Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Staying Positive

Why, yes. I DO feel awesome today. What tipped you off?

Every time I read this shirt, I giggle. I mean, what an audacious, ridiculous shirt! Here I am totally owning it. And by owning I mean wearing it because it's just so funny to claim yourself as awesome.

But I AM. Today at least.

Why? Oh, no reason. I just realized all this crazy might be making you think I got a book deal or something. Nope, not yet. Sorry. No book deals here. Nothing exciting at all, really.

There is no reason for my awesomeness except that I decided it.

This writing gig often comes with a lot of self-loathing, despair, and frustration. Like, a lot. With constant criticism (from yourself and others) through most every part of the process, it's hard not to get down. Sometimes I feel like I'm battling with myself, trying to stay upbeat despite that voice in my head that says I suck because insert-minor-failure-here.

But I've always believed in the power of positivity. It's not always easy to find the bright side, but just searching for it changes everything about a situation. It turns despair into hope. You have to have hope in this writing business—no matter how much it hurts at times—otherwise you'd give up or turn bitter quick.

Some Ways I Stay Positive:

1. No Comparing. It's not easy, but when I focus on making my own style as unique and clean as possible, then it's easier not to think about other writers who are further in their journey than I am.

2. Good Friends. Talking, laughing, and sharing with close writer friends always provides a good pick-me-up. They get it. They've been there or will be there. I couldn't do this without them.

3. Do Things I Love. As in non-writing things. Of course I love to write, but too much of anything is bad for you. There has to be a balance.

4. Shut Down The Networking Sites. Sometimes it's just too much for this introvert. Hearing about all the publishing news, etc, just makes me grumpy. If I get that way, I know I've been spending too much time online.

5. Work On Something New. I have kind of a short attention span. If I've been writing for a while, I need to switch to editing to give my brain a positive jolt. If I've been editing a lot, yeah, time to write something fresh.

6. Remembering All The Good. There are so many good things in my life, and when I focus on that then the bad things seem trivial.

7. Exercise. Whether it's DDR, biking, or dancing like an idiot in my living room, moving around always seems to shake off the blues.

8. Chocolate. Dark chocolate. Nuff said.

9. Believing Anyway. Sometimes you just have to tell yourself you're awesome until you believe it. Sure, it feels lame at first, but then you start laughing, and then somewhere deep down you know you're telling the truth.

10. Wearing Really Lame T-shirts. Seriously, it works. I feel awesome today.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Being YOU

First, hop on over to Matt's blog. If you are a nerd, you will appreciate that little gem of genius there. Made my day. Now I'm picturing Han Solo with a British accent. Mmm...wait, what was I doing? Blogging, right.

I'm gonna let you guys in on a little secret. It might be shocking, so brace yourselves:

Not everyone likes me.

I know. How in the world is that possible? I'm the most likable person in the world! Everyone in the Universe should love me! ...Or maybe I actually come off rather aloof in person. And sometimes people read that as me thinking I'm superior, when it's really a wall built to hide how fragile and insecure I am...

Something like that.

This used to really bother me, this whole idea that there are people in the world who don't like me. Oh who am I kidding? Sometimes it STILL bothers me.

I think it's safe to say that most people want to be liked, and sometimes we give up part of ourselves to get it. I don't know how this whole being-someone-else-to-be-liked goes in boy land, but I can tell you it's nearly a disease in girls. Even women. My oh my, I've seen it so many times. In my friends, my family, myself. We try to mold ourselves into what other people expect us to be, and sometimes it feels like we have to cut off limbs just to fit our square selves into that round hole.

To some extent, we all live dual lives, the inside never quite matching up to what people see on the outside. As if being ourselves is something completely unacceptable.

I'm not sure where this way of thinking came from. Maybe it's been ingrained in us so long no one really knows. But I've always hated it, and perhaps that's why I've met with my fair share of bullies. I've never been able to give up much of myself, never been able to pretend I'm someone else for very long. I've tried, and it always leaves me feeling like crap. Like I'm being stifled. Not a fan.

So not everyone likes me, but those who do I am happy to say like me. Not a mask. That's rewarding in its own way. I dare say it's nicer to have the real affection of few than to have the false affection of many.

I've said this before—several times, even—but I'm constantly in need of my own personal pep talks. You gotta Rock What You Got. You have to be YOU. There's no one else who can do it better.

In the writing world, as in any creative field, a lot of comparing gets thrown around. It's hard not to do, but I can tell you it's a waste of time. I've been there, and it just makes you feel ugly and worthless and sad.

And you shouldn't, because there is only one person in the world who can write what you do. Please don't make me tell you who, because I think it's pretty obvious by now.

Sometimes I tease Kiersten—especially after I finish one of her amazing books like I did today (I know, I'm totally rubbing that in)—that I wish I could be her so I'd know everything she knows about her worlds. She inevitably says something sappy like, "But then I wouldn't get to read your books! I love your books."

I roll my eyes, but the truth of that is deep and pure and keeps me going more than I can say. I may never be an award winner or a bestseller or whatever, but my unique voice resonates with some people. That, friends, is the most rewarding part of writing. And it doesn't take a book deal or an agent or anything to get. It just takes the right person connecting with your work and sharing a moment that transcends the words on the page. When writer and reader create meaning together.

I live for that, and I know it can only come through being myself on the page. Yeah, some people may not like it. Fine. But I have to write for me and the people who do connect with my words. Carving myself to fit in a different hole would make me incredibly unhappy.

So, be yourself. You've heard it a thousand times, but I think we all need reminding now and then.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Betas

Krista G. asked a good question in comments yesterday: How do you know when you're ready for beta readers, and how many of those drafts did you go through before you reached that point?

I realized Beta isn't talked about in too much detail, so I thought I'd use my long-winded skills to cover everything I can possibly think of about this thing called Beta. Because really, Beta isn't exactly the easiest thing. It can be a very trying period for a writer.

Definition according to me: Beta is when a writer sends his or her work to readers for feedback, and then takes that feedback to improve their work.

Simple, right? Yeah...not really.

First, you have to get your manuscript to a place where you think it's "ready" for readers. I wouldn't say you have to think your MS is perfect—then what would be the point of Betas? But it should be something you'd feel comfortable showing someone. It should be your best effort.

For me, that point is usually when I'm thinking, "This is pretty good, but in my gut I know there are a few issues I'm missing. I don't know what they are, so I need help seeing them." Usually I'm on about my second or third draft when I'm ready for Beta readers. I do mine in several phases, as you'll see, so that might be early to some people. Everyone is different, and it's good to find a process that works for you. It took me a few books to figure out who was most helpful to me and when I should send things out.

Okay, so you've decided it's time for Beta! Who do you send it to?

Many of you know I'm a huge proponent of Alpha Readers. They aren't for everyone, but they are a huge help for me when I'm shaping my first draft. They are supportive, which helps me to move forward. Yet they are also honest, which helps me plan out my story and make it the best I can on the first round. I ask them for input first, and they help me shape the book pre-Beta.

Then I send it to my crit group. Don't have one? This is my guide for finding one. But here's the thing—I don't send it to all my gals at once. I pick two at a time.

Reason 1: Too many cooks in the kitchen can get overwhelming fast. You don't need 20 people to make you think differently about your book, and when you get that many betas who are you going to listen to?

Reason 2: Then I can save my other Betas for the next revision, instead of forcing them to read it again.

Reason 3: When I send it to the next round of Betas, I can easily see if I fixed the issues from last round. If they don't bring up "that one plot hole," then likely it's been fixed. Revision success!

Now, your Betas have sent you their feedback! You read their comments...and then you panic about how in the world you're going to fix your stupid book. Why did you ever write it in the first place? How did you not see that massive plot hole? The untrue character development? The pointlessness of that scene?

Wait...what? You guys don't panic about that stuff? Well, I do. Humor me here.

Yes, even with two Betas I get overwhelmed by all the things they bring up in my work. I have really good Betas, let me tell you. To curb the freak out, I plan. I think about what they said and why they said it. I decide if their suggestion merits a substantial change, or if I just wasn't clear and I need to tweak wording.

I do not, under any circumstances, touch the book.

It took me a while to figure this out, but I've learned Betas are for getting you to look at your book from a different viewpoint. You don't have to take their suggestions. Sometimes you shouldn't, even. But you should think about what you want to change to make things clearer. That takes a little bit of time. Stupid time, like we need to wait more, right? But I promise it's worth it.

Once I decide what I want to change, then I run it by my Betas to see if that would quell their concerns. Usually they approve, and if they don't they explain to me more of what they had issues with. And I think more.

Then I plan. This part curbs my panic a lot. Having a plan of attack makes the changes seem doable. I open up the Word doc, pull out my notebook, and make notes about what I want to change in each chapter. It looks a little like this, but, you know, not backwards:

I highlight the change once I've entered it, just so I feel like I'm making progress. Editing feels very stale to me in comparison to creating, so this helps me a lot in revisions. I even do it when line editing.

I don't look at my Betas' comments until after I've done the revision. Then I take another glance to see if there is anything else I want to apply.

After that, I pick two more Betas and repeat the process. And repeat and repeat.

I think the biggest thing I've learned about Beta is that it's not just one round. It's a long-term process of improvement. I would strongly recommend going through several rounds. Like at least three. I know it can get exciting to get your work out there to agents, but it's amazing what you can learn by spending time in Beta land and really thinking about your book.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stages of Revision

I love my readers—you guys ask such fabulous questions! Thus saving me the stress of coming up with my own posts. Several of you asked about what kind of revisions I do, so today I'm going to attempt to break down my process.

Please note that during all these phases I attempt to clean the text, removing typos and such, but it's not until the end that I really dig into that. Also, there is some overlap. Oftentimes in later plot revisions I start refining characters. Sometimes in line editing I see some minor plot issue I missed and I have to tweak it. It's not an exact science.

Stage 1: Plot Revisions
If I have plot issues—which I often do—I like to tackle these first. Mostly because they are usually the Big Problems, the ones that cause cuts and moving and additions and rewriting. Really, why spend time refining prose when a whole section could go? Why spend time bringing out a character's emotional arc when the events could change? And thus their reactions to it?

The plot is your base—your story relies on this as a firm foundation. If you have weak areas, you risk readers putting down your book. Because of that, my first revisions always revolve around tightening the plot.

How do you revise your plot? Actually, it's something I learned this year, and it improved my writing so much. In my greener days, I didn't think I could change plot without changing the whole story, but that's completely untrue. In fact, I wrote a whole post about my epiphany. Basically, you have to ask yourself one thing:

Is that the best way for this story to unfold?

Other questions to determine "best":

• Is this passage repetitive?

• Is this information necessary?

• Does this passage propel the story forward?

• Is the story focused on the most compelling parts?

• Does this happen in the right order?

• Can this plot arc be drawn out? Should it be shortened?

• Is the action happening on the page? If not, how can I make that happen?

• Do all the plot arcs continually build in intensity?

• Do all the arcs climax at/or close to the same time?

• Can this information/action be folded into another area of the book?

• Does every scene work overtime? (i.e. You don't write one chapter just to explain a character's back story—there should be more than one reason for every scene.)

• Does this seem plausible? Does the action ring true? Will readers see plot holes?

• Are things overcomplicated? Not complicated enough?

• Are there actual stakes? Or does the danger feel false?

I usually go through several drafts where plot revisions are my main focus. Since Void was one of my greener attempts, I feel like I've just finally made it out of major plot revisions. And I'm on draft 8. Though with some of my newer work, like Transparent, I was able to solve my plot issues by draft 3 (though I still have some serious character development things to address).

I wish I could tell you exactly how to refine your plot, but it's extremely case sensitive. As I've improved my writing, I've been able to curb many plot issues, but they still arise. Betas are very helpful in pointing them out. Yet in the end, only the author can decide what is best for their book.

Stage 2: Character Revisions
After I feel like I have a fairly tight plot, I turn my focus to characters. Often when you mess with plot, your characters' reactions might have to change as well. Or maybe you haven't quite represented them properly.

It might be hard to "change" your characters, but I've learned it's not really changing. It's more like "representing" them more accurately. I don't know about other writers, but my relationship with my characters develop a lot like real relationships. I don't really know them at first, but I know I like them. As the story progresses, sometimes I learn something about them that I didn't know at first—something that drastically changes what I'd previously written.

I'm constantly having to line up character emotions as I get to know them, and I think that's easiest to do after the plot has settled. That's when I start focusing on questions like this:

• Is that truly how the character would react?

• Am I making their emotions clear enough? Too clear?

• Is that really what the character would say?

• Am I hedging their true emotions because I don't want readers to hate them? (I'm often guilty of this one—I don't let my chars get mad enough or rude enough or jealous enough, etc.)

• Would my character really do that? And if it's unexpected, do I properly explain it to my readers?

• Do I have too much back story? Not enough?

• Do my characters all have their own unique motivations and stories? Do I make them clear when needed?

• Is my MC compelling? The secondary characters interesting? The villain a true conflict?

• Are all my characters necessary? Are there some that can be combined or cut?

• Do my characters propel the story forward with their actions/words?

Character revisions, overall, can be tricky. They are easy to miss if you're not paying attention. They're usually very subtle things that might look like line editing. A small reaction there, and a quick change of a description there. But they make all the difference in the story—they can make your characters pop right off the page.

Stage 3: Prose Revisions
After I feel like I have a decent grasp on the plot and characters, I face the dreaded prose editing. The nitty gritty stuff—the stuff that takes your story from good to great. While plot and character revising can be overwhelming, prose revision can be just plain tedious. This is when your eyes start crossing, when you want to give up because you've looked at the book so many times you'd prefer never to see it again.

And yet, you must press on.

First comes the line edit, which is not copy editing. Line editing is essentially making sure all those plot and character changes you made are consistent. And after that, it's making sure you're using the best possible words.

Things I focus on while line editing:
• Showing not telling

• Varying description/improving it

• Ensuring my details are consistent throughout (i.e. character have same eye color as beginning, and other stuff like that)

• Smoothing out plot transitions

• Refining dialogue/reviewing tags

• Tightening chapters/making sure they break properly

• Any other other plot/character tweaks I missed

Then comes the even more nit-picky copy edit, which focuses on grammar, punctuation, repetition, paragraphing, etc:

• Correcting run-ons, fragments, and other grammatical faux-pas

• Correcting improper comma, semi-colon, and other punctuation misuse.

• Curbing overuse of punctuation such as the dash, ellipsis, semi-colon, etc. (I'm a dash-a-holic. I have a personal rule a chopping down to one a page at max.)

• Changing repetitive words/actions. (Eye rolls, sighing, and gasps don't pack a punch if they're on every page, or every other.)

• Cutting unnecessary words (i.e. personal ticks, "to be," progressive, excessive prepositions, etc.)

• Varying repetitive grammatical structures. (Sometimes I go overboard on rhetorical questions in one chapter, and then go crazy with the gerunds in the next.)

Once I've done all that, I read it aloud to see if it flows. Awkward phrases or inauthentic passages really jump out when I do that.

So that's the long version of how I take "Small Bites." As you can see, this list would be pretty impossible to swallow in one pass. Or even 2 or 3. I swear revisions constantly stews in the back of my brain. I don't think it'll end until the book is published.