The interview, where I talk about my current projects, my beta-reading process and BetaReader.io is now live. Check it out!
The interview, where I talk about my current projects, my beta-reading process and BetaReader.io is now live. Check it out!
Seriously, this is a must in every writer’s bucket list, a brutally honest beta-reader who tells you that he/she didn’t care about your characters, your story had a long list of faults, you must show and not tell and whatever else they have found of extremely badly written in your manuscript draft, especially if you are now starting your writing career and therefore clueless of where you have to improve.
If your writing is a career for you, then you need to study to develop your weak spots, you need feedback and you need to hear your beta-readers, even if he/she was brutally honest and even if the way how he/she manifested his/her opinion made you cringe at the sight of that feedback for a whole month.
I remember when I received that brutally honest feedback. I had swapped beta-reading with another writer, but I couldn’t get her story for two reasons:
First, she didn’t tell me that one of her short stories was a spin-off of a novel from her that I haven’t read, so, not understanding at all where her short story had come from, I found it confusing and with an underdeveloped story world. She should have told me as a beta-reader that I would only understand the short story if I read the novel first.
And second, her protagonist failed to do anything out of her own insecurity and misplaced principles until the end of her story. So the protagonist was arrested, the horrible and well-depicted villain won and the third character, whose goals weren’t clear for me since the start, went on doing nothing apart from being the (impossible to understand) passive love interest of the protagonist. It was a weak story without a fully formed plot where nothing happened. It masqueraded as a tragedy, but at least for me, a tragedy without enough reasons for its sad and inconclusive end. I confess that I don’t like tragedies unless that really makes sense in the context of the character arc. Her story didn’t make sense to me at the time so I was sincere enough to tell her my opinion, taking care though to also point out what I had found of positive in her WIP, so it would be a balanced feedback.
As an answer, she sent me a really long email telling me all the things she had hated in my WIP in a really emotional way. To summarize it, her main points were that my backstory was stupid, my writing was beyond terrible and she didn’t care for the characters or the story at all. Her feedback was much more emotional and negative than what I usually received from other beta-readers, so I concluded that being upset about my previous, not completely positive feedback, had influenced the way how she expressed herself in her answer.
I thanked her for her quite thorough feedback and said nothing about the emotional way she had expressed it. I was astonished that my writing had called such a strong emotional reaction, even if a negative one. So, I decided to ignore the emotional coloring of her feedback and concentrated on the more precise advice buried under all that emotion.
And the advice was:
I had to find ways to bring the reader into my story so the reader would care.
I had to flesh out summarized narrative (Change tell into show) and make better description and settings.
I had to make my characters intriguing even if not likable through a clearer character arc.
I had to break the backstory into smaller bits, weaving it into the plot.
I had to show, not tell.
I accepted that brutally honest feedback regardless of how it was expressed and learned from it, instead of dismissing it completely or being hurt/discouraged by it. The harsh way how the critique was written convinced me to study and try to improve my writing in a way that milder feedback had not. So it was a hard experience, but one that was vital and important for my writing development.
Bucket list item accomplished. 🙂
Of course, there are always exceptions. Once I received feedback where it was clear that my beta-reader was disappointed that my story wasn’t a courageous group of marines shooting around to save the world. So I read his feedback taking that into account. 😉
And you? Have you already received brutally honest feedback?
Here they are, not in sequence, since I like all of them. When I’m looking for writing advice here is where I look. Many of these bloggers have awesome books on writing I surely recommend.
1. Helping Writers Become Authors
2. Live Write Thrive
3. Writers Write
4. Rayne Hall, Making Good Books Great
5. Marcy Kennedy
6. Jane Friedman
7.Writers Helping Writers
8. What is a plot?
9. Jami Gold
10. She’s Novel
I could be mistaken, but I consider my current work-in-progress, my first book, the hardest. So by association, I would say the first book is the hardest for most authors, especially if you are strict on yourself and want to make as little beginner mistakes as possible. If you are in love with your story and must make it the best. Once I heard from a famous writer that you probably should start off with a smaller, not so important project and move on later to the stories you are dying to write. I didn’t follow that advice and neither could I, because I usually am passionate about most of my stories, but I still consider that advice wise, even if it’s meant for less impulsive people than me.
On your first book, you have a humongous learning curve. There are so many ways you can improve your writing that I couldn’t make a list of all of them, let alone which one I would consider more important. I could make a list of the books I already looked in topics like Structure, Characters, Viewpoint, Description, and Setting, but apart from books, there are tons of resources on the internet, amazing blogs on writing, videos, podcasts, online courses and so on.
Books are my favorite source of information though because on the internet you often jump from an interesting blog post on writing to facebook and then all your concentration gets lost. And a book will cover a subject in many more pages, in a longer way than any blog post can. And in a book I can underline the most important tips and read them again, I find that easier than jumping back on a video. Again, each one has their own way to learn. For me the less distraction on the side the better.
Together with learning the craft you have to find your own writing system. Once you establish what works for you writing tends to get easier. I wrote my first draft as fast as I could and then I had to establish a certain order to my rewriting process and this proved to be quite time-consuming. There were too many aspects to revise and it looked the first time as too much to juggle. Later I saw I should make a reread for each of the aspects I wanted to improve. It seems like a simple idea, but it took out the overwhelming side of revising out of the way. Now I just need undisturbed revising time to use all the insights I gained so far.
So, was your first book the most difficult? What lessons have you learned with it?
1 – Reality can be harder than anything you imagine
When I first started researching, I didn’t think this would be at times emotionally challenging.
Sixteen years ago, when I wrote the short story I’m now developing into my novel, the plot already had a Sinti protagonist whose Sinti group had been slain by the people of the fictitious middle-age village of my story. I was shocked to discover that such massacres indeed happened when reading books about the Sinti. I won’t dwell on this and other sad historical facts, but research confirmed my notions about how terribly the Gypsy and their subgroup, the Sinti, were persecuted along history.
Looking into middle-age also showed how hard life was at that time too. This had a sobering effect and brought a broader view of my story world. It showed the painful and hard side of it. I could then have a glimpse of all the pain and the challenges in a deeper and more concrete way. Reality proved much harder and shocking than anything I had previously imagined.
2 – The research will give you a truthful underlining of details for your characters everyday life.
As I went on reading the book from Michael Krausnick (Eine Sinti-Familie erzählt. Da wollten wir Frei sein) about the Sinti, the author talked about how the Sinti played with self-made instruments, how their violin was vital to them.
It also talked about how they were always used to the wind and open air and preferred wooden wagons to stonewalls, which they considered too warm and unnatural, or that winter fat hedgehogs were considered a delicious treat. That a marriage among them wasn’t arranged, but that usually the pair would just run away and after a period, when they should be away from the upset parents, they would be considered married.
These were only a handful of important Sinti life facts I would not know if I hadn’t researched. I’ll try to include that in my story world because those facts belong to the historical world and society of my novel. All these facts give me a perspective sometimes painful and tragic, sometimes beautiful and artistic of their way of life.
And this is what stories are about, other human perspectives.
1) The perfect female protagonist
She’s 100% benevolent towards everybody.
She has absolutely no self-preservation instinct, throwing herself at all dangers without fears or second thoughts with a behavior that in real life would be almost suicidal.
She feels guilty through the whole story about all the occasions she didn’t do everything in a perfect way, even if she was defending herself at that moment.
She thinks of others all the time and never on herself because selfishness and ego are unknown things for her.
She’ll never say mean words, feel envious, jealous or moody, be lazy, stupid, unlikable or have human flaws. She’ll never make wrong choices in her life or fall in love with the wrong guy. She’s the unreachable model of a perfect heroine.
2) The heroine or hero who dies at the end for no understandable reason.
They die after one, two, three or even more books and the reader gets the impression this was only done so the writer never has to write any book with that character again. I mean, it’s Ok if a writer declares that a series isn’t going on, but to kill the main character for no good reason is anti climatic. Even worse if the character sacrificed themselves for a minor character that had absolutely no importance to the story until that point. There is a reason for the existence of Red Shirts, after all it would be unreasonable if Captain Kirk would die (and it was still not making sense when he died in the last First Generation film) when he was so resourceful to the very (frustrating) end. I don’t mean with that that every death should be avoided, Spock’s death for example, was beautiful and even better because he came back, after all he was Spock. 😉
When it comes to other characters tough, you just invested a long time reading and caring about them so that they would die for something that could have been easily avoided. And what for? Sometimes the end of the story just feels like a devastating funeral after that, worse yet if this happens in the middle of the story and the book goes on, now devoid of the character who gave it life. It feels to me like a cheap story device, that old story of “kill your darlings” that only makes sense when something transcendental happens, something in the lines of ““… the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Otherwise I see no problem with letting the main character live in the end. Has that turned into a cliche lately? Or is it the other way around? They can go to live with the elves like Frodo for all I care, but don’t kill them just for the sake of originality.
3) The protagonist’s bad family where only the father is a good guy.
Poisonous bad mothers, not so nice siblings and a loving, and flawless father completely unrelated to all those problems in an unrealistic way have become so frequent in books that I feel like yawning every time I find them in yet another book. Why not try to change it a bit?
4) The perfect romance that goes on for 350 pages or longer.
All right, perhaps I’m being a grumpy person here. But when I start reading a so called urban fantasy or paranormal fantasy book I expect romance to be interlaced with fantasy or a bit of story at least. Nothing against a bit of romance here and there, but if I wanted only to read about the perfect romance among two – completely devoid of human flaws and drawbacks – characters, I would perhaps look for a book in the romance genre.
5) Good people, bad people and nothing in between.
Good characters who never make a mistake and are never weak, calculating or mean. Bad characters who are incapable of doing anything good. The world isn’t like that.
6) Description that slows the pace down to a point you have to jump fifty pages to see if anything will happen.
After ten pages of description, ten of setting and other ten of uninteresting backstory you feel really sad you bought the book and started reading it. You jump fifty pages to see if anything will happen only to see that you lost track of the little bits of plot scattered in the pages you skipped.
7) Secondary characters who say only nice things to the main character.
“You know nothing John Snow.” How refreshing is that? Ygritte wasn’t only a secondary character and love interest, she also had a mind and voice of her own. And this is a well written secondary character.
8) The romantic heroine who feels attracted to a guy who tried to kill her one page ago.
Usually the given reason is that the dangerous guy is so good looking that the heroine can’t help herself but have romantic thoughts and butterflies in her belly when she looks at him.
Really? This doesn’t seem to me like something a sane woman would do, and it does looks contrived even in a romantic story. Apart from that, as a parent, I don’t think we should be teaching young girls that the violent guy is the hero for them. Often you will find enough apologies in the story, that the guy was trying to kill, or was hurting them, because he knew no better, or he was in a twisted way trying to protect them. I think this all leads to an inversion of values that can at least be misleading to young girls and boys too.
9) Secondary characters who change magically from hating into liking the protagonist
I was reading a story where the protagonist had a brother who hated her. I didn’t find any clue on the first one hundred pages as to why he felt like that or as to why he would treat her badly all the time. Eventually his irritating rude behavior changed to a new direction without any given reason.
I was thinking: “Does the author expects me to sympathize with this character now? But I was annoyed with him one page ago.” If the author had any reasons for the character changes I didn’t get it from reading the story. So that remains a mystery…
10) Characters who lack sense of humor and can’t laugh about themselves or the situations they are in.
A story without humor is like food without seasoning. The irony of life shouldn’t go unnoticed, that’s what makes readers laugh and relate to a character.
So make us laugh, we’ll love your characters and your story for that.
I thought about writing this post after seeing a video of one of my indie-publisher writer friends saying she would give up publishing due to too few people reading her books. She said she only had around ten people who really cared for her first book and this people shouldn’t be paying to read it.
I understand her point of view and disappointment. The problem is, we are in an extremely saturated market here.
On Goodreads, I have a list only for books from my independent author friends. It contains 76 titles so far. Last year I managed to read 8 books from this list. I wished I had read more and I hope I do manage a higher count this year, but reading time in real life is something very limited and, I must confess, sometimes I want to read books coming from traditional publishing as well, or writing craft books, or classic books. I wouldn’t be able to limit myself only to what has been published the last three years too.
I do hold all my independent author friends to my heart, but I alone can’t fulfill their expectations. All I can say to them is that they must write even if only a handful of people read their books. They should look at their books as their legacy to the creativity and wisdom of mankind. So few humans in this world have written a book and left something so valuable to the rest of us. Worries about how many people read it in the year it was published seems to me not the most important here.
So please take heart, dear indie-pub author. Your book is there, forever. It will be read eventually. It will be loved sometime too, by someone, this year or the next, or the next… You’ll never know the full impact it will have on other people. Don’t despair. Write on and always try to improve what you leave in this world. If it’s this you feel you should be doing, if this is your passion, make it happen. Release your work into the world and don’t worry so much about the immediate answer to it.
Only follow the path of creativity and passion without regrets.