Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


It’s done.

My baby, otherwise known as Dragonfly Summer, has left the nest. It’s now in the hands of my editor, otherwise known as my alpha reader.

Lots of people have read my work over the years, and they’ve all been helpful in their own way. For instance, The Boy has a Masters in English, and no one is better at finding typos, misused punctuation, and word repetition. Which is fantastic, because everyone else who offers to read my work usually prefaces the offer with “but I’m not great with punctuation and grammar”. This includes my alpha reader.

My alpha reader has no formal training, unless you count a communications diploma, which didn’t teach us much about full-length fiction. He fully admits that he’s not an editor per se. But none of that matters, because he has a remarkable grasp on story. He also knows what I’m capable of, and is not shy about telling me when I’ve fallen short. He has no qualms about being brutally honest, which is what one needs in an alpha reader.

We’ve been working together for fifteen years, off and on. Dragonfly Summer will be the fourth book he’s edited for me. Our collaboration started in college, when he expressed an interest in reading my suspense novel about a rash of kidnappings in the United States. His first comment perfectly illustrates why I need him:

“Where’s the FBI?” he asked.

Where, indeed. Clearly that book was destined for the landfill, but no worries–I followed it up with a better one.

My alpha reader (AR) has spent countless hours improving my novels. He’s never asked for a thing in return, and his unwavering faith in my ability has carried me through ugly moments of self-doubt, hopelessness, and  rejection. There’s only one problem….

At one point–six years after we began our working relationship–he was also my fiance. Understandably, this has caused some issues with the men I’ve dated since. It’s only natural to want to be everything to your significant other, so the fact that my ex is often the first to provide critical feedback on my work never fails to cause some discord. Even the idea that his opinion is important to me is enough to cause an argument or two.

But I don’t send my work to AR because I used to be in love with him. I send it to him because I know that he can make my book better. Yes, so can other people. I see no reason to reject this invaluable help because I have other help available. To me, that doesn’t make sense.

Besides, being in a romantic relationship actually hurt our working one. When you’ve written a novel, you want the brutal truth. You need honest–even harsh–criticism. But when you’re in a relationship, the last thing you want is a partner who’s always telling you how to improve. Unconditional love is what we strive for, and that means accepting (and rejoicing in) the partner as-is. I’d be hurt if The Boy didn’t want to read my work. It would be devastating if he didn’t like it, or if he didn’t support my dream of being a full-time novelist. But he does, and that’s what I need. I don’t want him to be my number one critic.

My six year relationship with my AR ended amicably, but I feel damn fortunate that he’s still willing to work with me. I’m glad that the fact we weren’t lucky in love doesn’t mean we also had to lose a very successful creative partnership.

How about you, dear readers? Have you ever balanced love with criticism? How did it work for you? Or, alternatively, is your ex still connected with your work/hobby/passion? If so, how do you handle it? Has it ever caused problems in your other relationships?

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  1. Jocé

    Hey Holli, I loved reading today’s post – it says so much about the complexity and mystery of the human condition. (and I laughed out loud at “Where’s the FBI?”)
    Good luck and Godde speed “Dragonfly Summer.” Great picture of the Green Darner 🙂

  2. Story Teller

    Thanks, Jocé. I’m really glad to hear it, because I struggled with whether or not to post it. It’s so personal – even more personal than what I usually write about. Thanks for your good wishes and support.

  3. Lisa S.

    First off, congrats on re-establishing the creative partnership with AR (and a hello when you see him). And kudos also for finding a wonderful, open-minded, supportive partner at home who knows exactly who his baby is crazy about…
    Yes, I have tried to balance love with criticism. My hubby and I play in the same band. Most of the time, I appreciate his criticism as it’s usually honest and helps makes our songs better. Other times, it rips apart my soul when he offers the more brutal, stinging type of criticism – even if it is in good faith. Part of me feels like there are enough critics out there – and I just want him to be the one standing by my side, and telling me everything’s alright (while giving me nice warm cuddles).

  4. Story Teller

    Thanks so much for your comment, Lisa. I’m so glad that someone else has been there! Yes, criticism does make us better artists, and yes, we need it. But there will always be plenty of people to say “you suck” and very few to say “to me, you are perfect”.

  5. Kim

    I’ve balanced love and criticism…… but not in the way you mean so I will stop there.

    In the meantime, I will say congratulations! Looking forward to the report on the feedback.


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