All posts by swanstuff

Writer, small business wannabe, pundit, philosopher, often hopelessly confused, and blessed by a gracious God beyond all imagining (the views expressed by this blogger do not necessarily reflect the Supreme Being, but this blogger hopes he doesn't embarrass the Big Guy too much).

Beta Readers – Your Best Frenemies

You’ve finished your book, congratulations! Or have you?

Have you put your manuscript through Grammarly? Then through an editor? Ah, you have! Good for you!

You’re still not done, though. Now you need to let your beta readers at it.

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Beta’s: Feisty but Necessary

What are beta readers? They are NOT editors. Editors are trained in story, grammar, and (gasp!) spelling. Your beta reader, or first reader, is just as valuable because they aren’t trained. They are ideally regular readers, which means they have an intuitive grasp of story, which can tell you more than an editor can.

Beta readers are not paid. Let’s get that out of the way up front. These should be readers who are friends or acquaintances. They should love your genre. Here is what they should NOT be:

  • Editors (or if they are, make sure you have several who are not).
  • Afraid to hurt your feelings.
  • Too busy to read your book (that’s one reason why you give it to several beta readers, because life gets in the way of even well-meaning readers).
  • Outside your genre audience. A mystery reader may not be aware of sci-fi conventions.
  • They probably shouldn’t know what “conventions” means.

Your purpose in handing your pre-published book to beta readers is to find the parts that don’t work for a reader.

  • What areas are slow?
  • What areas lack enough information?
  • What rings false?
  • What doesn’t feel consistent for a given character?
  • Is it a quick read or do you have to slog through it?
  • Is the ending satisfying?
  • How would they describe your characters? Do they mesh with what you’re trying for?

William Goldman, a fabulous writer, has a single aphorism: “Nobody knows what works.”

Your beta readers are the ones who can tell you if it does. Or doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you need to fix it.

Movie executives know the power of beta readers, or pre-screenings in their medium. They’ll run a movie across a crowd of non-paying people and then poll them, question them, and milk them of every scrap of useful information. If anything doesn’t work, they’ll change it. It may cost millions to change, but they change it.

If they’ll pay anything, you can put in the hours to correct areas of issue.

Let the beta readers know in general what you want to know. Is the story satisfying? Where isn’t it? What works, what doesn’t? Which characters do you like (why?) and hate (why?).

Then assure them they can tell you anything and it won’t hurt it will help (it’s okay to lie to beta readers. It will hurt, but it WILL help).

Amazon is Great… Except When it’s Not

Amazon changed publishing, making it easier for writers to get their work out there… and thereby harder to find, and quality uncertain. Still, great for writers with fantastic books who can’t find traditional publishers.

Their tools are handy, their customer service is spot-on, if a bit slow. I really have few complaints, but a bit of trepidation. About what?

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It’s kind of an evil smirk, isn’t it?

Amazon Ads.

If you have a Kindle of any kind that you bought at a discount, it’s going to have ads. Sometimes as a little panel at the bottom, other times as the screensaver, and under your Books home page.

On Amazon, ads are listed at the beginning of a search, or in correlation with other books of a similar topic, these ads are pay-for-click. If they sit there and no one clicks on them, you don’t pay. If they do, you pay a certain amount that you set to begin with. For example, you may set a limit of $50 at $0.25 per click. That’s 200 clicks. In traditional advertising, a 3% closing rate is expected. That’s 6 sales of your book. You’ve spent $50 to make $12-15.  Ah!  But those who bid 50 cents-a-click get higher ranking! Perhaps 3% is low. I’m going to give it a try with my book, “Creativity Wears Boots.”

A suggestion: Do not do the Kindle ads. Have you ever clicked one?  Stick to the related products ads.

You can also get higher ranking by being a best-seller in your category. I am thrilled to admit that I am a best-seller now. My book “Creativity Wears Boots” has been on sale with no promotion yet (I’m working hard on getting two other books ready for publication. Success on the first: Faces & Fantasy by Dawn Davidson. An adult coloring book… wait, a coloring book for adults! Or kids. It’s really amazing art work, and anyone who likes to color with pencils, markers, crayons, watercolor… oh are you going to be excited. Watch this space.

The second is in the editing phase. More about that one later.

Once I catch my breath, I’ll promote my own book, but it’s really fun to see people stumble across and and buy it without promotion. My efforts will always be on my authors, but I’ll squeak my own campaign in there soon.

But this is about Amazon.

Amazon is trying. They can’t select for quality, I get that, so those willing to spend to get attention get ranking, so ranking doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

For quality, pick a publisher (like Prevail Press) who only offers quality books. Such publishers are gatekeepers of quality. Make note of books that are poor and don’t buy from their publisher, which is likely a vanity press, who publishes anything, or a well-meaning self-publisher.

Consider joining us at the double-P (hmmm, gotta try a better nickname). We help each other and provide a voice in the wilderness!

Procrastination – it’s making me wait

In a TED talk, Mathew Blanchfield makes the claim that original, creative thinkers are procrastinators. And worriers. And self-doubters.

If he’s right, I’m golden.

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Tomorrow… or the next day

He also said creative people have a lot of bad ideas, but because they procrastinate, the best ideas rise to the top.

I have a friend who picks on me about how long it takes me to write a book, and that all those half-written novels aren’t really stories I care about. I take the ribbing in stride though, because I’ll often have a story idea I’m not ready to write yet or at least not fully. Because I take so long, often requiring some event or inspiration to spur me on, the story is better. If I wrote it in a rush, it wouldn’t be the same story and I suspect not as good.

That doesn’t mean if you’re the blurt-and-finish type that you’re doing it wrong. We each have our method that serves us.

I’ve imagined my method is about stoking and exhausting the fire, then recovering and stoking it again. If I were a runner, which I’m not, I’m sure I’d run for a while, then walk for a while, then jog, then amble. That’s who I am. I like to sleep on things, and I don’t start until I have a grasp of how to handle it.

Inspired by my Colorado trip, I wrote the prologue of a new novel, and while I know what has to happen to introduce my main character, the specifics aren’t there yet. I could force it. Bribe it. Take a wild stab. Or, I can wait for it. As a generally busy person, that’s easy to do.

I do vary from Matt’s description. When I write something, I don’t doubt myself. That comes before, not after. It’s a failing, because I should be more open to rewriting (which I do, but it isn’t easy for me).

What about you? Does this describe you? I assume if you’re reading my blog that you’re creative. Give us a peak into your method, process, or way of accidently doing it.

Does the idea of procrastination as a hallmark of creativity resonate with you, or do you reject it?

Leave your comments below.

Creativity Wears Boots!

Rush to Amazon now! Prevail Press has published a new, exciting, and provocative book.

Creativity Wears Boots by Robert Alexander Swanson

Unlike any other book on art and creativity, Creativity Wears Boots tells you exactly what art and creativity are – pssst, it’s a Brain Thing and the BIRTHRIGHT OF ALL HUMAN BEINGS!

Seriously, to be human is to be an artist, our brain demands it! This book, priced attractively at $9.97 in paperback and $3.97 is Kindle format, walks you through:

  • Why art is vital to every human being,
  • The purpose of artistic compulsion,
  • Why YOU are an artist,
  • What is important to every artist, and
  • How to develop your art.

If you don’t believe you’re an artist, you need to read this.

If you’re a practicing artist, you need to read this.

If you’re an art teacher (any medium), you AND YOUR STUDENTS need to read this.

If you know someone, anyone, you need to buy this for them as a gift.

If you’ve ever read any book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, for example, you need to learn what that book left out.

Seriously, go buy it right now! Here’s the link.

Goldilocks and the Three Books

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Forget Porridge, Papa, We Have Meat!

After a just-right meal and before going to the just-right bed, Goldilocks thought it would be nice to have something to read, so off to the den she went. She found three books side by side. The first book made no sense, the second book was too heavy, and the third book was just right.

Goldilocks has hit upon the writer’s greatest issue. What’s too little and what’s too much when it comes to description? That’s never an easy answer.

Hemmingway was the master of sparse prose. He had very little description, but what he had was spot-on. Tolkien was a verbose writer, yet he has a devoted audience. Therefore, it isn’t in the quantity of text as much as in the quality of text. Papa Ernest had concrete settings; Old Troll wrote fantasy settings. Each followed a single unstated rule: The right amount of description is that which says the most with the least.

A common cry of young authors is that they must make the reader see what they, the author, sees.

That’s ridiculous, though. Look at any adaptation of fantasy novel to movie. Is that what the author saw? Consider the author of Mary Poppins, who despaired because screen Mary was nothing like book Mary. It would be news to her to discover no one’s Mary was her Mary.

My sister read the opening of a novel I was working on and described the hero as “shallow.”  I didn’t think he was shallow at all!

It’s the author’s job to give just enough description for the reader to build their own version of the literary world. It’s going to be different for everyone.

Do you need to tell us what pattern of the couch? Maybe, if it directly relates to the character’s state of being, but just as description? Maybe, if that’s the defining characteristic of the setting. If it’s just a detail of insignificance, don’t tell us.

Little Bear’s book wasn’t descriptive enough. Goldilocks didn’t know what was going on.

Papa Bear’s book was over-descriptive, which Goldilocks found heavy and exhausting.

Mama Bear’s book found the balance. She helped Goldilocks build a picture rather than try to specifically implant her picture of the setting and characters.

I would love to give a rule, like: If it has no significance, delete it. But that rule doesn’t account for flavor.

A few details beyond just the important gives a flavor of the setting. It sets a tone. Further, things your subconscious puts in a scene may have significance later in the scene. I know a fellow who writes a scene and films it, writes another and films that. The problem with not knowing the ending is that you can’t sprinkle foreshadowing in. I’ve found often what I thought was inconsequential ended up being useful later (and I don’t mean introducing a gun in a scene. If there’s a gun, it must be used, or get rid of it).

The only rule I can possible give is: Keep it fresh. If your old man is in the sea, you better give me a unique scent of the tide. “The sea smelled of fish and salt.” Bleh.  “The sea smelled of rabbis and popcorn.” That’s a unique image.

The mark of a great writer is the ability to find the balance. Just enough, but not too much. Or the bears might eat you.

Building Trust with your Readers

One of my favorite authors died a couple years ago, but his characters live on under different writers. Some have been OK, some have been Not OK, a couple, IMO, have been bad.

Get tight with your reader

When I saw my favorite character’s first other-written novel, I quickly picked it up off the library shelf, looking forward to reading about my female PI friend.

Let me say that I usually read a book through to the end. Of late, if I don’t like a book, I’ll set it down after a few chapters.

This was the first time I dropped a book at the first sentence.

What should have been an easy opening was so badly written I lost complete trust in the author. I don’t know how that line got by editors, but WOW it stank. I showed it to a friend and he blinked, snapped the book shut and said, “That stupid sentence is going to haunt me for days.”

I’m dead serious. It was that bad.

More than anything else, the first sentence, paragraph and chapter is all about building trust with your reader. That is done with:

  • A strong opening that is…
  • Well written with…
  • Proper grammar in the narrative that includes…
  • A hook that grabs me and has…
  • No typos that…
  • Gives me a solid glimpse of a character I can care about with empathy, curiosity, anger, disgust, or any other strong feeling. What we have to avoid is, “who care?” or apathy toward the characters.

This is how you build trust, because a book is all about trust. The reader is trusting the author that reading this won’t be a waste of time, that you the writer knows what you’re doing, that the reader will be satisfied by the story.

In The Amazing Voyage II, Isaac Asimov’s lead character came off like an idiot. He wasn’t asking any of the questions that a normal human being would ask, or catch any obvious issues presented by the character. Then at the end, we suddenly find out that the main guy DID catch everything. Through the whole book I’m calling that guy an idiot, then the flip came, and I felt cheated. I want to read the Foundation series, but I don’t trust the writer. I read that book 30 years ago and still don’t trust Asimov. Without trust, you aren’t going to invest hours in the book.

Asimov’s mistake was in making the errors so obvious that I caught them all. Had he been more subtle and the main character had to uncover the errors for me, I would have been fine, but we expect our main characters to be at least as smart as we are. Typically with mysteries, the detective solves the clues as we go along. In the first place, Asimov’s character had to use copious exposition at the end (where it never belongs). By doing so, he told us we had never known the character, which is a requirement of a story. Even the unreliable narrator makes everything fall into place at the end. It works because we never distrusted the UN or thought the UN was an idiot). He wasn’t an unreliable narrator, Asimov was an unreliable storyteller.

Trust is vital. Earn it.

Cinematic Writing: Keeping Your Story Reel

Storytelling is a visual medium

Who doesn’t want their novel turned into a movie?

While I wouldn’t say you should write your book with the goal of someone buying it to make a movie, I think it’s valuable to borrow techniques from screenwriters to improve your story.

A movie script is the most structured form of writing you’ll encounter. The three-act structure is tightly adhered to, and as Blake Snyder reveals in his book Save the Cat, certain things happen on certain pages and only on those pages.

The storytelling medium is supremely limited because the writer has 90 to 110 pages, or 90 to 120 minutes to tell the story. In contrast, your book will likely take hours to read. Because of this time compression, screenwriters have certain techniques that we as novelists and non-fiction writers can borrow for our books.

Yes, I said non-fiction writers. Moneyball was written from a book about statistics. Yes, it was baseball, too, but if the author hadn’t done such a cinematic job on his book, it might not have happened. Further, screenwriters can take the principles of a non-fiction book and be inspired to write a script that incorporates them.

First and foremost, for a script, every scene must be essential to the story. A screenplay’s chief structure is the spine of the story, or the dramatic question. Anything that doesn’t hang from the spine has to go.

But that isn’t enough for the screenwriter. Every scene has to do double and triple duty, packing as much into a scene as possible, including plot, character development, foreshadowing, and more. As book writers, we can borrow that double duty for our scenes. We also have more leeway to interpret what hangs from the spine and what doesn’t. I’m not saying you should compress your story, this is a book, not a movie. Borrow the techniques, not the rigidity.

Movies are visually striking. Your scenes should be, as well. That doesn’t mean ever scene must be set somewhere exotic, but you need to paint your scene with just enough unique detail for us to visualize it. The reader will fill in a lot from just a few cues.

Every scene is active, layered with conflict, visual metaphors, and energy. Talking head, just two people chatting, is rare. Consider the scene in Avengers, Age of Ultron, when Steve and Tony are having a tense conversation. They aren’t sitting drinking tea, they are chopping wood with more and more intensity until an angry Captain America rips a big log apart. You can turn off the audio and see what the scene is about. Then Tony has a conversation with Fury as he works on a truck engine. Characters should do something metaphoric as they speak.

Dialog is almost always short and snappy, to the point. Few characters are long-winded. Your dialog should have no small talk, nothing unrelated to the spine.

Strong, clear character arcs are important. Unlike the comic book Tony Stark who never changes, the movie Tony Stark has a vast character arc that includes being selfish, heroic, traumatized, broken, and sacrificially heroic, the complete opposite of where he began. Comic books need to maintain the status quo, movies don’t. Books don’t, even if they are series, the characters should change. If you have a strong character arc, you can include a lost novelist technique of foreshadowing. Again, the Marvel movies are outstanding at this. Every argument Cap and Iron Man have is a foreshadowing of the character’s eventual change.

Finally, the ending is clear, wraps up all major plot points, and leaves us energetically satisfied.

Studying screenwriting will improve your book writing; there are a lot of tricks I haven’t touched on here. You have more freedom, but using the concentrated techniques of a screenwriter can help guide you through your story.