Beta Readers: Choose Tough Ones

I just heard back from my first beta reader concerning my newest novel MOSES THE SINGER. She’s ready to answer my questions.

Am I terrified? Of course. She is the first person in the world to read this manuscript after myself. I have five other people working their way through it right now.

Is it killing me that she gave no indication if she like or hated it?  Yes.

Am I glad she didn’t? YES. As much as I hate it, I want beta readers to be tough, critical, fair, and blunt.

Here’s why:

  1. Beta readers are not seeing the final product yet. Why I have done a lot of revision and editing on the manuscript, it hasn’t gone through the final editing process yet. Beta readers are meant to help you get it ready for the final push for the book.
  2. I need unbiased eyes. I wouldn’t send a manuscript to anyone unless I was happy with it, but I have no idea what a reader might think of the story. If it sucks, or if it has a major flaw, I need to know. The writer is sometimes too close to his or her own story to see the warts.
  3. I want to get better. Fawning praise will not help me improve my writing. Serious reflection and tough questions will.

When I choose a beta reader, I choose people who are voracious readers. I choose people who love literature and are well versed on all types of quality writing. When possible, I choose English teachers or people who are writers or aspiring writers themselves. I choose people whom I respect and have shown a passion for literary criticism to one degree or another.

My beta readers are tough, and I want them to be blunt, no matter how much it might hurt my fragile writer’s ego. So here goes, wish me luck, and let’s hope the following criticism will make the end product that much better. The end product means the book in question AND my writing in general.

PS: Just so we’re clear, I am okay for beta readers to tell me how much they liked it, too. Praise has its place. So, feel free.

 

Novel Finished. Barely. What’s next?

Novel Finished. Barely. What’s next?

Sometimes writing takes a backseat to life. How dare it! Cutting into my writing time with family and barbecues and travel and house repairs and … You get the picture. And it’s all good, all the time. But even when I’m in the midst of enjoying some time away from writing, the bug to scratch out a few words and ideas is never far away. After all, I have been hopelessly bitten by the creative parasite which has been replacing my blood with writing ideas for the past ten years.

Even in the midst of a busy time in life, I was still able to finish my novel this summer, which was, at the very least, the baseline goal I was shooting for. My earlier summer-self had hoped to write two novels this summer. Well, I was fortunate to get one done.

Novel #9 – currently titled MOSES THE SINGER. It is set in Penang, Malaysia and involves a group of teen musicians and a homeless illegal immigrant. Of the five main characters in the novel, four are teens aged 16-18, so I will be marketing it as my first ever YA novel. As with all of my novels, I wonder how it is. What will people think? Will it be interesting? Gripping? Moving? Will readers have as much fun reading it as I had writing it? I suppose these are questions every writer grapples with.  The reality is, no matter how long one has been writing, these questions don’t go away, but I can never let them define how I move forward with a story. One has to be committed to the story and push the story from all angles in a relentless pursuit of making it the very best possible.

This is what I’ll be doing the next few months: revising. I will be completing a couple more drafts of the novel before passing it on to some beta readers for the frightening feedback.

This fall, I will also be pushing my plays as much as possible in hopes of finding a theatre which will produce one of them. I do have a short play hitting the stage in Penang this November.

On top of this, I’ll be directing Suessical The Musical for an international school, and I have another show called DUETS which will hit the stage in late October.

It’s going to be crazy busy, but that’s the way I like it. Except for the fact that my writing time will continue to be limited. Keep moving forward. That’s the only thing to be done.

50,000 for the 9th Time

I’ve hit 50,000 words for the 9th time in my life. That means I’ve written 9 novels. Not sure how many people in the world could ever say that, so that’s pretty cool, I guess.

Here’s the proof:

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That was last week, actually. It’s now over 77,000, probably on its way to 80k to finish up the novel. I’m working on the last chapter as I take a break here.

I’ve said this before, but it’s always a big deal to make a long enough, coherent enough story that it qualifies as a novel.  I remember watching the word count of my first novel like a mindful hawk. The words seem to climb so slowly and the story seemed to be culminating too early. I thought it would peak at 30K in depressing novella territory. I didn’t ever think I would reach 50k. Eventually, I did, and the story ended at about 60.

I’ve always been a concise writer, but my stories have grown longer. WHICH HALF DAVID was my longest at about 100k. Well, unless you count my trilogy as one long novel then which clocks in at around 230 thousand.

Of course, word counts mean nothing to story. Great stories come at any and all lengths. But accomplishments should be celebrated.

Now for the hard part: writing draft 2, and 3, and then the editing process.

And then, after that, the hardest part of all: getting people to read it.

This story is about five teenagers in a band in Penang, Malaysia. Into their lives step Mr. Musa Marbun, a poor and crippled 67-year-old who has lived a horribly difficult life. What would a group of teens ever have in common with a person like that? It is precisely what this novel is all about.

Coming in 2020. Please stay tuned.

And don’t forget to try my trilogy:

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Ironing Shirts & Writing Novels. What’s the Difference?

I bought a new shirt. It came in a box cause that’s how shirt’s are made these days, right?

It didn’t fit. I sent it back. Didn’t even need a box cause that’s how shipping is done these days, right?

I ordered another shirt. It fit great. I liked it. But it was cottony and wrinkly and I couldn’t go out into public looking like a wrinkled grape. Cause that’s how people think these days, right?

But I decided that the only way to iron out these difficulties was to, indeed, pull out my iron. So I plugged it in and heated it up. I pressed one side smooth only to realize I creased the underside because, obviously, I don’t know how to iron properly.

But I tried anyways, and one ironed-out crease led to two more creases which needed ironing out. It could have been frustrating if I would have been paying attention. But I keep looking at my shirt and thinking how nice it will be when it’s finished. Being ironed out. Which I certainly didn’t know how to do.

But being me, that never stopped me, the not knowing how to do something, that is.

So I pressed on.

And little by little my shirt started to look smooth. Those darn little collars were a beast. And around the buttons were a pain. And I still couldn’t figure out how to reach all those little shoulder spots without creating a new crease underneath. I mean, why does the fabric flip on top of each other like an unwieldy plot hole?

I worked and I learned and by the end of the my ironing session, I was satisfied with the end product and placed it aside. Not carefully, mind you. No, that would have been the smart move. I placed it aside in a clump until I realized I created new wrinkles. Clumping does that.

I put it back on the board and fixed those, and, with a stroke of luck and genius, I hung it on a door knob. Brilliant. No more wrinkles.

Later that morning, I put on my shirt. It wasn’t perfect. There were still some visible wrinkles, but I thought I looked good, and I was proud of the effort. I could have just thrown it on right out of the box, but I took my time and did it the right way–the best I knew how. Next time, my ironing will be much better, even if my shirt arrives in a box.

As I reflected on my ironing experience, I thought, isn’t this exactly the same as writing a novel?

Yes, yes, it is because there are only two ways to do things in this world: you either learn through experience how to best to iron-out all those unsightly creases in your plot line, or you just throw it on right out of the box and pretend everything you do is automatically amazing.

Writers, plug in your irons.

Penang. It’s official. The setting of my new novel.

I’ve been contemplating using Penang in one of my novels for years. I lived there from 2006-2017, so I got to know the place well. But for some reason, I don’t like to write about places where I currently live. So two years after the fact, my first Malaysian-based novel is happening. It’s a curious little novel for me – an unexpected one for many reasons. Once I finished my trilogy, I had fully expected to write a alternative history novel about the Vietnam War of which I have already written the first chapter. I will get back to it at some point. But, as ideas often do, the muse paid no attention to my intentions and planted in me a seed for a completely different story. A story of music, of teenagers, and an old man. No, don’t worry, nothing like the old man of my trilogy series. (insert chuckle)

Since the story centers around four teens, it is, in a way, my first YA novel, and I’m a little excited about that. Nervous, also. My protagonists have mainly been older adults in most of my stories, so hitting up the teen years is a little challenging. Thankfully, I work in a profession where I deal with teens on a daily basis, so that helps.

It’s natural for me to use exotic settings for my stories because I’ve been fortunate enough to live in many exotic places. So it just comes out from experience. I hope I can do Penang justice. Long way to go on this one, and I will definitely keep you posted. But here’s an overview of the main settings of my novels so far.

  1. Beauty Rising – northern Vietnam & Pennsylvania
  2. The Recluse Storyteller – nondescript USA and several other settings like Vietnam, and time settings like the USA of the 1800s
  3. The Reach of the Banyan Tree – Vietnam  (1945 & 2000)
  4. A Love Story for a Nation – a fictitious nation
  5. Which Half David – the fictitious nation of Sulu in Southeast Asia
  6. 7. 8. The Forgotten Child Trilogy – Manhattan, Scotland, Romania, Cambodia, South Pacific, Rwanda, and nearly out of this world

9. TITLE STILL UNDER WRAPS – PENANG, MALAYSIA

In future posts, I’ll revisit what makes Penang so great! And, by the way, I miss it.

 

Play Feedback: Drive-By

Play Feedback: Drive-By

I regularly submit my plays to theatres and festivals around the world. Some are chosen for production. Most are not. The competition is fierce. I love receiving feedback which is why I always submit to the Pittsburgh New Works Theatre. They have a fantastic process in which two unnamed judges give detailed feedback about all the pieces submitted.

I recently received feedback about my piece entitled “Drive-by” – a poignant short play about about a young teen losing her sister to a drive-by shooting.  Ultimately, the play wasn’t chosen by the festival. Why? I’m not sure since the feedback was great. It was rewarding to hear that my play resonated with the judges. I’ve put their comments below.

Now I just have one question: Who wants to produce my play?

Judge #5 – score  93/100

A very timely topic, gun violence. The plot development is very interesting. The idea that as the action moves forward on finding out who the person was that shot the little girl, everyone around fines what they need except the sister. Although not new thematically, a strong take on the subject. What is most interesting is the staging possibilities. Having the story being told in past tense, flash backs provides a challenging and most interesting staging possibilities. This play needs to be seen. I am sure a staged read was powerful but an all out performance with strong production qualities would/will make this play shine.

Judge #6 –  score  90/100

Wow…this one hits you right in the solar plexus!
Very concise and well written dialogue…I could feel the emotion pouring from all characters. A real challenge for the director and actors, but one that could, ultimately, produce a very nice piece of theatre!  Easily produced because of the simple set (lighting is crucial though).  Good job!

Setting: Real or Fictitious?

Choosing a setting for a novel isn’t always an easy task.  A writer friend advised me once to chose a fictitious setting for one of my novels, and she was absolutely right. In that case. The advantages of choosing a fictitious setting are many. Such as:

  1. The writer can make it look and feel however he or she wants.
  2.  There are no preconceived notions in a made-up setting.
  3.  It encourages the reader to use their imaginations much more to create the landscapes and sights and sounds of the locale.
  4. No one can say you got it wrong! Let’s face it, if you use a real location and aren’t really specific about it, mistakes can be made. Readers don’t like to read something incorrect about their hometown. I know, I’ve heard from one before when I misspelled a city’s name. Oops. Yes, embarrassing!

On the flip side, real setting can:

  1. Ground a story in historical details which might be crucial to the point you are trying to make.
  2. Enables the readers to readily identify with a scene. For example, if you put your story in Manhattan, everyone can easily imagine what it looks like even if they haven’t been there.
  3. Readers can be attracted to storylines which take place in their backyard or their home country.

As you might imagine, there’s no right or wrong answer about picking a setting. You just need to determine if a real location will make the story more effective or not.  My novels about Vietnam – The Reach of the Banyan Tree  & Beauty Rising absolutely depend upon the stories taking place in Vietnam. They are strongly mixed with history and real places and people that putting them in a fictitious setting would completely defeat their purpose and water them down to nothing.

However, my novel A Love Story for a Nation is set in an unnamed country. I did this on purpose as the story centers around one man’s struggle for freedom in a country under a dictatorship. These common themes can be seen in many countries around the world and it did not need to be specified. I remember one of my reviewers was confused at first because she couldn’t figure out where the story took place until she commented that it could have taken place anywhere. Yes, that’s the point.

In my other novel Which Half David I was playing a lot off of my southeast Asian experiences in creating a diverse culture that was a mix of many of the places I had lived and visited. So I decided to create a brand new island nation that would be a cross-section of those places. I think it worked well. I’ve seen this also in one of my favorite novels The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It’s setting is the country of Sarkhan which is a mix of Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Sarkhan mimicked the post-WWII Vietnam history but the language and culture of Sarkhan was closer to that of Thailand.

As I’m starting writing my next novel – first two chapters finished – this topic has reared its head again because I still haven’t decided how to set this novel. I think it will end up being set in Malaysia. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.

So, think it through and get it right! Then commit to the setting with all you got.