Tag: writing a novel

Beta Reading is Making Me a Better Writer

cemetary dumpster

(Imagine all the words and redundancies in your novel being tossed into the bin. Yep, that’s how this image is relevant to this post.)

I’m in the middle of beta reading a novel for a writer friend Olivia Foust. It’s my first time doing it and as I’m reading and taking notes I find myself thinking about my own writing and how to make it stronger based on the kind of things I’m telling her about her novel.

The first thing I did when I agreed to beta-read my friend’s novel is to find out what she was looking for with regards to critiquing. Did she primarily want an edit for grammar and typos or did she want me to look for plot holes and/or character issues? With the first beta read of my own novel I definitely wasn’t ready to hear about typos or every little grammatical issue. I was much more concerned with plot issues. My friend said she was interested in knowing about any plot issues or inconsistencies.

I keep laughing at myself as I tell Olivia “I want more physical descriptions” which was something my friend Taj told me when she read an early version of my book. I think my two other early beta readers, Emma and Lucy, said the same things. “I want to know what the landscape they’re in looks like, but without going into a great exposition” and I’m remembering how hard I found it to describe the rooms my characters were inhabiting in a way that was natural and didn’t break up the flow but added richness to the reader’s experience. It’s so easy to say that and so much harder to achieve it. My strength as a writer is in creating atmosphere and writing the emotional lives of characters. Some writers can describe landscape exquisitely (Mary Stewart, for example) but draw characters a little more broadly. Some can write action scenes but have trouble letting readers inside their characters’ heads.

I don’t suck at description but it’s something I have to consciously work on.

I worked hard at adding more physical description to my next major edit and my whole book is so much stronger for it. Now I’m saying the same thing to Olivia because she’s created an interesting world and I’m hungry to know more about the clothes her characters are wearing, the animals they’re hunting, the climate, and the colors around them.

I have pointed out what I think are issues with character motivation and then when I started re-reading my own WIP I found similar issues that I’m seeing more sharply because of seeing it in Olivia’s work. Beta reading for Olivia is sharpening my insight into my own story’s issues. I wasn’t really expecting this benefit.

Beta reading for someone is, I see now, a real privilege. When a writer asks you into their process they are trusting you to behave respectfully like you would in a surgeon’s operating room. You have to be careful not to move the furniture around too much or to clog the toilet. Your level of involvement will vary from writer to writer, I’m sure,  but one thing is for certain, a beta reader is not an editor and it’s not their job to rewrite the material. You’re there to strengthen, to be a fresh pair of eyes, to give perspective.

Olivia assures me (so far) that I haven’t been too harsh or too nit-picky. My constant fear is that, in trying to be helpful, I will go too far and give discouragement where I mean to be giving encouragement. I write copious notes and then try to whittle them down to actionable suggestions or thoughts. I also note things I enjoyed or parts I think are strong.

Having a couple of people read your novel before you send it out to an agent or hit “publish” is the best thing you can do for your work. But if you’re a writer and have never beta-read someone else’s novel, I highly recommend it as a way to see the strengths and weaknesses in your own work more clearly.

Authors’ Pet Themes and Characteristics: when they repeat too often

I have noticed that many career novelists have certain themes that they explore over and over again and sometimes it becomes irritating.  Martha Grimes was the first author I really noticed this with and got annoyed with.  Philip pointed it out to me and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and after reading her 84th mystery novel I became exhausted.  She loves her characters to be orphans.  Orphan characters (both main and supporting characters) are everywhere in her books.

Either she was an orphan herself and this was a defining factor in her life OR she had issues with her parents that has made her fantasize about what that might be like.

Mary Stewart is obsessed with grey colored eyes.  This is not a usual color of eye being not really blue.  Every single suspense book she’s written features, at minimum, one character with grey eyes.  I gave them to Cricket in homage to her.  It’s so unusual that it becomes ridiculous for her books to be littered with grey-eyed people.

Those are just two examples off the top of my head.  I’m thinking about this because I have had Jane Doe haunting my head relentlessly lately (probably exacerbated by my recent trips to San Francisco where her story takes place) and trying to sort out how to move forward with that story and comparing it to Cricket and Grey I have noticed some themes of my own.  It concerns me.  I’m not going to say what they are.  Not to be coy or anything – but if you end up reading my work and if I continue to produce novels and you follow my “career” I don’t want to point anything out to you that might annoy you.  That would be stupid.  If you notice them – then you do.  If you don’t – much better.

More important to me is to AVOID that whole pitfall.  Inevitably, if you write a few novels then your characters are going to have same eye colors -there are only so many to choose from before you get ridiculous in making up things like “opal” and “tourmaline” colored eyes.  “Topaz” got excessive play in the Twilight series.  You can’t avoid reusing elements and certain themes that are common – you have to have common things in a story to make it believable so that the extraordinary details stand out.

So I was just thinking about some similar elements shared between my two stories and considering what I can change and what I can’t.  By the same token – you can’t obsess about stuff like this.   I’m aiming for consciousness of the potential to become repetitive with the need to tell stories that are natural for me to tell.

I wish Jane Doe would get out of my head.  I finally got a solid rough outline for the plot for the next Cricket and Grey book and I’d like to develop it but the other story is loud in my head too.  The problem is that I just can’t seem to make order out of it.  So it’s there – being a big noise – trying to draw me into the tangle so that I can give it better shape.

On another note – it’s becoming clear that I won’t be able to get Cricket and Grey available for actual sale until after the holidays.  That always happens – I miss the holiday potential because I got unfocused for too long and then suddenly woke up when it was too late. It’s okay though.  It is better to have a good cover and a good copy than to rush it.

Here’s the other thing I’m worrying about.  It’s not new.  If I publish Cricket and Grey myself but want to shop Jane Doe to agents – will they not even consider Jane Doe because I’ve already self published?  I know I’ve seen agents say they won’t take query letters from self published authors – I just can’t remember if I’ve seen that once or quite a few times.

Time for me to get back to the paid job.  I just want to jot these kinds of thoughts down more often in my writing journal rather than let them stay in my head.  No editing either.  Consider this a post you would jot down in your notebook and then bring up with your friends in a casual way.

Excellent Reads for Writers

When I started working on Cricket and Grey I wanted to work in a more organized way than I had with The Winter Room because I wanted to avoid getting lost in pages of emotive crap that leads nowhere.  What I really wanted was to avoid emotive crap altogether.  I looked for a book that could serve as a guideline and found a great help in the book “Write Away” by Elizabeth George.  I didn’t want someone to tell me what to write but how to structure a plot and story thoughtfully.  Taking the time to work out a plot outline, do some character analysis, and to play with POV before digging myself into an enormous grave full of words made writing my second novel a completely different experience than the first.  Each draft I wrote accomplished very specific things.  I know that all writers have their own processes and mine, as it develops, will not match anyone else’s exactly.  Still, I think it’s useful for writers to listen to other writers talk about writing.  I think it’s useful for us to share notes, to compare notes, and to share ideas.

Through doing my agent research, looking for support with other writers, and reading advice from the trenches I’ve compiled a number of great reads (and a video) that I think most writers will find encouraging, interesting, and useful.

Write Away

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite mystery writers.  Though I admit I stopped reading the Lynley series a few books ago because I got really sick of Tommy and Helen’s inability to work their shit out and then she went and killed Helen anyway, so that’s alright.  I have seen George speak and I really like her.  So I bought her book and have found it very useful.  Her message isn’t “If you write exactly like me you’re guaranteed success!” (because she’s not stupid), her book is meant as a guideline to writing fiction, not a gospel.

Bird By Bird

Anne Lamott is funny, she’s real, she’s honest, and her book “bird by bird” is a great collection of essays about writing she’s taken from the writing classes she teaches.  It isn’t a manual (can you tell I don’t want anyone telling me the ONE way to write?) so much as it’s collected perspective from a seasoned and respected author.  Reading her book was illuminating and made me want to shove the book back on the shelf, roll my sleeves up, and write.

The Writing Life (writers on how they think and work)

Edited by Marie Arana.  This book is a collection of essays written by writers about writing (the process, the editing, the rejection slips, the magic, the slogging).  There are a couple of essays I didn’t get much out of but most of them had interesting perspectives and showed the diverse range of ways one can approach and succeed at writing.  Some of the writers have written only a couple books that took years to write while others write a book a year.

Here are some blogs I’m finding useful and entertaining right now:

The Novel Doctor An editor talks about novel writing and reveals your deepest insecurities.  He also says some useful things and cracks the whip against your indolent ways.

Query Shark Excellent site a friend shared with me while I was trying to write a query letter and was 100% bombing.  I’m still working at it but at least I’m avoiding many of the biggest mistakes thanks to this witty and ruthless agent who really wants you to write better queries.

Rachelle Gardner Another literary agent whose blog has many truly interesting and many useful articles about the business of publishing books.  She’s not the agent for me as she almost exclusively represents Christian fiction, but I think her blog is great.

Agent Query This is a great site to look for agents with.  It is reputable and has good information on query writing, looking for agents, and other things you’ll want to know such as how long an unpublished author’s first novel should be (yeah, this is useful to know before you’ve finished writing it).

Terrible Minds I would truly love to get Chuck Wendig together with my Grandma just to see who would win that inevitable clash sharp tongued titans.  His profanity is breathtaking (as in – I’ve never heard anyone swear so much who wasn’t a stand up comedian) and he finds the most shocking ways of making everything sound pornographic.  His writing advice is gritty but completely sound.

Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…  I loved this post and am enjoying her blog.

25 Things You Should Know About Suspense And Tension In Storytelling I had to give you an actual post to check out from Wendig’s blog.

Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing This is a video interview with a written transcription.  It’s long but well worth watching.

The Truth about What Authors Earn – some great articles to read

I have been in the slow process of finding other blogs by writers who talk about the business, the skill, and the practice of writing.  I want to know what other writers do to deal with writer’s block, how they find inspiration, how much research they do and what kind,  whether or not they write outlines, and how much they know about their characters or their subject before they even start writing.  I seek the community of other writers.

One blog I have added to my blog-roll is a blog called “Don’t pet me, I’m writing” which I like because the author, Tawna Fenske, is open and personable.  She had a post today that I found really interesting with links to a couple of other articles on the subject of what authors really make on their books.  For me it brings up the question of whether it’s really worth trying to get published by one of the big publishers, or any publishers at all as opposed to self publishing.  The article that especially brings this in question is the one written by Sabrina Jeffries “The Big Misunderstanding about Money”.

Let’s talk about money, or let other people do it.

The Big Misunderstanding About Money

The Reality of a Times Bestseller

My writing friend Emma, who writes for The Kitchn and is just beginning to write her first book on home brewing, passed along a great link that I hope everyone with any creative life will read by Austin Kleon called “How to Steal Like an Artist and 9 Other Things No One Told Me”   Read it.  It’s brilliant.

Speaking of my friend Emma, she and I were discussing writing exercises that might help shake the blank-brain syndrome.  If she doesn’t have time to write about this in a guest post I will have to do a post by interviewing her and sharing our notes on ways to overcome writer’s block that don’t involve landing yourself in jail or ending up in a skeezy motel room naked and chained to the bed.

I am priming myself for a day of writing tomorrow.  I pulled quack grass roots and planted bean seeds today so that I can lock myself in my office tomorrow all day and write with a clean conscience, knowing that I have accomplished at least a meager something to benefit my family.  Having completely rewritten chapter one I must now smooth it a little and add to it.  I must extend everything outwards, develop dialog, go deeper into characters, take greater time and care to fill out the world I’m asking people to live in for a while.  It’s short.  Too short.  I was focused mostly on making sure that I had a whole story, that the plot worked (mostly), and that I had some dialog that didn’t make me feel like a twelve year old writing my first book (if you can’t imagine what that’s like I suggest you become my best friend, give me lots of money, and beg me to show you the first book I ever wrote that I never talk about), and that I covered the basic descriptions necessary.  Now is the time for detail, for development, for taking the time to go deeper.

In some ways I’ve gotten to the best part, the part where I add all the textures, shadows, and olfactory memories that propel my characters through life.  This is the part where I show you how the winter landscape of the woods is reflected in my main character’s mourning as well as her first real inner crisis in life.  This is where I make you hear the crows in place of gunfire as you might actually remember it yourself.  This task is the juiciest part but as life often arranges things it is also the most complicated because I have to be careful with each word that I keep on point and don’t let the flowery details excavate so much crap on the page that you lose sight of the main thread.  This is where I must demand of myself more excellence than at any step before it.

I can do this.  I was made for this purpose.  I am at the finishing point.  This is what I tell myself to pad my confidence and not shoot myself before I have to.

I’m trying so hard not to ask how some authors manage to write two or more books a year.  I’m trying not to think about how many authors must write more than a book a year just to make a modest living.  This one has taken me over a year, edging up on a year and a half now, to write.  I’m not writing pulitzer material here.  Does it mean I’m slow-witted and complete crap that it’s taken me this long to write a book that I hope will be really good but isn’t going to win any book awards?  Should I be able to whip the same quality material out in half the time or a quarter of the time?

NOT asking those questions.

All I’m going to ask is that if I have to self publish because it’s ridiculous to go through a publishing house that will make me pay for all my own promoting anyway – you all will help me get the word out about my book.  Anyone who promotes my book may come to my house for a free dinner.

I’m an excellent cook.

A Shoulderful of Stones

I’m going to try really hard to hide from myself the fact that it is twelve am.  This is when I turn into a circus act almost as horrible as a mime and become excessively emotional, commemorative, and fly my flag half mast on principle.  I’m trying to dive into writing the second chapter of the book but I’m distracted by: Jon Stewart interview segments from the past 13 years, the fact that the second chapter needs to not suck and the pressure pushing in at me, the need to curl up and watch either Cadfael or Will and Grace, the certainty that I suck beyond measure, and the memory of the one and a half grilled cheese sandwiches Philip made for me this evening.

I’m distracted by music, pen, rain, tomatoes, the rustle of dry paper, time, popular culture, the flies, and the hour.

I know what I mean to say but can’t find a good sentence anywhere because I’ve spent all day cleaning the dead flies off the porch, cleaning the kitchen, making tomato soup, processing tomatoes for sauce, listening to the Beatles, and thinking about bigotry and plotting my rise above it all.

There is the intention of the path:  to underscore with my black sharpie thoughts that no matter how terrible life is there is always something just a little better than death and on the best days there is euphoria in the smallest details like watching tiny birds chatter over the red hot poker flower stalks and in laughter between friends and loved ones.

There isn’t a goal for fame or ridicule.  There isn’t a goal to make a million dollars.

Two out of those three things would be awfully nice and I wouldn’t say no to them if I achieved them.

But that’s not the goal.

Why agonize?  It’s just words.

You wouldn’t want your car mechanic to take that attitude.  “It’s just an engine, why agonize?” You wouldn’t want your lawyer to say “It’s just litigation, it’s just a question of jail or no jail…”

That’s why I agonize.  Because words matter.

I am struck by a youtube video I saw of Harlan Ellison talking about paying the goddamn writer and the fact that everyone wants writers to write for free.  What hits a nerve for me in this is that words matter almost more than stones.  My kid said the other day how stupid he thought the saying “Words can never hurt you” is because it’s wrong.  I told him the saying is relying on a literal interpretation and he said that was total bullshit because words hurt people all the time.  (He didn’t actually swear.)

It’s true.  Language has the power to detonate rage or ignite it, to destroy families, to dissolve relationships, to inspire death, to cement enemies and to declare world wars.  It also has the power to bring unlikely people together, to convince impossible partnerships, to heal old scars, to express dreams, to encourage the hopeless to hope, and to inspire inexhaustible love.

Language is as potent as vision, as potent as art.

In most ways I’m a good multi-tasker but when it comes to the writing I have to be more obsessive.  I can’t divide myself endlessly.  What I’m coming to understand is that I have to dive into the book as though it was the only world, the only voice, the only thing I know outside the essentials.  Would you expect anything different from a doctor: that their attention be completely on the medical issue at hand?

I have to stop piling the food preserving projects on myself.

I have to close myself off to all other distractions and immerse myself in the grave, where Cricket and Grey begins.  I have to ask myself to write the story that I would be excited to find on the shelves of the bookstore, that I would want to have as my own.  I have to ask myself to write the story I’ve been missing my whole life and that others have been missing too.

Like a shoulderful of stones.

I only have to write the words you’ve been waiting to hear for your whole life.

It’s time to fold away the tomato projects, the pesto, the sauce, the ratatouille, and the grilled eggplant for freezing.  I want to sock away more preserves.  But I want to write more than I want to eat.