From the Archives: Beta Readers

One of my favourite (and best) beta readers was my dear Aunt Norma. Now that she’s gone I’ve been thinking back to all the reading she did for me, and remembering her insight and tact, her encouragement and wisdom. Beta reading isn’t easy, either for the writer or for the reader.

I’ve drawn from the Archives again, from January 2009, for today’s post.

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One snowy Sunday afternoon as wind-driven snow whipped over the backyard peaks and valleys, fashioning them into anonymous mounds, I settled in by the fireplace. It was time to begin reviewing notes made by the long-suffering people who agreed to be beta readers of my current novel.

Beta reading is a necessary tool in the path to publication but I find it nerve-wracking. This is the point when a story first goes public — someone other than me gets to probe my creation, poke into its structure and pass judgment on its credibility and readability. I want and need honesty from the readers, but I cringe at what their opinions might reveal about my storytelling effort.

Few of my readers are impartial. Family members and friends have a built-in bias — they are predisposed to a positive response. More experienced critique partners can sometimes be the opposite, nitpicking to the extreme as they identify all the ways in which the story isn’t told as they think it should be. I’m not obligated to accept any of the criticisms or suggestions, but I value every one. Once the story is published (notice my positive attitude here!), I may never know what the majority of readers think of it, so getting feedback now is desirable.

But still, there is a small chill of uncertainty within me. I suspect it belongs to the icy heart of my I.C. (Inner Critic) as she circles close by, subtly trying to cool my flame of hope for the success of this story. Is it really the best it can be? Is there even a market for it?

As the evening begins to descend, the outdoor lights come on for one last pre-Epiphany sparkle and I put aside my pen and the comment sheets. I’m choosing to spend the rest of the evening curled up with a book… mine.

I wonder, can I be one of my own beta readers?

Evening descends ~ January 2009

So Many Books, So Little Time!

I’m sharing an article from the archives today, updated from its original posting in 2008.

But FIRST… I have to share my daughter’s exciting news! Her first publishing contract! Head over to Shari’s blog and read about it, then come back here to continue. 🙂

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“So many books, so little time.”  If you Google this phrase you’ll come up with about 563,000,000 results — everything from a link to the quote attributed to Frank Zappa, to Sara Nelson’s book documenting a year of her passionate reading, assorted articles on the subject, even a forum of the same name on the Indigo/Chapters site debating about what ten books you might take if you knew you were going to be stranded on a desert island.

Summer Reading GraphicFor me, the words stand alone, not as a title for anything. They emerge from my mouth sounding more like a moan, even a wail, expressing my frustration that there are more books that I want to read than there are hours left in my life. (And I’m planning for a lot of those!)

Selecting what to read — what’s worthy of my time — is always a dilemma. So I could relate to a  blog entry written some years ago by literary agent Jessica Faust.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I somehow had the impression that as a recent college grad, or just an intelligent woman, I should be reading more intelligent books (whatever that means). In other words, I should be catching up on the classics I missed out on as a journalism major or reading only books that incited great philosophical discussions… It took me a long time to accept and advertise the fact that I was a commercial fiction girl… I think all readers evolve and grow over time and eventually find their niche. I hear often from those who read only fantasy as young people and now have grown to read different kinds of fiction, and I hear from others who still can’t stomach commercial fiction but love nothing more than to cuddle into a long classic. Some typically enjoy longer literary works, but when life is tough or getting them down, they will pull out a favorite romance or thriller. What we read and when we’re reading it can say a lot about who we are in that time of our life, just like the music we listen to and the movies we watch.”

I wonder what my reading choices say about me. I’m definitely not scholarly. Today’s post is a re-run from my archives, but at the time it was first posted, my virtual coffee table held the following: Fiction — “Leota’s Garden” by Francine Rivers, “Carlyle’s House” by Virginia Woolf, “Light on Snow” by Anita Shreve and Kirsty Scott’s “Between You & Me”. Non-fiction: Julia Cameron’s “The Sound of Paper”, Des Kennedy’s “Crazy About Gardening”, and John Fischer’s “Be Thou My Vision” (daily meditation).

Reading vies with writing for possession of my time. No matter how much I spend on either, it’s never enough! I need to live to be 120!

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QUESTIONS FOR YOU:

  • Are your reading choices eclectic, or do you have favourite authors or themes that govern what you read?
  • Are your summer book choices lighter reading than what you choose during the rest of the year?
  • What’s on your coffee table (or bedside table) right now?
  • What’s on your summer reading list … anything you’d like to recommend?

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The Curse of My TBR List

TBR (To Be Read) lists are bad for me. I keep adding titles to them faster than I can read the books, and the list becomes a convenient excuse. I may want to read something but other priorities intervene, so I simply add it to my list of books to read ‘one day’.  I tell myself it’s okay if the list grows; it’s an indication of my good intentions.

Last fall I posted “Reading instead of – or in addition to – writing” and admitted that, “although I read every moment I can, the pile waiting on my TBR shelf is constantly growing instead of diminishing. There’s never enough time to read everything I’d like to, but I keep trying.”

In another post three years before that I had moaned about the same problem and included a link to Jessica Morrell’s column, “Reading and the Writing Life” in which she said, “Reading is part of your job; in fact, it’s a huge part of your job.” I even offered four time management strategies that might help us cope with the time dilemma, focusing on Organization, Prioritization, Commitment and Persistence.

So here I am, still muttering about my TBR list. Why? Because I’ve begun to realize that unless I can actually make time to read the books on that list, it has a negative rather than positive effect. It creates guilt.

Guilt? Ackkk! Who needs any more of that depressing, energy-draining, muse-thwarting stuff? It detracts rather than contributes, and I need reading to complement my writing, not complicate it. I’m thinking my best course of action is to reverse my TBR pile’s growth trend.

I doubt I’ll ever get over my obsession with books, but if I try a little self-discipline maybe I can take control. I’m thinking of using an adaptation of the recovering hoarder’s mantra, “For every item added, one must be eliminated” and say, “For every book added, at least two must be read.” That’s probably the only way I am ever going to banish the curse of my TBR list. It sounds like a good plan, at least in theory. I’ll tell you how well it works next time I’m standing in a bookstore ogling new titles.

How do you balance what you want to read with the time available?

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Graphic by Digitalart

The dilemma of labelling Christian fiction… or not

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Last week agent Rachelle Gardner posed a question on her blog that has generated almost two hundred comments, and the discussion is still ongoing. She asked, “Should we label Christian fiction?”

“There has been a controversy brewing underground for awhile now, ever since publishers started promoting books by offering a limited-time free download. Many of the Christian publishers have done these promotions, but whenever Christian novels are promoted on Amazon as free downloads, many people download them without realizing they’re Christian. They start reading and when they realize it’s “Christian” they become enraged. They feel like they were hoodwinked somehow. And then they leave 1-star, angry reviews on Amazon….These responses are leading people to ask whether Christian fiction needs to be clearly labeled as such, maybe in the “Book Description” on the Amazon page.” [Rachelle Gardner]

My response was that I like to know what I’m buying, so I favour labelling, but I foresee great difficulty in labels accurately reflecting content.

Since making that comment I’ve had conversations with two people who hold widely differing opinions. When I look at some of the faith-based novels on my shelves I find only one that admits to being Christian. The others are listed as History/Fiction or not labelled at all. I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t an easy yes or no answer about labelling that would satisfy every reader and writer. I had no idea it was such a controversial subject!

What’s your opinion? Indulge me. I’m curious.

Do you check back cover blurbs and labels, or perhaps research writers or publishing houses for clues about what to expect before you buy a book from an unfamiliar author? Would you steer clear of a book labelled as Christian fiction? Would you be annoyed if you picked up a book that was not identified as having Christian content, and later discovered it did?

And if you haven’t already read Rachelle Gardner’s post and ensuing comments, I highly recommend it.

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Ice

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“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.”

[Franz Kafka]


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“People grow old only by deserting their ideals,” Macarthur had written. “Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and then only, are you grown old. And then, indeed as the ballad says, you just fade away.”

[Douglas MacArthur]

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Reading instead of, or in addition to, writing


My post last Friday began with, I don’t have time to write… or do I? Silly question. If we’re novelists, we make time, because our passion for storytelling drives us to get the words out.

But what about reading? If we’re writers, making time to write can be challenging enough. Who has time to read? At a workshop a writing colleague said she crammed her writing into isolated moments of busy days and evenings, and there were absolutely no other free moments left. If she chose to read, she wouldn’t be able to write.

My thought is, if you aren’t reading, and reading extensively, you probably aren’t much of a writer anyway. Sorry, I know that’s blunt, but that’s how I feel, and I’m not alone.

On Jessica Morrell’s website she has a column entitled, Reading and the Writing Life in which she says, The only way to become a writer (and I’m paraphrasing Stephen King and many others here) is to read a lot and write a lot. Reading is part of your job; in fact, it’s a huge part of your job. I’m writing on this topic today because I keep meeting writers who are writing fiction or other genres, but don’t read it. In fact, I meet writers who don’t read much at all. They claim they don’t have time. I don’t get it. You’ve got to make the time. Reading like a writer is living like a writer.”

I admit to the luxury of having more free time than many people. I read every moment I can, yet the pile waiting on my TBR shelf is constantly growing instead of diminishing. There’s never enough time to read everything I’d like to, but I keep trying.

I’m the last person who ought to offer advice to another writer struggling with the time dilemma (although I’ve occasionally tried), so I’m asking for your input:

  • On average, how much do you usually read?
  • What genre do you read? And is it the genre you write?
  • When do you do most of your reading?
  • How do you ‘make time’ for reading?

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 I hope you’ll join me here on Friday for an interview with author Jody Hedlund
as we celebrate the publication of her second novel and give away a copy of it.

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Reflections on a Mess

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Beside my favourite chair is a scrambled pile of books littering the floor. There’s the current issue of a home decorating magazine, my notebook of computer jottings (and a pen to jot down a new website password), a writing magazine, my daily journal and a second pen, a book I’m reading for review purposes, a novel I’ve just finished and one that I’m about to start. You don’t want to see the coffee table above. What a mess!

On the opposite side of my chair there are dog toys scattered on the carpet in a line leading to a bin overflowing with squeaky things, chew bones, stuffies and toss ‘n tug toys.

The kitchen counter has a loaf of bread cooling, empty coffee mugs, and a sticky note reminding us to phone a friend because today is her birthday.

The words of an old book title pop into my head: “Bless This Mess, and Other Prayers” by Jo Carr and Imogene Sorley. I’m sure it was written with my home in mind. Not every room is this messy, but in its various crannies there is always something either leftover from a previous activity or waiting for attention.

Messes like this used to frustrate me, whether they were mine or someone else’s. I remember telling my children, “When you’ve finished playing with that, put it away before you take out something else.” They didn’t often do it, and now I don’t take my own advice.

Oh, at the end of the day I’ll gather up the piles and redistribute them elsewhere. In the morning before they accumulate again, I’ll sit cradling God’s word and whispering my thankfulness for the joy that everyday messes represent. For friends, family and beloved pets, activities and the health to pursue them, for books and the time to read and write. For my life, even when it, too, feels messy.

Life is full of rules and regimentation. Home is where I live in between the structure of other pursuits. Home is where I meet the many facets of who I am, face to face, where I unwrap the kernel of me from its façade and let it out to breathe.

Bless this mess, Lord.

What are you especially grateful for today?

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Burying Writing Beneath the Research

Research and Writing, Part 2

I spent a long time researching where to look for that headstone The cemetery name I was given didn’t exist. Eventually, as mentioned in my previous post, I found it, but only after I went out and physically looked for it.

With a story in mind, we hunt for books and websites with relevant information and we begin reading. Before we know it, the library is closing (or our families are hovering at our shoulder, begging for dinner) and we reluctantly set aside our research to resume later.

And resume it we do. There’s something about research that is addictive. There is always just one more reference to check; one more page to read; one more website to discover and devour. Anyone will tell you that you can never have too much knowledge. We know learning begins the day we’re born and doesn’t stop until the day we die. (And, who knows, there may be more to learn after death. Gabrielle hasn’t shared that tidbit yet.)

Persistence is a good trait for writers.

I draw your attention to that bold word. Here it is again: writers. As writers we need to be persistent. While getting all the facts accumulated is important, if all we do is study facts and never get around to writing the story they are meant to support, we’re not writers, we’re perpetual students.

  • Make a list of the specific information you need, and stop searching when you reach that point. One value of research is getting you in the mood… putting yourself in the authentic environment of your characters. You’ll collect far more details than you’re likely to use. Keep notes, or make a list, datebase or spreadsheet of your source material so you can return to it for specific data later if it’s needed.
  • At what point do you put aside the reference material and begin to write? Long before you think you’re ready! For some stories I’d say before you even begin the research. (I know, I know, you think that’s heresy.) Too much information can squelch creativity and bog down the story. There is a story quite apart from the details of its setting, Write it and leave sticky markers like inuksuit to help you find your way back to add researched details later during revisions. Some writers insert a”jkjk” as a marker, easily located with the wordprocessor’s search function.

If you have the luxury of making research trips to the countries of your stories, by all means go for it. (Mmm… Tuscany. Alaska. Ireland. Sigh.) Take a holiday and immerse yourself in the culture and locale. Unearth the details you need. When your holiday is over you will return to begin writing the story.

That’s essentially what the rest of us must do. Our holiday will be between the covers of travel books and language dictionaries, watching geographic videos, studying history books and innumerable websites. But like a holiday, that part of the trip must come to an end so the real work can begin.

If we aspire to be authors we must beware of becoming perpetual researchers.

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How do you create a balance between your researching and writing?


 

Supporting Debut Authors

I remember a year-end post on Rachelle Gardner’s blog two years ago, where she listed “ten really good first novels”. It was an impressive list of publicly acclaimed books and I was shocked to learn they were all first novels for their authors.

  1. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  2. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
  6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  7. Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
  8. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  9. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  10. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

You won’t find too many books by debut authors on my shelves. I’m a cautious reader and tend to wait for recommendations from others before spending my money. On the other hand, if I see a title that appeals to me I rarely stop to check if it’s a first book or a fifteenth. So I was surprised to realize several books that I’ve enjoyed lately are from debut authors:

  1. Crossing Oceans, Gina Holmes
  2. Dead Witness, Joylene Butler
  3. Code Blue, Richard L. Mabry
  4. Losing Faith, Denise Jaden
  5. Bad Latitude, Dave Ebright
  6. The Secret Year, Jennifer Hubbard
  7. The Preacher’s Bride, Jody Hedlund
  8. The Forest for the Trees, Betsy Lerner
  9. Bitter, Sweet, Laura Best

What’s also interesting to me is that all of them except one I learned about because of a blogging connection with the author. Who says blogging doesn’t sell books?

What have you read lately by a debut author? What brought it to your attention?

How Bothered Are We About the New Winnie-the-Pooh?

In life there are certain memories that cling to us — wraithlike bits of our childhood that drift around us through the years, never quite losing their ability to serve up a bit of magic. For me, stories of Winnie-the-Pooh are indelibly associated with hours of comfy, curled-up and cuddled-down reading. The stories’ many simple puffs of wisdom are unique. Take, for instance, Piglet’s Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” * Originating from the pen of A.A. Milne, the ponderings of Pooh and his friends have a guileless quality that appeals to all ages.

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Return to the Hundred Acre WoodI suppose that’s why I approach the just-released authorized sequel, RETURN TO THE HUNDRED ACRE WOOD by David Benedictus with reservations. I’ve read an excerpt and cannot find the familiar distinctive voice that gave the original characters their enduring appeal. As a writer I understand why: Benedictus is not Milne. He simply does not have that “tiddley-pom” voice to impart to his interpretation of Milne’s characters.

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In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times Marjorie Miller says, “Literature belongs to its era and can’t simply be added to decades later, especially after the author has died. Call me cranky, but I don’t think we need another Pooh book. And we certainly don’t need a new character like the otter, Lottie, that Benedictus has added, even if she helps address a gender imbalance in the Hundred Acre Wood. Why couldn’t Benedictus have made the haughty otter the hero of her own book, giving future generations of children a new story, while leaving intact the Pooh tales their parents and grandparents treasured?”

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I agree with Miller, but not for the same reason. From what I’ve read of Benedictus’s book I don’t think it has the ring and rhythm of Milne’s version or the verbal simplicity that captivates both young and older readers. That disappoints me.

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“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”**

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Hmmm… with that thought expressed it may be that you won’t agree with my opinion at all. “Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?”*** No, but perhaps I should stop right now before we’re all bothered.

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What’s your opinion? Are you bothered by the idea of a sequel that isn’t written by the original author? Will the children in your life welcome the new stories?

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Excerpts from:

* Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne

** The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

*** Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

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(Sequel: Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, written by David Benedictus and illustrated by Mark Burgess, is published by Penguin Young Readers Group.)