Tag Archives: beta readers

The Weekly Re-Motivator: The Sounding Board

What do you think of when you think of the writer? A few days (or maybe weeks) worth of stubble? Empty bottles of liquor clinking around the derelict typewriter as he hammers away on a hopeless draft? A dark room, leather-bound books, lots of oak? A pathological aversion to sunlight? A tendency to yammer or babble, even when nobody else is in the room?

There’s a reason writers face such stereotypes, and a primary cause for that reason is that writing is so overwhelmingly a solitary activity. After all, no matter how many people you involve in the process, it all ultimately comes down to just you and the blank page. The overwhelmingly intimidating blank page. The soul-crushing perfect white expanse. The gaping void waiting to swallow your futile effort at wordsmithy. At the end of the day, it comes down to the writer and his blind, fumbling self. Or, sometimes, his multiple, ever-arguing, ever cross-contradicting selves.

Most of the writer’s problems are problems he must solve by himself. Plot’s knotted up? Well, it’s your plot — nobody else even knows what the various bits of twine and frayed yarn you’ve snarled like a plate of stale spaghetti are attached to. Characters misbehaving? You’re the only one inside their heads, you grab the bonesaw and go hacking around til you figure it out. Theme not coming through? Well, theme is subjective, so maybe you’re off the hook there.

There’s no denying it, we’re on our own most of the time.

(Photo by Drew Coffman.)


There’s a wealth of good to be gained by inviting somebody else into our lairs, though seriously, it’s probably a good idea to clean up the liquor bottles and the lunatic scribbles covering the walls first. Because as much as you understand the Rube Goldberg machine that is your broken story, you’ve been living with it for a while. You’ve become desensitized to some of its finer features, like how a hoarder isn’t bothered by the pure funky wave of cat-pee-stink lurking in the dark corners of her house. You don’t even notice the peeled wallpaper, the layer of sticky film on the linoleum, the ring around the tub.

But when you spin out the tale and talk out the problems to somebody else, all of a sudden, it’s like turning on a floodlight in a dark alley. It’s like throwing open the window on a musty study. It’s like calling the cops on a house full of drunk teenagers. All of a sudden, all the little stuff you’ve been ignoring looks stupid bad; all the unsightly bits are not only eminently visible, they become outright embarrassing.

How did I miss that?

Where did that even come from?

What, to be direct, in the fargo was I thinking?

Whether the friend (and make no mistake, if they’re listening to you prattle on about your story for any length of time beyond five seconds, this person is your friend, and one you probably owe a few adult beverages to in exchange for the favor) who’s loaned you an ear has any solutions to offer or not, you will see your work in a whole new light, simply by virtue of the act of putting it on display for somebody else to see.

You just can’t catch it all by yourself. The echo chamber between your ears makes you deaf to the nonsense you’re spitting. The smoke you’re blowing up your own butt blinds you to the blemishes in your draft. (And yeah, I realize if the smoke is going up your butt, it would have a hard time blinding you, just … I’m almost there, okay? GOD.)

I’m not even talking about a beta reader. Make no mistake, you need good beta readers. But I’m talking about long before the beta reader stage. Maybe even before you’ve finished spawning the ill-formed first draft.

You need that sounding board.

And you owe this person for listening to your drabble.

Find them and be nice to them.

(For reference, this week’s SOCS prompt was the suffix -ing. While it’s virtually impossible to write without using this little structure, I thought that for the sake of doing something to death, I’d document my usage. Also, as an English teacher, I enjoyed the exercise. I used -ing 40 times in this post. Thirty times as a participle, eight times as a gerund, and twice as part of a non-verbal word. Yeah, I’m that kind of thinker. Sigh.)

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Baby Steps

Writing is a journey, yeah?

You start off uncertain whether the two words you just committed to the blank page even belong in the same zip code with one another, or whether, like tinfoil and microwave ovens, their relationship is doomed before the heat even gets turned up. But you press on, smashing words together with the blithe indifference of the LHC, watching for sparks, looking for anything that resonates, and before you know it, you have a thing.

Maybe it’s a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a short story. Or a poem. Or a lyric. But you have this thing, born from the unfathomable space between your ears, and it’s raw and wriggling and it may or may not have a chance in this world, but it’s yours.

And at first, it’s all: whoa. I did that. I created this thing from nothingness. And you float on that godlike feeling for a while. But it only lasts for so long, because we’re talking about literature of one caliber or another, here, and literature is only as important as its audience decides it is. And that means that, first and foremost, what it needs is an audience.

But it’s not ready for an audience yet. Too many rough edges, too many unshapen limbs, too many vestigial tails. You shape it, you trim it, you coddle it in some places and you axe its redundant bits in others, never really knowing if you’re helping it or dooming it, only trying your best to give it a chance to breathe the air of this strange and indifferent world. Like it or not, eventually that moment comes, when it must leave the nest and survive or die trying.

The second draft of my novel is out today to three beta readers. The first was my wife, and as much as I love and appreciate her for reading my drivel, I can’t trust her feedback alone. She’s more or less obligated to tell me it’s good, and that I haven’t been banging my head against the keyboards of various computers for the last seventeen months for nothing. And I value her feedback, I do — she’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am — but I’m (hopefully) writing for an audience that’s larger than just my wife. And I’m not ashamed to tell you, even though I know these beta readers personally, I am scared sharknadoless to get feedback from them.

It’s odd. I am hoping that they’ll be impartial enough to give me the feedback that I need to better the story, but I’m terrified of what that feedback will be.

Still, it’s a necessary step in the process. In order to grow, we must shed our skins, leave behind the old uses that threaten to keep us from becoming the new and future uses. (That’s “us”es, not “uses”.)

Of course, that doesn’t make it easy.

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