Entirely of itself,
Every man is a piece of a continent,
A part of the main.
It’s something we take for granted in our everyday life. Most of us, at least. We might feel like eccentric outsiders. I can’t be the only one that has a tendency to occasionally withdraw from conversations, and the apparent lack of interest have caused some tense moments now and then. But you see, in my head an irresistible scene is taking form, where the most gorgeous man says the right words at the right moment, and I join my own heroine in a swooooon–
“Hey! World to Cay, world to Cay. Come in.” Snapping fingers right in front my eyes. They seldom ask where I am in those moments, but nine out of ten times it’s infinitely more interesting than Real Life. I mean, let’s face it: a romance hero beats nappy rashes every day.
In moments like these, it’s frustratingly obvious that I’m not an island entirely of myself.
So why is it that so many writers think they are? Why are so many hesitant to share their texts, and seek help from others?
The questions have popped up after I became more involved in Norwegian Facebook groups for aspiring writers. Initially, I thought I joined to find some suitable beta readers, but sharing is not something most of them are comfortable with. Why is that?
Perhaps because writing is, and will always be, very personal task. We leave a lot of ourselves in our writing, we feel very strongly about our stories. And we should, because if we don’t, what are the chances that others will? But the attachment makes us vulnerable. Critical comments can easily be experienced as personal and can be hard to handle. This is basically just practice and experience. At some point you have to do it. At least if you’re dreaming about publishing your story.
The story is most likely going to require a lot of your time and energy for a long time, to the extent that you might have to sacrifice some of your social life to finish it. Most of us prefer to write alone, or where the surroundings provide background noises, but demand very little of our attention, so writing is a lonely endeavor.
On top of that, Norwegians are known to be quiet, private folks, and the writers are no exception to the rule. We’re generally friendly when approached, but hesitant to seeking help. So it’s a huge hurdle to climb. I get that.
Then there’s of course the urge to protect your amazing story idea. When I started writing it turned into this…frenzy. There were so many words that had to come out! I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, had never heard about character arcs and POVs, and had absolutely no clue about how to go about telling stories. But it didn’t matter. Because I was one of those natural talents, writing a Pulitzer winner. Hell yeah! No one had ever churned out anything this amazing before. For my own sake, and for the entire world population, I simply had to keep going. No way I’d be so stupid and show it to someone and have my lifework plagiarized before the first, rough draft was done.
But at some point it didn’t feel quite right anymore. I was sitting there with some 80 000 words that no one had ever seen, and the Pulitzer bubble went…plop! Sensibility finally managed to pierce my creative haze and insist it was time to seek some guidance.
This is where it all changed. A strike of luck (also called Google search) brought me to Scribophile. The tiny sand bank of wannabe writer Cay Michaels became part of a large continent. The learning curve that had been a lazy slope, all of a sudden launched like a rocket toward the sky. Tiny steps turned into giant leaps.
Careful there, some might say. By being overloaded with advice and do’s and don’ts you risk developing a writer’s block the size of the Chinese wall. Self-confidence crumbles and the story disintegrates into broken dreams, stuffed away in a drawer somewhere collecting dust. Yeah, I realize there’s no right or wrong, and this is a decision every writer must make for herself. Personally, I’m inspired by feedback. Readers commenting on my writing spurs me on. It makes me want to roll up my sleeves and work even harder, but in a different, more conscious way. I can see and feel how I’m improving. How my first drafts have become so much better because I’m growing as a writer.
The last few weeks I’ve been beta-reading Norwegian manuscripts. It’s been a deja vu of some sort. Many of the Norwegian writers are talented, but they’re islands, pressing their stories tight to their chests because they’ve been warned about plagiarism. Their beta readers (if they have any at all) are typically a sister or a friend, and the feedback is normally very positive. They’re editing and revising their stories, again and again, with very little, if any at all, new input on their story. And they’re completely blinded, of course. We all experience that after a while. That’s when the fresh eyes of beta readers are critically important.
Then, when they think the manuscript is ready to be sent out to a publisher, they ask for a quick beta read from members on a Facebook group, and BAM! They finally meet a couple of real beta readers, the ones that will point out plot holes, head-hopping, inconsistent tenses, poor characterization etc etc etc. Just when they thought that the story was perfect and actually wanted to receive praise, not be given a month worth of revision work. What a godawful, ice-cold bucket of reality right in your face. I’ve been part of enough debriefings the past weeks to know that a lot of them are having a bit of a breakdown in the aftermath. With no experience in receiving critiques, their heads are spinning from all the contradicting advice and suggestions and they’re hurting.
Do yourself a favor: Don’t end up there.
Your story needs beta readers in order to reach its potential. And they should ideally be someone objective, someone who’s not afraid to speak their minds. It’s also a great advantage if they’re interested in writing as a craft, they’ll look at stories with different eyes than other readers.
It up to you to decide when you want to give external readers your story, but as a general recommendation: Do it while you still think it’s a work in progress, while you’re still open to revise and edit it. Before you grow so sick and tired of it, you can’t bear the thought of having another look at the story. Do it long before you plan to send it out to agents or publishers. And expect that one round of beta reading might not be enough.
You’re not an island. The moment you decide to write a story that you want others to read, you have to be part of a continent.
Cayenne Michaels in a Norwegian expat living in Namibia. She’s a scuba diving desert rat and a Jack of All Trades, master of…er…none? A couple of years ago she woke up with the crazy idea of writing a book, and she’s been hammering away on the keyboard ever since. It’s a crazy project, a gigantic slice of life type of story and based on the word count it can probably be sold as a brick instead of a book, if it ever get as far as proper book form.