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The Process, Part Six: Who Cares What Others Think?   Leave a comment

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters

Part Five: Devils In Those Details 

When people describe the life of an independent author, the concept of wearing all the hats (as in assuming multiple roles in what is essentially a small business venture) invariably arises. You’re not just the writer, you’re also the editor, producer (in the financial sense), promoter, mailroom clerk, administrative aide, graphic designer, etc., etc.

Okay, there’s one hat I listed that I don’t wear. I won’t wear it because I can’t. That’s the hat labeled “editor.”

There’s a curious school of thought in the indie community that has always baffled me, one stating quite firmly that an editor’s or beta reader’s input would only dilute or arbitrarily alter the writer’s “vision.” Those who turn their noses up at the mere thought of editorial input ask the seemingly lofty question of why they would want their work shaped by someone else. They are convinced that editorial feedback is the literary equivalent of a small dog pissing on things so they smell right from the dog’s point of view. Such statements, in my opinion, raise the red warning flag of “amateur” (in the  pejorative sense of that word) over writers who utter them. That there are many (fortunately not the majority) writers who think this way surely contributes to the perception that self-published fiction is substandard.

I believe this because, in my own experience, I’ve been handed numerous examples proving that I can’t edit my own work effectively. I’ll work over the first draft as carefully as I can and yet, when the beta readers go through the manuscript, they highlight things that I missed completely however diligent I may have been. And I’m pretty strict with myself, since as a courtesy at least I want the beta readers to have as little work to do as possible. I make the copy as clean as I can before sending it off. But no matter how often I go through the manuscript, beta readers always catch things. Sometimes they put their collective fingers on plot holes, inconsistencies, and ideas left underdeveloped that I should have caught, but didn’t. Typos and awkward sentence structure, along with larger matters just mentioned, will get past me until I read the editorial comments provided by beta readers. As I read them, I often slap myself on the forehead or commit the dreaded face-palm. How do I miss this stuff?

It gets past me because I’m too close to the story. The story is a part of me. In my mind I know what’s supposed to be there, what I intended. I’m so intimately connected to the ideas that became the story, and to the flow of words from my mind to the document file, that everything can feel right even though I’ve botched something. You’d think it would work the other way around, but for some reason it doesn’t. A sculptor, reviewing her work, will immediately see the flaw; a painter will see that the color isn’t quite what she had in mind. For a writer there is no physical product to examine, just page after page of words set down in the hope of making what the writer imagines come to life in the mind of a reader. The words began as ideas and emotions and, when I reread my own work, they immediately return to whatever form they had in my mind as the work was done. And so it just feels right, even when sometimes – actually, every time to some degree – what I’ve done with that arrangement of words doesn’t quite get the job done as well as I hoped.

I said that writers try to arrange words in a way that transmits what lives in their minds and duplicates it in the mind of the reader. The only way to be sure this has been accomplished is to have someone else read it and react to it before the “publish” button is pushed. From those reactions a stronger story will emerge. It’s that simple.

This isn’t to say that I simply revise the manuscript in accordance with beta reader input. To be sure I do so for technical matters. I sometimes grow over-fond of sentence structures starting with the word “And.” I’ve also been known to be over-generous with semi-colons and exclamation marks. I’m not even going to talk about hyphens. These things slip right past me, but a net of four or five beta readers will catch most, if not all, of them. When such are pointed out, I make the necessary changes. Matters to do with story and character development are a somewhat different matter. I never ignore any feedback, but I may not employ it directly. That a single reader waved a yellow card over something causes me to take a closer look, but as likely as not I’ll stick with my guns. If two readers are hung up by the same developmental aspect, I rethink what I’ve done, and sometimes make a revision. If three or more do so, that’s a red card – something just isn’t working, and a deeper sort of revision is required. I dread seeing a consensus regarding plot or characterization flaws, since this usually means a lot of work on my part, but responding honestly to that red card will always yield a stronger, more powerful story. Always.

From what I’ve heard from fellow authors, those who employ a professional freelance editor, the process is much the same. Many of these authors also run their work past a beta reader or two before sending it to an editor, a strategy that appeals to me. However it gets done, obtaining insight into your work through some form of editorial feedback is essential. Those who claim that doing so makes the work somehow less your own are simply wrong. That feedback provides the perspective an author needs to draw closer to the full potential of a work in progress. Writing, whether nonfiction or storytelling, is artful communication. If you aren’t willing to check yourself and verify that communication is taking place between your mind and the reader’s, you’re only talking to yourself. We all know what a bad habit that can be.

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The Process, Part Five: Devils In Those Details   1 comment

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters

 

A story requires a plot and characters – the trail you cut to the ending and the traveling companions who make the journey with you. But there’s more to it than just a new line drawn on the map of your imagination. You saw things along the way, things worth pointing out to those who will follow after you. After all, when you cleared the path for others to follow, you were passing through a world. It’s a world of your imagination, but one that must come to life in the imaginations of others if the work is to have any meaning in the end. So, as you cut the trail that charts the plot of your story, and grow acquainted with the people you push into those situations that comprise the plot, you need to look around at the world, the setting. You need to see the forest and the trees – among many other things. This part of storytelling is, appropriately enough, called world building.

There’s a lot of work involved in world building, an understatement if ever there was one. This is true whether the setting for the story is as narrow in scope as a single room, or as broad as all of time and space. Whatever the scale, I’ve found that the single biggest challenge involved with the concept of world building is knowing when to quit. If you have any imagination at all, and have paid attention to the real world, you know that any level of perceived detail rests upon a more fine-grained reality. A range of tree-covered mountains is composed of rock and trees. Look closer and the trees have leaves, and among those leaves are birds that fly from branch to branch gleaning insects to eat. The stone of mountain is layered, and in each layer there are flecks of various colored minerals. You could look ever closer, down to the subatomic realm – if you wanted to be ridiculous about it. (Although, if the story demands it, then it isn’t really ridiculous.) Whatever level of detail you choose, that’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. (Spreadsheets for the win! Trust me on this.) And there’s the proverbial rub. How fine-grained do you need to be for the story you want to tell? And how do you make that level of detail blend in as a part of the story, rendering it an integral part of the whole, and neither a mere backdrop nor a distraction.

If you’re too sparing of detail, the world of the story may amount to little more than the painting at the back of a stage. I used to have that problem, years ago. A fellow writer in a fiction writing group I once belonged to summed it up by comparing my work to watching a black-and-white copy of The Wizard of Oz. She kept waiting for the color portion to unfold, but it never did. I spent years trying to overcome that defect, and seriously over-compensated. I went as fine-grained as I could, the sort of writing that draws the dreaded complaint of “info dump,” in which the story pretty much stops dead while the author paints a high-definition picture of the scene (or of a character). The first version of The Luck of Han’anga would have been an example of serial info dumps, but for the honesty of beta readers.

Frankly, I think the term info dump is sometimes used too often and freely by readers who are actually just covering up for their short attention spans. But the “info dump” is a real thing, and can turn a ripping tale of swashbuckling adventure into a fictional narrative history. Finding the balance between too much and too little exposition is the real trick, and one I find cannot be addressed effectively the first time through a new story. What I call cutting the trail to the story’s end is otherwise known as discovery writing – a very apt phrase indeed – and it isn’t until I know the length of that trail that I can turn back and see that the trail I’ve discovered is lacking in breadth.

I start from the beginning and work through the story again, trying my best to see with my mind’s eye this “reality” inhabited by the story and its characters. What are the colors, the sound, the scents? Everything from clothing styles to the height and breadth of mountains, the temperature of the breeze and the colors of stars – it’s all relevant. Or can be. The trick is to make sure it really is relevant. Does it serve the needs of the story in a way that aids in moving it forward? Another way to think of this is to ask, does the reader need to know these things for the story to come alive and make sense? (There’s a related question: does the reader need to know this now? Timing is everything.) If the answer is “yes,” I need to find a way for the reader to experience, rather than merely receive the information. Sometimes it can be woven into events as they unfold, and at others it can be imparted through conversation between characters, or seen through their eyes and reflected in their reactions. Inevitable, I find a spot where I just need to paint a picture. I usually employ a combination of these techniques before all is said and done, meaning I’ve concluded a workable draft of the story.

By this point in the process of writing a story, be it long or short, I’ve had the daydream that set it all in motion, and made the trip necessary. I’ve found my way through a landscape of possibilities, from trailhead to destination. I’ve met and worked with (and sometimes worked over) the characters of the tale. And I’ve built what I hope is a plausible reality in which the story can unfold. It’s an organic process, with all of these aspects co-evolving as I go. Some of the world building happens during the discovery writing, and character development is altered by the evolution of the world I build during subsequent passes through the material. These aspects can be identified separately, but they very rarely (for me) operate truly independently of each other.

I’ve also been through the story at least two times, sometimes three – or more. It’s becoming difficult to see the forest for the trees.  In a way, I’m too familiar with it all. It’s time for me to step back and seek some feedback. Time for someone else to follow the trail and tell me what they see.

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