Saturday, March 26, 2016

My Writing Process: Beta Readers

flowers, blossoms, branches, nature, pink, springOut my window, daffodils gently wave in the breeze, my father's pampas grass is peeking out from the brown remains of last year's growth, and trees are mostly in full bloom. It's spring. More importantly, for me as a writer at least, it's the long Easter weekend. And it couldn't have come at a better time. I'm just a few thousand words from having the first draft of my newest work in progress finished. It's my goal to have it completed by the time I head back to work on Tuesday. After that, it goes out to my beta readers. I don't know if all indie authors use them, but I have found them to be of great value. There are a few things I hope to get from beta readers.

  • Proofreading I proofread my own work, but it's a long, long document (not long in terms of it really being a long book, but much longer than, say, an essay) and, in those 67,000 or so words, I miss things no matter how many times I read it. It's the whole theory of completion thing, where we see what we expect to see, not what is is actually there. For instance, how many of you noticed that I put is in that last sentence twice? Many won't have because the second wasn't supposed to be there and your brain skipped over it. I'm hoping if I put the book in front of enough eyes, they'll all notice things like that, which I've missed.
kindle, e-reader, technology, reading, book, objects, coffee, cup, mug, notebook, notepad, pen, eyeglasses, business
  • Plot Holes We've all experienced them--a character comes from nowhere or something happens out of the blue and we go back to reread to see if we missed something, but we didn't because the author didn't give us enough information to have that character or event make sense. It's kind of like my English classes recently when I referred several times to a handout I'd distributed before someone in my fourth period class finally got brave enough to say, "Mr. S, we don't know what handout you're talking about." Turns out they were still inside my lectern where I'd left them. So I hope my beta readers can do that for me. Where are important things not made clear or left out altogether? Sometimes this happens when I go back and make a change somewhere early in the book and then don't carry out that change throughout. Other times it's just badly written, pure and simple. 
hole, cave, sky, clouds
  • Continuity  I have a unique situation in my books because they are parts of a series, so I have two competing issues. First, it needs to fit the larger arc of the series and the character development needs to start and continue on the track that I created in the earlier stories. But second, each book needs to be its own entity and a fully realized story all by itself. Not everyone reads your books in order. Yes, to fully appreciate the growth of Harry and Dee and Otis and Jenn, you really would be best served (and I would make more money) if you bought and read them in order. But that's just not reality. So I try to recruit readers who've read the first three as well as people who haven't read any of them. And I'm really asking those two groups to answer different questions. 
boat, anchor, tropical, water, chain

I don't really ask my beta readers for editing opinions, though I don't reject them out of hand if they offer them. If they tell me they don't like how I've drawn a character or a particular scene, or whether there's a better word or phrase I could use at any given time, then I'll examine it. But that's not really what I'm looking for from them. I want them to concentrate on reading the book as a reader, not an editor. Is it a technically correct, complete, fully realized story that stands on its own and also fits the broader arc I'm creating in the Shalan series? Those are the questions I want them to answer for me. 

Authors, do you use beta readers? If so, what do you ask of them? I'd love if you would share your ideas with me. 

But the larger question for me is to my readers who aren't necessarily authors: are any of you interested in being a beta reader for Shalan #4? If you have time to read and make some constructive comments in the next couple of weeks, please feel free to contact me. But be aware that you should only say yes if you can actually fit this in over the next couple of weeks. I really want to move forward with the next phase of the writing by mid-April. So if you have a bit of time and are interested in giving me a hand, please get in touch. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

I Really Need Your Help

I hope this post doesn't sound whiny, but, frankly, I've felt a little whiny lately, so maybe it will. And maybe a little needy. Possibly somewhat clingy as well. I'm sorry if so, but I feel like I need to put some things clearly. I really do need the help of the people who read this blog who are also readers of my books. 
dog, puppy, pet, animals, christmas, stocking, blanket
As you may or may not know, there are lots of things that influence indie author book sales, many of which are up to me. Getting my books out there at stores and libraries and signings and events are all up to me. Building a tribe on social media--also up to me. And I think I do a halfway decent job of doing those things. I could do better, but considering this is my side job and my full-time job is pretty demanding time-wise, I do about as well as I can. 

But statistics have shown that the number one influencer of online sales of books (print and ebooks both) is online reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, but mostly Amazon. Good reviews are important, but, surprisingly, not as important as the number of reviews a book receives. Yes, it would be nice if you had good things to say and you gave it lots of stars, but even if you think the book is mediocre and give it three stars, that's better than a five-star review you never got around to posting. And if even half--or even a quarter--of people that I know personally who've told me they've read and enjoyed my books would review them, the number of reviews I've received would skyrocket. 

So this post is going to be short and to the point. Not to sound too teacher-y, but I'm giving you some homework. If you've read any or all of my books, please take the time it would normally have taken you to read the rest of this post to go to Amazon and write a quick review. It doesn't have to be a well-crafted masterpiece. Even just a sentence is okay. The process is quick and painless and you'll have the good feeling of knowing that you made my day. And who doesn't want to make someone's day? 
pug, dog, animals, sad, blanket, bed, sheets, covers
Thanks in advance. 

PS--I put in the dog pictures because dogs are cute and I love dogs and also dogs are good at begging. These dogs are begging you to go review my books. Actually, the second one is kind of telling you to in a snarky sort of way. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Writing Process: When The Mouse Hits a Dead End

As most writers will tell you, there really are two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. I suppose it's possible there are some freakish hybrids out there, but I have no idea what that would look like. For those who aren't familiar with the words, the first is probably pretty self-evident. They plot out their books, and even series of books, down to the letter. They have summaries of each chapter and know going in who's going to live, who's going to die, and who the bad guy is. For them, writing is just filling in the spaces between a basically predetermined set of plot points. Pantsers, on the other hand, are flying by the seat of their pants. They are much like a mouse in a maze, trying out a route and turning around when they come to a dead end. Sometimes a route is long and circuitous, only to end up being fruitless--or cheeseless, if you want to carry on the mouse analogy.

I'm a firm pantser. To some degree or another, I am discovering the plot and characters as I write them. Author E. L. Doctorow said, "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." These, my friends, are the words of a pantser. I like the analogy, but I think a more accurate comparison is that writing is like exploring a house at night with the power out. You can see only as far as the end of the flashlight beam, but you can discover every room and its contents that way. I see writing as less a trip from point A to point B than a journey of discovery. And that's why I like being a pantser. If I already knew what and who was in every room, the joy of discovery would be abated. To paraphrase my dear old friend and teaching colleague Dan Daniel, I could be a plotter if I wanted to; I just can't want to.

flashlight, dark, tunnel, underground, guy, man, people, black and whiteBut that's not to say my process doesn't have pitfalls. Like the mouse hits dead ends, sometimes I'll write whole chapters only to discover that I've taken a wrong turn. The route doesn't get me where I want to go or ends up not fitting in the overall narrative I think I'm trying to achieve. Sometimes, like an instance I wrote about with my second book, Kisses and Lies, it's a matter of rewriting a character to make her more sympathetic and round. In that case, if I introduced the character badly, it wouldn't break our hearts toward the end when she dies very badly at the hands of a horrible man.

And then there are situations like the one I've put myself in with my latest work in progress. I just wrote a scene this week in which the Shalans are on vacation and they discover that the murderer they were seeking back home has somehow appeared in North Carolina where they're staying. I felt when I was writing it that it was good stuff and would make for an intriguing twist. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like it might be a blind alley, to borrow a Britishism. I'm not sure I can satisfactorily explain how in the world the villain has ended up, against all odds, in the exact same place, hundreds of miles away, as the protagonists. Yes, I could make it fit, but I'd have to change the whole arc to the ending I've envisioned. I'm close enough to the end of the story that the final solution is starting to clarify in my mind and this story-line just does doesn't fit it. The killer isn't following Harry, Dee, and Jenn and to have this person show up two states away at the exact same place would require an astounding level of coincidence or it would necessitate coming up with a reason why he or she actually is following the Shalans.

fork, road, sign, pavement, lines, trees, forest, woods, ruralSo what do I do? I have two choices. I boot the scene and go a different direction. Like a regular old mouse, I turn around and try another route in the maze. But unlike a plain mouse, I have the ability to alter the maze. I can grab a grenade and blow a hole in the dead end and keep going. If I really like the scene and want to keep it, I've found a compelling reason to adjust my plot arc.

So which is it? Reroute or readjust the arc? Regular mouse or mighty mouse? I guess you'll have to read the book to find out.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

My Writing Process: Today Is About The Other Half Of Being An Author

Front entrance of the new South Parkersburg Library
When I first started writing that initial book, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when it comes to the other half of being a writer. And no, I don't mean editing. I've learned over the years that's more like the other 3/4 of writing. But I'm talking about the part about being a salesman, a shill, a huckster. I'm talking about the half of being an author, especially (though I'm hearing from traditionally published authors that it's not exclusively) independent authors, where I put myself out there, trying to get people to buy and review my books. I honestly thought that, by this time, I would be working with an agent and a publisher and they would be doing all the phone calls and making the appointments and getting my books out there for people to buy. But that's not how it's working out--at least not right now.

There are parts of the process I really do enjoy, though. Today is one of those parts. I'll be at the South Parkersburg Library on Blizzard Drive doing a reading and signing. The reason I enjoy it is I love working with the library staff, all book lovers who like promoting authors, even tiny little local ones like me. And I get to meet people, some of whom already know my books and, I hope, some to whom I get to introduce Harry and Dee and Jenn and Otis and even Eddie the Superdog. And I am happy to pay it forward a bit too. I sincerely wish that some folks come for me and get turned on by the amazing new facility that's been built in South Parkersburg, as well as the remarkable, cheerful, committed staff who work there, not just for the money, but also for the love of all things library.

Me at my very first reading back in 2014 (?!)
Another aspect of today I enjoy is the reading. I love to read scenes from a book and have people ask thoughtful questions that show me they really have read my work and are invested in the characters. Frankly, I'm less interested in great sales numbers (not uninterested--just less interested) than in finding that tribe, as I've heard it called. That small core group of people who genuinely enjoy and care about the stories I tell and the characters I create. I'm definitely not there yet in terms of tribe-building. In fact, there are times when I feel like a tribe of one. Well, two counting my good friend Pepper. But then someone comes along and asks when the next book is coming out or tells me they loved my last one or they gave all of them as Christmas gifts and their mom really enjoyed them. So, though I have a long way to go, I'm making progress. I hope today helps move me further down the road.

Yes, there are aspects I really don't enjoy and, frankly, am just not good at. Those are the active parts, like making phone calls to bookstores and libraries and organizations who may be willing to host readings or carry my books for sale. It's not that I'm too lazy. It's putting myself out there, the asking, the requesting. I'm not just asking them to accept my books. Those books are part of me. When I ask someone if they're willing to take on my books for sale or give me time in their store or library, in my mind, I'm asking them to approve me. Intellectually, I know that's not really true. But I'm not just an intellectual person. Heck, I'm pretty sure I'm not even primarily an intellectual person. I really do wear my heart on my sleeve. And as such, it's easily bruised. So I avoid situations that allow for that, more often than is good for me if I want to actually become a commercially viable writer.

So one of my goals for this year is to try to toughen up that heart and learn to wear that other author hat more often and with more facility. The hat that has less to do with creating characters and more to do with creating my tribe.

can, string, talk, speak, yell, hand, mouth, teeth, man, guySo here's the call to action: please come to my event today! It's at the South Parkersburg Library, which is just past the fire station on Blizzard Drive. I'll be there from 10am to 2pm, so you have plenty of time to stop by. Even better, invite a book-loving friend to come along.