Elephant Skin

Yaknaptawpha County sign     A writers’ group can be a scary place. You put yourself out there for people criticize, and it’s not just any people. They’re people who (should) know what they’re talking about. Even accomplished writers are subject to jittery nerves before reading their latest work to a group of people. The same is true of beta readers. Handing a manuscript to someone who has the chops (hopefully) to make constructive comments is, in effect, saying, “This is ready for you to read.” The wait to find out if that person agrees is just a little longer than forever.

Feedback is crucial for two reasons. First, it helps make the story more accessible to readers, and a more accessible story is almost always a better story. The other thing that feedback should do is help the writer grow in his craft. Just because a scene, or a sentence, or a word works in my little brain doesn’t mean anyone else will get what I’m trying to convey. Writers’ groups and beta readers are a good way to make sure a story works. The key is to expect criticism and see it for what it is – a chance to be a better writer and do a better job telling the story. Folks who put their work out there just looking for a, “Good job!” will always be disappointed.

Having said that, comments are coming in from the first wave of Mammon’s beta readers. They have been overwhelmingly positive. But not unanimously so. Sending a manuscript to beta readers is sort of like buying a lottery ticket. You know it won’t happen, but you hope against hope that every reader will give the same one word critique – “Perfect!” The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery every single year, with the added Power Bonus, are actually much better.

Critiques, like I said earlier, are necessary, and I look forward to them, both good and bad. Finding the spots that don’t work well is kind of like an Easter egg hunt, and I’m anxious to find the ones I missed. Without fail, though, the less-than-good comments, right at first, feel sort of like a long, leisurely soak in a big tub lined with razor blades and filled with steaming acid. No matter how well intentioned, well received, or (gasp) accurate they are, they burn like hell, just for a second. It’s amazing that one suggestion for improvement can drive one hundred positive comments out of my brain. I consider all of the critiques I get, and try most of them on, just to see how they work. Usually, they improve what I’ve written. Sometimes, they let me know a particular scene or character just needs to be scrapped.

My friend and fellow scribbler of words, Gerardo, was the first beta reader to finish the manuscript, and one of his first comments gave me a heel-of-my-hand-to-the-forehead moment. It was dead on, and making that change will greatly improve my telling of the story. I was angry with myself at first, wondering how I missed something that should have been obvious. Then I remembered that’s what beta readers are for.  Others have made some excellent observations, and I’m excited about how much better this book will be because of their input. It’s going to be lots of work, but Pulitzer Prizes aren’t won by the lazy.

I’m fortunate to belong to some excellent writing groups, and I’m grateful to have so many friends who are accomplished writers and readers. They have made me much better teller of stories. One day, colleges are going to require a course on what will be known as The DFW Literary Movement of the Early 21st Century. Right now, though, I’m going to work my day job while I wait on the rest of my beta readers to finish up. I’m glad I gave myself several months to complete the next set of rewrites. It won’t be a long time, really, before it’s done and I start wailing and gnashing my teeth over the query letters and synopsis. Right now, though, it seems like I’ll be dead from old age before the damn thing is ready.



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