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.