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Vision vs What Appears on the Page

TL;DR: Confident in a story I intended to submit to a prestigious market, I sent it out to beta readers for a final glance-over. One reader ever so politely informed me that it was a steaming pile of crap, and they were totally right. Lesson: your vision often disagrees with what you actually wrote, sometimes to disastrous extent. (And thank the timeless void for beta readers.)

Last year, I worked on a horror short story on-and-off for about four months. In that time, I put in perhaps a week’s equivalent of writing time. I sent it out to an anthology around November and recently received a rejection.

No problem, I thought. Rare is the story that sells the first time. I put it aside and decided to come back to it when I had a break in my schedule.

Only a few weeks later, a call came for submissions from a prestigious market. A great fit for the story. I eagerly fished the story from my files, dusted it off and gave it a glance over, and decided that it was much better than I remembered. It was actually quite good. Always a nice surprise for a writer looking back over their own work.

I asked two people to read it first, just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything silly. One of them enjoyed it and offered minor structural tweaks and suggestions to strengthen the characterisation.

I incorporated the changes and waited for the second reader’s feedback. My finger hovered over the submit button; I expected minor suggestions, if any. The feedback came: the most polite but complete trashing I’ve yet received. I was blindsided, first by simple surprise, then by the realisation that they were absolutely right.

The story didn’t work at all. It was flawed in multiple aspects that required a complete overhaul.

And I’d been so sure that it was good, that it was ready. Without that person’s input to shock me out of my anchored perspective, I would have flung the story into the slush pile with no hope of a sale.

It was a lesson in humility: I may have written a number of novels, but I am still learning the short story form. It was also a lesson in the resilience of a warped perspective; I knew all of the things my second reader pointed out — why hadn’t I noticed and fixed them long before the beta-reading stage?

Because I had been blinded by the original inspiration for the story. The vision had occluded the words that had actually made it onto the page. This usually happens to some degree with every story, especially with line-edits: you don’t see the missing ‘the’ because you meant to write it and reading over the story yet again only stimulates your memory of what you intended the story to be. My the craziness of my schedule no doubt contributed to my seeing-but-not-seeing.

But this episode stands out. No amount of practice makes a person immune to the skewing effect of their perceptions.

Outcome: I’ve overhauled the story, top to bottom. And it’s much stronger. Blessings be to all beta readers.

Published inBlogWriting