Getting Into Character

A questiony one today.

Characters need to have voice, otherwise the story falls flat. I’m pretty sure I’m not saying anything particularly controversial there – voice is how the author conveys character through things like dialogue and action, rather than just telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel about a cardboard cutout. Voice is like acting for writers.

It’s also one of the most difficult, at least for me. And I get the feeling it’s a bit of a thing for other people as well, given the number of authors I hear talking about their characters taking control of the story and doing things on their own. I definitely think that stems from a character’s voice: When the author tries to do something ‘out of character’ they lose the voice and it just feels wrong. It also makes it very hard for people to describe how to write character – you end up trailing off into nebulous terms like “Well, you just kind of get to know them and then you understand what’s in character and what isn’t …” I, personally, fall prey to this quite a lot. I have a lot of trouble explaining how I write characters, but I know when it’s not working.

All of which means it can be very difficult to figure out what to do when a character just isn’t working. Because authors tend to think of characters in these nebulous terms, we can’t pinpoint problems like we can for other things. If our prose isn’t ‘flowing’, we can troubleshoot by looking for problems like repeated words or sentence structures, or not enough variance in sentence length. If we have problems in plot holes, it’s usually pretty obvious to spot those, though figuring out the solution can often be a bit trickier. You can spot slow pacing or a tension plot that’s too linear. But when a character just seems stuck, we don’t have the tools to point to the technical issue.

I’m always sort of reminded of the pigeons in the Skinner box experiment – when the treats weren’t always on a ‘push button once to receive one treat’ schedule, they started developing superstition, trying to figure out what combination of actions made the button give treats on specific occasions. Of course, the button was on a random schedule, but the pigeons had no concept of that, so they’d develop odd rituals like flapping and spinning around before pushing the button, hoping that it would make the button gods obey them. It can feel pretty similar with authors sometimes. Character is stuck? Time to go for a walk, drink a specific type of tea, and take a shower BUT NEVER IN THAT ORDER.

Personally, I like to go for walks (sometimes trying to adopt the character’s body-language as I go, which can generate some very odd looks for my stranger characters), or write smaller stories revolving around that character to try and work my way through it. Imagining or writing conversations with the character is especially helpful. Critique Circle has a forum section where you can post a brief character bio and people will ask them questions, which is very helpful for getting into character. I’ve heard of people who use music to put them in a particular character’s ‘mood’, and who create playlists for characters. Writing groups or friends are good for talking through characters and their motivations.

Everyone has their own method, so I’m putting this one out as a question – what do you folks do to get in the headspace of a particular character? What 100% effective, to-die-for methods have I overlooked?

Rules and their Malleability

About once a book, I do something that I once swore I would never do.

My teenage years were a bit of a mess, in terms of writing, but that’s nothing particularly uncommon. The cockiness of perpetually favourable English class marks plus a wide range of reading habits including several blogs of writers far more nuanced in their opinions than I gave me a rather black-and-white view of certain things.  Most of my opinions have changed since then, but there are a few ‘rules’ and pet peeves that stuck with me.

A few of them are fairly common to writers on the Internet: No ending a story by finding a loophole that makes the rest of the story have not happened (aka: the Cosmic Reset Button, if you’re a Troper), no killing someone and then resurrecting them in the finale. A general mistrust though not outright rejection of Chosen Ones, prophecies, and Wise Old Mentors of young farmers with magical swords and/or a love of books incongruous with their time period and social status. But some of them are more personal. I don’t tend to like love triangles in fiction, so I don’t really want to write them. For a long time, I told myself I wouldn’t write prologues because they were done too often and too badly in the genre. I would especially never write a prologue in the form of a fairytale or mythological story.

But as these things usually go, the older I got and the more I came up with stories, the more I realised that I’ve broken pretty much every one of those promises to myself. I’m pretty sure I broke the ‘mentor’ thing in the very first book I wrote, young farmer and all, though there was a distinct lack of swords. I’ve killed someone and resurrected them as part of a finale – and I intend to keep that ending in the published product. I’ve written a book with not only a mythological prologue, but a mythological epilogue to bookend it. My latest first draft features a love triangle as a primary conflict in the plot.

Is this a bad thing? My first instinct is to say ‘no’ because I like to think I’ve used these tropes for the right reasons, and in the right way so that they avoid the situations that really drive me up the wall. But that’s an incredibly optimistic view. It’s very hard to read objectively, as after all, you know what you meant. The hardest argument to work around giving critiques is “But it’s different because …!” and they’re even harder when you can see so plainly how your character Isn’t Like Those Other Ones. I also like to think that I have very good reasons for disliking those tropes in other books, and I have evidence that other people feel the same way. If I care about earning money from writing, why would I expect them to give me forbearance for things that I’ve personally put books back on the shelf for mentioning in a blurb?

On the other hand, it’s not good to be too rigid. For instance, I hate the Cosmic Reset Button because it makes everything that came before it seem needless and in vain (especially in those books where, I kid you not, a character just sort of realises they could have done that from the start and solved the plot on page 1), and it seems like a betrayal. I can, however, imagine a story where it was done correctly. It would have to only be able to happen at the end of the story for whatever reason, and it would have to feel like the emotional and thematic culmination of the story, rather than cutting the emotional and thematic threads short with no resolution. If someone could contrive to write a story where that was the case, I could see myself rather enjoying the ending, in a ‘you-magnificent-accursed-human-being’ kind of way. Besides, innovation comes from doing the thing that people say  not to do, and doing it well (leaving aside the fact that I dislike some of those because someone did do them, and did them well, and then a lot of other people did them and did them well, but then people started to do them in the same way as the people before them and then they started to run out of options and do them badly and then the whole thing just sort of stopped being fun).

This has been a rather pointless musing, but I’ll just leave this here: This is reason number Prime One that I always give books to beta readers before the general public. I’m sure one day I’ll write something so awful that I’ll lose a friend over it for that reason, but hopefully they’ll tell me why I messed up before they go.

Bad Writers Becoming Good Writers

Many quotes circulate around the Internet. Some of them are more dubious in origin than others. Some of them are downright stupid.  Fair warning – this is going to get ranty.

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

“Yes,” the writers say, sagely, nodding their heads. “Yes, this is indeed wise. Oh, how noble our profession is.”

What?

No.

This is utter nonsense. Utter nonsense written by Stephen King, who has otherwise spoken much wisdom that I respect, but nonsense nonetheless.

The thing is, it’s attractive nonsense. And it’s got enough anecdotal evidence behind it to make it sound like it ought to ring true. But that just makes it the persistent kind of false.

Authors on the Internet, I have found, have this Thing about mocking poor writing. I mean, despite the ridiculously problematic premises of the books, by far the most common complain I heard levelled at the Twilight and 50 Shades books were complaints about the writing quality. On sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, for every list of “Creative Adjectives” and “Said is Dead!!” verbs, there is a post or meme begging writers to never, ever use the phrase “glittering violet orbs” ever again. There are entire sites dedicated to ripping apart mediocre fanfiction.

Yes, it’s frustrating to read these things sometimes. As experienced writers who have passed the “violet orbs” stage (or amateur writers looking to), reading people making not only the mistakes we used to make but also the mistakes we see so many other people making (especially regular fanfic readers … having to sort out the fics that are worth my time is the only thing stopping me from falling into the pit of fanfic and never returning) is incredibly frustrating. I’ve been an editor. I know.

I also know that the only thing more frustrating is when someone asks for your advice and then refuses to follow it, or immediately dismisses you as incorrect. It’s very tempting, when that happens, to dismiss that person as a lost cause. After all, you have to want to see the flaws in your work in order to improve, and obviously they don’t!

And so, there comes that quote. And it sounds right – like an extension of “only talent can recognise genius” – only those with a baseline level of skill can see the gap between themselves and where they “need” to be (or, perhaps more accurately, can tell the steps they need to take to cross that gap).

Look, at least this is right about one thing – in order to cross each gap, you do need a baseline level of skill. Skill, not talent. That baseline level of skill just coincidentally happens to be the skill gained by getting to that point in the first place. But the problem with skill is that it takes time to earn.

Fluff it up all you like, but writing is a skill. The only writer who doesn’t improve is the one who won’t practise, and gets complacent. And call me crazy, but I’m unwilling to believe that there’s a natural “cap” to the amount one will improve if one continues to put in effort. My beliefs on talent and skill are best summed up (with much more profanity than I’d usually use) here, at Chuck Wendig’s blog post on the topic

Think back to those fanfic writers. Would you say that a 14-year-old could never improve to be a great writer, just because they use awkward phrasing now, or don’t have a firm grasp of pacing?

On the opposite end of the scale, if you’ve ever been part of a writer’s group with a wide age range, you have probably seen the retiree who’s got a lot of time on their hands all of a sudden and wants to start writing. My writing group has seen three or four of them. They all improve, and in great strides, too, once they start to come to grips with the mode of writing. Some of them get published. Some of them do very well. Some of them talk about only just starting to learn the skill now.

How many great writers have you heard talking with embarrassment about their first literary attempts? The novels that ended up shoved in a drawer, never to see the light of day because of their blatant unsuitability for human eyes. Did being bad once ever stop them from becoming amazing?

I’m not saying it’s easy. It does require time and effort to progress, and some people will progress faster than others. But talent, or “being a good writer” is a trait we assign to people after they’ve already had those years of practice. So let’s quit telling people that writing is a ‘you have it or you don’t’ kind of skill. You have the desire to improve or you don’t. That’s all.

NaNoWriMo Around The Corner

Here we go. It’s coming up again. Writer Hell and Writer Heaven condensed into one month. A lot of writers to NaNoWriMo every year. An equal number of writers don’t. It all depends on whether it gets your creative juices flowing or not.

If you are going for NaNo this year (as I am, though I won’t be putting too much pressure on), I think it’s important to remember a couple of things.

Yes, NaNo is great for getting a first draft down on the page. If that’s what you need – the community, the motivation – great. It’s doing its job. But I feel there’s an aspect of NaNo that’s overlooked a lot.

NaNo is the enemy of the writerly comfort zone. It’s specifically designed to eliminate your ability to say “This isn’t sitting right with me – I’ll stop writing and go fix it”. It also discourages “Well, I can’t write at my sweet spot of 7:00pm today, so I guess I can’t write at all”. If you’re really going for the goal, you’ll find yourself slotting writing in whenever you have a few minutes to string together.

So, it’s the perfect time to switch up your routine and see what works. If you’re a pantser, to ahead an try plotting. See if it changes anything. And vice versa – despite what I said above, if you are a plotter, taking a month out to see where your brain takes you without an outline could be valuable. Switch up what time of day you write, writing with or without caffeine, try Scrivener for its trial period. Do something different.

NaNoWriMo is really great for this. For one, it’s got a built-in metric for success (you wrote 50,000 words or you didn’t), but it doesn’t stop there. Afterwards, how much time did you need to spend editing? Did you need to start over, or rip the whole thing apart? Or did you just need to tweak scenes, rearrange a few things? And, of course, the more nebulous metrics, like ‘am I happy with the book?’ ‘Did this process help me get motivated to write, or did it feel like dragging my feet?’.

For another, and more importantly, there’s a time limit. Write for 30 days, decide you don’t like that process? Great, fine. You never have to pick it up again. It’s much easier to commit to a change when you realise that you have a built-in ejector seat, or an instant takesies-backsies button. Plus, 30 days is a pretty good amount of time to get used to any given change, past that ‘it’s different and I don’t like it’ phase, and enough time to really get an idea of the effect it’s having.

Finally, a standard reminder to all: NaNoWriMo is what you make of it. If you play by the rules and go for the goal because it helps you, that’s awesome, and more power to you. But if you don’t follow the rules, nobody’s going to know. Nobody is going to care. Write a series of short stories instead of a novel? Go for it. Finish a novel you’ve already started? Go for it. Change the wordcount goal? Perfect – I did that last year, when I had more time. Want more competition? Start mini-challenges with friends. Want less? Set an entirely different goal so you’re not watching other people’s wordcounts tick up and comparing yourself to them.

There is no one winner of NaNo, so if you decide to move your personal goalposts, nobody else will be affected. Maybe you won’t go on the website as a winner, but take yourself out for a treat of your choice. You worked for a thing and you got it. That’s a good effort, too.

Themes

I said this one would be coming soon, and looks like now is as good a time as any, while I’m starting to tweak the plan for my NaNo novel. I’ve noticed two things this time round – the first is that I may actually be a plotter, not a pantser (a realisation I think I’ve been putting off for about two novels now, and also hello, next blog post). The second is that I am a highly pretentious person.

I build stories from the themes out.

Yeah, I know, right?  I might as well be writing horrible Message Fantasy (Thanks to Limyaael for the term), where characters act as mouthpieces for an author’s perspective rather than characters, where the message is so pounded into the audience’s head that even the worthiest goal becomes trite, oversimplified and shudder-worthy.

But at the same time I did notice something while I was writing my last few novels.  I tend to write symbolism in without meaning it.  I’ll get through the story and then realise that where people stand indicates what relationship they have to each other, that drinking tea together means something, but coffee means something different, or that the layout of a room is definitely an indication of the character’s internal mental state.  I figure I might as well plan all this from the beginning, so it’s all consistent and contributes to an overall theme through the book, rather than being scattered or inconsistent.  So I guess what I’m really doing is planning in motif, rather than theme.

But then, without a theme, motif is just pretty window-dressing, so I suppose that’s a good enough reason to be thinking about things.

Still, it’s a little worrying, wondering if I’m walking into “pleasantly layered” rather than “preachy and obnoxious” territory.  There are a few ways to avoid this, I think – at least, I use these and nobody’s complained yet.  Well, not about my themes, anyway.

Always be as pretentious as possible.
No, really.  When picking a story’s theme, I stay well away from the following things:

  • Obvious or trite statements (be a good person, and good things will happen to you, for example)
  • Value judgements on specific ways of living (people who live in tune with nature are better people than those who don’t)
  • Absolutes (Characteristic X always leads to a better outcome than Characteristic Y)
  • Actually providing an answer to the theme in the novel.

If you are deliberately writing message fantasy, or stories with a clear moral, best of luck to you.  There’s a good market for them out there.  I don’t like them, and I don’t want to write them, so here’s how I avoid doing so.    But you’ll want to ignore those points above.

So, what do I pick as a theme instead?  Usually, something with a single-word synopsis.  Like, one novel, I wrote about Duty and Loneliness and Family.  Another, I wrote about Mythology and Love and Society’s Expectations.  That gives me a base to work from.  Then, I build in motifs (and yes, challenges for the character or plot points) that work into those themes, and support some interpretation of them.

Explore, don’t expound.
When I write a novel, I have lots of space and lots of characters to play around with.  So, for Mythology, Love and Society’s Expectations, I might have one character who, for whatever reason, has a particular thing expected of him, and that comes into conflict with what they feel they actually can do, and who they actually are.  But then, I have two other characters, one who is living quite comfortably within the expectations of society and believes they are actually the better way to do things, and another character who lives outside society’s expectations, but isn’t nearly so bothered by them, because they’ve learned to make what compromises are necessary (and only what compromises are necessary) to avoid the worst of the stigma.  Will I favour one flavour of happiness over the other?  Probably not – if the characters are happy doing what they’re doing, who am I to tell them they’re not?

My job is not to tell the readers which one is right – my job is to give several different points of view on the theme, and let the readers either agree or disagree with a particular person.

Involve everyone and everything.
No character should be “useless” to the story, and if all the story is intertwined with the themes, then all the characters should also be intertwined with the themes.  Should they all express all of the themes, or all express one “primary” theme, with some “secondary” themes woven throughout?  Not necessarily.  All expressing all themes could get quite cluttered and leave the characters feeling like a collection of traits, rather than a person.  All expressing a primary theme, with some secondary themes?  That could work quite well, but you don’t have to pick a “primary” theme for the story.   Let it grow organically – let the story dictate whether you’ve got primary themes and secondary themes or not.

And don’t forget your symbolism!  I find the trick with symbolism is to make it obvious it’s symbolism, but not obvious what it’s symbolising.  There’s a world of difference between having a manipulative character always offering people apples, and having a character carry an empty backpack everywhere, for reasons they never explain.  Obvious symbolism does occasionally have its place, but you can’t dwell on it.  Have one scene where a character’s setting up their house after quitting music forever to pursue a “real career”, and they put all of their music things in one room, and all of their work things in another room.  But then don’t mention it much, unless you’re telling the reader that they went into their music room, or perhaps that they refused to go into their music room.

Don’t let your characters know about it.
The characters pointing out all the symbolism is going to get tiresome, quickly.  Part of the fun of symbolism for those who like discovering it is the search and the hunt.  Having a character point out the hidden meaning behind the actions is going to ruin the fun for those readers.

Remember to make your story worth reading on its own.
A story might be a vehicle for meaning, but nobody’s going to get to the meaning unless you write a good story to go with it.  And there are going to be some readers who don’t care about your perfectly crafted mythology symbolism, who just want to get to the big confrontation about the failed engine.  That’s OK.  They’re allowed not to care about that.  You’re not allowed to insist that they have to care to understand or enjoy the story.  The book market is hard enough to get into these days without alienating readers because you’ve decided you’re highbrow.

Literary fiction authors, ignore that.  Your audience *is* looking for highbrow and occasionally incomprehensible.  Just keep on keepin’ on.

As always, thoughts?  What did I miss?  What do you have to add?  How do you guys deal with this problem?

Description and Detail

Sorry, folks, it’s another preachy one.

Because it’s essay time right now, about the only writing stuff I get to do on any form of regular basis are the tabletop RPGs I run.  And about the only form of actual writing I get to do in those is describing things.

One of my campaigns is, sadly, suffering a little at the moment for my lack of time to plan ahead.  Our sessions are slapdash, hasty things I vaguely link together.  I hate random encounters – they seem so forced and tacked-on – but I’ve been relying on them a little lately just to bulk out sessions and give some weight to them.  At least I’ve been able to give them some form of relationship to the plot and tone.

But then a friend of mine called me up on Skype late last night, asking if I could run a quick campaign.  It was better than another article on genre theory, so I agreed.  It was just the two of us.  To begin the campaign, I had a few pictures of places and people for inspiration, and a basic trigger for the character.  And from there, I created a world and a campaign.
We didn’t get very far.  In fact, we never even got out of the first town, but I honestly believe that was the best town I’ve described in a game in months. It felt like a cohesive world, at least to me.  It felt like somewhere with particular customs, particular people, a particular feel and atmosphere. The most recent town I described in my larger game couldn’t hope to have that.  So what gives?  What did I do differently?

Funnily enough, I described the town and its surrounds much closer to what I’d be describing if I were writing a book, rather than running a game.

First off, I was tailoring the description to the character.  It’s really quite freeing, having only one player.  It played out a lot more like a collaborative story than a party of players in a situation I created.  And I love that.  But in terms of describing the situation, what it meant was that I could go ahead and say things like “From the way your sister described it, you were expecting taller buildings, but these are squat and solid”.
A lot of the time, when I see people giving description advice, particularly for first-person or third limited works, this is the advice they give: “Always consider the character – give the description through them.”
That’s great.  I love that advice.
One problem.
How?  The bit that people usually fail to put next is what they actually mean by that.
Well, that’s not entirely true.  The bit that comes next usually falls into two categories.  The first is show how the character feels about the things they’re seeing.  Are they impressed by the huge fortress wall, having seen nothing like it. Are they excited to see the smoke on the horizon, because it means they’ve arrived home?  This is a really good start.  But too often, I see it done separately to the description.  Consider:
“The great city appeared on the horizon, just beyond the wide river.  The bridge was wooden, but just beyond, became cobblestones, and then became a huge portcullis, manned by guards at the top.  The smell of the city wafted from over the walls – even at this distance, the smell of horses and cooking meat and bread, and the thousand other odours of a thriving city overpowered everything else.  As Arthur drew closer, he couldn’t help but smile.  He hadn’t been here since he was a boy, and everything had the tang of nostalgia”
That’s alright description.  But notice how, even with the addition of Arthur’s feelings about the city, there’s not a whole lot going on until the end sentence?  Compare:
“Arthur hadn’t been home since he was small enough to ride double with his father without inconveniencing the horse.  He’d been silent since he first saw the huge walls on the horizon – topped by guards watching over the portcullis.  Yes, there was the wooden bridge … and the old cobblestones, turning the soft thud of the horse’s hooves to a sharp clack.  He’d been so delighted to hear that change, once.  Even the smell – people and horses and cooking and laundry on a clear morning – carried the tang of nostalgia”
Maybe the description is the same quality, but everything is now in Arthur’s head, coloured by his memories and his thoughts and his nostalgia.  This is truly making description do double-duty as characterisation.

Second, I really picked my details.  This links back into showing what the character would notice, but here, you’re really catering to the reader as well.  Here, you’re giving character to the setting as well.  After all, which is the more interesting setting: “The streets were thin and dimly lit, full of people selling items from stalls – amulets and glass beads struck through with gorgeous colours.  Around a corner, someone played a melancholy song on an instrument Maeve wasn’t familiar with.  A vendor shoved something on a stick into her face, and she waved it away, not hungry and not trusting the meat they sold here.”
Or
“The houses seemed to lean over each other, to shadow the street.  Although it was mid-afternoon, the vendors lining the sides of the street had already lit bulbous paper lanterns, casting puddles of light over themselves and the trays of curios they held on their laps.  Around a corner, Maeve heard an instrument – a melancholy plucking, accompanied by a man’s high, thin voice singing in an unfamiliar tongue.”
They might well be the same scene, but choosing a different set of details to notice changes the character of the setting.  Meat on sticks is common – paper lanterns and that particular instrument?  That’s new, and interesting, to the reader.  And that’s how I choose those details.  Equally by what jumps out to the character and what should jump out to the reader.  What makes this setting not quite the same as any other fantasy-setting merchant city?  What is special about this street of New York or Melbourne?  Particularly if you’re going for a truly weird or unfamiliar feel – a whole lot of little details being just slightly off will do more legwork for you than everything being hugely and massively different.

And third, I had limited time. I was typing all of this over Skype, so I didn’t have the time to compose pages and pages of description, and if I had, I would have bored the skin off my friend.  If I’d written pages and pages in a novel, it would have been exactly the same thing, though with less immediate feedback.  So not only did I have to pick my details, I had to pick a very few of them.  I don’t have a rule of thumb about this, except perhaps only three details per scene described, maximum.  So, for the street sign, the street vendors are one thing, and the instrument is one.  For the vendors, I only note 1) the paper lanterns, and 2) the trays on their laps.  For the instrument, I note that 1) it’s a melancholy sound, 2) the instrument is plucked.  I could probably go into more details on both of those, but I’d drown the reader.  Some call it broad-brushstrokes, but I prefer to call it ‘connect-the-dots’.  If you set the scene well and establish tone, you’re giving the reader a few anchor points and letting them fill in a whole picture based on the atmosphere.

And that’s quite enough ranting from me.  Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything or said something completely stupid.  I’ll be back to editing in a week, so probably some editing posts coming up, frenzied ranting and level-headed discussion alike.

How To Pick A Beta Reader

I’ve got a manuscript out with beta readers at the moment, and it’s a tad harrowing, so time to turn that into a blog post that’s hopefully useful.

Here’s the thing.  If you’re a writer, and serious about writing for publication, eventually you’ll probably dip your toes in the tepid-to-icy water of beta readers, or be pushed into the river by other writers insisting that they’re necessary.  Either way, really.  And yes, I am one of the writers who does the pushing.  I think beta readers are a wonderful idea.  Software doesn’t go out without beta testing, machines get prototypes, drugs get clinical trials.  Getting a whole lot of testing on your work is just a darned good idea.

I find, for myself, I occasionally still get an irrational pang of awkward over beta readers.  If they tell me to change something, how do I know it really needs changing?  If it’s a huge plot change, does that make the idea and execution less *mine*?  I can point to sections of some stories where I can say “This idea came from this other person” – what does that mean about my claim to authorship?

First off, some link love to Michael J. McDonagh, who writes posts about betas and crit partners and alphas that are lovely and concise.  Here’s the first one, defining terms and basic advice, here’s the second, talking about how to beta well.  I don’t entirely agree with his definition that betas always have to be non-writers, and I am certainly one of those awful people who uses ‘beta’ as a catch-all term (for me, alphas help me flesh out my ideas, betas help me fix my book, and crit partners do … stuff … I don’t really use that term).

I’ve talked a bit already about how to take outside input, but that’s a bit more along the lines of balancing wanting to change to make people happy with not wanting to change your story because that change is integral to the plot/theme/whatever.  A quick recap on other things that I think about beta reading: Try to get many betas, because of the law of averages, and really think about the comments you get before you make any changes.
All good?  Good.  On we go.

Because as useful as all that stuff is, it’s not really what this post is about.
This post is about getting good beta readers, and getting the most out of them.

Post-preamble-preamble: How many beta readers do you need?
How many can you get?
Honestly, that’s going to be one of the main deciders.  I like as many as possible (it also means that if one or two get distracted and don’t get back to me, it matters less).  But I know other people who don’t have that many at all, because they have a group of three, five, whatever, who basically cover their writing weaknesses between them.  That’s cool, too.  Whatever works.  Some of us need more than five people to figure out all the myriad ways we went wrong.

So – my process for finding a good beta reader:

 

Step One: You need to trust your beta

I cannot stress this enough.  This doesn’t just mean “someone unlikely to take my manuscript and hock it online as their own work”, although that’s also kind of important.  You need to know that the advice is coming from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  This doesn’t mean they’re a writer or a professional editor.  It doesn’t even mean they’re particularly “good” at grammar or sentence structure or paragraph structure or whatever.  Some of my best betas have no desire to write themselves – but all of my betas love to read.  They might not know whether my paragraphs are structured just right, but they can tell me (unequivocally) when the dialogue was wooden as a stake for the world’s most stubborn vampire, or when they wanted to dropkick my main character out a plate glass window.
They’re also the people I will trust to be honest with me.  There are many people among my friendship groups whom I love dearly, but I wouldn’t get them to beta my work, because I know they’d be too kind to me.  They say you shouldn’t measure friendship by how considerate you are of each other, but by how many insults you can hurl before the other person gets offended.  Beta reading is a bit like that – always judge a beta reader by how much they’re willing to risk hurting your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.

 

Step Two: You should be able to talk to your betas openly

Kind a corollary to the above – you may need to ask clarification from your betas, and you’ll need to be able to communicate with them for that. You’ll also need to let them know what to look for, and sort out issues when you’ve both read things totally differently.

 

Step Three: Direction is Good

For someone who’s not used to beta reading, it can be a little daunting to get an entire novel and be asked to give an opinion on all of it.  Make it easy on your betas – give them a list of questions, or a list of “things to think about” while they’re reading.  And make it clear that you’re also open for any and all other observations they have.  Guidance is good, making beta readers do a pop quiz isn’t.  Give them somewhere to start and let them go from there.

 

Step Four: Variety is the Spice of Criticism

On my last book that I sent out to betas, one of my betas said that I’d completely messed up the economics in the first chapter.  The second said that when I’d delved into engineering, I’d done it really well, but they wanted to chat to me about the particulars, because there were some interesting places to expand that I’d missed through inexperience. A third told me that my ending was much tighter and more exciting than the beginning (actually, most people told me that, but that’s beside the point).  The point being, I have a lot of beta readers who like a lot of different things, and have a lot of different areas of study/interest/geekery.  It means they all pick up different things.  The only thing they have in common, as I said before, is that they like reading, and specifically, they like reading fantasy books, preferably of the kind I write.  I can guarantee you every single one of my betas knows more about a specific subject than I ever will, and that’s what makes them so helpful.
Also, get a variety of writers, non-writers and editorial types.  They’ll look at three very different levels of your writing, and that’s excellent.

 

Step Five: If someone is an unpleasant person, they shouldn’t beta for you.

Corollary to my above point that a beta should be honest – I don’t care how good the advice someone gives you is, if they deliver it in the form of nasty remarks, it’s not worth getting.

 

And a final note. This sounds really odd for me to say, since I’m a professional editor myself who makes most of my money through editing novels, but here goes.  You don’t actually need to pay someone money to edit your book for you.  Except, I would say, if you’re going to self-publish.  But if you’re going the trad publishing route, you’ll find more use in a good set of beta buddies than a professional editor.  Use the Internet, online writers’ forums, find writer’s groups in your area and see if you can find one that clicks for you.
Here is the one advantage of a professional editor: You are paying someone to not be your friend.  Professional editors worth the money you pay them will be honest and not nasty.  After all, you’re paying someone to be honest, and you’re likely not to pay them again if they’re nasty.  They’ll also have a bit more practice at communicating why they’ve suggested changes, and have worked on a wider variety of manuscripts.  That’s not to say they’ll be better, but they’ll have a higher average.

And that’s about all from me.

I’ve done more than enough preachy posts recently.  I think it’s about time I wrote some more humorous, ranty ones.  And given what my next few weeks look like, blowing off the steam will probably prove to be very entertaining.

Questions Without Answers, and Hurling Books At Walls

Disclaimer: I have a particular taste in books.  Just like everyone else.  Things that make me throw a book at the wall – the furniture, out a window, from a moving train – others won’t mind about.  Some things that I love may make another person reach for the flamethrowers.  So, keep that in mind.

 

A problem I expect a lot of writers, new and experienced, have issue with is how to end a book.  At least, judging by the conversations I’ve seen or taken part in.  But quite honestly – how does one end a book?  It is quite simple, really.  You need to provide closure, and tie up all the loose ends.  But things shouldn’t be too neat – so leave a couple of things open to interpretation or the imagination.  Make sure it’s not anything to do with the character arcs – the readers will be left hanging, and that’s unsatisfying.  Or the plot – all plot threads have to be tied up, or it’ll feel like there’s something missing.

Well … if you take the plot and characters out of the equation, what do you leave hanging?  Questions of setting?  Well, sure – as long as it’s not something vital to the plot.  But if you’re not writing secondary world fantasy, that can be difficult to pull off, unless you’re talking about fictional groups of people in the novel, or the motivations of particular groups, and then aren’t we back onto characters?  And that’s where it all gets tangled up again.

And this is even before you get into all the subtleties and issues of “Well, this was never explained in Book X and people still love it!”
I swear that phrase is the bane of my life when I’m trying to figure out my theories on writing.

Let’s start with the really obvious stuff.  Don’t leave something vital to the plot unexplained.  This means your characters have to have motives, particularly the ones involved in the book’s central conflict.  Any setting issues (like how magic works) should be explained if they affect the plot (what spells a hero can and cannot do, to continue the example).  Plot-relevant technology gets explained.  That sort of thing.

For everything else, here’s the question I usually ask: Is this a leading question?
By that, I mean does leaving that question unanswered set off a chain of questions?  Say you don’t know about the origins of a certain Evil Cult (to take an obvious example).  Is that just a thing that fans can argue over?  Or does it leave an obvious question open about how that cult relates to the main villain of the piece?  That is, does not knowing the origin leave part of their motivation unexplained?
If you don’t know how a particular magic spell works, does that lead to questions as to how the whole system works – particularly of the kind that begin with the phrase “But why doesn’t he just”?  Or is it just a piece of trivia?

If a question opens up a whole bevy of other questions, ones about the fundamental logic of the narrative or the setting, then you probably need to answer it.

Here’s where it gets interesting – once you’ve gotten past “necessary to understand the plot” and “necessary to not break suspension of disbelief”, everything else comes down to personal opinion.  There’s definitely an art to leaving things unsaid.  People have created wonderful worlds that people love to play in and write fanfic about and play RPGs of, based entirely on things that weren’t said in the original books or movies.  It’s the fan-dance of literature.  Reveal this, cover that.  Open up the possibility of something deeper, and the fans dive in, but show them an abyss where knowledge should be and it eats at them.  Sometimes, it’s better to give half an answer than either a full answer or no answer at all.

As usual, though, it’s all about personal preference, and learning by doing.

And the standard call for input – What are your thoughts on the subject?  What unanswered questions really drive you up the wall, and what ones make you want to write fanfic, or reread the book for scraps of clues?  What have you discovered in your own writing?

Why GMing Teaches You About Decision-Making

As some of you have probably picked up by now, I like gaming.  I was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games when I was about ten, by a group of friends who are still my friends, even probably my best friends, to this day.
It should also surprise nobody that I’m a GM most of the time.  Last time I was a player was a Shadowrun game, and about three sessions in, the GM was lamenting not being able to play.  I mentioned that I prefer GMing anyway, and the deal was sealed.  From then on, I was in the GM’s chair.

I often wish I could encourage more people to GM, actually, especially those with aspirations to being writerfolk.  Because it is truly amazing what you will learn from being in control of the world, but not the characters in it.

Ask any GM to give you a few stories of times their players did the entirely unexpected, and I bet you they could tell you about fifty of them.  I’ve had some doozies in my time, for sure.

One time, I was DMing a DnD 3.5 game, wherein my players were collecting pieces of a mysterious artifact called the Eye of the Druid (shush. I was, like, fifteen).  Here was how it was supposed to go: The players would hear that the object was an old wives’ tale from the wizards’ university in the town.  Then, they’d get overheard by a cult member asking around, and they’d almost get sacrificed, but in the process, find the piece they needed if they escaped.
Here’s what actually went down: Instead of asking where it was, the party asked the wizards for a finding spell, which told them it was at the bottom of the lake.  They then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince the wizard to drain the lake so they could get to the piece.

Or the time when one of my players decided the most expedient way to escape slaver was to cast Teleport while jumping into the privy hole … without stopping to check if the shackles he was wearing were magic-cancelling.
You have no idea how hard it was to keep a straight face while he proudly laid out his grand plan to me.

See, stuff like this is why I distrust the idea that I have no control over my characters.  I’ve seen what happens where the person creating the plot doesn’t control the characters in it, and it’s stunts like this.

But it’s not just because of the funny stories that I wish more writers GMed tabletops.  I think it’s a very important exercise in information control.
When I’m talking about this, I’m often tempted to say “the characters take the most logical route”, but that’s not entirely true.  For some players it, is; others like roleplaying illogical characters and then all bets are off.
What’s far more true is “The players will take the route suggested by the information given to them.”
If the piece had been in the lake, rather than in a tunnel under it, that would have been an excellent choice to make.  If my player’s shackles hadn’t been magic-cancelling, his plan would have worked a treat.  With the information they had, my players made very logical choices.  Or, at least, ones that would have gotten them what they wanted, theatrics and pits full of fecal matter aside.

This, ideally, is what your characters should be doing.  I’m not going to say that any decision made by an RPG player is necessarily going to be what a book character ought to be doing (I’m sure we can all name one thing that a player has done that just … no).  But as you get better at GMing, you’ll get better at controlling what information your players get, when, and how.

There are a few levels where a good GM controls what information they give.  The first, and most obvious, is information given straight from GM to player.  One campaign I ran?  I gave the players a map of an island they needed to explore.
The map was very, very wrong.  Almost deceptively so – that is, it got them roughly to the middle of the forest.
We had to stop playing before they realised what I’d done.  This always makes me sad.
The equivalent to this in a book is probably describing places and people.  Choosing words to set up a scene, and then subverting or contradicting them later is quite powerful.  Maybe a character lies about their past to the main character.  That’s all on this level.

The second is a bit subtler, more misdirection than lying.  I didn’t lie to you, you just didn’t ask the right question.
One game, my players were trying to protect a briefcase containing a powerful device.  They asked me if it was still in the room, and intact.  I told them the case looked perfectly fine.
They got out of the headquarters, only to find that their new “friends” had run off, and the case was empty.
The writing equivalent?  Probably something where you set up a perfectly logical explanation for something, and then it turns out to be something different.  Is the main character shy about dgoing topless because in his years of adventuring, he’s collected a whole bevy of scars and cuts, and he doesn’t like people seeing them?  Set that up right, and you can have the audience believing that right up until they learn that no, he’s actually just shy.  Grew up in a household of many sisters who teased him ruthlessly about his buff, manly figure (or perhaps about his lack thereof), or something.  But remember, both options have to be equally logical.

Third, and probably one of the hardest ones to learn, is the art of overshadowing information with other information.  Sometimes it’s just selective hearing – I told that player with the shackles that they had runes on them, but he was more interested in hearing the layout of the room, so I guess he didn’t think to ask about the runes.  I’ve heard it described very well in a DM’s guide: If you lead the characters into a room, and say “There is an old, oak table and a wardrobe with a key still in the lock.  On the oak table is some paper, and an inkpot.  In the inkpot stands a pen with a huge, glossy feather, probably a dyed feather from some tropical bird.  The metal nib extends into a sheath, leading halfway up the feather’s spine, engraved in silver”, then the players are very likely to investigate the pen.  If you meant the pen to be important, that might not be the best way to go.  There’s no suspense in it.  But by the end of that paragraph, did you remember quite as vividly that the wardrobe’s key was still in the lock?  I bet you a significant group of players wouldn’t remember that at all.  If that’s what’s really important, then burying it under the information about the pen might be an excellent way to keep players guessing just that little bit longer.

The great thing about using GMing to hone these skills is feedback in real-time.  You describe a room, and you know exactly whether or not your players caught your veiled references within about thirty seconds, rather than three months, half a novel draft and an editing pass later, when you finally let it out of your hands to a beta reader.  Players will often talk about their thoughts as they go, so you can tell exactly what they did and didn’t notice or remember.
You won’t have the chance to retrofit the story to the plot, either, so you can’t weasel your way out of the stupid decision that way.  More than half the time, I look at what the players did and say “You know, that was disturbingly smart.”  I’d like to see that applied to some fantasy characters sometime.  Might give those cackling villains more of a run for their money.

On Outside Input

So, I talked a little while back about giving writing advice, and I think it’s about time I talked about receiving writing advice.  Not about taking criticism – there’s more than enough of that on the Internet, and it basically boils down to “actually think about the advice, and don’t be a dick to people willing to give it to you”.  That, of course would either be too easy or too complex, and thus a topic for another day.

One of the harder things to do as a writer is to send your work out to be critiqued.  Sending out something that represents hours, days, sometimes months or years, of your hard work and telling someone to point out all its flaws?  That doesn’t necessarily come naturally to people.  It’s always stressful, and it’s usually at least a little confronting.
But say you’ve got all that under control.  You’re a large, semi-muscular human being, and you can take it. Well done.  Whatever you did, it worked.  And then, one day, you send out a story of yours to, say five people.
One of them tells you they loved the main character; they really related to him/her, and they felt so sorry for them, it just worked.
One of them tells you that the main character needed heaps of work.  They were too passive, they didn’t do anything.
One of them tells you that the main character is a bit too much like Character Z from X series that you’ve never read.
One of them tells you that the main character needs work, and proceeds to give you a list of reasons, plus some suggested areas to change and how to change them.
One of them tells you the main character was fine, but maybe it’s the villain that’s the problem.

Well, that’s a whole lot of advice that’s interesting individually, but absolutely confusing and useless when put together.
What do you do?  Not just in this situation; in any situation?

Never ask yourself whether a reader “gets” a book.  Not because it isn’t sometimes relevant, but because it’s a bad habit to get into.  Dismiss all critique with “It’s OK, they didn’t get it; I’ll listen to this person instead, they understood” is a fast track to not getting anything out of outside input at all.  If you have to ask that question, you probably already know the answer.  The person saying that a Kafka story should have had a happy ending probably doesn’t ‘get’ the work.  The person saying that the characters should be the focus of The Lord of the Rings probably doesn’t ‘get’ the books.  This is, by the way, not necessarily a bad thing.  I fully admit that I don’t really ‘get’ certain books.  I don’t ‘get’ Lord of the Rings.  It has an audience, and that audience is not me.  I much prefer a book with more focus on characters than setting, and a book with a more ambiguous line between good and evil.  Therefore, if I were to suggest changes that would make The Lord of the Rings the kind of book I like, it would have dramatically changed the focus, the plot, the everything.  

And from there on, that particular point gets a bit complicated, so I’m going to pull back for a minute and talk about those five examples.
One and two have valid, but different interpretations of a character.  It probably means that it’s a case of YMMV, and you’ll need to reconcile those yourself.  I’ll talk about that in a minute.
The third person is likely to make you feel the most nervous.  Writers, as a rule, don’t like being told that we’re exactly like another writer.  Suddenly, accusations of plagiarism start to whirl through our heads.  We’re hacks, we’re unoriginal, we’re destined to die doomed, alone, and (worst of all), unpublished.
Step one: Stop that.  Breathe.  There are two things you can do, and it’s best to do both.  Number one: ask the person what makes them similar.  You’ll be able to tell from their response at least an idea of how big the problem is.  If they’re vague, and “I don’t know, they’re both jaded detectives”?  Your problem is probably not huge.  If they list of a whole lot of things, such as most of their backstory, mannerisms, or the like, then you might need to worry.  Number two: Go read the books.  Libraries are awesome.  And you don’t need to read the whole series – just get a feel for the main character.  This is the real dipstick test – you can’t argue with that oil line.  Just be careful you’re not making up differences just to avoid changing that character.d

The fourth person is trickier – if they are an experienced writer or editor, it will probably be tempting, especially if you’re new yourself, to just say “oh, well, they obviously know what they’re talking about” and follow them blindly.
This may work.  It may also lead you far, far astray.  And it’s likely to end up with someone other than you writing your story, and while it might be a good story, it won’t be yours, and you won’t really have learned anything.

The fifth … well, they might have a good point, they might just not want you to think your whole story is crap.  Think about it, mull it over.  If it helps, great.  If not, it didn’t, and you can go back to the others.

Which brings us all the way back round to the crux of the issue: how do you take advice, keeping a balance between “people won’t like that, so I need to fix it”, and “Changing this will take the story away from my vision, so I can’t change it”. 
Especially with large rewrites, like the main character one specified above, there’s a huge temptation to just say “Well, that’s the story I had to tell, so it’s staying”.  At least some of the time, this would be right.  As noted above, sometimes a reader is just not the audience for your book, and they never will be.  Some of this can be weeded out in the process of choosing betas – either choose beta readers who read your genre as a favourite, or who read most genres indiscriminately.  Asking a fantasy reader to beta a thriller novel is not going to get you very far.  You might make an exception for a well-read beta who is a writer themselves, but be aware that their useful advice will be mostly about pacing and character construction and things that are fairly universal to all genres, but mostly, choose people who like your genre.
Sometimes, symbolism will make the choice of who to listen to easy for you.  If they suggest a change to the main character, and your response is “But that would ruin the point I make in chapter 8”, then maybe that’s not advice you take.
More beta readers will also help.  If one says they hate the character, but five others say they love him, well, maybe it’s just that one person.  If one says they like him, and the other five hate him … well, then that’s where you might have problems.

In the end, the skill that you really need to cultivate is to be able to look at a particular change and see two things about it.  First, the ramifications of the change.  That’s the easier one, since you’ll know the story so well.  The second one is harder.
It’s important, when you receive advice, to realise what problem the advice is actually trying to fix.  Sometimes the problem and the solution given are two entirely different things.  Maybe a beta reader tells you the main character is too passive, and should be more proactive, but that really doesn’t fit your story.  What if the underlying problem is instead that you haven’t invited the reader into their headspace enough, so what you intended as a calculated passivity from a character who prefers to think before they speak or act actually just becomes unjustified passivity.  Bringing some situations where they take charge in, yes, will help, but bringing the reader into that mental world, show them working through the problems they have a little more, and maybe the character will feel more rounded.  No problem has only one solution; the only wrong solution is the one that leaves the story feeling like Scotch tape over gaping holes, or the one that muddies the internal logic or point of the story, rather than clarifying it.

As usual, what did I miss?  What do people do differently?  Anyone have horror stories, or inspiring tales of the book that got the perfect fix?