Providing useful feedback

People often think writers work in isolation. And, to a certain extent, this is true. We have to plan, write, try to be witty (and laugh at our own jokes – as if doing that’s not super lame), do research…the list really just goes on and on. In the end, though, we have offer up our brain children to the world. They get devoured, rent apart and insulted. It tears us up real bad seeing all that happen. And, trust me, if we could prevent that from happening we would.

The answer is pretty simple. Get a second opinion. Here! Please read this for me and tell me what you think! Sounds, straightforward, right?

I wish. First, you get people who promise to read it but they never give any indication that they did. They keep telling you they’ll get around to it but they don’t. Thank you for showing me that you care so much, you giant insufferable jerk whom I used to trust and like.

Then, you get the people who read it (or claim to have read it) and say the enjoyed it. Or “I liked it.” Um. Thanks. But was there anything that didn’t work? Then they give you that panicked, dear-in-headlights look. Usually, they didn’t think to look for stuff like that or they “don’t remember anything in specific”. LAME.

What you really want is someone who’s willing to tell you as it is. Someone who is willing to offend you if they think there’s a real problem. Because it’s sure as hell going to be easier to hear that in private from someone you trust than to get it from all sides on the Internet right there on Amazon in your book’s reviews.

Funny thing is. Even that rare honest person often has no idea how to give you decent feedback. It’s like society is too damn afraid to offend someone to teach us how to give each other vital feedback. Heck, I’ve taken creative writing courses where the facilitator and class mate give you feedback like they’re walking on shells.

I am going to give you a little list that helps. It’s not the end all by any means. I’ve received amazing feedback from fellow writers who know how to critique and provide truly helpful feedback that went far beyond this. But you have to start somewhere if your willing and (hopefully) brutally honest beta reader doesn’t have a lot of experience.

Feedback questions:

  • Did you enjoy the story?
  • Did you lose interest at any point?
    • If so, please describe why (especially if the beginning didn’t hook you).
  • Could you identify with at least one of the characters?
    • If not, what made them not relatable?
  • Was the story believable?
    • If not, what broke the suspension of disbelief for you?
  • Does story-specific jargon hamper the story?
    • If so, what was the problem? (unpronounceable/too many to keep track of/so silly you couldn’t keep concentrating/something else?)
  • Was the dialogue stilted or unnatural?
  • Did the story end strong? (Did you feel satisfied at the end or want to read more?)
    • If not, please tell me why.
  • Are the internal inconsistencies/plot holes?
  • Any other feedback?

It helps if they answer in full sentences. Yes/no answers are nearly as unhelpful as the beta reader who gives the insipid “I liked it.” Be clear about what you’d like.

And, yes. This list will scare off some people. People don’t like conflict when they have to be directly involved. (Yet, they love to read about it. Go figure.) You probably won’t like the negative feedback either. It’s the only way to improve your writing though – knowing what you’re doing wrong.

I hope this helps you at least a little bit. I know it’s changed my beta reading experiences with friends and family.

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Writing a blurb

It turns out, I suck at writing blurbs.

What now? What’s a blurb?

A blurb is the little advertisement for the story that you see on the back of the book (or on the front inside cover). It’s supposed to entice you to read the story inside.

But, Natalie, that should be easy! It’s not even a full page.

Yeah. That’s what I thought too. Until I started writing blurbs for my most recent short story. See, I started out with a short description and quickly realised I was giving away too much of the plot. Then, I wrote up a short teaser. Except, it sounded like some teen romance.

He’s a fisherman’s son. She lives up at the holy palace.
He has a boat load of fish to gut. She wants to escape an arranged marriage.
He just realised she might be nobility. She says: “Run away with me.”
He almost chokes. What if things go wrong…

Who’s he kidding? He’s going with her. It’s not like they’re going to be facing sea serpents or taking a bunch of other people who will get in the way.

At this point, I knew I needed outside input, so, I contacted my local Facebook writer group. They tore that last one so many holes, I had to breathe deeply for four hours before I could even start writing more than two words without summarily deleting them. The good news is: They did provide me with a kind of formula.

This is the formula (after much deleting of unnecessary explanations):
♦  Sense of character
♦  Life as it is
♦  Inciting event
♦  Secondary character
♦  The stakes
♦  Make the stakes personal (question/choice)
♦  Other interesting characters
♦  Intriguing end/hook

I sat down with the formula and substituted my story details into it. Boy, did that go badly. I stared at the abomination and added a little teaser from the first page of the story. Okay, that’s a little better, I thought to myself. I posted it on the group again.

Fish cleared his throat. “Wedding dress?”
“Yes, that thing where you wear fancy clothes for a day and then you have to have some stranger’s children because you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.”
“But you can’t marry-” He had been about to say “someone else”. He coughed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Myhrrl said, turning to face the sea again.
“But you said-“
Her eyes glittered. “I’ll run away.”
He’d been expecting something else. He wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t this. The butterflies in his stomach fluttered. “Run away…?”
“You’ll come with, of course,” she said, already turning on her heel.

Fish has been in love with Myhrrl from the day he met her while offloading a day’s catch of fish behind the Forest Lord’s holy palace kitchens. Since then, she’s gotten him in to all sorts of trouble, the least of which has been a sound beating from his father for shirking his fishing duties.

When they get on the Kish Kist, a trading ship, to escape her impending nuptials, he has no idea that he’s embarking on a journey that will bring him face to face with the two most feared presences in the Kish Sea.

Will they survive Myhrrl’s escape plan or will they die before Fish gets a chance to profess his feelings toward her?

Turns out, they love my story writing but they still hated my actual blurb. I hated it too. But, you know, you can’t win everyone. Maybe I was just the one who couldn’t be won. Well, we know how that turned out.

I sat down again. This time it took me four days to write something that I didn’t reject off the bat. One of my best efforts looked like this:

There’s a boy. There’s a girl. There are pirates and a sea serpent.

Good heavens, Natalie! Are you kidding me? Sadly…no. Hahaha. *ahem*

I sat down again. This time, I consulted my good friend, Richard T Wheeler. I told him all about my blurb-writing woes. He sounded confused about my epic struggle. Whatever was the matter? On short order, he wrote up a blurb for his submission for Phoenix Fire and showed me. It was short, it didn’t even look fancy but it was enticing and I wanted to read the story. How did he do that?!?

I showed him the third blurb I had written for my Facebook writer friends (they actually liked this one, by the way):

What’s a boy to do when the girl he loves is running away from an arranged marriage? Why, sail the high seas and get captured by magic-slinging pirates, of course!

His reply was: Give me a moment. I’ll write up a version for you.

As good as his word, within five minutes, he had a blurb for me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was my short story in blurb form. Maybe one or two details too many about the plot but it was almost exactly what I needed.

I altered a word or two. A phrase. But it’s really almost exactly what he sent me.

Scruffy fisherboy Eldvin knew that ethereal maiden Myhrrl was so far beyond his reach that he didn’t stand a chance of catching her, but when she ran away from her arranged marriage and (sort of) into his arms, he took his chance anyway. Too bad about getting captured by pirates in the process. Hopefully, his love will find a way, even through magic hell and high Suhl waters.

Sure, this one isn’t as punchy as the one a few lines up but it certainly gives more of a feel for the style of the story. And you know what? It follows that formula I had extrapolated.

Now, I have two blurbs. Sure, both can use a little polishing but they beat the heck out of my first efforts.

Shows you that a little perseverance and willingness to keep trying pays off! That and selfless help from others. Thank you, writer friends!

Phoenix Fire – beta reading

Phoenix Fire - beta reading

When writing a story of any length, you need to get outside input. As writers, we are deeply invested in our work and it’s easy to start believing that everything you created must be gold. In fact, even if you secretly think your work is the worst and should never see the light of day, you still feel like every single word of negative feedback is unfair and hurtful. It’s easy to understand why writers are so afraid to ask anyone to read their story before it’s published, right?

The funny thing is: Writers are the harshest beta readers. You know what you want from a story to make it a delight to read (even though it somehow eludes you with your own work). You know that it should be effortless to read. You know your genre and what the audience expects from it. Even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory of good writing yourself, you expect every other writer to be the utter personification of it.

So, what do I do to balance it out for anthology submissions? I use two beta readers per submission (at least, for the first round) – one academic (a writer or someone who studied literature) and one layman (someone who reads but never studied literature). If both of these beta readers hate the story, then something is obviously wrong. If only the former finds the submission lacking, it means the writer did not apply good writing theory and needs to develop their skills but a total overhaul of the story is probably not necessary. It is highly unusual for the layman to dislike a story if the academic finds it satisfying.

Wait a minute, Natalie, you just used the word “satisfying”. You know that’s a subjective thing, right?

Yes, I realise that. This is why I give all my beta readers, regardless of background, a list of questions they must answer about each of the stories. Some of the questions are simple, for example: “Did you enjoy the story?” Some questions involve story writing terms and concepts that I actually explain in layman’s terms in brackets. This means that my layman gets a little guidance on what to look for and my academic is kept on track (if you give this particular dog a bone, he won’t let it go).

Of course, there’s no way that the beta readers will identify all the problems. There is always that one troll reader who will tell you all about the plot holes and character discrepancies once the book is for sale. And don’t get me started on beta readers being too polite to tell you what they were really thinking. All I know is: I try my best to help my writers craft a better story.

That’s all for today. I’ll post about helpful beta reading another time.

Phoenix Fire – stoking the fire

Phoenix Fire

It’s amazing how fast you forget how much effort goes into doing something from scratch. Whether it’s raising a child (potty training – groan) or compiling an anthology, there are so many things that need to be done – little, big, somewhere in between…

After getting into contact with my writing community, I have an initial list of writers, beta readers, language practitioners and artists/designers. Each of these groups get an info pack to let them know what they need to do by when.

This sounds simple but it takes a lot of time and careful consideration. I need to keep in mind that all of my helpers are volunteers. When are the deadlines too tight or too lax? What is too much, what is too little? At what point do you overwhelm your helpers with information?

Here, in the beginning of the process, the worst is really waiting for responses and submissions. I don’t know who will fall out. I don’t know who will pull through. I don’t know whether there will be enough stories in the end or whether my writers will present me with drivel. And, I’m working with writers and artists…so, everything will happen at the last possible minute.

I guess, the good news is: I have one story already in beta reading. If everything else goes wrong, I can publish that story.

Get ready for Phoenix Fire

Two years ago, a fire was kindled and it promised to grow. But life has a funny way of taking turns and making it difficult to find your way. We all started wondering whether the fire was going out and we would watch another dream being snuffed out before it could fly.

I am writing this post to tell you that from ashes a phoenix shall rise!

Yes, you read right! Phoenix Fire is in the making. My South African writer friends are putting on their writer hats and we’re putting together an anthology to follow up The Flight of the Phoenix. This time around, the target audience is narrowed down to YA (young adult) only, though the genres will stay fantasy, science fiction and horror.

Keep your eyes open for more posts as we fight the dying of the light!

Show, don’t tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “Show, don’t tell!” If you do a writing course, they’ll probably throw this at you at least ten times before you’re done. But, the funny thing is, what it really means hardly ever comes across. I kept looking at their examples and I felt like I had learned nothing.

Then came the fateful day when Zara asked me to have a look at her work.

My ah-hah! moment had arrived. Her manuscript was incredibly short but there was a lot going on. And all I could think was: But I want to see these things happening. Almost everything was in narrative.

Full of trepidation at having to tell a budding writer that she needed to change nearly everything she had written, I decided to take a different angle. I told her “We are going to go through the story together and try and improve things here and there. You will see, your word count will go up tremendously!”

At first, it felt like I had sentenced myself to the most frustrating experience you could possibly have with another writer…but it was the exact opposite.

One paragraph describing a scene turned into almost two pages of action and dialogue. And, as we went, it just kept growing. It was amazing!

How to do it:

Now, this post would be utterly useless if you got only this far, so, I’m going to give you what you really need – proper examples* of what “show, don’t tell” really means.

Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him. It was so bad, in fact, that his own mother had told him that he was allowed to come by only if he had grandchildren to present her with. Not that he’d ever have any, his wife left him after exactly one week of matrimonial blisters.

This (↑) will be our “tell” piece.

Show, don’t tell

Even though the piece may be humorous, there is a long way to go before it turns into something that shows. Let’s start with sentence one. Sure, it’s nice and concise…but, let me ask you this, which of the following is more entertaining now?

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Do you feel engaged after this piece? Do you feel like you know what could be going on now?

Show:
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!”
“Not General Cockadoodle? The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
“Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.””I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with.”
They snickered.

Do you think Gamm might be a misunderstood individual after reading the Show piece? The Tell sentence could have started a story for a guy with bad luck and rotten timing. But the Show piece gave you some insight into what kind of jerk he really is.

Should I go on?

Different levels of importance

How much you write really depends on the focus of your story. Are you telling the story of Gamm, the jerk, and how he redeemed himself? Are you telling the story of Mrs Green and how she got even? Or maybe Gamm is just a supporting character in two or three chapters?

You really don’t have to waste time if the character isn’t that important.

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Show:
He’s the main character
Gamm snickered inwardly as he stuffed the rat poison down the stupid cockerel’s gullet. Two birds with one stone. No more howling at night and no more ungodly crowing before dawn.
He stood on his toes to peer over into the yard where the mongrel lived.
Two brown eyes looked up at him. The dog gave a little bark.
“Here, you rat bastard. I have a treat for you. It’s to die for.”

He watched long enough to make sure the dog took a second bite.
Mrs Green is the main character
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!” Janet Green was gesticulating sharply as she spoke.
“Not General Cockadoodle?” Vanessa winced. It really did feel like an inevitability. Then it occurred to her. “The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
Janet’s curls bounced with her curt nod. Her face was pinched and blotchy. “Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.”
“I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
They stood for a moment in a companionable angry silence.
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with,” Vanessa said darkly.
They snickered.

Gamm appears for 3 chapters only
“Isn’t Gamm that guy that strangled the chicken and then poisoned a dog with it?”

“Yeah, jerks work hard to keep up with his level of douche baggery. His own mother won’t let him visit. Said he can come by if he manages to sire grandchildren for her.”
“Like any woman would let him close enough to get pregnant!”
They snickered.

Is he really?

One of my writer friends, Richard, recently told me about reading a book that told instead of showing that made him exclaim: “Really? I don’t believe you!” so many times that his wife refused to be in the same room with him when he read it. In fact, when I wrote the sentence: “Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him” I immediately heard him in my head: “Is he really?”

See, Richard wants to feel what your characters feel. He wants to feel part of the story. He wants to get carried away. Narrative just doesn’t do that.

Now, imagine Richard read the show versions above. What do you think he’d say now? I’d imagine he’d use a few colourful expletives to describe people like Gamm.

Your show tools:

But what do you change to show in stead of tell? The answer is simple…though it takes a while to apply to your own writing (my, preciousss). You have two main tools.

  • In-the-moment descriptions
  • Dialogue

In-the-moment descriptions

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: His fingers slid through her hair. Wow, it’s so soft, he thought to himself.

Dialogue

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: “How do you get your hair this soft? It’s like silk!”

show don't tell

Of course, I’m just being silly now. Please don’t put pictures in a book that doesn’t need it.

I’d love to hear what you think! Do you have more tools?

Gearing up for 2017

At ICON 2016 in Johannesburg (organised by GeekXP), I ran into a whole bunch of my good old wargaming friends. What an absolute pleasure after having been stuck with my two rugrats for, what felt like, forever. We roamed the stalls and had our books signed by Raymond E. Feist (who is, by the way, a truly humble man and an absolute pleasure to talk to).

Daniël, who had served with me on the Tuks Wargaming Council in 2005, was bubbling with praise for Brandon Sanderson (author of the Mistborn series), talking about his lectures and the idea of having a writing circle of authors who write roughly the same number of words per day/week/month. I really hadn’t seen him this excited since 2008, when the MEAD Legends LARP started up (my friends decided this kind of thing needed to happen in South Africa’s northern parts too).

That afternoon (it was Friday, 24 June), Daniël, Hendrik and I stood in the convention parking lot and founded our (hitherto unnamed) writing circle. It’s a moment that has been graven onto my memory banks, despite looking like nothing special to the bored car guards standing a few metres away.

Since then, we have met two times *cough cough*…but it has made a massive difference to my writing drive.

It led to a long-time friend of mine sending another writer my way and, after a bit of an unpromising start (where I was dreading having to help an aspiring writer through the discovery that they had much to learn), she has changed my writing (style/planning/drive) drastically. At this stage, I can hardly fall asleep at night because my brain is buzzing with ideas and thoughts on how to edit my one flagging story. It feels like rain has fallen on the drought of my writing mind and all forms of new life is springing up faster than I can keep up with.

I can’t wait for the next post I want to write about my epiphany about “show don’t tell”. *bounces around with energy*