The importance of Beta Readers

Most of us writers probably have a similar response to finishing a story.  We gaze at our manuscript with starry eyes and proclaim it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, conveniently forgetting how we said the same thing after the last finished manuscript.  To be fair, it probably is at least a little better, but from how we (I) feel you’d think we skipped fifty developmental steps and just wrote the GREATEST AMERICAN NOVEL EVER.

I did this after finishing The Apocalypse Gazette.  Greatest.  American.  Novel.  Ever.

It’s not, I know, but it feels like it is.

Then come those pesky Beta Readers, poking holes in our ego.

It’s not pleasant but it’s important.

One of my favorite things about The Apocalypse Gazette is that it’s vague about what’s real in the story and what’s just in the main character’s head.  He’s losing his marbles and I like the fact that it’s not obvious how much of the story is actually happening vs. what he thinks is happening.  To me, that opens up this whole playful world that takes ‘post-apocalyptic’ into ‘anything goes’.

I passed the story on to a trusted friend for her opinions.  She’s read most of my stuff and is quick to point out any issues she has.

The first thing she said?  “I don’t understand what’s going on with Wally when XYZ happens…”

My ego wanted to jump in and say “That’s the point, isn’t it clever?”

But that wasn’t how it worked for her, she found the vagueness distracting and confusing.

As much as it pained me to admit, if she found it distracting and confusing, a large percentage of the readers would too.  And that’s not what I want.

So, back to the writing board to rework all those sections, trying to balance the parts I like with just enough clarity that I don’t lose the audience.  Sigh.  But that’s why Beta Readers are so important, the good ones will point out the good and the bad, hopefully leading to a better book.

First person, present tense

Today I spent a couple hours going through pages on Ellen Brock’s blog, Workshop pages.  Writers each submitted a piece for critiques, separated by genre.  Originally, I planned on just peeking at one or two but quickly got sucked into the whole thing.  I ended up reading all of them and commenting on most with (hopefully) helpful feedback.

If you have some time I would highly encourage you to go check out the submissions.  It’s always fun to see what other people are doing and getting feedback is one of the most important steps for writers.  There’s some good stuff over there.

A couple of the pieces got me thinking about a subject that’s been rolling around in my head for a while.  Recently, I’ve seen a lot of writing done in the first person POV using present tense.

Here’s some examples for those that aren’t familiar with the terms:

First person, present tense: I walk into the bar and look around.

First person, past tense: I walked into the bar and looked around.

Third person, past tense: He walked into the bar and looked around.

There are plenty of other options but those three are the most common I see so I’m going to stick with those for this post.

Each option has it’s pros and cons.  I’ve seen it argued that first person, present tense (FPPT for simplicity) is more immediate and gripping than the others.  And in some cases it probably is.  The Hunger Games is a good example, I really enjoyed those books.

However, in my opinion, FPPT seems to have more risk than other variations.  It’s easy to use it poorly, if that makes sense.  And when it isn’t done really well it can be choppy and awkward, like a character narrating their own life.  Who does that?

‘I walk into a bar and look around.  I don’t see anyone I recognize.  There’s a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  I find a seat at the counter and motion to the bar tender.’

It’s almost robotic at times.

I mean, it’s okay, but does it work as well as other options?  Most recent FPPT stories I’ve read might have been better as third person, past tense.  Being inside a character’s head can give you a really in depth perspective but it can also be really limiting.  To describe people, scenes, and details well enough to move the story, and keeping that authentic voice, is not as easy as it seems.  Whereas, taking a step back, third person, past tense gives the writer more wiggle room, with the con of being further removed from the specific character.

‘Eric walked into the bar and looked around.  The big red-head didn’t see anyone he recognized.  There was a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  He found a seat at the counter and motioned to the bar tender.’

Again, this is all personal opinion, but I’m a big fan of third person, past tense.  To me, it’s more ‘invisible’ to the reader and flows better.  I’m sure other people think the opposite, otherwise I wouldn’t be seeing it so often.  And maybe for some projects one makes more sense than the other, but either way it’s something that should be a conscious decision by the writer on a piece to piece basis.

What’s in a genre?

I’ve been doing a lot of rewrites and adding sections to The Apocalypse Gazette.  While it was first started as kind of a silly, fluff story it’s quickly become one of my favorites.  It’s still silly but it’s also got a fun voice and personality.

However, there are a couple problems that have been bugging me about what to do with it.  I mean, it would be a really fun project to self publish, and that’s the goal, but there are some… logistical issues that are tripping me up the more I think about it.

First, there isn’t really a plot.  It’s basically a story about a guy all by himself in a town after the apocalypse going crazy.  He has a few minor problems that he has to figure out, the biggest being boredom, but there’s no bad guys, there’s no epic adventure.  I mean, it’s all playing off the fact that he’s losing it, a lot of the things that happen aren’t easily distinguishable between reality and his fantasies.  Personally, I’m fine with all that because it’s still a really fun story, I don’t feel like anything is missing, but how does one sell a story about a guy slowly going crazy and everything getting weirder and weirder?

Second, and this is arguably the bigger issue, what genre does The Apocalypse Gazette fall into?  Ok, fiction, obviously, but beyond that I’m not too sure.  Humor is probably the closest fit but at the same time that’s a broad category.  It’s not romance, fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, inspirational, or thriller.  It’s… dystopian… apocalyptic… humor?

Well, I suppose if Dystopian-Apocalyptic-Humor is a category on any of the main sites at least my story wouldn’t have much competition.

And, at least I have some time before I have to sort all that out, there’s still plenty of work to be done before I get to publishing.

If any of you have suggestions I would really like to hear them.

Camp NaNo Win!

Wow, April just flew by but somehow I managed to eke out over 51 thousand words and complete Geeks, Greens, and Guns…

Camp-Winner-2015-Web-BannerIt’s not one of my favorite stories but I stuck it out and I posted it to Wattpad as it was written.  That might be a headache when I start editing but it was amusing.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get much feedback during the whole process.  I’d been hoping to get more interaction going on, oh well.  It was a fun experiment and I think that’s the way I’m going to keep doing NaNo in the future.  I like the idea of all writing together but also being able to check out what other people are doing.

If you’re interested in checking out Geeks, Greens, and Guns… on Wattpad, it’s available here.  Yes, I made the cover, and finished the story, I’m quite pleased with myself.

So, what’s on the agenda now?  Actually, I’m going to be pretty busy this month.  I got the name of a good editor and I’m going to be passing her a couple of my stories.  She’s local, which was important to me because I didn’t like the idea of sending money and my work to someone I’ve never met.  A couple of the projects I finished in the last six months are in good shape (I think) and shouldn’t require too much to make them publication-ready.  I think, we’ll see what she has to say.

One of the first stories that will be getting the editor treatment is one of my favorites, I’m really excited to see how it goes.

An Observation

It’s been about a year since I started writing seriously.  I’ve ‘finished’ five big first drafts in that time but have hesitated to publish anything.  One of the reason is that I haven’t had the time or money to put into getting good edits done but the biggest reason is that every draft is a learning experience.  Writing so much, then reading and revising, has taught me so much about the craft.  Every time I look back at one of my early drafts I realize how far I’ve come.  As I want my first published work to be the highest quality I’ve been focused on learning rather than publishing.

An excellent example is my Camp NaNo project.  I hesitate to call it a ‘throw away’ novel but it didn’t have a lot of promise going into it.  Whenever I get involved with NaNo I pick out one of my ideas that light, easy to write, and doesn’t have a lot of depth.  The idea being that it should be easier to keep up the high word count daily.  If it sucks, no big deal, it’s just for fun (I’m even posting it on Wattpad as it gets written).  However, even with the not-so-serious premise and some edits I know I need to make, I can still see how far I’ve come in the last year.  Even writing something I’m not that invested in, the quality of the writing has improved dramatically.

While I still consider myself a student of the craft, it’s awesome to see the difference.

If you’re curious, it’s available on Wattpad (and getting closer to completion every day).  Feel free to leave comments or critiques, I’m always looking for feedback.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/35668423-geeks-greens-and-guns

A Fun Little Experience

Some of you might remember I participated in NaNoWriMo last November.  Within the month I finished a first draft of Summerton Blues.  Some of you might also remember that as soon as it was done I put it away and started my next project.  That was advice put out by Stephen King’s that has been really valuable.  When you come back to it later it’s easier to spot the issues.

Well, in my excitement over Camp NaNo next month I decided to read Summerton Blues.  I haven’t looked at it in almost six months and figured it would probably be awful.  During NaNo I never did any revisions and I hadn’t touched it since.

cover draft 2s

What I read surprised me greatly.  I got caught up in the story and finished it in a single sitting.  At the end I got tingles.  It was actually pretty good.

Does it need work?  Definitely.  Does it need a good editor?  Definitely.  But I kind of surprised myself, it’s a solid story.  With some effort I think it’ll be a good novel.

What a great way to get pumped up for Camp NaNo.

 

 

Bad words in fiction

On a recent bout with WriteClubFightClub a comment was left about how a good story doesn’t need profanity.  My story used two swear words, the s-word (once) and the f-word (twice), probably the reason why someone chose “neither” instead of voting for a story.

I was really tempted to write a response justifying my language but I decided that would be a bad idea.  Everyone has an opinion and that reader was simply mentioning theirs.  I don’t necessarily agree but that’s just my opinion.

I could probably find a list of the classic novels that include some form of profanity but honestly that wouldn’t change anyone’s mind or even necessarily make my point.  To me, swear words are just words, which means there’s a use for them just like any other word.  Also, just like any other word, they can be overused or misused.  I either use them or avoid them depending on the type of writing I’m doing and the potential audience.

In my story, Closing Time, the main character is a nurse who is at the end of a long, arduous, 16-hour day.  I wanted her to come across as worn, annoyed, exhausted, even petty at times.  She’d been in the trenches, probably been covered in blood and other bodily fluids all day, dealing with “emergencies” around every corner, at the end of her proverbial rope when she’s given just one more little job.  To me, the occasional swear word was appropriate for her.  I could have easily left those three swear words out but I thought they were more authentic than softer alternatives and I liked that edge they gave her voice.  They weren’t used that often either, there were three swear words in five pages of text, just enough to add a little spice without being overwhelming.

But, of course, that’s a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to theirs.

So, speaking of opinions, I would love to get some more on swear words, or specifically on the word choice for Closing Time.  Were the “bad” words overused, misused, do they distract from the story?  Were they acceptable but it could have been better without them?  Good, bad, something in between?  I would really appreciate honest feedback.  Follow the links, let me know what you think, good or bad.

Interesting conversation with my Mom

I haven’t been good at posting over the last two months, as I’m sure happens with everyone life tends to get in the way, especially over the holidays.  Hiccups and roller coasters, it’s life.

Anyway, this morning I got a text from my mother.  It was a picture of her kindle, blown up far enough that I could read the text.

At first I was confused, what was she showing me?  I read the page and was amazed at how poor the writing was.  It was grammatically correct but stylistically a mess.

“He walked to the table.  He picked up the items, a book and two bowls.  He placed them on the counter.  He picked up a rag and wiped off the table top.  He took a yard of butcher paper off the role in the corner and gently placed it on the table.”

At first I thought the author was using this style deliberately but it just kept going.  Almost every sentence on the page started with “He”, it was really difficult to read more than a paragraph.

Then my mom sent a second text.  She explained that this was a book that a friend of hers had just put out and she suspected it was “self published”.  She’d wanted to support him, paid four dollars for her copy and wasn’t very happy with the quality.  I couldn’t blame her.  I’m certainly not an expert writer, or without my own issues, but I felt like I could have done a better editing job than whoever he hired, if he hired anyone.

Now, I could go on about how these kinds of books tend to give self published authors a bad name but we’ve all heard that before and, honestly, whether his book sells doesn’t really matter to me.  He wrote it, he was happy with it, and he published it.  Good for him.

What I can take away from this situation is that I don’t want anything I publish to turn off readers like that.  Is she going to be excited to buy his next book?  I doubt it.  I told my mom that that’s exactly why I’m not rushing to publish anything, I never want someone to pay good money and come away feeling like it wasn’t worth it.

Why I’m not editing my NaNo draft this month

One of the fun things about being in a few writing groups is that you get to hang out with other people doing the same kinds of things you’re doing.  Last month it was NaNo, we were all obsessing over word counts, racing each other, and generally just having a good time.

Now that NaNo is done, most of these writers have turned to finishing their incomplete draft (50K words didn’t quite do it), or they are in the process of editing their complete first draft.  Most of those writers shook their head at me when I told them that my NaNo draft went on the shelf and I had immediately started my next project.

Why am I shelving Summerton Blues for now?  Because Stephen King is my hero.  In his book “On Writing” he suggested that instead of editing a project, start the next one.  When the second project is done, then edit the first.  That process gives us some mental, emotional distance from the first work that lets us get far more critical and spot all the things we missed the first time through.  Following this advice has made a big difference I’ve found in the overall quality of the work.

It’s also the same reason that I write a lot of draft posts, let them sit a while , then go over them before posting.  A bit of time and distance does wonders for spotting problems or things that could be clarified.

Additionally, I’m not in any hurry to publish anything, unlike some NaNo writers (I’ve already seen a few popping up in my reader).  I’d rather let Summerton Blues sit on the shelf for six months, work on a few things in the mean time, spend plenty of time editing it before even considering publication.  There’s no hurry, I’ll take my time until I think it’s ready, the same as I will with anything else I’ve written.

So, I’m already twenty pages or so into my next project.  I could talk about it but then I’d have to kill you.  Kidding.  But really, it’s kind of a surprise project, I don’t want to get into it until I’m closer to done.  Until then, Summerton Blues can wait, it’s not going anywhere.

NaNo Wrap up

With a bit of a last minute dash I managed to “win” NaNo this year.  I was on track up until WCFC Bout #2, which put me behind a couple days.  This long weekend though gave me the opportunity to catch back up and cross the finish line a couple days early.

Surprisingly, my novel actually wrapped up about the same time I crossed the 50K mark, which I thought was going to be at least 60.  There are some things that need to get fleshed out still but overall the story is there on the page, which is fantastic.

Now, I just need to figure out what I’m writing next… or start the editing process.  So, new project it is.  🙂

Congrats to all the other winners out there and for everyone else, keep up the writing and good luck!