Friday, May 30, 2014


I really wasn't go to do it.  Long-time readers may recall my ultimately miserable experience with DL Hammons's WRiTE CLUB two years ago.  I vowed I'd never go back.  But things change.  I figured, why not?

The concept, I think, has been improved.  You can read all about it here, including the streamlined selection process.  There will be a finite number of samples in contention.  One of the things I thought had gotten wildly out of control previously was how bloated the whole thing had become.  Good for Hammons.  Bad for people actually trying to participate in the thing.  Technically, the new format doesn't guarantee every submission will even make it into the contest.  If mine doesn't, that's fine.  I'm actually okay with that.

And I will try and play nice once the contest kicks off next month.  (You have until tomorrow to enter, by the way.)  I know I don't always play well with others.  But knowing your weaknesses is the first step to working around them.  Hopefully.  Even making this step is a distinct improvement over my worse instincts, so there's that.

I may or may not keep you updated on how this actually play out.  We'll see.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the subject of beta readers

Never ever ever ever ever ever use another writer as a beta reader.

Now, let me clarify: a good writer.  A good writer will only be able to give you two kinds of feedback:

  1. It's a work of genius.
  2. It needs work.
If your beta reader/good writer is honest, they will not easily bestow "it's a work of genius" on your work.  A good writer will always have good suggestions for "it needs work;" they are the only suggestions worth considering.  (The problem is, if you take advice from a good writer, you're also opening your work to having a co-written status.)  

A good reader will only be able to tell you that it doesn't generally work; in that instance it's still the writer's prerogative as to what, if anything, needs to change.  That's a reader's job.  To have a reaction.  To experience the material.

All of which is to say, that's my opinion of beta readers.  They're an established element of the writer's repertoire.  Look at any book and you're liable to find a lot of thank-yous in an acknowledgements section.  To me, this is always kind of the unnecessary look behind the curtain.  It's nice that/when a writer can depend on a lot of resources to reach the end of their story, but to my mind, writing is still a solitary achievement.  Writing books, anyway.  It's a completely different story, talking about movies or TV shows or music.  That's why there will always be a stark contrast between books and other entertainment mediums.  That and the fact that it's a completely different experience, almost always demanding far more commitment than others.  But that seems to be changing in our current binge culture.  Still, you know what I mean.

I appreciate the concept of sounding boards.  Writers want to know if what they've been spending so much time on is actually working.  The more nervous writers are already questioning themselves.  They can hardly even finish what they're working on.  The most nervous writers (besides the ones who can't manage to put a single word down) are the ones constantly questioning their stories as they're writing them.  Parallel revision.

But if you must depend on beta readers, know what they are.  Understand that you can't just assume you will get the valuable feedback you're expecting.  Asking other writers is like asking for trouble.  If you're a writer who really does need this support, are you asking others writers you know are better than you, or are you asking those who are of a comparable skill set?  If the latter, are you just assuming that you will improve each other in the process?  Or setting yourself up for further mediocrity?

Because that's what I fear.  I fear that writers who depend on beta readers won't really consider what they're risking.  Maybe it's a matter of what I personally expect from writing.  I have no real interest in writing for the sake of writing.  I want to produce something that has the potential to be remembered, for all the right reasons.  I don't just want to slap a few words together entertainingly, slap my name on it, and get a lot of readers.  I want something good.  Not just something passable.

If you end up with a good writer as your beta reader, are you willing to accept their advice?  Because chances are that good writer will not react to your material the same way a good reader will.  Both can forgive a lot, more than you'd expect.  Reading is inherently a marathon.  It's pointless to expect every word to be perfect.  But the story as a whole should be.  No matter how you approach that.  The reader will forgive more than the writer, though.  The reader will be less demanding.  But the writer will force you to a story that will make good readers.  And perhaps even good writers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

IWSG May 2014: The Curse of the Writer/Reader II

The Insecure Writers Support Group meets the first Wednesday of every month (unless it's doomsday, in which case we meet under tiny umbrellas because what the heck else are we going to do?), and...guess what day it is?

No, it is not Blernsday.  (The day we play blernsball, naturally.)

I'm going to talk about the Curse of the Writer/Reader, which is to say writers who also happen to be active readers and the blurring of the thought processes between these two modes.  Are they in fact separate at all?

I just don't know.  It's probably easy to assume, because obviously it's the same brain processing both experiences, but what if the way you write is in fact vastly different from the way you read?  As readers, it's easy (or should be) to tell when you're engaged on a critical level.  You know when something is or isn't working for you.  But is it the same when you're writing?  That's the real trick.  I like to think I do.  I do go back and fix and/or totally rewrite some parts of a manuscript, but often I consider the act of altering a story a betrayal of that story.  If I start changing things too much, the whole integrity of it begins to fall apart.  To a certain extent, once you start writing something, it starts to take over.  To go back and question the decisions you began making is in effect putting yourself back in control.  But is that really what you should be doing?

When I change things in editing, it's usually a beginning or ending, to make it better align with what the story became rather than how I originally envisioned it.  The writer in me trusts my instincts.  But what does the reader think?  When I've gone back and read my own material, years after the fact, I've still been pretty satisfied.  The way my memory works, I wouldn't be able to remember every little detail, where it is or sometimes even what it is, so when I've gotten feedback asking me about certain elements, I have to scratch my head a little.  But, especially when I went back and reread the Monorama collection a few months back (and this is not to try and sell you on the book or toot my own horn) but I really was engaged as a reader.  They say we write what we want to read.  (In the case of poor writing, I hate to think of what those people like to read.)  That's what I try to do.  I take bits of inspiration from the stuff I most enjoy, and mix them with my own thoughts.

There's always the chance I'm completely delusional.  I guess the term "beta reader" has come into fashion, but at any rate it's the idea of having test audiences.  I always kind of questioned that phenomenon.  The feedback from these people really is no different from whatever the writer can expect from any audience.  If you depend on these people, you really have to trust their instincts.  And, I assume, doubt your own.  It's one thing to find out you had a blind spot about something, but at a certain're also asking for co-writers, basically.

One of my favorite anecdotes from college was learning T.S. Eliot completely rewrote "The Waste Land" after receiving feedback from Ezra Pound.  First off, "Waste Land" is an acknowledged work of genius.  But to think that Eliot only arrived at it after Pound's observations opens a whole can of worms.  On the one hand, obviously Eliot always had the poem in him.  On the other, the finished work becomes as much Pound's achievement as Eliot's.  The thing that Eliot wrote was basically something else entirely.  It boggles me, it really does, and has haunted me for more than a decade.

Is that the sort of thing all great works require?  For someone else to chisel it, basically, out of the block, like Michelangelo contemplating his next masterpiece?

There are all sorts of cautionary tales of famous writers who, left to their own devices, deliver bloated would-be great new works (Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch comes to mind).  But there's also someone like Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick to considerable apathy after initial great success with far less accomplished material.  Someone who would winnow the tale of Captain Ahab down to something more conventional would be robbing history of one of literature's great achievements.

So that's what I mean by the Curse.  It's a constant struggle for me, and I think it ought to be one for every writer.  It's another sign I don't trust you as one if you don't have these doubts.  Sometimes I'll start writing a story a couple of times before I feel confident that I've discovered the proper entry.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe writing needs a guiding hand, needs a critic outside of one's own head, because maybe the reader really is different from the writer.

Well, maybe.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Curse of the Writer/Reader

So I had a Goodreads Giveaway listing for Pale Moonlight, ended yesterday, and the winner ended up being a college student over in Great Britain, a fact that would have meant less if I hadn't already decided to give the winner, whoever they turned out to be, a copy of The Whole Bloody Affair as well.  Those of you have have read Yoshimi's adventures (Pat Dilloway) know they end in England.  So that means, if Goodreads Giveaway Winner reads The Whole Bloody Affair (much less Pale Moonlight), they will probably know better than anyone how much I screwed up that particular portion.

I was pretty gratified that some 800 people signed up for the giveaway (I didn't mention it here, or the free Kindle listings I had for a number of books yesterday because of reasons that escape me at the moment).  I had it open for more than a month, and I guess as it drew to a close there was a surge of interest, because last I knew the count was more around 300 (and it wasn't that long ago).  In the listing I made sure that all the important things to know about Pale Moonlight were clear, including caveats, so that means either all those people completely ignored them (ooh! free shiny thing!) or decided they were okay with my nonsense.  Now, I'm finally kind of getting over a certain incident (Pat Dilloway, I guess I will go ahead and apologize) involving the book from earlier in the year, but I'm feeling nervous again.  There's no way to know how Goodreads Giveaway Winner will feel about it, much less the possible mixed blessing of receiving another of my books along with it, or if Goodreads Giveaway Winner will even give feedback at all.

Recently I read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which slightly less recently won the Pulitzer.  I wasn't nearly as impressed with it as Pulitzer was, except for the opening act, which other reviewers have actually called on of its weaker elements.  Clearly different readers see different things, have different interests.  But it makes me wonder.  Tartt is a well-respected author, clearly, and one of those lucky writers to have had their talent evident and acknowledged early, so she's been able to live the life we bloggers only think we envy (David Foster Wallace).  Someone like me can come along, read her third book, and wonder if she's really worth the hype, and...all I end up thinking about is my own work.  It's the curse of the writer/reader.

A writer who also actively reads (I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to apparently read exclusively other indy material, which is what other bloggers seem to do, because that would send me into Insecure Overload) may sometimes find themselves in the position of criticizing someone else's work and then realizing, "Hey, who am I to talk?  What if my work is even more questionable?"  Wondering how another writer came to make the decisions they did is especially dicey ground for someone like me who made a thousand questionable decisions in Pale Moonlight, whose influences for believing they were anywhere near appropriate came from comic books rather than other novels.  And maybe for a reason?

I'm currently reading a book (Alif the Unseen) by a comic book writer, G. Willow Wilson, whom I absolutely adore.  And she seems to have made an easy transition between the two mediums.  Before Wilson and Tartt I read an indy book, Daniel Clausen's Ghosts of Nagasaki (honestly, people, some of this explains itself if you look at the bottom of the blog and take note of my Goodreads widget), which made me question my own talents for entirely different reasons.  That book was genius.  Made me a jealous panda.  Here's basically one of my direct competitors making it look like a stroll in the park.  Clausen should win a big prestigious award.

One thing all three have in common is that their narratives streams are pretty...streamlined.  That is not the case in Pale Moonlight.  I'm not bragging.  It never even occurred to me to do that.  Each of these other books allows the reader to fall into someone else's life, no matter what the journey ends up looking like.  My main character disappears for long stretches at a time.  Will my Goodreads Giveaway Winner feel engaged?  I'm irrationally consider them a barometer for the overall chances of reaching a wider audience (or any audience at all).

So I'm pulling out of the writer/reader paradox a little.  I'm not worrying if I think I'm better or worse or just plain writing differently (Wilson still has some pretty darn big ideas rattling around her story, but only occasionally lets it show).  I'm just worrying that I'll be one of those books tossed aside in frustration.  I've done that a few times this year myself.  I hate that feeling.

And what if Goodreads Giveaway Reader is a writer, too???
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