Monday, February 29, 2016

Take My Advice. Seriously.

You know how it goes: You’re out somewhere public with your offspring, minding your own business, when someone approaches you and says, “If that were my child …” and rambles off some unsolicited advice. Yes, the person who feels that, within several seconds of observing you, they have your life all figured out AND they can manage it better than you can. I totally think positive thoughts to these people, smile a polite “thank you,” and go about my business. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I like to assume that they are really, really working from a place of concern in their hearts. But deep down I’m probably rolling my eyes at their interference.

Flip it around: Someone wants advice—and they’ve asked you. (Which, in polite society, is known as the only time one should ever offer any type of advice.) What if, more specifically, you’ve been asked to beta read an author’s newest, or even first, work? Then, my friend, you are going to have to reach for your steel-toed ballet slippers: You are about to pirouette across someone’s soul. Why a pair of dance shoes? Because you will need grace and balance in order to mark the author’s manuscript. The steel toes come in handy for kicking yourself into gear, making sure that you are blatantly honest while still being kind. The steel reinforcements might also be necessary for getting the author to realize that, yes, some of the words must go. Like ten percent of them. Or more.

The thing is, every word in that document has bled out through the fingertips of the author. They are little word babies that the author has nursed into full-fledged sentences and nurtured into (hopefully) a cohesive world of alternate reality. Giving up word babies can be hard. But, as a beta reader, you owe it to the author to pick out the redundancies, the unnecessaries, the faults. Authors need to know when your eyes glaze and your brain drifts; they need to know when you’re confused or if you have stumbled into a hole that will blow apart their entire manuscript. That balance thing I mentioned? It’s really nice to use it now, in how you phrase your comments to the author. You want some good things marked, too—parts that you loved or made you feel something due to the author’s word choices and thought process. It is important to be thorough and specific. A book that is not properly beta-read (coinciding greatly with having proper editing) is not going to reach its full potential of amazingness.

In all of this, the author holds responsibility as well. The feedback you receive from your beta readers reflects your audience’s response. If something is a true sticking point or an actual error, it needs to be fixed. If you ask for help and then get defensive about a reader’s suggestions, your opportunity for growth as a writer instantly shrinks. Plus, you will lose the insights that can only come from someone outside of your head. Of course, you have the right to protect your word babies. If you get feedback that does not suit you and is not an actual error, you can smile your polite “thank you,” and go about your business. Beta reading is an opinionated thing; you might have to don a suit of armor to shield yourself from unnecessary steel-toe attacks. But, if more than one beta reader points something out, you should take the advice under consideration. Seriously. Even if, deep down, you’re rolling your eyes or feeling your heart wilt a little, this is not unsolicited interference; this is you on your journey to the Best Novel Ever. You’ve got this, and your steel-toed ballerinas have your back. I know this because I know some of the best betas out there, and they really, really are working from a place of concern in their hearts.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Times They Are a Changing

I remember being a kid at school. Teachers assigned homework and, after complaining about how homework should be banned, I did it. When they assigned projects, I did them. I may not have liked it, but I did it. I remember all of the work it took to earn a good grade.

What I don't remember is my parents helping me with any of it.

Back then, parents didn't hover over us making sure we completed all of our work. They didn't call our teachers to complain about a bad grade. They simply went on with their daily lives while we were left to fend for ourselves. It's not that they didn't care about us. Quite the opposite. They just felt that school was our responsibility, not theirs.

If we couldn't figure something out, we were told to look it up (in books at the library, not by asking Siri). If we failed a test, we were punished and, depending on our parent's punishment of choice, we learned pretty quickly that failure was unacceptable.

Things seem so different now.  Parents are involved in everything their child does, from play dates to homework to sports teams. They do so much for their children that the kids are at risk of never learning about something as simple as accomplishing a goal. 

But, unlike many of the opinions I've heard on the matter, I don't entirely blame the parents.

I remember when my daughter was in the third grade. One of her assignments was to write down every combination of coins possible to make one dollar. Now, think about that for a moment. Every combination of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. There is no way her teacher thought that this was an appropriate task for eight year olds. 

In fifth grade, one of my son's assignments was to make a Powerpoint presentation for some geography project. Did that teacher really think a ten year old could find his way around software like that?

Let's be realistic for a moment. I could have spent hours teaching my son how to use Powerpoint, or emptied a piggy bank full of coins and put together hundreds of combinations totaling one dollar while my daughter wrote each down. Or, I could spend fifteen minutes doing it for them, and then get back to what I was doing before. I chose the latter. Not because I don't love my children, but because those assignments were ridiculous and virtually impossible for a child to accomplish. In short, they were what I call "Parent Homework." If a teacher is going to assign Parent Homework, they better darn well understand when the parents are the ones doing it.

Yes, some parents shelter their children from far too much and while trying to help them end up hurting them more. I do believe that parents need to take a step back and allow their children to succeed or fail on their own. But, I also think that schools need to make that possible.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Writer Shame

Recently, I had a conversation with a dear friend who is possibly one of the most intelligent and word-gifted people I know, not to mention completely lovely. I’d been noticing for a while how exquisitely she writes. Her Facebook posts are gritty and real and she finds beautiful words to describe hard feelings. I really admire her talent, and I decided it was time to tell her—with real words, instead of the ambiguous Facebook “like” or comment.

And then, with just about the same amount of nervous embarrassment as one admitting to an addiction to chewing previously enjoyed sidewalk gum, she admitted that she writes every day. Secretly. I wasn’t surprised; she’s got the gift and she should be writing. But her reaction really struck me. Because I remember that shame, that embarrassed nervousness, that stuttery feeling when someone asks what you do for a living. It’s hard to forget, because most days I still feel it.

It’s so hard to admit you’re a writer. Because out there in the “real” world, non-writers immediately ask, “What have you written?” or “Can I find your books at Barnes & Noble?” or “How much do you earn?” (Yes! Really!) or “What do you do for a day job?” (I swear!). My personal favorite is THE LOOK. The one that tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you’re a bum wasting your time on a pipe dream instead of supporting your family like a bloody GROWNUP.

It sucks. I wish we could own what we do, be proud of the words we write, even without the validation of agents and publishers and scores of raving reader-fans. So this is what I’d like to tell all those closet writers, including myself:

  •  If, with some regularity, you sit down and bleed your soul onto paper or screen, then guess what? You’re a writer. Own it.      If you spend valuable parts of your day imagining the inner workings of some story you haven’t put words to yet, you’re almost a writer. Keep going. Then own it.
  •  If you haven’t earned one red cent for your writing, and every agent and publisher in the universe has rejected your work, you still wrote something. So keep working on your craft. And own it.
  • If what you’ve written sucks harder than a Dyson, congratulations! It means you’ve got a first draft, and there’s work to be done. A lot of it. So pat yourself on the back, and then get to it.
  •  If you feel a sneaky sort of shame because you self-published your work, instead recognize how awesome you are for going it on your own. You followed a huge learning curve from writing to editing to book cover design to promo text to marketing, and you did it on your own. You’re not just a writer; you’re a superhero of the book world. Put on that cape and own it.
  • If you’ve traditionally published your first book and are now learning how sucky having no control over the marketing (or lack thereof) of your book is, and wondering every single day if those sales numbers are good or horrid, and you’re doubting anyone will ever want to publish another of your books, ever—recognize what you’ve already accomplished. The only thing you can control is the work you produce. So let that book baby go and focus on the next one.
  •  If you’re a New York Times Bestselling author (and if you are you’re probably too busy counting those royalty checks to read this measly little blog) and you’re wondering if the next book will lead to an “oh, how the mighty have fallen” plunge into the pits of writerly hell, with booze and self-loathing as your new BFFs—well, you’re a New York Times bestselling author. Do you get a trophy for that? If not, have one made. A monstrously huge, flashy, gold-plated one. And then suck it up, because you made it to the top of a very large mountain. You’re a one-percenter, and yes, the rest of us kinda-sorta hate you. A little.

The point is, wherever you are on this journey, have some pride in what you do. Be genuine about it. Own it. Cracking a book is like opening the pages to an entire universe, a universe where the mind and heart can be touched in new and beautiful ways. So what you’re doing matters.