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Twiddling my thumbs…

Feels strange, not having that manuscript that you still need to finish always nagging you, always lurking somewhere in the back of your mind. I called it (done, that is) just before Christmas, and have since sent it out to a grand total of four beta readers.

Thus far, I’ve heard back from one.

Maybe the Christmas-timing wasn’t my brightest idea ever, because I’m sure everyone is very busy around this time of year (or very busy relaxing), but it was more a case of me wanting to be done by then rather than them wanting it by then.

The one that I heard back from is my wonderful sister, who can be very critical in a good kind of way, and she has a knack for picking up repetitions that I missed and other fiddly things, so I’ve made several small updates to my manuscript based on her feedback. Another of my beta readers is a good friend who has read a fair bit of fantasy and can hopefully give me some “that part worked for me, that part didn’t” type feedback, while the other two are fellow bloggers (thanks, Nicholas and Suzanne, much appreciated!) who will hopefully give me the sort of feedback you can only give if you’ve been there yourself, if you know what it’s like to have written something that’s very dear to your heart, but you need honest criticism, be it positive or negative, from someone who knows what sort of things to look for. In a way, I think, it’s much easier to be critical of someone else’s work than of your own. (Sort of like a parent finding it hard to criticise much about their own child.)

And of course twiddling my thumbs ins’t all I’m doing. I’ve been reading again – reading someone else’s writing, that is, without (at least consciously) having to keep an eye on edit-worthy bits. Wow, I’d forgotten how great reading can be. I denied myself that pleasure (to some extent at least) so that I’d spend more of my precious spare time writing. I have a lot of catching up to do! I’ve played around with some programming projects, I’ve spent an awesome week-and-a-half off work over Christmas and New Year’s with the family, I’ve had time to follow some other interests… and I have to say, there is a part of me that wants to get back into writing again.

My now-complete manuscript is a Book 1, and I’m keen to find out where the story goes next (I usually think I know, but it likes to surprise me from time to time with a life of its own; Book 2 will, by necessity, have less wiggle-room than the first one). There are at least two other stand-alone stories spooking around in my head that are gathering up the courage to become a little louder, a little more demanding to be let out.

But until I get that feedback from my other beta readers, I am twiddling my thumbs and waiting at least to some extent. I have to admit I’m a little antsy, wondering whether they’ll think that one section was too cheesy, or whether the setting of that scene was a bit confusing, or a dialog sounded too stilted, or… you get the idea.

What it comes down to, though, is that every bit of criticism will help to improve my book.

That’s worth waiting for.

Back – and ready to read Fool’s Assassin

After being away from home (and from blogging) for a while, I’m back again, and really looking forward to reading Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb, Book One of the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy. I couldn’t buy the book while overseas (at least not in English), so I bought it from Target back here in Perth for just under $20 (which is a decent price since the RRP is nearly $30).

I’ve got a bit of time this week to read it, but I’m a rather slow reader. (Plus, I’m still jet-lagged, so I’ve only read about 30 or so pages of it before becoming too tired to read last night.) So it’ll take me a few days to get through it – as much as I’m dying to devour the whole book in one sitting, I prefer to soak up every word and imagine every scene like a private movie in my head. Call me crazy, but it’s how I read.

Once those few days are up and I’ve read it (I’m hoping to finish on the weekend, but might not get there until next week), I will most definitely blog about my take on the book (yes, there will be spoilers!). It will, I surmise, most likely be a very positive review; after all, Robin Hobb is my favourite author for a reason (as George R. R. Martin says on the cover, it’s “Fantasy as it ought to be written”). Having said that, I’ve built up quite some excitement for this book, so it’s possible the book might not live up to my high expectations. (Possible… but doubtful. Despite the errors I’ve already found in the first 30 pages. Maybe I’ll blog about those, too.)

Also on my “TODO” list for the near future is finally catching up on reading some of my favourite blogs (yes, there will be comments on older posts I think, it’s been quite a while) and blogging about how to merge two versions of the same document (with LibreOffice Writer, in my case) that started out the same but have had different edits made, since I’m going to have to do that with my manuscript soon anyway. I’ve done it before and it’s quite easy, actually.

Anyway, there you go – my “I’m back for more” post. 🙂

In case you’re interested in previous Robin Hobb-related posts, here they are, 3 from the A-Z Challenge in April and two from a couple of months ago when she visited Perth:

(The one about hobbitses, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Robin Hobb. But it’s funny. I think.)

So how do I get beta readers?

Fellow writers, I need your help. I see so many of you blogging fondly about your beta readers, so I thought to myself, “I should really get me some of them!”

First, I went to my local supermarket. Not knowing much about the nature of beta readers, I thought it made sense to start there. After getting blank stares from the pimply store clerk and the lady at the enquiries desk, I looked around the shop myself, but found nothing. (And yes, of course I checked the stationery aisle. Duh.)

I was about to leave the store when a man in a hat and trenchcoat (which is very rare in our climate, come to think of it) approached me cautiously and whispered, “I hear you’re looking for beta readers. Try the hardware store.” He turned and walked away before I could ask him more, but not before I noticed he was grinning widely. I decided it was probably what’s known as a “knowing grin”, and followed his advice.

The big, friendly guy at my local Bunnings showed me several readers – a Holman Stainless Pressure Gauge that reads water pressure; a Garman Soil pH Meter that he assured me with a twisted smile was very accurate indeed, several thermometers, and so on – but none of them even had the word “beta” anywhere on them. I thanked him, walked away a few steps, thought of another question, but he was already busy chuckling with another customer in a trenchcoat. Those must be becoming popular again, maybe I should think about getting one.

My wonderful wife, who, right when I told her about my lack of success, was giggling at something the kids must’ve said, suggested I go to the optometrist where her friend works; she gets her glasses there. When I arrived, her friend was just getting off her phone. “Ah, Amos,” she greeted me, “I just heard a wonderful joke; please forgive me if I giggle for a while longer. How can I help you?” She made me do some eye tests and let me try out several pairs of reading glasses, but they just made the magazine she asked me to read while wearing them all blurry. “Your eyes are fine,” she giggled at last – I really should’ve asked her what that joke was! – and, disappointed, I went home.

Very reluctantly, I braved the Interwebs and attempted to do a Google search, but, as I’d feared, Google asked me in its typical condescending manner, “Did you mean… ‘better readers‘?” If it could have giggled, I’m sure it would have.

I threw up my hands in frustration and decided I would ask you, dear readers of my blog (yes, both of you!), about getting me some beta readers.

  • How do I go about getting me some beta readers?
  • How many beta readers should I have?
  • At what point should I even consider getting them?
  • Is there something about my pronounciation of “beta” that makes people giggle uncontrollably?

(Ok, in all seriousness now – no giggling! – I’m at around 85k words and am aiming for about 100-110k total in the first book of my fantasy series. Any hints leading to the capture of a suitable beta reader will be much appreciated.)

Endings – A to Z: E

E is for Endings. All good things must end, even our favourite books. (Though, thankfully, the ones that are part of a series only end temporarily….) Just like it is said that a fighter is only as good as his last fight, readers’ opinions about a book are often heavily influenced by the way it ends. A very good ending can salvage what may have seemed like an average-quality book when you realise that plot threads that didn’t make all that much sense at the time were just expertly woven into an intricate ending. Conversely, a book that was a great read but has a disappointing ending will leave you with that bitter feeling of disappointment as the last impression.

The End

There are many ways stories can end, from Hollywood-type happy endings to ones that destroy all the hopes the author made the reader build up for the main character(s). Books can end in a manner that makes it clear that this end was as final as it can be, or they can leave the details of what happens next up to the reader’s imagination in an open ending, or they can hint at a continuation in a sequel. Short stories typically have a twist of some sort at the end, all the better to the reader if she didn’t see them coming. Endings can be bittersweet; they can leave the reader wishing for a happier ending while understanding that it was perhaps more realistic the way it was.

(Aside: speaking of endings, have you discovered the End of the Internet yet?)

Which type of ending do you prefer as a reader? Would you rather weep with joy at a happy ending after the main character has been put through the wringer, or have a gritty, realistic ending, no matter the cost to the character? Do you like open endings, final endings, or “temporary” endings? If you’re a writer, do you want the best for your characters, or do you enjoy shocking your readers with their misfortune, or something in between? Let me know in the comments.

Chapters – A to Z: C

C is for Chapters. Chapters typically divide distinct sections of a book so that words, sentences and paragraphs that belong together form a logical piece of a book. We all know what chapters are, but have you ever given much thought to how many different ways there are to use (or not use) chapters?

The grouping of pieces of a book into chapters can happen for a number of reasons, such as different points of view, different spans of time, to give the reader a natural time to take a break (or intentionally the opposite, with a mini-cliffhanger at the end of a chapter), or simply because the author wants to emphasise a change of pace, or attitude. A chapter can be a single sentence, or dozens of pages long.

There can be “special” chapters: the prologue and the epilogue to start and end a book, respectively. Often, these can be separate from the main story, or tell a piece of the story that lies outside the “normal” narrator’s knowledge, to offer the reader special insight to what’s going on.

Some authors don’t use chapters, even in rather long books. Wilbur Smith’s African-themed adventure novels come to mind: they’re usually divided into sections (separated by a row of a few asterisks) that can be any length, but no chapters. Many authors number their chapters, but some don’t. A chapter can be called simply “Chapter 5”, or it can have a heading of its own. It can be numbered or not; chapter titles can be unique or repeated. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, uses the name of the POV (point of view) character as the chapter heading but leaves them unnumbered. Some books, especially in sci-fi, can use dates or timestamps instead of chapter names.

Some authors use simple chapter titles, some use very descriptive or poetic ones. In some cases, chapter names or numbers can even be used to give the reader meta-information of some sort. The number of chapters can be significant or completely coincidental. Wikipedia’s article on book chapters has some interesting examples of unusual numbering schemes. Robin Hobb’s Farseer and The Tawny Man trilogies use short “meta-story” excerpts describing the first-person narrator’s experiences as he is writing the main story. Her Rain Wilds Chronicles use short letters sent by bird between the world’s birdkeepers; taken together, these tell a “meta-story” of their own. Patrick Rothfuss prefixes some chapter titles with “Interlude” to emphasise that these lie outside the main story, in the “story around the story”. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story has 26 chapters, beginning with the letters A to Z, with fancy-looking drop caps specifically designed for the book by an illustrator – how fitting is that for the A to Z Challenge?!? 😉

The Neverending Story, Chapter 3

The Neverending Story begins each of the 26 chapters with a full-page drop-cap letter of the alphabet; Chapter 3 begins with “C”

Which chaptering style do you prefer a) in books you read, and b) in your own writing? Let me know in the comments.

A little wiser tomorrow

I’ve made very little progress writing this week, at least in terms of writing new stuff. However, I’ve recently been busy reading what I’ve written, mainly on the train to and from work, and have been making so many notes of little things I need to change that it took me most of my creative day this week to apply all these improvements to my manuscript. Guess that leaves this weekend to finally make some progress as far as the word-count is concerned.

While reading, I’ve also made notes about ideas I’ve had concerning the ending, but don’t like getting ahead of myself and skipping large sections – I always find I have to edit too much when I do that.1

Many writers say you should write your complete first draft before you go back to edit. The perfectionist in me won’t always let me do that.

Writing away when I’m “in the zone” is great and gets me closer to completing my manuscript much faster than the “write a bit, edit a bit” approach. Occasionally, though, I need to take a step back to see the bigger picture, re-read my work in light of that bigger picture, and adjust what I’ve written accordingly. It stops me from going off on a tangent that’s interesting, but not all that relevant to the story I want to tell, gets me back on track, and lets me insert those all-important little details in the right places, details that will only make sense to the reader later when the right threads are woven together.2

Only very recently have I bothered to think about why it is that certain things work for me while others do not. I suppose I have the fact that I’ve started this blog to thank for making me think about this at all; looking for blog-worthy topics means I have to think about what I do and why I do it as well as doing it.

1 Why does skipping large sections not work well for me?
2 Why does frequent editing work for me when most others advise against it?

Thinking about these questions, I can’t help but think how I sometimes edit my own writing and ask myself, “What were you thinking when you wrote that?” This made me realise that I always look back on my “old self”, if you will (be that the self that started writing many years ago or the more recent self that just wrote the most recent chapter), with an ever-so-slight air of superiority. Why? I think it’s because part of me realises that, right now, I’m ever-so-slighly wiser than I was yesterday, or a week ago, or a year ago. I could be deluding myself, of course, but doesn’t it seem logical that I improve as I write more, read more, think more? I’m certainly not yet at an age where I decline mentally, so I’m at least as wise, or smart, as I ever was… probably more so. Well, slightly.

Once I accept that reasoning, the (slightly uncomfortable) truth is that tomorrow, I’ll be another little bit wiser than I am today.

1 That’s why, if I skip a section now, I’ll have trouble connecting smoothly to it tomorrow – because I’ll know more details about how my story gets there once it does get there. If I have what seems like a great idea about what happens later, notes or fragments should suffice for now. I can edit them in later. Or not, if the “future-me” doesn’t think it’ll work.

2 That’s why I can edit my writing now, but later, I’ll have another idea about how to make a miniscule improvement, how to phrase something less awkwardly, how to make dialogue seem more natural.

Hmm. Maybe that means the writers who say “edit later” are correct after all. I’ll have to think about that one….

Whom do you trust more, the “now-you”, or the “future-you”?

Reading what you wrote

I’m my own worst critic. In the seemingly neverending iterations of writing, reading, and editing, I’ve found that one thing that helps me to see my own writing from a different angle is to read it in a different format than the one in which I wrote it.

Today is my creative day, so I don’t have much time to blog (since I need to keep working on my book – but I promised myself I’d do at least one blog post per day for the first week and then at least once a week after that), but I’ll try and keep this short and sweet.

I like to try and set up my favourite writing software, LibreOffice Writer, so that I can see what I’m writing in a “book-like” format: two columns to a landscape page. Maybe it’s conceit on my part, but I enjoy imagining what it could look like as a finished product.

Book in LibreOffice

A screenshot of how I’ve formatted my book in my favourite writer (the text is deliberately smudged… I’m shy, sue me)

However, every once in a while, I find it extremely helpful to view it in a different format, especially one that I read “real” books in. Printing pages out on paper might work for some; personally, I enjoy reading books on my Android mobile phone during boring train rides to and from work. So I’ll save my book’s chapters as little text files, copy them to my mobile, and use CoolReader to read it like any other book.

This helps me to view my own work from a different perspective, to read it as though I’d never seen it, and therefore to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and be able to critique it without being in writing or editing mode, purely in reading mode.

Reading this way, I often find myself switching to a note-taking app to note down what I need to change, things I wouldn’t have found if I’d just read it in the same format in which I write. When I read a passage and completely forget that I should actually know exactly what’s going to happen next, I know it’s good.

What techniques do you use to help you read/write/edit more effectively? Do you prefer a relatively plain format of your book-in-progress, or do you style it up a certain way? Let me know in the comments.