Mr. Wizard and Proofreading

MrWizardI haven’t seen the Nickelodeon show in decades, but hunting up these clips on Youtube makes me feel like I never stopped watching.

It was a pleasant surprise to collide with an experiment that shows how important it is to slow down when proofreading!  I’ll let Mr. Wizard and his assistant give you some other good tips.

Any proofreading tips you’d like to add? Share in the comments!


“WHAT do you WANT?” Use Motivation To Anchor Your Rewrites

elaine_pitt_socksPictured: my job as a business analyst.

I’ve learned editing is a cycle of dashed hopes.  “This next chapter won’t need much work at all- hooray!”  Then I reread it, and uh-oh!  Spider-sense tingling.  A character acted dumb for the sake of plot, or something I thought would be good feels awkward.

I always trust my niggling bad feelings.  Time to reassess and rewrite.  Again.

Reluctance and dread soon pale against an escalating panic.  What do I change?  How?  Is anything salvageable?  Ugh, I’m so confused.  What needs to happen again?  Oh FSM, I’m gonna unravel the entire damn plot-

Stop!  Deep breath.  Start with one thing: What do the characters in this scene want at this point in the story?

I don’t always have a clear picture here, especially when I’m rereading words I put down months ago.  Good computer programmers intersperse comments amid lines of code to explain what they’re supposed to do- a guide to the programmer’s thought process.  As you draft, you may also want to keep track of character wants in a similar way, either within comments or a separate document.  These wants can help explain why a character says or does something at a certain time, if you no longer recall the significance.  These aren’t set in stone- they’re allowed to change as rewrites happen- but they’re a good starting point for understanding your initial intentions for the scene.

Too late- you’re editing now, and didn’t track this stuff earlier?  Yeah, me either.  When I have to piece things together after the fact, I find physically writing down my notes helps organize my brain better, and calm down that panicky inner voice proclaiming the entire manuscript a failure.  I just list out characters in the scene, and the wants/goals that are pertinent to them at that moment.  If I’m feeling meta, I work down to the emotions that drive each want.  After all, what you want is never a thing.

That’s a good starting point.  It can- it must– get more complicated from there.  Just because a character wants something doesn’t mean he’ll get it (obviously, stringing them along is what keeps the plot moving forward).  It also doesn’t mean he understands his own desires, or that he’ll always choose the most rational path to his desired outcome.  Gennaro (the lawyer in Jurassic Park) wants to avoid being T-Rex chow, but panic drives him to the fated toilet seat.  Scarlett O’Hara wants love, but she’s so hung up on Ashley Wilkes that she spurns Rhett Butler- until the very moment he decides he’s had enough of her shit.

rhett_scarlettIs spurning Clark Gable a crime? It should be.

Track all the things complicating your characters’ wants: environment, altered emotional states, other characters, etc.  Then figure out how the characters respond to the obstacles before them.  This becomes the playbook for your scene.  It’s where all the drama comes from!

If you’re having trouble with this, try doing it with a movie or book you know really well, like I did above with two of my favorites.  Get as detailed with your analysis as possible, then turn that awesome analytical mind loose on your own work.

Of course, all this soul-searching might have an unexpected effect.  If you’re really struggling to identify the above for a certain scene, maybe you don’t need to rewrite it at all.  Maybe you just need to remove the scene!

Scene rewrites can be tricky.  What methods do you rely on to focus yourself?  Let me know in the comments!


Be A Beta-Star, Part II: Getting Great Feedback

happygilmore

Last week, I wrote about giving the best feedback possible.  Now it’s time to discuss receiving great feedback.  No, this isn’t about everyone kissing your butt!  It’s about putting aside your ego and lovingly beating the crap out of your work until it’s better than you ever imagined.

Some of this advice complements ideas from the last post, but as a writer soliciting feedback, your job is more involved.  Not only do you have to gather it, you also have to apply it to the greatest possible effect.  You may then need to change how or from whom you solicit critique from in the future-

-but for now, let’s start at the beginning.  You have a piece or a chapter done, and you want more eyes on it.  Good!  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, you always benefit from ensuring there’s nothing lurking in your blind spot that unravels the plot or otherwise turns off potential readers.  What now?

Be tough.

Remember that scene in Happy Gilmore when Happy enters a batting cage to face an onslaught of mechanical fastballs?  When you bare your soul and ask others to critique your work, you must be every bit as fearless and immune to what’s thrown at you. (At the same time, there’s no shame in wearing a helmet.)

Always, remember, though: unlike baseball, the people slinging those fastballs are on your side.

When you have food caught between your teeth, are you upset or defensive with anyone who politely warns you about it?  Do you take it as an affront?  Hopefully not.  In fact, you’re more likely to be upset if they keep quiet, and you wind up flashing a goofy spinach-riddled grin at your crush.  That’s what I’m talking about with critique.  What may feel like an attack is really just someone trying to help you put your best foot forward.

It’s tough to convince your ego of this sometimes.  Ever write something you thought was killer, only to have it fall flat with everyone who looked at it?  Even seasoned writers sometimes feel like they’ve endured a beating after a tough critique session.

Still- better you identify and fix problems now, before your crush happens past.

Be adventurous.

It’s time to find beta-readers.  Friends and family are a good start, but you also need opinions from those who aren’t super-close to you, those who won’t be tempted to tell you everything smells like roses.  Look for seasoned beta-readers at local writers’ groups and on social networks.  If you’re joining a group cold, don’t shove your work under their noses right away.  Spend a few sessions providing feedback for the other members, until you have a better feel for whether they understand your genre and provide strong advice.

When you do ask for feedback, explicitly invite the group’s honesty.  Let them know you can take constructive criticism (and mean it).

Be specific.

To avoid the dreaded “It was good” review, give your beta-readers specific things to watch out for.  Was a certain scene transition effective?  What are their impressions of the main character?  If nothing else, ask the readers to identify three things they liked and three things they thought could use improvement.  Also state whether you want people to point out typos and grammatical flaws, or if you want them to put that aside and focus more on the plot, characters, etc.

Be open to discussion.

Ask if you can delve into your beta-readers’ comments.  Their notes should be the starting point for a civil discussion where you invite clarification and flesh out ideas for improvement.

This isn’t a doctoral dissertation.  You’re NOT defending your work from the criticism it received.  By all means explain what you were trying to do in a certain paragraph/line, but don’t assume every misunderstanding is the reader’s fault.

Brainstorm together to make the suggested changes as awesome as possible.  You can forge a lot of great ideas and friendships this way.  A fun, spirited discussion not only inspires you, but also makes your beta-readers more eager to help you in the future.

Be selective.

All this said, you shouldn’t try to incorporate every single suggestion your beta-readers give you. We all have pet peeves that other people completely don’t care about, and you’ll never satisfy everyone.  Place more weight on feedback that more than one person has made.

If one person says a certain line confuses them, but it doesn’t bother anyone else, and you don’t feel it needs to be changed, don’t change it.  However, if nearly everyone says a certain part runs on too long, it runs on too long!

As you work with different beta-readers, you’ll find there are some people who “get you” and provide tons of great ideas.  Stick with those who really challenge and inspire you, and place more weight on their opinions.  They’re more representative of the people who’ll ultimately form your audience.

Do you have any tricks for getting the best feedback and making the most of it?  Feel free to comment and let me know!


Be A Beta-Star, Part I: Giving Great Feedback

stars(Image credit: texturezoom.com)

Beta-reading not only provides an opportunity to help others, but also exercises your creative muscle, which aids you in your own writing.  It’s a true honor and privilege whenever you’re asked to be a beta-reader.  It’s even better to be a trusted beta-reader, someone whose opinion others repeatedly rely on when developing their ideas.  Here are some tips for giving the best feedback possible:

Be Honest.

This, first and foremost.  Don’t have the time to devote to a proper critique?  The story isn’t your cup of tea, or the genre isn’t one you’re familiar with?  Best to be upfront about it, rather than half-assing things and wasting everyone’s time.  Being honest also means telling the writer about your every impression, not just what you liked.  Critique that avoids problems doesn’t help your writer improve.

Be Nice.

Yes, your main goal should be honesty, but your delivery matters too.  There’s no need to be an asshole about it- you’re trying to help this person, not tear them down.  Always phrase things so your critique is clearly about the work, not the writer.  The writer will be more open to phrasing like “I think X could be improved if you [suggestion]” rather than “You suck at X.  Change it.”  Remember what it’s like when you’re the writer looking for critique, how nerve-wracking it can be.  A writer must often overcome immense anxiety to even ask for your help.  Don’t make them sorry they did.

Be On-Target.

If the writer doesn’t provide specific things they want feedback on, ask for some.  Are they worried about pacing, spelling/grammar, cohesion?  Should you treat this as a first draft (and be more forgiving as a whole), or a polished final draft?  This will help both of you make the most of your time.

Be Thorough.

Have you ever attended a writer’s group where everyone is expected to solicit and receive feedback?  For the most part they’re wonderfully helpful, but inevitably, there are one or two readers who hand back every sample with no notes, saying only, “It’s good!”  My paranoid brain always assumes they either (a) didn’t care for the genre/story (absolutely their prerogative, but at least tell me as much); or (b) thought it was an unmitigated trainwreck, and are trying to avoid saying so.

Don’t be one of these people.  Have an opinion!  To develop one:

  • Several reads are best.
  • As much as possible, complete your first read without any thought toward critique or the writer’s concerns.  Record your reactions and first impressions on a separate sheet of paper.  It may be that some of the questions you have at the beginning are answered later in the piece, so that’s why you don’t want to make notes in the work itself just yet.
  • Note down things you enjoyed- good lines, funny parts, etc.
  • Note down moments when you were confused, bored, or found humor in something that wasn’t supposed to be funny.  These are points where you disconnected from the story.  It’s important for the writer to know about them.
  • Note down your impressions of the characters- what you like or don’t like about them, and why.  It may be you’re not supposed to like them.  This allows the writer to gauge whether his setup is working as intended.
  • If given specific things to watch out for, comment on these to the best of your ability.  Go back and reread specifically for those things if you have to.
  • If spelling and grammar are really bad, don’t try to correct every last thing- just note that these need improvement.  If spelling/grammar are decent, do note the mistakes you find (if any).
  • For anything you didn’t like, prepare as many suggestions for improvement as possible.  It’s much more helpful to hear “X didn’t work for me, how about you try this instead?” versus “X needs work.  I’m not sure what.”

Once finished, go through your critique with the writer.  I like face-to-face for this best, fueled by coffee or similarly wonderful substances, but email isn’t bad either.  The reason face-to-face is nice is that you can immediately delve into or clarify your remarks as needed.  You can also brainstorm together, which I find is the best part of beta-reading.  Many things that end up in my manuscripts were spawned during these caffeine- and laugh-addled sessions, things I never would’ve thought of on my own.

Moreover, it feels really good to help other writers improve their work!

Do you have any suggestions for providing the best feedback possible?  Drop me a line in the comments!