April 28th, 2012

Readers are certainly pretty damn useful.  No, I’m not talking about YOU lot, silly.  I’m talking about those privileged folks who get to read the book and comment as I’m writing it.  Yes, every writer needs some of those beta readers, as they are charmingly called, with overtones of software not quite ready for market, in order to keep the old ship moving in roughly the right direction, hoping to avoid the writerly scylla and charibdis of over and under-confidence, on the one hand ruined by self-indulgence (wot, me?) on the other, paralysed by self-doubt.  In my case, I have three readers as well as my editor.  Mum, Dad, Brother.  If you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?  Don’t answer that.

When I first started writing I did it in extreme secrecy, scared to lay bare my sensitive innermost ramblings to the world.  But after maybe six months working on the loose collection of drivel that would later become sharpened into the modern masterpiece that is The Blade Itself, I felt the need to consult some kind of outside authority, to get some guidance as to whether what I was doing was utterly worthless or not quite utterly worthless.  My mother worked as an English teacher, an educational publisher, is widely read and possessed of razor-edged critical faculties, particularly where her own children are concerned.  My father was an academic and university administrator, also widely read though in somewhat different areas, perhaps.  My brother is like an older, less handsome version of me, also widely read and with a more than passing familiarity with genre.  I knew they’d tell it to me straight.  And they have, ever since.  I can’t articulate how vital discussing my writing with them has been, especially in those early days before landing a deal.  They helped me work out where I was going right and wrong, both at the micro and macro levels, and in giving me the confidence to continue, as well as just convincing me that there was actually something there worth working on.  Hey, even if I never got published, it was a fun point of conversation within the family.  Mum tended to look at the detail of the way I was writing, Dad tended to look more at the plotting and development, Brother gave a less detailed summing up.  Usually I’d write blocks of four or five chapters, revise them carefully to my own satisfaction, present, discuss, revise.

Over time they’ve had less to say, as I’ve started to get a better grip on the basics and my editor has naturally become the more important influence on what I’m doing, but they still read each part as I finish it and make suggestions and observations.  They tend to be relatively general things these days – I’m worried about where you’re going with this plotline, I thought this sequence was flabby, I thought the pacing was off here, I thought this character wasn’t working that well.  Generally I don’t act immediately on anything they tell me, but make notes and try to bear it in mind going forward and when I come back to revise.  Sometimes I’ll disagree with them.  Sometimes they’ll disagree with each other.  But I’d certainly consider carefully when they did agree with each other.  I think the most important function these days is the simple affirmation that what you’re doing is moving in the right direction, is basically good (whatever definition of good you choose to use).  Confidence can be a pretty plastic thing, and especially at the start of a project I find I’m prone to be very worried about whether what I’m doing is going to turn out right.  A set of reliable readers are invaluable in getting you over that hump…

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on April 28th, 2012.

31 comments so far

  • Chad says:

    I can read between the lines. I won’t make you come right out and ask. Sure, I’ll be a reader for you. I’ll help you get over that hump.

    First comment, does the book have Ninefingers? If not, then go rewrite it.

  • Marniy Jones says:

    Sounds like you have some damn fine readers on your side.
    Cheers to Mom, Pop, and slightly-less-attractive older brother. 🙂

  • Anne Scaffo says:

    I think it is hard to trust someone you care about with your baby. If they reject it- it is so much more difficult. Truth is a tough pill to swallow sometimes. In any event, thanks to your “readers” and you for sharing such great stories. Oh, and I would of course, be happy to lend an eye anytime. . . all you need do is ask ; )

  • Patrick Lundgreen says:

    Very nice mr. Abercrombie
    Call me if you need something.. anything

  • Aidan says:

    Some of your sex scenes are quite graphic. That must be an awkward moment; asking your mother for her review on that section.

  • Hammer says:

    Whatever you did in your polish of “The Heroes” into the masterpiece of entertainment that it was, do it again to the T and you can’t go wrong. Except this time make it to the states for a booksigning tour you were sorely missed in that one.

  • Sketch says:

    Interesting it’s all your close family you’ve chosen as beta readers, I tend to circulate what few snippets I write just among my friends and on interweb. Not even sure my parents have read a lot of my stuff.

    Also, given this close family readership circle, if your parents ever consider adopting an extra child… I don’t eat much, I can live in the shed, please…?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Not really an issue with my Mum on the sex scenes, she was young in the 60s, man. I was slightly worried about what my Grandad would think of Best Served Cold. He was 97 at the time. He didn’t mention it. Though he did observe that everyone swore a lot.

  • David Wagner says:

    Whatever you’re doing is working, and no mistake. I have to admit, part of me really hoped you were going to announce some sort of contest to win a “beta reader” spot on an upcoming title… How awesome (and impractical lol) would that be?

    As usual, I wish you a long, fruitful life full of books. You write ’em, I’ll read ’em.


  • Adam says:

    Ever prank ’em by handing over exerpts from a Dean Koontz novel?

  • Jason T says:

    my friends and family did me the greatest service of all as proof readers… they told me I had awesome ideas but shouldn’t be a writer. So now I contend myself with being the best fiction fan I can be. Love your work !!

  • xan perillan says:

    You could post any bit that´s bothering you here….I´m sure you´ll find all sorts of advice.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Ah, yes, but you have to trust the advisors…

  • Iangr says:

    The fact that your family has an academic/teaching background certainly helps.
    And contrary to popular belief I’d say your family is your biggest critic!
    Well….except for mum.
    I’m sure you have the title of “The most handsome fantasy writer of the century”!

  • Giasone says:

    Good to know there’s a bit of longevity in your family – we can expect decades of stories from the world of the First Law! Of course, it also means you have less excuse for not eventually embarking on a 12-volume mega-saga at some stage…

  • Maethona says:

    It might be off topic but Joe you made to David-Gemmell-Adward-Shortlist. Congrats to this achievment. I know you wanted to post up the link, but probably you are far to busy with beta-readers, draft and the whole machinery that follows: “Yeah, I finshed my book” that didn’t the time yet. So I thougt since the talented beard in fantasy already made his reader aware of the shortlist you might want to step in as well. So here is the link for all those you want to make an informed choice:

  • Jan says:


    well of course he did! There goes the vote *click


    I know this is OT as well, but I wished to ask you if you listen to any music whilst writing or if that would be distracting to you?

  • Joshua says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I am very excited for your next book to come out. I read your first four books while I was in Iraq and absolutely loved them. I read The Heroes recently in Afghanistan, and I just cannot wait until I get to read your next book. Thank you for the great stories, but I would love it if ninefingers returned.

  • A-drain says:

    hmmm me thinks you need another family member who is capable of reading.

    I give you my permission, you may adopt me.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Yeah, I mentioned that already, and am now struggling with whether I can mention it again…

    No, I tend to work in silence. Or as much silence as I can get with three kids.

    I probably have enough kids, though the offer is deeply touching, of course.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks for following through on the Readers.

    Your editor, is he or she deserving of an entry by themselves?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Yes, but I have talked about her input a bit before:

    And, jeez, much earlier than that in 2007…

    Hmmm. I’m becoming aware of the possibility that I say the same thing over and over again on this blog, to a slightly different audience each time…

  • Michael says:

    Thanks. I guess I should catch up with the archives before asking questions, although the slightly different audience thing has to be a positive doesn’t it. I am just grateful that you take the time and trouble to respond in the first place.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Wasn’t at all meant as a rebuke. I was just looking over those old posts and thinking, ‘hmm, I was about to write a post pretty much exactly like this.’ I guess the editing process for one book is not entirely unlike that for another…

  • A-drain says:

    I just realized I have an actual question.

    I really don’t have anyone who wants to read the drivel that I write – so I post it to online workshops.

    What are your thoughts on posting work for review on on-line workshops?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    No thoughts, really, as I’ve never used them myself. I would guess they are going to be highly variable. The thing I’d bear in mind whenever considering any criticism, though, is that in the end it has to be your work, your vision. Consider opinions, but don’t respond slavishly to them.

  • Jeremy says:

    I think you’re actually reaching out for new readers. Happy to help, no problem at all actually. You may send me your draft of Red Country at your convenience, Mr. Abercrombie.

  • Nion says:

    The usual advise I hear or read or get is not to take family members as beta readers.
    Anyway, I envy you for your family. My mom would not read the damn manuscript for six month now, and I start to wonder why I gave it to he at all.
    It is quite hard to find someone whom to trust, whose judgement you’ll take serious. I found my beta reader last year (she is not at all related to me) and I think it’s one of the best things that have happend to me and my writing.
    She usually points her finger to the scenes and frictins, that I have felt somewhat uncomfortable with, but maybe was to lazy to do something about it. You know these thoughts: Maybe noone would recognize. ^^
    On the other hand, she likes my writing in general, cares about the story and reassures me from time to time, to go on.
    Nothing can be compared to talk, argue, debate about the world, the characters that have been born in your mind – with someone who enjoys getting them known. 🙂
    And after all the talk I really enjoy rewriting – because then I know what and how to improve it.

    I love your post, even if (or if not) it might have some overlaps with former blog posts.

    There is just one question left. Mom – 1, dad – 2, brother – 3. In your books, you usually adress 4 Abercrombies. Who’s the suppressed one?

    Best regard, Nion

  • Brian Turner says:

    This is really interesting, and something I was wondering about in terms of whether you did it, and if so.

    My family would not be great for this, so I’ve been looking for people on the forums who a) read my genre; b) appear to be competent writers; and c) Know more about grammar, voice, and technicalities of writing than I do.

    I haven’t engaged them yet, but I’m sincerely hoping it works out when I get there.

    The main problem I’ve had when getting samples critiqued online is the misunderstandings that can arise from readers outside of the genre. Part of me says “You didn’t understand that bit!” but another part says “Damn, I’m causing confusion!”. Hence the need to find people who tick all the above boxes specifically. 🙂

    If only my mum had gone into publishing instead of nursing and then IT training, and read any kind of fantasy! 😀

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