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.

Me and Minerva Mae

Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.

You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.

As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul.  The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls.  I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.paper-pen2

When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?

Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.

Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.

Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.

I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.

There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.

Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.

The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.




Dodging the Enemy of Creativity: the Destructor

What depletes you? Besides your own fears and procrastination, what else tries to prevent your manuscript from coming into being?

I’d like to argue that it’s miserable people.
Children in the rubble of East London, 1940 – 1941
I sometimes encounter those who hate others being happy. These people who feel inadequate or insecure look for ways to destroy those who are creative producers. Let’s call them destructors.
Graham Greene’s short story, “The Destructors,” stars an unhappy boy named Trevor whose family has fallen on hard times in post-war London, a city blasted by German bombs. He’s a boy with intellect and leadership skill that he twists to a dark purpose: the destruction of architecture. He corrals a bunch of boys to follow him and for a while, he’s successful in his mission.
Greene wrote about a boy mangled by traumas never shown us directly, but most likely add up to some form of abuse and neglect. A boy like Trevor, gifted with precocious verbal skills and the ability to inspire others, may well spend his life blasting his PTSD on a crowd. He cannot contain his thoughts or actions to a narrow convent room and Wordsworth-like, make angry art simmering on the page. He is more Byron–but with a death wish for others–who must be seen and heard while he drags everyone down.
People like Trevor who take joy in the wreckage left in their wake have destruction as their norm. They watched a mother, father, brother, or sister lay waste to others before they learned to speak. So hatefulness and spite, withheld love and stingy living, a hard fist or a smacked mouth, that is the everyday and not the exception. We must remember this when we write about them. 
People like Trevor cannot create because their soul is stained by lack. Bitterness stops their creativity and fear stays their hand. The same hammer you or I would use to build is only good in theirs for ruin. We must remember this when we write about them. 
People like Trevor with deeply low self-esteem hate themselves. What they project on you is that self-hatred. We must remember this when we write about them. 
The house the boys attack belongs to a man they call Old Misery. Graham Greene’s genius–so creatively simple, so directly brilliant–sets up a tableaux of our daily human drama. People seek to hammer you down, rip out your wiring, knock down your load-bearing walls. The child of this might well be your misery and theirs–though theirs is mixed with a dark pleasure. 
But unlike Old Misery, I won’t get locked up while boys jeer outside. I won’t cry out with pleading or moaning. My house will not be mangled. Anyone who keeps writing knows this. The act of putting words to paper is rebellion–procreative, gestational, resurrecting. It’s a raging against the dying others would perpetrate. 
No, I didn’t receive a cry-tique from anyone lately. I am blessed to work with fellow writers whose eyes see clearly to my page, who make comments from a place of caring. They want my work to get better. Nope: I was simply going about my daily business apart from this writing life when let’s just say, my car got clipped. 
Now there’s a long rake in the paint on the passenger side. The sideview mirror, nicked and dented,  needs to be righted. But no matter: the rogue car is in the rearview, and I don’t put stock in stuff anyway. A car’s just a shell to get me somewhere, much like my ego, status and all other outer trappings. The spirit that rides within, she is what matters. She’s got somewhere to go, and she won’t be stopped. 
Writing Prompts:
  • Who is trying to stop you? Will you let them?
  • Write in spite of hate and blockage. Write 50 words of rebellion.
  • Write a letter to your would-be destructor. 
  • What part of your car can you leave behind?
  • Read Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.” Construct a story, poem, or essay about a ruined place or a rebirth. 

Ask and Ye Shall Irritate…And That’s Okay

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Image found here at Emergency Dentists USA


Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you’re a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you’re a writer, you can’t escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.

We all get that Negative Nelly never sees the light and that Pollyanna, though she may be misguided (stupid, even), appears to have a much better time. And Pollyannas not only like what they’re gotten but believe they might even get better. It’s all good. I would imagine Pollyannas believe they have the right to ask. I’ve been called Pollyanna, so I might as well speak for her.
I’ve always been a squeaky wheel. For that, I get stuff (contest wins, an agent, blog respondents) and grief (rejection, anger, or “no”). When you ask, you will inevitably irritate some.
Writing is about demanding attention. Our words say, “All eyes on me.” I’ve never had trouble with that, being a teacher and an amateur actress. Call it ego and insane confidence, but you must believe you have a right to be seen and heard. Some writers fear irritating agents and editors so much, they never even knock. So you don’t deserve a space at the table? You don’t need a moment in the sun? There’s room for everyone. Everyone.
Writing is about asking for help. I ask my writing pals Bob and Gordon to take yet another look at my manuscripts; I ask my writing groups to hear odds and ends from various unfinished manuscripts; and let’s just say my parents should be canonized. They’ve read more drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT than any person should.
There’s only been one time I’ve asked and paid a person to give me feedback and that person has gotten irritated with me and my manuscript. Note to Self: editors who are easily pissed off probably hate the job. Or are pretending to edit. Yep, I cried post critique. But I’ve never cried once in all the hundreds of rejections I’ve seen in the last several years. Perhaps because in all those nos, no one seemed particularly irritated by the asking. I guess I’m a people pleaser at heart and always wonder, “Wow, did I do something to piss this person off?” Um, you can waste a lot of time at that particular task.
Because sometimes my desire for speed, change, success, etc. can be a bit bull-in-the-china shop, I have to pay close attention to whether closed doors, no response, etc., is a sign I should stop or a sign I should persist. When my gut tells me, “It’s the principle of the thing,” I persist.
  • Principle #1: I query because I have a story that needs to get out there. I asked about 150 times, and I did receive.
  • Principle #2: I ask because I am worth something. I am worth the investment. Therefore if I ask for a raise, a loan, a reimbursement, or help, it’s not a request I should apologize for.
  • Principle #3: I ask because I desire to grow and change. Seeds can’t be nurtured without water, soil, light, and time.
  • Principle #4: I ask because I’m angry. Something needs to evolve; something needs to change.

On the latter, I realize I’m usually mad about something. I’m asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever.  Maybe it’s a spirit of Italian vendetta (I’ve got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don’t think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy…but that’s another post.

My argument assumes we’re following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee’s time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that–see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don’t obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you’re too afraid to seek an audience?

So if the blowback is ugly or disproportionate to the request, ask yourself if the irritated party falls into one of these archetypal categories. Even the most seemingly professional, laudable, famous, authoritative folks can fall into any of these slots:
  • The Martyr: This person’s attitude is, “What, you’re asking me for something when I work too damn hard around here?”
  • The Jealous Freak: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to ask when OBVIOUSLY you have it made and OH MY GOD THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND!!!!”
  • The Sluggard: “I have no desire to fulfill your request because I would rather surf and waste my time tweeting.”
You’re dealing with people who either need therapy for workaholic obsession, who’re severely addicted to the scarcity model, or who got where they are with too much luck and not enough sweat.

The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three.

Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent–all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?

And if you aren’t asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone’s anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, “You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does.” No, they don’t. It’s a tiny few who are scouted from their writer’s garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there.

Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I’d say that’s an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being.  Novelist Milan Kundera writes, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. “

What will you ask today?

Writing Prompts:

  • What question does your story, essay, poem, or novel ask?
  • List requests you’ve made of others lately.  On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the reasonableness of the request, the gall or arrogance of it, or the scariness of it. Talk about the number you chose.
  • Tell a story about asking or receiving, or both.
  • Which piece of writing has a right to see the light? To be heard by others? What is keeping it squirreled away?
  • How will asking help your writing grow and change? Set three goals that require you to make some requests in the next three weeks.
  • Write a story where The Jealous Freak, The Martyr, or The Sluggard stars as a foil to the hero or heroine.
  • Write a poem titled, “Ask.”
  • A man walks into a grocery store and makes the oddest request at three counters: the deli, the bakery, and the produce department. What does he ask? How do the store employees respond?
  • A woman’s last will and testament presents a bizarre request that requires her children to do the opposite of what they want. What is that?

Canoodling with my Nook

I’m in love. An e-reader has won my heart.

Its name is Nook and it’s become my constant companion. I adore the huge print, the ease of page swiping, and the light weight in my hand. I also like paying $4.89 for The Hunger Games so it can tuck me in at night. I don’t miss propping hardbacks or even paperbacks on my stomach and trying to make pages stay put. The lazy reader I’d become is no more.

I fought getting an e-reader for some time. It seemed decadent when I have shelves full of unread books. Then a good friend gave me this surprise gift, and it gave me permission to try 21st century reading. 
When the Nook competes with the desktop and the iTouch, it wins handily. The iTouch, helpful for checking email, is not the right screen for many pages. And the desktop? No contest. My neck and back thank you, dear Nook. Now I’m reading literature on the weeknights again, whether in bed or on the sofa. The Hunger Games delivered via Nook is the tool of my conversion.
Touche, technology. Thou hast outwitted thyself and brought my reading life back!

As a writer, I love loading my critique group’s manuscripts on this device. Reading their work while I’m kicked back in a chair, bed, or sofa changes the whole dynamic. The manuscript has a different status when read this way–easily, like a book, yet without the pressure of pen and paper. I’m no longer feeling the need to “do something” with their pages. Before, I’d have their print-out with a pen close by or be sitting uncomfortably at my desktop, and that quickened my tendency to look for things to mark. I’m reading more  receptively and humbly, giving the manuscript a more thoughtful, peaceful read.

This new approach helps tremendously when reading first drafts. Writers in first-draft mode need global comments and questions, not line edits. My temptation to home in on some of their trees and prune the branches has disappeared. When you seek the flaws too quickly, you’re missing the bigger mission, and until a writer is sure of that bigger mission, all that sound and fury of the line-edit pen is wasted time.

When it comes to actually writing a critique or marking notes, I assume an iPad would prove superior, giving me the ability to mark up manuscripts with a note-taking app. But I’m happy enough right now with this new view of others’ writing, canoodling with my multi-functional Nook.

This doesn’t mean I’ve emptied my nightstand. Housekeeping, Souls Raised from the Dead, Alice Munro’s stories, the Bible, and a pile of other books await me there. The two voluminous Harry Potters are loans from a friend who’d no doubt like them back, especially if I don’t finish them before Pottermore opens for e-business. But the rest? They’ll stay. Housekeeping is an ’80s copy my sister loved on again and again; I’d like to read that artifact. Souls Raised from the Dead bears Doris Betts’ autograph; that’s a treasure I won’t lose. The Bible I read slowly, carefully, sometimes the same bit over and over. Turning pages of these works, ’tis no work at all.

As my husband sings, Some things are better left alone.