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.

 

How do you know if a story ends well?

How do you know if a story ends well?

Cross your fingers?

Hope that you’ve tied up all the necessary knots?

There is no way. Not really.

Okay, I’ve just finished – I mean minutes ago – the final edits on the end of my trilogy, and honestly I don’t know how I feel. I guess that’s the way it should be.

A story ends because the writer ends it but will it resonate with the readers?

I took, what I felt, was a little bit of a writing gamble in the last book of my trilogy. I sidelined two of the main characters for a large chunk of the book. I had my reasons, and if you read it, hopefully you will understand why I did it. I received positive feedback from my beta readers about the move, but still, it was kind of scary to do.

Ultimately, a writer is bound not by the reader or by an editor but by the story and its characters. A writer has to go where the characters are leading him or her. There can be no other way. The voices giving suggestions can only be that – voices. Not to be ignored, for sure, but they can’t speak louder than the rhythm of the language and the journey of the protagonist. Sometimes you have to make the tough choices and then ask yourself a simple question: are you happy with it?

I am. I am quite pleased at how it turned out. Even quite surprised because I wasn’t sure if the plot was going to hold up through the crazy twists and turns. But it’s done.

I just sent the first review copies out to reviewers.

Now it’s out of my hands.

Will it end well? In my mind, it did. I need to be content with that and move on to the next project.

Goodbye Bee and Ash! Perhaps we’ll meet again.

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If It’s Good Enough for Mr. Livgren, then …

If It’s Good Enough for Mr. Livgren, then …

I’ve admired Kerry Livgren for a long time.

Yes, you know him. The composer, guitarist, lyricist of Kansas.

Yes – “Carry on Wayward Son” – “Dust in the Wind”

Okay, now you’re with me.

Livgren didn’t just disappear after the glory years of Kansas in the late seventies and early eighties. Far from it. He released many solo albums, founded the band A.D., got back together with his old mates from the pre-Kansas days and released three terrific albums under the name Proto Kaw.

The guy is brilliant. Yet, the thing that has stood out the most for me about his musical procedures is that he is never satisfied. He said in an interview once that if he has the opportunity to make a previously released song better, he wouldn’t hesitate to do that. And he has.

He has remastered albums. He has kept the vocals of songs and completed rerecorded the instruments to make an even better product.

His dedication to his craft is relentless, and it has inspired me (as a writer) to be like Kerry!

When I think back seven years ago when I was writing my first novel, I didn’t know what I was doing. Seven years later, I’m still learning – lots.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the old stories. A lot, actually. I’m proud of my first novel BEAUTY RISING, but can it be better? Yes. Can I apply things I know now and didn’t know then to make it better? Yes. Will I do it? I will try. (There is a thing called time, you know.)

So I am hoping to do something like Kerry does. I’m not going to change the stories. The heart of the story will remain, but I might rework the language. I make color passages in a more interesting way. I may delete adverbs which I seemed to like so well back then. I’m looking forward to doing a new re-edit on some of my old stories to help freshen them up with my new rounds of knowledge about writing.

If it’s good enough for Kerry, it’s good enough for me. What about you?

The First Ever Massive Trilogy Read-Through

I had just finished the second revision of book 3 of my brand new trilogy.

So what was next?

Revision three, of course.  But then I paused and thought for a moment. I knew what I needed to do, but I was reluctant. It would be too time-consuming. It would stop the flow of my revision work. No, don’t make me!

What was it? It was to read the entire trilogy from first to last page. I would become the first person to read the entire trilogy, which makes sense since I wrote it.

I told myself I needed to do it. I rolled my eyes and thought of any other way to get around it. But I knew if I wanted to present the very best overarching story possible that I needed to delve back into the ENTIRE story.

So that’s what I’m doing.

I just finished reading book 1: A Man Too Old for a Place Too Far, and you know what? I enjoyed it. After just finishing the storyline of the entire trilogy, it was fun to revisit the genesis of everything. There were definitely some details along the way which I had forgotten, but I was pleased with the story’s consistency.

I think I’m on the right track, and that makes me happy.

It can be painful to read one’s own work. Tedious, actually. But it’s so important, and I usually end up surprising myself thinking “Hey, how did I think of that? If I wrote this paragraph today, I don’t think it would have been as good.”

On the other hand I also run into these thoughts: “I don’t really like this sentence anymore. How about a simple edit?”

Re-reading is crucial to jog one’s memory of the myriad of character and plot details which absolutely must mesh.

But do it. Hold your nose if you have to, but keep re-reading your own work. It will be well worth it.

If you haven’t read book 1, please check it out. It’s a story I’m really happy with, and it’s only $1.89 on Amazon. Permanently.  Thanks for the support!

Link to Amazon. Only $1.89 on Kindle.

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Writing: About Lengths and Words

Writing: About Lengths and Words

I’m a concise writer. I know that.

I’ve learned to slow down my writing over the years because at times it can be at breakneck speeds, and there are rumors about that some readers like to stew in the words of a story and not have to gulp them all down from the end of a fire hose.

Who knew?

So length and word count are always on the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. That’s not always a good thing. I’ve heard that the best length of any story is precisely the length it should be. Some stories are meant to be short. Others long. Many others somewhere in-between.

The general standard (some would dispute this) for length is above 20,000 words is a novella and above 50,000 words a novel. If you are well below 20,000, you’ve simply written a short story.

As I’m narrowing in on the ending to my trilogy, I’m finding that volume three is feeling shorter than the other two. Is that bad?

Well, it all depends, and this is where it gets messy and subjective. This is where a fresh pair of eyes and a good editor can help guide you.

I want an ending that’s satisfying but doesn’t drag. That’s well developed but not too short that the reader feels shortchanged. (As a side note, I know that not all readers think alike. Some will never be satisfied no matter the length, but that’s another post.)

How do you navigate your story so it’s exactly right? You can’t. No story is ever exactly right. But you can make decisions which will help guide in the right direction.

First, don’t fret on word count. If the story arc and development leads you to 40,000 rather than 70,000, then please leave it at 40. No one wants to read 30,000 useless words.

Second, make sure your story development delivers on all accounts. Characters. Have you satisfactorily shown their development? Do their decisions in the book make sense in a chronological way? Have you shown the readers what they are desiring and why they do the things they have done? If not, expand. If yes, move on and don’t say anymore. In regards to subplots, are they all necessary. Yes, you might be able to expand your novel another 10% by telling us a backstory or weaving a secondary thread through the plot, but is it necessary. Completely necessary to show characterization, so show foreshadowing, to bring the plot to realization?  If you can’t answer yes to all of these, then nix it. Perhaps write it a short story instead. Don’t bog down the storyline in unwanted information.

Third, slow down and let the language simmer a little more. You always want to keep your language short and concise, but don’t be afraid to expound a little. I’m writing this especially for me. Add that description–especially amidst the dialogue. Because I just love dialogue and I can write some of my draft chapters almost like a play. Not cool! Think of the reader. Show what happens. Describe the movements. Describe the scenery. But don’t feel compelled to write twenty pages about the topography of the protagonists hometown. (Please no! Keep it moving, remember)

A good editor will help you with all of these because, honestly, it’s so hard to judge one’s own writing.

How about you? What helps you in your writing endeavors?

Plotting or Plodding?

Humph! Here’s the real truth about writers: sometimes we have no idea how it’s all going to turn out.

I mean, really, what are we doing? What am I doing? What is my plot doing?

Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a giant connect-the-dots while blindfolded. Are these two dots really going to connect in the end?

This is an issue with any type of writing – including a stand-alone novel. But with a series, humph! Plotting seems like plodding at an ant’s pace.

I’m working on the final segment of The Forgotten Child Trilogy, and while I’m currently on chapter 19 – more than half way finished, I am starting to wonder how I’m going to tie up all of these strands. Yes, I like strands. Perhaps too much. Maybe I should have stuck with the third person limited. I did that once with the novel A Love Story For a Nation and I must admit it was freeing because every scene whether description or dialogue came from one person’s perspective. That’s why books which in the first person “I” have such an appeal.  It’s immediate. It’s personal. But let’s admit it. It’s also limiting.

My first series is being written in third person omniscient. It has to be this way because there are so many characters who are helping to tell the story. Now, I don’t write the narration from everyone’s perspective. In fact, there are three (maybe four) antagonists and I don’t tell it from their perspective at all. It’s just a choice I’ve made in this particular series. I wanted their motivations to be slightly obscured through the perspective of the different protagonists. Yes, this story is about many people.

There’s the rub. It can be confusing because I’m trying to balance many different strands from many different perspectives: Frick, Bee, Ash, Hatty, Ruthy, Rachany, Haddock, Adams & O’Malley – any more?

Okay, so what’s the solution? How to keep my head on straight?

First, take a deep breath and know that no one else – I mean no one – will ever see your first draft. So it’s okay if it’s terrible, and it usually is.  Just get the story down the best you can. You may not fill all holes at once and that’s okay.

Second, plan on spending the next six months doing rewrites and revisions. Just do it. Build in the time into your writing schedule. You’ll be amazed at how your mind will shift and you’ll get new ideas – better ideas – over time. Don’t be in a rush to get it done. Take your time.

Third, remember that it will work out in the end. It always does. The ‘i’s will be dotted the the ‘t’s crossed. It just takes time. It may seem chaotic right now, but after you write that next chapter, some clarity will come. More direction will be revealed and you’ll get there.

Four, remember to tie up all the ends even if it means re-writing. Don’t leave anything hanging when you come to the end of the series. Therefore, read the whole thing again. I know, I know. You told yourself that you’d rather bang your head against the wall than read your story one more time. But it will be worth it. Slow down. Read it again. Make sure it’s all tied up neatly in the end.

A good last impression is the best impression. Don’t let the end slip away from you.

Okay, now I need to start following my own advice.

Outline the Ending! Really?

I’ve been inundated with those Master Class video ads on social media lately. I’m sure you’ve seen them, and I have to admit, some of them certainly catch my eye. I was real curious to see what Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese said about film-making, and even their introductory videos were quite engaging.

Of course, there’s a bunch of well-known writers on there as well, and I am, as a writer, interested to hear what they have to say. I like to keep my options open. I like to learn and grow in my craft, but whenever someone says how important it is to do this or that when being a creative writer, I usually balk at it and tell them to slow down the bus!

Writing is different from film-making or some of the other arts because it’s so subjective. There’s no one formula. There’s no “best practices” which will insure success. Sure, there are some writing guidelines which may help, especially for young writers, but blanket statements are not that helpful.

One well-known writer on the Master Class videos said how important it is to outline. You must outline, outline, outline like crazy. Outline until the cows come home. Outline through all your holidays. Outline until you’re blue in the face, or until the next season of your favorite show comes out. OUTLINE!!!! Okay, I might be paraphrasing here.

But the point is, this particular writer emphasized how important outlining is. And in reply to that, I say hogwash!

It might be important to you. It’s obviously important to him. It’s not important to me. Now you might think to naturally side with him because he’s famous and rich and I’m not. That’s a valid point. But if I may, I content his outlining obsession has nothing to do with his success.

Here’s the problem I have with outlining. For me, it’s basically useless, because by the time I  hit the third chapter of my outline, the rest of my outline has no validity because I’ve changed the story so much since my original ideas.

Why?

Simple! Writing leads to new ideas. New writing leads to newer ideas. To think you can sit down and know the ending of a creative story before you actually start writing is rather preposterous. That’s like chaining yourself in and not allowing your ideas to grow as your story grows.

So if you do outline, I’d offer this advice. Don’t let the outline be the ultimate driver of where your story is going. Use it as a guide, but as your ideas develop, please feel free to change your outline. Please feel free to change your ending!

Just today, I completely revamped an ending to a play which I thought I had finished yesterday. But it wasn’t sitting right for me, so I had to go back and change it.

Now, with all that said, it doesn’t mean that I never outline. I do loosely outline at times when I think I see where the story is going. For example, on my new fiction trilogy, I do know the ending of book three. But I only know the ending because I already wrote book 1 and 2. When I was writing book 1, I didn’t even know how it would end. But now that I’ve written 2/3’s of the trilogy, it has become obvious to me what the ending must be. Great! No problem!

My ultimate point here is that there is not one correct way to write. It’s so personal and subjective. Do what you are comfortable with. Follow your passion and your story. Allow it mold and form what you want to say. Never allow preset guidelines to determine where your story must go.

You know where it’s supposed to go. It’s in your heart. You were made for this moment. Create and discover what you never thought possible.