Tag Archives: revision

Everyone’s a Star

7 Jan

I spent the first morning of this year at Melissa‘s new house, in what will eventually become her library (and, I assume, writing room).

We talked for hours.  Naturally, the subject of our novels-in-progress came up.  I blathered on about how difficult revision can be, how it sometimes feels like a huge puzzle.  Being the awesome critique partner she is, though, she’s great at feeling out whether I need her to challenge me, or whether I need simple encouragement.

Well, that morning was all about encouragement.  She mentioned one of the things she loved about my WIP was that I was able to weave a lot of threads together and not drop them (specifically, she remembered this post I wrote about spider legs).  I so enjoy complicated, well-woven books/TV shows/movies—it’s only natural that I would attempt to write one.

However.

This got me thinking about how long it took to actually spin the threads, not to mention how long it’s taken to weave them together without dropping them.  (Answer: I’m on my fourth draft.  One of those drafts was a total rewrite, another was a partial rewrite.  A long time.)

I thought I’d share my secret today.  Alas, there is no secret to the weaving of the threads—just diligence, patience, perseverance, and faith that it will all pay off.  No, the secret I want to share is about how to spin the threads in the first place.

The number one thing that has given my novel depth and decent subplots is this:

Treat every character like the star of the show, even if they’re only on stage for two seconds.

Here’s what I mean by that.

My first draft fell flat because I only knew my main character.  He was vibrant against a background of half-drawn people whose motivations were no more than what I needed them to be in the moments they were on stage.

The second draft became a total rewrite because I got to know my minor characters.  Period.

I remember sitting in my favorite Starbucks, looking at all the people I knew well, and all the people who were strangers.  It occurred to me: I feel like the center of my world, because I come complete with 27 years of memories, opinions, experiences, and relationships.  But: that stranger over there?  To him, I’m a minor character, and HE’S the star of his own world.  Just because I’m on the stage of his life for two seconds, it doesn’t mean I’m any less real of a person.  And just because I’ve never seen him before, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have several decades of opinions, experiences, etc.

THAT, my friends, revolutionized my writing.

I started thinking of my minor characters in that way: who are they, behind the scenes?  What do they want, what do they feel, what emotions are they experiencing?  How do they live and breathe and speak, even when we don’t see them?

After thinking about these things, my story changed.  Not the main plot—but all the subplots.  There were lots of things going on behind the central story, believable things that enhanced the main plot.

When Lexie, one of my favorite characters, walks on stage, she is 100% Lexie—not some cardboard cliché who merely does what I need her to do.  Every piece of dialogue, every movement she makes, every decision, ALL of these are completely in line with who I know she is.  She’s one of the more major minor characters (got that? ha!).  I’ve done my best to get to know most of my characters in this way.

This might sound like a lot of work.  I hope it does, because, um, it IS.  But, it comes in handy when you’re trying to weave the threads later.  When you know your characters and their lives so well, you don’t have to guess about whether or not they would act a certain way—things just start to fall into place. You start to remember the threads you spun like you remember things going on in your friends’ lives (at least, I do), which makes it much easier to weave them together without forgetting you started them in the first place.

So, moral of the story: minor characters are just as real as your major characters.  They’re flesh and bone and experience, not cardboard.  Everyone feels like a star in their own lives—write them that way, whether it’s their story or not.

Big Bowl of Crazy

4 Nov

Why, hello, November!  You are bright and shiny (read: dark and rainy and cold and AWESOME), and I’m so glad you’re finally here—just one question.

When did you arrive, and how did I miss you?

(Oops.  Two questions.  My bad.)

Somehow, the number at the bottom of my screen tells me it is already the fourth.  Wha?!  This would not usually be a daunting number, except that it’s November.  Not that I’m doing NaNo, but still.  My November is turning into one big fat bowl of crazy.  I need every day I can get.

So…isn’t a non-NaNoWriMo November supposed to be calm, lovely, smooth, and entirely stress-free? (HA.)  Turns out, that only happens when you treat November as merely November.  If you replace NaNoWriMo with your own combination of NaNoBlahBlahBlah, all sorts of crazy is possible.

For example, here are all the NaNos I’m n̶a̶ï̶v̶e̶l̶y̶  bravely taking on this month:

NaNoWriMo

NOT the pull-out-your-hair, scribble-till-your-arm-falls-off 50K version.  More like the 500 words per day version that I invented merely to get WIP #2’s first draft rolling.  It’s nice to have a no-pressure outlet purely dedicated to creating something fresh.  So far, I’m reaching this goal about every other day.

NaNoRevMo

The lovely Beth Revis invented this one, and the Rev is for revision.  (Note that Beth has a distinct advantage, since the entire revision process is practically named for her.  If only it was called Olsonision…or Olsonion? Alas.  It isn’t.)  This is the Big Project.  The still-needs-work-but-it’s-kind-of-almost-there project.  It’s going well so far.  I’ve figured out a process that works for this draft (the fourth)(funny how everysinglepart of this process requires a new system, no matter how well your old ones work) and am excited and encouraged about the upcoming changes.  Some are significant, some are minor.  All are needed.

NaNoReaMo

This is what Natalie Whipple is doing this month: a ton of reading.  She plans to burn through her tall stack of to-be-reads.  My stack of want-to-reads is ever growing, but for November, I’ll be happy if I get through one—two at most (James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade).

KaNoGyMo

This is fun to say (imagine Sun’s harsh Korean father on LOST saying this like it’s an order to one of his subservient minions), and I made it up two seconds ago.  It stands for Kayla’s November Gym Month.  Yep: self-explanatory.  My sitting to moving ratio isn’t pretty at the moment, and I am dedicated to getting back into good habits.  Even if that only looks like a 30-minute walk on the treadmill—I’m mostly just aiming for consistent effort right now.

NaHoCleMo

Linda came up with this one last year: National House Cleaning Month.  Though I sort of need to participate, I hadn’t planned on it.  I mean, look at my November plans, y’all!  They’re…daunting.  Possible, but daunting.  To add cleaning to the mix seemed useful, but not ultimately important enough to shove my other goals aside.  Until now…

KaNoMoMo

No, I’m not talking about peaches. (MoMo = もも = peach in Japanese, FYI.)  Nope—it’s Kayla’s November Moving Month.  We’ve had some life transition goals in the works for a while (meaning we’ve been dreaming/praying about them and wondering how/when to actually try to act on them).  Well, turns out November is THE month!  Things have fallen into place quickly and perfectly, and we’ll be making a major move before the first of December.

As you might imagine, this last thing could flatten the rest of November to the ground.  Stack of books to read?  Flattened.  Shiny new WIP?  Pancake.  Revisions?  Roadkill.  If that happens, whatever.  Life happens.  And this transition?  Certainly counts as life.  December will be there, if all else fails.

However—I’m going to try to keep the impending transition from steamrolling over my goals.  Forward progress, discipline, and a calm spirit: those are my only REAL goals for November.  If I can accomplish those, I’ll be happy.

So?  Four days in—how are you guys doing with your various sets of lofty goals?  Updates, please!

Scrivenerlicious.

25 Oct

Unless you have eyes like an…um…something that can see really well and is not a cliché, you might want to click on this to make it bigger.  The whole blog post is on that beautiful orange index card, yo.

PS: Special thanks to @bethrevis and @LizaKane who totally talked me into this software. (Not that I needed much convincing. Just a little nudge.)

PPS: You can check Scrivener out here.  Be warned: if you don’t have a Mac, you might be investing in one once you see this software. (UPDATE! Don’t despair or go broke just yet!  Check out the comments – the ever-awesome @melissaiswrite has provided a link for the soon-to-be-released version for PCs!)

Oktoberzest, Revisited.

1 Oct

So, uh, wow.

I have it on good authority that October has arrived.  How is this possible?  This year has flown by.  FLOWN, I tell you.

Last year at this time, I was in the early phases of rewriting my first draft.  Now, I’m about to start actively crafting a fourth draft.  (As opposed to the past few weeks, where I’ve taken no concrete action on it, but have been mulling over crits received and changes to be made.)

  • Somewhere along the way, I developed two systems that worked well for my writing habits.  One was for adding meat to a WIP and re-writing it from a blank page, the other was for tightening a WIP based on the basic structure already in place.  (Here and here.  Both links are for the tightening phase, not the total re-write.)
  • I entered the beta-reading world, both as reader and as writer.
  • Over the summer, I participated in Merrilee Faber’s creativity workshop, which sharpened my coming-up-with-ideas skills, produced several ideas for new novels, and even resulted in two YouTube videos where I covered songs by Patty Griffin and Lennon/McCartney.  (Here and here.)
  • I read a tall stack of novels.
  • I figured out how to use Twitter to my advantage (as opposed to letting it rule my day and destroy my writing time).
  • At the end of the summer, I finished the third draft.
  • In the interim between finishing and starting the fourth draft, I started writing a pressure-free first draft for a totally different novel.

So.

That brings us to now.  Sorry to get all I did this, I did that on you.  It can be easy to forget just how far we’ve come, especially when we’re focused on how far we still have to go.

Where have you been, and where are you going? Specifically, where are you going this October?

Personally, I’m headed into somewhat uncharted territory: the wow-my-betas-have-given-me-some-awesome-feedback-now-how-on-earth-do-I-deal-with-it? territory.  This territory, I hear, is sharpening.  And by sharpening, I’m thinking it’s like an arrow: you have to whittle away at it so it has a sharp point, and will therefore pierce the target with precision.  Unfortunately, the whittling may be painful. That said, precision seems to be worth a bit of temporary pain.

Advice You Really Should Take To Heart. (Not That It’s Easy.)

21 Sep

Things you don't really WANT to know, but kind of NEED to know. (See also: advice you really should take to heart.)

If you’ve been reading writing blogs for any decent amount of time, you are probably aware that your (somewhat) finished WIP comes with a warning label:

Once you finish your (first, second, third, thirtieth) draft, DO NOT PICK IT UP AND TRY TO EDIT IT UNLESS YOU’VE LET ENOUGH TIME PASS.

If you’re like me, you proceeded to ignore said advice.

And then you proceeded to promptly throw your beautiful horrible draft as far away from you as possible so it wouldn’t bite your face off.

Oh, wait.

You haven’t done this?

Well.  You must not have given it to six different readers, all of whom have incredibly sharp wits, kind hearts, and the invaluable willingness to tell you exactly what you need to hear in order to turn your sort-of-kind-of-almost-but-not-quite-there-yet manuscript into something BETTER.

The good thing about this?  I love, love, love, Love, LOVE that their feedback is going to strengthen the work I care about so much.

The hard thing about it?  It really IS true that objectivity requires distance.  Without distance, the manuscript is THE thing you’ve poured your heart into, THE product of all those difficult hours, THE accomplishment you’re proud of.  And it makes it really hard to hear that it still needs work, EVEN THOUGH YOU ABSOLUTELY, 100% AGREE with most of the feedback you’re getting.  You know it’s not perfect, and yet it’s still hard to deal with the fact that it’s not perfect.

Another hard thing?  Not everyone agrees on what works and what doesn’t.  One reader thinks a character was particularly effective, while someone else thinks the same character wasn’t very fleshed out at all.  Another character rocks someone’s world, while at the same time confusing another reader.  One says cut that element, while another says that was one of my favorite things!

Getting conflicting feedback when you’re thisclose to the manuscript is like being on a rollercoaster.  Your work is being challenged (in a good way and for the better), and it’s tempting to take every single thing to heart as it comes in.  Either that, or only listen to the things that make you feel good (which are NOT always the same things you and your manuscript NEED to listen to).

So.

What does a person do in this situation?

The hard thing.  Which is also the best thing.

  • WAIT. Even though it’s not easy, and you’re passionate about doing more–wait.  Wait because you’re passionate.  Passion will stand in the way of doing hard things you might need to do.  And because you’re passionate, you want the very best for your work.  Waiting counts as hard work, so don’t let yourself feel lazy.  It. Is. Hard.
  • LISTEN. Listen to everything, even the things that make you angry or want to cry.  Chances are, those things are problems you know need to be dealt with.  Dealing with them will make your work stronger.  Listen to your trusted friends.  (I suppose it’s possible that even people you don’t trust can give you useful feedback.  I wouldn’t know, though.  So far, the only readers I’ve had are people I trust and respect.)  At the end of the day, listen to what best serves the story YOU set out to tell.
  • HANDS OFF. Do not touch the manuscript until after a) you’ve had enough distance to be objective, and b) all your critiques are in.  I didn’t come up with this piece of advice.  I read it, among other helpful things, here and here (Oh, Natalie Whipple, you rock.) and here (You rock, too, Merrilee Faber.).   I read all of these posts just in time to pry my eager little fingers away from making changes too early.
  • MULL IT OVER. A lot.  This, too, can look like laziness to those of us who thrive on typing, scratching things out, making manuscripts bleed.  Mulling is anything but lazy, though.  Mulling can happen in the shower, in those first few minutes when you wake up, the last few minutes before you fall asleep, while you’re in line at the grocery store, while you’re sweating in yoga.  It’s not as tangible as diving in and fixing things, which is what makes it hard.
  • WAIT. Yes, again.
  • DO SOMETHING ELSE THAT IS PRODUCTIVE WHILE WAITING. Why?  Because waiting can be incredibly draining and annoying.  We are writers.  It’s what we do.  I was feeling particularly impatient over the weekend, so I spent several hours working on an idea that’s been lingering in my head for months.  Nothing like a no-pressure first draft to defuse the pressure we put on ourselves to succeed with that one VIP (Very Important Project).
  • THINK. On paper.  On computer.  On Starbucks napkins.  On the palm of your hand.  In your head.  About the easy fixes and the ugly truths.  About how much you love your crit partners for loving you enough to be honest with you.
  • THEN EVALUATE AND FIX. The light at the end?  It’s still there.  You just might spend more time in that dark tunnel than you initially expected.  Be patient and do your best work.  (For example, read Merrilee’s take on Creative Revision.)  Hold out hope that your hard work will be worth it.

These are the things I’m learning from other people who have been there.  Waiting is HARD.  Harder than it seems when you’re merely reading posts about it.  I’m itching to work on this manuscript, but am forcing myself to wait a little longer.

If you didn’t already, click on the links to Merrilee’s and Natalie’s blogs.  These are excellent posts about what to do with feedback once you get it.

PS: That ALLIGATOR LIVES IN CANAL sign is from a rental car place in Florida.  Can I just take a minute to tell you how glad I am that I didn’t feel a pressing urge to frolic in the canal? (Not that such urges are the norm for me.  I prefer to frolic in private places like my living room.) An alligator bite may have put a bit of a damper on an otherwise incredible vacation!

Comparison: The Writer’s Knife

26 Aug

And here we have an example of someone with a knife (and a gun, technically). You DO recognize him, right?

Just so you know, I was thisclose to naming this post “The Writer’s Villain.”

In a post about villains, I would have then blathered on about how all the best villains have something redeemable about them.  That the best villains are not what they seem to be at first glance, but are usually much worse than they seem to be.  And, though they’re definitely dastardly, there’s probably one tiny endearing thing that makes them sympathetic.  Benjamin Linus and his daddy issues.  Voldemort and his intensely human fear of death and desire for power.  The guy pictured above, who I will refrain from giving spoilers about.  Blah blah blah.  Blather, blather.

But I’m not writing about villains today.

I’m writing about comparison, and the knife seemed a more precise analogy.  Think about it: a knife can be both a source of life and death, power or pain.  It can be used to carve weapons, sharpen other knives, cut rope or string or fabric to make shelter or clothing, kill and prepare food. Just as it’s useful for killing food to eat, however, it’s able to kill a human.  It can cut, slice, puncture, and then there’s pain.  Death.

It’s all in how you hold it, and it’s all in how you use it.

Same with comparison.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about this.  Is it ever okay to compare yourself to other writers, or is that just a knife waiting to kill your work?  Or, is it a knife waiting to sharpen your work, carve it into something stronger, more powerful, better?  Or, is it neither—just a nagging weapon, a little too dangerous to touch and much better left to those who can handle it?

I think it’s all three.  Comparison can be useful to us as writers, but only if we know how to not let it kill us.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to write a miniseries about these things.  There will be three posts:

Why you should NEVER, EVER, EVER compare yourself to other writers,

Why you should TOTALLY compare yourself to other writers,

and

WHAT TO DO once you’ve not compared and compared yourself to other writers. (Turns out I may not write this one after all. The TOTALLY post covered it well enough, I think.)

No matter how hard we try to avoid it, the temptation to compare ourselves with others—both in writing and in life—isn’t going away any time soon.  We might as well learn how to wield it to our advantage.

And, PS: My qualifications for writing this look a lot like, “Girl compares herself.  Girl despairs.  Girl decides there’s value in the comparison.  Girl knows others have the tendency to compare themsleves, too, and maybe even despair—what she’s learning just might help someone else. Girl decides to throw opinions out there into Blogosphere. Girl proceeds to refer to herself as Girl, drink her coffee, and hope this miniseries sounds remotely helpful and/or interesting to someone other than merely herself.”

Anna and the French Kiss Giveaway Contest!

16 Aug

Also known as the post in which I shamelessly plug a book I’m SO looking forward to reading in an attempt to win an advanced copy.

Because I want it.  And you should, too.

Just last week, I blogged about the intense and inspiring revision process of author Stephanie Perkins.  So, how cool is it that I — and you — have a chance to win an advanced copy of that very novel, the result of all that devotion and discipline?  I was already looking forward to Anna and the French Kiss, but my anticipation totally quadrupled (and then the quadrupled anticipation quadrupled) after I read about the blood, sweat, and tears she put into it.

Click here to read Stephanie’s post about the contest.

Since this is a rarity on this blog (this being a shameless attempt to win something), that should tell you how much I’m looking forward to the book.  I promise to bombard you with such shameless attempts *only* in the most special of contests.

Like this one.

(Note: Saying nice things about Stephanie and her book are NOT part of the requirements to win the contest.  I merely had to post about it.  Thought it was worth mentioning that these are things I genuinely think-slash-feel, and they won’t give me any better chance at winning the book.)(Unfortunately.)

Au revoir for now!  (She says in a completely tainted-by-Texas, un-French-as-you-can-get accent.)

Just Because it’s the Third Draft,

9 Aug

it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s almost finished.

Unfortunately and fortunately.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends and family.  When I say “a lot,” I really only mean “two, over and over again.”  The conversation goes a little like this:

“How far are you in your book?”

“Sixty-ish percent through the third draft, yay!”

“So—does that mean you’ll be done soon?”

(Pause for crickets to chirp while I think of how to explain that while I’m *much* closer to being done, I’m not sure exactly when ‘done’ will happen.)

“Hopefully the rest of this draft won’t take too much longer, but it will probably still need a bit of work after that.”

“Oh.”

As you might imagine, this has an interesting effect on me.  I’ve been working on this thing for a while, right?  And everyone knows it.  And I’m almost done with my third draft.  Third!  Not the first one, where I had no clue.  Not the second one, where I performed major MAJOR surgery on the manuscript.  The third draft, where things are finally, finally, finally starting to resemble something presentable!  That means I’m almost done, right?

Eh.

Not quite.  Not for sure, anyway.  After this draft, I plan to read it again and polish up a few things I may have missed before it goes into the hands of a few betas.  And then, depending on the feedback from my oh-so-helpful future betas (who will, I hope, be tactful and kind while being brutally honest), it may take a little work, or it may take a lot of work.  In which case I will complete said work and make it the best little manuscript I can write, send some intensely sincere thank you cards to my kind/brutal future betas, and mold it until it feels ready to send to agents.

I’m aware that it probably won’t ever be perfect.  That doesn’t mean I want to stop at merely good enough, though.

I was inspired to think these thoughts and write this post due to something I read over the weekend.  Stephanie Perkins, author of Anna and the French Kiss (December 2010), has an amazing post on her blog about just how many revisions Anna has been through.  It’s a lot, people.  Her attitude about it is pretty inspiring, and I encourage you to read the post¹.

It occurred to me: so many non-writer people ask when I’ll be done because they have no clue how much work goes into a novel.  I thought I had a clue.  This post, though, opened my eyes to exactly how much work a novel can demand.  Reading the perspective of someone who has lived it?  Was pretty much revelatory for me.  Just because it’s the third draft, doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to the final product.

This can overwhelm me, or it can inspire me.

I’m choosing to be inspired, because I’d rather not feel overwhelmed.  Did I mention that everyone’s “When are you going to be done?”s have tempted me to rush the thing?  To churn it out because I’m thisclose to the end?  No, I don’t think I mentioned it.  But now I have, mainly to say I’m learning patience.  And follow-through.  To not rush, but to work steadily and with discipline, making sure everything is as good as it can possibly be.  Leaving it at good enough would be cheating myself and my manuscript.

Which is where my “unfortunately and fortunately” comment comes in.  Unfortunately, I may still have a long road on this novel.  Fortunately, I love my characters and the story.  Fortunately, I know that feedback from betas, and whatever subsequent revisions come out of that feedback, will only serve to improve the story.  That, after however many hours I put into it and however many lattes I drink in the process, the work will pay off.  It will be the best little manuscript it could possibly be, and how could I ever want it to be anything but that?

Unfortunately, it may take longer than expected.

Fortunately, it will be worth it.

¹The first half of the post is about the book itself, the last section (after the question in red text) is all about the many stages of revision that went into her novel.

The Verdict | Creativity Workshop, Final Update

27 Jul

Is it really possible that the Creativity Workshop is coming to a close?  Has summer really flown by so fast?

Yes.  Yes it is, and yes it has.

Though my workshop participation dropped to dormant-volcano-level¹ during the last half, I took away some valuable lessons from this experience.

one

Ideas?  Are everywhere. This workshop trained me to notice them so well that I got overwhelmed by all the ideas that started popping up.  Currently, I have ideas for a follow-up to my WIP, a separate trilogy, a totally separate book that may or may not lend itself toward a sequel or two, and a handful of on-paper-but-not-quite-started ideas for short stories.  This is the primary reason my participation level dropped — I had to slow down before I let the ideas eat me.  Which brings me to…

two

Shiny ideas are fun!  But dangerous. It’s great to have ideas.  What’s not so great is to try to work on them all at once.  For me, anyway.  My so-major-it-needs-to-be-in-all-caps-MAJOR project of the summer has been diligent effort towards completing this third draft of my WIP.  It’s my priority, and it’s rocking.  (It’s challenging.  And still needs work.  But rocking, nonetheless.)

However: what with my pursuit to hone my idea-catching skills, shiny things keep distracting me.  And not shiny as in crumpled-up-aluminum-can-on-the-side-of-the-road shiny — rather, gems-in-a-J.Crew-necklace shiny.  Which is to say, enticing and nearly impossible to avoid.

I spent one long, enthusiasm-laden Saturday night organizing the HUGE ideas I had.  Even with the intent to a) merely summarize the ideas so they’d be waiting on the other side of the MAJOR project, b) not be distracted by the shiny, and c) be chill about it so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed, I so totally got overwhelmed.  It wasn’t physically draining², but it was mentally draining to try to think about three separate (volcano-sized) ideas simultaneously.  Which is why people probably don’t try to write three separate (volcano-sized) ideas simultaneously (even simple outlines) in the first place.

three

Snail, but steady. I started the summer as a snail — steady and slow.  I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept the steady, but ditched the snail speed in favor of something more akin to waddling-goose speed.  (By this, I mean faster than a snail, slower than a puma.)  The major area of growth that contributed to this?  My much-improved ability to focus when I sit down to work.  Conquering distractions took work, but after weeks of working on it, I’ve become SO. MUCH. MORE. PRODUCTIVE. so much more often.

At first, I took the command-Q-to-Twitter-and-all-browsers approach.  Um.  That worked out about as well as that time I tried to give up lattes.  And we all know how much I love my lattes.

What I ended up with was the how-many-cupcakes-can-start-and-STAY-on-my-counter approach to Twitter/blogs/you name it.  (As opposed to the eat-all-the-cupcakes-right-now-and-what-the-heck-make-my-latte-a-breve approach.)  This ended up working well.  I learned how to keep Twitter open, but not give in to its wiles.  Now I have a nice, friendly, have-a-cupcake-but-keep-the-figure relationship with Twitter, and it’s awesome.  There are writers and resources at my fingertips, along with a manuscript that’s all the better for it (instead of suffering a death by sugar overload or neglect).

This post is long enough.

I learned a lot.  Things are going well.  Now, I’m working on being productive AND being a consistent blogger again.  As of today, my third draft is 47.8% finished.  Perhaps I’ll bore you with my (geektastically awesome) progress chart system someday soon.

The end.

And a beginning.

¹I had tons of ideas bubbling, lava-like, beneath the surface.  But to an observer’s eye?  The last few weeks probably looked kinda like a dead mountain.

²Okay, so confession, it kind of was.

The Specifics: Learning to Beta

5 Apr

Armed with a (new) totebag full of supplies — highlighters, my stack of notecards, pens galore, post-its, flip-flops (so my awesome new boots don’t die if these dark clouds make good on their threats), and two file folders full of paper — I’m ready to work.

Not that I haven’t been ready to work this past week and a half — quite the opposite, actually.  Last week was quite a productive one.  So productive, in fact, that I looked up this morning and noticed I was verging on an unprecedented two week gap between posts.

Perhaps you assume that I’m working on turning my second draft from clunky to glorious.  Or, perhaps you assume that by “productive,” I mean making major progress in getting a friend caught up on LOST by hosting a marathon last Wednesday.  Or, if you’re really really really optimistic, you assume that I’m SO BUSY because I’m spending at least an hour at the gym every day.

In these assumptions, you’d be partly right.  (An hour at the gym each day is too generous.  And the LOST marathon?  We limited ourselves to three episodes.)  Actually, a big portion of last week, in addition to all of those things, was devoted to learning something new.

For the first time, I’m learning how to beta read for someone.  (Feel free to out yourself, special someone!)

“What’s the big deal?  Don’t you just read the thing and tell them what you think about it?” Well, yes and no.  In essence, you read the thing and tell the writer what you think.  Really, though, I’m learning to READ the thing and TELL the writer what I think and WHY.  (In case you missed it, I emphasized a few words there…)

Being a beta reader has been excellent practice in both communication and in reading with an observant eye.  Does this work?  Why does it work?  Why not?  Do I like this part?  Why do I like it?  What is going on underneath the surface of the printed words?  Do I have any guesses at what’s coming next?  Too many guesses, or just the right amount?  Am I confused during any parts?  At what point did I become confused?

You get the picture.  All of these examples can be summed up like this: I’m learning to be specific.  To say, “I liked this scene because ______ and _______ and ______, and it really works well with the overall theme you’re trying to communicate (which is _____, if I’m right?) because of ______.” versus “That scene seemed to go well with her character and I liked reading it.”  What does that even mean, you know?  Being specific, as you go, lets the writer see exactly where she has accomplished her goals, and where she wasn’t as clear as she’d hoped to be.

Beta reading has also taught me how much to insert myself into my comments.  It’s a little bit tricky to balance subjectivity with objectivity.  My approach has evolved into I’m going to go ahead and communicate my opinions, but not as FACT with capital letters.  The truth is, I am a reader, and I have an opinion.  Those truths alone make my perspective valid, so if I’m getting something from what she wrote, that means it is possible for someone to perceive it in that particular way.  However, the trick is to communicate that perspective with the understanding that I am only one person.  My comments and thoughts, while valid, may only represent 1% of all readers, so I should present them in a way that’s honest and sincere, yet objective.

Therein lies freedom.  Freedom for the beta reader to honestly communicate what she thinks works and what doesn’t; freedom for the writer to take those thoughts and do what she thinks is best for the WIP and for all readers.

Not only is this helpful for the writer, it’s (obviously) a good learning lesson for you as the reader.  It’s a good way to take a break from your own work while still working out your mind — I’m super excited about diving back into my own novel today, now that I’ve had so much practice reading someone else’s work objectively and looking for specifics.

Those of you who have experience in this — whether from the perspective of the writer or the beta reader — do you have any advice or comments to add?

Now!  To dive into work…