Marching Toward My Goal

image credit: Microsoft clip art

image credit: Microsoft clip art

So following on last week’s post about my New Year’s goal, I’ve made a few purchases to further my writing education and to help tighten the WIPs.

image credit: Microsoft clip art

image credit: Microsoft clip art

As a research project for this pantser, I bought Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. This has been recommended by a number of bloggers, so I thought I’d give it a read. Engineering? You can’t get any more structured than this, right? What does this pantser think so far? I’ll let you know when I finish reading it. I’m only in Chapter 6. I can say, though, that Brooks subscribes to the philosophy of “First, tell people what you’re going to tell them. Second, tell them what you’re telling them. Third, tell them what you told them.”

For tightening the drafts, I downloaded The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Fellow bloggers have also recommended this book. This one is to help me do a better job of “showing” rather than “telling.” Maybe the next edition could add “exhaustion” as a category. That was the first thing I wanted to check out, and it isn’t in the thesaurus. But I’m nitpicking. The authors do a good job of offering body language and internal thought processes for a wide variety of emotions.

Finally, for polishing the final drafts, I picked up The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This is, of course, a classic. It goes well with my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style.

On Vloffing

Reading your annual stats has been a real eye-opener. I couldn’t believe I was a Top Five commenter on so many blogs. That reinforced my concerns about how much time I spend blogging. This year, I have to be more structured (engineered?) with my time. Even if I don’t leave fewer comments, they must get shorter!

But Wait—There’s More!

The amazing Kourtney Heintz nominated me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. This is a new one for me, so I’ll play by the rules, to a point. 😉

The rules:

1. Provide a link and thank the blogger who nominated you for this award.
2. Answer 10 questions.
3. Nominate 10-12 blogs that you find a joy to read.
4. Provide links to these nominated blogs and kindly let the recipients know that they have been nominated.
5. Include the award logo within your blog post.

The Questions (which are apparently identical to the Sunshine award):

1. Your favorite color – blue
2. Your favorite animal – horse
3. Your favorite non-alcoholic drink – water
4. Facebook or Twitter – Facebook
5. Your favorite pattern – subtle geometric
6. Do you prefer getting or giving presents? – giving
7. Your favorite number? – 28
8. Your favorite day of the week? – Saturday
9. Your favorite flower? – Native ones growing in their native habitat
10. What is your passion? writing

Remember, no one should feel left out if I don’t name you specifically. Of course, doesn’t the very name of this suggest that male bloggers are excluded? I’m going with 5 nominees who, as always, are free to accept or decline as they wish.

Small House Big Garden

Laura Stanfill

A Rich, Full Life in Spite of It

Brigitte’s Banter

Vanessa-Jane Chapman

Whew, this post is longer than originally intended! So I’ll just wrap it up here and wish you all a happy weekend.

UPDATE: What the heck has WordPress done? My marching graphic sometimes looks right and others, not. I tried inserting a different .png graphic and it did the same thing. These New Year changes aren’t for the better, folks!

Either I’m Getting Stronger Or The Molasses Is Getting Thinner

Even the President of the United States has to put up with unsightly public work near his home. There’s no particular reason for this photo with this post. But the juxtaposition struck me when we were there last Saturday. Well, not at the White House, but in DC.

With a title like that, you might think I’ve lost my marbles. Wait, that might be the subject of another post. Let’s try again.

Maybe you’ve seen my recent comments about revisions feeling like I’m slogging through a sea of molasses. For those of you unfamiliar with the substance, it’s a thick, brown, gooey syrup made from the by-products of sugar-making. I’m not particularly fond of it. Continue reading

Doing The Story Justice

Some time ago, I realized writers spend more time editing and revising than we do laying out the initial story. That’s no surprise to those of you who have been at this a few years. If you’re just starting out, well, now you know.

Finishing the first draft is an incredible feeling. Wow. I wrote a novel. Woo hoo! Happy dances and high fives all around.

I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble who hasn’t gotten there yet. By all means, celebrate when you do. But now’s when the real work begins.

The REAL work starts now?

That’s right. You’re nowhere near ready to publish. Hey, if you’re Stephen King or another good writer and have somehow stumbled onto this post, one round of rewrites after you get your beta reader comments may be all you need. But most readers, like me, haven’t reached that level yet. We need multiple drafts, multiple reviews, and multiple rewrites.

For me, part of the repeated revision process is the desire to create a well-written book. I don’t want to be embarrassed by critical reviews pointing out all kinds of weaknesses—poorly developed characters, lame plot with multiple holes, passive voice, inconsistent POV, and so on.

But more importantly, I want to do the stories justice. I think the major plot ideas behind both my major WIPs are good ones. The Muse gave me wonderful stories to write about. I know they could be awesome books. In my mind, the main characters are interesting and approachable. I think readers could relate to them. But I have to bring that out in my writing.

Frankly, anyone can have a great idea for a novel. And most people, if they put their minds to it, could write one. But that doesn’t mean the book would be good. Many would-be writers couldn’t handle the work involved in getting the story right. That’s one reason everyone doesn’t write novels.

Can I do it? After several rounds of revisions, will I have a novel that is entertaining and well-written? I refuse to fall into the trap of revising forever and never publishing my books. That’s pointless. But when I decide to publish, will I have done the stories justice? Will I reach the point where I can honestly and accurately answer that question with a yes? I’ll only know the answer when the books are out there and I see if an audience develops. It’s a daunting thought.

How about you, fellow writers? What drives your editing and revision and keeps you sticking with your stories?

Recent Awards

This last week I was graced with three blog awards: Kreativ Blogger, Thanks for Blogging, and Ask Me Anything, by Kate Policani, Wally Tomosky, and KindredSpirit23, respectively. My modest nature is putting up some resistance in accepting these. It doesn’t think every second or third post should be an award acceptance—even though the “Ask Me Anything” award is newly created by KindredSpirit23 and I was one of the first “awardees.” That is an amazing compliment that my mind cannot fully comprehend.

I want to thank the three bloggers who nominated me, and I do graciously accept. But I need some time before I can do another award post. I want to provide some “serious” content for a while. Okay, as serious as I can be. I’m not going to turn the blog into an instructional series on writing or archaeology. But I don’t want my blog getting arrogant, as Sweet Mother would say.

“SMAP”

American Airlines seems to be making a lot of comments these days, be it mail, letters, or scam. Maybe they’ll sue the “smappers” for libel?

And “the mob” may be getting into the “smap” business. “Numbers Wolansky” wanted to comment on my “When the Going Gets Tough” post. Maybe he thought it referred to old-time gangsters?

When The Going Gets Tough

Hey—get back here!

Where do my characters go? You can see one of them running away from me at right. I think it’s Jack Trainer. Madeleine O’Brien might have gotten out the door ahead of him.

As many of you know, I’m in the midst of rewrites and revisions to my novel Death Out of Time based on my beta reader comments. And some of the characters are being less than helpful. That makes the work harder than it should be.

I honestly think rewrites and revisions are harder than writing the initial story. Think about it. That first draft shapes the story in a writer’s mind (at least it does in mine). But when readers consistently point out problems such as too many characters or too complex a plot, a good writer recognizes there is a real problem. Changes must be made.

At this stage, I don’t think it matters if you’re an outliner or a pantser. You’ve got to figure out what to cut, what to revise, what to add, how will that affect other parts of the story … you get the picture. And that’s never easy.

Part of my problem is in the tunnel that I envision between my world and that of my characters. When we first finished building it, the tunnel was wide and clean. Ideas flowed smoothly between us. But as we worked on the early drafts, we ignored the garbage piling up on the tunnel floor. What garbage, you ask? Oh, things like discarded dialogue tags, cut characters, and pooh-poohed plot twists.

This is not Jack Trainer. It might be David Monroe.

As I look at the tunnel floor after two drafts, I see a ton of garbage. And it’s hard to maneuver around it. The floor needs a good cleaning. But am I getting help with that? HA! Who ever wants to help with housework?

No, most of my characters are on vacation somewhere. Maybe sitting on a tropical beach in the South Pacific. Or hiking in the Rockies. Or maybe they’re just hiding out in their homes with the blinds drawn, hoping I’ll go away and finish the work on my own.

To be fair, a few folks are helping. I’ve got some lovely imported Spanish wine set aside for David, Valerie, and Ortzin. Hmm, that last character’s name might have you wondering…. Remember, this book centers on time travel. That’s all I’m saying about him. 🙂

I’m ready for the Muse to step in. She has the power to find the truant characters, round them up, and make them pull their share of the load on the revisions. But I have this sneaking suspicion she’s drinking mojitos with the gang on the tropical beach.

The reality is this. I have to find them, round them up, and make them work with me. And to do that, I have to pull my writing brain together. Revisions are hard. Part of me has a hard time settling down to do it. And that part has gotten too much of the upper hand.

So if my comments on your posts are getting shorter, or I sometimes only leave a “like” when I used to comment, it’s because I have to spend more time with the books. My novels are the reason for the blog. I hope you’ll understand.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I just got a tip that Madeleine was spotted at a nearby shopping mall….

You’re coming with me, O’Brien.

PS. On a fun note, I typed the opening scenes of my WIPs into the “I Write Like” web site. I stole borrowed the idea from Kathlis’s recent post. You get a comparison to famous writers based on your word choices and frequencies. It was fun. According to the site, my opening scene for Death Out of Time is reminiscent of Jack London. Hmm. That’s not bad company.

As a lark, I entered the opening scene for each alternate universe of Summer at the Crossroads. While these all deal with the “same” woman as a main character, her life is different in each universe. And, apparently, so is my writing of them. I got the following results:

Catherine Donnelly = Ernest Hemingway. Trust me. I do NOT write like Hemingway.

Katharine Donnelly = Raymond Chandler. Um, I really don’t think so.

Kathryn Donnellan = Dan Brown. Wow. Mega sales, here I come! LOL

Katarina O’Donnell = Anne Rice. Hmm. More mega sales! I’m not holding my breath. 🙂

Beta Reading—Part 4

This is the final post in a four-part series on beta reading. If you missed the earlier entries, you can catch up with these links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So the beta reader has sent you his comments. Your ego has recovered from the blow, and you’ve realized the reader made some excellent points. Your story will be better if you incorporate his suggestions. Ideas are coming to you about how to revise the characters and plot. (If you’re lucky, your characters will help you with the revisions.)

Is it time to start the rewrites and move on with your life? Sort of. In a good beta reading partnership, the relationship doesn’t end when the comments are sent in.

Now is a good time to talk with (or email) your beta reader. Let him know how helpful his suggestions and comments are. Tell him your ideas for the revisions. Ideally, the relationship continues and you can exchange further drafts, future works, and bounce ideas off each other. In the best-case scenario, you both enjoy each other’s writing and look forward to seeing the final version take shape and the birth of your next works.

Don’t abuse the relationship, though. Don’t email your beta reader every day asking him to read your latest revised or new scene. Wait until you have a few chapters or sections done. And then politely ask if you can send them at some point. By now, of course, you know to reciprocate when your beta reader asks for your help.

To wrap up the series, I’ve created a short “do’s and don’ts” list as a quick guide for writers and readers. I’ll create a separate page with links to these posts for easy reference. It should be up soon, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

The Writer’s Guidelines

  • Determine if you need a beta reader. Unless you plan to publish, this may be more critique than you need.
  • Be sure you’re ready. Beta reader comments can be extensive and cause distress.
  • Don’t send a first draft for a beta read. Wait until at least the second draft.
  • Put the manuscript aside for two or three weeks before you send it to the reader. This will help distance you emotionally and help you be objective when comments come back.
  • What do you want from the review? Make these concerns clear to the reader.
  • Set a realistic timeframe for the beta reader.
  • Determine how you will reciprocate with the reader.
  • Be prepared for the feedback. There will be suggestions for improvement. This is what you requested.
  • Remember that respectfully worded suggestions are not personal attacks on you or your work.
  • You might not incorporate all of a beta reader’s suggestions. But make sure you don’t ignore good ones that would improve your work.

The Beta Reader’s Guidelines

  • Make sure you’re ready to beta read. You must be objective and leave your personal opinions out of the review.
  • Understand what the writer seeks from the review. Do you know the genre and completeness of the manuscript? (second draft? fifth?)
  • Read the manuscript at least twice.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments. It is not acceptable to be rude, aggressive, or insensitive. Phrase them as suggestions as much as possible.
  • Be sure to address all the areas the writer noted for you.
  • Begin and end with positive comments about the work.
  • Let your comments sit for a day or two before you send them. Reread them and make sure they are tactful and diplomatic.

And there you have the basics of beta reading. I hope the series has helped you understand the process and see how such a critique should work. It can help you make your work the best it can be. Go into it prepared, and you will come out a better writer with an improved story.

If you have any questions or additional tips, please feel free to ask them or add them in the comments!

I didn’t have time to pull together some additional resources for this post. I’ll try to add them to the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page when I can. Next week, I’ll get away from the educational series and do something different.

Beta Reading—Part 3

Over the last two weeks we’ve covered an introduction to beta reading and what the writer and beta reader need to understand before beginning the work. Today, we get down to the nuts and bolts of what the beta reader should (and shouldn’t) do and how he should present his critique. We’ll also look at what the writer should expect from the review. Instead of beginning with the writer, this post starts with the beta reader.

What the Beta Reader Should Do

Read the manuscript at least twice. On the first read, note general feelings or problems with the manuscript. For example, does the opening scene leave you struggling to figure out who and where the characters are? Are too many characters presented in the first chapter? Did a character suddenly appear with the protagonist at noon while two pages ago she was across the country two hours earlier? Your questions might be answered as you read more. After all, a writer shouldn’t reveal everything in Chapter 1. But if you’re repeatedly taken out of the story by incomplete or confusing descriptions, the writer probably hasn’t provided enough information.

With the second and later reads, focus on the areas the writer asked you to check. If she’s concerned about mixed point of view (POV), read carefully and note where you encounter it. If she’s worried that her characters are flat, see if she’s right. If you think they are, be specific as to why they’re dull. Are they too perfect? Are they risking nothing by their actions? Is the antagonist too evil and gives everything away?

If you notice a problem the writer didn’t ask you to address, do point it out—tactfully and diplomatically. (We’ll come back to tact and diplomacy soon.) Maybe she didn’t ask for help with POV. But you notice she’s not only switching POV within a scene but also within a paragraph. It’s best to stick with one POV per scene, although some writers successfully break this rule. However, if her shifts mean you can’t follow the story, or you don’t think they have the desired effect, let her know. (And changing POV within a paragraph is never good).

Do tell the writer when you think a scene is good or a character resonates with you. The critique will be stressful on her. She needs some positive reinforcement. (You will, too, when someone critiques your manuscript.) Otherwise, the writer can easily think her work is garbage. So, did a character make a joke and you thought it was funny? Say so! Did a scene make you tear up in empathy with the characters? Let the writer know this. Begin and end your comments with some of these positive points.

It’s okay to let the writer know your emotional responses to a character or scene. But don’t confuse this with your personal views on the subject or your personal preferences for writing style or content. You aren’t writing the book—she is. As a writer, I want to know what emotional response the reader had and if it matched my intentions. Did a character’s action leave you angry? Let the writer know. If that’s her desired reaction, she’ll know she got it right. But if she wanted you to feel sorry for him, she needs to think about her word choices—and consider the possibility that you simply misunderstood the scene. That happens.

It’s okay to make a few personal observations, such as your experiences with something in the book. But don’t form your critique around them, and do let the writer know these are “personal asides.”

Be specific with comments so the writer understands what you mean. “This character bores me” doesn’t give her much to go on. Tell her why he bores you. It will help her fix the problems. Something like this is more helpful. “Tom doesn’t seem to have any flaws. He never has a bad thought about anyone, even the man who killed Tom’s father before his eyes and stole his horse. He doesn’t come across as a real person in his situation should.”

If a passage confuses you, explain why. “Tom has helped his friends throughout the first 15 chapters. There was no good reason for them to abandon him when he passed out at the bar after his very first taste of alcohol, and yet they did. Why? If there’s a reason, the reader needs to know it. If there isn’t one, you might want to reconsider the friends’ reactions.”

Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments and recommendations for rewrite/revision. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is an area where we shouldn’t be too direct or “action-oriented” in our word choices. Phrase your comments as suggestions rather than instructions or complaints. Comments like, “you keep dumping too much backstory at the beginning of every chapter” or “stop changing POV in every scene” may be accurate. But they generate intense feelings of negativity and depression in the writer. Take a softer tone. For example, “Readers might skim over the first part of your chapters to get to the action. You might want to rework some of the backstory elements into a character’s internal thoughts or a dialogue exchange and spread them through the story.”

Wait a day or two after writing your comments before you send them to the author. Then reread them. How would you feel if you received the comments phrased as they are? Could they be more tactful? Are they clear? Have you provided enough encouragement and pointed out areas that are working well?

What the Beta Reader SHOULD NOT Do

Never make insensitive or inflammatory comments. Beta reading and critiques should never be personal attacks on the work or the writer. If this happened to you, I’m sorry. But it’s not how things should be done. Personal or mean-spirited attacks are not a rite of passage into the writing world.

Don’t limit your comments to those of the “here’s what needs work” category. Begin and end your comments with things you enjoyed and thought the writer did well. You would need to hear it. So does she.

Don’t take it personally if the writer doesn’t incorporate all of your suggestions. Maybe five other people loved something you hated. She has to make the final call on what works.

What the Writer Should Expect

You should receive both positive and “areas for improvement” comments. Remember, you have asked for an honest critique of your draft. Don’t ask for a beta read if you think your work is perfect as is. There is always room for improvement. Well-phrased and carefully thought out suggestions for improvement are not personal attacks on you or your writing. Your beta reader is trying to help you write the best story you can.

You will feel some “negative” emotions when you read the comments—anger, hurt, depression. That’s normal. That’s why I said make sure you’re ready for this in Part 1. It gets easier as you gain more experience, but it always stings. Go ahead and console yourself with chocolate or a glass of your favorite alcoholic beverage. But remember—you wanted an honest critique, and that’s what you should get.

Put the comments aside for a few days after you’ve read them. Don’t reply to the reader at this point except for a polite “thank you I got your comments, and I’m going through them.” You’ll stew over them. You’ll think the reader missed the point completely. You’ll feel defensive about your writing, your story, and why you told it the way you did. Under no circumstances should you dash off a knee-jerk email to the beta reader or a blog post about the terrible beta reader.

You’ll soon catch yourself thinking about ways to address the beta reader’s points. You’ll realize that there is something to his comments. Now you can look at the manuscript and his comments again. And, with a calmer eye, you’ll see the validity of most of the comments. Most—not all. It’s unlikely that everything he said will apply. Maybe he misread a paragraph and the resulting comment really doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t read your genre, a point that confuses him may be clear to regular readers.

But a good beta reader will make many good points. And you need to think about them. They’ll help you make the story better. And if your goal is publication, whether traditional or independent, your story should be as good as you can make it. That’s the only way to build an audience who will read your future publications.

Finally, don’t expect the beta reader to “fix” the problems for you. He might offer suggestions, but he’s not a ghost writer. You have to do the hard work of rewrites for the next draft. Remember, it’s your book, not his.

Next Time

In the final post we’ll go over what happens after your beta reading experience—because the end of the critique should not be the end of the relationship. I’ll also summarize the main points for the writer and beta reader to remember. If I’m really organized and have the time, I’ll include some links to helpful posts and websites.

If you have any suggestions for those links or points to hit in the final post, please feel free to add them in the comments!

Beta Reading—Part 2

Last Saturday, I introduced the concept of beta reading and initial questions you should consider before diving into it. If you missed that post, you can catch up here. If you think you’re up for the challenge, keep reading!

Today, I want to focus on the importance for both the writer and the beta reader to understand the goals of the work. If you are exchanging manuscripts and will beta read each other’s works, you need to understand both sides of the process. Continue reading