Seriously, Authors: Finish Your $%!@* Series.

Readers love series.

We know this, as readers and as writers. Publishing houses and agents tell us this all the time. When you submit a novel, the first thing an agent asks is, “Is this a series? Could it be?” We invest in series. We fall in love with the characters and the settings. We follow them over years and follow the authors on Twitter to see when that next book is coming out. We get antsy when the author says, “It may take a bit longer than I thought . . .” and we pounce and demand to know the new deadline.

And it doesn’t matter if there are three books, or seven, or more. It doesn’t matter how long we have to wait, as long as we know that book is coming (right, Outlander and Game of Thrones fans?!). We only halfway joke about being ready to donate a kidney or lung to the author if necessary, so long as they finish that freaking series in our lifetime! I’d even dare to say that we live in fear – just a little bit – that something might happen to prevent our favorite authors from completing our favorite series.

But you know what I hate more than almost anything? More than hangnails, more than melted ice cream, more than a car that won’t start because it needs a $1600 fuel pump?

Authors who don’t finish their $#/(&^@! series!!!!!!!! 

The thing I despise most is an author who starts a series, and then just – abandons it. Abandons the characters, and abandons us, their readers. Abandons the whole thing to go traipsing off to greener pastures with new characters. Or maybe they get to a point where they suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next.

NOT ACCEPTABLE, PEOPLE.

81NOl5U5bULOf all the authors who have likely done this, Dean Koontz is the master offender. In my opinion, his two best books – of all the books he has written in a very long and prolific career – are the first two books of the Moonlight Bay Trilogy, Fear Nothing, and Seize the Night. These books are absolutely amazing. The characters – Christopher Snow, his best friend Bobby, and girlfriend Sasha – are the kind of characters that stay with you more than twenty years after you first read their books. I devoured them the second they were released. Amazing characters, incredible plots, mind-blowing tension. Fear Nothing was released in 1997; Seize the Night, in 1999. And because the second book ended on a cliffhanger, I waited, anticipating that third one like I anticipate the return of the Starbucks’ Mocha Coconut Frappuccino.

Know how long I’ve been waiting on that third book?

Twenty years. 

Yes. Twenty years. TWENTY FREAKING YEARS, DEAN. Give me my damn third book already! You cannot leave us with our characters in the middle of a cliffhanger crisis! In fact, I’ve boycotted Dean Koontz and all his novels until I get that third book. I’m not the only one who’s upset by this, by the way – there are websites devoted to this. He’s been saying the third book is ‘in the works’ or ‘halfway done’ for 19 years. At this point, I think we can safely assume it is, in fact, not halfway done.

Dean, here’s a personal message to you from me:  sit your ass in a chair, and write the third freaking book. NOW.

My second most frustrating offender is author Maureen Johnson. She’s a British author, and has written several books, but you may know her best because she took a break from writing the Shades of London series to co-author some books with Cassandra Clare. Not acceptable! Cassandra Clare is capable of writing her own novels. We got the first three in the series, and the third one left us on a cliffhanger that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for two years! (Before someone points this out, YES, I’m aware that there’s a new novella about Stephen, but it’s not a continuation of the series.) Again, a freaking cliffhanger?! What the frack?

soapboxLet me get on my soapbox for a minute:

WRITERS, IF YOU INTEND TO EMBARK ON A SERIES, KNOW WHERE THE HELL YOU’RE GOING WITH IT, AND WHEN THE HELL YOU’RE GOING TO FINISH IT.

See, when you put fingers to keyboard and start that very first book, when you introduce those characters and their problems, when you start to draw us into the world you’re creating, you are making a contract with us. You are promising that if you write this, and if we read it, you will finish it. You will keep writing. We, as readers. trust that you know where you’re going with the series. We trust that you have a process, a road map. We trust you to get us there, with your characters. We may not always like the choices you make, but we are there and we are reading because we have made a contract with you in return:  you write, we read.

Pick up any book on writing, especially any book on writing a series, and the very first piece of advice is this:  make sure you know your overall story arc before you ever start. Obviously, things might change a little.  You might find that certain plot twists don’t work out the way you thought, or that certain characters take over and do things their way. That’s fine. But work with it. You’ve made a contract with us. We’ve invested in your and your characters. We’ve shelled out money to buy your books. We’ve stolen time from other activities – work, watching Big Bang Theory reruns, watching the kids’ soccer games, whatever – to read them.

You have a responsibility to deliver on your promise. You, dear writer, have a responsibility to us – and your characters – to know the ending before you begin. That’s the heart of a series, after all – that overall story arc that carries us through several books to a conclusion that we just can’t wait to read, and at the same time, can’t bear to read. Imagine how long JK Rowling would have lasted if she’d gotten to the end of Book 4 and suddenly . . . she sheepishly announced she didn’t think the series would continue because she wasn’t sure where to take it from there? Millions of teenagers would have hunted her. (So would millions of adults, for that matter.)

If that means you write the first three novels of a series before you have a firm grip on where it’s going, like Naomi Novik, go for it. You don’t have to publish one, and then another. My plan is precisely that – write the first three, then lay the groundwork for the next three. If that’s what you need to do, do it. But do not, for all that is holy, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR READERS HANGING.

They will never forgive you for it.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, Dean Koontz.

 

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Hamilton, Outlander, & The Rule of Three

I have a new obsession.

As a historian, it was probably inevitable. As a die-hard hip-hop hater, it definitely wasn’t.

That new obsession is Hamilton. 

chernowYes, I realize I’m late to the game, though in my defense I have been using clips from the musical in my Anthropology class to illustrate how different cultures can interpret historical events, and utilize different methods to celebrate them. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘who thought you could talk about the Founding Fathers using hip-hop?’ (But let’s face it:  I’ve long had a bit of a historical crush on the guy.) Along with that, I’ve also been reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography upon which the musical is based.

If you’ve never heard of Alexander Hamilton, I’m truly sorry for you and wonder which rock you’ve been living under for the past three years. In the 1980s, this was my favorite commercial (still is!):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLJ2Vjv2x18

And then, of course, a young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda came along and, in 2015, turned a forgotten Founding Father into a household name.

But, that’s not what I came to talk about today. Last week, during my 37th listen-through of the Hamilton soundtrack, something hit me hard:  Miranda’s incredible use of the Rule of Three in the musical.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2If you’re asking “Rule of Three? What’s that?”, here’s a short definition:  The Rule of Three adheres to the idea that we retain things best when iterated in threes. It can work at any level of anything you’re writing:  from sentence structure, to character development, to story arcs. It works best when it’s subtle, when the reader takes 37 times to cotton on to the idea. Trust me, it’s in their minds! You don’t need to hit them over the head with it.

A great example (at the sentence level) is the Declaration of Independence. We all know it by heart:

We hold these truths to be self -evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . 

There. In that one sentence, we see the Rule of Three used twice. There are three truths in this sentence, and three of those truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Read it silently. Read it aloud. Notice the rhythm? That’s what makes this such great writing. The rhythm helps us remember it as well. It drives the points home.

Another great example is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Notice especially the last three lines. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. And then, of course, the three-fold repetition of free at last. King was a gift writer and speaker. He knew what he was doing. (Fun Fact:  most of that speech was off the cuff. Improvised. For more on that bombshell, you can read this story from Forbes:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/#581ae2f25c5b)

My major lightbulb moment coincided with something Chernow said in the book, that Hamilton – at least in his early days – thought dueling was a preferred way to uphold one’s honor, and that in certain circumstances, one must fight. Chernow also alluded to the fact that we suspect Hamilton may have been involved in more duels than That Most Famous One, either as a participant, a second, or at the very least, an adviser.

Yet only three are used in the musical.

  • The first duel:  Hamilton acts as second to his best friend John Laurens, in a duel against Charles Lee. Lee was shot in the side, but survived; both men walked away with honor intact.
  • The second duel:  Hamilton advises his eldest son, Phillip, that if his honor needs to be upheld, he should fight; Phillip does, and is killed. This is a complete reversal of the first duel; we expected Phillip to survive, but he didn’t. Also, it’s presaged by the music:  the song for the first duel, ‘Ten Duel Commandments,’ is echoed later in the song ‘Take a Break,’ in which then-nine-year-old Phillip is learning to count in French.
  • The third duel:  Hamilton and Burr face off. And we all know how that ends.

Each time, with each duel, there’s rising tension – and rising stakes. The first time, Hamilton’s reputation, and best friend, are at risk; the second, his son; the third, his own life. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three. But it’s not the only way you can use it.

At the story arc level, the Rule of Three can be used in several different ways. You may use the same motif or theme three times. A character may appear three times. A similar scene may occur three times. The trick is to make sure that each of them serves a purpose. The first two times, the character may solve the problem easily, and then lose the third time. Think about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are three tests for the Champions to pass. Harry survives the first and second one, but the third one . . . This is a pattern known as ‘success-success-reversal.’ You set your readers up to expect your characters will succeed that third time – but of course, your readers are smart and they know that can’t happen. Therefore, you’re increasing the tension for them. They expect the reversal. Then, it’s up to you to pull it off in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying.

You could also use the Rule of Three to let your characters learn from their mistakes:  failure, failure, success. This can be used to demonstrate that a character has changed over the course of the story arc, and their new skills, or the ways in which they’ve changed, mean they’re ready for the climax of the book.

I’m considering how to use the Rule of Three in the novel I’m currently writing. It’s pretty powerful and effective if you can do it! Take, for example, Diana Gabaldon and Outlander. Claire Randall Fraser goes back in time, and meets Captain Jonathan Randall – the ancestor of Claire’s husband, and a ‘bloody filthy pervert,’ as Claire later describes him. In their first official meeting, he beats Claire; in their second, he tries to rape her. Gabaldon sets it up perfectly, so we know that if there is a third encounter with Jonathan Wolverton Randall, it will not be pleasant. Needless to say, there is a third encounter. It is not pleasant. It is also, however, not Claire who is in the most danger in that scene. Gabaldon escalates the tension, but also gives us a reversal.

So how can you use it? I’m still working on it! But I think I have at least one way figured out; it’s just going to take some cutting and some rewrites to make it work. But hopefully, when I’m done, those three scenes will be far more powerful, and advance the story more effectively, than the myriad little scenes I’d had before.

 

https://www.dianagabaldon.com/other-projects/the-cannibals-art-how-writing-really-works/the-cannibals-art-jamie-and-the-rule-of-three/  – this is probably where I first learned about the Rule of Three! Diana Gabaldon lays out how to create a perfect Rule of Three in your novel, using Outlander as an example.

https://amyraby.com/2013/08/26/writing-technique-the-rule-of-three/ – another good blog post about the Rule of Three

https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/rule-of-three-in-writing/ – this is a great little article that addresses the Rule of Three at the macro level – but you can see how powerful, yet subtle, it is! If it works in marketing, it can work in literature.

 

 

Log Lines and Story Flaws – Kristin Lamb

I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:

https://authorkristenlamb.com/2018/09/fatal-flaws-story-structure/

Novels: Putting the Puzzle Together

Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/is-your-novel-a-rust-bucket-mine-is/), and this week, I came up with another metaphor for my young adult novel.

What I’ve got is a Ziploc bag full of puzzle pieces. I don’t know what the puzzle should look like. I don’t even know if all the pieces I have are from the same puzzle! One thing I’m sure of:  I do not have a complete puzzle.

So how do you put together a puzzle with no picture and no guidelines?

Good question. But this is how I often write novels. I get scenes in my head. Snippets of dialogue. A character doing something. They come to me, often as ephemeral and insistent as a wisp of smoke. Forcing me to notice them. (And sneeze.) And from there, the scene evolves. It may be a page or two. It might be twenty pages. Either way, it’s a scene. I don’t know exactly what happened to get us there, and I may not be sure what comes after. But I’ve got a scene in my head, and I write it Then And There, before it evaporates. Because once it evaporates, it’s gone and it will never come back.

soapboxNota Bene:  If a scene comes to you don’t think you’ll remember it later – you won’t!!!!! You won’t remember the exact dialogue, the exact sequence of events, and you’ll lose the magic of that moment. Just drop whatever you’re doing and go write it. Then. And. There.

So I write these scenes, and then I get to put them into some semblance of order, and then I get to figure out where the missing pieces are. Maybe I’ve got some sky, but only a handful of leaves to tell me that a tree should be there. Or maybe there’s supposed to be a covered bridge in the picture, but all I have is the road leading to it, and a bit of the roof. But if I know what should be there, I can figure out the rest.

And that’s what I have now. Is this one book or two? I can’t even tell you that much! When I started my first urban fantasy novel, it was one novel. That was it. One very simple novel. It’s since evolved into at least a six-book series and although I know exactly what’s going to happen, getting it started has been the issue, in large part because of the way I write – in these puzzle pieces. Where does this scene go? Before or after this one? Wait – who’s this person????!!!! Why are you in my novel???!!! I did not invite you!

You have to trust the process.

A few years ago I had a character – Shannon – walk onstage and make herself at home. She was about as welcome as a cockroach in a wedding cake, but she insisted on staying, and my MC, Erin, insisted on interacting with her. Now, I cannot imagine the novels without her. She is the perfect foil for Erin, and her choices and actions make life interesting for everyone. Had I not trusted that she had a place in my novel, if I had been completely welded to an outline, I’d have jettisoned her – and my novels would have suffered as a result.

Nicky’s story has been a little different, in large part because I’m working within a historic framework. I want to keep it as close to ‘real’ as I can, which even includes using actual newspaper articles from 1924. But there are scenes that need to be there, and I have to trust that Nicky has given them to me for a reason. The question is – as I read through the entire thing – where do all the scenes go? What’s missing? What has to go in that I haven’t written yet? And . . . is this one book, or two?

I’d only ever imagined writing one book. But the more I look at what I’ve done and what I have left to do, if this is one book, then it’s going to be as long as Harry Potter #5.

Still, I have to trust that I’m doing the right thing. E.L. Doctorow is credited with one of the most famous sayings about writing:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Since Nicky’s a rumrunner, this is very appropriate. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving like James and Richard in the Bolivia trip:  I’ve got two flashlights taped to the hood of my car! Not even headlights! Then, you just have to trust that the road is still there, even if you can’t see it very bloody well.

So if you’re not an outliner, if you can’t stand the thought of being shoehorned into a plot line, don’t feel you’re alone. Hey, at least someone didn’t just dump a bag of puzzle pieces in your lap and tell you to get to work. 🙂

Finding Inspiration for your Characters

41hjTdanuNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.

This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)

In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.

That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.

But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.

To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them. 

It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.

Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!

One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.

Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.

And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.

But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.

So if you’re struggling with character motivations,  you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.

Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.

Inspiration. Go get some!

 

Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/

 

Re-writers, unite! Or untie. Whichever.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —ColetteCasual Chance, 1964

As promised, the theme of this summer is rewrites.

Actually, the theme of this summer is ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may all be living in a fascist hell,’ so I’ve been on as close to a vacation as I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve had gelato for the first time (yes, I’m serious, and YES, I loved it, eat it, I beg of you!), I’ve shopped, I’ve cuddled with the kitties, I’ve planted rose bushes, and I’ve been collecting and shopping for my vintage shop.

But the rewrites have also been ongoing.

Rewriters, unite! Or untie. That’s what it feels like, sometimes – that our manuscripts are great big tapestries, and you’re not quite sure what went wrong where, but if you start tugging at one small thread, the entire thing will unravel.

And guess what? That’s okay. Because in the end, it will be better.

This second novel is hard because, as I mentioned in an old post, I thought it was done. Finito, finished, fin. Then, when I finished the new first novel in the series and went back to this one, I realized that not only was it not done, it also wasn’t even a very good first draft. It had several issues, including:

Characters:  My MC, Erin, is totally kick-ass and snarky in the first novel. In this one, she was afraid and whiny and I hated that. Also, there was very little interaction between her and my male main character, Kai – which is kind of a problem, given that one of the subplots is their developing relationship. So that had to change. Plus, the antagonist’s motives weren’t clear – and neither were its actions. What was it doing? I had no idea, and I wrote the thing!

Plot:  I know, the plot derives from the characters’ actions, and that was a huge problem in this book:  there were no actions! Okay, that’s not quite accurate, but the truth is, the characters weren’t doing anything to drive the story forward. There was a huge chunk in the middle – like 40 pages – where Erin didn’t really do much of anything except whine and react. All that’s either getting cut, or getting rewritten. The really sad thing was, she didn’t have anything to react against. The antagonist wasn’t doing anything, either! There has to be give and take between them. The MC does something; the antagonist does something in return; the MC reacts; and so on. Yeah. Like literally none of that was happening.

The Antagonist:  Your MC can only be as good/strong/intelligent/resilient as your antagonist lets them be. You fill in the adjective. But no matter how great your MC is, your antagonist has to be just as great. Otherwise, where’s the tension? Where’s the fun? And my antagonist just . . . wasn’t. In fact, when I think about it, my antagonist appeared exactly twice – at the beginning, and the end. That’s it. And that’s okay, as long as we know it’s pulling strings behind the scenes – after all, how many times did we see Voldemort in HP#1? Once. Well, twice, technically, but we didn’t know the thing killing the unicorn was him. But he was a constant presence. My antagonist wasn’t even that. So that’s an issue I’m addressing.

Forward Momentum:  Yeah, well, there wasn’t any, and we’re fixing that. ‘Nuff said.

It’s not to say that there wasn’t anything good from the original version. There was. A lot, in fact. And those scenes are going to be taken and revised slightly, and slotted back into place, hopefully this time with better, stronger scenes surrounding them! It’s not that they’re darlings I can’t murder; they really are good, strong scenes that drive the story forward and are necessary to the novel. But the fact is, a lot of the manuscript is full of darlings that need murdered. In fact, they’re not even darlings. They’re sort of like the weird neighbor down the street who’s quiet and keeps to himself, and every once in a while you see him digging in the backyard. You’re not quite sure what he’s doing, and you’re not quite sure what he’s doing in your neighborhood, but you’re pretty sure he should probably just go away.

Rewrites are scary. I get that. I swear, I’m the queen of rewrites. But it’s how we learn, and how we get better as writers. The days of Faulkner typing a manuscript, submitting it his editor, and forgetting it, are over. And I’m sure Faulkner revised and rewrote, too.

It really is the only way.

So be brave. You’ve got a manuscript in the desk drawer, don’t you? Maybe it’s finished; maybe it’s not quite done. Maybe you think it’s the best thing since espresso; maybe you think it’s total crap. But the only way to find out what it really is, is to sit down with it, a pen, and some Post-It Notes, and get started. I have to. Stephen King has to. Diana Gabaldon has to.

You have to be ready to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest enough to find the flaws, admit them, and be willing to do something about them. And I’ll be truthful here:  you may not even be able to see the flaws right now. Not all of them, anyway. I sure couldn’t, not for a long time. (Sad thing is, neither did my beta readers.) You have to be ready to decide what kind of book you want this to be – not just genre, but do you want it published or not? Just like with anything worth doing, you have to be willing to stick with it, all the way.

Are you ready to make that commitment? Are you ready to pick up that string you see hanging out of your manuscript, the one that screams This is what’s wrong!, and give it a tug, knowing that once you do, the entire thing will probably unravel before your eyes? Are you ready to face the fact that once you tug that string ,you can’t un-tug it? It’ll reveal more. I promise. Once you tug that loose thread, you’ll see a dozen more. You’ll see flaws and holes and problems you didn’t even realize were actually there. I’ve been working on this book in some version or another for ten freaking years, and I’m still finding plotholes and issues!

If you’re ready .  . . let’s go.

Untie that manuscript. Let’s see what happens.

Happy writing.

 

An earlier blog post on the same subject, apparently:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/the-manuscript-is-not-sacred/

From The Atlantic, an article by writer John Rechy that touches on both Faulkner and his process of rewriting – and why it’s so important to him. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/the-key-to-writing-a-mystery-is-asking-the-perfect-question/515799/

Another great story from The Atlantic:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/

Criticism . . . and How to Accept It (sort of)

There’s an imp that lives under my desk. He’s an ugly little spud who loves to stare at me and cackle gleefully (he does not, however, slime me, for which I suppose I should be grateful!). And his name is Ihatecriticism. (Not to be confused with Ihatedoctors and Ihatetrump and Ihatewinter, obviously.)

I’ve lived with Ihatecriticism for a long time. Most of my life, really. You might have one of these little things, too. Sometimes they’re strong enough to keep us from even starting something new (What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You suck! You will suck!) And sometimes, if we’re able to exorcise them, they mostly go away . . .

But I don’t know that they ever, truly, disappear.

Ihatecriticism is a parasite. Black, spidery, sucking the joy and life out of everything. Just when I’m starting to feel good about my writing, or the way my novel is going – BOOM! Out he jumps to remind me that I Suck, and I Will Never Be Any Good, and oh yeah, I Suck.

I’ve been wrestling with him again this week, as my beta readers have been working on one of my manuscripts. Let’s be honest:  for a writer, the hardest thing in the world is to sit quietly and let people rip your work apart. Even when you know it’s for the best, even when you know they have your interest at heart, even when you know  you actually asked for it . . . when it comes time to actually sit down across from them, with your baby manuscript in front of you, and listen to their criticisms . . . you really would rather have a root canal without the numbing agent.

I’ve been there several times. It’s one reason why I’m driven to being a perfectionist – because I hate, absolutely hate, to be criticized. If I leave no room for it, then no one can do it. Sounds plausible, right?

The problem, of course, is that nothing can be perfect.

Several years ago, I taught a creative writing class at my local college. For the most part, I had very talented students who wanted to be better. The class was structured as a workshop; students submitted written assignments, then we all critiqued them during the next week and discussed them in class the next week. We had rules about critiquing. They  had to learn what made a critique constructive. They learned how to look for the good and the bad, and give time to both.

But there was one student who simply could not take the criticism. She couldn’t write. At all. She could have gotten better, but she refused to admit the problems. Sentences were unreadable. Spelling and grammatical errors filled the pages. We offered her several solutions for the first half of the semester – the most important being simply running spellcheck and reading her work aloud. No dice. Finally, students started to avoid her works. Those that continued to try to offer help were met with open hostility. We didn’t understand her vision. We didn’t get it. We were hacks, not artists. 

Don’t be that student.

It’s hard. I’ve been gearing myself up for a month for these critiques, and part of me is still not sure I’m ready. Even coming from friends who want to see me succeed, it’s going to be hard. Even though I ASKED them to do this, it’s going to be hard! But here’s the sad fact:  I’m too close to the novel. I can’t see all the flaws. I know what I meant to say – but I have no idea if I actually said it. I know what I meant to do with the story – but can others see that?

And that, precisely, is why you need constructive criticism.

One of the things that can help both you and your beta readers is to settle ahead of time what you specifically want feedback on. Are you looking for line edits? Character? Continuity? Overall story cohesion? Chapter transitions? All of the above? Spell it out for them (maybe even in email so they remember). Then, you’ve asked for it, and they feel comfortable providing it. Win-win.

Another thing you can do is set up rules ahead of time. One writing group I belonged to had a rule:  while receiving feedback, writers had to enter the ‘Cone of Silence.’ As long as we were discussing a work, that author could not speak. Couldn’t argue. That gave the betas time and space to deliver their feedback, and the writer time and space to accept and digest it. Once the feedback was delivered, the writer could then offer explanations, or ask further questions. It worked really well.

You can also require everyone to give constructive criticism, which simply means this:  readers must tell you the good with the bad. We all like to know what we did well! In fact, really good feedback begins withe the positive. “I liked X – she’s sassy and funny and believable!” Or, “I love the way you handle dialogue – it really pops and every character has a distinct voice.” Then, and only then, should you go to the criticisms.

As for actually hearing and accepting it . . . well. Suck it up, buttercup.

It’s not just hard to hear the feedback:  it’s bloody hard. You want to defend things. You will have a small voice in your head screaming that your betas didn’t read carefully enough because they missed X and Y, and how could they not understand that joke, or they’re all man-haters, so of course they hate your main character . . . and the fact is, those are probably the things you need to work on the most. The general rule of thumb is this:  if you give your work to five people, and one of them dislikes something, it’s probably them. If all five dislike something, it’s probably you.

But you do have to suck it up, if you want to get better. Your betas will catch things that you just can’t. You want to fix those things before an agent ever sees that manuscript. And even then, your agent will have criticisms. So will your editor. And . . . so will your readers. Don’t you want the chance to fix things before those mistakes get plastered all over Goodreads.com? Because if you think Ihatecriticism is bad now, just wait until all those vicious people get their hands on your book!

If you want to write, and then stick your manuscripts in the drawer, then you probably don’t need feedback. You probably also don’t have that little demon hiding under your desk. But if you do want published . . . then at some point, you need to get some holy water and exorcise that little imp back where it belongs.

 

 

https://www.bustle.com/p/12-tips-for-getting-feedback-on-your-writing-43119 – some great tips on how to accept feedback and criticism!

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/give-constructive-criticism/ – Good tips on how to provide other writers with good constructive feedback.

https://hobbylark.com/writing/Giving-and-Receiving-Feedback-in-Writers-Groups – More tips on how to give good feedback.

http://lisapoisso.com/2016/11/23/handle-editing-feedback/ – Although this deals more with editorial feedback, it’s still got some good information for how to handle feedback from your betas, too.