Having A Schedule And Changing It

Good morning. Welcome back. It’s good to see you. Well, it’s good to see most of you. Not you, guy in the back, you know what you did.

So today we’re going to talk writing schedules, and we’re going to talk about what happens when life interrupts and you have to change everything around.

Let’s suppose you have a daily writing schedule. Doesn’t matter if that’s one block of hours, or three chunks from sunrise to sunset, or if you’re doing it all late night when the kids are asleep.You’ve had this schedule a while, and people around you know about it, generally respect it, and you use it to get a lot done.

Still with me? Great, now we’re going to change that schedule. When I talk change, I don’t mean like a small one-time interruption, like the kids were three minutes late or you didn’t make the light and had to wait, or the weird barista who thinks you’re named Stan was on duty this morning so your latte was something strained through dirty hobo underpants, I mean like a big change. Let’s suppose you have a moderate surgery. Not enough to hospitalize you for weeks on end, but just enough to really throw a wrench in your habits. Let’s make it a cardiac issue, because those are just scary enough to warrant being careful while being invisible enough to lull you into a sense that maybe it isn’t so bad because you can’t see it the way you can see a leg cast.

But it is bad enough that you’re reminded it’s a big deal when you get tired in the middle of those hours when you’re used to writing, and it’s bad enough that your hands get cold and ache randomly, so even if it didn’t feel like someone bludgeoned your midsection with bricks like they’re playing a violent xylophone, you couldn’t type so fast. So what can you do? Wallow in the muddy guilt of not sticking to your schedule? Give a lot of mental real estate to the voices in your head who scream and wail that this is exactly the sort of momentum killer than can end all your hopes and dreams, so you might as well try and get a job with that weird barista?

No, you practice the ancient and mystical art of adaptation. Here’s how.

Illness and injury, invisible or not, is going to happen. You might not have cardiac issues, but maybe you get the flu. Or the kids get the flu. Or your spouse/partner breaks a leg and you’re doing the good nurse thing. You can’t have dedicated plans for each possible event in life, but adaptation works even when you don’t have a solid plan.

Consider your process. The routine of it. You’re awake at a certain hour, you’re writing by this time, you’re pausing here to eat, and you know the number of times you get up to get more tea or water and use the bathroom. You’re still going to have to drink water and get to the bathroom, so that’s fixed into your adapted schedule. But the writing time … there’s our variable.

When we talk about sitting down to write at a certain time, it’s not the time that imbues some greatness to the craft (8:17am is not some sorcerous moment in time and space that makes exposition amazing), it’s that you’re spending a chunk of time doing the writing. X number of minutes, hours, commercial breaks, whatevers, getting fingers on keys. That’s where craft gets built.

So you adapt. Start with the hypothesis that you can write for fewer minutes. Abolish the notion that this abridged schedule is immediately faulty or negative, because it’s not – you’re not giving up entirely, you’re just going to work for 30 minutes, not 60.  Seems reasonable.

Until you remember that you write while seated in one particular chair, in one particular posture. A posture that in your current state, you can’t do without a great deal of pain and fatigue. Is this the sign where you give up?

No, this is where you further adapt.

Can’t sit up? Find yourself in a reclining posture for the next few days or weeks? Can your workspace move? Can you get a wireless keyboard and work from the couch or bed? Is it a laptop? Can’t balance it on your chest or thighs? Is there a table you can repurpose? Is the typing the tough part? Can you go text to speech? Can you dictate and have someone else type? Can you do straight audio?

The point is that any element in the process is up for variation. What doesn’t change is the fact that you’re writing. You are writing. You’re just not writing from the nice Aeron chair at the slab desk in the corner of that one room, you’re writing via wireless keyboard from the bed or the couch. And you’re not writing for two to three hours at a clip, you’re writing about 45 minutes and then you’re dozing off to sounds of the X Ambassadors.

Adaptation isn’t cause for guilt or shame. It’s cause for ingenious compromise. And yes you’re capable of doing it. I’ve got some bullet points for you to consider:

  • Think of every step in the writing process. Include the sitting down, the typing, all that. Be as objective as possible.
  • Be as clear as possible when identifying what the illness or injury is making difficult (obviously, if it’s making X impossible, don’t do X). Specificity super helps.
  • Figure out what individual changes you can make on a nearly 1:1 basis to cover the difficult spots. Don’t forget to actually make them once you figure out what they are.
  • When a proposed change doesn’t work, look a different solution. Don’t worry that this hunt is eating into your work time, because when you get this system set up, it will be there for all those illness/injury days down the road. An ounce of prevention, and all that.
  • If one of the things you need is rest, actually take it. If 48 minutes of writing absolutely sends you laying down for 60 minutes, do it. It’s going to be extra hard getting the words on the page when you’re double exhausted if you don’t go lay down.
  • Reward yourself when possible. Got the wireless keyboard to work from the bed? I think it’s time to watch that youtube video. Figured out how to tweet using voice to text? I think that calls for nachos.

So for me, here are the changes for the immediate future:

  1. Reading manuscripts will happen while laying on the couch or in bed during the day.
  2. Blogging will happen in the morning while I’m seated, writing tweets will be from the couch or bed. Because sitting up is exhausting on the chest and abs.
  3. Coaching will still happen, it’ll just be done from the couch.
  4. The workflow will be about 60-90 minutes a day for another week, then I’ll try for 2 hours, and build up from there.

I want to take a minute here to point out that through all this, what really helps is supportive people around you. I don’t just mean a nurse if that’s what you need, I mean the genuinely special people who encourage you and talk to you and rally you. The ones who call you Speedy when you’re shuffling across the living room with a walker, and the ones who fistbump you when you pull yourself to a seated position. The ones who hand you pills and a cup of tea and pull the blankets up when you can’t possible muster the strength to lean forward and grab them. I have been deeply and sincerely lucky to have wonderful people all around me as I recover from big scary surgery, and I want you all to know that I wouldn’t even be able to be sitting here and blogging about their obvious awesomeness if they weren’t supporting me.

InboxWednesday returns this week, I’ve got a backlog. See you then.

The Post-Dreamation Post

This post is coming to you on Monday the 22nd of February. If it sounds a little janky, it’s because I’ve been writing it in sections while I’ve been at Dreamation, one of my local conventions.

I’d also like to point out that this is the ONLY post you’re going to get from me this week, I’ve got some surgery scheduled for mid-week, and I’m not going to be anywhere near any shape to be blogging later this week. It’s kind of a big deal, and yes I hope I’ll be okay too. On to other points.

Normally I do not shy away from giving panels to anyone, but catch me at the end of a day, or a bad day, or just when I’ve reached the end of whatever rope, and I would much prefer to sit and talk casually. Since I didn’t give a panel on Sunday, allow me now to write out what I would have said. Here goes.

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I believe, absolutely and fundamentally, that people should create art, and that art is not all that impossible to create. We face a lot of problems though when we make that decision, and while I have never yet successfully predicted the order in which these problems are faced by creators, I have to date always seen these problems in one form or another, creator after creator, no matter if we’re talking manuscripts or screenplays or little origami notions. They are universal, and I think the first step in unifying and normalizing our experiences is to get rid of the idea that you’re alone as a creative. Yes, you might be working by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone on a blue orb that hurtles through space. I mean c’mon, you’re not a Jedi on a rock watching the ocean.

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There’s the idea that what you’re making has to be of some certain level, whether that’s quality, or how marketable it is, before you’re allowed to proud of it, or think it’s a good idea. And that, I’m sorry, is complete horseshit and applesauce brought to you by whatever assumptions you’ve made or inherited that you’re only good because of bank accounts and sales figures. This idea shows up a few times in development, first in the idea stage, where people question whether the idea they just had is good enough, then again while they’re working on it, and it moves from some larval stage of notes to drafts or prototypes. Lastly it shows up in latter stages, like when it’s nearly done or when people can support crowdfunding it, or when there’s a big shiny “submit” button on an email or uploader for self-publishing.

The question of is it good enough is the same as the question of whether or not you, specifically you as a creative person who’s done this thing, are good enough. Good enough to be proud of your efforts. Good enough to be rewarded with other peoples’ time and attention and money, as if you wouldn’t be good enough without that manuscript or box or doohickey.

You must remember that you are not your product. Whatever the hell it is. However long it took you to think up, draft, revise, tool, develop, or create. You are good enough thanks to the sheer facts of being human and being creative and being brave enough to take an idea and birth it into the world.

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Along comes then the question as to what art is? Does art have any responsibility to do something? Not “do something” in the press-a-button-get-a-pellet way, but more like serve as advocate or soapbox or broadcast beacon for some cause or group or idea. By its very creation, art is a challenge, an attempt to fill a void that people haven’t perceived or thought about, so existence is already advocacy and broadcast. The contents need not take on some extra potence in interpretation thanks to cultures of politics or victimhood: sometimes it’s just a story of a trans man trying to buy his partner a Mother’s Day themed dildo, and not a treatise on lost culture. Don’t lose perspective, and certainly don’t adopt messages that you don’t want to stand behind.

Art exists, the artist cannot control how it gets interpreted, nor should they try. You might paint the word “Garbage” on canvas and tell me you’re discussing American politics, but I’ll tell you it’s awfully reminiscent of a 90s grunge band who had music that got stuck in my head. The question is not if I agree to your premise, but if I had a reaction at all, and can I, as an audience, appreciate the work, even if it’s not something I like? So when you’re making a thing, just make it. Make it for you. Make it your way. If that way means you get to give voice to people not often heard, or shed light in often dark spaces, or make conventional what so many believe abnormal, do it. But do not take on the extra baggage in some attempt to win points and curry favor. This is creativity, not the lightning round of a game show.

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Whenever there is a question of is it bad or wrong to do a thing or to do a thing this way, whether we’re talking about having a flashback at some point in a story, or having a piece of salescopy mention a product feature, or a character saying they drink Pepsi, I always respond the same way – no it’s not wrong, no one’s going to take your keyboard away for doing it. This is different than doing the thing wrong, like messing up how dialogue goes on the page, or misspelling congeniality. Doing the thing wrong means correction should happen, but just having something happen is not in itself reason enough to break out the knout and cilice, begging forgiveness from people on message boards and social media alike.

Permission isn’t meant to come externally, and in too many cases, the older models of publishing, with their emphasis on gatekeepers and exclusion, permission was this piece of meat dangled in front of the starving artists, so that there might be dancing for the amusement of those in ivory towers. That model isn’t dead so much as it’s had its control fractured, as new mediums and methods of publication offer a variety of options in place of waiting for anonymous people to respond to queries and dispense pronouncements. Because the power now sits in the hands of the author right up until the moment of submission, that permission has to derive internally, and be persistent through all the stages of creation. You can write whatever the hell you want, it can get edited and shaped into whatever will be clearest for the reader, and it will find an audience. Of course, the previous sentence has assumed you’ve given yourself permission to write and finish something without fear of later judgment, that you’ve given yourself permission to have drafts not be the finished product, and given yourself permission to go do the work necessary to figure out and find who the product’s audience is.

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Now let’s suppose just for a minute that you’re like me – a creative with some health issues (mental and otherwise), a few responsibilities, not as much time in the century to do all the things that can be dreamed in those moments when work is supposed to be happening – these are all factors that can erode the idea that you’re supposed to be making anything at all. How can you? There are bills that need to be paid, the phone never seems to stop ringing, no one at the office seems to care that you just totally figured out how to kill Maude in chapter 5, and that last night you wrote seventy-seven words about the way the car sighed like an old person sighing in a church pew. Life seems to make some distinction from the creative process, that one has to be separate from the other, that a creative has a life, and then goes off to some secret lair where they can create when the rest of the world isn’t looking, so long as they don the cloak of a pen name.

Creativity is not life’s kryptonite. It’s not to be kept in the shed like your zombie best friend, or locked away in the tower until you get miles of split ends. Creativity infuses life with necessary color and hope and imagination. Creativity takes the mundane into extraordinary places, and challenges conventions while inspiring everything from debate to contention to interest. So what’s wrong with admitting that you’re creative and that you’re making something?

Is it scary to do that? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Does that mean that someone could judge you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t discount the fact that you be judged right now, and not even know it. So why the hell give it that much mental real estate? Is that helping you in any good ways?

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Look, don’t give up. Tell the doubt and the doubters to go suck lemons. Like the man says, they’re going to laugh, but you keep writing. Don’t go down without a fight. And don’t give up the keyboard, the canvas, the microphone, the whatever. Not until you’re done doing your best.

There are loads of problems you can face – rejection, lack of appeal, poor technique. Don’t shovel extra weight like crushing doubt like Jupiter’s gravity and fear of a future that hasn’t happened yet compound whatever you’re doing with some grievous notions that it’s supposed to be some way or else it’s not good enough. You are the definer of your own success(es). You are the definer of when you give up.

What you do every day is up to you, creative. You’re good enough, and this guy on the internet believes in you.

 

Go make cool stuff. Go be awesome. Rock on.

The Beta Reader FAQ

Good morning. Welcome to the end of another week. We’ve been talking beta readers all week, and I thought it would be useful to collect some info and put together an FAQ.

When do I use beta readers?
A beta reader comes in after you’re done writing, after the editing and revision process, and before you send it off for submission or publication. Yes, their comments may lead to more revisions, but that’s part of the process. Bringing them in any earlier is like asking someone taste dinner while it’s still cooking – they won’t get the full experience you want them to have.

Is a beta reader an editor?
No. They’re a reader. Sure, you can say that editors also read, but an editor’s job is to edit (it’s in the name) and a beta reader’s job is to read (it’s also in the name). A beta reader may catch some stray proofing errors and maybe point out a janky sentence here or there, but a beta reader is best used when they read the near-done manuscript and can speak to their satisfaction and understanding of what’s on the page.

Is a beta reader supposed to read an early draft AND a later draft for comparison?
No. This isn’t comparative. The beta reader “tests” out your fiction, functioning like a proto-audience to see how it would be received assuming it was a book available for purchase. It’s not up to them to track the progress of an MS, they need to look at the most finished manuscript and draw their conclusions.

Do I pay a beta reader?
Yes. Whenever someone is doing a job for you, you pay them. And not in the quid pro quo way of “you read for me, I read for you” because I can’t put reading in an envelope and use it to pay my phone bill. It may be tempting to work out an exchange, because that’s easier (read: cheaper) than paying someone to read, as if that task isn’t important, or it’s somehow wrong to treat your work professionally and pay for services.

It comes down to a decision and statement as to how seriously you take your work. If this isn’t something you want to see published, if this is just something you’re doing for the heck of it, don’t pay the beta readers and everyone can have a good time just reading this thing you wrote as a hobby.

But if you’re going to pursue publication, if you want more than your immediate circle of people to experience your work, when you don’t pay your beta readers, you’re saying either their time and help isn’t important, or your manuscript isn’t that important. Are you sure that’s the message you want to convey?

How much do I pay a beta reader?
Enough to cover the time spent reading your work, so first determine how seriously you’re taking this publishing effort, then price accordingly. The absolute bottom amount and starting point? Don’t go any lower than $25 – enough to cover lunch with some pocket money left over. Work your way up from there.

How many beta readers do I need?
Try for an odd number of them. A pair might offer more critique, but having an uneven number of readers can function in a sort of confirmation if for example 2 out of 3 of them identify the same part of the story as confusing.

Where can I find beta readers?
Social media. While it may be tempting to wrangle friends and family into reading your work, there’s an underlying bias – your spouse can’t be objective, especially when you’re the one who does the grocery shopping and they totally love cheese. Finding people you don’t know, who aren’t going to blow smoke rectally or lob soft critique at you, will help make your MS better. If social media isn’t enough for you, try a website like this one.

Are you sure that seven beta readers aren’t better than a developmental editor?
There are many articles online that suggest a group of beta readers can be a substitute for an editor, noting that beta readers don’t get paid while doing the same critical work. If that doesn’t seem exploitative and sounding like the Huffington Post, nothing in this FAQ will likely dissuade you from parsimony. Beta readers may be able to spot a problem, but the editor will spot the problem and help you correct it (and ideally show you how to prevent it from happening in the future).

What sort of questions should I ask a beta reader while they’re reading my MS?
If there are spots in the fiction where you’re not sure if the writing is unclear or weak, where the story doesn’t feel ‘right’, or you think it may drag or have other problems, start there. Here too is a list of questions:

i) Did you find the tension of the story to develop at a reasonable pace?
ii) Were any of the action beats unclear?
iii) Did the resolution fit the climax?
iv) Were there any strands of plot left unresolved?
v) Did the main character’s [insert issue here] come across as impactful to the plot?
vi) Was the story pacing reasonable, did any sections of the book come across as rushed?
vii) In the introduction, was the world developed enough for you get a sense it was a tangible place?

Steer questions away from using words like “opinion” and “feel” as you’ll get responses too predicated on what the reader likes and who they are rather than specific-to-the-text opinions.

How long should a beta reader take to read an MS?
Many articles will tell you that turnaround should be measured in hours or less than a week. This may be possible, but given that people have jobs, kids, bills, other responsibilities, and beta readers often go unpaid (sensing a theme yet?), don’t expect people, especially ones you don’t know, to drop everything to read your MS when they may be trying to get a small child to focus on flossing or not wanting all the Lego in the universe ever. A week to 10 days is not a bad base amount of time for a reader to work through a text.

What sort of feedback can I expect from a beta reader?
Ideally, you want responses that highlight areas that need more work or story bits that didn’t make sense. Hearing that “they liked it” or “it was good” isn’t going to help you get the MS out the door to wherever you want to send it. And that’s because what’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for me or that lady over there smelling the inside of her shoes (I have a cousin who does that. I saw her do it once at an anniversary party.) “Good” is nice to hear, it’s flattering, but it’s not helpful when an MS is at the stage where beta readers are called in.

How do I communicate with beta readers?
Email. You can do it via other means, but I like email because it gives you a hard copy you can print out and refer to when you need it. If you go via Skype or GChat or smoke signals or semaphore, whatever it is people use, you may not remember all the things you need to.

Hope that FAQ helps, I’ll see you guys next week.

 

InboxWednesday – Beta Readers

Welcome to #InboxWednesday, how’s your week going? Mine’s pretty good. I got this email from Tonda over the weekend, and I knew right away that it would be perfect for #InboxWednesday. Here’s Tonda’s email:

“John, I’m a beta reader. I don’t have a whole lot of experience being a beta reader, but I like doing it. Last week I worked with a writer who wanted me to read her manuscript. She seemed nice, and I wanted to help her, so I said yes. It […] didn’t go well. It wasn’t a very good manuscript. Which was weird because she told me she had a lot of other beta readers and some agents reading it, but whatever, I wanted to help. So I read her first few chapters and was confused. Really, I was more than confused, I was lost. Too many characters, no idea who was doing what, and no idea why anyone was doing whatever they did. Then I wrote her an email saying so. I wasn’t mean about it, I just said that I had those problems with the manuscript.

Her response made me cry. […] She again repeated that agents and other readers never told her any of what I told her, and that I had to be stupid because what I was saying was so out of place. She suggested I go read YA stories because it’s “easier and simple” and that I should avoid “complex writing like Game of Thrones” because I “wouldn’t understand it.” I thought about telling her I read the whole GoT series while I wasn’t beta reading for someone, but I didn’t know what else to say to her. She got catty and say she didn’t want to make me suffer by reading anymore, and I didn’t hear from her since.

My question for your inboxwednesday is this: Is this normal? Is this what I can expect as a beta reader? Am I really bad at it because I found these problems? What do I do?” –Tonda

Tonda, first, thanks for writing in. Let’s answer your questions.

Based just on the emails you and I exchanged, I don’t think you’re stupid, and I wouldn’t think any reader is stupid because they didn’t like a manuscript or book they read and didn’t like.

When someone calls you stupid because you brought up problems with their work, it says way more about them than it does you. I see this a lot as an editor. I flag something, and the other person flips their shit that I’m “unprofessional” or that “this isn’t the kind of comment they’d expect” because I said that a character doing X is contrary to their motivation and it’s cliche.

Look at how this author took a shot at you rather than addressing your feedback. To me, that says you struck a nerve. And that’s what a beta reader should do – cut through the fluffy and soft marshmallow commentary like “It’s good, I like it” and get to the skeleton and guts of the writing. If it works, say so. If it doesn’t say so.

Now, if what you’re saying isn’t what the writer wants to hear, that still doesn’t make you stupid. Just like you wouldn’t be stupid for telling Dana that she does in fact look fat in those pants. It’s not about stupidity, it’s about truth, and like Tom Cruise, some people can’t handle the truth.

Let’s also dispense with the “I have other beta readers and agents reading this” idea. You have zero idea if she’s telling the truth. I don’t mean assume automatically that all people are lying, but this MS is something she’s really tied to emotionally (look at how she reacted), so why not try and inflate what’s going on to a stranger? If she’s not full of shit, you’d think the agents would notice such large issues in the early pages of her work. Don’t let the bluster chase you off. Further, just because an agent read it doesn’t mean the agent liked it. You can’t assume that either.

Your being inexperienced doesn’t discredit your findings. Yes, as you gain more experience you’ll get better at reading, but that doesn’t mean you’re starting from some deficit where your early feedback doesn’t count.

Let’s talk YA. YA is not automatically “simpler” than other genres. No one genre sits atop a pyramid of complexity or superiority, and we don’t relegate YA to ‘lesser’ authors until they’re good enough to ditch authorial training wheels. Again, this is a really clear description of how this woman views and prioritizes one genre over another, which doesn’t speak well for her. I wouldn’t go send her a card on her birthday, if I were you.

This woman doesn’t know you Tonda, don’t start thinking that she can automatically determine what you can and cannot read based on ability. Preference is one thing, but aptitude is another.

In short, let this lady go suck lemons and let her MS face whatever fate it’s meant to. You didn’t do anything wrong. Keep on reading. And if other authors get harsh with you, tell them a guy on the internet said you’re cool.

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I’m at Dreamation the rest of the week. Have a great day, do cool stuff, happy writing.

 

 

 

What’s Up With Beta Readers?

I hope your weekend was a good one. Mine was good. It was brutally, nastily cold here in NJ, so I bundled myself up and worked. Lots of editing, some reading, loads of emails (Wait until you see #InboxWednesday).

This week we’re going to talk about a part of the writing process that I don’t really talk about a lot. We’re going to talk beta readers.

The reason I don’t usually go into a great heap of detail is because I have a mixed relationship with beta readers. Some experiences have been great, some way less than great, and it’s a part of the creative process I probably should spend more time on, because it’s becoming more mainstream to rely on them.

Let’s start at the beginning. A beta reader is someone asked to read the manuscript and provide critique, generally as one of the later stages of post-writing pre-publication. As their name says, they read.

They’re not editors. I mean, they may be an editor as their job or something, but their service to the manuscript is not a directly editorial one. They read and provide feedback. If you’re asking a beta reader to edit (aside from whatever things they randomly catch, I mean specifically wanting them to read and edit), then you’ve merged proofreading and beta reading.

I believe that anyone who does a job should be paid. So yes, I believe beta readers should be paid. Flat fee, per chapter, whatever, they’re helping you out just as much as the editor, and you’re paying them (right?), so make with the payouts.

But wait, you cry, where am I supposed to get the money? Or worse, why do these people deserve to get paid, they’re just reading?

And that, right there, is the reason why this post exists.

They’re not “just” reading. Their job is to read with a particular eye on story elements. Some authors provide a list of specific questions (hopefully they avoid the fluff ones like: “Did you like it?” or “Did you like X character?” because a beta reader is a lens for getting feedback focused on specific elements. What elements? Here’s some of the elements:

+character arc
+plot development and pacing
+tension
+story pacing
+number of characters
+the ease of readability
+narrative tone
+gauging how exciting the climax was
+gauging how satisfying the resolution was

These are story elements. They’re subcutaneous to the ego stroke of whether or not the person liked the story and can therefore blow smoke up the rectal cavities of authors. If you’re looking for praise, let your grandma read the story. A beta reader is not a praise factory, they’re a critical eye with a bit more objectivity than the editor who’s spent weeks with the MS or the author who’s been tapping the keys about it for a year.

Because they’re not being asked to fellate the insecure author (I talked to quite a few beta readers over the weekend whose feedback was irrelevant to their playing some kind of “you did good enough” validation), we come back to this idea that the author is the superior in whatever relationships concern the MS.

Let’s see how we get to this way of thinking.

The author has the option to hire an editor, and if they do, then the author employs the editor. There’s a servile power dynamic there.

The author tells the beta readers what to look for, so there’s another servile power dynamic there.

Pretty much anybody pre-submission serves the author’s needs. For some people, this power, particularly over a manuscript that they are very emotionally tied to or invested in, is ripe for abuse.

It doesn’t help that some pinheads mistake the “beta” in beta reader for a subordinate position off the bat. For the record, a beta reader is a text beta-tester, the surrogate audience member. Considering their role as audience, I would challenge any power dynamic because the beta reader is your resource for how the story will engage the marketplace. Confuse a beta reader, disinterest them, and you expose the fleshy story underbelly and possibility that your MS isn’t the polished gemstone you think it is. This is not to say it’s on the other extreme of formica or whatever zirconia gets sold on late night television, but there’s no reason to disregard or belittle the feedback because it isn’t the radioactive glowing praise that your MS is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Which is why I advocate for paying your beta reader. Treat them as a peer, not a tool, in your process and value their feedback. If you have (I’m making numbers up) 3 readers, and 1 says that the story is bloated with too many similar sounding names, or you’ve got the story all over the place in the first few chapters, consider what they’re telling you. Don’t blow it off just because it’s not as praising as what your other two readers might say. Remember that your MS may not be liked by everyone, that should you go forward and traditionally publish, an agent or editor may possibly have similar concerns, that your MS may languish in rejection hell for a while until those concerns get revised.

You want a beta reader to push you, to flip your MS judo-style, beat it up a little (or a lot), because you’re trying to get the best MS possible. So why not beat it up a little? Does that mean more work for you? Yeah. Is that bad? No.

Not every beta reader is going to extol your praises. Not every beta reader is going to spew hot lava at you. Like so many other things, it’s about the combination of all feedback, rather than the authorial power dynamic. It’s okay to get feedback that’s harsh, I’d go so far to say it’s vital, unless you want to just live in a clueless bubble of faux-perfection where you don’t push yourself or your craft out of some fear that your emperor will be exposed as a nudist.

Getting to stage in production where you need to engage beta readers is not the end of the marathon that is publication. You still have to get the story packaged and either submitted, or into the hands of readers. So let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of power dynamic, where the author puts them on a pedestal. Which isn’t the point either.

Yes, the beta reader, to some extent acts like a surrogate audience, but again, they’re not just reading your story for enjoyment. Giving them concepts to keep an eye out for helps you steer through the parts of writing where you may find or think yourself weak. They’re useful, like so many other things I’ve talked about on this blog.

To suggest the beta reader is superior in some way is to suggest that you’re writing as to earn the praise of the audience more than the pleasure of writing or the want to see your story in the world. Yes, there’s an element of praise to be had by an audience, but it can’t be the only reason you sit down everyday to write. Not everyone is going to like your work, and they’re not supposed to.

Treat your readers like people, because they are people. Don’t be a dick, don’t throw some alleged superiority in their face. They’re trying to help you, let them.

I’ll see you later this week for #InboxWednesday, where we’re going to hear from Tonda.

See you then. Happy writing.

Dreamation 2016 schedule

Happy Valentine’s Day. Here’s my gift to you, my Dreamation 2016 schedule. It’s always a good sign when Dreamation comes around, because that means it’ll be spring soon, then summer, and the awesomeness of warm weather will revitalize me.

I’d love to see you this coming weekend in Morristown. I’ll be there all four days of the convention, so please come say hello.

It’s an all Noir World weekend for me. Come play my game, it’s had some big huge improvements lately.

THURSDAY
Come hang out with me and I shall regale you with tales of medical bureaucracy and general writing advice. Oh, and I was thinking about getting a burrito for dinner.

FRIDAY
R220: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: Make Mine Murder” presented by John Adamus. An INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED GAME – Part of the Indie Games Explosion! The City is a dark and dangerous place. Crime’s a fast track to success, but with it comes danger around every corner. In this game of Noir World, six players weave a story of tragedy, drama, and murderous intent. Friday, 11:00AM – 1:00PM

R251: Noir World Friday, 8:00PM – 10:00PM

SATURDAY
R308: Noir World Saturday, 2:00PM – 4:00PM

SUNDAY
R364: Noir World Sunday, 10:00AM – 12:00PM

Those are my on-paper obligations, which means I have oodles of free time to meet with people, hang out, do some work, have some laughs, fall asleep on couches, receive hugs, offer dap, whip and/or nae nae, bemoan the health care system, cough a lot, and in general associate with other humans.

Go enjoy your Valentine’s Day, I’ll see you later.

A Letter to Younger John

Before we begin today, let me make an announcement. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve accepted a position as a Consulting Editor for Parvus Press, a digital publisher specializing (for now) in science fiction and fantasy manuscripts. For more details on how you can submit your manuscript to them, check out their website here.

Additionally, I’d like to put a trigger warning on this post today that I’m going to mention suicide and depression. I don’t get into it very deeply, but I do want to tell you that it’s in here as we discuss the idea of being good enough and/or being rejected.

Dear Younger Me Who’s Thinking About Being Writer While Dealing With Suicidal Depression,

Good news! This letter is written by a time-traveling 37-year-old version of yourself.

So, this is you from twenty years in the future. By the time you’re me, you have accrued quite a list of names I can’t put on a business card. By the time you’re me, you have said some honestly horrendous things on the Internet. You do that, and you don’t run from that. Yeah, these things are your opinion, and you’re about five-ish months from learning that opinions aren’t concrete facts, they’re just expressions from other people.  You haven’t really had what you call “joy” stomped out of you yet. It’s coming, sorry dude. But you’re going to get through it. You’ll get through it professionally. You’ll get through it personally. People don’t have to agree with you in order for you to be liked or loved or good at what you do.

You work freelance because of health concerns and a massive dislike of corporate desk jobs and dehumanized bureaucracy. Don’t freak out, you’re going to go that job interview thing and you’re going to think you lost your mind, but no, you didn’t. You still don’t believe profits should come ahead of people, and  that writers should jump through hoops to sate the caprices of entrenched ivory towers. Oh, and the ivory towers still exist.You never do get a chance to knock them over like Jenga towers. But, don’t forget to loot the office supplies before you get fired. Seriously, we still love the mason jar for pens.

You’re living a pretty sheltered life right now. But you’re going to go on many excellent adventures, and you’ll reach the conclusion that people’s race, age, gender, or orientation shouldn’t be the reason they aren’t get published. You’re going to meet people who think being a white heterosexual man should render that previous sentence null and void, and you’re going to tell what you think in response. In those moments, I urge you to remember Obadiah Holmes. Hooray genealogy. And remember that scene from Back to School. Do not go softly, John. And keep questioning the hell out of everything.

You’re going to have no patience for professional victims. You’ll have dated some. You’ll have put up with too many in your life. You’re going to think it was a terrible decision to move on, but seriously, it’s a great idea. Just trust me.

You’ll have no patience for bigots or trolls. You’ll be a pest at some point. You’ll be a jackass on the internet for awhile, but bigotry and intolerance will always hit deeply placed buttons in you. Just remember that tolerance doesn’t mean condoning idiocy or accepting raw deals. Treat people well, help them where possible if possible, and do the right thing. Yeah, you’re not going to always know what the right thing is in advance, we don’t even have that technology now, but you’ll get a pretty good handle on it in your thirties.

Some people will look at your resume once you get fired a few times and see few things they’d say “count.” They don’t think freelance editing is a viable thing writers need. They think coaching is overpriced and unnecessary. You’re going to have to get used to that feeling of being a second-class citizen and creative commodity. Yeah, you’re going to make friends with amazing people who will have astronomical success that’s maybe in some ways because of what you said or did, and that’s going to sound like it’ll offset that bullshit about being good enough, but you and I both know you haven’t felt good enough since you were about twelve. I hate to tell you this, but we’re still working on that as we near 40. On the plus side, you’re going to develop this awesome ability to help people, and you’ll feel very good enough when people accomplish stuff after talking to you.

Twitter is going to be huge for you. It’ll totally help you communicate, and you’ll misunderstand what it does for a few years, but you’ll figure it out. And you’re going to spend a lot of time just throwing ideas out into the world, and sometimes you’re going to see them get a huge reception, other times, not so much. But keep doing it. Not everyone has to like what you’re doing 100000000% for you to be happy doing it. This isn’t Sunday dinner with the old man. This isn’t even 1st-period English class. You get to be an adult, and it’s seriously fucking awesome most times. You won’t always think so, but dude, it’s got some really great parts. Again, people are gonna jaw at you, you’re going to want to recant and crumble, but don’t. Your time-traveling older self is telling you that it’s okay, and the world’s gonna keep turning.

You’re not running for student council president, you’re a guy helping people write better and get their stuff published or created. You’ll live if a tweet gets only 3 retweets. You’ll get over the sting that a blog post only got seen by 20 people.

This is probably a good time to point out that you’re going make a lot of mistakes. You’re going create some stuff, and it’s going to crash and burn. Books won’t get published. TV shows won’t get out of development talks. Theater productions will collapse. You’re going to get hosed on some writing credits. You’ll get the money, but it’ll be an uphill climb some days. Some of that’s gonna be your fault because of health issues, bad habits, poor choices, and listening to idiots. Some of that won’t be your fault. Don’t give up. Don’t mistake the failures for universal demands to stop living. Mistakes happen. It’s what you do post-mistake that matters.

I’m tell you/me all this because it’s important that you don’t marry yourself to the idea that everyone has to like you in order for you to be successful. You don’t. There are going to be people who don’t like you or what you’ve done, and that’s okay. They might seem like the majority, but that’s their volume distracting you. One guy yelling doesn’t count more than ten people nodding. Unless you let them. And you’re in charge of what sticks in your head.

You have to remember you define your own sense of who you are and how you identify. You’re not just your work. You’re not just the guy who sits behind a desk. You’re a whole you, wrinkles, scars, bruises, and everything. And you’re good enough. Rejection will be an element in your life, and it’s going to feel like someone Mortal Kombat-ripped your spine out, but they didn’t, and you’re going to be okay. Wiser, but okay.

Don’t let it stop you. Don’t let the irrational fear that some legion of clawed hydra and wailing poltergeists will shout you down forever keep you from trying to succeed. You’re going to learn that you need to define success on your own terms, and while you have a tendency to set really unrealistic bars to jump over, you’ll rein it in somewhat and really appreciate the pleasures of emails answering questions and the moments of quiet when you get out of your own way.

In short Adamus, you’re gonna kick a lot of ass, deal with many doubts and doubters, have a lot of tough experiences, and find a lot of positives. Like Red Squadron, stay on target.

You’re gonna be okay.

*

See you guys next week. Have a great weekend. Enjoy yourselves.

Happy writing

InboxWednesday on Thursday – MS Prep

Hey everyone, hope you’re doing well. My apologies for the altered schedule in blogposts, many things work and otherwise have been afoot, and I prefer to be able to blog at length, rather than on a set schedule. It doesn’t do either of us any good to go short in our discussions.

InboxWednesday is designed to get you answers to questions that I don’t normally answer on the blog, on topics ranging from storycraft to development to today’s topic, manuscript preparation. If you have a question, ask it. There are no stupid questions. Or find me on Twitter for regular bouts of writing tweets.

Today’s question comes from Luke.

John, I’ve finished my MS, do I need to do anything before I start querying?

Luke, first of all, congratulations on finishing the manuscript. That’s not the easiest thing to do in the world, and you should take a minute or 90 and go celebrate. Have cake. Watch cartoons. Do something fun.

And then when you’re done getting your I’m-done groove on, here’s what you do with that finished MS.

Make sure it’s finished. No, seriously, make sure it’s all done. No notes in the margin, no half-written paragraphs or sentences. Make sure you’ve got all the chapters all into 1 document. Get someone to read it and see if they think it’s done. Not good, not nice. Just see if it’s a full story with a beginning, middle, end, conflict, and resolution. Oh, and make sure it has characters. What I’m saying Luke, is that you’re going to query a complete manuscript so that you don’t have to use vital words in your query mentioning that it’s a complete manuscript. So, get it all in one file, all in place.

Check your spelling and punctuation. I know, it’s 2016 and we have smartphones and heated toilet seats, but would you believe that there are people who don’t spellcheck a document before sending it somewhere? I mean, in Word, you press one key. It’s not a perfect flawless spellcheck, but it’s at least something. You’re trying to get someone to give you a contract for your work, take the extra however many minutes to make sure you spelled “obvious” correctly on page 16.  Likewise, make sure you’ve ended sentences with punctuation, and that you’ve got quotation marks where they’re supposed to be. It’s important. Little touches at this point make all the difference.

Get it read, or better, get it read AND edited. Before we go all query-happy, you’re going to want to talk to other humans about what you’ve done. (Okay I realize that makes it sound like I’m comparing your MS to that time I watched a kid named Joey light a firecracker and throw it into a pile of dry leaves, but you know what I mean) I’m talking about getting people to read it. Competent people who aren’t super-biased. So yes, your partner, spouse, kids, occasional sex partner, dogwalker, and pizza delivery guy can read your MS, but they’ve got a vested interest in saying nice things to you. Go find people who don’t have to worry about upsetting you. Where? Social media that isn’t your family-only Facebook page. I like Twitter. Or websites like this one.

Better still, get readers and go find a freelance editor. Someone who can professionally poke your MS with sticks and other tools to get it into the best shape possible. No Luke, it’s not frivolous. Yes, I know you just ran spellcheck. But spellcheck isn’t going to be able to point out that you have no conflict past chapter 4. Or that you started called one character by another character’s name about halfway through the story. An editor is a resource you should strongly consider making use of. I’m one. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Yes, you’re going to pay for the help, but as I’ve said, it’s the difference between trying to fix a leaky roof by yourself versus hiring the roof guy.

Format it for submission. Let’s suppose you wrote this MS in Scrivener. You’re going to need to Export it (Ctrl + Shift + X) to a file type that’s specified in the submission guidelines. Maybe that’s a PDF. Maybe that’s a Read-only docx. Maybe that’s pasted into the body of an email. Whatever the case, make sure you prepare a version of the MS for that. If it’s email, make sure pasting it won’t throw the spacing all to hell. If it’s a PDF or docx, make sure the margins are where they’re supposed to be, and that the font is appropriate. If the guidelines say use a sans serif font at size 12, do it. Following directions is important, Luke.

Doublecheck your submission guidelines and relevant info. One of the fastest ways to get rejected is to send the query you meant for Person A to Person B (or worse Persons B-Q en masse). I know I just said format the file correctly, but this is past that. If say, you’re submitting to Publisher X, make sure you do what Publisher X wants done. Yes, I know, it’s hella annoying to have to do all these things over and over with just a little variation – Publisher X wants it one way, Agent F wants it another way, Agent D wants something else – but for as much as it’s a test to see if you can follow directions, it’s part of the process to see if you give a damn about what you’re doing. So many people get just as far as you have Luke, and then balk at this last step. You already did the hard part, this is just tiny organizing. You can do this.

Send it out without being super outcome dependent. Okay, here’s the challenge. You just spent however long getting this story out of your head. You did a lot. You really want to get that book out into the world. You want to have people give you money. You want to see people like your work. You want your agent to arrange the foreign movie deal. Whatever your endgame, there’s a chance it’s not going to happen. Or if it does happen, it might not happen the way you’ve been picturing it when you’re supposed to be at your dayjob. I know you’ve got many eggs in that basket, or many baskets counting on the eggs in that one basket, but I really have to stress that whatever happens it’s going to be okay. You get rejected, you make the changes you need to, you try again. You get knocked down, you get back up. Your dream isn’t stupid, it’s just hard to accomplish. Which is why you have to keep working so hard. Don’t give up Luke.

Hope I’ve answered the question. Have I missed anything? Should I tell Luke to start drinking heavily? Let me know in the comments or come find me on Twitter.

See you guys tomorrow for a rousing discussion of how not everyone is going to like you … or me … or each other … tomorrow we’re going to talk about reception.

 

Happy writing.

 

Bringing Back The Johnversation

A long time back, I thought I’d take over the world by putting up a lot of Youtube videos. It would have worked, if I put up a lot of Youtube videos.

But the Johnversation, which is really what I call any audio or video I produce, is back.

And today, we talk writer’s block. Check this out.


EDITED OUT AFTER TWENTY MINUTES OF MUCH PROFANITY


 

Okay, there’s supposed to be an embedded player here, but because I truly believe WordPress is designed to be as difficult as possible when you need it to be easy, I’m going to just link you to the page where you can click the play button. I really wish all the “paste this on your website” coding was actually easy to use.

Here’s the link to the Johnversation. I’m sorry I’m not savvy nor patient enough to get it to load. Oh also, Soundcloud can suck moldy lemons for telling me the only way I could use their service is to pay some absurd subscription fee, even though I don’t put up more than a file or two a month.

If you want to download today’s Johnversation, here’s the link.

See you in 2 days for #InboxWednesday.

Happy writing.

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

Pacing
What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.