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.


Adding an Element of the Supernatural to My Writing

My writing, especially my novels, for the most part have been grounded in real life. It’s my nature to keep things focused on the tangible. I love stories of humanity, embedded in history and real-life drama. It’s what I seek in my movie-watching as well. I’ll take “The Bridge of Spies” over any Marvel movie any day of any week of any year. (Please, I hope I don’t get started on super hero movies. Please, no.) The only place I have dabbled in the strange and unrealistic is with my one-act short plays. I’ve written a bunch of crazy stuff, even about inanimate objects, but they are still all meant to tell human stories even if there are no humans in the story.

My novels, on the other hand have always been protected from the craziness. My debut novel, Beauty Rising, focused on a tragic story about thirty-something who finally grows up when he takes his father’s ashes to Vietnam. My second novel, The Recluse Storyteller, is about a secluded, lonely woman who tells wild stories to herself. The Reach of the Banyan Tree is my historical Vietnam novel about three generations of American men who were affected by Vietnam during three different time periods. A Love Story for a Nation is about an ex-writer, who after experiencing a terrible tragedy, decides to protest a brutal government regime by standing quietly in the city square. And finally, Which Half David is about a mission worker in Southeast Asia who becomes tempted by an old flame.

Human stories, real life, tragedy, drama, heart-gripping dialogue, and humor. No crazy fantasy or supernatural elements.

Until now.  And it’s a trilogy.

My soon-to-be-named trilogy is two-thirds written. Book one is having its final edit as I write. It’s coming soon. I have a book cover – still not revealed. Book two is finished. I’m working through it’s second draft and book three is partially outlined. And I’ve done it. I’ve expanded my repertoire.

I decided to write this on a whim, when I had a strange thought in my head, a small girl in a white dress, eating a pomegranate, hovering over an old man sleeping. That was the genesis of my trilogy. Why I had that particular image in my head, I have no idea. But it was there, and I used it.

I first had to start justifying the scene. This small person was hovering. People don’t hover, and they don’t do so eating pomegranates. That would be terribly messy. So I had to decide what makes her hover, who is she, what is she, where did she come from, why is she hovering over this old man’s bed?

That is where the exciting discovery part of writing took over. I just started writing and before I knew it, the old man was being whisked through time to various important points of 20th century history. As I wrote, I began including another character to help balance out the little flying one. Then I had to create their backstory and justify how they can do all of the things they do. I did all of that, but I don’t tell the reader everything. It’s part of the mystery for them to discover for themselves.

I’ve had so much fun writing these books, and while they are a departure from my normal stuff, they are, in some ways, not that different. I’m still telling human stories, embedded in history, but this time, we have some new and fun companions along for the ride.

I can’t wait to share them all with you.

Soon. Very soon!


Is Fictional Storytelling being Diminished in Theatre?

I enjoyed reading THIS opinion piece on fictional storytelling and verbatim theatre. Honestly, I know very little about verbatim theatre and have not had an opportunity to see any verbatim shows up to this point. What is ‘verbatim theatre’ you might ask? It’s theatre which uses the real words of people who have been interviewed. Actors here and use the real words of real people and then act accordingly based on the show’s direction. It’s sounds interesting to me, and I might even like to try it at some point. According to sources I have read, verbatim theatre has moved into the mainstream in the London theatre scene, which is why Ms.Gardner wrote her piece, somewhat lamenting the fact that fictional storytelling seems to be taking a backseat in the theatre, as if real words from real people are more correct in portraying authentic human experience. As Ms. Gardner points out, this is not the case. Fictional storytelling can and does portray human emotions and desires in vivid ways, relate-able to everyone.

While I am no expert about verbatim theatre, I have seen my share of experimental theatre over the years. While I often find the performances interesting, and I’ve even dabbled in different types of performances from time to time, this is nothing like a great story to make great theatre. Modern theatre seems to experiment with everything and anything. Well, hey, I have an idea, let’s experiment with some fictional stories. Some full-length dramas – a full length original musical. Let’s put on a show that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Boring, you say? Been done too often, you say?

Not by a long-shot, I reply.

I could be wrong, because I have absolutely no research to back up this statement, but perhaps the general public has pulled away from the dramatic arts because of this very reason – the lack of gripping stories. (Sadly, I’ve run into way too many people who tell me they do not like going to the theatre, but they love watching movies!)

I do have anecdotal evidence. I have heard comments like this from people who occasionally go to the theatre – “that was just weird” – “it was okay, but I didn’t understand it” – “what was the point?”

The fact is, people LOVE stories. People love to be drawn into a character with whom they can relate. They love a plot which twists and turns and keeps them guessing. They love endings which are satisfying. Many people don’t like head-scratchers, and when they see one strange drama too many, they often decide to do other things rather than go to the theatre. And you have to admit, there are an awful lot of entertainment choices out there.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all kinds of dramas – including unique experimental stuff.

But if I ever had a choice, I’d take a gripping, well-written, beautifully plotted out story-line on stage any day of the week.

Here’s hoping that theatre will never forget that we are in the story-telling business.

“If I can think of it, anyone can” and other false thinking.

Did you ever ponder how one can be truly creative in today’s world? I mean, hasn’t everything already been thought of. Hasn’t every melody already been written? Hasn’t every plot line been explored?

I used to think like this and such non-productive thoughts have significantly shortened my writing years.

I remember when I used to get a random idea – whether a line in a poem, a catchy melody, or an idea for a story – and I would say to myself “If I can think of it, anyone can.” At that point I put the thought out of my mind and did nothing with it, knowing for a fact that my idea had already been done before.

How foolish I was! If you find yourself ever doubting your creative limits, consider the following:

1) we are all different. No two people are even remotely alike. How could we expect any two people to come up with the exact same idea?

2) thinking like that is admitting failure. Sometimes perhaps we want to readily accept failure instead of stepping out with our creativity and opening ourselves up to criticism. It’s easier to play it safe. But we weren’t created to play things safe. We are meant to express ourselves from the very core of our being.

3) we are living off the creative ideas that have come before us. Any creative artist stands on the backs of giants, whether he or she realizes it or not. We have all been influenced by the classics, the moving whims of culture, and the relentless drive of media. But the way we process and think and move and change and grow is completely different from other people.

4) a better thing to think would be “I wish I had thought of that” or “I could have never thought of that.” Did you ever read some thought-provoking lyrics or some wonderfully deep descriptive language where you wished it had been your idea. This is exactly what I’m talking about. Faulkner writes the best Faulkner out there. Hands down. But Faulkner, whether good or bad, could never have written like Sasse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I write better than Faulkner. I’m saying that my writing is unique, molded by experiences and life circumstances that no one else has had.

Therefore, your best writing will be when you are emulating yourself. That’s it.

I don’t let myself fall into this false thinking trap anymore. If I can think of it, then it means that I thought of it and I should write about it. And by the stares and strange looks I get from people sometimes, I realize that they are asking me, “how did you ever think of that”?

I don’t know. I just did, and I wrote about it.

You should do the same.

2014: Mapping Out My Year in Writing

Yesterday I looked back on 2013 and the myriad of writing projects I involved myself in. Today, I’ll look ahead a bit and see what’s on the horizon. This is in no particular order.

  • Finish writing novel #4 – currently about 10,000 words in.
  • Publish novel #3, The Reach of the Banyan Tree – Tentative release date of late summer.
  • I’ll be directing and producing my newly penned, full-length original musical, Boardwalk Melody, in May.
  • I’ll be writing a new collection of short plays for my group The RLT Players. I already have a possible theme in mind. This will include two musical numbers as well.
  • I want to start writing novel #5 once 4 is written. I’ve actually already wrote the first chapter. I just need time to get back to it, but this will have to wait until the later half of the year.
  • As I do each year, I’m planning on writing a full-length play with my students from Sept-Dec.
  • I’ll be writing a set of short skits based on the Sistine Chapel. This is a joint project with my school’s art department.

I guess this seems like enough. I wonder what else will pop up? I better get busy writing.

A Thinking Stop

I was writing early today, and the story flowed well. It wasn’t long until I had rattled off a thousand words without much difficulty at all. It felt good. I was accomplishing something.

And then I stopped. Not because I couldn’t have written more; I was completely prepared and able to do so, but I purposefully stopped – to think.

I have found that an extremely important part of writing is thinking. I tend to just go, but what comes first isn’t necessarily the best. I reached a part in my story where I have to make some conscious decisions about what to do next. I generally know where it is going, but some small important details may greatly hinge on the pondering that I do.

So I purposefully stopped in order to let the plot and characters rattle around in my brain for a day. I want to see if any seed thoughts can grow into a direction which is more intriguing that I originally intended. A lot of writing can happen without any keyboard or pen or pencil. A lot of writing can happen in the mind while driving, while doing the dishes, or while exercising.

Some people stop writing because their stuck. I stop writing because I’m not stuck. I just want to add a layer of thought to the direction I am taking.

Slow down for a day and see what happens the next time you turn on your computer.


Re-post: Fiction Thrives Where Truth Abides

I originally published this on Cellardorians in January 2012 as a guest post. I liked it well enough that I thought I’d go ahead and re-post prior to the release of my second novel.

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately in reference to my novel, Beauty Rising, “Was your father really like that?” In my story, the protagonist tries to carry out his abusive father’s dying wish, and it has made more than a few people question my own background to see if I was inspired by a dysfunctional past.

All of this got me thinking of the writer’s mind – which truly can be a scary place if you happen to stumble upon it at the right, or perhaps wrong, moment. Writers try to tell tales of truth or universal ideals wrapped in a fictional shroud of imagination where reality and make-believe co-exist, co-habitat, and intermingle in ways which can make it difficult to separate the truth from the fiction.

I actually went through a phase where I thought that fiction felt void of meaning. I kept asking myself how can a slice of make-believe could ever trump the power and exhilarating strength of historical fact. A quick perusal of movies which impacted me seemed to bolster that belief. Who can forget Spielberg’s “Amistad” or “Shindler’s List”? Both, of course, true stories. And what of “The Lady” – which told the heroic tale of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, or even “The King’s Speech?” Everybody loves a tale of truth – the courageous stories of bold individuals who seem to embody the human spirit. How can fiction bring real truth to life on par with that of history?

While I still tend to favor stories grounded in factual matter, I have come to appreciate the power of fictional storytelling and how it too conveys the truth of humankind. It wasn’t my undergrad degree in English that brought me this appreciation. It was my own writing.

When the story of Beauty Rising was staring me in the face and starting to force itself out, I couldn’t help but survey and ponder the many years that I lived in Vietnam which served as the background for much of the story. While my parents are wonderful and served as no guide for how I crafted Martin’s parents, there are so many other parts of the story that convey actual events.

For example, chapter one – The Wallet – comes from personal experience. I was in that crowd as the big, awkward foreigner, surrounded by a sea of black-haired people, completely out of my element only to have my wallet stolen. I experienced the little Vietnamese boys who would come up and pull the hair on my arms and legs, laughing themselves silly that someone could be ridiculously that hairy. I sat many long minutes waiting for the pomp and empty circumstances of a university anniversary celebration to begin where we had to wait endlessly for the dignitaries to arrive, revealing great insight into the Vietnamese world view. I experienced the gentle hospitality of the simple Vietnamese people who would invite a stranger to tea or who would go out of their way to make a foreign friend feel at home. I even experienced the thin, easily-crackable toilet seats and the five foot shower heads which irritated Martin.  All of these real-life experiences lend a layer of authenticity that I could never have written about if I hadn’t experienced it myself. There are no travel books or no Google searches which could have painted the pictures of real Vietnamese life vibrant enough without me actually being there. This is, I hope, where the truth in my writing emerges – wrapped in the detail of someone who has walked the steps of the protagonist so that a fictional story could emerge which, hopefully, illuminates universal truths and poignantly detailed descriptions of the Vietnamese world view – all neatly encased in a fictional story.

So now I understand a little more. Fiction thrives where truth abides. It is a lesson I hope to keep illustrating in all of my stories still not written.

PS: I’m now thinking how this idea impacted my writing of The Recluse Storyteller. Hmmm. I feel another post coming on.