28 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 4

Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day! 

There is probably nothing which ruins a summer vacation more than rain. For some reason, we humans just don't like to be wet, especially wet while wearing clothing. So we do whatever we can to avoid being struck by those tiny drops of water. When I went to Beijing to teach a university course this summer, I was on my own, just me and a collapsible travel umbrella.

On Monday, there was a little rain as I was leaving the building where I have my class. I did not have my umbrella with me so I dashed across the parking lot to the student dining hall and had lunch with some students. "What? Chinese food again?" I quipped. By the time I'd finished eating, the rain had stopped so I took the opportunity to go over to the convenience store on the campus and buy my usual allotment of drinks and snacks, then went home to my off-campus hotel room as usual.
The "Avenue of the Great Water" - on a sunny morning! The building on the left housed my classroom.
I awoke Tuesday morning to the sound of rain. It was steady but light. I stayed in my hotel room and wrote on my book* because I already had ideas in my head when I awoke. Then I wanted to read it again and tweak it. Soon it was noon. It was still raining so I did not go out until later. I got dinner at the restaurant on the corner. The rain had let up by then but I still carried my collapsible umbrella just in case.

Wednesday morning I awoke at 2:30 am because the rain on the windows was so loud. I could not get back to a deep sleep until just before my alarm went off. The rain was coming down strong but I knew I had to go to the class. I made it to the classroom with little problem, my clothes dry. It was just a 10 minute walk. When the class was done, however, the rain was very heavy. And I only had my collapsible travel umbrella.
Chinese students carry colorful umbrellas, and neatly arrange them in the hallway to dry during class.
Knowing I was going back to my hotel, I accepted that I would get wet. But I also needed food, especially if I were going to be rained in all day. On that day, however, I had planned to take my student assistant to lunch on campus, just to thank her for her help, kind of a custom here, but she asked for a delay because of the weather and I agreed. It turned out to be a good idea. 

After class, I paused on the front stoop of the building, under the cover, deciding what to do. When we canceled lunch, I decided to go to the Subway restaurant across the street from the campus. I had tried it before and it was more American than the Subways in the US. A footlong could be made to serve as two meals. 

So I left the safety of the building and walked quickly across the parking lot, slanting the umbrella to meet the rain. I got to the gate of the campus and people were stopped there. The side of the avenue passing in front of the gate (the main street) was running with streams of water. The avenue sloped on both sides, for drainage (hah hah), so it was deeper there. People did not want to cross the street. I had to go, so I stepped into what I thought was only a couple inches of water. Instead, the water went over the tops of my shoes - like stepping into a deep puddle. Once I had committed that faux pas, I had to continue. I stepped gingerly across the avenue - trying to mind the traffic lights and the errant traffic dodging frantic umbrella-blind pedestrians! Walking all the way across the avenue the water was over my shoes! My steps made the water splash, too!
Qianmen shopping district - the Friday at the end of a rainy week!
I got to the other side of the avenue, my feet soaked, shoes and socks squishy as I walked down the lane of shops and entered the Subway. They had put down sheets of cardboard to let people wipe their feet. This being my third visit this month, the girl recognized me - not that she was happy to see me! One advantage there was that I could point to what I wanted. I ordered my usual and she almost seemed to remembered what I liked on it. I grabbed a bag of chips and 3 cookies to further extend my rainy day provisions. 

As I entered my hotel room, I carefully stayed by the door and pried off my shoes and pulled off my dripping socks, then my pants which were soaked below the knees. I didn't want the dirty water of the streets to pollute my room. I cleaned myself up and sat to enjoy my lunch. I saved the second half of the sandwich for later. After a while, I took the hair dryer the hotel provided and spent an hour using it on my shoes.
Want some background music? I recommend this: 

And that is my rainy day story. It got boring in my hotel room as the rain really came down hard the rest of the day. I read a book, I edited my book*, I took a nap, I watched TV (only in Chinese), and I ate the second half of the sandwich. I rationed the bottle of water (cannot drink water from the faucet here). 
At the original Beijing duck restaurant in Qianmen district, I take my Beijing duck seriously.
Then the power went out. After the heavy rain on Wednesday and Thursday, the hotel lost power. So no A/C, no fridge, no Wi-Fi, no lights. Not much one can do for fun in those circumstances. Power would go off for a few minutes then come back on but several times in a row. I could run my laptop off the battery but then it needed to recharge. Then it was off for an hour. It was mostly at night. 

I went out on Friday for a Beijing duck dinner and souvenirs. It was a lovely day of blue skies - not the yellow haze Beijing is notorious for. I got the duck but not any souvenirs. When I finished walking around and decided to go home, I still had to ride the subway, which meant going up and down stairs and walking through long passages. At least this time I did not go out the wrong exit and walk the wrong direction! 

However, as I was on my very last allotment of footsteps, hot and sweaty and just trying to make it back to my hotel room and cool off, I knew I had no food or drinks in my room so I planned to push myself past the hotel and on to the 7-11 store around the corner. 
Discussing the weather with some learned gentlemen - after consuming massive amounts of duck.
As I arrived on the block of my hotel, I saw the restaurants were closed and, yes, the 7-11 store was closed, too. The lights were off and I knew they had no power. It was early evening, still daylight. I hoped my hotel had power but resigned myself that it might not. At the least I needed water bottles, so I pushed myself further, encouraging myself to walk on up the street and cross the avenue over to the campus. I headed to the convenience store on campus - hoping it would be open.

It was! So I stocked up as much as I could, then carried the bag and the two big water bottles (3 liter) back to the hotel. When I got close, I saw the lights were on inside the hotel. The automatic sliding door opened for me. It was cool inside! I went up to my room on the elevator, thankful that my hotel was not affected by the power outage. When I had left that morning, I saw men working on some power grid at the corner of the block (the power had been going off and on before then). With only an additional mile of walking, I could relax in my comfy room! But the power kept going off for 10 or 20 minutes at a time all through the evening.

Saturday morning the power went off at 4:30 am. I awoke because the noise of the bathroom fan I usually kept on no longer blocked other sounds. I heard my hotel neighbors talking (complaining?) and I got up to look outside. It was hard to tell whether the whole neighborhood was off or not at that hour, but the dawn was beginning. I was still sleepy and there was nothing else to do, so I went back to sleep. I awoke when the power came back on at 6:30 am, then returned to sleep - until the housekeeper knocked on my door at 9 am.

It was a terrible week! The last week of my summer vacation went perfectly, however, and all my students passed. I caught my flight home with less trouble than the previous year. 

And here endeth my tale of woe; and I alone am returned to thee, to tell it.

*I call it EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS . . . because that's what it is!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

20 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 3

As a writer, I often set up my hero as a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps that's because I know so well what that feels like. Whenever I travel, I usually skip the conventional tours and get right out there walking the streets. I like to pretend I live wherever I am visiting. I wonder how it would be, how I would get along there.

So when I had the opportunity to teach a class at a university in Beijing last July, the little Chinese-style hotel across from the campus became my home sweet home. Having seen all the major sites on previous visits I spent much time in my room writing. However, when I did go out, I usually got myself into some kind of trouble. By my second week, I was ready to go on a longer venture away from my neighborhood.

The entrance to the neighborhood. The traffic barriers are new.
The rain was light when I left the hotel and walked the mile to the nearest subway station so I used an umbrella. Humid and hot, but not as bad as other days. I got some relief inside the station where cool air blew and on the subway train itself. Being a big boy now, I could follow the map and get myself to the right stop. We come to underestimate the need for basic skills when we are thrown into the stranger-in-a-strange-place scenario. I do not read Chinese but I did learn some of the characters while living in Japan in the 90s, so I could guess at the instructions on the ticket machine. (You always want to press the green buttons. Green is good.)

The street from the subway station to the park.
I rode the subway to the Tuanjiehu stop, named for the park near the hotel I stayed at when I first visited Beijing in 2007. The neighborhood looked very different this time, the trees grown out more, changing the lighting of the streets and sidewalks from what I recalled. But I recognized some of the same restaurants and other buildings from before. I took pictures of the park, despite the overcast, then had lunch at a Cantonese restaurant nearby. I had some dim sum and some char siu barbecue pork, which was very delicious. 

Then I walked about three miles over to Wangfujing street, the big tourist shopping area and browsed the book and music sections of the store I always go to there. (Last summer, I was accosted in the mall there by an "art hooker" who lured me into an art store to sell me art, which you can read about here.) Sadly, I found little to buy. I was getting tired of standing and/or walking, too. 

Entrance gate to Tuanjiehu Park on a rainy day.
Taking the subway back to the station near my hotel went according to plan. But somehow I exited the subway station walking the wrong direction. Somehow I always seemed to exit the wrong way, that is, exiting out a different one than I entered. Think of the four directions of the street intersection above the subway station. No problem, I thought. Just one mile more and I would be back at my hotel room.

The neighborhood looked different but that did not alarm me. I thought it was simply that the trees had grown out. I walked on, thinking I was going the right direction. Then I realized I was going in the wrong direction but I thought I would meet up with a cross street that would lead me back to the hotel's street. 

Tuanjiehu Park
But no! I was going the wrong direction. By the strange yellow-brown light in the cloudy/hazy sky I had no sense of north or south, east or west. Suddenly I did not know where I was or which way to go. I got angry rather than frustrated. It took so long to walk on to the next big intersection just to see what the street sign said. When I got to the next intersection, I pulled out my map and determined where I was at that point. I saw on the map that if I kept going this way, the way I was already going, then turned that way, I would be able to return to my hotel from the north instead of the south.

So I kept walking, my feet getting more sore and my hip joint starting to ache - because, as everyone knows, you tend to get older when you keep walking farther and farther away from your destination. By then, I was moving myself solely from sheer willpower, as the evening started to darken. 
Tuanjiehu Park

I got to the next big intersection - another one - and saw the signs of the avenues in each direction and found them on the map. I realized then that I was even farther away from my hotel. It was maddening! It seemed that none of the directions would be the right direction. I looked at the people strolling past me. I stared at my map. I wondered how I might ask for directions, not knowing any of the right words. I considered if I held up my map they would get the idea I was lost. But none of the people passing me looked like the right person to stop and ask.
Tuanjiehu Park

I sat on a bench there along the sidewalk for a few minutes. I was just about out of walking for the day. Although I did not count my steps, like some fitness fanatics might do, I knew when I had reached my limit. I had to save 15 of them to actually walk through the lobby of the hotel and get on the elevator up to my precious room 424. 

So I flagged down a taxi and showed the driver the card from the hotel which had a map on it. Thank goodness I kept that card inside my passport! The driver got the directions from that little map and took me to the hotel. I saw later that I had been getting close to the Beijing Olympic Park!

Tuanjiehu Park
When he stopped for me, he was heading the wrong direction to simply continue on to the hotel so it required a long turn around, getting on the highway a bit, then charging up narrow parked-car-choked streets and popping out somewhere behind my hotel. Took about 7 minutes of harrowing stunt-driving in the heavy traffic of Beijing. Cost me 20 yuan! But worth every jiao (penny) of the price, just to get me back to my home sweet home away from home again.

I stepped out of the taxi a block from the hotel, where there was a place to pull over. Thankfully, that put me right by the 7-Eleven store where I usually bought my drinks and snacks. So I got some drinks and snacks. I also got myself an ice cream bar, because I deserved to be pampered after all the stress I'd endured in the 90 minutes between exiting that subway station and stepping out of that taxi. 

I was sure glad to be home! Kinda embarrassing getting lost in the big city - more so when you actually have a map in your hand!

Sorry, I didn't feel like taking pictures while I was desperately lost so all I have are the pictures from earlier in the day (Tuanjiehu Park). The ice cream bar was good.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

14 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 2

Sometimes when you are a stranger in a strange land, you seek out any vestige of home as a way to recapture some sense of normalcy. For me, however, that theory does not often work out the way I expect. Especially during my month in Beijing to teach a course at a university. Like last summer, I had my weekly rituals.

Leaving the Yinghua Hotel for my stroll to lunch.
After my Wednesday class I could start the long weekend. I had plans to go to my favorite shopping street, Wangfujing Avenue, where the two bookstores are, but I didn't make it there. I awoke Thursday and Friday mornings and did some writing. By the time I ran out of steam it was noon so then it was too hot and humid to go out. On Friday I had a bit of Mao's revenge (like Montezuma's revenge but for China) so I stayed "home" in my hotel. It is possible to have too much Chinese food. I still went out for dinner but only after 5 pm. It was 95* with high humidity. On Saturday I made it to the KFC about a mile away but the menu was stupid and nothing like in USA, except for having chicken. 

Just a hole in the wall. Only the chicken was familiar.
On Sunday, I went further, down to the McDonald's, which required me to cross a busy superhighway without getting killed. Once on the other side, I entered with great relief. I decided to order the special, thinking it would be easy to point to the sign and the counter person would understand what I wanted. Besides, it had a Hello Kitty theme so I knew I couldn't go wrong with that.

A girl at the McDonald's was loudly calling attention to the automatic ordering machines. I jokingly asked, in sarcastic tone, if it had English and she surprisingly replied in English that it did. So she talked me through it, step by step. I felt special. She pushed the on-screen buttons for me as I selected what I wanted. Basic cheeseburger and fries combo was good enough. Several steps to confirm my order, then . . . to pay for it through the machine. 
Outside McD's. The little window on the right is for walk-up orders. It requires speaking Chinese.
This marvel of technology only allowed payment using a phone app such as iPay or WeChat. I didn't have any of them. I thought I should have been able to slide a bill in and get change like at a grocery store, but NOOOOO! 

Inside McD's. The ordering machines are on the right. Bring your phone app to pay!
So I got back in the regular line to order, now two people longer. When I got up to the counter, the young man gave me a special menu for tourists; it did not have any more English on it than the menus overhead did but at least I could point more accurately than up at the menu above. I can really zero in with my index finger! Anyway, I went back to choosing the Hello Kitty special.

And I finally got my food, the special of the day: some kind of teriyaki sandwich (burger? not sure) with the usual fries, and a "bubble tea" - milk tea with tapioca balls in it. I thought it was iced coffee. I grabbed an ordinary straw for the drink but the "bubbles" clogged up the straw. The girl who tried to help me with the ordering machine rushed over with a big straw, saying emphatically "No, no, no!"  She switched the straws for me, stabbing a fat straw into my cup's lid before I could say "xie xie" ('thank you'). 
Before the straw switch, I had to walk around the crowded restaurant with my tray of food to find a place to sit. So many young people just sitting and chatting or using their electronic devices, already finished eating or not eating at all, or maybe with only a drink to buy them table time. It was a Sunday afternoon, of course. Finally I found a booth right up at the front by the ordering machines. It had leftover trays/food on it. I shoved them to the side and sat down, started to eat my meal. Two older women (i.e., my age) came over and asked in Chinese if they could share the booth. I waved them in and one of them got a McDonald's employee to clean off the table for us. We did not talk to each other but we did share a moment of humor when I gestured and made a face that the sandwich wasn't so good.

Then I got up to leave. But as I was stepping through the crowded restaurant, heading to the exit, I saw the McCafe section. So I got a large iced latte (large in China = small back home) and sat on a high stool at a tall table. As I sipped my kinda cold drink, I took in the ambiance of young ladies chatting with each other and playing with their phones. So, I played with my phone, as well, while I drank my coffee. In my Chinese-style hotel room, paid for by my employer, the wifi had various sites blocked: Facebook, Google and Gmail, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But I could still access Twitter and Gmail on my phone, via my phone service, so I checked what's going on. Unfortunately, there was not enough exciting action reported on those venues to entertainment for the length of my drinking and I left the McDonald's feeling sad.

Along the way to & from the McDonald's.
On the walk back to my hotel, I stopped by the 7-Eleven, as usual, and got some drinks to take to my room. I think there must be a law in Beijing that a 7-Eleven must appear once every two blocks. But for us foreigners, that is truly a godsend. I was a great customer during my month in Beijing: bottled coffee, breakfast pastries, lunch and dinner point-&-order Chinese dishes plus a box of rice, or pre-packed sushi, and fresh fruit, and all the packages of snacks and candy you could wish for. Plus cheap bottled water since you can't drink water from the tap. It provided a weird taste of home.

Then I fired up the laptop and went back to work on my epic fantasy novel. I had just finished the main story line involving the dragonslayer. Early on, I had started the second story line with a chapter then put it aside to concentrate on the first story line. Now I had to go back and finish the second story line, even though the dragonslayer's story was so long already. The two story lines would come together at the end. The second story line is all about the little princess - perfect for typing in a hotel room in Beijing when you've seen all the sights already.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

07 August 2016

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2016 Edition)

As many of my readers may be aware, I was on vacation last month. That is the story I wanted everyone to believe, and it really seemed to work. So I'm sticking to it.

Actually, I was working - in a sense (or two) - so let's call it a working vacation. I traveled to Beijing, China for four weeks, mostly to teach a university course called "Business Writing in American Context" (Chinese translation). I went last year, as well. In fact, this year was almost exactly the same - exactly. I could even use the same photos as I used last year and nobody would notice the difference. 

Except for this building, the Boxue Building at the University of International Business and Economics where my class was held this summer - different than the building last year. Same size classroom, same great a/c unit though. Students were down from 58 last year to 38 this summer, both classes mostly girls.

Other than being occupied in a classroom for two mornings each week from 8 to 11:30, I had plenty of time for sightseeing. Because I've seen all the main attractions on the previous three trips I've made to Beijing, what I really had was plenty of time for writing.

You can read all about the writing I did last summer, which was my arctic coming of age adventure set in Greenland, here. I thought that was quite a feat, writing about the ice and snow of Greenland while in an air cooled hotel room avoiding the heat and humidity outside. However, this 2016 summer's writing far exceeds what any sane writer would do. I wrote about 70,000 words. Take that, NaNoWriMo!

But you want to hear about the trip . . . . Due to the incredible hassles of a San Francisco transit last year (read the amazing report here), I elected to go through Chicago this year and everything went quite smoothly. I even got a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza while I waited to board the international flight.

But you can't choose your neighbors on a plane. I had several babies and loud children near me and an old man across the aisle from me who hacked and coughed all through the flight. Plus, I got an A+ line-up of movies: Zootopia, The Lego Movie, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding II. Fortunately, I'd brought a book to read: the novel I wrote last year: A GIRL CALLED WOLF.

I arrived in Beijing without much ceremony. I still walked through the world's largest terminal, about a 15 km walk in total. Even the lines through immigration and customs were short for me and no uncomfortable questions were asked. And, unlike last summer, we did not arrive an hour early, so no mix up meeting my student assistant from the university. Made that connection easily and "Victoria" got a taxi for us to go to the hotel, about a 45-minute ride. (I'm still waiting for her to send me the picture she took of both of us at the end of the course, so until then use your imagination.)

My tall course assistant got me checked in properly, helping with interpretation, and even helped carry a bag up to my room. I really wanted to just get a shower and take a long nap but she was happy to talk, in English, of course, and I didn't want to be rude so we talked about an hour more on all kinds of topics before I sent her on her way and I began to relax.

In the Chinese style hotel across from the campus, I was put in room 624. The first night there, I noticed the air conditioning was not blowing very cool. The next morning I complained about that. No way could I survive without a/c because I am a weak American. I mentioned how wonderful the a/c had been in my room last summer - cold enough to put me in a Greenlandic mood. At that moment, it just so happened that a man was checking out from the room I had last summer. I asked if I could change to that room. Sure, no problem, just give them some time for housekeeping to get it ready. So I went out for lunch.

The view of the campus across the street from the Yinghua Hotel from room 624 on my first morning in Beijing, awaking early because I do that when I'm jet-lagged. Note the sun desperately fighting to shine through the haze.

When I returned from lunch, my favorite writing room 424 was ready to move into! I had to explain to them about feng shui, the arrangement of the things in the room, the certain joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi that a place had to have in order for writing to be done. The staff did not understand my French, naturally.

The view of room 624 - not much feng shui there! Like I told the staff. And (below) the view of my good ol' room 424 with a Euro Cup soccer match on the TV. Notice also the picture on the wall is different. The one in 424 is much more aesthetically pleasing, don't you think?

So there we are: the start of the blog post arc concerning how I spend - or ruined - my summer vacation. More of this amazing endeavor next time - including how I wrote my epic fantasy novel EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS while holed up in a Chinese hotel room even more than last summer.

Note: EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS is now complete at 232,700 words following major revision. Tweaking still remains.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

26 June 2016

The Summer Vacay

This is the time of year when an old man's thoughts of fancy turn to the summer vacation. It's when he can truly stretch out his mind and do very little in the way of productive endeavors.
If you're like me, your summer is well underway and can be expected only to improve in whatever categories you deem important. However, if you are new to this blog, welcome! Do not be alarmed. This blog has not been abandoned. The situation is simply that the blogger has gone on vacation. He shall return soon and will likely blog about the vacation.

Until then, if you would like to help cover the cost of the blogger's vacation, there are now eight books authored by your humble blogger available for you to read. Surely one will strike your fancy and please your soul. A ninth book is nearing completion, titled
EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, expected to be available in 2017. You can read how I got goaded into writing an epic fantasy here, or read the opening chapters here.

Listed below are the ebook (a.k.a. Kindle) links for all eight books, but they also exist in paperback. Click on the book titles to be magically transported to a place where you can read a sample and elect to purchase the entire book. Happy reading! 

(arctic coming-of-age adventure)

(multicultural romance/adventure)

(the only medically accurate vampire novel)

(sexy campus anti-romance)

(sexy foreign romantic adventure)

(sci-fi / steampunk trilogy of interdimensional intrigue)

An omnibus edition is planned for later this year!

NOTE: Check your local Amazon listings; you may be able to get these for free or just 99 cents (which, it should be noted, really doesn't help your humble blogger afford his vacation but I'm happy if you enjoy reading them) if you are a Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime member!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

15 June 2016

BETA Readers - Love'em or Loath'em?

This is actually Part 4 of The Mother of all Writing Processes series. 

We began with getting ideas and planning and organizing them. Then we discussed Drafting, followed by Revision. 

By revision, I meant what you would do on your own, before anyone else sees it. The second phase of revision is essentially to get someone else’s eyes on your writing. In the academic classroom we usually call this phase of the Writing Process the Peer Review. In the real world of fiction writers, we call this “sending my manuscript off to my beta readers” or similar declaration – typically with either a tone of delight and triumph or with a tone of derision for the necessary evil to which an author must submit.

Peer Review

In the composition classroom, I consider Peer Review one of the most useful activities beginning writers can do to learn how to improve their writing. My students, however, do not see it that way. Although they begrudgingly participate, most of them work with minimal effort through the process despite my detailed explanation of what they should do. No amount of exhortation seems able to convince them of the benefits of doing peer review. 

First of all, it's more than just proofreading a classmate's paper. I understand that they may lack confidence in what they have written and don’t want a classmate to see how poorly they write. I get that sometimes they write personal stuff and don't want anyone to read it. I know the classmate who reads their paper is “untrained” and no better at writing than the author is. Or, for others, there is the paper from the internet which would be discovered if it were shown during peer review.

I’ve found several ways to do Peer Review and I try to offer more than two ways during a semester, depending on what seems to work best for the group in the classroom.
  • The simple exchange of papers between two students; they read each other’s papers.

  • The small group round robin exchange, usually with 3 to 5 students; each author can get multiple feedback comments.

  • The full class round robin; everyone passes to the right and passes again after 15 minutes or so.

  • In my MFA program in fiction, we passed out our papers (short stories or novel chapters) in advance of the review session and classmates wrote detailed critiques to be given to the author, as well as having a full class discussion of the work; usually enough time for two or three works to be discussed in one class session.

The success of any method depends on how vested the participants are in their own success, success being measured by the amount of useful feedback a paper receives. In the MFA program, I’m sure sometimes a classmate or two felt less interested in giving the full effort. The same lack of effort comes in all the other methods. To first-year students, just “gettin’ ‘er done” is the goal and a quick skim and “I like it” seems to be enough to pass. It is not, of course. In some cases, I’ve provided a checklist or a list of questions to be answered as a way to force better reading and thinking about the papers they are reading.

Beta Readers

Those who have taken the pledge to write fiction to the best of their abilities and for the better part of their “free” time, do not usually share their work in a group unless it is through membership in a writer’s circle or similar club. Instead, they share their work with a special person known as a “beta reader.” I’ve always thought the term odd: Am I, the author, the alpha? or is the paying reader the alpha? I’ve joked about preferring Delta readers to Beta readers – or even a Gamma reader who could see right through my head to know exactly what I should have written in place of what I actually wrote. Either way, the test reader serves a primary and crucial function in a writer’s life.

Having stated the above as something like a fact, I must now confess hypocrisy. I do not send my manuscript to a beta reader. There are two reasons (not “excuses”!) for this, and by declaring my way of doing things I do not intend to discourage others from using a beta reader. I believe in their effectiveness given the right circumstances.

For me, the first reason is far more nefarious. As a young man in junior high school, I enjoyed writing science fiction stories, usually based on ideas I got from reading science fiction stories. In one class, we were encouraged to write every day, whatever we wanted to write. I started a serial called “The Adventures of Micro Man”: about a superhero who could shrink himself to get out of tight jams. The teacher liked my stories so much that I was asked to read them in front of the class. That was highly nerve-wracking. Even though everyone in class seemed to like this weekly “story hour” by me, as a budding introvert, it scared me to death. Furthermore, I was under pressure to write something exciting each week or my entire identity and reputation would be destroyed!

An even worse example, and perhaps the single most devastating criticism I have ever received – what finally caused me to clam up and never share my writing with anyone – came when I proudly shared my latest science fiction story with my father, a high school social studies teacher. After reading it, he gave the story pages back to me all marked up in red ink. He pointed out everything that was wrong with it. Nothing good was said about my story. Granted, I was a teenager and a beginning writer but I did my best and was proud of what I produced, willing to acknowledge I still needed to work on it, but . . . . Later, I came to understand his reading mantra, which I quoted when transforming him into a character in one of my novels: "There's no reason to read fiction because it's not true; why waste your time reading something that's not true?"

So there are my reasons for not using a beta reader. The other, current reason is a combination of two more factors. First, I’m rather timid when it comes to asking someone to read something I’ve created. I know it is imperfect – hence the request to test-read it – so it takes a special kind of friend, colleague, or fellow writer to accept the task. Finding someone who is both willing to read an imperfect text and who is also knowledgeable enough (writing conventions, spelling and grammar, etc.) is a challenge. Once found, a writer may rely on that sole beta reader forever. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the beta reader can be both objective and constructive – and not hold back the tough remarks.

One of many checklists on the internet. Or make your own.

Commitment. What the writer asks of the beta reader can impact the quality of the feedback. Is the beta reader merely reading as a surrogate “paying” reader just to see how the story flows, if it is engaging, if it hits the points the author wishes to make, or if it is even interesting? Or is the beta reader expected (assumed?) to be checking the sort of issues an editor would focus on? A beta reader may catch some typos or awkward sentences and point them out to the author, thereby acting partly as an editor. But if the text is not so interesting, has too many problems, perhaps the beta reader will not put as much effort into a good, solid reading as if the story were truly compelling. Friendship may require a friendly reading, too; one wishes to remain friends after the reading. It also takes a significant commitment of time to read and comment on a manuscript, especially if it is a novel of 100,000 words. Is money involved? or would that pollute the reading and commenting experience? That’s a lot to consider when arranging for a beta reading project.

As I stated above, I generally have not used a beta reader. There may be slaps on the wrist coming my way, but asking someone, even a friend (a friend may be the worst “test” reader!), to read something and tell me what he/she thinks of it is something from a list of worst ways to torture someone like me. However, due to the nature of the project, there have been manuscripts that received a reading prior to my final submission for publication.

Most recently, my novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF which was based on the life of a real person required me to share what I was writing with that person. I definitely needed her feedback to make sure I was telling her story the way it should be told. In this case, the beta reader was also the heroine of the story. (I blogged about that process here.)

Another novel of mine, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, my so-called vampire story, was also based upon my real experiences and so I “let” the person read it who I had transformed into a major character in the book. I had to change a few things because of that “test” reading. In another case, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL was based partly on some real experiences and the real person who became one of the dual protagonists, so naturally I allowed her to read it. Neither readers of these two books were true beta readers; they were not expected to critique or edit anything, merely to have the chance to vent and rant about how they were portrayed in the novels.

Recently, a colleague of mine at Edgewise Words Inn asked me to “beta read” a short story. I thought to myself “Sure, I can do that” and immediately took a look at how long it was! No offense intended, but when time to write is limited, especially when you’ve invited the muses to visit and you’re sitting by your keyboard waiting for them to arrive, taking some of that time to read and critique a different work seems counterproductive. However, as a friend and colleague, I felt obligated to do my best. Fortunately, as I read it the story caught my interest. That made the process go more smoothly. In fact, reading this story and thinking how to make it better, marking it and writing comments to that effect, actually helped to call the muses to my own project. Reading . . . writing . . . two sides of the same coin!

Lastly, I must again confess something. I went to university to study English, Literature, Composition Theory, Linguistics, and Creative Writing. My day job is Professor of English. I teach students how to write . . . to a greater or lesser degree; every semester, every class group is a different ballgame, but I digress! Therefore, I’m supposedly trained in use of the English language. I write in different styles as fits the subject of the story. I know how to spell and use grammar correctly – correctly for the characters in the story. So it seems as though I should not need a beta reader. For technical matters, perhaps that’s true. However, every writer can use a different set of eyes on a manuscript. We become jaded and our eyes trick us, glossing over the error that sits on the page in plain sight. So I believe in the beta reader . . . but I have my reasons for not subjecting anyone to being one of mine.

Best of luck to you finding, nurturing, and keeping your lucky beta reader!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

06 June 2016

The Mother of All Writing Processes, Part 3

Yes, I know it's been more than a week since I ended a blog post with "next week..." but with a holiday weekend the next week and then necessary travels, it has been difficult to make the time and also connect to a stable wi-fi. However, rather than abandon you in the middle of the Writing Process, I have actually been allowing you time to complete the previous step: writing a draft.

Done yet?

If not, please return to the previous blog post on drafting.

If you still need help getting an idea, check this blog post.

Let's assume you have finished the draft. I define a draft (or "rough draft" or "first draft" as my students often call it) as the initial work in its totality from opening sentence to concluding sentence. This presupposes that it is not in its final form. We understand that work is needed on it but at least we have put together something that includes the beginning, middle, and end. This is the same for an essay in a class or for a novel. 

Now that we have the draft, it is time to move on to the next step.


I advise my students to write the drafts of their papers far enough before the deadline that they have time to take a break from it and return with fresh eyes. In an ideal world, this would work wonderfully. The reality, I suspect, is that the first draft is the final draft for too many of my students. Papers are often full of careless errors that even a run through the spellchecker would have caught. I try to impress upon them that their writing is a reflection of who they are, so writing well is to their own self-interest. Alas, I understand that for some the goal is not to produce a great paper but to get a paper produced as quickly and with as little effort as possible because, well, life holds much more interesting options than writing a paper. Nevertheless, there is a need to go through the Writing Process diligently in order to learn how to revise a paper for one's academic success if not for one's own personal writing enjoyment.

Novel or short story writing is different in many aspects, the revision process especially.

When I have finished a novel, I follow this protocol:

1. Give it some time to settle, then read it fresh from the top and make some notes for revision. I'm checking the general flow, the dramatic arcs, and if I enjoy the story.

2. Do a thorough line edit, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. (Some people do this last but I do it rather early in revision because I must correct problems as I see them - which tends to be on that first thorough read-through; it's the grammar police in me.)

3. Read it all again, thinking of plot holes to be plugged, rifles on mantlepieces that have not been fired, and any ideas not clearly expressed in either exposition or dialog. 

4. I check the consistency of the dialog, character by character. For example, If Queen Sandra always says "perhaps" then I need to change "maybe" to "perhaps". Another quirk I check is whether a character uses "but" or "yet" and whether a character often starts a sentence with "And" or "But" rather than not using a conjunction. Dialog is based on personal speech mannerisms so it is important to get them right for the character and be consistent in their use - unless the character is trying to mock another character, but that situation would be set-up so that it would be understood.

5. Read it all again to check that my previous efforts have made it better. If there are still issues, I need to return to Step 2 or 3.

6. Repeat step 5 as needed.

7. Read again and edit more, tweaking as appropriate up to the gates of insanity . . . or the deadline to turn it in, which ever comes first.

For every part of a work of fiction we must check a lot of minute details which a student essay writer need not bother with. There is the story itself. And that is constructed of scenes (see my theory of Aria and Recitativo in the previous blog post on drafting). Each scene has its own dramatic arc, whether it is short or long. Every scene must have a purpose: advance the story, intensify the conflict, develop a character, etc., and if the scene does not do something necessary to the overall story it must be cut! A famous saying is to "kill your darlings"; I say, just move your darlings into a new story down by the river.

Every scene consists of setting (time, place, weather) and characters interacting with each other, with the gods, with nature, thinking thoughts ("What should I do next?") and acting physical (swordfights!), as well as dialog. Not many humans pass through a scene without speaking; it's what we do. I like to believe a little frivolity is allowed in a scene because people do not get to the point in real life; they obfuscate and beat around the bush, then get pulled off on tangents, then return to their main idea. It's fine in fiction; not so much in an essay.

Because I think a lot and mull the text over for sometimes quite a while before actually typing, and because I edit as I go (see Drafting from the previous blog), I am usually pleased with the initial "rough draft" result. 
THE DREAM LAND Book III was my "dream" project because it flowed so easily and smoothly that it came out nearly perfect (in my humble opinion). I blame years of training and lots of coffee and a summer free from distraction for that miracle. After writing the first two volumes of the trilogy, I knew my characters like they were my own dysfunctional family. Only in a few scenes did I struggle to get it right, changing the words and then later changing them back several times until I said to myself "Enough!"

Most of the time, I write in layers: 

1. charge though with the basic plot, main dialog, etc.; 

2. fill out scenes, adding dialog, beefing up the action; 

3. checking the 5 senses in each scene and dialog tags and gestures (smiling, nodding, etc.). 

4. checking transitions between scenes and between chapters for dramatic effect.

I also revise fiction in layers.

A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, my so-called vampire novel, flowed well from the start but bogged down when I had to pause to do research. I was rolling but the research I needed to do stopped me. Rather than take time for that, I jumped ahead to the next scene. The writing was flowing again but once more had to pause to do research. I finally decided to just write it straight through to the end (the "first draft") and go back later to add in researched information, in this case, medical data. Rather than info-dump the medical stuff, I created dialogues between doctors and my protagonist, filled with asides, jokes, miscommunication, and so on wrapped around the medical information the reader needed to know. 

For my arctic drama, A GIRL CALLED WOLF, the revision process was different than anything I'd done before. Because the story was based on the childhood and youth of a living person, every chapter I sent to that person for comment. I blogged about this process previously. Instead of me deciding if I had gotten the scene right, at least in a dramatic sense, I also had the person who lived it judging whether I had depicted it in a suitable way. We agreed that to report every little episode might be tedious for the reader so we agreed to combine some and omit others. Keep the drama true to the reality of each event was a constant and delicate balance that went well beyond line editing.

Each project has its own writing process, obviously, and each kind of story may also have its own method of creation. I try not to judge, but go with the flow. Although I've settled on what works for me, each project is a new adventure. My muses seem to know what's best, although they often trick me and laugh at the results.

I know I have some quirks in writing, the set phrases I seem to use over and over. I know I tend to overuse certain words. "Almost" - to mean less of whatever the subject or descriptive term is (e.g., His smile was almost warm.), is my worst offender. I also like to type "form" when I mean "from"! 
Therefore, as a final step, I usually run a special check of those particular words and phrases and edit each one personally, individually, according to the situation in the scene. It is a laborious process, but I am old-school and do not trust technology to do everything for me exactly as I would wish it to be. I have been tricked before. So I take the time to look with my own eyes at every instance of imperfection and fix it myself. Yes, I do suffer for my art. It's also why I wear glasses.

For the evil essay, I have compiled over the many semesters of composition classes all of the most common errors I find on student papers. Some of them are easy to see because students write about similar things that are common experiences and of common interest. There is a common style among beginning writers. (I have a dream where I show them once how to write something correctly and they remember it forever.) I've previously blogged about the list. Not everything on this Little Notes on Little Errors will apply to fiction, but perhaps much of it will be of service.

So that is something about how my writing process works. In short, it's a rough process at best, and the devil is somewhere between the details, waiting for opportunities to thwart my good intentions. The other side of the writing process, as all writers know, is that without the writing we nearly cease to exist. I cannot go very long without having a project to work on, either writing something new or working on an existing or older project such as preparing it for publication, no matter how long that takes. Otherwise, I wither and die. Nothing keeps me alive like the desire to know what happens next. And I won't know until I write it.
P.S. - You would not believe how much revision I had to do on this bog post! My fingers do not obey! My eyes trick me! And the spellchecker does not work tonight. But I got it done.


(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.