“When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended for self-flagellation solely.” – Truman Capote
When I finally finished my novel draft and put it in the hands of my editor and beta readers — after over a year and a half of gnawing self-doubt, procrastination, and despair — I imagined I’d finally find some peace.
A week of sleepless nights followed. I found myself consumed with fresh anxiety. I checked my email obsessively to see if anyone had yet provided feedback. I slapped my own hands to avoid public whining about the difficulty of waiting.
Was I this neurotic this last time? I asked myself. I couldn’t remember. Perhaps my mind had blanked it out because it was all too traumatic. Or boring. Definitely one of those.
Finishing a draft, for me, is like descending into a glorious void. Some writers are very social. (I may have talked about this before, but only because I’m jealous). These writers share excerpts as soon as they’re done writing them. They take to Twitter with hashtags of #amwriting and let everyone know they’re working. Some, apparently, get writing done and hold online conversations at the same time.
I don’t understand these people. When I write, I can barely get it together to mumble about my work to a hole in the ground. (The hole understands me, you see.) The idea of trotting out an excerpt for public judgment makes me itch. I’ve done it once or twice, and always end up staring bug-eyed at my own unpolished paragraphs, trying to find the deadly mistake before some reader does. I imagine being torn apart by ravenous, metaphorical wolves. It’s not an attractive state of affairs.
Most of the time, when I draft, it’s just me and the work. The outside world vanishes. It has to. The lights go out so the theater of the mind can start the show. No audience will be permitted inside after the doors have shut. I might tell people how far along I am (and even that gets tricky if I fall behind where I think I ought to be), but that’s about it.
But then it’s time to emerge from the void and put the work in the hands of others — editors, beta readers, trusted friends. Suddenly the natural isolation of the writing life gives way to an imaginary and uncomfortable spotlight. If you’ve put enough of your soul into a piece of work, you might feel like you’re about to be put on trial.
The beta-reading experience, in particular, is by turns fun and tragic. On one hand (if you’ve chosen your beta readers well), you get the primal rush of seeing what thoughtful, engaged readers loved most about your work. They’ll find weaknesses you didn’t know were there, and explain what repairs would work best for them.
On the other hand, everyone will want something different. Longer, shorter, explain more, explain less, expand this, cut it, feature this character more, kill ‘em. There will be those betas to whom life has happened in the meantime, and they get back to you too late, or never. Or they say so little you wonder if they took anything away from the book at all. I’ve been this reader to other authors in the past, and am deeply ashamed of it — so I am grateful to any beta who gets back to me. Mild or even indifferent feedback carries a lot more value than it may first appear.
So why the pain and anxiety and sleepless nights? Simple, really: this is a moment of transformation, the first real stop on the road from unfinished idea to marketable product. This is where all the painful compromises and uncomfortable realizations begin to happen. This is where the things I thought were so important turn out to be disposable, and a moment I dashed off without thinking about it might become the key to the final work. I could belabor this further, but it’s already been done better than I could possibly do it:
As I write this, I’ve gotten a lot of valuable beta feedback on my draft, and one thrilling moment of effervescent praise from my editor, who’s still in the process of reading. My brain still won’t let me fully accept it. The praise is nice, but the writer-brain is eager to take a hammer and chisel to the flaws, even knowing how I’ll hate this book by the end.
Truman Capote once likened finishing a book to taking a beloved child out back and shooting it in the head. Some people really like this kid, and that’s great. But I’ve gotta get them dressed up in their best outfit and prepare them for their moment in the sun.