Composing a Writer #9. Beta Readers, Secrets, and Dead Darlings

Most families have an odd relative. It’s an uncle with hairy ears who drinks too much on holidays or a cousin who converted to a strange religion. We are a species of odd ducks and eventually we quack it out.
Do I sound dismissive? It isn’t that I don’t have empathy for awkward turkey dinners. Problems are relative. My family kept a filthy secret that some of us barely survived.
[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]
I was almost half-done with the manuscript for Stable Relation when I shared it with my first beta reader. He was complimentary. The first chapter was good, he said, but the biggest thing was missing. He was an old friend; he knew the family secret and without revealing it, he thought nothing else made sense.
I fumed about it. I was having a good time writing funny stories about moving to the country but he was right. It was as if there was a decomposing skeleton in the room and I was arranging flowers to brighten the place up. I started over, dreading the truth that needed telling and not at all confident that I could find the words, even all those years later.
I had to work up to telling the secret, so I laid a trail of breadcrumbs, intermingling painful scenes from my childhood farm and setting the stage, while practicing writing about the emotions that changed my life’s course. When the time came to write about the final incident, my first draft was only two paragraphs long. It took a month to bleed out the other three thousand words. The chapter title came last: The Worst Thing. That chapter took on a blinding importance to editors and beta readers, even if it was hard to talk about. Just like a family secret.
A shout out to beta readers; what a lousy job. A beta reader is someone you hope will be more honest than kind. Someone you know who is seriously knowledgeable about books. Someone who will tell you the truth before the general public gets the chance.
Each time I sent a version of the manuscript to an editor, I sent copies to three beta readers as well. There was a list: A childhood friend who was a life-long reader and professional librarian. A riding client who was younger and a writer herself. A friend I’d written a screenplay with who was now a pro writing in L.A. An ex-boyfriend I’d written about in the book –and so on.
As I spent the next year working with editors, I also weighed the opinions of my beta readers. One thought the book should start with the Worst Thing chapter and another thought it should be somewhere in the middle of the book.
One beta reader told me that that Worst Thing chapter totally ruined the book. It was too sad and too ugly. With an ironic smile, I thought, yes. I’d certainly edit it out of my life if I could but for me and millions of women, we’ve had to find a way to survive the unthinkable in our lives. I didn’t know where to put this odd duck of a chapter but the chapter would stay. Sometimes the awkward thing no one wants to talk about is the most important part to share.
I never wanted children; I wasn’t sure a family like mine should procreate but as I wrote the book, I thought about my niece and nephews. After my parents passed, the worst thing secret was told and they learned the reasons for my strange behavior in hindsight. I hoped they understood. I think that’s often how we get to know people, in present time with flashbacks to the past, so that was how I arranged the book.
When Stable Relation came out I was a wreck, feeling naked to the world, while relying on the mixed opinion of my beta readers. In that first year, I lost count of the number of personal letters women sent me, thanking me for voicing their experience. It was humbling …maybe I wrote the worst thing chapter for all of us.

This Week: Your writing gets more comfortable every day. The words are bright and clean and as comfortable as your own skin. What used to feel like getting dressed up for a court date now feels like beach attire. Writing is brilliant sun and a day off, all at once.
Your assignment this week is to write something dark or hurtful or embarrassing. Tell a secret or confess to a crime. Be a witness to heartbreaking destruction. Write about it with dispassionate clarity. Use the best words (think tired, write exhausted) and physical descriptions of locations that evoke a feeling. Show the reader what it was like. Be scary like a campfire ghost story. Think about pacing and suspense. Kill your darlings. Remember that whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing is still an art. Then share your feelings about writing what’s hard to write on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Most of all, keep on writing.

Last Sunday, I had to stop for groceries on my way home from teaching in the wind for hours. It was the time of day that my post-surgery foot swells to a size larger than its boot. As I shuffled through the produce department, I heard a voice first. It was a woman leaning against the lettuce shelves, telling a story.
As I stepped closer to get some spinach, it sounded like she was doing stand-up comedy but I couldn’t tell who she was talking to. A little boy stood by her side and a man was buzzing around like a hornet, doing a hissing scream-whisper at a little girl backed up against the apple counter.
I swallowed hard and hesitated. She was thin and pale, maybe four-years-old with her little shoulders flinched up around her ears. The man bent low to get in her face and rage-whispered even deeper. I heard her tiny voice barely squeak her answer, “I didn’t have to then…”
The woman glanced to the side, still talking, as the man lifted the little girl by her upper arms and slammed her against his chest as he stalked away.
My jaw tensed as I shot a look at the woman, holding hard eye contact for long seconds. Then I walked toward the checkout, meeting my husband on the way, and keeping my gaze down. I told him that I’d just seen a little girl get grabbed but the voice that came out of my mouth sounded just as tiny as hers.
Writing is just like life; a struggle to find your footing between the darkness and the light.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

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Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Composing a Writer #9. Beta Readers, Secrets, and Dead Darlings”

  1. Just have to tell you how much your books and blogs mean to me!! Since I have discovered your work, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t read and re-read something you have written. I look forward to every new Relaxed and Forward blog, photo challenge and Composing a Writer post. I am extremely grateful to have found you. Thank you, Anna!

    • Oh, Barbara, can you possibly imagine what a comment like this means to me? Thanks so much for reading along.

  2. Pingback: Ninth assignment: BETA READERS, SECRETS, and DEAD DARLINGS. – conversations with bunny

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