Category Archives: Myths and Truths

Why I don’t use Beta Readers #WriterWednesday #AmWriting

Here’s a post that challenges received wisdom on beta readers from D. E. Haggerty. What do you think?

D.E. Haggerty

As many of you know, I’ve just finished the draft of my latest novel (insert shameless plug for new novel here). Now that the manuscript is off to the editor, it should be time to send the ARC to beta readers. Notice me rushing off to do that? No? That’s because I no longer use beta readers. Oh, the shame! Who the hell do I think I am not using beta readers?!?

I could go into a long background story of all the mistakes I’ve made with beta readers and even the heartbreaking story of losing a good friend over it all, but I’m just going to get to the heart of the matter.

Beta Reader _1

Reasons I don’t use Beta Readers:

Timing. In order to plan my book marketing properly, there is a two-month gap between the time I finish the novel and it goes to the editor…

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Small Publishers – A Checklist #wwwblogs #amwriting

What would you add to this thoughtful post from Alison Williams Writing? Have your experiences with small publishers been good or bad? Are indie writers better off self-publishing? What do you think?

Alison Williams Writing

checklist

I recently wrote a bit of a rant about the quality control of some small presses whose books I had read. You can read it here.

If you are thinking of signing with a small publisher, then do bear a few things in mind.

  • Do your homework – start off by Googling the publisher. You might find threads on writing sites that go into a great deal of detail about your chosen publisher. Read them – they can be incredibly enlightening.
  • Ask questions – if your publisher is honest and genuinely wants the best for you, they should accept that you have a right to want to know about them. After all, you are placing your book and all the blood, sweat and tears that went into writing it in their hands.

Ask:

  • Who are they?
  • How long have they been publishing?
  • What exactly is their background and experience?…

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Against Outlines

Do you outline your novels? Why or why not?

Eye of digits

Since my title is “Against Outlines,” you may suspect I’m going to argue against them.

Maybe, though, I’m not vehemently against outlines for writing novels.

The outlines you need!

In my brief career as a romance novelist, outlines were essential.

After all, these books were short, about 55,000 words, and I had to produce them in a matter of months. Writing one had to be like running a mini-marathon.

Marathon runners

You were given a route and a clear finish line, and you had to run the same route as everybody else. You could throw in a leap or a flourish here and there—in fact, you were encouraged to, as long as you didn’t stumble off course or onto the sidewalk. No characters allowed to stop and drift into quirky shops or down unmarked alleys. Eyes on the prize!

Lest romance writers rightly take offense, let me be clear. Setting off on and finishing this course is no snap.

Free runners sport concept illustration

Planning at this level takes enormous discipline. Directing each scene so that each actor arrives at the mark for the scene to follow requires a well-honed sense of character motive and of how dialogue and action can deliver on that motive. And those flourishes: as I learned, to carve out a lane for yourself in the genre with all those thousands of others huffing along beside you, to be you without veering off course: that takes a brand of genius. Believe me, I was there. I know.

Outlines make such a demanding fictional endeavor doable. Each scene can be carefully slotted into the overall course. Too many talky scenes in a row? The outline will flog you back on pace. Three-quarters there? Do you have enough action to fill those last pages? The outline knows.

And of course, there’s that one thing we all need that outlines amply provide: a story arc. River in KentuckySomething’s going to change before the end of the story. You can’t write your final outline entry without knowing what that something is.

But. . .

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

That’s what a dear late colleague of mine used to say. That “surprise for the writer” is what an outline trades away.

Writing without an outline is more like setting out on a road trip than a marathon. Whimsical road Depositphotos_17645691_s-2015

You do have a destination. You can see it, a glow on the horizon. But you’re not a hundred percent sure yet what’s giving off that glow.

So off you go. Maybe you have a map, but it offers you many forks, and you can’t even tell which one is shortest, let alone which one you’ll most enjoy. Along each fork you spot little side trips, where you park for a bit and wander to see what’s there. You find your characters in those quirky shops, down those murky alleys, picking up memories, fears, loves, trying them out like costumes to see what new selves they reveal.

You didn’t know your character loves French movies even though he doesn’t understand any French, or that she loves cats even though they make her sneeze. Or that she fell out of a tree and nearly died when she was ten, did you? Oh! That explains her anger at the father who didn’t catch her; now you discover her struggles with trust.

Without an outline, you don’t tell characters what to do. You follow them and discover what they do.

It’s not like you tag along blindly. If they get too wild, you may abandon them, leave them to their own stories . . . though you may come back one day just to see where they ended up.

Without an outline, there’s a sense in which the story writes itself.

haunting road Depositphotos_23990435_s-2015Dangerous? Oh, my lord, yes. It takes much longer. It tempts complication, which can be a storyteller’s bane.

But it can save you grief as well. My one great, sad lesson from my Failed Novel was that once you set your thinly known characters loose in the world, talking to each other and finding unexpected doors to open, they create themselves—excuse the cliché: they take on a life of their own. And once that starts to happen, you must listen. The marathon route says turn right here; they say, “No, we don’t like that direction.”

Boss characters you’ve found, not made, and they’ll punish you.

So maybe we need a middle ground. A road trip into delight and surprise for the writer-on-deadline who must get to that glow this week, not next year?

Magic book

What strategies do you use to keep your novel on track without giving up the chance for surprise?

 

 

 

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What to do with old obsolete grammar rules?

I’ve weighed in on this very issue of grammar rules you may not really need! And here, for example. Many so-called rules come from dubious historical sources and, in use in context, are judgment calls. English isn’t Latin. It can’t be like Latin. Thanks, Jean Cogdell, for sharing and reminding us to make “good” use of the “rules.”

Jean's Writing

Do we throw them out?

Or do we realize some rules are made to be broken?

 Hooray! At last, a common sense post about what to do about hard and fast rules that make no sense in this day and time.

6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style by KELLY GURNETT

Here is my take on her 6 rules:
  1. Ending sentences with a preposition.
    • Guilty, but I didn’t know this rule was attributed to Winston Churchill
  2. Starting sentences with a conjunction.
    • Oh yes, guilty. This gem was apparently courtesy of teachers in the 19th century.
  3. Sentence fragments.
    • Now honestly, I write…

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Top 5 Lessons From Bad Writer

This post by Allison Maruska is HILARIOUS! And too spot on. Note to self: watch out for Bad Writer when she shows up on your computer. Don’t know how she gets there, but she’s pretty good at sneaking in!

Allison Maruska

I have an alter-ego on Twitter. Her name is Bad Writer.

BW page

She doesn’t have a million followers or viral tweets or anything like that. She exists merely to be the public face of my sarcastic side. And since I talk to writers a lot on Twitter, she focuses on writing.

Since her creation in July, she has tweeted 643 times, according to that screenshot. That’s a lot of bad advice being doled out. Some of those are quoted Retweets from Nat Russo’s #HorribleWritingTips, Sam Sykes’ joke tweets, Tweeps who reply, and other parody accounts, but most are her own content based on things that I read she reads. Sometimes, the content overlaps a little. I thought we could use those instances for learning. And since Bad Writer says the opposite of what a writer should do, the lessons will be actual constructive things with her non-examples.

Lesson 1: Stop abusing…

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A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

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