You know, it's not a requirement for a book to be without flaw in order to be a great book. Moby Dick has loads (whale-barrows) of flaws, but it's unquestionably a masterpiece. A book has to try to capture life as best it can, and if it does, well, flaws don't signify so much.

However, I just read The Fellowship, the Zaleski book about the Inklings and was rather jealous of them, though. Their method was not very workshop-like, I note. No brooding over the words and giving careful feedback. They sat around, drinking and smoking, and would read new sections / stories / poems aloud. The reader would get a reaction and comments, but it was more of a casual, oral-response-only sort of thing. Gut reactions. And sometimes the comments were harsh and not helpful (Dyson on Tolkien!) but the impression is usually of support and encouragement (which writers tend to need but don't always find.) Being with other people intent on the same thing is genuinely helpful. You don't feel so alone. (I mostly hang out with painters, which is not exactly the same but helpful.)


  1. It's a good thing to have a couple of readers one trusts. I do. But in the end, it always comes back to the writer to make the final decisions.
    The longer one writes, the more confident she becomes about making such decisions.

    1. I do like hearing from readers, but generally it's after a book comes out, not before.

      Good cheer, Robbi--

  2. It's great for young(er) writers to hear that some authors don't spend a great deal of time using beta readers or workshops to refine their work. Not everyone works easily with committees; it's good to spread the word that the choice is entirely their own.

    1. I did suggest Clarion to a young writer of fantasy recently, but that's more like boot camp!

      And some of us live where there are few writers and have that overly polite thing going--not wanting to "bother" anybody. That's me. Definitely brought up that way!

      Some people seem to workshop the life out of their stories or poems, too. That's very possible, especially if you want to please everyone.

    2. Yes, I can't imagine having one person (let alone six!) who would drop everything to read and critique my work. Who has the time?

      I'm in an odd position, though. My nine-to-five job involves writing—and everything I write gets reviewed, critiqued, and nitpicked by at least one private-sector colleague, three government clients, and representatives from two law firms. Some of the stuff I write on my own time might indeed benefit from extra sets of eyes, but I'd rather embarrass myself with a few overwrought poems here and there than submit to committees in my private life, too.

    3. I'm with you there--I like being free when I write, and I don't care for any whiff of committee-work or "beta testing" (if that's what it's called.)

      I barely have the time to get my work in by deadline, so I agree there as well. And honestly, I don't think my time worth more than anybody else's--we're all in the same lifeboats.

  3. It is so-o-o-o hard for any writer to find a trusted and helpful reader/mentor. I applaud your generous gift to other writers. I wish I had such a spirited gift-giver long ago when I fancied myself a writer. Alas, that ill-conceived ambition faded away; the writers' workshops in academia hastened the fading, and I could write quite a bit about the pitfalls of those workshops, too often filled to overflowing with egos and hacks. Now I am simply a reader.

    1. I am a reader also! At least some of the time... It is a noble thing to be.

      People do ask questions, and I try to answer them. It's fun to occasionally advise them in person, as I did for a friend's daughter recently. And I'm on the list of people to consult at a local college, though I have no idea how that happened!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.