Wrangling Up the Posse

Howdy friends! A happy late Mother’s Day to all you maternal types. Today’s going to be a little short today, as I find myself working through some unpleasantness that you’ll probably have the joy of reading about later.

M Elizabeth Tait pointed out last week that I had forgotten to add a mentioned link and then she kindly helped me comb through the archives to find it. During the hunt, it became apparent that I had skipped over some information in my post that I had thought were written up in a previous post, but didn’t seem to have been. (Gosh, what tense is that sentence in?) And some of that missing information is finding those writing pals in the first place- pretty important stuff!

So as a quick follow up/stop gag to last week’s post, here are some of my favorite places where aspiring posse-ists can look for fellow creatives.

Formal Writing Organizations– A lot of towns and even regions have their own writing groups, like my very own Alaska Writers Guild, particularly our chapter right here in Fairbanks. You can also check and see if your age category or genre has a writing organization, such as SCBWI, RWA, SFWA, or HWA; these groups also often have local chapters as well where you can meet up with your writerly neighbors and keep up with each other and your projects. If there aren’t any local chapters, forums can help you to keep in touch with fellow members.

Writers Conferences, Workshops, etc.– When attending writing events, be sure to take a bundle of business cards with you (or at the very least, a pad of paper and a writing utensil) so you can give out your info- and be sure to plug any new pals’ info into your phone or laptop as soon as possible just in case you lose that slip of paper later. Swapping contact information with other writers at these events can be a great way to build up your writing support group.

Social Media– I found a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter. Maybe Instagram is your thing- writers are there. Pinterest? Writers are there too! Facebook? There. Anywhere you are, other writers are too.

Local Libraries, Bookshops, Schools, etc.– These spaces love supporting local writers and often have groups you can join, or at least contacts for writing groups in town. If your local college/university/high school has a creative writing department, get it touch with those teachers specifically and see if they can introduce you to other writers as well. The same holds true for librarians and shop owners. These folks know people. These folks know everything.

So the hunt is on! Just remember as you put together your writing group that this is a collaboration to benefit all members. Be sure you give as much as you take and you will soon have a healthy, thriving writing group to support you in all your literary goals.

Happy writing!

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Cultivating a Writing Posse

posseWant to know a secret? When left to my own devices, I’m not a very productive writer. I can easily type over seventy words per minute, but I generally don’t write more than a couple paragraphs in a day

That is, unless I’m writing with pals. On those nights, I can clock in and have nearly two thousand words an hour later. Of course, I’m not always that productive. We do like to chitchat between sprints, and we can sometimes lose track of how much chatting we’re doing (and how little writing). But I definitely write more when I have others working with me.

I think it comes down to pride. I am a very competitive person (just ask my longsuffering husband). And as any kid who has ever done like any sport ever knows, you’re really only supposed to compete against yourself, but- yeah. I run faster when I have other people running with me, and I got better grades when I took the same classes as my brother, and I write more when there are others writing with me. None of this is to say that I excel at any of these things. Just that I try harder than when I am on my own. (There are probably all kinds of psych to unpack here.)

Whether this is good or bad, I know me and I know what gets me moving. So while some people work better in seclusion, I work better when I know that in fifteen minutes I’m going to be comparing my word count and the last sentence I wrote to some very talented friends, and darn it all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.

I’ve written in the past about where to find writing pals (but never did it better than Grandmaster Evrard in A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader), but once you have a group of people together, what can you do to make that group the best it can be? Here are three things that I’ve found help our group shine.

STAY POSITIVE Okay, yes, everybody loves a little trash talk, but in the end, we are all there for encouragement. So even when someone gets a stinky word count or has to miss a session or drops off the planet for months at a time, stay positive- this is a zero guilt zone! Everyone is stronger when we support one another.

BE FLEXIBLE Whenever you get groups of people together, there must be give and take. For example, I write best at night, but that time doesn’t work for my group because one of us lives on the east coast and I live out west. My ideal writing time is like one or two in the morning for her and that’s no good. We work together to make the group the best possible for the most of us, most of the time, which is basically like trying to hit a moving target. It will never be perfect for everyone, but we try to roll with it.

KEEP IT SMALL Try to keep your group small and close knit. This will make hitting that aforementioned moving target a little easier. Also, don’t make huge plans to meet every other day for three hours at a time; make it manageable. (For example, there are three of us in my group that meets online for one hour twice per week while kids are napping/at school.) Likewise, populate your group with others that are at about your own skill level, which will help assure that everyone benefits from the group.

And that’s it! I’m sure there are other things that we could be doing Writing Crest Simpleto improve group cohesion, but honestly, I don’t think we need much more than that. We’re basically like the same demographic copied three times and we adore each other; doesn’t get much more cohesive than that. Some groups prefer having group agreements laid out at the beginning for newcomers to sign. Others like to keep it local and meet face to face. Some groups are only for writing, which others like to throw in beta reading as well. What works for one group might not work for the next. You do you.

If you have some eager authors ready to write but aren’t sure how you want the group to look in the end, just set a meeting and get started. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t, so don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. If everyone treats the group like a first draft and understands that you’ll shift and settle into your best group over time, that’s fine. If you’d rather have the bylaws and election ballots ready to go on day one, that’s fine too. Just do whatever works for your group.

However, if you start a group, or join an already established one, and find that it isn’t working for you, do not feel obligated to stay. I’m not telling you to get everyone to edit your work and then drop them when they ask the same of you (because that would make you a turd), but don’t stick with something that isn’t good for your writing career. Our group briefly had a fourth member; she was only with us for a couple months before she realized that she works more effectively on her own. And good for her for standing up for her career! Remember, zero guilt zone!

Building your career as a successful author begins with building your process. If you want that process to include others, great! If that process is best done alone, great! Know what works best for you and do that. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The only ‘should’ is to write, whatever form that takes. That’s it.

Happy writing!

Editor v. Beta Readers: A Comparison

20180507_093600So I’ve written in the past about manuscript swapping with beta readers and about whether it’s worth it to pay for professional editing. But  for the latter, I had never actually had a professional edit of an entire manuscript, so I was mostly going off what other people had to say on the matter.

But a few months ago, I actually did the thing. I shelled out for a real live professional editor to go over an entire manuscript. As a result, I now feel a liiiiiittle better positioned to talk about professional editing- I mean, one experience isn’t a lot, but it’s more than zero. Since I’ve now had manuscripts edited on both ends of the spectrum, I thought it might be most helpful for you lovely readers if I did a compare-and-contrast of the two.

In a lot of ways, the two experiences felt very similar. In both cases, I selected someone that I thought would be a good fit for the story and who had time to squeeze it into their schedule. I did a final pass on the manuscript and then sent it off and sat in a flaming torment until I got a response. At this point in the game, both of the scenarios felt very similar, except for two differences. One, I was paying for the professional edit, so I was chewing my nails about money, which I tend to do. And two, I didn’t know the editor on a personal level like I tend to know my betas, so I was a little tiny bit uncomfortable sharing a work in its entirety with a stranger. Just a tiny bit. (I guess there was a third difference in that I sent it to one editor and I usually send out to betas in batches, but the wait didn’t feel any more or less torturous for that.)

One thing that professional editing really has going for it is a quick turnaround. The editor gave me a two-week time table. (She had a family emergency come up which knocked it back an extra week, but three weeks is still a fair bit faster than I typically hear from most beta readers.) So if you’re in a hurry, going with a pro might be the better option for you.

Next, already briefly mentioned, is the monies. Professional editing is expensive. It varies a lot from editor to editor and project to project, but it being expensive is especially true if you need a lot of work, have a very long story, need a rush job, etc. This stuff ain’t cheap. Beta reading, on the other hand, is free as far as money goes, although it usually comes with the expectation that you’ll return the favor at some point with your own time and editorial eyes.

I have had a lot of beta readers, and I have had only one professional editor. I can say without reservation that beta reading is a bit of a mixed bag when you’re first starting out. Sometimes you get really good betas that make you wonder why they’re not professional editors themselves. But sometimes you get gushy I-loved-it-it’s-perfect betas that, while a nice pat on the ego, isn’t super helpful to improving your manuscript. And sometimes you get the betas who… don’t… beta at all. (I know things come up, but if you’re just not going to read a thing, you should really let the author know as soon as you do instead of just letting it hang silently in the air for several months.) Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes.

I can’t say any of that for sure about professional editors. And I’ve winnowed my beta team down to a solid team that I trust and they are amazing. That said, I felt like I didn’t get as much out of the professional edit as I typically do from my favorite beta readers. Even if I don’t count all the back-and-forth weirdly-specific-question-and-answer sessions I tend to do with beta readers (Since I didn’t feel comfortable asking for that from a stranger who was expecting to get paid for her time, I didn’t ask much of anything.), I still felt like I got more from my average beta reader than I did from the editor even before I would have moved on to this step. If I’m being completely honest, I was disappointed, and the odds are low that I’ll be making this choice again any time soon.

All of this said, this is one small experience and maybe I just had a bum experience. (I mean, the lady did have a family emergency. It’s possible her mind was just somewhere else at the time- namely a hospital bed.) Lots of people out there swear by their editors, so don’t take my one small experience as the Gospel truth.

Anybody else out there have any experience with professional editors, good or bad? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about it!

Until next week, happy writing!

Receiving Negative Feedback

critiqueA few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence.  Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic.  In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.

Not quite.  One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back.  He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy.  Lazy.  But thank goodness he told me.  After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.

Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it.  We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves.  Rest assured, it’s not.  As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.

When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story.  Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document.  Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high.  Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever.  Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.

Still, favor or not, it stings a bit.  Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.

Don’t argue.  Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor.  Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it.  Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion.  Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).

Listen carefully.  Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing.  I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes.  We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point.  It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out.  So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves.  Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.

Trust yourself.  Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world.  If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it.  Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers.  Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them.  Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision.  Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.

Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise.  Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective.  Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym.  You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be.  If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.

How about you, lovely readers?  What do you do when you get negative feedback?  Any tips for the rest of us?

Giving Negative Feedback

feedbackI beta read a lot.  In fact, I probably beta read almost as much as I read published books and stories.  A lot of the stuff I read is really good- some of it fantastic.  But some of it is also merely decent, and some of it downright dismal.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to give or receive negative feedback, but you will do both throughout your career (and your life), and it’s best to learn to do them gracefully.  This week, I’d like to write about giving negative feedback, and next week about receiving it.

This post outlines my personal style of giving feedback.  Yours may be different, and mine probably isn’t ideal.  (I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section at the end!  Pretty please!)  But this is the practice I’ve developed over the years and I think it’s served me pretty well.

When beta reading, I tend to return feedback in a fairly standard set of sections, whether my reaction was positive or negative.  When I didn’t enjoy the manuscript so much, I find that the standard format helps me to draw my own attention back from all the stuff that I hated and look at the document more objectively; more professionally, if you will.  Depending on the document, there are usually between four and seven sections, but they mainly focus on the following three aspects:

Writing Class Stuff  This area helps me pull my attention from all the stinky stuff because of its relative objectivity.  Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable?  Did I find the worldbuilding believable?  There’s usually a fairly clear answer.  I’m pretty passionate about books (I have been known to fly into the occasion book-throwing, arm-waving, ranting fit that sends my husband fleeing for the door…), so having dispassionate things to write about first clears my head a bit.

Nitpicks  This is where I put the complaints that didn’t come up in the first section(s).  After calming myself down, this is easier to address in a way that won’t break someone’s heart and make them swear off writing (and me) forever.  In documents that need a lot of work, it’s not helpful to point out every single teeny weenie error and pet peeve; it’s hurtful.  Just pick the biggest problems- the things that bothered you the most, the things that messed up the story the most- and focus your attention there.  Remember, we beta to help writers make their stories the best they can be.  Railing on absolutely everything wrong discourages and overwhelms authors.  Not quite what we’re going for here.

Positive Aspects  This is where I put all the stuff that I liked about the story.  I always end reviews on an encouraging note.  Who among us doesn’t need a little encouragement?  Plus, knowing what they’re doing right helps a writer to know their strengths, which they can then extrapolate out into the rest of the story.  Try to note as many positive aspects as you can, but for pity’s sake, don’t lie and say you liked something unless you honestly did.

And then I close with an invitation for further conversation.  My reviews tend to be fairly long and in-depth, but it’s preeeeetty rare that an author doesn’t take me up on the offer.

I don’t always use this format.  If a manuscript is pretty polished and I have little broad commentary to make (or if it’s a short story), I return feedback as line-by-line notes.  And of course, if a writer sends along a list of questions with the manuscript, I answer them.  (Beta readers should always respect the author’s wishes.  If you’ve been asked to focus on story and character development, but instead you focus on spelling and grammar, you’re not helping.)

No matter how you format your review, always keep these things to keep in mind:

Be positive!  Even when you’re saying technically negative things, try to put it in a positive light.  This manuscript is someone’s baby and they put a lot of work into it.  Nobody’s work is perfect, and if it was, they wouldn’t be asking you for help.  Take pride in the opportunity to take something very important to someone, and help make it better!

Be honest!  These authors want to be professionals, so have the courtesy to treat them that way.  As important as it is to be positive, don’t ever lie in your review.  Misleading an author about the enjoyability or marketability or whateverability of their manuscript will only lead to more heartache further down the road.  Honest feedback is more important than warm fuzzies.

Be specific!  We’re not here to tell the author what to do or how to do it, but we are here to point out problems.  Even broad problems such as a meandering plot can be addressed using specific plot points.  Point out the problem and trust the author to find their own solution.

Be open!  Open yourself up to conversation.  Authors love to talk about their stories and explain their ideas, and it will give you further opportunity to elaborate on your notes- especially important if you had to do a lot of truncating in the name of staying positive.  Offering to continue the conversation helps the author feel their story is valued, and allows you to continue to help fine tune in a less formal (read: less intimidating) format.

Giving negative feedback is scary business, but everybody knows its value.  Negative feedback is what helps writers to fix the problems that we can’t see.  It shows us our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them, and helps us see where our stories need work- which is super valuable when we’ve already read it twelve times ourselves and just want the work to be done.  As un-fun as giving negative feedback can be, it is probably the kindest gift a beta reader can give a budding author.  Give it thoughtfully and truthfully, and your authors will thank you.

So what about you, readers?   How do you give useful, encouraging feedback on manuscripts that need a lot of work?  Let me know in the comments!

Immersive Writing

SensesMy current project is a rewrite of the second book of my epic-fantasy YA. I had high hopes for this one… and then got back my beta notes. Haha, suffice it to say that they were exactly the punch in the nose that I needed. This story was nowhere near ready. (And thanks again to my awesome beta readers for keeping me from embarrassing myself in public!)

One of the biggest complaints I got was that I had too many layers of psychic distance between the POV and the reader. (To read more about psychic distance, among other things, see my post Getting Your Ducks in a Row!) And those complaints were spot on. There was far too much “she felt” and “she heard” and “she thought” going on, and far too little feeling and hearing and experiencing.

As I set about righting this terrible wrong, I figured I could simply clip out the offending sentence intro. Unfortunately, my problems were deeper than that. Even after I axed every “she felt like” I could find, I still wasn’t getting deep enough into the characters’ heads.

So what was I missing?

As I dug further into the problem, it became clear that, although my characters were thinking and feeling and talking and doing, they weren’t sensing, at least not in a way the reader could pick up on. They were moving through the world, but not really in it. Rather, the imagery in the story came in large chunks plopped in at the opening of a scene or a lull in the conversation, like I’d paused the story to read from an encyclopedia about the geographic formations they were hiking through. And by and large, they were sights with the occasional sound- very few scents or feels, and almost never a taste.

After a lot of thought and reading and editing, I’ve come up with these four rules for imagery.

  1. Keep it short. Little snippets, sprinkled throughout the entire scene, are best. (To steal and modify one of my husband’s favorites: [Description] is like manure. Spread it around and it makes the grass grow. Lump it all together and it stinks.)
  2. Keep it active. Avoid freestanding imagery. Instead, incorporate your descriptions into the action. Really want to mention your character’s super-cool Metallica concert tee? Mention it when he’s putting it on. Or when his rival tears it in a fistfight. Use descriptive verbs- screaming, thrashing, cackling, ripping.
  3. Keep it realistic. Would you be thinking about the color of a flower as you’re running from a bear?  No. And neither would your character. Only mention the things she would actually notice in that moment.
  4. Keep it varied. Don’t use the same sense over and over again. We’re sensory creatures, constantly receiving input from our world, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it. So use all the senses. Let your character wake up smelling cinnamon, then walk on bare feet across the cold floorboards toward the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Let your character see Mom pulling the cinnamon rolls out of the oven, and then finally, taste that first bite of warm, gooey sweetness.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we have more than those five senses. These others (temperature, balance, etc) often get lumped under “feeling”, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Is your character accelerating? He would notice that! Not sure what these other senses are? Behold!

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

But maybe not this one…

SpideySense

Anyway! Those are my new sensory rules! Do you have any others that you use? Like I said, I’m still working through a new draft, and I’d be glad of any tips you were willing to share. Let me know in the comments! Thanks, and happy writing!

A Year of Rockin’ It

rockOkay, okay, “rockin’ it” might be an exaggeration. You may recall from one year ago that I had a few vague writing resolutions that rapidly morphed into several specific writing resolutions. I wanted to finish a book during each of the three NaNo months, as well as the third Star Daughter book on the side. I also wanted to send out at least two queries and two short story submissions per month.

I am proud to say that I knocked out four ugly (as in mega-ultra-ugly) duckling drafts: Crown of Shadows [SD3]; The Sad, Sad Tale of Dead Timmy [which I adore- def my favorite of the year]; Love Notes [which I am sadly dropping, but it was fun while it lasted]; and Blood and Ebony [still deciding what I think about this one]. Boy do they all need work, haha. Still, I feel pretty good about four first drafts. I knew it was ambitious at the start, especially with the baby on board, but I managed to pop ‘em out. I am a little less proud to admit that I only sent out about half the queries I intended to and about a third of the short story submissions. But both were still improvements on previous years, though, so win!

This year, I’m approaching things a little differently. I find myself with an abundance of unsightly first drafts cluttering up my laptop. None of them are fit to be seen and that’s a problem. So next year, I intend to switch my focus over from drafting to editing. Rather than writing four new books this year, I’d like to polish up three to four and draft only one. (Hopefully, the year after that I can settle into a nice 2/2 ratio.)

The second Star Daughter book, Goddess Forsaken, can probably stand to just be picked at, as far as editing goes, which will eat up most of my early year, I imagine. Crown of Shadows, however, needs to be rebuilt completely and so April NaNo will be devoted to a full rewrite, with further clean up bleeding out into June. Likewise, July NaNo will go to bulldozing another draft, although I haven’t decided which one yet. (Likely Blood and Ebony, but we’ll see.) The next three months will be given to polishing either Dead Timmy or BCS (both of which definitely merit some polish), or maybe Blood and Ebony if I can still stand to look at it. November will be spent on a completely new book (and what a relief that’ll be!), possibly the next Star Daughter book, or maybe even another stand alone- I have a contemporary fantasy idea I’ve been toying with as well. December will just be general wrap-up for the projects.

I know all my ultra-classy beta readers were probably SUPER BORED without all my doofy stuff to read through this last year, so start warming up those red pens now.

As far as querying goes, I’m considering a different approach. I think I’ll let City of the Dead rest for a while and start querying either BCS or Dead Timmy once they get a little cleaned up, which means I probably won’t be querying steadily for the first half of the year. Also, instead of submitting two short stories every month, I think I’ll do either that OR write and edit a new short story each month. I think the drafting of shorts will help me stay sane with all this editing business going on. ‘Cause I loves me some drafting, and darling husband got me a shiny new license for Write or Die 2, which I am super stoked to take for a ride.

So! That’s what I’ve been up to / will be up to! How about you? Did you have any writing resolutions from last year? Any new ones you’d like to share?