Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Writing and Editing”

Writer Productivity Tip: Have a Routine

I’ve officially joined the ranks of the Query Tracker Blog team, and what follows was originally posted on the QT Blog yesterday. The good news is, official blog duties will keep me from being too much of a slacker, no matter how insane the rest of my life may be.

Now to the post:

Almost every parent I know understands the importance of the “bedtime ritual.” The components are usually something along the lines of: bathe the child, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a couple of stories, get a drink of water, sing a song, say no to a second glass of water, say good night, say no to the next two requests to get up and get a glass of water, the child falls asleep. When the schedule is disrupted, even if it’s late and the child should be exhausted, getting the child to sleep is much harder.
The bedtime ritual works because of a psychological function called cognitive cuing. The child’s brain has essentially wired itself to understand that the endpoint of the bedtime ritual is sleep. The process of relaxing into that state begins with the bath, and each step in the ritual is a conditioned step toward sleeping. There’s nothing intrinsically sleep-inducing about most of the steps themselves—brushing your teeth is not, independently, a cue for your brain to prepare for slumber. The key is simply the existence of the ritual.

Not surprisingly, when researchers have tried to examine the ideal situation for creative writing, what they’ve largely found is that the presence of a routine—cognitive cuing—is essential. In his book The Psychology of Writing, Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explains:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness.

In other words, going to the same place at the same time, then doing the same thing (writing awesome prose) when you get there, teaches your brain to expect to write. Instead of wasting a page or two “getting into the zone,” your brain eventually wires itself to know, “It’s six-thirty AM, I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee with my sexy French press, and ate some fruit, Now I’m sitting at the desk with my fingers on the keys, it must be time for awesome prose to explode out of my fingertips.

Substituting a different time of day to meet your scheduling needs wouldn’t harm anything (or much, Kellogg talks about time of day, too). You can swap brushing teeth for a regular chat session with a CP or turn that desk into a local coffee shop. Ultimately, what will yield results is your mind associating the routine with being deep inside a character, deep inside your novel. A place you can start writing from by giving your mind those cognitive cues that it’s time to be there.

http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2015/02/writer-productivity-tip-have-routine.html

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An Open Letter to Beta Readers

The main problem with beta readers is their impulse to lie their asses off. Their inclination is to react to our books like we handed them a ceramic handpirnt on Mothers’ Day and tell us how beautiful they think it is without even wondering whether they do. There can be other issues, too. I’m ridiculously bad at beta reading. I can’t even read published works the way I want betas to read mine. The last time I offered to beta read a novel was a little less than a year ago. If that experience was any indication, I should call myself an omega reader or something, because the beta thing certainly didn’t stick.

What follows is the first draft of an open letter to REAL beta readers — nonwriter acquaintances we somehow cajole into reading our stuff like they bought it at the airport and try like hell to keep from lying to us about the content:

Dear Beta Reader:

Thank you for agreeing to read my manuscript. There is also a chance you think you’ve agreed to force yourself to get through it and tell me how good it is, like it’s some godawful casserole your Grandmother made. If you approach it that way, I’d be a lot better off not asking you to read it. You’d sure as hell be better off not spending your evenings clawing through a heaping plate of mashed turnips and spam that reminds Grandma of her childhood; an era historians call the “Great Depression,” because it was so, well, depressing.

It is entirely possible you’ll get a page or a chapter or five chapters in and, if you’d just borrowed this book from a friend, put it down. THAT is valuable feedback to me. In fact, there is no more valuable feedback you could give if that happened. “I lost interest after Chapter Two,” is something I can use. “I love the way the saltiness from the stale potato chips offsets the blandness of the turnips,” is not.

My keyboard will not be awash in tears because one person lost interest in or didn’t enjoy my book. The two books I most recently started and couldn’t bring myself to finish were the second Hunger Games book and that Da Vinci Code meets Dante thing by Dan Brown. Both were wildly successful, and me not being the target audience for them doesn’t change that. You not being the target audience for my book won’t define my own opinion of it either, but it would be useful information. Useful information is all I’m asking for.

How much feedback or what form that takes is totally your call. I am not asking you to proofread this for me, and it’s no accident the file extension is “Final 27.” I find typos in published books, so I’m certain there are still a handful in here, but proofreading is the one thing I’m specifically NOT asking for. What I really want is for you to read some or all of it, and talk to me about it like you would if I had nothing to do with it. I work with a couple of people who look very closely at every tree and pine cone, and I’ve had a lot of that type of feedback already. Now I want to see what someone thinks of the forest.

This is a form letter I use whenever I send my manuscript to a beta reader. My total investment in you reading my manuscript is the thirty seconds it took me to cut and paste this into an email and attach a .pdf file. By the time you’ve read this email, you have expended more effort in being my beta reader than I have in getting you to be that, so you don’t owe me a thing. Now you have a free book you may or may not like, and I consider it a favor that you’re willing to read the first page. If you read the second page, do it because of that first page, and not for any other reason.

Thanks again.
/mjm

Show & Tell (Not “Show Don’t Tell,” because that’s just stupid)

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. It’s also stupid. Catchy, but stupid. If you tried to write a novel only showing, never telling, you would… Well, basically, you’d have Ulysses, by James Joyce. Not that he doesn’t tell, too. My point is you’d end up needing to use a quarter of a million words to describe each day in each character’s life.

You simply cannot show everything. This, like nearly everything else in writing, is a question of balance. A well written book is a good combination of showing and telling that lets the reader experience things through actions and senses (showing) at a good pace (which requires telling).

What does “Show Don’t Tell” Really Mean?

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are a few different categories of “telling,” and what this advice means depends heavily on which tell people are saying should be shown.

Telling through adverbs and adjectives

For the most part, “show don’t tell” advice usually boils down to a simple precept: replace adverbs and adjectives with actions and detail. Instead of telling the reader someone was angry at the end of a phone call (adjective) or hung up angrily (adverb), have her hang up by screaming the word “bastard!” and throwing her phone at the wall. If in doubt, she can get a hammer and scream “bastard, bastard, bastard,” in time to the hammer’s beat against the now-shattered phone’s carcass.  Don’t tell me that she is displeased to see a blue screen on her computer, show me:

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The problem is, you simply cannot “show don’t tell.” The very thing we try to accomplish by showing – vivid scenes that bring the reader in close – will stop working if we do nothing but show. If your character glances quickly over her shoulder before ducking into an alley, a lengthy description of her head twisting on her neck, eyes moving to the side, etc., will convey that feeling a lot less effectively that “glanced quickly.”

That said, as soon as I typed and saw that adverb I had an urge to change it to “shot a glance” or use some other stronger verb to kill the need for the adverb, so my example would disappear on my first editing pass. I decided to leave it (and this confession) to underscore the fact that I’m not saying “tell don’t show.” My point is simply that we need both, balanced as well as possible, to make our reading pop. If the detective notices someone hurriedly leave a room, and that subtle cue needs to stay subtle for six more chapters, we don’t want to go into greater detail.

Summaries

“She slid the key into the ignition and twisted. A slight click, then…”

That’s a show, but whether it’s a good one or not depends heavily on whether the car blows up or she drives to work. Just like we don’t want to “tell” about the bomb wired to the ignition (“she started her car, then it blew up” is not good writing) we also don’t want to show every step a character takes to get from one scene that matters to another. The slightly bitter taste on the back of a character’s tongue may be a good show if it’s poison, it may even be a good show if it’s just arugula, but we still don’t want to get bogged down in every sensation every character experiences. Sometimes all that matters is that they ate.  Showing well and telling well are critical components to pacing well. “Show don’t tell” is like a cookbook that says “just cook everything at 500 degrees.” Rare roast beef and baked potatoes can’t be cooked at the same temperature. If we want a well-rounded meal, er, book, we need to be willing to pay attention to the knob.

Descriptions (Don’t tell me about the moon shining, show me an apocryphal quote)

A few of you (at least one, I’m certain) probably got this far and wondered: Where’s the awesome Chekhov quote? Because, yes, the best quote about showing and telling is from Anton Chekhov, and, yes, I am, indeed, Anton Chekhov’s bitch. And the most oft-cited quote on this topic is from Dr. Chekhov, who admonished:

Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Except he didn’t. At least not that I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, you can find thousands of citations that say he said that, but I’ve yet to see one that pointed me to a specific letter or play or anything else where he purportedly said this. Ironically, though I don’t think he ever TOLD us to do this, he SHOWED us what to do in his short story Hydrophobia:

The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. 

Description is, by definition, telling. If you look at masters of description, like Chekhov and Hemingway, something striking leaps out. Instead of describing a static scene or backdrop, they nearly always describe things in a state of motion or flux. More often, they describe an action on the part of a character that incorporates the description and sets the scene without simply telling us what things look like. A cowboy getting seasick in the desert sun from the rise and fall of heat waves cresting on the parched soil and scrub in front of him is painting a scene for us through his eyes and reaction. The result, and goal, are still to paint a scene, but bringing it in through the character’s experience often paints it better.

Often, but not always.

Adverb/adjective, summary, and description tells are each different. Sometimes, those tells are the best tool for the job, and should be used as such. Other times, showing will make writing pop. It’s really a question of pacing as much as anything else. The advice is doled  out as “show, don’t tell” because few beginning writers make the opposite mistake. The problem is, giving the advice that way ENCOURAGES people to make the opposite mistake. “Decide whether to show or tell or combine the two in the way that best fits with the tenor and tone and pacing of that particular scene,” just isn’t catchy enough.

Three Rules for Writing Omniscient POV that Doesn’t Suck

 

Every piece of fiction ever written was written from the omniscient point of view (“POV”). Most are not written in the omniscient POV, but let’s face it, we all write from it. I’m reviewing a manuscript right now, written in first person with a blind protagonist, which presents some interesting POV issues. That does not change the fact that the writer knows exactly what’s going on, regardless of whether her protag can see it (which, after Chapter Three, she can’t). The tricky part for the author is controlling the influx of information so the reader never becomes aware of something her protagonist isn’t  aware of.

In other words, it’s just like writing anything else.

Why I write in omniscient POV

Writing somewhat (by which I mean really fucking) sarcastic satire, omniscient POV is almost a must for me. If I try to write in third person, I have to saddle my poor POV character, which is my protagonist about 80% of the time, with all of the snark and sarcasm. That presents a few problems:

First, I don’t want my protagonist to be an asshole. If he’s the one finding every angle to describe a situation satirically, that’s pretty much his fate. If it’s clear that a narrator is talking about what’s going on, the protagonist can still be a decent, loveable guy or girl, without having to sacrifice any snark.

Second, there are times the protagonist isn’t going to be the POV character. That’s true whether I’m writing in third or omni. If I were writing in third person, I’d have a tough choice. Even if I was willing to let my protagonist be the asshole, I either have to go through select portions of my manuscript (i.e., anywhere anyone else was the POV character) in a straight, non-satirical way—which may or may not work depending on the particular story, scene, characters—or I’d have to start filling a stable of characters with the same satirical perspective on the events. In other words, start blurring the line and have less distinct characters. Writing in omni, the distinct narrator can watch those scenes for the reader, provide the satirical perspective, and allow the character to just be herself; a distinct, unique character with her own perspective.

Third, my particular brand of satire is a variant of the “One Sane Man” trope. Meaning, I have a narrator talking about a normal person thrown into nonsensical events (the way our society is largely comprised of nonsense) and trying to earnestly understand what’s going on. I can’t pretend the reader doesn’t understand I’m describing nonsense without alienating the reader. If I afford my protagonist a grand, bird’s-eye view of the situation, there’s nothing left to work out. In other words, my narrative arc looks like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

By virtue of my genre, writing style, and desire for my protagonist not to be an asshole, I have little choice but to write from an omniscient POV. That’s not a particularly popular POV, though, and I think I know why. After a year of drafting and nearly that editing and revising, I think I can safely say writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck is really fucking hard.

My manuscript currently has the nonironic file extension ‘final24.’ It’s named that because it’s my twenty fourth goddam version of the first document I had the hubris to name ‘final’ after several rounds of edits. Ten fucking months ago. If you’ll accept the assumption that it doesn’t suck (or, if not, at least assume Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling know what the hell they’re doing), here’s what I’ve learned about…

How to write omni that doesn’t suck.

First, foremost, most importantly, and above all, it doesn’t look like it’s omniscient. It looks like limited third virtually all the time. Granted, limited third with a more distinctive narrator’s voice than most limited third, but limited third nonetheless. So much so that two of my three critique partners read the entire thing thinking it was written in limited third. That wasn’t an accident.

If there is a way to keep from breaking limited third to make my satirical point, I do that instead. If I can filter something through a POV character instead of telling another person’s thoughts, or bring something the POV character couldn’t know into the narrative through conversation or some other way, I do that. To the point that my original manuscript, which had a different ending that required much less POV change, could almost legitimately be called third person.

People commenting on things written in omni (for example, Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett’s stuff) often say they were written in limited third. Nathan Bransford, for example, says:

One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry’s perspective in only a tiny few rare instances.

I recently read Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, and found precisely the same thing. There are only a handful of POV characters, and he seldom strays from their thoughts, or something the POV character is at least capable of viewing, in his narrative. Though the narrator’s tone is distinct, and commentary about the things the POV characters can see may slip in through that, nearly everything that moves the story forward happens in a way that is indistinguishable from limited third.

Nathan’s blog is a valuable tool and his insights and experience are incredibly helpful (as you could probably tell from me linking to it, which I don’t do often). That said, I don’t hesitate for a second to say Harry Potter was written in something other than limited third. “Limited third that only strays from the POV character’s perspective in a tiny few rare instances” is the definition of omniscient POV that doesn’t suck.

Writing in omni presents pitfalls aplenty. Head hopping can be maddening for the reader (even if the writer must know what is in every character’s head). Cheating with knowledge of what will happen, blurring the line between what the narrator knows and what the POV knows, erasing the clean lines that distinguish each character as a complete, rounded person, and about a thousand other things can lead to a nightmare of a manuscript. Writing as close to limited third as possible guards against those things better than anything else.

The second rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck, and this rule is also extremely important, is that there is no fucking second rule. Good omniscient POV is the closest thing a writer can get to limited third given the nature of the narrative without doing damage to the narrative. You can embrace the fact that you’re writing from omniscient POV, since all writers always are, but the decision to write a section where it becomes clear to the reader (i.e., writing in omniscient POV) is much more delicate. It’s a cross between seasoning with habanero sauce and using a nuclear weapon.

Applying the rule, you’ll see that omniscient is virtually never warranted in a thriller, for example, where information slowly being discovered and developed by the protagonist is key. So, applying the “only use it as an absolute last resort, nuclear option” rule, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to write that kind of book in anything but first or tight, tight limited third.

Fantasy is an area where omniscient is much more prevalent. I’m no expert in that genre, but it intuitively makes sense to me. For starters, fantasy writers need to do a lot of worldbuilding that will happen much more efficiently from a clearly removed narrator. Having taken that step in distance away from tight limited third, the story itself should decide how tightly the narrator zooms in on a character or two – even to the point of zooming in so tight the narrator effectively disappears as a separate voice.

In satire, by contrast, the scope usually starts closely focused on a character and pans back as the situation she’s in becomes more fucked up. To the extent I found myself needing to create situations early in the narrative that required the distanced narrative voice, just so it wouldn’t come as a surprise when it was necessary to really turn it on a third of the way into the story. That was one of the key tings I had to work out piecing this narrative together. For omni not to suck, you have to use it as little as the narrative absolutely requires. To keep it from looking like I just got sloppy with limited third, I had to introduce that voice early. The result was that I had to write in a situation that absolutely required a drop of habanero sauce, so the reader wouldn’t be surprised when things got hot later.

Finally, the third rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck:

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The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.

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Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out either The Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends or the Project Gutenberg version of the same book (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.

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Making the Most of your ABC Relationships (More on Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners)

Notice the word “relationships” in the title. As I said in my last post, the most important blog post on the subject of ABC Relationships in the history of the interwebs, BOTH YOU AND YOUR PARTNER NEED TO BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR IN THIS RELATIONSHIP.

That sentence, which I yelled in bold italics, was what made it the most important post on this subject. Like all relationship advice, any generalities I can throw at you are going to be of little use in any particular ABC RelationshipTM. That bigass, bold, screamed sentence is 90% of what I have to offer on the subject. Well, that and coming up with the name ABC RelationshipsTM which I think is catchy as hell.

For what it’s worth, though, here’s the other 10%

All relationship advice sucks. People always say “do what you love for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but don’t hesitate to tell you that “A successful marriage takes a lot of hard work.” What the fuck is up with that?

There are soul crushing jobs and soul crushing marriages and anyone who wants to give you advice about either probably has both—and lacks the good sense to do anything about it. In other words, I think relationship advice is cognitive dissonance and denial, dressed up to look like wisdom. Plus, someone with a great marriage isn’t going to be able to tell you how to deal with a shitty one, and you don’t want to take advice from someone in a shitty marriage about how to be married. So screw the advice giving.

Just remember it’s a fucking relationship. It’s going to have all of the components of any other relationship. Meaning:

  1. The people heading in probably have expectations about what the other person is going to do and what they will do for that person.
  2. Unless those expectations are communicated, they will almost certainly go unmet, causing tension.
  3. If there’s enough tension in the relationship, sooner or later you’re going to be screaming that you want your fucking Pink Floyd CDs back, damnit unhappy with how things are working.
  4. If those expectations are clearly communicated, they are far easier to meet.
  5. Last but not least, and this is a big one, relationships constantly change. Sometimes they do so by ending, sometimes by growing, sometimes they’re just different, but they constantly change. So knowing where you’re at in Step 4 one day does not mean you shouldn’t ever talk about it again. 

This is harder than it looks. It’s easy to say “sure, I’d love to read your book,” and hard not to feel like an ass by saying “I’m really sorry, but I don’t have time for it.” It’s also great to have ten people looking over your stuff, but (unless a fair number true betas, which I’ll get to), you can’t be a good developmental editor, copy editor, idea sounding board and a bunch of other stuff to ten other people.

Personally, I max out at three real critique partners (CPs). That’s not advice for anyone but me, and I often think I can do more than that—until all three finish their revisions and hit me with a novel to read the same fucking night. Then I’m overtaxed with three and thank God I haven’t agreed to a fourth.

Which is not to say I don’t also pretend I’m a beta on occasion. If I’m reasonably safe for a while in terms of my CP workload and feel like my own writing going where it needs to, I’ll agree to rip through part of all of someone’s manuscript and give some general impressions. But I also tell them up front that is what I will be doing. It’s OK, because I’ve said that’s what I’d be doing up front.

That person may get 500 or 1,000 words of comments on a novel, without any usage or style issues corrected or questioned. By contrast, this morning I hit one of my poor CPs with about a thousand word e-mail, not counting all sorts of comments and questions on the manuscript itself, in response to 6,000 words she sent me. And that’s my response to writing I absolutely love—on my second pass through those particular chapters. Another CP got a less significant line-by-line back, too, but her changes were less substantial, and it’s an entirely different genre from a technical standpoint. Still, in the time it’s taken me to write this much of this blog post, I’ve received and responded to three e-mails from the very people I’m talking about. Because I fucking love my CPs, and that kind of love is a lot of work.

All of it boils down to: know up front what you’re asking for and what you’re being asked to contribute. If I were to come perilously close to giving relationship advice, it would be that there should be some balance between what you are taking and what you are giving. In other words, don’t be a selfish douchebag. Or a doormat, for that matter (though I’ve done soooooo much better picking partners for this type of relationship than I did with the other, the doormat issue hasn’t presented itself in my writing life).

Plus, get yourself some damn betas

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Real ones, like the term really means in the software industry (from which it was borrowed before being bastardized to really mean critique partner most of the time writers use it). Betas are end users (read: readers), not programmers or engineers (read: writers). There are a few great things about betas. Starting with: They aren’t writers. Also, they don’t have a bunch of their own shit they want you to read, too. Because they aren’t fucking writers.

They read your stuff because they like to read. They respond to your stuff like readers do. They won’t use all our douchey writer words like “head-hopping,” “POV slip,” “narrative arc,” and whatnot. They’ll still point out those problems, though (although they usually have to be more severe than they do for a good CP to catch them). They’ll tell you things like “I didn’t really like this part,” or “Chapter Three was confusing.” If a beta starts your book and “keeps meaning to get back to it,” but doesn’t, you’ve learned volumes. Your critique partner is on a mission and has an agreement with you, so it’s rare one (who isn’t a selfish douchebag) will not crunch through your book — good or bad. Betas have a sneaky habit of not getting back to books they find boring.

The ideal beta is someone you know, but barely, who likes to read and reads a lot. There can be no physical attraction, job relationship, family relationship, outstanding debts, or any other reason for that person to hesitate to tell you the truth. Betas are awesome, because their payment is getting to read your manuscript. They don’t have a manuscript to read. Because they aren’t fucking writers, so you don’t have to read their shit.

Always be on the lookout for a new beta. Talk books with people. It’s easy to see whether the person you’re talking to knows what she’s talking about when it comes to reading. If she does, see if she’ll read yours and give some honest opinions.

Then stress you want honest opinions. Bend over backward to make that person understand that the biggest favor they can do for you is provide direct, accurate, completely honest feedback. Assure them you know not everyone will like what you’ve written, and if she falls into the category of people who don’t, so be it. All that matters is that her opinions be honest and complete. As a side note, I’ve found its usually easier to get that kind of response in writing as opposed to face-to-face.

That’s why, while I’d encourage you to have all sorts of people read your work, I don’t count family or friends or other people with close ties as betas. Betas truly need to be like their software industry counterparts – typical end users testing the product in normal usage conditions. Your mom is not a typical end user. She may have great insights, but you still won’t know what a stranger thinks after reading your book. Assuming, that is, the stranger reads the whole book, which your mom will at least lie about and tell you she did.

So, here’s everything I think about ABC Relationshipstm

  1. They are relationships.
  2. Make sure everybody knows what they want and expect from that relationship at the outset.
  3. Don’t be a selfish douchebag.
  4. Get some damn betas, they’re basically free.

Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners: The ABCs of having a book that doesn’t suck.

Relationships with alpha readers (“alphas”) beta readers (“betas”) and critique partners (“CPs”) are RELATIONSHIPS. That fact, so key I’m yelling in bold, permeates every aspect of this topic. For starters, those relationships can range from “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” casual one night stands to serious, long-term “I feel as invested in your writing as I do my own” literary soul mates. The relationships evolve, grow, and/or end. I could easily drop a couple thousand words just analogizing alpha/beta/CP (“ABC”) pairings to every other relationship you could imagine—from parents to prostitutes—and barely scratch the surface. But let’s get to some definitions so we can at least make sure we’re all on the same page when we’re talking about this stuff.

Although I spend a good deal of this blog trying to disambiguate writing terms, that’s impossible with this topic. That’s the basic premise of this post. We are talking relationships, which means there are no rules beyond what the people in the relationship decide.

Alpha and Beta readers – it’s important to know what they are and are not

Let’s get the word-origin part out of the way. These are software industry terms that migrated over to writing communities. It looks like the terms first came into common use in the world of fan fic, then migrated to other online writer communities from there.

I got that far into my research and asked myself, “seriously, who gives a fuck?” I’m like a dog with ADD who saw a bright shiny object tied to a squirrel when it comes to research.

Suffice it to say, the terms were adopted from the software industry, where they have the following meanings:

Alpha Test:          The program is complete (or very nearly complete), but may have known limitations and problems. Testing is performed by software engineers for the purpose of finding and fixing critical issues.

Beta Test:   The program is complete and polished and needs to be tested in real-world conditions by real users to see how if functions in an uncontrolled environment. Testing is usually performed by customers, who are getting a free copy of the program in exchange for testing.

For some reason, the term beta reader is in extremely common use in writing communities. In some circles, it’s even become an umbrella term that encompasses everything in our ABCs. Alpha reader is less common, and many “betas” are really alphas.

Honesty, a foundation of any good relationship

Glancing at those definitions shows how quickly alpha/beta relationships can go south. Particularly with most people calling all critique work “beta reading.” If you have a rough draft that you spellchecked once, it’s perfectly reasonable to want another set of eyes on the manuscript. You’re looking for an alpha. If you’ve revised and polished the crap out of your manuscript, and you want to know what someone who bought it at a local bookstore would think of the novel, you’re looking for a beta. There is nothing wrong with wanting either of those things—or both, from different people at different times. But both you and your partner need to be clear about what you’re looking for.

I am now going to make this the most important blog post on the subject of ABC relationships in the history of the interwebs. I’m going to say it again, and this time it will be bold, in all caps, and italicized:

BOTH YOU AND YOUR PARTNER NEED TO BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR IN THIS RELATIONSHIP.

Sitting down to beta read for someone who really wants (or needs) an alpha is not fun. It’s like to showing up to take someone to a church picnic and having your date hand you a ball gag, saying, “Mama don’t do safewords, slave.”

It doesn’t matter what the terms mean. The non-online writing world still, generally, doesn’t use them, and writers got along just fine without them for a thousand years. F. Scott Fitzgerald never called himself Ernest Hemingway’s “beta reader,” and I can’t see a single reference in James Joyce’s papers about Hemingway being his “critique partner.” [In fact, that may be the only thing Joyce didn’t call Hemingway at some point.] Alpha and beta reader are semi-useful labels that have little meaning beyond that which we give them.

That, and it’s a useful answer to your daughter’s questions when you leave a folder open on the computer containing about a thousand emails with a woman she’s never heard of before.

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I’ll get into how to pick ABC partners and trying to make the most of your ABC relationship in a future post (because I foreshadow future posts on this blog more than the witches foreshadow the events in Macbeth). In terms of what alpha and beta readers are, though, we can use two sets of definitions:

Set One: If you read it somewhere and assume the person is using the term correctly, or want to sound all hip and writerly in a conversation and use the terms yourself with someone other than an ABC partner:

Alphas get the MS when it still has problems and needs to be edited, maybe even before it’s finished; and

Betas get something that is as close to publishable as you can possibly make it, usually with the help of an alpha or two. Alphas should be other writers, Betas are usually better betas if they are nonwriter avid readers…

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Set Two: For our own purposes, we don’t give a damn what the definitions are, since they’re likely not exactly the same as your prospective ABC partners anyway. Just make sure you and they have an honest discussion about what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to offer.

Then what the hell is a CP?

This is what I call everyone who isn’t a beta. If I’m sharing work with another writer, and reading and commenting on that writer’s work in return, I call that person a critique partner. Sometimes they function more like betas, sometimes more like alphas. If the relationship really clicks, it can go from beta to alpha to alpha on steroids (to your daughters wondering if they have an estranged sister who lives in Oregon or you are shopping for a Nigerian mail order bride).

How you’ll use a CP can depend on so many variables, not the least of which is how your write and edit, that it’s likely to change project-to-project even between the same two participants. I rewrite so much during the writing process itself that I would be wasting both of our time if I sent Chapter One to a CP the minute it was done. But I’ve had CPs who send work to me that way, and I don’t mind at all. I’ve sent standalone rewritten paragraphs at times, and asked/answered more than a few “how do you think I should handle” questions about things that haven’t even been written yet. When you get to the “bouncing ideas off each other” stage, neither alpha nor beta reader is an apt title. There isn’t anything to read yet.

That’s why I call any other writer I share work with a critique partner. And I mean it; particularly when the relationship evolves to the point that emphasizes “partner” over the word “critique.”

 

Bonus Materials and quiz:

What follows is a verbatim (including misspellings) transcript of a letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald asked for feedback on his novel Tender is the Night, although it had already been published. Read the correspondence, then answer the following question:

Based on the above facts and what Hemingway said in his letter, what was Hemingway to Fitzgerald:

A) An alpha reader

B) A beta reader

C) A critique partner

D) Fuck this quiz, lets get drunk.

 

Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. 

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. 

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true. 

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to. 

In the first place I’ve always claimed that you can’t think. All right, we’ll admit you can think. But say you couldn’t think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. 

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do. 

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump. 

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. 

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you. 

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy. But you’re no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is. 

Go on and write. 

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He’s in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We’re all fine. She’s going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write. 

Always your friend

Ernest

[Written on envelope: What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.]

The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

I’ll start with the cliché about the leopard not being able to change its spots. That doesn’t have anything to do with my frequent use of profanity. It explains why, when I sat down to say “here’s why I like to occasionally say ‘fuck,’” I lost an hour of my day reading fascinating articles written by linguistic anthropologists about that and similar words.

None of which have a fucking thing to do with the topic at hand.

 

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The F-Bomb and Me, a personal history

I have two uncles on my dad’s side of the family. One was a contractor, the other was the bartender at the Irish Center in San Francisco. Both were Irish immigrants and, as far as I know, neither ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least one F-bomb. That doesn’t explain anything about my use of such language, it just shows how I was introduced to it – probably in conjunction with my initial language acquisition skills as a toddler. “Fuck,” “fucking,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker” were what my uncles said instead of “um.” If they otherwise would have said “um” a lot.

[They also got me drunk the first (several) times and I tend to slip into an Irish brogue if I’ve had too many, though that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

My parents, on the other hand, do not cuss. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about my uncles’ version of “um,” although I’m certain I did. I would remember being sent home from kindergarten for asking some cocksucker to pass me a motherfucking crayon, and that did not happen.

Some years later, when I was around ten, my friends and I discovered those words anew, peppering our sentences with them as liberally as my uncles ever had. Of course, that was only when we were alone, unobserved, and certainly far, far away from our parents’ ears. I’m sure we did it to impress each other and younger kids, to feel “grownup,” and for a host of other reasons that tend to evaporate after dropping ten or twenty thousand F-bombs.

By the time I was in high school, in the right company and circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to use profanities for emphasis. For the next ten years or so, those lines were primarily generational. I seldom swore in front of someone my parents’ age, but had no problem doing it with someone my age or younger. Circumstances matter, too. I wouldn’t drop an F-bomb in front of anyone if I was, say, in a church, but I’d probably be willing to say “shit” on a racquetball court or by a campfire even if my companion were Mother Teresa.

This all seemed natural, and I never gave it any thought. Then I had kids.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to censor my language in front of not only members of my parents’ generation, but also my children’s. Which is ironic as hell, because I will never have as many conversations with anyone about the subjects of shit and piss as I’d had with each of my children by the time they were three. Granted, the vernacular was different (“potty,” “tinkle,” “poopie,” etc.), but shit is shit, whatever you call it, and we were literally talking shit to each other several times a day for years.

Cussing at the Office

Around the same time I was constantly talking shit, er, poopies, with my kids, I was also earning my chops in my professional life, where I was introduced to cussing at a different level. First, becoming a “grownup” meant that people ten, twenty, or forty years older than me were now my peers. I was practicing law, which meant I had to at least pretend I was the peer of every opposing lawyer I dealt with, even if he (and the ones that old were all “he”) was forty years my senior. Being the frustrated linguist I really am, that’s also when I started paying close attention to how people were using swear words. I noticed that people who cussed in this context fell into three groups:

  • Buster Blowhard. He’s one tough motherfucker. You know this, because he is constantly saying what a tough motherfucker he is. He might as well have “Super Insecure and Overcompensating” tattooed on his forehead. I say “he” because, while I am absolutely certain there are female versions of this, I have not done business with one yet.
  • The Casual Cusser. Talks to everyone (or at least most people) like they’re all in a high school gym together. Takes no offense to profanity also assumes you don’t give a shit. Doesn’t really put any thought into it.
  • The Strategic Swearer. Appears not to use any profane or inappropriate language whatsoever. When it’s time to call bullshit on something, the word “bullshit” silences a room.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any who reads this blog that, among my friends, I am a Casual Cusser. Professionally, though, I am squarely in the Strategic Swearer group. So much so, that most people who only know me professionally may be inclined to think I don’t swear at all.

While I’m a Casual Cusser much of the time, I have to admit, the Strategic Swearer is BY FAR more fun. Swearing is all about how much power we give words, and being the Strategic Swearer lets me manipulate them like a power-mad comic book villain.

My favorite example is a deal I’d worked on for six months, never venturing south of the word “darned.” A new lawyer came onboard with the other side and started trying to jerk things around. After three days of this, I stood up and told him he was “pissing all over everything we had worked on for six months.” Then I told his client to contact my client directly if he was more interested in doing the deal than playing “bullshit games.”

Before the meeting, I told my client “start getting ready to walk out if I say the word ‘piss.’ If I say the word ‘shit,’ stand up immediately. Don’t talk to anyone.” He did, we left, and before the elevator arrived to take us downstairs, the deal was back on track. If I’d been saying “shit” this and “fuck” that for the prior six months, those words would have had almost no power. Coming as they did, though, they were powerful enough to make the person representing the other company go – quite literally – pale.

As I watched the blood drain from his face, all I could think was, If I said he was tinkling on the deal and they were playing games with cow poopies, IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME FUCKING THING.

Where That Power Comes From

It would have meant the same thing — and it wouldn’t have at the same time. That’s the amazing thing about swear words.  Their context is their meaning. The meaning of any given swear word happens somewhere between: (1) the speaker’s use of the word and (2) the listener’s feelings (a) about the word generally and (b) how the word is being used at that moment. As writers, we can look at it as the ultimate exercise in usage and cognitive construction, because the true meaning to the listener does not have one fucking thing to do with the literal word we are using.

You can see the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. We have a huge Mormon population where I live. They never (ever, which is to say, at least not when another Mormon is around) say the word “fuck.” Which makes sense, because Mormons are notoriously proper, well-mannered people (particularly so if another Mormon is around). Go watch a Mormon basketball game – don’t ask me, basketball seems to be a significant aspect of their religion. You’ll hear the word “screw” and “screwed” thrown around with abandon. And it’s being used exactly when and how the F-bomb would be dropped by someone comfortable with dropping F-bombs.

They say a word that means the same thing. They say it in the same context. They say it with the same intent. The only fucking difference is the significance they have subjectively given that word as far as it’s “badness.” Fuck is bad because – and only because – they have decided it’s bad. Screw, which fucking means “Fuck,” for fuck’s sake, is fine, because — well, it’s not “Fuck.”

And I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, here. They’re just a convenient example. The same is true for all of us. Or, should I say, Every Fucking One Of Us. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have the friends we tell “I’ve gotta take a piss” and the friends we tell we “need to go to the bathroom.” There are people we ask for the “restroom,” and we may tell a three year old we “need to go potty.” Almost all of which we do without thinking twice – it’s a natural part of our language.

So, why do I cuss on this blog?

Because you’re the friends I tell “I’ve gotta take a piss.” 🙂

Properly used (if that isn’t an oxymoron in this context), I think swear words are a more effective way of placing emphasis than the main alternative, an exclamation point. For me, they are also the more honest – this blog is about the most unfiltered (and unrefined) version of my “voice” imaginable. This is what I sound like in my internal monologue and when I am speaking to my closest friends. In other contexts, there is some form of filter – usually so ingrained it’s subconscious – making decisions about the propriety or utility of those words.

Which is one of the reasons I think I love blogging so much. In here, I don’t have to give a fuck.

The Innate Talent Question: Thus Spake Überdouche

Well, the Talent Wars have flared up again. The fight over how much “talent” is a factor in a person’s writing ability almost invariably gets ugly. And, if you scratch the surface, it’s pretty easy to see why.

I try not to be a complete asshole when interacting with people, whether on the internet or standing in line at the airport. It’s usually not all that hard. When this issue comes up, though, I have to consciously restrain myself. If we were in a bar, there would be a fight. This argument flat out pisses me off.

There’s a legitimate reason this pisses me off, and it goes beyond the standard, frustrating internet discourse loop:

Opinion –> Counter Opinion, with supporting evidence –> Opinion stated more strongly –> I’m not making this up, here’s a journal article with metadata –> Opinion stated angrily –> Look, there’s no reason to get angry –> Name calling.

On this issue, it’s all I can do to stop from being the angry, name calling part of that equation. This is unlike most internet shitstorms — I couldn’t give a fuck whether you outline or not, as long as you don’t state inaccurate facts or tell other people they are doing it wrong. On this issue, I am personally invested in the very real impact of the discourse itself. Not because I lay awake at night questioning my own talents (I sleep just fine, not giving a damn whether I have any talent). But there are some kids (which I mean literally, high school aged) who I coach and mentor and care about, who do worry about that kind of shit. Often, kids with emotional issues (way beyond the issues we all have at that age) and family situations that are dicey as shit. Not uncommonly, having spent a lifetime being told they’re worthless pieces of shit.

Nobody else will ever be able to convince them they are wonderful, not worthless. They have to decide that for themselves. And I’ve seen it happen – almost miraculously, and well over half the time. A bit of encouragement leads to a shred of success that leads to increased interest that results in a bit more success, more work/practice, more success, until the kid finally looks around and thinks “Holy shit, I’m one of the best people in the state, region, or country at something. I’m GOOD at this.”

Want to make sure that kid stays down? Tell her at the outset that whether she can be good at something is determined by some cosmic special sauce she either was or wasn’t born with. Because if there’s anything the parents, school system, sometime even the foster care and or juvenile justice system have taught a lot of these kids, it’s that they were filled with useless shit when everyone else was getting special sauce. They’ve never had success at anything, so that seems true. Why bother?

The hardest thing to get those kids to do is realize that they can control outcomes. That they can use dedication and learned skills — even their own horrific experiences — to compensate for other kids’ supportive backgrounds, loving parents, and douchey prep school blazers. I can think of no better way to keep a kid like that down than to tell her “it’s not up to you, it just depends on whether you got sprinkled with magic faery dust when your were born.” Or wherever the fuck “talent” is supposed to come from.

There’s another, less horrible, but almost laughably arrogant, statement implied in that as well. Let’s see, you’re a member of a writing community and are working on a novel and/or have completed other novels. You believe that only certain people have been graced by the cosmos with a limited-edition gift that gives them a (quite literally) God-given right to be better writers than lesser humans who merely work hard to learn and hone their craft. Gee, any chance you think you fit into that category of cosmically blessed, divinely graced, faerie-dust sprinkled literary Übermensch?

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Yea, you can go fuck yourself about that. I’ll take a kid who was told she was mentally retarded for the first nine years of her life. The kid who was on so many medications, she was basically stoned from kindergarten through middle school. Straighten that kid’s meds out, give her a decent work ethic, and I’ll take her over you and your “talent” every fucking day.  Überdouche.

So, is talent a factor?

Meh. Maybe, at the extreme top levels of performance. As is so often the case with these things, the real answer is: Who gives a fuck? There could be some brain chemistry going on that would separate the Nobel-level writers from, say, Vonnegut. Maybe even separating Vonnegut from Elmore Leonard. The latter being such a nuts-and-bolts writer, coming up through the magazine then pulp/genre writing career path, that I doubt he’d attribute his success (or even the brilliance of some of his writing, which, at times, is brilliant) to any kind of cosmic special sauce. I know scores of people who actually write better than Dan Brown, though he does a good job of coming up with a story. The same is true of Stephanie Meyer. If “talent” is really a thing that results in great writing, I wouldn’t say either of them got much. But they both came up with great stories to tell that people wanted to read. Which is what makes them gazillionaire writers.

There are a lot of factors, and how each plays into a given person’s success is going to vary. An encouraging childhood with a lot of practice is not an option for a kid with illiterate and abusive parents, so that kid’s level of interest will have to be far greater to land her even close to the same place. But, one way or the other, some cocktail of several issues is going to be at play:

  • Practice — Whatever you want to call it. Dedication, hard work, the willingness to study and improve, writing a million words or for ten thousand hours or whatever.
  • Interest level — Someone obsessed with a subject at age five is probably going to be one of the world’s leading experts on that thing if she remains obsessed until she’s 50.
  • Childhood and adolescent environment – this, more than anything, is what I think gets mislabeled as “talent.” There are also mountains of data on this, since we standardize test the hell out of kids. Is there a single factor that will heavily influence how well kids do on the English portion of the SAT, ACT, or any of the elementary basic skills tests? Hells yes — their parents’ median income. That predicts the outcome on standardized tests so well, we could probably save ourselves a lot of time and money and just score kids based on their parents’ W-2s.  In a trial to calculate the damages (lost future earnings) of a child who was killed or permanently impaired, trial economists on both sides rely primarily on one consideration. The parents’ education levels. Not their income, jobs, criminal histories, color, whether they’re married or divorced, or anything else. The parent’s education level correlates to future earnings even more than the kids own grades and test scores. That’s how much childhood environment eventually plays out (statistically) in your future.
  • Opportunity/luck — right place/right time, or whatever you want to call it. I have an accountant friend who was assigned Microsoft as a client at his first job at an accounting firm (because Microsoft was a ten employee company and did not have a full time accountant yet). A friend from college was a limo driver in Vegas with an idea for a TV show about Crime Scene Investigation units, who lucked into a chance to pitch his idea to Jerry Bruckheimer. In big and little/good and bad ways, I don’t think this can be ignored as a factor.

Those are all things that happen before you get to the idea that someone is somehow predestined to be wonderful at something or imbued by God or Zeus or whoever with some magical gift. Since syntaptic connections in our brains are ridiculously flexible during the first 5 years of life, I think a lot of what we are calling “innate” is anything but. I don’t have a special debate gene, but I have a ten-year-old daughter whose favorite weekend activity is going with me to judge debate rounds, which she’s been doing since she was four. If Joyce Carol Oats was extremely close to her father and he was a Volleyball coach/former captain of the Olympic Volleyball Team, you think she’d have won the National Book Award for Them, or do you think she’d be one of the great women’s volleyball coaches of all time?

  • Talent? Meh. Fine. There is probably some ideal combination of chemical and environmental factors that would make someone who worked at least as hard as someone else, and who had at least as much exposure and support, and who had at least as much luck marginally better. To some people, anyway. Since writing is subjective, the differences are bound to cut both ways with some readers. So, even then, it’s going to be a matter of opinion whether that “talent” thing went with writer A or writer B. Which shows how unbelievably stupid the whole argument is in the first place.

The Bottom Line

1)      Tell a kid who appears to suck at everything she does when she’s 14 (because she sucks at everything she does when she’s 14) that she needs cosmic special sauce to be good at something, I may well punch you in the throat.

2)      If you want to walk around believing you have been imbued by the cosmos with special writing sauce, go for it. But it’s probably best to keep that a secret. By which I mean, we don’t really want to hear about it. Like you probably don’t want to hear how much of a douche I think you are.

3)      When someone shows me a writer who has diligently worked to hone her craft for ten years who cannot rise to the literary level of Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (I’m talking literary level, not commercial success), I’ll worry about talent. Until then, I am going to keep reading, writing, and reading.

Brief update to add a new source:

Just tagging this on, because researching my next post (the impact of the type of music you listen to on tasks like editing), I ran across another article basically debunking the “talent” myth. It’s from American Psychologist, and is available free, courtesy of M.I.T.:

http://web.mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/expertise.pdf

The Trouble with Prologues

This should really be a five word blog post:

Prologues are trickier than shit.

The end.

Notice there’s no advice. The second rule in Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Avoid Prologues.” At first this sounds like Mr. Leonard is telling us not to use prologues. Until you realize that the Rule 1 and Rule 3 don’t start with the word “avoid.” They start with the word “never.”

Avoid means steer clear of, think twice about, shy away from. Never means, well, never. Ever. Not even once. That’s a big difference. Particularly when Mr. Leonard’s comments about that rule consist largely of a brilliant example of someone (well, not someone, John Fucking Steinbeck) using a prologue.

From a pure writing standpoint, the answer is probably this: If you really know what you are doing and execute correctly, there’s nothing wrong with having a prologue. But remember, prologues are trickier than shit.

So tricky, in fact, I think writers who don’t already have a publishing (by which I mean novels) track record need to avoid them if at all possible.

The Real Problem with Prologues for Querying Writers

I think the entire prologue situation (both the problem itself and the extent to which writers exaggerate that problem) was summed up beautifully by Angela James, an editor for Carina Press (a Harlequin digital first imprint). She said:

Of course, I’m an editor, and if you’ve heard it once you’ve probably heard it from an editor or agent: we’re not always fans of prologues. I think this has morphed into authors saying that we HATE prologues, but that’s not true. What’s true is this: we see a lot of stories come through our slush pile that start with prologues, and 9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.

I’m willing to bet she speaks for virtually every agent and editor in the business when she says it begins – and ends – with “We’re not always fans of prologues.”

That’s far from “never do it or you will immediately burst into flames and the souls of your loved ones will be doomed for all eternity,” which is how a LOT of writers tend to treat the issue. Still, it’s a really good idea to avoid them if you can.

Why other people’s prologues suck (not yours, I’m sure yours is wonderful)

Prologue problems come in two flavors: Problems with the prologue itself (which we will call problems with other people’s prologues, because, seriously, I’m sure yours is wonderful) and problems intrinsic to having and querying a novel with a prologue (which we will call the real problems with having a prologue).

Problems with Other People’s Prologues:

  1. They are often used as info dumps, with all the attendant problems of info dumps.
  2. One of the most common agent/publisher complaints about beginner novelists is that they start the novel two or three chapters too early, before the story really gets going. A prologue adds a fourth chapter of “too soon.”
  3. Readers imprint on the first MC they meet, like baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see and follow it around assuming it’s their mama. The prologue MC usually isn’t the book MC, so readers feel cheated when you switch to your real MC.
  4. Many readers skip them, which means they need to literally be prologues — the story needs to stand on it’s own, completely independently from the prologue. So, by definition, it has to be extra stuff.
  5. If it’s not an info dump, it’s probably backstory, and backstory is generally a very bad way to start a novel.
  6. Compared to working the prologue information in through flashbacks or directly through the narrative, a prologue is an easy way to get it out there (which is why the info dump/backstory concerns are so valid).
  7. Chapter One has to manage to introduce characters and setting and lay a lot of groundwork for a story. That’s hard to do without being boring. Some people use prologues to throw something exciting on the table first, in an attempt to “hook” the reader. I think this fails. It comes off as a gimmick, then you leave the reader with your boring Chapter One (possibly more boring, since you think you’ve taken the pressure off) and the reader goes from exciting prologue to boring chapter and thinks “the first real chapter of this book sucks.” It’s like having a date show up in a Ferrari but then having him drive you to Taco Bell.

There are certainly more, but that gives a decent idea of why, as Ms. James put it, “9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.” Worse than not necessary, the things those other writers are trying to do through the prologue – provide backstory and worldbuild, start with something interesting, etc., are the things that separate great writers from the good. Great writers build incredible worlds and provide deep, rich backstories throughout the narrative core of their books.

The Real Problems with Having a Prologue

The real problem with having a prologue, even if it’s both necessary and brilliant, is: Seriously, prologues are trickier than shit.

For starters, they present logistical problems. You’re ready to query and the agent you are querying asked for the first three pages or your first chapter or whatever. Does that mean your prologue, or Chapter One?

According to literary agent extraordinaire, Janet Reid a/k/a the Query Shark, “your first five pages” or “first chapter” obviously means the first part of the novel, not your prologue:

The five pages you attached don’t mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It’s as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.

That’s one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Nathan Bransford, on the other hand, says that “first 30 pages” obviously means the first 30 pages that are part of your book:

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue… let’s see it.

Oops. Those are agents (well, in Nathan’s case, now an ex-agent) who blog a lot about what they expect and want to see, and the advice is diametrically opposed. If I had to guess, I’d say more agents probably agree with Nathan, but that’s a guess. I doubt Janet is completely out in left field, so it’s safe to assume a significant portion of agents agree with her take as well. Either way, having a prologue puts you in a potential “fucked if you do, shitfucked if you don’t” situation.

There’s also the problem of Pavlov’s agent (or, worse, reader). Imagine having 200 queries and sample pages to wade through in a day. Ten of those had prologues, and all ten treated you to boring-ass worldbuilding, backstory info dumps. You open your 200th query, and discover it’s the eleventh to start with the word “Prologue.” At this point, you expect it to suck. There’s a 90% chance you’ll be right. You’ve been conditioned to expect it to suck. Maybe even conditioned to think it sucks.

It’s not your prologue’s fault. It those ten other, stupid, needless prologues that came before it. But you’ve been tainted by association. Now, at best, the reader is looking to see how much of an info dumpy, backstory filled piece of shit your prologue is, not objectively looking at how good or bad it is. Prejudice is an ugly thing, but it’s also a real thing.

The Bottom Line on Prologues?

In this case, it’s also the top line. Prologues are trickier than shit. If possible, you should avoid having one. I don’t think agent’s and editors hate them, I don’t even think most readers skip them (although I’d bet that’s more of an issue with YA readers, for example, than with lit fiction readers). But I do think they bring a host of new problems to the party, even if they don’t suffer from the problems that are endemic to prologues generally.

Put differently, there is the way you dress for a job interview, the way you dress on your first day of work, and the way you dress when you’ve been working the same job for a few years. Prologues are a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Even if that’s how you’ll be showing up down the line, right now you’re interviewing and it’s probably best to clean things up for one day. It certainly won’t hurt.

UNLESS, you absolutely understand exactly what I’m saying here, see the problems, are positive you aren’t providing background, worldbuidling, info dumping, garbage, and know that your story really, really needs a prologue for a very specific reason that can’t be handled through the body of your narrative.

Because there are some jobs – lifeguard, surf/snowboard/skateboard sales, marijuana dispensary clerk and/or gardener – where you just look like a douche showing up for the interview in a suit.

Or, to summarize through the miracle of meme generation:

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