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Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.

What is Special? Indie Bookstore Signings

Recently I had the pleasure of reading and signing at two North Carolina independent bookstores–Purple Crow Books and McIntyre’s Books. With fellow author of Skater in a Strange Land, David Frauenfelder, and as part of the writers’ co-operative True North Writers & Publishers, I had a chance to share my YA Manifesto and speak of Doris Betts, our beloved mentor. 

Check out the wonderful film made by my stepson, Henry Darr, who not only captured events at these great stores but also captured who I am as an author. 

 

There’s nothing like the intimacy of a place packed with books and readers. You feel your heart accelerate as you try to read with feeling and bring your book to life for an audience. You sweat through your clothes, but happily, because the place is full and friends are smiling and you are finally in community with the larger world, not just in your own mind with your characters’ voices. You take questions, you shake hands, and you try to keep your hand from trembling as you sign, thinking hard once again of the best thing to write. You say to yourself, What a beautiful thing that people are willing to leave their homes to hear me and be together; how wonderful is it that someone gets up day after day and unlocks a shop full of rich, luminous, colorful books!

I’m all for ebooks, but I love print pages in my hand, too. I love seeing books stacked up on my nightstand. The world feels full of possibility when there are too many books to read. And walking into a place full of stacked shelves, with the papery scent of dust and carpet and bindings…it’s a pleasure that hasn’t changed since childhood. 

When was the last time you strolled a bookstore, browsed, and bought? 

It’s All a Dress Rehearsal

“…we soothe ourselves during these waiting times with assurances about what we’re going to get at the end of it all. We are going to get exactly what we want, right? That’s the part that makes the waiting bearable, isn’t it? Otherwise Lent and Advent are just a big waste of time. Why do all this waiting and practicing and yearning if there’s no prize at the end? We like results in everything from our exercise programs to our business plans to our religious practices.”

–Marcia Mount Shoop, “Waiting”

So my novel is in the hands of agents, some of whom have requested partials and fulls, and it’s slimmed down to 86,000 words. So my short stories sit in various literary magazine inboxes, and my novel sits in the hands of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and James Jones First Novel Fellowship judges. I tell myself I’m waiting for their results.

Image found at Oilcrash.com

Then yesterday I reminded myself I wasn’t waiting. I’m living. And on that note, this morning I began the sequel to ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT.

Yes, I did the typically American thing: got myself back to work. Got busy creating again. My husband and I often discuss the healthiness of this approach, my tendency to fabricate brand-new deadlines for myself. I tell him artists fight for creating time, and then agree with him that sometimes life feels like nothing but an endless round of work for different masters, never mind the cleaning that’s not getting done while I write. (The tumbleweeds of cat hair are declared victorious.) And how do catch ourselves before that workaholicism devolves into a gross pursuit of the Rusty Old American Dream?

This is how I deal with waiting. I get on with the next project, and I dream more words till something new emerges. I guess you could say I don’t like waiting, so I make new work for myself.

Is it because I obsess and grasp after the perfect result–contract, book deal, movie deal? We are at our skinniest, loveliest, most charming when courting a new love, which is why so many people get tangled up in illicit affairs, escapist hobbies, endless deadlines, and any other pastime promising perfect happiness at the end of the road. As if the road has an end.

Of course there’s death, but I mean this life road: there is no full stop at which heaven will embrace us and we get that perfect balance of ready cash, loyal friends, svelte body, and riotous fun–or whatever we authors want when we achieve celebrity status.

I loved writing the first pages of the sequel. They’d been in my head a while, and what was wonderful about today’s writing was there was no pressure for them to be perfect. I understand from the long road ST. MICHAEL has taken and other novels before that how a manuscript morphs many times till it’s shaped just so. Today I saw the excesses, tangents, and questions in my new story right as I wrote them and thought, “No problem; I’ll deal with this later on down the road.”

That’s because I love the journey and for today, for a hour, nothing’s mattered but that. I cast not one thought the direction of the prize at the end of the road. Because there is no prize. There’s no amount of money, beauty, and fame that can replace the health and wealth of this unsullied moment of creativity.

Wow, I sound like a highly-evolved creature. Who’s that talking? That would be Lyn in a costume somewhat askew, not-quite-right stage face, who occasionally forgets key lines this last night of rehearsal. Because it’s all a last night before the show, all a dress rehearsal, since we don’t know what day the fullest stop of all may come and the show must go on into the spirit realm.

Writing Prompts

— Are you a process or a product person? A journey or a boon person? What do you most want to be, and why?
— What frustrates you most about the waiting?
— Writing needs audience, and if our writing stays underground, authors can suffer. How do you find ways to get an audience now while you’re waiting for bigger projects to ferment?
— How do you balance students’ need for audience and their need to learn about the writing process with its many stages? Do teens in particular need more prizes and gratification than long experiences of process? How can we give them enough boons along the road to keep them engaged while teaching them to commit, to delay gratification, and to revise again?
— How much process has your manuscript experienced? Do you feel in your gut you’ve shopped it out to agents too early?
— Read about a few of your favorite authors and find out about their process to getting published. What’s the average amount of years? Revisions? What obstacles did these writers use to fuel the next stage of the journey? How did they overcome disappointment, keep eyes on the prize, and not care about the prize too much, all at the same time?

Bio Hazard


“Fiction is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven’t yet found out, you’re likely to end up pontificating or lying some other way.” — Janet Burroway

Welcome to my blog!

This will not be fiction, creative nonfiction, or personal biography. I’ll discuss the life of the craft, especially the how-to struggle behind my fiction writing, rather than the life of this writer. From time to time I’ll share anecdotes but only if I think it’s wise to post them. I first considered posting a detailed bio sharing everything from employment history to meditations on spirituality. Then I caught myself. Instead, if I show any cards, it will be for the sake of casting opinions about the life of the craft.

Blogging is cheap and easy, like talking, so the fast and verbose talkers like me will be especially tempted to spew. The small stuff like the pontificating blog post eats at the big stuff I should be doing – noveling, essaying, short-storying. Robert Frost said, “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.”

I want tremendous pressure roaring from that upstairs fiction faucet.

Then there’s the hazard of releasing too much personal life through that hydrant into the streets of cyberspace. Call it a bio hazard.

Excessively personal blogging sneezes all sorts of viral trivia out there. Now your family’s reaching for Purell and your friends, Airborne.

We wouldn’t stand on our front lawn shouting our most salacious thoughts. We wouldn’t stand up in a restaurant and yell details of a blind date. We wouldn’t rail against our mothers in a full-page ad. We wouldn’t post party plans with a limited guest list on every street corner.

Or do we?

There’s a scene in the movie Me and You and Everyone We Know where the creepy neighborhood guy places huge raunchy signs in his front window directed at passing teen girls – and anyone else who cares to notice. If not a symbol of certain blogs, this scene makes you think about the current urge to confess and rant. The zeitgeist demands you knock aside the confessional and priest and let the whole church in on your business.

Or try this metaphor: snap a bedroom shot of our brains and what you get is bad photos, terrible lighting, the worst of angles…Or how about this one: the glimpse of a neighbor at night before blinds are drawn – only picture that same neighbor staying to vogue and ape at you, fly open, bra slipping.

But online it’s somehow okay.

In the movie No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones’ character laments, “It all started with bad manners” – “it” being drugs and homicide. Lest you think he’s indulging a kind of grumpy-old-man hyperbole, invoke the image of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park fluttering his fingers to emulate a butterfly’s wings. If we open our own little doors online to gossip and retaliate, we risk treading on the feelings of hundreds. Thousands; heck, why not butterfly effect it into the millions? (Personally, I’ll be satisfied if a few friends and family check in!)

If you have no shame and no manners, why should anyone else?

Suddenly you find yourself mudwrestling with strangers.

You’re a *%#*@ idiot.

– Anonymous.

****

Thanks, #@%$^&. Right back atcha.

— Alias.

Come on people, now, smile on your brother; tell me, why isn’t everybody gettin’ together in the new cyberutopia?

That little exchange I just imagined – do you want that carved for posterity on your tomb? Will the hieroglyphs of our lives read full of Netspeak and expletives? Suddenly the words we thought were 100% ours – signed, sealed, delivered — turn on us. We’ve reduced ourselves to a label, a caption, a hormonal moment, a bad-hair day. It’s too late to squirm out of the stereotype. After all, we posted it.

Post no bills about your life you don’t plan on seeing fifty years from now. Tattoos, anyone?

When we keep a diary for the world, can our confessions really inspire evolution? Or do we devolve toward narcissism? Do we force ourselves into situations where we inform everyone else about our emotions, our relationships, our most salacious intellectual meanderings, before we’ve “found out” what’s really going on? Doesn’t discovery merit some private thinking? Doesn’t discovery best happen in an intimate setting between two friends, family members, or lovers…on an emerging canvas, in a dawning melody…and in the writer’s case, in a hidden journal?

I’m an educator, so pontificating is my first language. (Ask my sibling who was forced to face a chalkboard at age eight and spell words like “simultaneously”). I believe it is wise for me to avoid the subject of my life on this blog, since a tell-all could limit my fiction to pedantic concepts, lessons, and themes. I’d rather my fiction be the fertile ground for my finding out.

I just learned the noun and verb “dooce” the other day for something that might well have happened to me. When I wrote a certain FacultyShack article back in 2004, the reaction of my employers helped me decide it was time to leave. The story goes that an anonymous someone forwarded my bosses the link. There was no message attached. My supervisors said they were puzzled and concerned by my article. They noted I had referenced people by name. True. I had referred to some with compliments, using first but not last names. It was also pointed out that I mentioned helping dismiss a subordinate who did less than his job. The upshot was “People might put two and two together and realize what place you’re referring to.” True.

At the time I thought my behavior justified. Hadn’t everything I’d written been basically public knowledge? Didn’t I have a right to free speech? Kinda sorta and yes. But do people want to work with you when you’re standing on your front lawn in your underwear sharing behind-the-scenes, play-by-play action? No. And as Greg Hawks has been known to say: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

Dooce who was actually dismissed from her job wrote, “My advice to you is BE YE NOT SO STUPID.”

I still think it’s a good article, and I’m glad FacultyShack published it (maybe because I was in different position, already decided to leave, so my supervisors weren’t forced to make a decision). But you won’t see me holding forth on colleagues, contracts, and other aspects of my current place of employment. You won’t hear about my friends and family unless it’s of benefit to them.

Don’t let me sound disingenuous in this rant. It’s not that the “world,” the audience, doesn’t matter to me; audience plays a powerful role to get me at the keyboard and committed to my art. Now I have someone to answer to when I post my weekly or daily writing goals. Now I have a marketing vehicle.

Don’t let me pretend that today’s spewing isn’t a soapbox rant, either, an occasional flash of my dark side, a TMI place of my opinion. Call this a reflective mission statement, and one of the most long-winded. If I want to get my fiction done, the other posts will need to be shorter. Much shorter.

A final note: I respect those who write memoirs and other creative nonfiction and who choose to publish online. It’s a different mode of discourse and a different writing process that precedes the electronic delivery, whereas blogging fast becomes a scratch pad of self-indulgent, regrettable spewing. It’s too tempting to do sloppy first-draft work when ironically the subject is sacred stuff – your life. That’s why I aim to draft and redraft when I can before posting, letting the post simmer for a couple days before going global.

It’s time for me to turn off the teacher and get to work. All I know is, I have much work to do to keep discovery front and center in my stories.

If you care to comment, perhaps you can keep me honest in this endeavor to talk craft. Thanks for checking in! — Lyn

Monday’s writing goal:

Discover what’s essential about pages 73-76 in my novel But Yes and cut, cut, cut.

Filed Under: audience, autobiography, blogging, privacy