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!


Does Your Dialogue Pass The Cringe Test?

true_friendshipIf not, at least the rest of us will get a good laugh out of it!

I don’t have to tell you the importance of good dialogue.  People quote memorable lines from all sorts of works, all the time.  They’re assimilated into our culture, and live on well after the writer him- or herself.

You know what else we quote, though?  Memorably bad lines.  So let’s make sure your dialogue stays in the “good” category, shall we?

Lots of things go into solid dialogue, but here’s an easy smoke-test to ensure what you’re writing is realistic: pretend you’re portraying your characters in a movie- don those little persona hats in your mind- and speak the dialogue aloud.  Right now.  If your nose scrunches up with confusion, or you cringe in embarrassment, trip over the wording, or double up with unintentional laughter, change it to whatever more naturally flows from your mouth.

Sure, sometimes you want crazy, over-the-top bombast.  Maybe you’re writing a new cartoon series for The Tick (in which case, I love you).  Most of the time, though, you’ll be dealing with scenes where real people interrogate, conduct business, shoot the bull, or probe their feelings for one another.  Trust me, what looks OK on paper doesn’t necessarily sound good out loud.  If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it won’t sound good in your reader’s head.  While he’s busy snorting, or going “Huh?”, he’s no longer in your story.

Here are some other quick tips for dialogue:

Contractions. 

Unless you’re writing lines for Commander Data, use goddamn contractions.  You are never going to hear someone enunciate every word in a real conversation.  It is extremely stilted and unrealistic.  Speak those last two sentences aloud- seriously, right now.  See how awkward they are to say?  Shortening and simplification happen in every language.  Don’t fight it.

Give everyone a unique voice.

We all have tics, expressions we use all the time, and other verbal habits.  Decide on one or two “fingerprints” for each character.  When you’re doing it right, the dialogue itself can clue the reader in to who said it, without the aid of dialogue tags.  If you use accents, use one word here or there to represent the accent (“I reckon I done left that sumbitch upstairs.”).  Do not go full Strangelove.  (“MEIN FÜHRER, I KEN VOK!”)

Not everyone has to be precious.

So much of modern TV is clogged with series wherein every single character has a gargantuan vocabulary and bon mots for every situation.  I can’t stand that.  Have witty characters, sure.  Have buddies joke around with each other, great- but everyone doing it is annoying and unrealistic.

Combine talking with advancing the plot.

Characters sitting/standing around jawing at each other becomes boring fast.  This is why I personally shy away from eating scenes, because people just sit there blabbing, and the plot stalls.  There’s plenty of opportunity within dialogue to interact with the setting, establish body language/behavioral habits, or have the characters working on something while they talk.

All that said, your dialogue had better be in service of the plot, too- revealing important info, setting up future scenes, establishing character.  Don’t waste the reader’s time with meaningless talk that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Dialogue tags aren’t evil.

Said, replied, etc.  A lot of people say to avoid them.  I don’t agree.  They’re not necessary for every single line, I’ll give you that.  However, I really don’t like it when dialogue tags disappear from a talk-heavy scene.  Remind me occasionally who is saying what, because otherwise I lose track- then I have to go back and count paragraphs to figure out whose line belongs to whom, and that vexes me greatly.  If you combine action with your talking, as described above, you don’t have to worry as much about this.

The best time to eliminate dialogue tags is during rapid-fire exchanges, where you want to keep the pace up.  Establish who’s talking at the top, then let them take off.

What are your favorite tips for good dialogue?  Please share in the comments!


Your Story’s Soundtrack: Fight Music

KirkSpockKalifiThe ultimate battle in all of Battledom has already been written, filmed, and scored.

Music is another huge component of my writing process.  It helps me buckle down and focus in a way nothing else can (aside from wondrous, blessed coffee).  Everything I listen to in this manner is instrumental- I find lyrics distracting- but there’s a wide variety of styles I like for different moods, pacing, etc.

Today, I’ll share some songs from my “fight” playlist- stuff that gets the blood flowing and raises the stakes!  I hope you enjoy these.  If you have your own favorites, please share links in the comments!

Epic Last Stand Asskicking

Armed With Death (from The Walking Dead video game)

This plays during Lee’s last fight, on his way to rescue Clementine.  Great game, but invest in a tissue factory before you play it.

 

Techno-y Asskicking

Combat Music 5 (From the XCOM: Enemy Unknown soundtrack)

A great game and soundtrack.  If you like this one, go grab the remaining tracks (and the game, if you enjoy turn-based strategy).  You won’t be disappointed!

Shoot Straight (from the Shadowrun Returns soundtrack)

As above, great music from a great game; well worth tracking down more.  It’s around 2:08 that my favorite part starts up.

Never Return Alive (from the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack)

This one takes me back!  I must’ve beaten this game about 3,000 times during my teenage years.

 

Fantasy-Themed Asskicking

Dragonborn (from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim soundtrack)

More amazing music from Jeremy Soule, the John Williams of video game soundtracks.  (I have an autographed copy of this soundtrack!)  If the refrain around 2:08 doesn’t make you want to jump out of your chair and rip a dragon’s head off, I’m afraid you’re not a living human.

Ride Forth Victoriously (from the Europa Universalis IV soundtrack)

This game is Civilization on crack, in real-time.  I haven’t the fortitude to play, but I enjoy watching others, and listening to the soundtrack.

 

Western-Themed Asskicking

Sixty Seconds to What?  (from the For A Few Dollars More soundtrack)

Music that both Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef will kick your ass with.

Man With a Harmonica (from the Once Upon A Time In The West soundtrack)

Haunting and dramatic- Ennio Morricone at his best.  (Fun fact: the German title of this film is Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod, or Play Me The Song of Death.)

 

Share your own links below.  Let’s get an awesome music exchange going!


Word Abuse: Accentuate Your Bad Habits

bart-simpson-generator2

I’m in the throes of heavy editing at present, still trying to hammer out a process that works best for me.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, it’s that even after you think you’ve gotten your prose as pretty as it can possibly be, there’s something wicked lurking in there to which you’re completely oblivious.

One example is unintentional repetition of certain words and sentence structures. I didn’t know it until recently, but I abuse the hell out of […], and […] and […], but […].  See?  I even did it just now, two sentences ago.  It’s not something to completely eliminate from the manuscript, but (ugh!) multiple times in the same paragraph is a no-go.  The sentences all start to sound the same, and (crap, not again!) the prose turns boring.

Let me be clear: in a first draft, it doesn’t matter.  Get your thoughts down, however they come to you.  It’s while you’re editing that you have to worry about this stuff.

If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you avoid it?  You need more eyes on your manuscript, human or mechanical.  My spouse alerted me to the and/but problem.  At first I was skeptical, but (!!) when I went back and looked again, I was shocked at how bad it was.

Even the best beta reader can miss things, though.  That’s when I turn to AutoCrit.  You need a paid membership to use it, but (shoot) I deem it money well spent.  Among many other things, AutoCrit can highlight commonly overused words, and (sigh) recommend how many of those repetitions to remove.  This is Autocrit’s default word list:

  •  “ly” adverbs
  • that’s
  • look
  • maybe
  • had
  • have
  • was/were
  • gerunds (“ing” verbs) at the start of a sentence
  • conjunctions (ex. and, but) at the start of a sentence
  • could
  • feel/feeling/felt
  • hear/heard
  • it/there
  • knew/know
  • see/saw
  • smell/taste
  • watch/notice/observe
  • just/then
  • that

If you have a Professional account, you can set up custom searches.  I don’t, so I can’t add “, and” and “, but”.  However, now that I know I have this problem, I can go into Scrivener and perform a find on a scene, chapter, or manuscript (CTRL+F, for those who love keyboard shortcuts as much as I do):

scrivfindI use the “whole word” option just to be safe.

I click Next through every instance found.  For each one, I manually highlight it in orange, my color for flagging repetition.  If I see too much orange in any one location, I know I need to rework what’s there.

Sadly, this is pretty tedious.  I’ve not found a way in Scrivener to say, “Find all occurrences of ‘XXXX’ and highlight them.”  If anyone knows how to do this, please let me know!

If you happen to use MS Word, a one-stop mass formatting is easy:

  1. Hit CTRL+H to bring up the Find and Replace window.
  2. Type the word/phrase you’re looking for in both the Find What and Replace With boxes.
  3. Click the More button.
  4. Click inside the Replace With box so your cursor is blinking there, then click the Format button.
  5. Choose whatever formatting options you want.
  6. Make sure your choices appear under the Replace With box (ex. “Format: Highlight”).
  7. Click the Replace All button.

wordfindThe only time I will ever admit Word is superior at something.

I utilize a rainbow of highlight colors in my manuscript.  This is my own personal system- I’m not saying it’s what everyone should do, just that it has served me well so far:

  • Yellow: “Needs work.”  Stuff that’s not yet in sentence form, or a word I don’t like that I want to replace with a better word later.
  • Orange: Repetition, excessive use of pronouns, words/phrases I overuse.
  • Green: Subordinate clause words.  Rewriting these can be rewarding in terms of crafting more interesting sentences.  I don’t look to eliminate every single one, rather ensure they don’t get out of hand.
  • Pink: Stuff I’m considering deleting.  I like to give myself time to decide whether it truly deserves the axe.

My manuscript looks like a paintball massacre, and (GAH) I often have to comb through and re-highlight after a round of editing, but (I give up) the eventual result is prose that’s more deliberate and varied.

I used to be a technical trainer for all of the MS Office products.  If you’re interested in more fancy Word tricks, let me know!  I’m not as deadly with Scrivener, but I’m also glad to post what I know about it, if so desired.

Are there any words/phrases you abuse?  What tricks do you have for dealing with them in your editing phase?


Bad At Imagery? Your Characters Can Help!

Ah, the unearthly blue lakes of the Swiss Alps.  What a great setting to include in your story!  Problem is, how do you describe it in words and achieve the same breathtaking effect?

Trick question.  You shouldn’t be describing anything.  Your point-of-view character, or your narrator, communicates with the reader.  The first step toward good imagery is describing the scene the way s/he would describe it.  This is invaluable early in the story for establishing the world and revealing insight about the character, even before anything has happened.

“It was cold.”  Yawn.  This could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hell, a robot could output that with one line of code.  Here are better ways of saying the same thing:

  • The crisp wind cutting across Tara’s face made her feel alive.
  • It feels like the morgue freezer in here, Dr. Tanaway thought.
  • As usual, even with fifteen layers on, I was freezing.

Observations like these differentiate characters, and make them easier to relate to- or not, if you’re setting up characters the reader should root against.

OK, so you have a better idea of how.  Now, what to describe?  Think about each of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and more if so inclined.  What’s your POV character gathering from each?  How does each one make him/her feel?  What does s/he do in response?  Focus on the two or three senses that provide the best understanding of the setting and how the POV character responds to it.

For example, let’s return to the Alps.  Suppose two characters come upon that lake.  Sight is the most obvious thing to start with: sweeping mountains, clear sky, pristine water.  Set up some feeling too: warm sun, stirring breeze.  One of the characters takes in the fresh air (smell), stretches, and basks in the sun.  The other character grumbles, takes off his backpack, and rummages around for sunblock.

You can have a lot of fun with this.  In a first draft, throw down as many senses and reactions as you want.  The more imaginative you are, the better you “know” the setting and describe it for readers.  However, be prepared to trim weaker, less relevant bits of imagery when you return for revisions.  You don’t want to get so deep into descriptions that you leave the plot behind.

When editing, keep pacing in mind too.  Imagery breathes life into your story, but it also slows things down.  In a super-important or tense scene, you want this.  Pull the literary equivalent of a Sergio Leone shootout: make the reader agonize over every square inch of the moment.  In a fast-paced scene, where the POV character is in trouble or agitated, s/he won’t notice as much background detail.  Think about how you process your environment when you’re stressed, rushed, or addressing a problem.  Usually, you fixate on the immediate issue(s) and barely register anything else.

Though you don’t necessarily want your voice leaking into the imagery POV characters provide, your own experiences can absolutely inform theirs.  If your character’s doing something you’ve done before, remember what it felt like, what sort of thoughts you had, what you focused on and what you didn’t.  Lucky me, I’ve been to a few of those Swiss lakes.  Fifteen years later, I still can’t get over how magical they looked.

Do you have any suggestions for good imagery?  Feel free to comment and let me know!


9 Universal Tips for Describing Your Characters

silhouettes(Image credit: Leadershipcriteria Clipart)

Character descriptions are one area where there’s no agreement on a single best approach.  Everyone has different desires and expectations.  Some writers paint vivid, exacting pictures of each character, down to eye and hair color.  Some readers love this, and have trouble “seeing” the characters in their minds without those details.  My approach, as a writer and reader, is the opposite.  I prefer to describe only what’s vital to understanding the characters and plot.  When I read, I form my own picture of the characters based on what they say and do, no matter what the narrator says.  I’ll even think, That’s not what he looks like! when I hit a detail contradictory to my self-crafted image.

However you handle character description, accept now that someone won’t like it.  They’ll ask why you didn’t provide the main character’s exact age or blood type, or say they glossed over your descriptions because they ran on too long.

Are there any approaches to character description we can all agree on?  I’ll take a stab at offering some below:

1. Don’t ever use the mirror/reflection cliché.  No bad wrong.

Having a point-of-view character study her/himself in a mirror or reflection screams, STOP HERE AND TOSS ME ATOP MOUNT REJECT.  It’s tough, but you’ll be rewarded for being more creative than that.

Does your narration jump between multiple POV characters?  If so, you can wait to describe this character until someone else is in control and interacting with her/him.

What if you only have one POV character, like in 1st person?  Personally, I don’t worry about describing 1st person characters right away.  At the beginning, I’m more concerned about getting you into her/his head and understanding how s/he thinks and operates.  I’ll slip details in gradually, where it makes sense to do so.  If s/he’s getting ready for a task, I’ll describe the equipment and gear s/he’s grabbing and putting on.  If they have unkempt hair, maybe s/he smooths it back to read something.  If s/he’s especially self-conscious or vain about some aspect of her/his appearance, that can also be leveraged to provide descriptive detail.  If s/he doesn’t give a crap what s/he looks like, and never mentions it, that’s telling too!

2. Length constraints translate into description constraints.

In a short story, or any place where you face a word count constraint, you have to decide whether lengthy descriptions really serve your plot.  I’ve yet to write a short story where anything hinged on a character’s appearance, so I tend to limit physical descriptions to a short, carefully chosen list of adjectives/verbs.

3. Genre also matters.

In romance or erotica, you’re probably free to go on and on, if it’s sexy enough; I have no idea.  Sci-fi and fantasy need a lot of room to describe non-humans and non-Earth environments.  Stories that take place on present-day Earth with regular humans have relatively less to establish, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to be creative.

4. Reserve your best and longest descriptions for the most important characters.

However much detail you prefer, be more generous with main characters and less generous with side-types (aka NPCs, for the nerds reading this).  This doesn’t mean you can’t have colorful side characters, but color is easy to establish with a few adjectives/verbs.

5. Take the POV character into account, and provide the description s/he would provide. 

Step into her/his head and try to see the other character through those eyes.  Don’t just write up a dossier- tell us how the other character makes the POV character feel, how s/he reacts to what s/he observes.  Remember that we all see the same people in different ways.  A warrior at a tavern might think the resident serving wench is cute and wonderful to talk to, while his cleric companion finds the same wench grating and manipulative.

zombies_nightofthelivingdeadNo love for clerics until these show up.  *sigh*

Descriptive metaphors are also lovely for implying things about the character- for example, “He darted in with the speed of a viper” is not a phrase I’d use for a sweet, compassionate character- but don’t put fancy expressions in a POV character’s head/mouth if they don’t belong there.

6. There’s no need to dump out description all at once.

A big paragraph of descriptive detail will be slow-paced.  Fine if that’s what you’re going for, but most of the time, you’re better served spacing out details so as not to hold up the story.  For instance, your POV character might notice a short man behind a store counter.  Then, as they strike up a conversation, s/he notices the store owner’s rancid breath.

In a fast-paced scene, tons of detail slams the brakes on your narrative.  To keep things fast, describe only what’s necessary to understanding the action, then elaborate more when the excitement’s over.

7. Provide more than physical appearance.

There are so many other things you can tell us about: voice, quirks, mannerisms, body language, etc.  Compare “She had blond hair” to “She twirled a lock of blond hair around her index finger, winding it tight as a spring.”  Now the reader potentially sees someone who’s thoughtful, flirtatious, a ditz- or perhaps pretending to be one of the three.  The words and actions you give her, and how the POV character interprets them, will help the reader decide for her/himself.

You can even do character description entirely with verbs, and no physical details whatsoever.  Readers will form different mental pictures of someone who flinches, wilts, and murmurs versus someone who barges in, towers, and yells.

Draw special attention to things that are outside the norm in your setting, or that are especially important to understanding that character.

8. Don’t TELL what you can easily SHOW.

My own preference maybe, but I get annoyed at scenes where Character A and Character B talk about as-yet-unmet Character C, only to info-dump about C.  “He’s the most badass renegade ever!  He’s so elusive!  Yes, but we need his help!”

Is that really necessary?  I’d rather see C (hah) being an elusive renegade through his deeds.

…you know, if we see him.  ‘Cause he’s elusive, and stuff.

elusiverobertdenbyKindly watch this amazing MST3K episode after you’re done here so I’m not wallowing alone in the comprehension of a torturous reference.

9. Place more emphasis on details that have plot implications.

If the plot never hinges on the fact that the main character has blue eyes, it’s fair to leave out eye color.  If, however, blue-eyed people are considered demigods in this world, it becomes staggeringly important.

Again, this is open to debate.  Go with what works for you, and what your readers expect, but hopefully the tips above lead you to more inventive, memorable character descriptions.

Do you agree or disagree with anything above?  Have your own can’t-miss tips for describing characters?  Feel free to comment and let me know!


Writing Good Intros: Don’t!

starwarscrawlThe most exposition any film ever needs- but this film was so well crafted that even if this crawl had been left out, you could’ve easily followed the plot.

Think of your favorite movie.  Play out the opening scene in your head.  You can see it now: there’s the protagonist, crossing the room to sit down on a chair in the center of the set.  She/He faces you, then spends the next forty minutes explaining who s/he is, what her/his world is like, who the other major characters are, what their lives have been like, and where they all currently stand.  Once that’s done,  s/he jumps up again.  “Great, now you’re up to speed.  Let the story begin!”

Wait a minute.  What the hell movie ever starts like this?  Screenwriters never do this- so why do novelists instinctively gravitate toward info-dumps in Chapter One?

Introductions are brutal pains in the ass.  Regardless of genre, fiction writers have to forge a balance between “Basil Exposition” (Austin Powers) and “Well, I guess the plot is none of our business” (Mystery Science Theater 3000).  It’s even worse for those who write in settings other than present-day Earth.  We fear throwing out too much technobabble too fast.  “Why don’t you reconst your flavo-fibes?!” (again, MST3K)

Many of us overcompensate.  Unlike a screenwriter, a book-writer has all the time and paper in the world- or so we imagine.  We must take time to explain the universe a little before throwing story at them.

It doesn’t work.  Every time I’ve tried this approach, it failed to impress the poor beta readers I foisted it upon.  Those names, locations, and past events mean nothing when presented as information disconnected from any actual story.  My beta readers had no context by which to start caring about it, so they didn’t.  It came off as a pile of self-indulgent crap I was making them slog through.  Many readers would flip several pages into my manuscript, to the point where characters appeared and were doing stuff, and would tell me, “Start here.”

In other words: having trouble writing an intro?  No problem!  Don’t write an intro.

darkandstormyNo.  Not unless you’re Madeline L’Engle.

A reader’s time is precious.  He’s got zillions of books to choose from, and here he’s selected yours.  Reward him with something that immediately reads like a story, not a lecture he’ll be quizzed on later.

Where should you start?  The conventional advice is “as close to the end as possible.”  I say that you should also introduce your main character(s) as quickly as possible, especially in a sci-fi/fantasy setting.  The audience needs someone who’ll help them navigate and understand this strange new world.  Going back to Star Wars: why didn’t the movie start with the Rebels stealing the plans?  That could’ve been a great action sequence, but it also would’ve pushed back the introduction to Luke Skywalker.  If we don’t meet him until an hour into the thing, can we really call him our hero?  This approach probably would’ve made Leia our main character- and once the switch to Tattooine occurred, we would’ve thought, Hey, where’d my space movie go?  Who the hell is this whiny jerk?

Once you have a good starting point, skip the exposition and launch right in, as if this were Chapter Five rather than Chapter One.  Let each sentence construct the universe in real-time.  If you have a lot of world-building to do, ease us in; don’t throw out too many unfamiliar terms at once.  Teach us about the characters through their words and actions, but don’t succumb to the temptation of having characters speak exposition to each other (“You know, Bob, now that I’m a level twelve conjurer, my home town of Tridiot is really proud of me!  Have you noticed how brown my eyes are?  I just adore cake.”).

A little mystery is good, valuable even.  If you don’t explain anything, that’s frustrating, but little questions-  Why’s he so angry?  Why’s this computer so important?  -are like burs that attach your story to your reader’s mind, motivating him to keep reading for answers.

Is this advice universal?  Nope.  Are there beloved classics that start with acres of backstory?  Absolutely, but most of them come from the pre-Internet days.  When deciding how to approach your intro, consider who your reader is.  Is he pulling your heavy leather-bound tome off his library shelf and curling up by the fire for a few hours of reading before bed?  Is he buying your ebook and skimming it in the fleeting moments life affords him?  Write however you like, but keep in mind what might compel your reader to stick with you or turn away.

Do you agree with my approach, disagree, or have further advice that could save writers’ hair from being violently ripped out at the roots?  Please feel free to share in the comments!


The Terror of Being Read

scaryread(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net. Half-assed creepy filtering by me!)

My stomach knots up. My chest constricts. I’m stuck in a permanent cringe of humiliation, and can’t bear to be in the same room. I  seek distraction from a book or video game, but the horrid, I-could-just-die anxiety doesn’t go away until it’s over.

Am I on deck to give a big speech? Standing trial? No. My spouse is reading part of my manuscript for critique.

It’s ridiculous. The whole point of writing stories is for other people to read the shit you wrote. I’m 100% on board with this concept, until five minutes before someone performs the reading part. Then you have to pry the sample from my white knuckles.

There’s something intimate about fiction. Plot progression and characters take over your brain. In solitude, you refine and question and re-refine every detail until you can’t stand it anymore. You hope you have a winner on your hands, but part of you always fears that maybe, you’re just a no-talent fraud who’s wasted disgusting amounts of time. I’m not the delicate flower who needs everyone to kiss my butt and tell me how great the story is. I want constructive criticism. It’s just that the process of obtaining it feels like someone’s dragged out my lingerie drawer to go rifling through in public.

Granted, I’m a shy and introverted person.  I’ve also grappled with a weird assortment of anxiety issues my entire life. Is this another manifestation of those issues? Is it something that will ever go away?

What about The Daily WTF? you might ask. You’re published there once a month.

It’s not the same. First off, it’s not my story, one I’ve been developing for years. I’m relating a story submitted by a fan. The narrative structure and embellishment I add doesn’t change that. Second, my editor tweaks submissions to his liking before publishing, so I’m used to looking at the final product and seeing some words that aren’t mine. Finally, I know to be wary of audience reaction.  There are thousands who read the site and love it, and thank goodness for them, but you’d never know they existed if you went by the site’s comment section.  Happily, the fans who are active on the Google+ feed are a pleasure to interact with.

One thing’s for certain: sharing my fiction isn’t something I’ve done a lot of yet. It lies outside of my comfort zone, but that’s where all self-improvement comes from.  I hope repeated practice will make it less excruciating someday.

Do you feel this sort of anxiety when sharing your work?  Have any coping mechanisms?  Please comment and let me know!


Dear Inner Editor: Shut Up And Let Me Write!

Ellis_Editing(Now witness the full spectrum of Ellis’ Editing Pens of DOOM!)

I don’t know where my 24×7, hyper-critical inner editor came from, but I have some theories. I’m super self-critical with everything I do, for one.  For another, I like spelling and grammar.  Although I chose an academic path rife with proofs, derivatives, and computer programs, I always scored higher on verbal aptitude tests than math or science ones. Also, I grew up in a house where one parent wasn’t a native English speaker. To this day, I help my mom with unfamiliar words and phrases, and do line editing for her articles. Finally, I work in a field where clear and accurate written communication means the difference between happy users, and spending all night on the phone fixing a broken server because someone screwed up the preferences in their INI file.

My inner red pen has long ago lost its cap, and hovers constantly over my brain. There’s little occasion for me not to think carefully about every word, command, or instruction I type-

-except for that magical time when I need to stop analyzing, and start slamming out a first draft.

I never realized until recently how badly editing-in-place has crippled my progress with fiction writing. For years, I’ve been the type who needed hours to generate and massage a few new paragraphs. I thought that was just “how I work.” No- that’s not how first drafts should work for anybody. Think of a sculptor starting with a block of marble.  Does he sit down and immediately chisel out Venus de Milo?  Nope- he hacks out a rough outline, then narrows in more and more, refining and polishing one section at a time. So it is with writing.

I’m more aware of my bad habits, and better about ignoring the desire to fine-tune the first words I put down on paper. I start with stream-of-consciousness drafting, writing whatever comes to me. If that stream dries up and I find myself getting stuck, I throw down whatever ugly words I can, brace them in brackets and/or highlight them, and keep going.  When I return to edit, I’ll know this spot needs extra attention.

pick_word_later Screw you, that’s a word.

Pausing to deliberate every word destroys your productivity.  When you’re not making progress on a story, you’re more likely to get frustrated and give up on it.

Don’t get me wrong: you should be picky about the right words coming out of the right heads and mouths, but your first draft isn’t the time to figure this out.  You may think you know your characters and plot, but they can change on you over the course of drafting. When you go back and read from the beginning, you’ll probably find yourself saying, “WTF? He wouldn’t do/say that!”

Now, what if you had heavily polished every scene before moving on to the next?  Out of a desire not to squander the time invested, you risk clinging to dialogue that doesn’t fit your characters, and scenes that should be dragged out back and shot.  (I have never done this- ahem.)

Your first draft is your own private journal full of notes to self about how you ultimately want the story to go.  There’s no reason it can’t be silly or funny. Use whatever words are in your head that fit the general sentiment you want to refine later- even if that word is “shit,” and even if your character/narrator would never say “shit.”  Come to think of it, “shit” shows up a lot in my drafts.

scheisseThere’s really no other word that sums it all up so perfectly.

Only when your notes are done, and you know where the story ultimately leads, can you go back and ensure every scene, line, and character serves that purpose.

Do you have any tips for loosening up and silencing the inner editor who demands immediate perfection? Drop a comment and let’s discuss!


The Manuscript That Didn’t Kill Me

EllisMorningCover_rev043-CROPPED(Artwork by über-talented Chris Howard)

…but it was a near thing!

I’ve been talking nebulously about this novel I’ve been working on for years, but guess what?  I finally have a completed first draft.  It’s a thing!  You can read it straight through (sort of)!  It’s really rough in some places, but won’t be for long!

Time to introduce it to the world.  The book is called Blood’s Force, and will be the first of a series of books I’m calling Sword and Starship, because I’m all about bludgeoning you in the face with the concept.

It started as an innocent doodle I threw down at work in 2005 or so, about a knight and her squire who traversed the galaxy in a junker of a spaceship, looking for quests.  A few years later, I dusted it off to see if I could make a proper story out of it- and it exploded. The characters and plot have changed drastically. Four or five times, I had 75-90% of a first draft done, only to come up with a better idea and have to scrap everything.  I spent idiotic amounts of time editing before I was finished, only to lose several polished scenes.  At many points, I considered giving up. Something didn’t let me.

In the end, only the core conceit remains unchanged: a knight traveling by spaceship, seeking quests.  Here’s a more mature blurb:

Dame Jessamine is a knight errant with a spaceship for a steed, one of the few educated in the scientific and technological “magic” of the ancient past.  Her latest quest pits her against a strange phenomenon that threatens to cripple a prominent trade guild.  In a galaxy where superstition is law, she must protect two innocents and uncover the truth that will prevent the destruction of an entire planet.

My intention is to self-publish, but not until it’s as shiny as I can make it.  I’m super-excited to be working with Chris Howard and RJ Blain on cover art and developmental editing, respectively.  Above is a crop from the rough cover Chris has put together, which thrills me to no end.  This is actually happening.

For the next few months, I have two big tasks:

(1) Edit the hell out of the manuscript to my own best ability. RJ, I’m the type of person who hires a maid, then runs around frantically cleaning the night before s/he comes over.

(2) Put together a short story to introduce the universe and principal characters.  It’ll be a standalone prelude to events in Blood’s Force.  I’ll make it available for free in hopes that it attracts people to the series.

My timeline looks like this, but is subject to change:

February 2014 – Self-edit Blood’s Force, outline and draft the intro short story.

March/April 2014 – Slated to work with Chris on cover art (he’s gotten an early start, though).

June 2014 – Leave my full-time job. (Super-secret quit date, don’t tell anyone!)  I’ll be able to devote a lot more time to editing and writing.  If I finish my editing before September, I’ll start drafting the next Sword and Starship book.

[?] 2014 – Finish and distribute the short story.  I want to do it ahead of the book, but not so ahead that people lose interest during the intervening wait.

September 2014 – Developmental editing with RJ.

January 2015 – Done with editing?  No idea if this is a good estimate, but it’s what I’ll aim for.

[Sometime early 2015] – Compile and soft-release Blood’s Force for free to mailing list subscribers, and/or anyone interested in leaving an honest review on Amazon.

[Sometime early 2015++] – Hard release.  I’ll immediately start outlining/drafting the next Sword and Starship book, if I haven’t already.

I’ll post occasional updates here, and lessons learned, as this my first self-publishing experience. If you have advice or encouragement, by all means shout out in the comments.  However, I won’t be turning this blog into a wall-to-wall book countdown.  If you’d like more granular updates, and would like to be part of the soft release of Blood’s Force, sign up for my mailing list!