Category Archives: Writing Advice

Feedback: More Than Static

Below is a re-blog of a post over on Adventures in Fiction, a blog by Keanan Brand. He discusses feedback he recently received for a story in progress, and decides what he wants more: applause or participation?

Kishi kaisei.
Wake from death and return to life.

Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki.
There are even bugs who eat knotweed.
(To each his own.)

I’ve been developing a short fantasy set in Japan, in an era and a culture about which I know little. That means delving into reading about all manner of topics: honorifics, architecture, food, names, proverbs. I’m tempted to fill the story with Japanese terminology, but I don’t know what’s true to the period and what’s modern. And tossing in every word I learn would overwhelm the plot, and distract or annoy the reader, so I’m backing off, using the literary equivalent of a pinch of salt. A taste, not a stomachful.

An interesting dish — but who wants to eat it?

As with everything I write, I wonder, “Who’d want to read this? Am I writing only for myself? Am I okay with that?”

My reading at the most recent writers meeting was an attempt to answer those questions. I brought my first two thousand words of the Japanese fantasy and invited the other members to tear into it. The story needs to be solid, because it will be competing against other and far better writers, and I want to do my best so there are no regrets if I lose. No excuses.

The group followed along as I read but made few notes on their copies of the pages, which was unexpected. My own copy was littered with notes before the meeting ended. The responses were favorable, the speculations thick and fast, the suggestions and critiques constructive.

It was the most — what’s the word? — refreshing critique session since, well, never.

In a prior group, my speculative stories were met with negativity, so I stopped sharing, stopped asking for feedback. The writer went into hibernation, and only the editor showed up for meetings.

At first, I believed the bad press: “Your stories are too difficult to understand” or “You’re not connecting with your audience.” While that may have been partly true, I came to realize that the audience — certain members of it — were never going to connect. Their understanding of and approach to reading left little room for deviations from their personal expectations: A story must look like this and not that.

With realization came renewed confidence. Nah, the audience didn’t change, but it stopped mattering. I could predict which of my stories they’d like — the more conventional ones — and which would make their eyes glaze and their mouths purse.

A new state and two writers groups later, I’ve landed with a mixed flock of hatchlings, most still in the nest, some just now recognizing their wings, some learning to fly. They’re fearless, though, sharing their earnest romances and troubled life stories, their awkward urban fantasies and sophisticated twisted fairy tales. They tell each other what they like and what they don’t understand, what’s not working and what piques their imagination.

The group works. I can’t explain it, but it works.

Maybe because the nasty black-hat villain Ego hasn’t arrived.

So I shared. They responded. It was good.

People have read my stories in publications, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to readers to contact authors and tell how the story affected them, how it stayed in their minds for days or roamed their dreams at night. How it made them cry, scream, laugh, think.

The response from my fellow writers the other night was like applause at a live play, accompanied by an honest but non-mean-spirited review.

I don’t need flattery or compliments or pats on the head.

As nice as it is, I don’t need applause.

What I crave? Capturing readers’ imaginations to such a degree that they fill in the details I didn’t describe. They journey alongside the characters, and talk to them, emote with them, live through them. The story matters so much to the readers they lose sleep to finish it. They argue with friends over why a character did this or said that. They can’t wait for the next story.

My cousin's son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)
My cousin’s son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)

Participation. That’s what I want.

Better than applause any day.

This Book, Right Now

It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.

Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.

It’s all about the book in front of you.

What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.

However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”

We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.

Sure, you might win contests, awards, accolades, admiration, celebrity, financial success.

Sure, you might publish a string of bestsellers.

Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.

But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.

This book, right now.

Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?

Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?

Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*

The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.
bookstore entrance (c2011, KB)
bookstore entrance
(c2011, KB)

However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.

Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.

So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.

After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)

Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.

And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.

Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.

I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.

But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.

I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.

Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.

 

* One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.

 

Whaddya Think? (Using Internal Dialogue to Enhance Character)

220px-Ladyhawke_ver1One of my favorite characters in film or literature is The Mouse from 1980s film Ladyhawke. A youthful thief of slender dimensions, Mouse makes promises to God then promptly breaks them, and though his faith is undimmed, his skepticism remains sharp.

“Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket again as long as I live. I swear it. But here’s the problem: You’ve got to let me live. How can I prove my good faith to you? If you’ve heard me, this ledge will remain steady as a rock, and that thing coming at me won’t be what I think it is. If it is, there’s no hard feelings, of course, but I’d be very disappointed.”

Later:

“We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.”

At the beginning of the film, when he’s escaping from the dungeon via a passage so small it should have been impossible:

“This is not unlike escaping my mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”

Fearful yet courageous, uncertain yet bold, seeking company yet often alone, he verbalizes his internal dialogue to humorous, insightful effect. Without Mouse’s spoken thoughts, the story would be less. It would be flat, too earnest, maybe even pretentious. But Mouse and his constant patter bring heart, humor, and that disbelieving look askance that somehow makes us believe it even more.

Granted, most internal dialogue is internal — that’s the point. It’s a character’s unspoken thoughts that readers are allowed to know, whether or not those thoughts are ever revealed to other characters in the story.

It can take many forms, from prayers to wishes, from snarky comments or ironic remarks, from telling the truth to outright lies, even conversations with people who aren’t there. In the passage below — from an episode in Keanan Brand‘s science fiction serial, Thieves’ Honor, there’s spoken dialogue between mercenary Bosko and prisoner Finney, but internal dialogue between Finney and her deceased grandfather, Admiral Cunningham. [Note: The Admiral calls her “Gracie” because that’s what he called her father, whose last name was “Grace”.  Father-in-law good-naturedly harassing his son-in-law. Both men are deceased before the story begins.]

“Like I said, you’re an uncommon target.” He chuckled again. “A great many governors and officials didn’t seem too eager to help us find you. Lotta lowlifes, too. Figured they’d been paid off—or they do business with the Vega. Name’s Bosko, by the way.”

“We’re not friends.”

“No reason we can’t talk.”

Ye don’t like talking, Gracie, do ye? Except to that crew and its captain. The admiral’s voice held a slight harrumph. Pilot on a reputable ship might make a grandda proud, but on a pirate vessel?

Fewer rules, she replied. No uniforms. No salutes. No blasted colonial government.

Ach, Gracie, now yer talkin’ like a rebel.

Aye, Grandfather, and were I braver I’d have joined them years ago, but it’s safer in the supply line.

There was a snort. Safer? And with supplies stolen from honest citizens! Then the imagined voice gentled. Not always so honest, I suppose. Still, the goods are not yers for the taking. Look where piracy has brought ye.

Not piracy. She looked down, and wrapped one blood-crusted hand around the collar. Murder. Vengeance for you. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and dripped from her chin. I acted in haste, and the wrong person died.

“No tears now”—Bosko sounded nervous—”and no pulling at that collar.” (from Episode 15, “Leaping the Circle, copyright KB)

Done well, internal dialogue adds tang to the story, expands the readers’ understanding of or connection to a character, and reveals that character’s philosophy, belief, opinion, etcetera. It can liven the spoken dialogue and even liven a character.

On the other hand, wielded clumsily, it can kill a character.

This was evidenced in a manuscript I recently edited. The author was concerned about feedback from beta readers who said they didn’t connect with her main character. In fact, they didn’t like her. She was cold, arrogant, unsympathetic. After I provided a detailed critique, the author made changes, but she was still concerned about the readers’ perception of the main character.

Due to various behind-scenes-matters that attend the publishing process, I didn’t read the manuscript again for a few weeks. However, when I dove in again, I saw the problem: The character’s snarky, blame-casting internal dialogue made her seem whiny and belligerent rather than realistic and confident. By trying too hard to make her seem hip or smart, the author actually undercut the character.*

“Children should be seen and not heard,” or so goes the old saying. I disagree with its intent of marginalizing children, but there’s truth in it, too. Or, to quote other old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and “a picture’s word a thousand words.”

“Think before you speak.”

Or, in the case of an author wondering whether or not to reveal a character’s thoughts, “think before you write.”

Be aware of what is being revealed in dialogue. Is it what you intend? Will it enhance or undercut the character? Will it contradict everything else we know about the character? Will it add just the right amount of spice, or will it leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth? Will it make an unlikeable character seem nicer than you intend, or make a sympathetic character lose the reader’s respect?

Internal dialogue can also add subtext and subtlety to a story. Subtext is what is meant but never actually written or said, and subtlety is the use of the indirect or the obscure in order to reveal what isn’t obvious. Subtlety could also be defined as cleverness or perception.

Do your characters make oblique observations that, on the surface, are about something mundane but reveal what the characters are really feeling? Or, perhaps, we know exactly what they’re thinking, but something else is engaged in the dialogue, too. In the example below from a soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, nature — or God? — seems to be responding to the character’s unspoken questions:

There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls, Turi suspected, were nothing more than wind through stones, but even he would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?

He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky. Omwendinn?

A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.

When will those distant fires be the fires of home?

The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky. (Dragon’s Rook, copyright 2014, Keanan Brand)

There are many ways to employ internal dialogue. Play with it. Experiment. See what works. Does it make you laugh? Gasp with surprise? Nod your head and say, “Aha!”

If so, well done.

Or, as the admiral might say, “Carry on, Gracie. Carry on.”

* This book will be published in late 2014, and I do not have permission to share examples from the text.

The Purpose of Fantasy

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are toldFantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

Cold Heart, Kindly Meant

In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)

Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?

But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.

So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”

Cold Spell ("I'll get you, my pretties!") c2013, EE
Cold Spell (“I’ll get you, my pretties!”)
c2013, EE

 What’s Your Style?

24 Amy's lip gloss^vertical crop
Amy (c2010, EE)

I am not a fashionista.

My style would raise eyebrows on Fifth Avenue. Eyebrows lifted in amusement or shock, who knows? I like comfort. For shoes, I prefer Birkenstocks or Crocs, or a pair of lightweight Sketcher knockoffs made of sturdy, breathable material. For pants, capris (’cause I’m a weird height, smack between petite and average) or stretchy pants (’cause along with a weird height, I’m so oddly sized that I rarely find jeans that don’t turn me into a sausage or fall down to my knees). Shirts? Skirts? Again, comfort.

Comfort with my imperfect self, comfort with my imperfect appearance, and comfort with not fitting in to the crowd. My angsty, stressed, approval-driven teenage self wouldn’t recognize me now.

Neither would Rookie Writer Me, whose voluminous, pretentious prose painted many a page purple. Deep purple. Flamboyant purple.

Embarrassed-Blush Purple.

By comparison, Veteran Writer Me is almost Earnest Hemingway. The writing is concise, direct. It feels comfortable, like a pair of baggy pajama pants.

But I don’t wear those pj pants everywhere. Such a style is not universally appropriate.

Borrowed from a book review on Keanan Brand’s blog, Adventures in Fiction:

A note about style or voice: Neither of those elements should overwhelm the story. Style or voice should never become the star of the novel, but should serve the story. Therefore, when I say that no particular passage stands out due to style, that’s not a bad thing. I’d rather have substance than pretty, pretty lights.

The same could not be said of a particular fantasy novel I read a few years ago. Touted as lyrical and mesmerizing, the writing style was often so flowery — ahem, poetic — that my brain glazed and my eyes crossed. Although there were a couple of scenes where I paid close attention and read word-for-word, most of the novel passed in page-flipping disinterest. The style overtook the story.

Good writing will always be recognized, because it is smooth, refreshing, engaging, intriguing, a good vehicle for the story — but the best writing style doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t stand in the way of the story.

I’ve edited a spate of manuscripts plagued by sentence fragments. I love sentence fragments. In moderation. When they make a point. But always? For no apparent reason? Just to be trendy and “with it”? Not so much. (See what I did there?) Sentence fragments are great for indicating surprise, irony, humor, fear, but too many in succession can quickly grow wearisome.

An awkward writing style is a form of author intrusion. Ever read a book or an article that feels forced, not because the author doesn’t know his material, but because there’s a self-conscious attempt to be cute, hip, or literary? The author doesn’t feel comfortable, as if wearing an ill-fitting garment. No matter how luxurious the fabric or how fashionable the label, it looks cheap.

Play around with clothing styles to find your fashion sense, and play with different writing styles to find your creative groove. Get down inside it, turn around a few times, take a few steps to see how it fits. And then write, write, write.

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Moment of Truth

Everyone stresses. Even those of us who meditate or pray, or try to set aside burdens that are not our own and let others take responsibility for their own actions — we all stress about something.

One person’s concern is not necessarily another’s. What angers one may make another laugh. What makes one cry may make another contemplative.

I try to be balanced in thinking and reacting to whatever life hands me, but have been known to let my train go screaming spectacularly off the rails over the stupidest things.

There’s no train wreck now, but a quiet, intense waiting. Earlier this week, I told the truth that had been roiling inside me and expressed to everyone but the two people who needed to hear it the most. For months, I wrestled with this truth — let resentment build, and anger. I worried that I might be wounding a tender young ego (the author’s), or might invite the wrath of an older but still tender ego (a founding editor’s).

So, instead of speaking truth, I stressed. I ranted. I grit my teeth and got to work, knowing that all these hours of labor might very likely be in vain when the egos refused to admit the same truth: the manuscript is weak, full of holes, and displays a lack of insight, knowledge, and life experience that can only come with maturity and hard work and a few knocks from the mere act of living.

But I, as the editor, am supposed to fix all that and make the novel worthy of publication.

I remember being a young teen author, maybe thirteen, maybe only twelve, when a novel-in-progress was critiqued by a local author. At the time, I didn’t appreciate her effort and time and wisdom. All I saw was the stuff she didn’t like, the flaws and the corrections. I didn’t absorb the truth. Not for many years, sometime in adulthood.

Then, finding her notes one day while looking for something else, I read again those words printed in pixelated font on yellowing paper. She thought I was a good and imaginative writer. She liked the story. It’s good; now, here are a few ways to make it better. If she didn’t think it or I were worth the time, she wouldn’t have written such a long critique.

In that moment of realization and shame, I wanted to thank her, but surely she’s long passed, and I don’t even recall her name.

So, decades later, I am hoping my own honest critique, written in the spirit of encouraging the author while still telling the truth, will be received in the way I intend.

Worry is fear, and I don’t want to be ruled by fear: fear of what others may think, say, or do; fear of a future that hasn’t arrived. Come what may, truth has been told. Stress is gone.

Fun With Research

waiting for Morning Court to begin (Beltane 2013) c EE
waiting for Morning Court to begin (Beltane 2013)                                 c EE

A few weeks ago, I went on a research binge for a couple of novels — one complete, one in the works — and in the process sent out a lot of e-mail asking for help. I was amazed at how many people were willing and eager to answer questions and provide leads to other experts. I was equally surprised by those who were standoffish and almost suspicious.

I haven’t contacted the nearby police department yet — there’s time enough for that —  but efforts to speak to any of several local paranormal investigation teams were in vain. Nary a reply. Maybe they’re afraid of being mocked by a skeptic or an unbeliever. Maybe they have no time for someone not in need of their services. Maybe they’ve given up the gig, and all their contact information is obsolete.  (Given up the ghost? Ahem-ahem-ahem)

A few hours spent with writers at the OWFI conference, however, yielded an investigator who answered my questions with far more information than I expected, and in the process gave me new ideas for a scene involving teenage ghost hunters.

He did mention that I could pay for a training session, and participate in an actual investigation, but those are for true believers. Although it might help my research, it’s not my scene.

c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE

More in line with my interests, and one group that welcomed me, is the Barony of Namron, part of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They invited me to their annual Beltane event (a far milder and less pagan May Day than some). But rituals and pagan practices were not my focus, but smithing and all manner of crafts and weapons. No swordsmith that day, but a blacksmith named Simon, an archer named Lawrence, a few other craftsmen and warrior types, including female archers in Viking garb, and a whole lot of friendly folk willing to share their knowledge (and, in some case, volunteer other people as resources, but no one seemed to mind my nosiness).

There’s still much to ask, but first I have to know which are the right questions. Although I learned that I set up the smithy correctly in the novel, my blacksmith is limited in his knowledge due to my own ignorance.

He doesn’t have to know everything, because the story isn’t about the everyday life of a blacksmith — he just needs to be convincing and not sound or behave like an idiot. And, thanks to Simon, he won’t.

I hope.

After all, no matter how excellent the information, if I don’t use it correctly, my characters will suffer.

One solution is to be somewhat familiar with the topic before conducting interviews or gathering specifics. For instance, when I said I’m a writer doing research in order to make a fantasy novel more realistic in its details, people assumed knights and castles and tournaments and such.

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Nope. The fantasy novels are set in an earlier era than that of plate armor and heraldry. Still, it was fun to watch the combat.

Other topics to research further: archery terms and equipment, chain mail, swords (their making and their use), cooking, leather-working, and clothing.

No one looked sideways at me during the SCA event. Fellow geeks and all.

But what’ll they say at the police department when I start asking questions about homicides?

The Poo Hitteth the Fan

I love books. However, due to being an editor, when I read for pleasure and not work, I don’t necessarily finish every book I attempt. Call me jaded. I won’t argue.

When I was younger, my mother scolded me for having too many novels stacked by the bed, bookmarks sticking out, because she said I started more projects than I finished. That was a valid concern. But I was voracious and not very discriminating: If a book was even remotely interesting, it was read. Or, at the very least, it was skimmed for the good parts.

Recently, I posted a review of a novel that shall remain nameless. It isn’t a glowing review, as many of them are, yet despite being in the minority, it isn’t the only review to point out a glaring fact: Although the artwork and premise of the book are good, the writing is not.

I don’t make a habit of posting negative reviews, and I generally have to feel strongly one way or the other (positively or negatively) before reviewing anything. In this instance, I really wanted to like this book. It had been talked up and marketed, and the artwork is fantastic, so I opened up the book in anticipation of a great ride.

Disillusion in the first paragraph.

But I kept going.

As the pages piled up, so did my disappointment.

I would have let the matter lie, and just walked away in search of something else to read, but this particular author and his enthusiasts acknowledge and even defend the poor writing while extolling the virtues of the overall story. After all, they say, many bestsellers aren’t necessarily written well (Twilight and Harry Potter have been cited to me several times, as if they are the standard).

There was a time, years ago in my wide-eyed youth, when I might have joined their parade, and berated any ol’ jaded editor for being hung up on the sentences and missing the big picture.

Now, though, after years on the other side of the writing and publishing biz, I thoroughly understand the need for the writer to take pride in his own work first. After all, if he doesn’t, why should anyone else? Why should an editor fix all his mistakes?

“Yes, but that’s your job,” you say.

Agreed. An editor’s purpose is to help a writer shape and polish his work.

It is not my job to pat him on the head and let him get away with crappy writing just because his noggin is chock-full of cool ideas.

Below are excerpts from my original review, as well as a brief exchange with one of the author’s fans who is not pleased with what I wrote. (Excerpts, because the original exchange is rather long.)

Me:

The artwork is fantastic, and this book appears to have an enthusiastic audience, which bodes well for the author’s future…The story may very well have been as intriguing as all the glowing reviews indicate, but I could not get past the awkwardness/clunkiness of the writing.

Someone else who also attempted reading the book wasn’t bothered by the writing so much as by the execution of the story. When I pressed for more details, this person just handed back the book and said she lost interest after the first few chapters.

Disgruntled Fan:

You are an editor… your job is to find problems with books. Some of the most poorly written novels sell in the millions (Twilight, Harry Potter). This is because the masses are not editors but normal people who enjoy a good story. As someone who works for a competing publisher the ethical move would be to remove this review.

Me:

As for the argument that poorly-written novels are often bestsellers, I have no argument there. They are.

However, it’s not in me to lie about writing quality — to simply go along to get along, because, hey, everyone else seems to like it, so I should just shut up. No, this is my craft, and it matters to me…So when I expect excellence from fellow writers, that’s not unethical or negative. It’s simply a matter of course. After all, I’d much rather walk over the bridge built by the meticulous craftsman than walk over the one constructed by someone content with “good enough”.

Disgruntled Fan:

And as to your craft, is it only to give negative criticism? I was not aware that this was an editor’s job. Is it so hard to find redeeming qualities in a book (granted you only read two pages) when I see a multitude of people making a laundry list of redeeming qualities…(W)hat I read is “Your writing sucks; how did you get published? This was a mistake. Don’t quit your day job.” There was nothing positive and you made it sound like the worst book in the world. I do not want him to quite writing, I loved the story. You mention a bridge that is good enough… But that isn’t what you said. You didn’t say that his novel was good enough. You said that the dung was so rank that you had to walk away before vomiting. (comments truncated due to being more of the same)

Me:

I never said I quit reading after page two (“the first few pages”), nor did I tell the author to quit writing. As a teacher, I would never tell someone to quit writing. And you’re the one who mentioned dung and vomit — not I.

You also seem to be saying that, since I’m an editor, I have no right to an opinion regarding any book, nor should I post a review unless it’s positive. To the contrary, only saying positive things would be unethical, because I wouldn’t be completely honest…I can appreciate a person’s creativity and effort without enjoying how those efforts and creativity are employed.

…I never attacked his creativity or his ability to conjure up intriguing stories. In your first comment, you stated, “Some of the most poorly written novels… .” Seems you already know that the author, while creative in his storytelling, could have spent more time on the way he presented his story. And that, (dear reader), is my original review in a nutshell.

Proverbs 26:4 comes to mind: “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” (The Bible, New Living Translation).

Just as I don’t often post negative reviews, I don’t often become mired in online debates. I’m not one who enjoys arguing or conflict. What would you have done? Would you have posted any review at all? Would you have let Disgruntled Fan have his/her say, and remained silent?