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Category Archives: Writing Advice

Dragon’s Bane Update

Dragon’s Bane Update

First, a bit of housekeeping: The recent Goodreads giveaway was a success. Not quite as many participants as the 2015 giveaway, there were still a large number of entrants interested in Dragon’s Rook. The winners are Jessica from the Netherlands, and Sheila from New Mexico. Signed paperback copies have been mailed, and should arrive soon.

Second, questions have been asked by readers concerning the availability of Dragon’s Bane, the second half of The Lost Sword duology. They have served as prods to speed up the completion of the story:

1) I just finished Dragon’s Rook and loved it. Any news on when the sequel will be available for purchase? I can’t wait!

(T)hank you for the kind review! We writers pour pieces — minutes, hours, years — of our lives into our work, so when readers receive it well, we are encouraged to continue.

As for when Dragon’s Bane will be available, I had hoped it would be completed and published by January 2016, but life matters took me away from it for a long while. (I won’t bore you with the details.) However, I hope to have it ready soon.

Today’s revisions included (SPOILER ALERT) a reunion scene between two characters who each thought the other was dead. 🙂

2) I just finished Dragon’s Rook, really liked it. I was wondering when the sequel is coming?

First, thank you for reading the book!

Second, I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

Third, I wanted the book completed and published this year. However, due to life circumstances, my writing has been quite slow. Dragon’s Bane is about one-third complete, and there are copious notes regarding unwritten scenes.

The ending scene was written about fifteen years ago — believe it or not! — but it may change. I’m exploring a couple of potential plot twists that never occurred to me during the writing of the first book, but which may deepen the story even further.

Below is a taste, a scene from the first third of the book, a confrontation between Lady YanĂĄmari and her mother, Queen Una:

The eyes widened, the fury grew, and as it did, Queen Una fully materialized, her form solid, even the tiny creases around her eyes and mouth delineated. She released YanĂĄmari and stepped back, lifting her arms from her sides and lowering her head, looking at YanĂĄmari from beneath dark brows.

As the queen opened her mouth to speak, YanĂĄmari laughed. The sight was too comical: flowing black garments, menacing stare, threatening posture. A bit too much like the HĂ´k Nar Brethren. In the past two days, she had seen more amazing things than this.

Beside, what true power resorted to manipulation and magic?

There was something external about magic, as if the one who practiced it and the one upon whom it was practiced were both tools of a capricious power that must be cajoled and lured with secret rites and careful spells. Is that where her mother had been all these years? Learning the dark arts? What an absurd expenditure of time.

Where was she when I was a child and longed for a mother? When I might have loved her?

But there was no hope of traveling that road—the cart had already passed.

(c2016, KB)

For more information or to read reviews, visit keananbrand.com.

 

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A Brief Word About Beta Readers

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked the difference between a beta reader and an editor, and the cost one might expect to pay for the services of either. When I said that one should not pay for beta readers, there was disagreement. However, I still maintain that one need not pay for beta readers.

Consider them your product testers. They’re the focus group who tries out the new invention, samples a new product, gives feedback on an upcoming ad campaign, views an early cut of a movie, or tests a new video game to see if it plays as it should.

If you (or a close, trusted individual) are the alpha reader of your manuscript, then beta readers are the folks who see the final, pre-publication draft. That version can still be a manuscript, or it can take the form of a galley or proof copy of the book.*

In return for their effort on your behalf, give beta readers a signed copy of the published book, or offer to read or test something they’ve created.

But don’t hire beta readers as you would hire an editor. And while editors can provide a similar service in the form of a manuscript critique,** there’s nothing like getting feedback directly from readers — who are, of course, a writer’s intended audience.


UPDATE (8-7-16): The paragraphs below are from a reader’s comments in a Facebook discussion sparked by this blog post. They expand upon and better explain what I attempted above.

A beta tester for a video game or other piece of software enters into an agreement wherein he receives a free or discounted early release of the software to use, and in return, the tester will tell the company what he thinks about the software — what does or doesn’t work, what is or isn’t intuitive, what he would like to see changed or further developed, etc. The beta tester is not paid for his work. He is asked, as an average user, to give the company his average-user opinion of the product. At best, he gets a free copy of the software, but it is both understood and accepted (and generally stated in some Terms and Conditions document somewhere, for legal reasons) in the IT community that beta testers are not compensated.

Testers who are hired on for their services are not hired to come at the software from the average user’s perspective; they are hired to make sure that the software functions appropriately (e.g. program doesn’t crash on loading, save function actually functions, etc.). They are hired to seek out and fix problems with the software, not to provide the average user’s perspective. These testers are not referred to as beta testers, because that’s not the job they do.

A beta reader receives a free or discounted early release of a book to read, and in exchange, the reader will tell the author what he thinks of the book — what does or doesn’t seem to fit or flow well in the story, what does or doesn’t make sense, what he would like to see further explained or developed, etc. This makes a beta reader the exact literary equivalent to a software beta tester. Traditionally, beta readers are treated the same as beta testers — that is, they are not paid for their services. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For clarification, if any reader, compensated or otherwise, provides any services outside what I listed above (other services include but are not limited to any form of editing, proofreading, etc.), then he has ceased to be a beta reader and strayed into editor/manuscript critic territory.


* It’s best if beta readers are honest with you about what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t like, and are willing to give specific feedback (not merely generic “I hate it” or “I like it” statements, but detailed responses).

Prepare a list of questions for them to answer, so they know what kind of feedback you need. Example: “In the scene where Tara is driving Sven to the airport and they encounter an overturned ambulance, is the dialogue and action believable? Why or why not?”

Keep the questions simple and straightforward, and keep the list short. Try not to make the readers feel they’re doing homework, but make it easy for them to help you.

Also provide readers with a simple way of reporting any typos or grammar issues they find. It’s handy when they provide you a page number, and maybe even a paragraph and a line number — “page 35, paragraph 3, line 7” — as well as a description of what’s wrong (“dipsolve” should be “dissolve”). 

** Manuscript critiques may cover such issues as continuity, characterization, worldbuilding, etc. Regular editing may also touch on those issues, but will also focus on the writing itself.

 

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Where Are You Going?

Where Are You Going?

“Progress” is merely motion in a certain direction, as in advancement toward a goal. Depending on the goal, your motives, or your methods, that progression can be positive or negative.

People say, “Hold on! It’ll get better!” but sometimes we need to let go. As much as we admire people who trudge onward toward their goals, there is, indeed, a time to give up.

Sometimes we persevere in the wrong direction. We may not know it. We may know it but not know how to change it. Our effort, skill, hope, endurance, loyalty, courage, and strength of will are expended in vain.

Step back. Examine goals, motives, methods, relationships, results. Is this truly the path you want to tread? Is this the end result you desire?

Don’t be discouraged by how much road — or how much life — lies behind you. It’s never too late for a course correction.

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

 

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Gotcha Covered

Last night’s writer’s meeting was ill-attended; only three of us showed up. However, that allowed me to seek advice from the librarian who leads the group, and ask her how the exteriors of books affect 1) inclusion in the library’s collection, and 2) reader choice.

Concerned about my preference for simplicity in artwork or design, I was surprised — and yet not — by her responses. Sure, if the artwork is cheesy and/or seems at odds with the subject matter, the staff might have a laugh, but what’s most annoying to them are book covers so minimalistic they reveal nothing about the content. She mentioned one publisher that tends toward such spareness there’s no artwork or even a description of the plot. Just the title and the author’s name.

So simplicity of decoration is fine, but tell readers about the story. Give ’em some reason to choose your book.

“If the reader flips to the back to read the blurb, you’re almost guaranteed they’ll check out the book.”

Then she looked at my rough draft for the cover of Thieves Honor. It looked like a thriller, not science fiction, but the fix was easy: She suggested I flip the background image, so the front became the back, and vice versa. The color gradiant and the angle of the light changed, giving the illusion of outer space rather than what the photo actually portrays — a table, a wooden chair, and the light from my computer screen all running together into a tie-dye abstraction of formless color.

The current draft of the front cover:

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

So, can I get away with no focal image on the cover, or is some artwork still needed? And is the look too “homemade” to be taken seriously?

For reference, the original image in its original orientation:

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

 

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How Real Life Can Color a Story’s Reception

Romances are not my usual viewing fare because they tend to be ridiculous, shallow, or boring — yes, my opinion is showing 🙂 — but since this series is only sixteen episodes long and stars some of my favorite Korean actors, I thought I’d give it a try.

4703_TheTimeThatILovedYou7000Days_Nowplay_Small

Nope. Nope, nope, nope.

Summary on the website:

Jang Ha Na (Ha Ji Won) and Choi Won (Lee Jin Wook) are incredibly close platonic friends: throughout 20 years, they’ve braved it all through thick and thin. As Ha Na’s 30th birthday approaches, Won extols the virtues of aging as a man—like a wine—while explaining that women are like grapes that shrivel into raisins. Determined to prove him wrong, Ha Na strikes a bet on which of the two will marry before turning 35. Based on Taiwan’s hit In Time With You, can these two friends make the ultimate leap?

Characters in their thirties allow fear and misunderstandings and all sorts of other obstacles keep them from telling the truth to themselves and to each other. There’s a hint of My Best Friend’s Wedding, but without the mania.

It took me a few weeks to watch the first seven episodes, but that was sheer stubbornness rather than actual interest.

It’s not that the writing is terrible or the acting is stiff or that I didn’t like the characters. Perhaps I expected — I don’t know — more spine or mental strength or maturity from the characters. Perhaps I expected me.

When I was thirty-something, I was interested in more than friendship from a close friend. I know the fear and uncertainty of declaring myself. And, when I did, the worst happened: the friendship fell apart. However, I mentally prepared myself for that rejection. It still stung, I still felt as if my lungs had been crushed, but I gave that person room to be true to self. Granted, I was not prepared for the anger that accompanied the rejection — “You’ve ruined a good friendship!” — but the uncertainty was suffocating and I needed to move forward. If that person chose to come with me, wonderful. If not, I had to straighten my shoulders and walk on.

That was years ago, and sometimes the sadness springs out from the shadows, but I wouldn’t trade the freedom and all the good things that have happened since.

So watching fictional characters drag their feet for more exaggerated, soap opera reasons than those I experienced in real life is torture, not entertainment.

The ratings (overall 4 out of 5 stars) give evidence that viewers without my jaded, curmudgeonly perspective consider “The Time That I Loved You” must-see TV. Good. Whatever kinds of writers we are — screenwriters, TV show developers, novelists, playwrights — there’s the story we tell and the story the audience views or reads. Our experiences inform what we write, and theirs color what they see/read. Stories interact with the audience in ways even the creators may not expect.

 

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Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Ever been labeled something that puzzled you?

Recently, a fellow writer wrote that I was unethical. At first, I thought she meant someone else, and thought, “What does she mean? That’s not true of that person,” but then realized she referenced a blog post I wrote last year regarding how pride can get in the way of receiving feedback or criticism. No names were mentioned. In fact, the only person readers knew was involved was me, and I admitted that even now, after decades as a writer, my pride is still sometimes stung by harsh criticism.

Hey, even the most thick-skinned of veteran writers still wants his work to be liked and read, no matter how many bestsellers he has behind him. (I’d like to have at least one bestseller, but that’s a goal yet to be reached.)

Another label put on me in the past — this time by a publisher — is “the editor who makes authors cry”. That is not an appellation of which to be proud. By no means. My goal has been and always will be to help authors produce their best work. Sometimes, they can be so in love with their creations that they cannot see flaws or weaknesses, missed storytelling opportunities, or clunky sentences. When an editor tells them what needs revising, they don’t receive the news well.

There is an implied compliment in the fact that someone else is taking the time to not only read one’s work, but to help one improve it. However, we writers often react with affront, with offended pride and scathing words toward the “clueless”, “high-handed”, “overbearing” editor. We don’t see his/her true intent. All we know is that we didn’t receive the praise and the rubber-stamped approval we desired.

Before we slap labels on folks and burn bridges we might need to rebuild, might I suggest a bit of reflection? Some distance? Perhaps a walk, a rant to a friend, a scribbled diatribe in a journal? A good night’s sleep? Prayer? Something that allows us to grow calm, to be objective, and not to say or do something we’ll regret. (Related reading: “What’s Your Filter?“)

We may find — as I did while editing Dragon’s Rook — that snarky, scolding feedback that shoots wide of the mark can still contain something valuable. When I stepped back and looked at the advice with cold objectivity, I saw a couple pieces I could use. As a result, I tore apart one scene that had been troubling me. The reconstructed version is many times better than the original.

So, then, what should I do when I’m now the one giving the ugly, scathing criticism?

Write it all out, and then don’t say most of it.

Recently, a PR firm requested I review a new novel by a young author. After reading the back cover blurb and the dark, well-written prologue, I had high expectations for the book. Below is the review. For the author’s sake, it will not be posted elsewhere, and has been edited here to obscure the author’s identity.

~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~

Although marketed as contemporary literary fiction, this novel could also be described as speculative fiction, a mix of modern and futuristic, of post-apocalyptic dystopian and the quest for utopia-via-enlightenment, of a perverse coming-of-age/search-for-meaning story with a science fiction existentialist-absurdist tale.

Try saying that ten times, fast. 😉

[Story synopsis, character list, and website links have been omitted to preserve author anonymity. However, quotes from the novel text remain unaltered, but for the characters’ names.]

It is not often I write a review like this. I want to write only the positives, but the cons are weighty. To be blunt, this book needs an editor, for content as well as mechanics.

It runs the risk of being “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). The writing is often preening and pretentious, but that could be the result of a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the author, matching the attitudes and egos of the characters.

Yet it sometimes feels like the writer is trying to make use of every high-sounding turn of phrase he can conjure or every word he can find in the dictionary. One is left wondering if, by the sheer volume and length of words, the author believes he has communicated—but, perhaps, I am not the audience for this work. I can wax lyrical with the most poetic of the poets, but prefer straightforwardness to roundaboutation.

Macbeth^Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Macbeth

As Macbeth might say, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly,” (Act 5, Scene 5).

Despite proofing errors (the repeated use of “causal” in place of “casual”, for instance) and some awkwardly-constructed sentences or phrases (what are “cathartic muscles”?), there remain many quotable lines:

“I take it you’re the self-proclaimed chosen one?” (Leroy) asked. “Prophets are rarely successful. Even when they are, society kills them.”

(Walter’s) thick lips gave way to a line of crooked teeth. “Hence, it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” (p77)

Later in the same conversation:

“The day is not calm when you discover humanity to be ripe for the taking.” (p78)

And some lines read like refugees from a modern-day “Jabberwocky”—they have a sound and a rhythm, and therefore the reader might almost think he understands their meaning or the author’s intent. But repeated readings reveal, no, the words really do make no sense.

This paragraph on page 121 transforms from poetic imagery to lyrical nonsense:

The notes of a distant piano played a melodic Bach and a blue Chopin to the beat of Kerouac. The sounds were unremitting as they’d always been in her mind. Real, but at the same time not real. Resonating. Vibrating. For she was a lollipop made of cherry and petrol, more given to the depths of trench coats and dark alleys; lethal-red lipstick, rocking a tear that was not a tear, but moisture secreting the nostalgia of an instinct held away from mankind by the missing link. From the real show and state.

Thank you, Google Translate. Sense to make, you do not.

The novel’s subtitle—[redacted]—is a clue to how readers are expected to view this work. The publisher’s mission statement, as well as the author’s explanation for the story’s existence, seem overly earnest, betraying a certain immaturity and youthful desire to ‘make a difference’:

[mission statement redacted]

Below is a quote from the introduction:

In the novel you’re about to read, I do not seek to victimize technology, nor to condemn our evolution, but to instill the realization that we are the product of our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own dreamed of reveries. We are the discomfort and leisure of humanity, the bright flame and its grey ashes. By nature we are born free.

Can’t argue with that last line. No doubt the author and I would find agreement on several other points. But how does one “victimize technology”?

Confession: I skimmed the second half of the book. Perhaps the story improved as it progressed. However, despite seeing interesting passages, I was not compelled to continue. The green-visored, cigar-chomping curmudgeonly editor who lives in the back of my brain could tolerate no more, and he suspects that publisher, editor, author, and the originator of the “editorial review” on the back cover are one and the same.

Nonetheless, [name redacted] is talented and intelligent, and is definitely an author to look for in the future. Give him time.

And his website waaaaay outclasses mine.

 

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“So What? Who Cares?”: Unintentional Writing Advice

“So What? Who Cares?”: Unintentional Writing Advice

So what? Who cares?

Those words were spoken to me with a shrug and a flounce by a fellow writer many years ago, and though they may not have been intended kindly, those questions are some of the best writing advice I’ve encountered. In fact, I’ve co-opted them, writing them in the margins of my clients’ manuscripts and including them in critiques.

You’ve probably heard advice about cutting anything that doesn’t advance the plot, establish the setting, develop character, etc., and may have wondered how to know what to keep and what to cut. How do you know which actions develop character, or which piece of description is unnecessary? That’s when you ask, “So what? And who cares?”

Not a hard-and-fast rule: Don’t ask these questions of your work until you have a completed draft.

Suggestion: Maybe hold off asking these questions for the second draft, too.

Recommendation: Drafts three or four, when the editing and revising is getting serious and nitty-gritty, is probably the best time to demand of every scene, descriptive passage, line of dialogue, even every sentence, “So what? Who cares?”

As an editor, I have had the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking task of telling a writer to cut a beloved passage because it’s a distraction, a rabbit trail, or carries no storytelling weight. It does not serve the story.

Littlest studying an intense game of air hockey (c2014, KB)

Littlest studying an intense game of air hockey (c2014, KB)

Sometimes it’s a detailed description of a house or a dress or a car, but the described item has only a passing place in the broader story, and we never revisit it.

However, if the writer can somehow link that description to the place where a character grew up and how rosy memories compare with reality, or to an impoverished character’s love of couture and her scrapbook filled with magazine cutouts of fashion shows, or to the nostalgia a character has for the classic cars his dad used to drive, then the passage may have a reason to remain.

It may still need to be revised or moved, but at least now it helps tell the story by revealing character.

So what? = Why does a scene exist? What point does a character serve? Why does a character say a line of dialogue, make a particular gesture, believe one thing and disbelieve something else? Why do readers need to know the bakery is across the street from the post office?

Who cares? = Who will care if the dog dies, the car breaks down, the grandmotherly neighbor’s house is invaded? If the reader is supposed to care, the characters must care, and before the characters can have an emotional stake in what happens, the author must be invested in the story.

Everything’s connected.

Characters need dimension beyond cardboard cutouts that merely serve the plot or the action. Think of all those superhero flicks where buildings, cars, and streets in New York are destroyed, as if all the people living or working or driving or sauntering there are not worth as much as one superhero saving another superhero from the villains. Hey. People matter. Characters matter. You — their creator — must imbue them with worth. There must be consequences for their choices, for their lives or deaths, for the other characters who encounter them.

And by consequences, I don’t necessarily mean negative events (punishment, resentment, etc.). Consequences can be emotional attachments, such as a childless couple adopting a child, or consequences can be new perspectives, such as when a classroom full of know-it-all teenagers meet a teacher more interested in their futures than they are. Consequences can be questions, answers, new directions.

So, when your story has been through a round or two of revisions, rigorously apply So what? Who cares? and watch the story gain a tighter plot and a greater emotional connection with readers.

Littlest reaching out for a hug (c2014, KB)

Littlest reaching out for a hug (c2014, KB)

 

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