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It’s That Time Again: Beta Begging Time

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Hello, gentle viewers! I interrupt our month of Buffyversary posts for purely selfish reasons today. (But at least I’m honest about it, right? Right.)

I’m in the process of finishing the first round of edits on a new novel (working title: Storm in a Teacup), and I’d love to have some eyes on it. Since the last beta begging blog post worked so splendidly in August, I thought I’d try again.

Here’s some basics about the novel in question:

Genre: Adult urban fantasy
Length: 91,400 words (415 pages in MS Word)
Shorty Synopsis: In a world where killing monsters literally restores balance to the cosmos, demon hunter Ayala Storme is asked to investigate a rash of missing women. She instead discovers a new race of half-human hellspawn created by demons to tip the scales against humanity. Ayala banked on these creatures existing only for evil, but when one of them saves her life, she’s confronted with the one thing she never expected from demons: free will. Sworn to defend human life, Ayala faces censure and execution if she decides her vow includes protecting the creatures she’s been ordered to kill.
Squidgy Salutes: This book contains language, gore, violence, sexual situations, and the occasional fart joke. You’ve been warned.
My Style: If you were not one of my little circle of betas back in August, my style of urban fantasy tends to be rather dark, gritty, and quirky. I’m an adherent to Our Sensei Joss Whedon‘s admonition, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” 

Here’s the nitty gritty on what YOU would do if interested:

  • Read the book.
  • Write a few paragraphs about your general impressions (and email them to me).
  • Answer no more than five follow-up questions.

That’s it. There is one little however, however. I’ve found that having both parties in accord for this sort of thing helps tremendously. Way back when, I used to send out my early work to whoever was like, “Sure, I’ll read it!” only to never hear from them again. (And, I’ll admit, I’ve done the same a couple of times.) That sort of process is just a teensy bit less than helpful. So here’s what I ask from my beta readers:

  • Respond within two weeks.

That’s all, really. I ask this for a couple reasons. First, I know that if I read a third of a book, put it down for two months, come back to it, read a few chapters, and put it down again, I won’t have a fresh idea of what my overall impressions were. Doing it within a set timeframe keeps those initial thoughts fresh and coherent. Second, I do eventually plan to, you know, incorporate the feedback into my next round of revisions. And to do that, I kind of have to have it.

I plan to have the draft ready to go to betas by Thursday night (that’s 4 April, in case you were wondering). So I would be asking folks to read and respond by 18 April so I can get a nice, polished draft to my agent by the first of May. Sound good?

OH I ALMOST FORGOT.

There IS something for you in all this. If you beta for me, you get:

  • My undying love and devotion.
  • I’ll do a super-special Follow Friday Beta Edition on Twitter.
  • A superstar beta blog post in which I sing your praises, link mashup style.
  • You get an acknowledgement in the book if it sees the light of publication.
  • You get to be some of the first eyes to see this story, which had to wait four years in the back of my head to get on paper!

If you’re interested, send me an email: emmiemears [at] gmail [dot] com! You can express interest in the comments, of course, but please email, or I’ll forget.

PS: If you were one of my betas back in August and want to help me out again, you are more than welcome, for you are awesome. And I still love you. Because my love is undying.

UPDATE: Well, shucks. Y’all are quick. Very, very quick. Due to rather overwhelming response, I’ve somehow found myself swimming in beta readers. I might need to bake you some cookies. Thank you! If you are reading this update and gnashing your teeth because you missed the window, fear not. There shall be more books in the future.

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It Can Be Taught

Welcome to Sunday, My Prints Will Come!

Sundays are for writers around these parts, and today I want to open up a big can of…worms.

Were there ever actually cans of worms? Could you legitimately go to a fishing tackle store and buy a can of worms? Questions, questions.

Anyway.

A couple days ago, I read this post by Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds, and I also spent a rather significant amount of time scrolling through comments. The basic post is a reaction to the idea that you can’t teach writing. There was a lot of discussion in the comments about the nature of talent and creativity, and whether those things are indeed brought about by nature, or whether they can be nurtured into someone.

In the past, I’ve heard a few different theories on the matter. So here they are. Enjoy.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

This baby is Mozart. Or, you know, Ted Kaczynski. Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

POOF: 

This is the theory that you squiggle out of the womb with every bit of potential glowing like a radioactive rock in the center of your little baby body, just waiting for the optimum time to manifest itself to the world. Talent (or maybe murderous rampage) drips from your flailing fingers.

A kid playing soccer - bad

“I can’t use my hands? This is stupid.” A kid playing soccer – bad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

POUR:

You’re born with a bunch of talent vessels. Some of them have different levels of gunk in them. Some of them have negative gunk. Some have more than others. As you get older, the levels can change depending on what you do with them.

English: Car going through Barwick Ford. Car m...

You can’t see him, but some guy just got an unwanted shower. English: Car going through Barwick Ford. Car makes a big splash as it goes through the Ford, watched by some children who kept just far enough away not to be splashed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PUTZ:

You find your potential when you’re just dopping along, doing your own thing. More often, you run smack into it and wonder why you weren’t looking where you were going in the first place.

Charlotte's Newborn Session

And pray your kid doesn’t actually pop out with wings. (License, per Flicker page: Creative Commons, attribution. Sharing and distribution okay. Photo credit: Christine ™)

PRAY:

God gives you talent, you lucky bastard. If you ask nicely with lots of pretty-pleases, he might give you more.

English: Leaving traces on soft sand dunes in ...

“It’s HOW far to the NYT Bestseller List?” English: Leaving traces on soft sand dunes in Tadrart Acacus a desert area in western Libya, part of the Sahara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PLOD:

Through long arduous years of writing naked standing up with a fifth of bourbon in your hand, you will pen the Great National Something-or-Other. Or need a knee replacement and rehab.

 

So. Which is it?

Wendig’s argument is that writing can be taught. A lot of the comments disagreed in some way or another. Almost all of the comments on the page discussed talent or creativity and the masters and whether, in fact, you have any chance of writing or creating something transcendent and glorious if you start out a hack.

The basic equation that I tend to see in any argument like this is: inborn talent/propensity for greatness + sweat + time + MAGIC = Tchaikovsky (Or, since we’re talking about writing, Tolstoy. Or Tolkein. Alliterate as you will.)

Almost all the arguments against Wendig’s assertion that writing can be taught mentioned that mystical talent word. A lot called on creativity. One teacher flat out said that some kids can’t be taught, which I take huge offense over. If they’re not learning, you’re not teaching them right. Sorry. Every kid can learn. If I got a seventeen-year-old with severe dyslexia to try and read out loud in class (in front of kids who were all leaps and bounds ahead of him in reading and who had called him stupid) instead of just flipping me the bird and slamming the door behind him, there’s hope for just about anybody. But that’s beside the point.

A variation on the above equation is: inborn talent + passion + sweat + MAGIC = genius

You’ll notice that MAGIC usually comes into it, because people have a hard time quantifying what makes James Joyce special, or what it is about Wladyslawa Szymborska’s poetry that strums a jaunty tune on your heartstrings. In French, they call it the je ne sais quois, which sounds much fancier than the literal translation, which is, “No fucking clue.”

In all the arguments I read though, there was one thing lacking across the board. I don’t recall any single person mentioning the one thing that I believe creates that magic.

Experience.

You can be playing the violin with symphonies by the time you’re five. You can have some level of natural propensity to understand and dissect what makes stories work without someone having to break down the elements of structure for you. (Stephen King learned this way, the trial and lots of error way.) You can break your knuckles on pages and pages. You can write for ten thousand hours or your million words of shit or whatever litmus test you want to go by that says you’ve mastered something. You can do all that. You can go to seminars and take courses and listen to gurus and meditate on the use of semicolons.

You can do all of those things.

What I think makes great writers great is their experience. All that other stuff just gives them tools to express it, to dredge it from within.

The beauty of experience is that everyone has a pretty equal shot at at it. Sure, I’m not going to hop on a shuttle to the moon any time soon, but just living gives you experience, and you can go out and look for more right outside. Talk to people. Hear their experiences.

Writing great works, to me, has less to do with being born this way or that way. It has less to do with innate senses of creativity, because let’s face it: some literary works are beautiful because of their simplicity. Not because a plot or a story was created or spun out of the ether, but because it captured the frailty of the human existence and pulled little parts of all of us into its words. Instead of being what I’d call creative, I’d just call it honest.

And then there are writers like Tolkein whose opus carried the underlying weight of a world war and the darkness that comes with it. Just last night, I watched a short video celebrating the final novel in Robert Jordan’s expansive Wheel of Time series, a series that did, as Tolkein did a hundred years ago, quite a similar thing. Jordan’s work is buttressed by the last thirty years, by the Gulf War and Iraq and a collapsing economy.

Can writing be taught?

I’d say an unequivocal yes. Someone in the comments to Wendig’s post wrote that history often decides who is great. Herman Melville only gained notoriety for Moby Dick once he was dead.

No one is born with the ability to write the next classic. To be the next great poet. Every one of the greats, no matter if they traveled widely or sat in their bedroom filling boxes with poetry they never intended to show to the world, had to learn. There are many ways to learn, from courses where people point you at certain truths to sitting in a busy square and listening to people.

I think if you sat any one of the masters of the writing craft down and asked them point blank how they did what they did, they’d blink at you and tell you to let them off the pedestal. People can be taught the mechanics of writing just as they can be taught to listen to their experiences — and as I’ve already said, I believe that those experiences are what really elevate writing to a new level.

I’ll hold to my argument. Greatness in writing comes from experiencing life and learning how to express that on the page. Some people find their best route early. Others take decades. But saying that writing can’t be taught, or that some people can’t learn to write extraordinary things — to me that’s patently false. Great writing connects to humanity, and the connection is experience.

The masters started somewhere too.

It just takes a willingness to work and listen. An attention to craft, certainly. But that can mean something different to different people. Story telling can be learned. Creativity can be learned. Writing can be learned.

What do you think about the equations of writing? Do you believe it can’t be taught? 

 

Paving the Road to Hell

You’ve heard the saying about what those construction workers use to smooth out the blacktop between Yourtown and Hell. Good intentions. In my mind’s eye, I picture it looking like pyrite, fool’s gold, polished and smooth and false.

Pyrite xx. Elba

Pyrite xx. Elba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of that, sometimes nuggets of the real thing get lumped in with the dross. Since I’ve been talking a lot about goals and dreams and sugar plums lately, I thought it might be a nice moment to draw a nice line between the pyrite and the gold when it comes to those paving stones.

Working on my Camp NaNoWriMo novel has diverged almost completely from the process I wrote with for my first two and a half novels. I’ve always been a solid “pantser,” making it all up as I went along, draft after draft, hoping to find at least a couple agates among all the rubble. But I realized when I had to scream a war cry and murder some darlings this spring that that process can work, but it’s ultimately like chucking a bunch of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen in a Dyson canister and hoping it gives birth to new life.

I started my beloved trilogy with the best of intentions — I wanted to write a sweeping epic urban fantasy trilogy. I wanted self-actualized vampires who were dangerous and predatory, cognizant and diverse. I wanted magic woven from the earth itself. I wanted characters who got messy, had dirt under their fingernails, got knocked on their arses, and then got up swinging their fists into the evil noses of their antagonistic counterparts. I wanted antagonists who gave you chills, made you pity them, and stuck their greasy fingers into every pure, lovely bit of my story.

Road to hell, right?

As a beginning writer (of novels, I ought to clarify), there is very little out there in the way of a comprehensive “how to” when it comes to your manuscript as a whole. Sure, there are seminars and conferences with sessions on writing effective scenes and how to make your characters do the macarena, but how story works? How you make a story that adheres to the only accepted form of structure that sells? Not much.

It took me seven years to finally get my paws on three books that finally break it down and show writers what fundamental aspects make stories and how they really (I mean REALLY) have to work in tandem to create a serviceable manuscript, let alone one that soars to the top of the bestseller list.

Starting this new book has been an exercise in ditching the Fuzz Factor. For the first time I’m writing after I sit down and think critically about the development of my characters. After writing a logline for my book. After coming up with a concept, and after digging into not just what might be a fun scene, but what would be effective and logical progressions of plot based on my characters’ backstories and multiple dimensions of being.

This is that line I mentioned.

Good intentions are one thing. Without a plan, they’re just pyrite and cheap tricks. Intent is something else entirely. Intent is what makes you from a writer into an alchemist. It’s what takes that pyrite and changes it to real gold. Intent has a plan. Intent has focus. It’s a fine line, but it’s a necessary one. You can have all the good intentions in the world without being intent on doing something.

I’m finding that being deliberate in my writing process has improved the pacing of my novel. It’s made me ask myself hard questions about where things are going and the relevance of each and every scene and character. It’s made me ask myself over and over how I can show things instead of telling them, how I can slip in backstory instead of chunks of exposition. And I think all of this will result in a more cohesive first draft. I will likely still have to write a few drafts to get it right, but my goal for this is better. It’s to grasp structure, character, concept, and theme in order to play the right chords.

Between 2006 and now, I have spent almost 500,000 words just paving the road to hell. I dived in and pantsed my way to two and a half novels that will need to be completely overhauled if they’re ever to be publishable. And that’s half a million words that some people might call wasted. I’ve learned many expensive lessons in my life, but this one is a biggie. Being a pantser works for some big names — but let’s not forget that they’ve learned those fundamentals through often decades of trial and error. If intent and focus can help me master them sooner, I’ll take that straight to the bank. And you should too.

It’s been uncomfortable in many ways. There are some aspects of story structure that I can intuit, and others that I need forced down my throat with a syringe. I have had to admit to myself that, much like building a car, there are certain elements that must be in the right place if I ever expect to go anywhere.

Thus the intent.

Even though I’m still aiming for speed with this first draft (Camp NaNoWriMo is a harsh taskmaster), I’m using any spare time I have to learn how to better my craft and write with intention. I can fly by the seat of my pants another time — those last two books just resulted in a massive wedgie. It’s time to try something different and look for nuggets of the real thing.

English: Alaska Gold Nugget from the Blue Ribb...

English: Alaska Gold Nugget from the Blue Ribbon Mine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How are you trying to maximize your goals by utilizing intent rather than good intentions? 

And in case you are wondering which three books have so revolutionized my way of thinking about my novels, here they are:

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks

And for extra credit:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

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