As my family can surely attest, traditionally speaking, I have not been the best at taking criticism, particularly about my work. My mom in particular can probably remember countless occurrences of me on the verge of tears, lamenting the cruelties of being misunderstood, of my readers not understanding the greatness and eloquence of the latest paper I’d written for school.
Thankfully, I have grown in my ability to take criticism since those days.
More thankfully still, I have stumbled upon the beauty rather than terror of having others read my work.
Having recently sent my novel out to several beta readers, several more getting a chapter by chapter read through in a writers’ group I’ve joined, I must admit that, at first, I was nervous about how they’d respond. I’m confident in my ability as a writer and in the work itself, but I have also been working on this project for about seven years in a near vacuum of a bubble, with only a very select few besides myself reading the work, and not in an officially editorial capacity. Knowing how poor I’ve fared at taking criticism in the past, I was also worried that should they not like the work–besides being heart-broken on a personal level–I would handle the situation less than civilly, getting overly defensive and moody as I have in the past.
Luckily, with that concern at the forefront of my mind going into the feedback sessions I’ve had, I’ve been able to beat back any needless angst on my part in receiving negative feedback. Greater still, I have discovered the process not to be like the pendulum swing between excruciating negativity and joyous ebullition I’d expected, but rather more like walking a garden path with experienced groundskeepers, here pointing out a finery, here a lack of fertilizer. Not only have I been able to spend time discussing one of my absolute favorite topics with many of my good friends–as well as some new ones–I have been able to view my work through new lenses, that is to say, through theirs. I have seen how their different personalities mark my words, and the different places their minds go as they interpret. I have found places where they all agree improvement necessary–places where I am often of the same mind myself–and places where they all have found joint pleasure, places where I have also happily wandered. Rather also than having despaired where they have begged improvement, I have found a surprising excitement, an eagerness to improve a work that I had already deemed quite close to ready. Things that I had been willing to look past from exhaustion, closeness or even simple blindness, they have called to my attention, calling me to a greater level of quality in my work than I had suspected possible. Teasing the best out of my work and forcing me to re-imagine those weaknesses which I had thought solid, overall the process has been nothing short of pleasurable, an adventure which is breathing new life into my work.
I have always had an attitude which, being rather prideful, has made much of my writing for others very much for me. Me liking the way something reads, the poetry of some lines or the characters I know. Finding betas has changed much of that. With every read through and feedback session I learn more of what it means to write for your readers. To think of what they don’t know, to fill in the gaps you’ve created. I am learning the incredible value of community in something that both as reader and writer is traditionally lonesome, and I have to say that it is better than I could have hoped. I understand that some write only for themselves, which is as equally valid as writing for others, but for those who do write for others, if you do not have others reading your work, I cannot recommend it enough.
Thank you, my betas. When Machine comes to print, be assured of your place in my acknowledgements as surely as it is already engraved on my heart.