Seriously, it isn’t. I’m just figuring out how to post video. Honest. That’s it.
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.
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…
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:
Let me start by saying that if you’ve nominated me for a “Liebster” and I declined, don’t take this personally. It’s a cute idea, but also kind of a chain letter, and I wasn’t comfortable asking five other people to keep the chain/pyramid going. I’m still not, which is why I’m inviting people to nominate themselves, as I discuss below. But this SOB isn’t going away any time soon, and I feel like a schmuck when I keep saying no, so I’m caving in now because my friend from the interwebz, Valerie Brown (that’s her twitter) nominated me. I follow her blog, which is definitely worth a look: http://endlessedits.wordpress.com/.
There are a few rules for accepting the Liebster Award, they are: thank your nominator and link back to their website, answer your nominator’s questions, leave 11 facts about yourself, nominate 5 or more blogs with under 200 followers and give them 11 questions to answer.
1. What personal trait of yours do you most often give to your fictional characters?
That would be awesomeness. (This type of award doesn’t lend itself to responses from people who write humorous sarcastic satire).
2. Which part of the writing process do you dread the most and why?
I hate the point where I’m happy with “A” and know exactly where “C” needs to be, but have no idea what “B” is going to need to do to get me there.
3. What’s your favorite book and why?
This is such a stock answer it feels trite, but probably To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it as a kid and saw the whole thing through Scout’s eyes. I read it again as an adult and found myself experiencing it through Atticus, which was wonderful in a very different way. But it wasn’t until my life was at its low point, and I saw things through Boo Radley’s eyes, that I fully appreciated that book. You’ve never really read To Kill a Mockingbird until you’ve read it from Boo Radley’s perspective.
4. What time of day do you usually write?
I’m a night writer. I wish I weren’t, but raising four kids and having a day job require it. 90% of my writing happens between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.
5. Do you prefer libraries or bookstores?
I’ve raised four veracious readers, so I would spend something in the neighborhood of $5,500 per year on books if it weren’t for the library. Seriously, I did the math. Plus I’ve been a library volunteer and story hour reader for ten years now, so my connection to the library is deep. I am also certain that some of the kids I’ve worked with will spend their lives buying and reading books thanks largely to the fact that there was a place they had access to a bunch of them for free when they were little. I don’t feel the slightest bit hypocritical wanting to sell books and adoring the public library system.
6. What do you normally eat/drink while writing?
I’d never thought about it before, but nothing. Some water, maybe.
7. What are your muses?
Motion, more than anything. Since I spend at least an hour a day exercising and an hour a day exercising my dog, my imagination always has a backlog of material for my fingers to put down. I have a writing partner who is working her way into muse status as well—more in terms of getting my fingers to put things down than inspiring the content. I think. [On writing those words, the author realizes they are almost certainly false, and his muse is a sneaky little shit].
8. What kind of genre do you read?
Anything written well (or any good story, even if not). I tend toward the literary side in my reading, and read more contemporary fiction than historical or fantasy or sci-fi, but I’m all over the map.
9. Who’s the best character ever written?
[To make this question answerable, my mind superimposed “you’ve” between character and ever in that question. So, no, I do not think I’ve succeeded in writing the best character ever written. Thanks to one of my lovely CPs, who takes it upon herself to critique blog posts and everything else I write, I now see my error. So my answer to the question as presented is: Are you fucking kidding me? I’m supposed to compare Leopold Bloom to Phoebe Caulfield? No thanks.]
Denise Harrington. She’s the favorite of every CP and beta who has read the book as well. Denise exploded on the page so unlike I’d imagined her I just had to roll with it. She is my protag’s sister and confidante and I intended to write her as a slight, pretty girl who masked her razor sharp intellect with an affected sweetness. What showed up instead was an even smaller, prettier girl, almost angelic in appearance, whose first line was “You’re the one who should be pissed off. Can you smell the K-Y? Because they were getting ready to fuck you in the—”
10. If you could travel through time, would you go to the past or future?
The past. I don’t want to know what’s on the last page of my biography until I get to it.
11. How do you balance your life while reaching your writing goals?
I only sleep four to six hours a day.
I want you folks to nominate yourselves (I’m not sending out invitations). Give a shoutout on a comment here, and I’ll link to your blog in the space below and consider yourself nominated. Then answer my eleven questions listed in the space below the space below.
This is where my Liebster self-nominees are listed. Don’t be shy. If you take the chain letter part away, it’s fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.”
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.
28 May 1934
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
[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.]
Spoiler alert – this is the post where the Brain on Words series goes from providing interesting but required background information to blowing your mind with unbelievably cool shit that makes being a writer the awesomest thing in the universe.
So far, we’ve covered how the reader sees a word (actually one syllable, clearly, and the next one or two less clearly). That sound is combined with the other sounds around it to form words. Those words are processed by the semantic systems in our brains, essentially treating them like spoken words, which is to say sounds that have specific meanings.
This part is not new. Researchers have known for decades that our brains have language regions, like the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, because if you are the first person to figure this shit out, you get to name part of everybody’s brain after yourself. Unless you were both that smart and really awesome, which nobody is, or we’d have the More Cowbell area and the RedSox Nation area. But I digress.
While none of that science is new, we’ve already covered one new discovery. While it was thought for some time that not all fluent readers “subvocalize” or turn words into sounds to process them, brain imaging technology has given us a look, and it turned out most cognitive psychologists were wrong. Our sound processing systems are the gate through which all hearing people usher words into their brains.
Brain imaging technology has finally advanced to the point that neuroscientists have “discovered” what everyone who’s ever been really into a great book already knew. Those word/sounds don’t just stay in the More Cowbell and RedSox Nation areas. They stimulate every brain center for every sense and every emotion we are capable of feeling in the real world.
One experiment was conducted by researchers in Spain, published in the journal NeuroImage (this publication is available free, courtesy of Oxford Journals). They came up with a list of sixty words with strong olfactory associations –everything from lavender and cinnamon to turpentine and vomit. They then looked at subjects’ brains via a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as the subjects read those words (as well as the neutral control words, like “chair”). When the subjects read the “smell” words, their olfactory centers lit up — they were cuing their brains to respond to the sensation of a smell that was only there in the form of a word. To the olfactory centers in the brain, though, that smell was there.
Other neuropaths are involved, too. Not just those required for understanding the word and recalling its meaning, but also those required to remember what cinnamon smells like. Basically, the readers’ brain is saying “OK, it smelled like cinnamon, so I’ll respond the same way I do when I smell cinnamon.” Then it gasses itself with a little burst of imaginary cinnamon.
That’s about a 10 out of 10 on the scale of awesomeness. It isn’t just that sense, either. All of them – from touch to gross motor “running” actions, from the sense of taste to the sound of a bird in the distance – you name it, your brain will respond to by signaling the regions responsible for experiencing it in life. Here’s a great paper from Universite Lyon, France (also free) about how our brains respond to things like throwing and running and other physical activity. Also, check out Reading Salt Activates Gustatory Brain Regions: fMRI Evidence for Semantic Grounding in a Novel Sensory Modality from the journal neuroscience (once again, thank you to Oxford University Press).
When we describe a sensation, our readers’ brains are responding as though they were experiencing it. First freaking hand. Books were virtual reality before virtual reality was anything more than an oxymoron.
Readers do not translate words into mere “pictures” as many researchers (who apparently never read erotica of any kind) assumed for decades. The words are better described as being translated into experiences. First hand experiences that the reader is going through. Smelling, tasting, running, sex – a writer’s description of physical sensations creates an experience for the reader. That experience may include a lot of images, but it is far from limited to those images.
Unless, that is, a writer forgets that every sense, sensation, and movement can be part of the experience. This may well be one of the reasons successful screenwriters are seldom successful novelists. Sight and sound (i.e., dialogue) are two elements, comprising two of our five senses. The other three — taste, touch, smell — are too easily overlooked. Not just by screenwriters, but by all of us who are too in love with our story’s narrative arc to let a character stop to smell the roses (or turpentine, or whatever). In fact, this research was so compelling, I’m seriously considering a re-read (meaning the gagillianth edit) of my queried manuscript. Just focusing on the other three senses. I’m certain I covered them all to some extent, but my appreciation for their significance was far below what these studies have made it now.
I find myself thinking back to the use of taste and smell in Like Water for Chocolate, which I read 20 years ago and can still remember, thinking that may be why I can still remember it. This is some powerful, powerful writing mojo.
Too much mojo for one blog post, that’s for sure. Did I mention we were finally getting into the mind-blowing shit? Because I saved the most awesome part of this slice of the Brain on Words series for the next post.
And that one is still not the coolest thing I discovered when researching this series.
I received a comment yesterday from “Jim Bob” a/k/a “email@example.com” on my post The Spritz or teh Shitz. I’m not in the habit of responding to (or even allowing) anonymous posts that have been washed through anonymizing proxy servers. If you have something to say, stand up and say it. The title of this blog is my full name, including my middle initial, for fuck’s sake.
I’m willing to make an exception in this case because “Jim Bob” seems to have a dog in this fight. Plus, he was reasonable and polite, which I appreciate. I have to assume he was responding in a quasi official (if anonymous) capacity. Here is his comment:
Needless to say, I don’t think “Jim Bob” is a regular reader of this blog. He also seems uniquely spun up on Spritz corporate matters. And, like I said, he’s reasonable and polite. Assuming this is a quasi official response from Spritz, here are my replies to the points he makes:
1) The phrase “insane new app” came from an article, not the developers.
I guess the joke I lead off with is a little less funny. That has nothing to do with my substantive critique of the product, but my bad.
2) Spritz is intended for e-mail and news articles, not novels. The 15K+ stories about Spritz were sensationalizing with the “read a famously long book in a short period of time” thing.
Wow. Okay. That was fifteen thousand (plus) times you could have said “that’s not what this technology really does or is intended for.” From what I can read, you clarified that point zero of them. You did, however, get all excited about the first book to be converted to Spritz technology — without bothering to say “but this isn’t really for reading books.”
That raises an interesting new set of issues, though. The average e-mail is open for a total of about fifteen seconds. Not because it’s readable in that time. At least not word by word, first word to last, which is how you will be limited to reading it with Spritz. People tend to skim e-mail to see if they need the information, something Spritz makes impossible. So it’s entirely likely this innovation is simply a way to less efficiently go through the content of an e-mail, in the name of more quickly looking at every word it contains. One. Word. At. A. Time.
That aside, the most that could be claimed in an ideal Spritz world is reduction of about eight seconds on the time it takes to read an e-mail. I can see why you are playing up the first book converted to this format, even if that’s not what this technology is supposed to be all about.
3) This is a major update to the 1970s technology. Spritz centers/focuses the word with the line and red letter so it’s easier to take in. That’s why comprehension is better.
Maybe you read my article by Spritzing it, because you seem to have missed the point entirely. Here is my point: Your product is premised on a completely false notion. I am going to put it in bold and all capital letters. If you are going to respond to something, please respond to this:
THE RATE AT WHICH WE READ IS NOT RESTRICTED BY HOW QUICKLY WE CAN MOVE OUR EYES. HOW QUICKLY WE MOVE OUR EYES IS GOVERNED BY THE RATE AT WHICH WE COMPREHEND.
We read at the rate we do for a reason, and it is not because our eyes cannot move faster. Just like we talk at the rate we do for a reason. If humans were capable of processing information at twice the rate we do, don’t you think we would have developed a system of writing that presented information twice as fast? Written language did not develop randomly.
We read at the rate we do because that is the rate at which our brains can process the information. For most people, anything above 300 WPM can only be achieved through a loss of comprehension. For people particularly skilled and adept at reading, that number can go all the way to 400 WPM. Our eyes are capable of flying over words faster than that. We don’t because our freaking brains cannot take in the information any faster than that.
You have developed a toy that shoves the words in front of readers at a rate faster than their brains will naturally allow. Instead of the reader’s brain making the decision about speed vs. comprehension, the app says, “here’s the speed, comprehend whatever you can.”
Your product is (per your website) built around the premise that:
“Reading is inherently time consuming because your eyes have to move from word to word and line to line.”
That premise is simply wrong. Our eyes are fully capable of focusing and moving “from word to word and line to line” a hell of a lot faster than they do. Saccades do not happen at the rate they do because our eyes cannot move faster, they move at the rate they do because that is the rate a given reader can comprehend the information that is coming in. Including backward saccades and other movements that exist solely for purposes of comprehension.
Reading is inherently time consuming because our brains regulate how fast the information comes in. Taking that regulator off does not make a person read faster. That is the difference between “reading” and “looking at words.”
So, if I was wrong about who attributed the catchy title “insane new app” to Spritz, I’m sorry. My point, however, is that your product is premised on a conception of reading – and what limits reading speed – that is simply wrong. Your company appears to be marketing an app that lets people look at words really fast.
If you are interested in responding responsibly (i.e., not with an anonymous e-mail through an anonimizing proxy server) I would be thrilled to post your comments on my blog. And I would be thrilled to see some scientific data to support the premise your product is based on – that how quickly we move our eyes is determined my their ability to move and focus, not our brain’s ability to comprehend information.
To be honest, I’d also be thrilled if this were really a thing. Pleasure reading aside, I read volumes of painfully dry materials, usually several hours per day, at my day job. If I could ratchet that up with your app, and leave my pleasure reading as-is, I’d be tickled pink. It would be like meeting some of my nutritional requirements through a delicious meal and dealing with the rest by way of a multivitamin. I don’t have any particular problem with the concept of merely dumping information into our brains as fast as possible — the option to go slower would always be available. My issue with this technology is simply that the limit to how fast we can dump that information into our brains (and comprehend it) is not defined by how quickly we can look at words. Your product is built around the assumption that it is.