Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Good News is Bad News

     That's right, I said it (typed it).  You don't want the good news.  It's horrible and of no help to you whatsoever.  

     At least, that is, when it comes to your story.
     Now, yes, you definitely want to get some sort of positive feedback on your story.  It's important to hear that your beta readers are connecting with your characters, enjoying your plot, and all that jazz (If you don't care for jazz, you can substitute your favorite genre here, hip hop, rock, alternative, country, what have you).  While you are still mid-project, however, taking in feedback in order to improve your work, good news is only so good.

     From first draft to ready for submission, you have to be ready to tear your story apart.  I know, it's your baby and reworking plot, killing a character, changing the opening line, or cutting dialogue, makes you feel like you're living out "A Modest Proposal" (It's by Jonathan Swift, go read it).  All you really want to hear from your beta readers is how much they loved the story, how fabulous your characters are, and you shouldn't change a thing because it's all perfect.

     No, it's not.

     It's not perfect and that's not all you want to hear and you and I both know it.  In all of our works, there is always room for improvement.  Dialogue can always be tweaked, character can always be deepened, conflict can always be increased, and syntax can always be adjusted.  We strive to make every change in our works changes for the better.  Writing is rewriting.  It's an oft-repeated adage and that's because it's true.  It's why you don't send an agent or an editor your first draft (Good heavens.  The very thought of sending in my first draft is embarrassing.)  Okay, so we all agree that our work is never perfect (Unless of course you're sitting there saying, "Are you crazy?  All of my work is always perfect!  The first time around, to boot!" in which case we don't agree at all and in fact very strongly disagree on several different levels but not one of which is my sanity.) but what do I mean when I say that we don't want to hear about how great our stories are?  I'm getting there.  I know it may not seem like it but I am.  In fact, I'm getting there right now.

     No, seriously, I am.

     If your beta readers have nothing but good things to say about your work, they're not good beta readers.  The point of a beta reader is to help you work out all of the kinks in the system, find the bugs, the flaws, search and destroy, shock and awe!  (Sorry, carried away.  I like explosions.  Part, but not all, of the reason my sanity is never questioned.  My mother didn't have to have me tested.  Bazinga.)  Are you giving your book to the your best friend Mary Sue (A huzzah to you if you get the reference.) who never has an unkind, critical, or opinionated word to say about anyone or anything?  News flash: Mary Sue is not a good beta reader.  All Mary Sue will do (Dr. Seuss jokes may be inserted here.) is tell you sweet nothings about how much she loved your story and it's fantastic just the way it is.  As flattering as that is, and as great as it feels to hand your manuscript out to a dozen Mary Sues and receive such feedback at every turn, I have one question for you.

     How are you going to improve off of positive feedback?

     By the time you've passed your manuscript off to beta readers, your brain probably starts oozing out your ears every time your look at those double-spaced pages.  You need beta readers to catch what your revision-wearied eyes are missing.  A beta reader should be looking critically at your characters, your plot, your sentence structure, everything.  

     Now, when I say "critically" I'm not talking about unkind criticism.  Completely negative early reviews are just as horrible as completely positive ones.  I'm talking about the type of criticism that approaches a work with a critical eye, ready to praise and evaluate both honestly and objectively.  

     These are the type of beta readers you need to seek out.  Friends are fine, but they had better be friends who aren't afraid to share their opinions with you.  A good beta reader will tell you that plot point B does not follow plot point A and your main character is great but his/her love of My Little Pony doesn't jive with that daytime job as a gumshoe.  See what I'm talking about?  Yes, your beta reader should encourage you and praise what you are doing well.  That's motivation to keep writing and a morale booster at the end of a long, hard journey to complete a story.  A good beta reader should also tell you where improvements can be made; an outside perspective will see things you didn't and your story will wind up being that much better because you had a helpful beta reader.

     One final note: take your reader's comments with a grain of salt.  This is still your work.  I have ignored as many suggestions as I have taken to heart and I've never been sorry.  I only offer my stories to readers I know and trust to help me make my story as wonderful as possible but at the end of the critique session I am still the writer.  I know my story and I am the only one who can make the final decision.  To be fair to my work, I try to approach the story with the same honesty and objectivity I have asked of my beta reader.  I come back to the story ready to rip it to shreds if that's what is needed.  Most of the time, it doesn't come to that, but with that attitude prepared, I am ready to absorb all of the suggestions my beta readers have and work them into my story so the end result is something I would be proud to send to an agent or an editor.

     Look for a beta reader who is kind enough to be honest, even when the truth is going to hurt a little (or a lot, let's keep going with the honesty theme).  Mary Sue is your enemy when it comes to this part of your writing process.  You've put so much into your manuscript; don't skimp on the final steps before submission.  You and your story deserve the best beta readers available.  Mary Sue isn't it.

     I'd love to hear from you!  What do you look for in a beta reader?  Care to share some of your good and/or bad beta reader experiences?  Go ahead and tell on Mary Sue, it's okay.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Influenza Type A

I did some research online, and apparently the H1N1 virus is a subset of Influenza Type A, which, just so you know, is the strain of the influenza virus responsible for the most epidemics and is the worst type of flu to have.

I have the flu, by the way.

And yes, it's Type A.


I've never had the flu before and have never had a flu shot.  That's the only benefit of actually having the virus apparently -- being sick builds up a better immunity than the shot itself.  So the aches and nausea and misery and fatigue are the trade off for a sharp piece of metal being jabbed into my fibromyalgia-tightened muscles.

I'll take what I can get.

As I was tossing and turning and tossing and turning and tossing and turning ad infinitum or didn't you get that already because I could keep going with the tossing and turning and tossing and turning bit I did come up with a way to get something else out of the flu besides salvation from said painful shot.

Do unto your characters as you would not have done unto you.  Book of Fey 1:1.

That's right, I'm going to give them the flu.  I know it seems cruel, but from where I'm laying (Lying?  I never know.  One grammar point that always confuses me.  I will say this, just as a grammar pet peeve: you're not going to "try and" do anything.  Think about it.) somebody else should be suffering as much as I am and as I'm not into inflicting pain and misery onto my fellow human beings in such a manner I might as well do it to my fictional characters.

Seriously, though.  (Yes, it's a fragment.  Those are allowed outside of term papers.  Laying?  Lying?  Doesn't come up as often when writing about Milton's Raphael narrator versus Milton's Michael narrator.  Although technically, that was a blue book essay, not the term paper.  The term paper was just about the Raphael narrator.  I don't know why they have to be blue books.  I wouldn't discriminate against green books.  And frankly, I think purple books would just make us all cheerful when we sit down to write an in class essay that counts for a third of our grade and we haven't even read the book.  Maybe it's the alliteration.  Blue book.  That's a poetry lesson for you.  Wait.  Stop.  I got lost.  Stupid flu.)  Smooth sailing is the death of your story as my screenplay professor used to say.  When in doubt increase the conflict.  Don't give your characters an easy way out.  Make them work for everything they have to have, even if it's just a vanilla latte the character is trying to get on the way to work.  Throw some traffic in there, a wayward bicyclist, something.  Think about the was The Proposal used this at the very beginning of the movie.  All Andrew Paxton wants is to get a cup of coffee and make it to work on time.  He gets there, yes, but he had to work for it, switching shirts with a co-worker, giving up his coffee cup with the cute barista's phone number, and so on.  Conflict. Drama.  Stress.  Letting the audience know that it is really important for this character to get to work on time with this coffee.  Hints about what his work life is like.  And guess what, poor Andrew's troubles don't end there.  His boss figures out his deception and knows that he orders the same coffee she does just in case he spills hers.  Which he did.

Would any of us want this done to us?  I wouldn't want to live through that crazy morning.  Neither do your characters, but guess what (yes, again, it's repetitive, but I'm sick and not into editing but I am into excuses) it's good for them.  Conflict builds character.  (hardeeharharhar.)  Give your characters the flu.  Turn off the alarm clock.  Make them late for work.  Rush hour traffic.  Thunderstorms while walking into the wedding chapel.  Car accidents.  Wayward bicyclists (I don't know why, it's just funny.).  Whatever, but make your characters work for whatever they are trying to accomplish in your story.  Don't take the second cousin's rich great uncle died and left a bunch of money in the will option.  That's a cop out.  It should never be easy.  Smooth sailing is the death of your story.  When things get easy it's not fun anymore.  There's no reason to root for anyone when there's nothing to fight.  Deepen the conflict.

When in doubt, send two men through the door with guns.

Or just send in the flu.  Type A is best.

(Laying?  Lying?  Milton's angels, that's all I know.)