Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Beta or not to Beta

Beta or not to Beta

Don’t you just love that wonderful feeling of finishing your manuscript? The characters have been living with you for months. You thought you’d never get that scene right. You changed the build up to the ending, yet again. Then suddenly it all falls into place and your journey is ended.

Well, actually, it’s just starting. You love your story. But will anyone else? Is it really as good as you hoped, as you aimed for? Perhaps no one will love the hero. What if readers feel antagonistic toward the heroine? Did you overlook any loose ends?

Whilst your own final read through can allay some of your concerns, there is nothing like having a fresh pair of eyes to reassure, or help, you. And that’s where a beta reader can be invaluable.

Beta readers are generally non-professional readers who will read a manuscript following initial completion and prior to publication. They may comment on grammatical errors, anomalies in the plot, a way to improve the story, or any combination of some or all of these issues. They are that fresh pair of eyes.

I think a lot of authors use betas, and I find them invaluable. But they’re not for everyone. When I approached an author friend to see if she used them, she said, “Definitely not.” She didn’t want different opinions on her work and was happy to work only with her editor. So it’s personal preference. That said, whether you chose to use betas or not, I strongly advocate any writer to have their work independently edited, even if you intend to self-publish. It will add polish to your manuscript, and it’s amazing what a good editor will find, no matter how well you think you have written your story.

But back to betas. There are pros and cons to using them and there needs to be the inevitable caveats. So here are my thoughts and recommendations.

1. Ask a friend or family member.
We all know the disadvantage of asking someone you know to provide feedback on your book. The chances are they will not tell you that they hate it, or that they think it’s badly written. But they will no doubt give encouragement and if you are at the early stages of your writing adventure, that is no bad thing. It’s great. Plus they are easier to find, in general.

2. Ask someone from a reading group.
They will have a love of books, and  an experience of an array of writing styles, plots and characterisations. They will also be accustomed to hearing differing views. This could be your own opinion if you don’t agree with everything they say. Remember this is your story—you own it. But also remember the beta reader is being kind enough to read your manuscript. It takes time and time is precious.

3. Make sure it’s someone who likes the genre you write under.
I see little point in asking someone who is an avid crime reader to read a medieval romance. It may not be a pleasant experience for anyone.

4. Ask someone from a writing group.
This is particularly useful if you feel you need help with grammar or flow of the story. These people should be able to spot errors and suggest ways to improve a certain narrative if necessary. But a note of caution. These people can also be too critical. Many may never have finished their own manuscript for that reason. You are writing a story, not an essay.

5.  Create a private group on your Facebook page.
As you create an identity for yourself as an author, it is always good to have a Facebook “business” page, in addition to your personal page. Readers will “like” you page and hopefully join in any discussions generated. This will have its own challenges but that discussion is for another day… Back to beta readers. Try inviting people to join a private group to beta read your drafts. This is something I am considering, the aim being to reach a mix of people including some you don’t know, but knowing that they enjoy your genre. If you take this option up, let me know how you get on and we can exchange notes J

6. Consider members of other Facebook groups who do reviews.
I have included this category as it is a possibility that some readers, who normally read published books and submit reviews, may like to be a beta reader. I personally only put up my published book for review in these groups, but I guess it’s an option.

7. Ask a book blogger
I believe many would be happy to act as beta readers. These guys read books like we breathe air and you should get some great feedback. It may not always be what you want to hear, but if you choose to take their advice it could improve your writing.

8. Followers of a fanzine
These are publications produced by enthusiasts. So for example, if your story has some bearing to Star Trek, join their fanzine and connect with members who could become your beta reader. Fifty Shades started in a Twilight fanzine.

9. Consider any schemes run in organisations where you are a member.
I am a member of the Romantic Novelists Association in the UK and they run a New Writers Scheme (NWS). There is a fee for this and it goes much further than beta reading, with events and critique of your manuscript by an assigned reader. However it is only for first time writers. Once you’ve published a book it’s time to move on.

And now I guess it’s time for me to move on and wrap up. Remember, a beta reader is more than a reviewer. They should want to help you make your book even better. Of course, at the end of the day it is your book. You should be keen to accept any recommendations, or not be afraid to stick your own convictions if you choose to. In any event always remember to thank the readers, maybe gift them a copy of the final version of your book. After all, they have gifted you their time to read, make notes, and feedback to you.

So let me know – are you a beta reader appreciator?
Happy writing and editing J

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Outlining by the Seat of Your Pants

Every now and then, this quote of JRR Tolkien shows up as part of a meme that claims that all great novels are the product of inspiration, not planning and outlines. Not surprisingly, professional writers have a technical term for that theory. I’d share it with you, but it involves words I don’t use.
No outline, just starting to write and letting your story dictate where you go is not the hallmark of a great novel. It’s the beginning of an unfinished novel.
Because while it’s true not all who wander are lost, it’s also true that a journey without a destination never ends.
I’ll be getting back to what JRR Tolkien was really doing in a bit.

The opposite end of the outline spectrum is, I think, well represented by K.M. Weiland. I have read two of her books, the paranormal romance Dreamlander and the writing how-to Outlining Your Novel. (I read the second because I was researching writing methods while working on my MFA and read the first because I wanted to see how a novel by a person who wrote like that read.) Weiland also writes historical, dieselpunk, and Christian romances – but her primary focus these days seems to be teaching writers to outline. Weiland advocates everything – every bit of character development, every word of dialog, every setting, every action, everything – be thoroughly and formally outlined before the first word of the novel or short story is written. As I recall in Outlining Your Novel she states she never writes anything – including blog posts – without first developing an outline.

The reason she outlines everything down to the heroine’s dental work, brussels sprouts fetish, and stance on solid waste management is it saves time. That sounds counterintuitive, but what she means is, if something new occurs to you or you discover a problem with the plot while planning things down the nth detail, it’s far easier and quicker to change an outline than it is to rewrite a manuscript. Because once you’ve hammered everything out in your outline, writing the novel itself is just a matter of typing up an expanded version of the outline.
As is common among outline-only writers, Weiland refers to writing without a detailed outline as “pantsing” – a pejorative derived from the aviation expression “flying by the seat of your pants.”
Before the development of instruments that worked on airplanes pilots navigated and made decisions about altitude and airspeed, etc., by observing their surroundings and using their own judgment. In the 1930s, when radios and compasses were becoming common on planes, a skilled and experienced pilot who could navigate as well or better without instruments was said to fly by the seat of his pants.
When outliners say “pantsing,” however, they don’t mean a professional effectively applying skills earned through years of experience, they mean someone starting out with no idea where they’re going or how to get there. This assertion inspires me to other words I don’t use.
(On the other hand, in researching her work I discovered Weiland’s dieselpunk heroine is named Jael, so we have more in common than I thought.)

Of course every novel has a frame, a skeleton, an outline that holds everything together on on which everything else hangs. That frame can and will grow and change as the novel progresses, as the writer becomes more comfortable with the characters, or discovers new possibilities within the plot, but it’s there. And, to exactly the same degree that it's true all nine-year-olds wear size nine shoes, the frame is the same for every writer.

My first love was theatre – I wanted to be an actor and playwright. Turned out I was really bad at one and stunningly mediocre at the other, so I became a photographer (because one of the few things all the actors around be would pay for was new headshots). When I began writing fiction, a few playwrighterly habits informed my method. The most pervasive – or perhaps most noticeable – is dialog. My first draft of every scene is always – or almost always – dialog. Actors on the stage trading well-timed lines. Later the director in me will add blocking and business for them to do while they speak, but I first see the scene through the back and forth of words.That “scene” is telling – because my stories are always told in scenes and acts – I’ve never written a chapter. Writing in scenes lends itself to storyboarding – which makes sense since storyboards were developed for keeping track of scenes in a play or movie. My early organizational notes or brainstorming sessions always involved boxes with circles and arrows on graph paper.
I still do that on occasion, when I need to work through complex plot developments that involve many moving parts, or when I’m roughing in a short story on spec. But writing media tie-in reshaped my process.

There are variations between intellectual properties and editors, but broadly speaking, in media tie-in writing the project editor puts out a description of the project and invites writers to submit pitches. The pitch is a paragraph or so snapshot of how the writer would handle the project. For short pieces, under 20,000 words, the pitch is often enough. For novels, if the editor likes the pitch, they’ll usually ask for a treatment. A treatment is essentially a brief narrative outline explaining the high points of the novel’s arc. Treatment lengths vary and are often a function of the complexity of the project and how familiar the editor is with the writer’s work, but for a 90,000 word novel, a 4,000 to 5,000 word treatment would be about average. I’m a minimalist when it comes to treatments – the longest I've written (for the 93,000 word Wolf Hunters) was 3,600 words. On the other hand, my friend Ilsa Bick had a reputation at Pocket Books for submitting 30,000 word treatments for 90,000 word Star Trek projects. Where I once covered graph paper with graphics, I’m now more likely to write myself a treatment – a reminder of where I meant to be going that usually includes suggestions for alternate routes.

Most of the professional writers I know, those who produce novels regularly, use some variation of this treatment method. They know where they’re going and, broadly, how they’re going to get there – their map may be a few sentences or a few pages or a few thousand words or all in their heads, but it’s the frame, the spine, on which hey hang their story. And from that point, like the skilled and savvy veteran pilots for whom the phrase was coined, they take their experience and craftsmanship and – keeping a sharp eye on conditions around them and developing ahead – fly by the seat of their pants.

I spent one writers’ workshop, many decades ago, with David Weber, whose approach was significantly different. For each of his Honor Harrington novels (and other novels, I assume, but at the time he was revising Honor Among Enemies, aka HH6) he wrote a 20,000 (or so) word “bible” for the novel. Major players, politics, worlds, how the war (which ran through all the novels) was going in areas not addressed in the novel, etc. In other words, he had no real outline for the novel, but he knew exactly what was happening where and when and could weave it in without having to pause in his storytelling to figure out what made sense in the larger scheme of things.

Which brings us back to JRR Tolkien and his outlineless Lord of the Rings.
JRR Tolkien began inventing the world of the Middle Earth – complete with languages, mythologies, and cultures – in 1917. He was a linguist and a student of both theology and mythology, and he devoted a lot of energy and time to creating a world out of the things he knew and loved. In 1932 he wrote The Hobbit. No outline, but fifteen years of thinking about the characters, mapping their world, developing and refining every aspect of their personalities and cultures made them all so familiar to him that he didn’t need one. He then spent another fifteen years writing (and rewriting because his friend CS Lewis kept demanding better of him) The Lord of the Rings.So, if you're willing to devote thirty+ years to the project, chances are you, too, can produce a novel powerful enough to shape generations of western fantasy without an outline.

So what’s the best way to do it? For you, I have no idea. For me, that’s still evolving - it's something I'm still discovering and refining. Which is exactly as it should be.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Are You Ever Too Old to Spin a Good Yarn?

by Linda Thorne

I wrote this post a couple of years ago and a fellow author published it on her blog, but somehow posted a picture of someone else holding a dog I'd never seen. I was looking for ideas for my Novel Spaces' February post and decided to resurrect this one using a picture of me this time.

The other woman looked younger than me and her dog was truly cute, but I thought I'd post my real two pooches here (taken January 2018). 

Here's the post with a minimal amount of updated information on older authors I personally know:

If you’ve chosen a life of writing fiction late in life, just go with it. Ignore the naysayers. This post is as much of a reminder to me as to anyone else in the same or similar boat.

It is a fact that unless you die young you will continue to age - a no-brainer. Another fact is that almost universally we do not know exactly when we will go to that great library in the sky. For those of us getting up in years there are the dreaded actuarial charts telling us the clock is ticking. Tick tock, tick tock. But, is time really running out?

I know, I know. You’ve probably heard comments like: Publishers consider “older” as a negative, fans prefer younger writers, and attractive sells better than the unattractive toll that age takes on our appearance. In response to this, I say:

I don’t know if publishers have concerns about taking on older authors. In my experience of starting out and mucking around in the writing world, I haven’t heard or seen a thing to make me think they care about much more than taking on work they can sell.

Fans seem to be there for older writers too. Google the statistics.

And does anyone care about that picture of a wrinkled old man or woman on the back cover of a book? I don’t think so unless it’s the author in the picture wishing he or she could look younger.

So, having said this, let’s take a look at reality:

George Elliot’s first book was published when she was 52 years old and Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep when he was 51. Well, they beat me by a few years, but there’s more:

Laura Ingalls Wilder, famed for her series of the Little House on the Prairie may’ve started writing in her forties, but she didn’t become successful until her mid 60s.

Anna Sewell first published Black Beauty, at the age of 57.

Charles Bukowski started writing at age 50 and published Post Office when he was 51.

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula when he was 50.

Harriet Doerr did not begin writing until she was in her 60s and was not published until she was 74.

Let’s not forget P.D. James. She may’ve started earlier than some of us (late 30s I think), but she continued to publish into her 90s, still showing up at literary festivals and other events. Her many books are world famous. But the oldest of this group I’ve found so far is Millard Kaufman who published his first book when he was 90 years old.

I met Marilyn Meredith at the San Joaquin Valley Sisters in Crime group when I lived in that area from 2002 to 2007. I’ve heard her speak about her writing on numerous occasions and she often tells the audience about being first published when she was a grandmother in her early fifties. Currently Marilyn is in her eighties and can claim to fame having published forty some books. I’m starting to lose count.

When I moved to Nashville and joined the Middle Tennessee Sisters in Crime organization, our group’s president, Chester Campbell, was in his 80s and had published some novels. He didn’t begin writing fiction until after he retired in 1989. He did not publish his first book until 2002 at the age of 77. When I first wrote this post, Chester had eleven books out and was turning 91. I understand he has more books out now and is pushing 93.

So does age really matter if you want to take on a writing career? All I can say is why should it if it’s what you want to do. Don’t sweat the real or perceived obstacles. Or those hideous insurance industry actuarial charts. If we ignore them, maybe they will go away and we won’t.

Okay, now let’s see, what was Dorian Gray’s secret potion?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Guest author Kathleen Kaska: A Study in Physics: Riding the Publishing Roller Coaster

Kathleen Kaska
Kathleen Kaska is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, travel articles and stage plays. Among her works are the award-winning Sydney Lockhart mystery series set in the 1950s, and Murder at the Arlington which won the 2008 Salvo Press Manuscript Contest. Kaska has also published three mystery-trivia books: The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book, The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

I’ve often been asked what it’s like being a published author. My answer has always been the same: it’s like hitching a ride on a roller coaster. You win a writing contest, which lands you a book contract. Your spirits soar. Another manuscript is rejected for the umpteenth time. You feel like tossing your laptop in the nearby stock tank. A reader tells you that your book was so entertaining and funny he bought several copies to give friends. You do a happy dance. Then some person, identified only by their initials, reviews your book on Amazon, gives it an average rating of three stars, and calls your writing “insipid.” You look up insipid to make sure it means what you think it means. It does.

You wonder if it’s all worth it. Then you awaken in the middle of the night with an ingenious idea for a story, and you’re glad you didn’t drown your laptop. Or you’re in your favorite coffee shop and can’t help eavesdropping on a shocking conversation. By the end of the day you’re using it in a murder plot for a new story.

Forget the downside of being a published author; it’s the writing that really matters. And in time you’ll realize that riding the roller coaster is part of the process.

By the way, the physics involved in moving a roller coaster cart up and down the track is quite simple: it’s the momentum gained by the force of gravity on the downhill slopes that gives the cart the energy to shoot up the next hill. That’s why the steepest hills are always at the beginning of the ride. Without the downhill slopes, going uphill would be impossible.

If you view writer’s block, rejections, less-than-favorable reviews, and all the other unpleasant surprises that come your way as opportunities that propel you forward, those plummeting descents won’t feel so frightening.

This post is an excerpt from my latest book, Do You Have a Catharsis Handy? Five-Minute Writing Tips, a collection of my blog posts written for and published by Cave Art Press.

I’m giving away three copies of Do You Have a Catharsis Handy? To be eligible, leave a comment. It’s always a delight to hear from readers.