This Writer is Full of Iniquity

She’s also full up on stuff to do that can’t be put off this morning (no, trust me, truly. It’s family stuff.) And after that she’ll be writing like a demon on Through Fire which MUST be done by Wednesday, rain, shine or small sharknadoes.  Which means I don’t have a mind to give to our noir elf epic.  sorry!  It will resume in a week or two, when these novels are finished.

To amuse you, though, here is a “a blast from the past” writing post from my own blog According To Hoyt, this one published on April 14th 2011.  G-d only knows (well, I don’t) why I gave it the title I did.

It’s Fatal But Not Serious

So, I keep telling you guys you need to get someone other than your mom, your boyfriend (particularly you straight guys, who would have to get a boyfriend, and think how inconvenient that would be) or your cat to give you an opinion on your writing.

The reason for this is obvious – chances are not only that the people close to you won’t want to hurt you (unless they’re mean mommies like me, who fling their eleven year-old’s attempt at a story in the kid’s face and say “That’s not a story. Stop fooling around unless you mean to write a story. Here are some books you should read.”) but also that even if they wanted to give you honest critique they wouldn’t be able to. Part of it is that you’ve probably talked the ear of the people close to you off about the novel. (Yeah, I always tell the kid not to talk it, too. But everyone does.) This means they’re reading into it things that are only in your head, and now in theirs. And part of it is that they’re not writers themselves and have no idea of the type of critique you need.

Heck, a lot of you out there, I would bet, have no clue what kind of critique you need. This is part of the reason a writers group is better than just an assemblage of first line readers because you can’t help but stumble towards the right type of critique. On the other hand, I’m the first to know for a fact a writers group (which if you want me to I’ll talk about more/again in next post) is not always possible and if possible it’s not always the writers group you need. It’s hard to find that many loon– er… writers in your area who are as dedicated as you are and with whom you can work in some sort of harmony. This before you bring in the mismatched levels the writers might be at. And long distance groups don’t seem to have the same chemistry. They just don’t.

So, sooner or later – even if later, in my case – you need to round up and train first readers. (Note “train” not “shoot” though you might be tempted to to begin with.)

This is a trick in itself, though once you’re published people will volunteer to first read at astonishing rates, and then you can afford to toss out those who don’t work out right. Or to save them for the type of stories they do well with.

Most first readers start by giving you the type of critiques that are fatal but not serious. Fatal because if you’re beat enough with them you might doubt your basic competence and toss something that could be very easily “fixed” into a brilliant masterpiece.

What do I mean by this. Well… take the friend who once told me that a book was horrible, terrible, sucked and then when I asked him in what way started giving me a list of missed commas and typos. (And we’re talking maybe one per chapter, okay, not one per line.) Fortunately I was far enough along as a writer to laugh at this. But then this made him upset… He meant well, he really thought that was what he was supposed to be doing.

In fact this is what 99% of people think when they first read something for you. They think they’re supposed to typo-hunt. Slightly more sophisticated ones will try to grammar-hunt, or might tell you where you changed the character’s eye color on page 35.

Is this useless? Well, no. It can be fatal – there’s another friend who once told me that all my verbs were weak and cost me six months of writing. Why? Because there were no examples, and he didn’t have anything concrete to point to. So every time I was about to write a verb, I flinched – and it’s not serious, but it’s not useless, either. (It turned out he was generalizing impressions, which is something else that beginning beta-readers do. I did have a few weak verbs in the story, but not nearly al of them. But I had to get to the point of seeing which verbs were weak and analyzing the text myself before I could write again.) Yeah, if you’re published and under contract, you’re going to get a proof reader/copy editor, but trust me, they don’t catch everything.

HOWEVER, this is not why you need first readers. If this were the main point then English teachers would have lucrative side businesses reading hopeful writers’ books.

What you want from your first readers – what will make a difference in your getting accepted and where – is something totally different.

Here are some questions you can use when you send a book out to them, so they get their heads in the right place:

1 – Is there any place where you lost interest and almost put the book down? Are there other places where you’d have put it down if you weren’t doing this for me?

2 – If this were a book by someone you never heard of, where would you have stopped reading?

3- Was there any scene/action/plot point that threw you out?

4 – What is your general impression of the book?

5- If you have any typos/grammar/inconsistencies, would you mark them. I’ll just find them in the text. (This avoids people concentrating on them so they start reading you a list and think “it’s full of typos.)

After the critique comes in, there are some other questions you should ask:

6 – How do you feel about character A? X? Y? (This is to test they come across as you want them to, of course.)

7 – Did scene X? Y? Z? Scare you/make you laugh/make you wonder…

8- Did you see the plot twist coming. If so, how far back? (And don’t get necessarily discouraged by this? I always see these coming way back. Some readers do.)

Oh, and when you have the answers, run them through what I call a reality check. Some people ALWAYS think a book is funny. Some of them are going to tell you it’s scary because you mentioned the word zombie, once, even if it was just “when he woke up in the morning he acted like a zombie till he had coffee.” Some people are going to think any book without explicit sex is boring, and some people will like any book that has gore in it. So, be aware your readers are people, not interchangeable robots, and take who they are in account in what they say.

And now, go forth and hunt opinions.

13 comments

  1. I suppose it just takes time to learn your group or beta readers so that you get a baseline on them. The one critique group I was in (not for novels) for several years was good partly because we all learned that Susan would always analyze conflict and John would always fuss about if it was a story or simply a vignette.

      1. A vignette is something someone doesn’t think is a full short story.
        Seriously, there’s no hard and fast rule. however, normally it means “a story in which nothing happens, but the character/reader is supposed to come to a realization” — some Bradbury stories are vignettes and most short shorts tend to be. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

        1. I wondered. It seemed like it was one of those things that is personal. On the other hand, some of the Hemingway I had to read for class this semester was “not a story,” so I’m guilty of it, too.

  2. I’m struggling with a review (critique) of a now thrice-revised/rewritten book at the moment. The editor suggested I join a writing group. I have yet to tell her that the only writers’ group in the area is for writers of Christian fiction, and they might not be thrilled if I popped in and asked them to provide feedback on legal history. However, one of the reviewer’s suggestions hints that I’ve still got too many numbers. I think I’m going to add a seventh appendix, rip the numbers out of the text and put them there, except for the few places where they are absolutely necessary for clarity.

    If this were fiction, it means that lovely list of all the units in the army and the loving description of their colorful banners and symbols, and the majestic sight of them in parade formation? Yeah, back-of-the-book or cut it out and save it for somewhere else.

  3. Thanks for posting this. For me, it’s very timely. I’ve given my manuscript to four beta readers, and prepared a questionnaire that is somewhat similar to this but would be greatly improved by the addition of the post-critique questions. I admit I’m guilty of giving the book to my dad as one of my beta readers. Also, aside from the orbital mechanic, none of them read science fiction. Nonetheless, I figure it’s better than just one beta.

    The Q that asks “if this were by someone you never heard of, where would you have stopped reading?” is invaluable and will go onto the questionnaire.

    Now I just need to find a cover artist. I feel strangely awkward about writing to the ones I admire.

  4. My first readers – the non-writer types – dropped out citing time problems a couple of chapters in.

    A very nice woman who catches up with the posted stuff on the blog when she has time works a 90 hour week – I asked her, and perfectly understood when she told me that. Another reader on the blog, a guy, has been following along for ages – but, even though there’s an open invitation (Looking for beta readers) in every post announcing a new scene – no volunteering.

    I even paid someone (a nominal sum) as a lark – but he never got back to me, even though he said his wife and one other person were reading, too.

    I am starting to feel as if I have verbal leprosy!

    If it weren’t for the one, marvelous Rachel, and a few comments here and there (much appreciated, stored, and reread), I’d think I was producing total dreck.

    I know you’re supposed to write only for yourself, but eventually…

  5. First off, let’s all acknowledge that I’m a hermit, and by choice. I LIKE people, I just can’t tolerate any level of noise above a whisper. That’s why I spend time online — I can still interact with people, but it’s quiet!

    About the only time I’ve had anyone read my work is when one of my nephews did so for me. His comments were, basically, “I like it. It’s just as good as others I’ve paid good money for, and better than some.” That’s encouraging, but…

    Anyway, I’m not a “normal” writer, and a definitely odd Odd to boot, so my comments are just noise. I have finished a new book, and would like some feedback on it, if anyone’s interested.

      1. The biggest problem with Mike’s books and I might as well say it while he’s on line, is FINDING THEM. There are apparently three Mike Weatherfords who write. When I want to link them at PJM or somewhere, I can’t find them unless I remember the precise title.
        Mike — pen name? Middle initial? Something?

        1. I write using the penname James Michael Ford. I also have a list somewhere on my weblog. I’ll try to update it. Every time I create a webpage, someone deletes it. I do understand the problem. For some reason, my books show up under “James Michael Ford”, “Mike Weatherford”, and “Michael A. Weatherford” — but not ALL of them under any one of those listings. It’s confuzleing.

          1. Sorry I didn’t say this earlier, I was off the net.

            I don’t even know where to find your blog.

            Link?

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