Remember to look back

Sometimes things just come together for inspiration. Take this tweet from a friend of mine:

Dan’s clearly a skilled maker – he’s also a fiber artist as well as doing woodwork – and he’s got this striking visual example of his progress. We can see how intricate his work gets, even if we’ve never made spindles ourselves. And we can see it at a quick glance.

I’m connecting this back to writing. Of course I’m connecting this back to writing. Because lately I’ve been a lot more involved in communities of writers, which involves things like feedback and support and beta reading.

Beta reader (n.) A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues.

definition from Cali Bird

For authors, beta readers are a sort of reality check. Is the piece doing what you think it’s doing? Is that loveable rapscallion of a character actually loveable? Does that tender scene between your main character and the love interest actually bog the plot down and make readers yawn instead of sigh with heart eyes? Betas help us figure out what’s working, what’s not, and which darlings need to be killed. (Sob!)

Now, not all beta readers are “right.” We’re all coming from our own backgrounds, with our own impressions and preconceived notions and references and all the rest. Just because I interpret something in a specific way doesn’t mean everybody will. That’s why there’s usually more than one beta reader in the process: if all of them say something’s not working, then it’s probably not working. Sorry. But if one says the darling needs to be murdered and the others don’t … author’s choice.

I’ve been writing all my life. I can’t remember not engaging in reading and writing. I do know that I wrote my first original “novel” (okay, it’s more the length of a novella) when I was 15, and that’s a couple decades ago by now. I’ve been writing more than half my life. I’ve had, and even taught, classes on writing. If you have to write a million words before you get to the good ones (who first said that? it’s complicated), I had them all down at quite a young age.

The thing about those first million is that you’re supposed to discard them, because they’re crap. Did I? Well, not all of them. Like Dan, I can look back over my work from bygone years and compare it to what I produce today. (Unlike Dan, I can’t convey this in a short video, since you’d actually have to read my stuff. Also unlike Dan, I don’t feel like sharing some of that past work, thanks.)

But I do have it. In fact, I have a lot of it on my Kindle right now, next to my current WIPs, so I can easily revisit them. It helps to remember where I am in my own journey especially when I’m volunteering to be a beta reader for someone who’s in a different place on theirs.

There’s a lot that goes into being a good beta reader, and I think part of it is the recognition that it’s not just the words on the page that’s a work in progress. I mean, that’s the whole point of sharing a piece with betas: to get feedback, because you know it’s not quite there yet, wherever “there” is. As authors we probably also feel like we’re not quite “there,” either. There’s always something to learn, and we only learn to write by writing. Hence the million words. You don’t have to count every single one, but the writing has to happen. There’s no shortcut there: to be a writer, you have to write. (But that’s also the only step: to be a writer, you have to write.)

I think it’s good for all of us to take a look back at something we’re good at doing (now) to remember when we weren’t. Especially if we’re remembering a time we totally thought we were good, until we revisited it at a later date and … well. It’s good to remember, and to help each other along our journeys the way other people helped us along our own.

It’s good to look back and recognize our progress, too, even if that might feel a bit more selfish. Maybe we want to get better, but there should still be room to measure the distance between where we were before, and where we are now.

3 thoughts on “Remember to look back”

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