Before I start with any new topic, I just want to say thank you. Thank you to everyone who reached out after my last blog post and extended support, love, and vulnerable confessions of “me, too.” I never expected my words to be so well-received, and I feel like the grinch whose heart grew three sizes that day. I have always known I’ve been surrounded by wonderful people — Bad Brain™ just tries to convince me that I’m not worthy of their love and support. Thank you to each and every one of you for reminding me how wrong it was.
With that said, I’m eager to get onto a more light-hearted subject — how about writing? Today I’m going to write about the three types of people who were absolutely essential to my writing process.
In August 2015, I wrote The End on my first complete manucript ever: working title Laura Elliott-Stratford , later to become Across the Formidable Sea. It was a strange feeling: accomplishment mixed with a bit of sadness and incompleteness. Laura’s story was finished, but I wasn’t finished with Laura. I wanted to go back. This was the point where I first realized that I could no longer go it alone: I needed outside help. This brings me to the first group of people that I consider essential to the writing process:
1. Beta Readers
Whenever anyone asks me for writing advice, the first thing I tell them is to find a beta reader they can trust. It is simply not possible to fairly judge your own writing and storytelling. It makes sense to you because it came from you. Your brain is able to fill in blanks that a reader may not. Conversely, you tend to be your own worst critic. Of course your words feel stale and boring: you’ve spent hours slaving over them and re-reading them. The story is old to you. You need a new set of eyes to point out poignant sentences and powerful descriptions, because we tend to get stuck in the mechanics of the thing. Beta readers remind you that it’s art.
My first beta readers were my mother, my sister, and my best friend of fifteen years. My mom works in marketing and has a razor-sharp eye for detail (and grammar). My sister has a bachelors degree in history, and is an avid reader of historical fiction. Courtney is a kindergarten teacher and a bookworm — we’ve read many of the same books, and she’s read my writing since my cringe-inducing teenage years. They each read it, and to my surprise, loved it. Not just because I had written it, but because it was a readable story. Courtney read it almost within 24 hours. She was obsessed.
Later in the editing process, I recruited another beta reader: a young woman named Carla, who I met through the internet and bonded with over an obsession with Peaky Blinders, which was a huge source of inspiration for my book. I had read her fan fiction before and really respected her as a writer and storyteller, so I asked her to read an early version of ATFS. She loved it. She gave me thoughtful feedback on character development and story pacing and took it upon herself to become to become the foremost expert on all things Laura. Now that I’m working on the sequel when I feel myself faltering in getting into Laura’s head, it’s Carla I run to. She gives wonderful, honest feedback, but doesn’t hesiatate to be effusive with praise, which builds me up when I’m feeling insecure. Carla has not only become one of my best friends, but also one of the people I trust most when it comes to sharing my writing. We haven’t met in person yet, but when we do, I know it will be glorious.
It was my beta readers that gave me the confidence to stick with ATFS. If I hadn’t asked them to read it, I might have stored it in a file on my computer and never opened it again. But they made me feel like I had written something worth reading, and that made all the difference in the world. It made me realize that I wanted more people to read it, which led me to adding the next people into this three-ring circus:
Although my friends and family gave great feedback and encouragement and started me on the process with some basic editing, I still felt like something was missing, some mysterious puzzle piece that would make it a “real book” and not just a hobbyist’s manuscript. I had reached my limit as a writer. It was time for an editor.
I queried a few professional editors, but their quotes were much more expensive than I’d been expecting. I didn’t have thousands of dollars to drop on a professional edit, as much as I wished I did. I researched a bit more and others suggested contacting English majors still in school who might be willing to look it over and give an educated opinion. I didn’t know where to start, so I reached out to my friend and mentor Joel Levin. He taught AP English at my high school and maintained many great relationships with former students, and so I thought he might know someone willing to read my manuscript over for cheap. To my great joy and surprise, he offered to read it himself.
Levin and I both had full-time jobs, and he had two kids to contend with. Editing was not a short process. But in spite of his many responsibilities, he took my manuscript apart word by word, destroying the printed pages with his blue felt-tip pen. I went to his house when he had completed the first half, and he was very kind to me. He reminded me that I shouldn’t take any of his criticisms personally and that I had accomplished something important by completing a manuscript at all. I think he was actually kind of surprised at my reaction to seeing my marked up manuscript — I was thrilled. Seeing those blue marks all over my work meant that I could get back to work and that whatever was missing in my story had the possibility of being found. I ate up his advice and criticism voraciously, eager to see my work become the best it could be.
This is important to anyone who wishes to improve their writing: criticism is gold. Hoard it like the dragon you are. Not in the sense that you should obsess over it and let it isolate you from the world, but in the sense that you should treasure it and recognize its value, even when it hurts. Learning to gracefully accept criticism and apply it to your work is essential to any artist’s growth.
In addition to Levin, there was one more person I consulted as an editor: another internet friend named Emma. She’s a veritable expert in the time period my novel is set in, and also an enormous Peaky Blinders fan. She helped me located historical inaccuracies, and, as a fellow fan, made sure I never crossed the line from inspiration to plagiarism. Without her, more than a few anachronisms would have slipped through the cracks, and I’m forever grateful to her for her help.
The final group of people that helped my dreams of being a published author come to fruition may be a bit obvious, but also 100% necessary.
3. Family and Friends
I am enormously blessed in this area. I grew up with a close extended family that has always loved and supported me in all my endeavors, and I’m grateful to have surrounded myself with positive and uplifting friends thoughtout my life. When I officially announced I was publishing a book, I had a support system that jumped at the chance to help me spread the word, to buy my book, and to write reviews. It alleviated some of my earliest fears: What if I publish it and no one buys it? What if I don’t get any reviews? What if everyone hates the book?
Family and friends create the safety net that will catch you when you take a leap of faith. No matter how my book sales went, I knew my husband would love me. No matter how many mistakes I had made, I knew my family would still respect and love me. In spite of numbers and reviews, my friends were proud of me for making the jump. My whole family wanted me to sign their books when they arrived. Friends sent messages of congratulations. I didn’t need to become a bestselling author — I knew I had made the people who loved me proud.
If you feel you are alone in the world and lack a support system, I have a few a couple tips for you. The first is to eliminate anyone in your life who isn’t rooting for you to succeed. A friend who constantly demeans your accomplishments and dreams is not a friend, and that is even more important in a romantic relationship. I always say Marshall is the Ben Wyatt to my Leslie Knope. If I woke up tomorrow and wanted to run for president, he would say, “Where do we get started?” He has never diminished my dreams, no matter how lofty. I actually have to be careful — sometimes I express a half-serious daydream and he’s already hit the ground running to help me achieve it. You deserve this in all your relationships: friend, family, and significant other. My second tip is to search out people who share your interests. 2016 was pivotal for me in developing new “fandom friendships” — I made internet friends that have become just as important to me as my friends “IRL”. Sometimes the people you love most, despite their best intentions, don’t always understand your passion, even if they support your pursuit of it. The beauty of the internet is that there are people out there who will get you all over the world — all you have to do is find them. If you’re not comfortable with that, look up writer’s groups and meetups for creative people in your area. Meet people who you can talk to in creative crisis. Lift each other up. Be positive and effusive about the work of others, and they will almost always return the favor.
Writing can be a very lonely hobby. Though there are many steps in the middle, it starts and ends with you, and you alone. However, the entire process doesn’t have to be a solo climb up a frigid mountain. You’re allowed to ask for boosts and supplies along the way. The summit is much sweeter when you’ve made it with a team, and working with others allows you to reserve strength for another future journey rather than burning yourself out by going it alone.
Your writing will never go anywhere if you don’t share it. It will languish in cobwebby folders of your computer, full of potential but never quite finished. No matter how talented and well-rounded you are, there’s always room for outside input. Find your team. Climb the mountain.
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” – Inception, 2010