Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Deadline Approaches

Seventy-thousand words and no plot.

That’s where I found myself right before Thanksgiving. I fretted and moaned; I knew there had to be a plot in there somewhere but I just couldn’t figure out where it was.

But I knew that I had two trusted friends—both amazing writers and as it turns out, editors—who would be able to set me straight. So off the manuscript went.

It is amazing to me that you can spend so much time with your manuscript and your characters and write yourself into a corner that you think you can’t get out of. One comment from one of my readers, my friend, Alison, and I knew exactly where I should go with the story as well as who I should whack in the first chapter. Let’s face it: I rock it old school so if there isn’t a body in the first ten pages, I’m not completely satisfied.

Alison and I were once part of a writer’s group, but found that we really were very much in sync with each other in terms of how we wrote, what we liked to write, and our processes in general. Now, for lack of a better term, we consider ourselves a “writer’s duo,” because really, with just two people, you don’t have the cohort for a group. At least I don’t think we do.

It’s not easy to find “beta readers,” as I’ve heard them called by no less than Charlaine Harris. Well, let me be more specific: the good ones are not easy to find. Anyone can read your manuscript but only a few trusted friends will tell you the truth. After Alison had read over the manuscript and sent me a lengthy email detailing her issues with it, she immediately felt bad and told me so. Had she been too critical? She wanted to know. I told her that we were way beyond feeling bad when it came to criticism; all any of us want is to produce is the best book possible and if we have to go back and rewrite, or god forbid, start over, we need to know that.

Anyone can tell you that they like your book, but is that really constructive? Probably not. I remember when I showed my husband the first chapter of Murder 101, which was the first thing I had ever written in a serious way, and asked him for his honest opinion. The relief on his face after reading it was almost comical. “I liked it,” he said. I asked him how relieved he was to have liked it. “You have no idea,” he said.

I think back to that time. Would I have been disappointed if he hadn’t liked it? You bet. But it would have been crueler for him to tell me he liked something, or that he thought I was a good writer, if he didn’t think either. I had put him in a tough position, but fortunately, it all turned out for the best. The moral here, then, is to find readers who you respect and who you are not sleeping with. This way, when a criticism has to be leveled as it surely will at some point, your romantic entanglements can stay unentangled from your writing life and bruised ego.

Fellow writers are often the best to help. Sure, I have friends who read drafts but they are already fans and may not be willing to give me their honest opinions. Fellow writers, however, know the drill and know what’s at stake and know what you need to hear, if not necessarily what you want to hear.

I’m now thirty days from my due date. I now have 71, 561 words, a body in the first chapter, and a subplot that will hopefully keep you guessing.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Oh, I can so relate - lol! But how wonderful to have such great writing support - hard to find and harder to keep over time. I'm so envious but inspired to get to work on finding the plot in my +- 80,000 word wip. :)

  2. Yay for having friends who help you find the path you need to take (both on paper and in real life!). I have no doubt you're going to rock this manuscript, too! Go, Maggie, go!

  3. I couldn't manage without my critique group. They are my first readers and where I really begin with the rewrite. I no longer worry about where the murder occurs as long as there is plenty of suspense and character development.

    You'll do great, Maggie, no doubt about it.

  4. First thought: Heh heh. So much relatable truth. From your husband being happy to like to, having partners who tell you the truth... so hilarious.

    Second thought: Ah crap. I just turned an MS into my agent and I didn't kill anybody for half a book. Panic mode engaged.

  5. I'm going to have to differ from the majority and say I don't have any beta-readers. Oh, once in a while I'll hand someone a few pages and ask "please read this and tell me what it says, i.e., what it is I wrote". That's when I want to be sure that I'm being understood, saying what I tried to say. But, that's pretty much it.

    That said, much of my work does feature a sort of revolving-reader-and-notes pattern: I write some bit, the producer/editor reads it and sends back notes, I re-write it, etc. So, I guess a beta-reader in my case is also the alpha-reader just at earlier stages of the job.

    I can't explain how or why, but I always feel I KNOW what's right and wrong with my writing and I almost NEVER care to run it by anyone in advance. Maybe it's smug or arrogant, but I don't care what someone's "preview" review is, I've got no use for that.

    Again, though, the writing I do right now is not much like a novelist's work. That process and form may have lots more benefit from beta-readers.