To write is to be alone, in your head, forever and ever, until the end of time, and there is nothing you can do about it. That’s what nearly every memoir of the craft says, and from what I’m experiencing, I agree. Like many young a thing that uses the Internet to connect to others, I too have heard of the critique partner, the beta reader, the Team You of wordsmanship. Unfortunately, what nobody tells you is that having one is a lucky occurrence, not a given.
I started writing when I was 10 years old. My audience were my mother and my grandparents, and my cousin, who I strong-armed into writing a story with me. I had no idea that beta readers were a thing, let alone that I would be looking for one so desperately years later. (In my defense, I was 10. I thought growing up would take forever.)
When I joined online message boards, when I set out to turning my occasional scribbles into something I would be proud to show a professional, I did find a group of people to swap manuscripts with. In those halcyon days, words flowed freely and ideas did too, the forums were respectful and creative, and we thought it would last until the end of time.
It did not. The group dissipated, and, try as I might, I could not find the “right fit” for myself afterward. I spent a lot of time, nursing bitter disappointment and wondering why the world conspired against me. Then I realized what a privileged brat I was being, and called a ceasefire.
The novel I’m editing now was first written in 2011. We are well into 2015 now. In the interim, I moved 5 or 6 times, went to a whole different country, worked, finished a Bachelor’s, got a Master’s, started a PhD, broke my own heart, and dealt with a lotta personal problems that have no place being written about here. All throughout, I wrote, in bits and bursts, pulling fragments out of the ground and occasionally arranging them into a coherent picture. The day when I finished a whole re-write, and whole draft, was the happiest I’d been in a long time, but it would not be for another year that I went back to the story again, and knuckled down on the revisions.
Do you know what also happened to my groups, my connections, all these people I was friends with and who were as excited as I was about the story? They went on to do their own thing, of course. Just like I did. Life doesn’t stop for a story, even though it feels that way sometimes.
Is it hard to write without a beta/critique partner? Oh, yes. It was especially hard for me, because I had grown used to having people to turn to at any moment, be it to complain (all too often) when something didn’t go well, or to share the (precious few) moments of triumph. Sometimes, I thought I would never make it. (It’s a surprisingly hard habit to break, even now.)
But it isn’t impossible. Having beta/critique partner is like living with someone – they’re good company, and you may think it’s too quiet without them sometimes, but at the end of the day, they’re not the ones doing the work.
So I crank up Joni Mitchell, turn on Freedom, and go back to the manuscript.
After all, at the end of the day, this is the best thing you can do.