Sunday, July 31, 2016

Behind the Curtain

Before I was a sociologist--and maybe even before I was a writer--I was a theater kid.

I loved watching performances--music, dance, theater. I still do. But when I was about eight, I decided that I wanted to do more than watch performances. I wanted to be part of them.

Insert The Little Mermaid reference here.
So I took acting classes and did theater camps. I helped local community theaters on their work days, and I started following actors, composers, and playwrights. Where before I had only seen the finished product--the play unfolding on stage--I started to see all of the bits and pieces that go in to creating the spectacle in front of me.
It's hard to explain to someone who's never been back stage at a performance the (sometimes barely)  controlled chaos that's required to keep a show moving. It's a little like watching a duck swim from underneath. It slides smoothly across the surface, but below is a bunch of unattractive though necessary flailing. Now and then, though, there's the opportunity for people outside the theater community to get a glimpse at what it's like.

The Tony's are always great for this. Last year, especially.
 This opportunity to look behind the curtain has changed the way that I look at performances--which is a good thing and a bad one, depending on the day. I'm able to appreciate a well crafted illusion. I'm also more likely to notice when things go wrong or don't work. Someone who's not familiar with how a particular change is supposed to go won't notice if, for instance, a piece of costume is missing or a prop doesn't make it to where its supposed to be or if the people responsible for the effect don't know how to accomplish it properly.
I am occasionally (often) a pain to watch plays, television, and movies with precisely because I notice the little hiccups. The kind of stuff that folks generally are able to overlook. I'll be the one to point out that a change in the lighting was off or that someone wasn't where they were supposed to be. And comments like these are almost always met with the suggestion that I just ignore the flaws and try to enjoy whatever I'm watching.
But that's not easy. It's hard to ignore the strings once you've seen them.  
I've learned over the time I've spent trying to figure out how to be a better writer, that this applies just as much to my experience of reading as it did to my experience of performance. 
I don't just read things anymore. There's an ongoing critique that runs under everything that I read now. Most of it isn't a planned thing--I don't set out to read a book with the intention of picking it apart or trying to figure out the author's exact intent and the type of tools they had at their disposal (though sometimes I do, like when I read Kieron Gillen's writing notes for The Wicked + The Divine). But I inevitably end up doing the same thing I've done with performance for years.
And I tend to get the same response-- "Just try to enjoy it."
The thing is, I don't think being critical of the bits and pieces of a thing and enjoying that thing are mutually exclusive. I read the writer notes, which frequently point out flaws and lumps that I didn't notice on my read, for each issue of The Wicked + The Divine, and it's still my favorite comic series. I'm able to reread the Harry Potter books--which were pretty formative for me--and track the ways the writing changed and improved over the course of the series. It gives me a little thrill to realize at what point Rowling learned a new tool or what Gillen thinks he should have done differently with a character's dialogue.
It humanizes the people I look up to. It tells me that it's not going to hurt me or my work to acknowledge when I don't do things as well as I'd like or as well as I could. It suggests things that I need to think about in improving my own work. 
It makes me better.
So I'm going to continue to look behind the curtain, to try to see the work and the pieces that go into the things that I watch and read. 
My apologies to the people that wish I'd just sit back and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Evin Cover Reveal

I'm pleased to announce that my novel, Evin is set to be published by Foundations, LLC in August!

Check here and my author Facebook page for updates.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Beta Reading

This week has been all about beta reading.

My writing group partner has gotten back to me with her notes for project 2016, so I'm working my way through those.

I also decided--mostly on a whim--that I would beta read someone's novel. Normally, that's not something that I do for people that I don't know well, but I'm trying to build a network, and I figure the best way for me to do that is to prove myself willing to help out.

Beta reading is an interesting part of the writing process. Most of the writing work, for me at least, is done privately--no input from anyone other than my writing partner, and even that is relatively rare. I build the outline on my own, I sketch the scenes and characters in my personal notebooks, and I pound out the first draft on my laptop at my house with on one but my cats looking in. The beta reader (or beta readers, as the case sometimes is) is the first person to see the work aside from me and the person meant to be the first to tell me what's gone wrong.

It's an uncomfortable situation all around, even when the readers are the same people each time. And it's uncomfortable on both sides. I, as a writer, go into this with the understanding that my work isn't perfect and that I will have made mistakes. I, as a human being, though, am not always excited for those mistakes to be pointed out. It's necessary, and in the end I'm always grateful, but it's still a rough ride for my ego (and, even with my imposter syndrome, I definitely have an ego).

The position for the reader isn't a whole lot better--and it's especially awkward when the reader doesn't know the writer that well (this, incidentally, is the position that my aforementioned whim has put me in). The reader has to make a sizable time commitment to go through hundreds of pages of prose to point out the lumps and flaws to a writer who may or may not be receptive.

There aren't really hard and fast rules for either side of the process. But, in the times that I've been on both sides, I've come up with a few guidelines that I make use of.

For the writer:
  • Ask for more readers than you need. Look, people are busy. Everyone is busy. If you say you have a novel draft that you want people to read, you're going to have friends and family and maybe strangers saying that they want to read for you, and they'll say it with enthusiasm. But then you'll send a 300-page manuscript draft, and they'll realize how much work it's actually going to be. Some of the folks you send it to will muscle through and send you thorough feedback. And some of them will never get back to you. It happens. It's no reflection on you or on them--but you still need feedback, so ask for more than you need. 
  • Find honest readers. It's nice to hear gushing praise of your work. But it's not really helpful. If you've decided to find beta readers, then you know that your work isn't perfect. Find people who are going to tell you what you need to fix. Relatedly, don't limit yourself to people with degrees in English or to people who read and/or write your genre. Their input is valuable, and if you can find an English major or a fellow genre writer to be a reader that's great, but most of your readers aren't going to have that background. Get a mix of honest readers.
  •  Don't shut down in the face of criticism. At some point or another, someone is going to give a critique that you don't like. They'll suggest altering a plot point that you were excited about. Or they'll think a bit of dialogue that you love is hokey or cliche. Or they'll say that you should really drop that 5,000+ word prologue that was the first bit you wrote of this story and the reason that you fell in love with the world of the novel because it's not really a strong start to your novel. (Yes, that happened to me, and yes, I was devastated). The thing is, unless you've chosen really awful readers--and you probably haven't--these critiques aren't mean spirited. Your readers are trying to help you make your work better. You may not like the things they point out, but don't dismiss them. That prologue that I loved so much? The reader was right. It did need to go. And the finished product of that piece is so much better.
  • Just because someone says it, doesn't mean you have to change it. By the same token, you have to use your own judgement. Don't dismiss criticism out of hand, but don't change something if you feel strongly about it. If you try the edit, and it doesn't feel right (and I know how nebulous that sounds, but a lot of writing is like that), then don't make the change. Your reader won't hold it against you.
  • Find something to distract you while you wait. Waiting for feedback is terrible. You've sent your work, a little piece of you, out to be judged and now you have to wait to see what the reaction is. If you let it, the anxiety will tear you up. So don't let it. Find something else to do--start another project, take some time for a different hobby, anything. Step away for a while and let it stew. Not only will you be refreshed by the time the work gets back to you, you might have a clearer view of the project yourself. 
For the reader:
  • Be honest. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but just saying that you love the piece isn't really helping anyone. Your job as a beta reader is to point out when something doesn't work--when a piece of the puzzle is missing or a scene gets too confusing to follow or when the author is circling for a landing. If a writer sent you their work, they know there's room for improvement. They can more than likely take what you have to say--so long as you aren't a snot about it.
  • Say what you like. Just as important as saying what you don't like or don't think works is telling the author what you do like. For one thing, a little bit of praise makes the criticism easier to handle. For another, pointing out what the author is getting right helps them figure out where their strengths are. All my beta readers say they like a quiet character scene in chapter 3? I may make use of that in the next project. It also points out the things we ought to keep in the next draft. In my view, nothing from draft one is guaranteed to make the next draft--unless the readers latch onto it. If it hooked my betas, it stands a reason that it will hook the book's readers.
  • Be thorough. You just read 200-300 pages for someone. They want more feedback than a couple of sentences. Take notes while you read. Ask the writer what specific things they're concerned about with the draft you're reading. That will give you an idea of what to spend your time on and encourage the writer to consider where their weaknesses are. Good for everybody.
  • Be timely. From the moment the writer hits send on the email that contains their draft or puts the hard copy in your hands, they are going to be fretting. Waiting for feedback is nervy--especially when you're waiting for feedback on something that you've poured significant time and effort into. Don't make the writer suffer longer than they have to. Aside from that, the writer maybe on a deadline themselves, so your delays may translate to actual financial consequences for them. When a writer sets a deadline for a beta reading, do your best to honor it. If you're going to miss the deadline, let the writer know so that they can adjust.
These lists are by no means comprehensive or universal--everyone's got their preferences when it comes to beta reading, and the best thing to do is find people whose preferences are similar to yours. But these are definitely some things worth keeping in mind if you're a writer looking for a beta reader or a friend/acquaintance/whatever of a writer who has asked you to beta for them. They're certainly what I'm going to be making use of in the coming weeks.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes from Pro Se Productions

Since it's been announced on Facebook by the publisher, I can now share that my short story, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is set to be published by pulp publisher Pro Se Productions.

The cover, which was first revealed on Pro Se's Facebook page is below.

The short story will be available soon! Check here and my author Facebook page for updates.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Spinning Wheels

It’s been a rough few weeks.

Normally, I have at least the germ of the idea for these posts early in the week. This week, though, I’ve barely felt human for more than a couple of hours at a time.

I’m not going to rehash everything that’s been going on with me. This isn’t really the place for that.

I’m in sort of a weird spot in a lot of ways, but, this being my writing blog and all, I’ll focus on the weird spot I’m in with writing.

(Though the argument could be made that I’m always in a weird spot with my writing, but that’s a different post entirely.)

With the first draft of Project 2016 finished, I’m in a sort of in-between space. I’ve finished a draft and am waiting on edits—I’m not far enough removed to be able to effectively go back over it with a critical eye. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to dive into a new novel. There’s not a ton of heavy new writing for me to do under these circumstances.

But I don’t want to get out of the habit of writing.

Part of this is a productivity thing—if I let myself get out of the habit, it’ll take weeks to work myself back into it, and even then, there’s no guarantee that I’ll have retained the skill improvements that daily writing has led to.

And part of it is about my mental state. Like I said, it’s been a rough few weeks. It’s been hard for me to do much of anything lately. Two things will happen if I stop writing now. The first is that I’ll likely let me time get away from me and I’ll be months or years before I work on anything again. The second is that, if I don’t make myself write each day, then I don’t do anything. The few hours that I’ve been active each day have largely been spent outlining projects or free writing. (And doing the bare minimum of work for my real job.)

The draft is done, but I have to keep spinning my wheels—for my writing’s sake and for mine. So I pound out a few hundred words every day.

And I post on the blog according to schedule, even though I don’t feel like I have much to say.

The world keeps turning.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Finished (sort of)

I finished the first draft of Project 2016 Thursday night.
It was a huge relief. This process for this one has been rocky—in no small part because my expectations frequently outstrip my talent—but there has been something incredibly satisfying about finishing a whole draft over the course of months rather than years.
Which is not to say that the project is done. The plan now is to let it sit a while, to let my writing group partner read through the draft, and then to dive back in to clean it up and smooth out the lumps.
Even so, the end of a first draft is a good point to look back on the work so far and figure out what worked and what didn’t. I’m not starting another novel-length project just yet, but Project 2016 certainly won’t be the last one I write. Reflecting on how this draft went might help me figure out what tricks to keep in my catalogue for next time.
So, what did I learn from draft one of Project 2016?
·         Daily writing makes it SO MUCH EASIER to remember where I was going with a particular plot thread.
Part of my struggle with previous work has been that I’ll leave it sitting for months on end and then run across something that I clearly meant to be the start of a subplot or a reference to something that I had planned to work in that I don’t remember. Looks like this character was supposed to be important—but hell if I know what they were supposed to do.
With daily writing, that didn’t happen. That’s not to say that everything flowed smoothly. There were still plenty of days that were more pouting at the computer screen than actually writing. The difference was that the pouting was more “what do I do next” than “what was I going for there.”
·         That said, setting a high daily wordcount goal is more hindrance than help.
I started out with a goal of 1000 words a day—not an outrageous goal, but hefty enough that I’d be making significant progress each day.
It took maybe three days before I started falling short of this goal. There were different reasons: I was traveling; I had to get things done for my real job; I had a four day long migraine and could barely see, let alone look at a computer screen.
None of these were me slacking off or being lazy—they were unavoidable interruptions that were largely out of my control (I mean, I guess I could have not gone to my best friend’s wedding, but there was no way I was gonna make that choice). And it’s not like I did no writing on those days—even on the worst days, I managed 250 words. But I felt terrible for missing my goal on those days. My disappointment in myself made the next day’s writing more of a struggle.
Next time, I’ll probably set lower daily word goals. Going over the wordcount goal doesn’t always make the next day’s work easier, but it does at least keep me from feeling like a failure before I even start.
·         When I’m struggling, sometimes writing things out on paper eases the way.
Getting stuck is part of my writing process no matter what I’m writing or how I’m going about writing it (just ask my spouse how much of the time I spent working on my thesis was me staring at my computer and swearing). Even though I was less likely to miss the connections or suggestions that I had set up each day, there were still moments where I couldn’t figure out how to go about moving things forward.
I got stuck right before I left for my friend’s wedding. On top of being stuck, I didn’t bring my computer with me on the trip. To keep up with my daily writing, I had to jot those days’ additions in my journal.
Something about that change in how I was working seemed to shake things free. Maybe having to alter the process got me to take apart scenes in a different way. Whatever the reason, the scenes where I got hung up seemed easier to write when I sat down with pen and paper.
·         I’m probably not ready to write a huge, multi-POV story.
Project 2016 is my first time experimenting with more than one point of view in a story. Two different characters tell the story alongside each other. Jumping back and forth between their perspectives was harder than I thought it would be—if for no other reason than that I had to constantly remind myself “no, this is the one who wouldn’t even blink at that” or “no this is the one that would start a fight.” I think I was (mostly) able to manage these two perspectives without getting them too confused, but I don’t think I’m ready to negotiate multiple points of view.
It’s difficult enough to keep up with two distinct voices. I want a little more practice before I try to wrap in multiple characters’ viewpoints.
·         Sometimes you just have to get it on the page.
In my head, I know that first drafts are always terrible—especially first drafts of something as big as a novel. The process is a little like herding cats, so something(s) is bound to get away from you or to come across as awkward or clumsy. First drafts are not meant to be the finished product. I know that.
But I still want my first draft to be perfect.
What held me back more than anything with this draft was trying to tinker with the things I’d already gotten down rather than forging ahead. I’d open the document and think, “You know, I’m just gonna go back and smooth out this bit of dialogue before I get to the new stuff” or “I should really plant the seed for this reveal a few chapters earlier.”
All of these are things that I’ll have to go back and adjust eventually, but the point of the first draft is to get the bare bones of the story on paper. At this point, I don’t even know that the bits of dialogue that I’m worried about will be in the next draft. Going back and trying to perfect all of the little bits and pieces right now is, really, a waste of time. I’d be better served by just getting the story out and going back and fixing it later.

I’ve put in a lot of work on Project 2016 at this point. The work’s not done by any stretch, but I’m pretty proud of hitting this milestone. I’m not sure where this project will end up going from here, but I’m pretty excited about the progress that I’ve made.