Stuck in Writing Traffic

Why is it that when you’re stuck in traffic, your lane is always the slowest one? The cars beside you start moving, so you squeeze in, then everyone stops and the lane you just left starts moving. It never fails. At least for me. There must be some lucky few who always wind up in the lane that moves. (If you’re reading this, let me know you’re secrets! I promise I won’t tell). I’m not the lucky sort, though. I’m forever trapped in the slow lane.

That’s how I’ve felt with my WIP lately. I have been desperately trying to finish for a while now. It usually takes me three months to get through a draft. This one has taken six. Granted, I’ve had to do a lot of research for it, and that’s not something I’m accustomed to, so it bogged me down, but over the last few weeks it’s seemed that every time I get a chance to write, something stands in my way. I switch lanes, thinking I’ll definitely get going now, and boom! More traffic.

Let me tell you about roadblocks I’ve experienced, just in the past week.

Hubby had to travel for work last week. He left Sunday and was due back Wednesday. While I hate when he travels (I’m a huge scaredy cat. Every noise is an intruder, or rapist, or zombie. I feel like I’m nine again, turning off the bedroom light and leaping into bed so the monsters don’t get me. Yes, that seems old to still believe in mosters, but I’ve always had a very active imagination). This trip, though, equalled three days of uninterrupted writing time. I had a plan, a rough outline of what I needed to write. Two chapters a day would get me across the finish line.

I dropped Hubby off at the airport and spend the remainder of Sunday at Starbucks. I started off well-enough, got on a bit of a roll. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people packed in, loud people, and I don’t work so well when it’s loud. Unfortunately, I don’t work well at home either, between the dog barking for my attention, the cats walking across my laptop or jumping on my shoulders, the dog chasing the cats, FedEx/UPS delivering packages, you get the picture. At least at Starbucks I got caffeine.

I also got one chapter written. One.

Okay, so I was off to a slow start. I thought it was a good chapter, at least. That just meant I had to get three chapters in on one of the other days. No problem. I went to work Monday, full of plans for a quick dinner, then hours of writing at my favorite–and quiet–indie coffee shop.

Guess who got a stomach virus (the puking kind)? Oh yeah. Not a twenty-four hour deal either. That bad boy hung around for a week. All my writing time, literally, went down the toilet. (You’re welcome for the image).

I got better toward the end of the week, but then Hubby was home and we had Christmas shopping to do, and parties to attend, and one thing after another. I told Hubby that no matter what, Sunday was my day. Just me and my manuscript.

I spent the whole afternoon at Starbucks. This time, I got two chapters written, everything clicked all at once. The other chapters I’d planned–not needed. The story came together in a way I hadn’t expected. It was wonderful. I could’ve written for hours, hours!

Except I couldn’t. I had a Christmas party for the youth at church to attend that evening. So I stopped, a mere two short chapters from finishing the draft. “Monday,” I said. “I am finishing this Monday, and no one and nothing will stop me!”

Last night, I sped through dinner, rushed Hubby out the door, and took off for the indie coffee shop I love so much. Guess who forgot her laptop at home? Back to the house, raced in, grabbed my computer, darted back out, finally got to the coffee shop.

Like Starbucks the week before, the place was packed. More people than I’ve ever seen there. No matter, I was on a roll. Just had to send the first few chapters to a beta reader, a few tweaks to the last chapter, then dive into the new one, and holy crap it was 8:00! The coffee shop closes at 9:00 on Mondays.

Go, go, go! Write, write, write!

Almost through the chapter.

Then all those people stood up. They took out books. They started to sing.

Yes. Sing.

Carolers. In my quiet, little coffee shop. Emphasis on little. The place isn’t very big. It’s cozy. At least it was, until the full, professional level choir took up half the space. Then it went from cozy to cramped.

Normally, I love carolers. I love Christmas music. But in a coffee shop? Maybe it’s just me, but most people I see at a coffee shop are there to do something quiet. Read, write, do homework, study, a few low conversations, open mic nights on some nights–but those are usually posted ahead of time so you know what you’re walking into, and there has never been one at my coffee shop. In my experience, most people don’t go to coffee shops to hear caroling. Loud, intrusive caroling.

I felt like the Grinch. All the noise, noise, NOISE!

And then, they’ll do something I hate most of all. Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, will stand close together… with Christmas bells ringing. They’ll stand hand in hand… and those Whos… will start singing!

I couldn’t think. It bounced off the walls and rattled around in my brain, stirring up the words that had been right there all day, waiting to hit the page.

Why?!?! I had one more chapter to finish the ms. ONE MORE. I felt extremely rude as I shoved ear buds in my ears to block the cheerful singing, but I didn’t care. It helped. The words sorted themselves out. Started to flow, started to–

It was 9:00. Closing time. I was literally sentences from finishing. The words were on the tip of my tongue, soooo close to the page.

I threw my stuff in a bag, dragged Hubby out, and raced home again. It would have to be there. Hubby would have to keep the animals contained, regardless of how bad they wanted my attention. I spread out on the kitchen island, and wrote, and finished.

Finally, traffic thinned enough for me to skate through. I might’ve done it by the skin of my teeth, but I made it. I finished. I FINISHED! I reveled for about an hour, until it was time for bed. The draft is now with betas and I am on to the next step, editing.

There may be more roadblocks ahead, but I’m through the worst of it. I’m back on the highway and heading up to cruising speed, and nothing is going to stand in my way of polishing this ms.

What about you? Ever been stuck in writing traffic? How do you deal with it?

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Beta Relationships

Beta Readers. They are such an important part of a writer’s toolbox. Another writer who reads your work, gives you an honest opinion, makes your writing better, and does it for free? Sign me up! I’ve talked about the importance of a good beta reader here, but what exactly does it look like when you have/are a beta reader? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating and scary, so I want to give some of my experiences and some tips about beta reading.

As I mentioned in the post I linked, I’ve met pretty much all my betas through Absolute Write. I’ve formed relationships with other writers through the forums, writing contests, and Twitter. I know their writing and reading styles, and I trust their opinions. Some of these relationships have organically flowed into sharing work, and now they’re my initial go-to people when I need another set of eyes. These writers are more than just betas, though, they’re friends, and as wonderful as they are, sometimes I need untainted eyes on my manuscript. By that, I mean people who aren’t worried about hurting my feelings, which can happen with friends, as well as people who don’t know anything about my story–people who can look at it completely fresh.

That’s when I turn to the Beta Readers thread on AW. There are other great sites, like Agent Query Connect; AW is just the place I, personally, spend the most time. I post my query, what I’m looking for in a beta reader, that I’m willing to repay the favor and swap work, and the genres I like to read. (Here’s a hint: people are more willing to read your work if you’re willing to take the time on theirs). Willing readers respond either in-thread or through private message. They’ll describe their manuscript and if I think we’ll be a good fit, I’ll suggest we work together. If not, I’ll thank them for their interest, and move on.

There’s an important key here that I don’t want you to miss. I don’t beta with writers in genres I don’t typically read, and I don’t use betas who don’t typically read my genre. Don’t think I’m being mean, or snobbish or anything. It takes a lot of time, from both parties, to beta, so it’s super important to get a reader who is familiar with the genre you write. Different genres have different tropes and cliches, different types of plot and pacing, and readers expect different things. For example, I don’t read much epic fantasy, so I wouldn’t know the first thing about critiquing it. I wouldn’t know if a particular plot device is overused or cliche, or if the pace should move faster or slower. I wouldn’t benefit that writer by reading their manuscript, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs, you dig?

Okay, so I’ve found a willing beta, we read each others’ genres, and we like each others’ story concepts, what now? We exchange email addresses and agree to swap the first two or three chapters–that’s enough to get a feel for the other person’s story and their critiquing style. Beta reading is a relationship, regardless of how brief it may be. You’re going to be with this person through thousands of words, the relationship will work better if your critique styles mesh. If you write sparse descriptions, you’re not going to benefit from a beta who constantly comments that descriptions should be more detailed. Personally, the type of critique I look for depends on where I am in my process. After my first draft, I’m usually looking for overall thoughts: Does the plot work? Are there any holes? Are the characters consistent? By the third, I want that baby to shine, so I need more nit-picky critiques: Are there glaring typos I’ve missed? Are there continuity issues that got messed up between drafts? When I’m reading for someone, I want to make sure I’m giving the level of critique they need, as well as receiving the sort of critique I need. If either of you aren’t getting what you need, you should find a different beta.

As I’m writing this I keep thinking, “man, this sounds kind of selfish.” Here’s the thing: it is selfish, but that’s okay. I have a really hard time putting myself first, so this has been a tough lesson to learn. My tendency when I first started beta reading was to dig in and stay there throughout the whole manuscript, regardless of writing caliber, trying to make it shine as much as possible. “We’re helping each other,” I would think. But then a couple things would happen. I’d either get my ms back from my reader, and it wouldn’t have near the level of critique I gave, or I’d send them their ms back and they’d be angry with how in-depth I went. The more serious I got about writing, and the more I beta read, the more I realized that I didn’t have time to spend weeks going line by line through someone else’s manuscript, and write my own stuff too. I was more invested in their writing than my own, and that’s not a place you want to be. It’s one thing for writers to help each other, but it has to be balanced. Like with any relationship, if one person is putting in an unbalanced amount of time and effort, it’s not good for either of you. (I also learned that not only can I not “fix”* everything, but I shouldn’t try, just like they shouldn’t try to “fix” mine. Instead of re-wording another writer’s work, it’s better to leave a comment of “hey, this sentence feels off, what if you tried something like ‘blah blah blah?'” and let them put it in their own words). You and your beta need to be on the same page when it comes to your critique style. If you’re not, sometimes the best thing you can do, for both of you, is to let them know the relationship isn’t working and move on.

If everything gels for those first few chapters, the beta and I will swap full manuscripts. How it goes from here depends on the reader. Some people I’ve worked with like to critique a few chapters, then email them and read a few more. Others prefer to read the entire thing at once and send it back when they’re done. Be sure to ask how they like to work. Sending your entire manuscript to a stranger is scary. Knowing when to expect it back in your inbox can make the process a bit easier. You also want to be sure and tell them how you like to critique; just because they like to send a few chapters at a time doesn’t mean you have to. Make sure they know that, though.

You read, you critique, and you send it back. You receive their comments back, and hopefully, their critique is helpful and you make your manuscript better. As I mentioned before, one beta reader and I worked so well together, we decided to keep it up and became critique partners. Most of my betas, though, have simply gone about their lives. We had a moment, we helped each other, we’ll be thrilled if the manuscript lands an agent or a publishing deal, and that’s the extent of it. But what happens if it’s not all rainbows and kittens? You liked those first couple chapters, you liked their critique of yours, but you get in and the plot falls apart, or there are so many grammar issues you get a headache. What happens if you realize you hate their story? Or, less dramatically, it’s just not ready to be beta’ed?

Well, that’s kind of tricky. I think it’s important to be honest here. I had a beta who got a few chapters in before emailing me that it wasn’t working for her. We discussed the problems a bit and I ended up cutting a major plot-line. That manuscript later landed me an amazing agent. If I hadn’t cut that plot, who knows what would’ve happened? On the other hand, I read for a writer once who just fell off the planet. This was one of those earlier manuscripts where I knew the writing needed a lot of work, but tried to stick in there. One day, I sent back a couple chapters and never heard from her again. I wish she’d talked to me about it, though, because I’m not sure what she didn’t like about my critique. Was she looking for something different? Was the relationship just not working for her? I guess I’ll never know. It can be really, really difficult to tell someone a relationship isn’t working, but it’s better to be honest and end it than to stretch it out and not give the manuscript your best. Again, that doesn’t benefit either of you.

If you think you’re ready to dive into the beta pool, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure your manuscript is polished. If it’s riddled with glaring grammatical errors and typos, it’s going to be really hard to read, and you’re going to have difficulty finding a good beta who will stick in there.

2. If your manuscript is not polished and you’re just looking for feedback on your writing, or if you’re unsure if a single chapter works, the you’re not ready for a beta. There are several places on the writing forums to share your work and get feedback from other writers on a chapter or two. Use those to work through the snags and look for a beta when you’re done. (If you’re concerned about a plot point, writing the query is also a great way to see if the plot itself works. You can write the query at any time, before, during, or after you finish the manuscript, and post it in a forum for critique. I’ve cut entire plots based on query feedback).

CAVEAT: If you’re partially through a manuscript, and are afraid you’re going off the rails, or just feel like you need another pair of eyes before you get any deeper, it’s okay to enlist a beta, BUT make sure what you do have written is polished, and be up front about the manuscript’s status. Tell the beta it’s not finished, and I recommend that you still be willing to read their full manuscript.

3. Don’t be afraid of someone stealing your story. I had this concern when I started, and I still get asked by family and friends, “You’re giving your book to stranger? What if they steal it and get it published?” For starters, everything you write on your computer is time stamped, so it’s pretty easy to prove you wrote something and when. Second of all, if you found your beta in a forum, there is a history of the posts and proof that you sent them the manuscript. Third, they’re trusting you with their work too, so this is a two-way street. The vast majority of writers are honest people who don’t want to plagiarize. They want their own work published as badly as you want yours.

I’ve met a lot of great writers by beta reading. I’ve read so many amazing stories, and my writing has improved immensely both by enlisting a knowledgeable reader and by critiquing someone else’s work. Sending your hard work to a stranger to dissect can be frightening, and thick skin is a definite plus, but it’s so worth it.

What are your beta reading experiences? Where do you find your readers? For some more thoughts on beta reading, I recommend this great post at The Daily Dahlia on The Basics of Writing Relationships, Part II: Beta-ing. Dahlia has some other great posts on the subject too. In fact, go ahead and read this one while you’re at it.

*I’m in no way holding myself up as an expert writer or anything. What I mean by trying to “fix” the writing is that when I started beta’ing, I’d spend forever on a problem sentence, figuring out just the right way to reword it for the other writer, which is exactly the wrong approach. A few small wording changes are one thing, completely scratching what they’ve done and re-doing it is another. Looking back, I feel like this newbie mistake makes me sound arrogant, but really I was just misinterpreting the beta relationship–I thought that’s what “fresh eyes” meant, looking at the problem areas from a new perspective and taking care of it. Really, it means highlighting those areas and letting the writer figure out how to fix them. Make sense?

Who’s Your Critic?

First off all, sorry I haven’t posted lately! When I’m working on a manuscript I tend to get absorbed by it, especially toward the end. So everything else fell to the side while I was finishing my first draft. Woo hoo!! *boogies* Of course, now I’m diving into my first round of edits so I can’t celebrate too much. When it’s ready for submission, that will be the real celebration.

Normally, I let my husband read a chapter or two as I write and then hand him the draft as soon as I’m done. This hasn’t worked so well in the past because by the time I finish the third and forth draft, he’s sick of reading it. This time I decided to do things differently. I’ve been writing for two months and haven’t let him see a single word. We’ve discussed the premise and how different technologies I created might work, but he hasn’t read any of it. My plan, noble indeed, was to only give him the ready to submit version.

Tuesday morning I finished draft one. Tuesday afternoon I printed that sucker out, because I edit better when I can hold the manuscript. I decided to give myself a break and start editing Wednesday. Which meant Tuesday evening the manuscript sat on the couch.

Taunting me.

I couldn’t take it. I had to know what Hubby thought.

“Whatcha doin’?” I asked, leaning over the arm of the couch to stare at him semi-creepily.

He glanced up from his computer. “Why?”

“Just wondering.”

He started typing again, working on whatever geeky project had his attention at the time…or Reddit.

“What are you about to do?”

This time he stopped. “What do you want me to do?”

I shifted my gaze to the manuscript, lying not so innocently on the couch.

“I thought you weren’t going to let me read it until it was finished,” he said.

“What about just the first chapter?…Okay, the first two chapters…unless you want to read more.”

So he read the first two while I watched tv. And by watched tv, I mean slyly watched him to see his reaction. He laughed a couple times and I couldn’t help but ask what he found funny. After what felt like forever, he finally straightened the pages and handed them back.

“What did you think?”

“It was good.”

That’s it. That’s all I got.

I pressed. “Anything in particular you liked…or didn’t like?”

“I enjoyed it.”

Grrr. “You can be honest. You won’t hurt my feelings. What did you really think? How as the characterization? Did you connect? What did you think about the main character?”

Yeah, I peppered him. And he remained stubbornly, irritatingly, incorrigibly vague.

“I don’t know! I know I liked it. It was different than other things you’ve written.”

“Good different, or bad different?”

“Just different!”

That’s when I gave up. I realized Hubby isn’t a writer. Not in the slightest. Sure, he reads a lot, but he keeps it on the surface. He’s also completely biased. I’m pretty sure I could type strings of random letters and numbers and he would think it was great, because he loves me.

Stupid love.

I kid. I’m grateful he loves me so much, but it doesn’t help my writing. (I have the same problem with friends and other family. They’re too invested to be objective).

That’s why I have a critique partner. Someone who is a writer, who can give me honest, objective feedback. It’s wonderful. We exchange a few chapters at a time and swap ideas and encourage each other and I don’t know what I would do without her.

I used to marvel at the mythical Critique Partner. I’d heard of other people having one, but I had no idea where they came from. It was like this great secret no one would let me in on. Or a magical well hidden in the jungle where you threw pennies and writers came out armed with brand new ink pens and blank notepads.

I’ve had beta readers, and they’ve all been fantastic, but there is something different about working with the same person. (I’ve got a critique group too that I’ve mentioned before that is also wonderful. There’s something special about getting together in a room full of other writers and ironing out the snags). I don’t know where others get betas, but my magic well is on Absolute Write. They have a beta reader forum that is great for connections. And that’s where I found my CP. We started as beta readers. But I enjoyed working with her so much that when we’d finished our original manuscripts, I asked if she wanted to keep working together.

And I’m so glad we did. Wednesday morning, after my frustrating night with my non-writer husband, I awoke to an email from my CP with my latest chapter. She loved it, but more importantly, she could tell me why, as well as the things she didn’t like so much. As much as I love Hubby’s support, tough love and brutal honesty is what I need. It’s what whips a manuscript into shape.

I’m sticking to my original plan and not letting Hubby read the whole thing until it’s done. Even though my CP is amazing, I’m still going to go through a couple rounds of betas, because I think you need a good balance of people who are close to you/the work, and who have no attachment whatsoever. Betas come and go, and even the ones who might not make it through the whole manuscript are amazing and wonderful and I’m so glad to have all of them. But when it comes to the long haul, CPs are priceless.

What is your process? Do you let friends/family read your drafts? Do you use betas? Critique partners? Or a combo of all the above? What works best for you?

Stuck in the Middle with You

Whose opinion matters more?  The writer?  The critique partner/beta?  The reader?  The agent/publisher?

These questions have been swirling through my head lately.  At first blush, the answer is “the readers”.  I mean, they’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not to buy a book, whether they connect with the character, and whether they want more.  But the more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I’m finding that’s not the case.  A reader may love a story, but agents and publishers may hate it.  I recently read how Harry Potter came to be, and almost never was.  If you don’t know the story, I’ll elucidate for you.  You see, the manuscript for “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected pretty much across the board and finally landed on the desk of a publisher, the last publisher.  All other avenues had been exhausted.  This publisher took the an excerpt home to “read” and ended up giving it to his young daughter.  (At this point in the story, I have images of the Grinch giving Little Cindy Lou Who a drink of water, patting her on the head, and sending her to bed).  She read it and absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to get more, to find out what happened next. The publisher had hated it and was going to turn it down.  Fortunately for everyone (especially J.K. Rowling), he decided to listen to his daughter and accept the manuscript.

So, unless the reader happens to be a publisher’s daughter, they don’t seem to have much of a say.  I’m certain books are passed on all the time that readers would love.  It’s not the agent or publisher’s fault. They pass on books for all sorts of reasons.  Their client list is too full, they already have something similar, it’s not their cup of tea, they don’t believe enough in the project.  They have to use their judgment as to what will sell and what won’t.  Sometimes they get it wrong.  For example, sixty agents passed on “The Help” by Katherine Stockett.  Sixty.  Stockett tried for three years to get it published.  No one thought it would work or that audiences would like it, but people loved it.  So, again, it goes back to the reader’s opinion.

I recently became part of a wonderful sort of experiment: an online critique group.  It’s a forum with a small number of people, a max of ten, who post their stuff a chapter at a time for critiques from the other members.  No, this doesn’t count as publishing, as only registered members can read the works and everything is password protected.  Unlike some of the other writer’s forums I frequent where you can only post a chapter or excerpt here and there for help, you can post as much as you want.  I’m also a member of a flesh and blood critique group that works the same way.  We meet once a month and read a chapter or two and get feedback.  The only problem is if you work faster than that pace, which is the purpose of the online group.

So I joined and posted the first couple chapters of my new work in progress.  And they hated it.  More accurately, they hated my main character.  They found her shallow and self-absorbed.  However, they loved my plot, and that kept them reading.  I was a little miffed, to be honest, because I thought she was a typical teenage girl worried about prom and the boy she likes.  I will caveat and say my fellow critiquers said they were not normal teenage girls and that’s probably why they couldn’t relate/didn’t like my main character.  Nevertheless, I’ve found myself in a quandary.  I don’t want to have a completely unlikeable main character, but I need her to be a little unreasonable at the beginning so there’s room for growth.

My answer: I co-lead a small group of youth at my church.  All teenage girls from ages fourteen to eighteen.  So, I offered to let one of them read my first two chapters (and ended up with several of them reading it, but that’s the way it goes).  Their initial impressions were that they loved the character.  This only deepens the quandary, leaving me feeling stuck in the middle.  I have a character adults dislike, but teenagers like, in a book written for teenagers.  Yes, I know my adults come from one group of people who may be biased, but I have to wonder: will other adults feel the same way?  And if they do, will they be turned off and not want to read it?  Unfortunately, no matter how much the teenagers may like it, it’s adults I have to impress.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it?  I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right.  But then again, I don’t know how else it could be done.  I guess if an agent/publisher were interested in a book but weren’t sure how it would sell, they could do a test audience.  That takes time and money though, and what’s the point if the test audience doesn’t like it?  Ultimately, I don’t know any way it could be done differently.  So I’m going to do the only thing I can at this stage of the game: plug on and see how the book turns out, if it’s good enough, query it and see what responses I get.  Then, if the adults in the publishing world dislike her, I can reconsider a revamp, or hope I get lucky and someone’s teenage daughter reads it and convinces her publisher father that it’s good.  I won’t hold my breath for that one though.