Thank God for Beta Readers

I am closing in on finishing my 14th novel. By which, I really mean that I just finished my rough draft. So, as most authors know, the real work begins: soliciting feedback, rewriting, planning for launch. And I absolutely, positively, could never finish without beta readers.

I do have a few critique partners who read chapters along the way as I write, but for the most part, I wait until I have a complete rough draft before sharing it. That’s because I am a pantser who changes a lot along the way, so it can be frustrating and sometimes a waste of time to share rewritten material over and over again.

My favorite description of how the novel writing process typically goes was written by bestseller Lisa Gardner in Plotting the Novel: Otherwise Known as The Real Reason Writers are Neurotic, which you can get from her website. Her description is hilarious, and oh, so true! And it’s how the process works for me every time, except that I rarely create an outline, so my process is even more chaotic. But it’s true that, like Lisa, I always start off thinking I have a brilliant idea, and then, as I work on the dang manuscript over and over, I inevitably end up thinking I have a worthless book that nobody will ever want to read. (We writers tend to be an insecure lot.)

For Cascade, my sixth Sam Westin novel, I wanted to use the experience I gained years ago at the Writers Police Academy of crawling through a collapsed building. My novels mostly take place in outdoorsy settings, so I had an avalanche destroy a ski lodge. And my Sam Westin books include wildlife, so I threw wolverines into the mix (not in the ski lodge!). But did I really have a story? As I wrote and rewrote the scenes, I began to wonder if I’d totally forgotten how to write at all.

This probably happens to every novelist who does not suffer delusions of grandeur. By the time I reach the rough draft stage, I’m so bored with my characters and plot that I want to throw the manuscript in the trash. Every scene, every conversation seems repetitious. But I know this largely comes from thinking, rereading, and rewriting the same material over and over again. At least I hope it does.

So, I really rely on a handful of beta readers to tell me whether or not I’ve created a novel or I should just stick to weeding my garden from now on. Some authors have a whole team of alpha readers to read the first draft, and then a different team of beta readers to read the rewritten version. I like to think that now I’m a little more efficient than that (probably a delusion of grandeur), so I generally skip the alpha step and go straight to beta readers.

These brave souls are willing to read a rough draft and tell me what they like, what they hate, and where I went totally off the rails. (This does not replace a thorough copyedit, by the way; I always hire a real pro for that as a last step.)

I am now in the “Help Me with my Rough Draft” phase, and I can only hope that my beta readers save me again. Meanwhile, I’ll be weeding my garden.

Help a Writer Save a Wolverine

The Pull and the Pain of Creative Passion

A few days ago, I went to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, which is an amazing traveling exposition of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and life history that brings the artist’s paintings to life with sound and video. I watched crabs crawl out of picture frames and across walls, rivers splash off the canvasses, and spirals of stars roll across the night sky, just to name a few special effects. The show is a testament to technological wizardry as well as to art, and I am still awed by the creativity involved to put it together.

Appreciating the beauty and creativity of the show as well as reading about Van Gogh’s short life and his obsession for making art has me thinking about creative passions and how they affect those of us who have them—writers, artists, and musicians, for the most part. Van Gogh made more than 2000 sketches and paintings before he shot himself at age 37, but he was only able to sell only one painting in his lifetime and lived in poverty, supported by his brother. Van Gogh felt compelled to paint, but his work was unappreciated by those around him.

I won’t pretend that I am capable of that level of passion for writing, but I do understand both the pull and the pain of possessing a creative mind. Like so many writers, I’ve often been asked how much money my books earn or how many copies have sold, and like the majority of authors, I don’t make a living solely from my books. When I am not with writers, I’ve learned not to complain about the difficulty of marketing books or the frustration of smoothly knitting together a complex plot. Some of my family members have compared writing to banging one’s head against a brick wall, and some have suggested that my life would be easier if I would just quit writing.

But just like Vincent van Gogh couldn’t stop painting, I don’t think I can stop writing. I don’t know who I am if not a writer. To pay the bills, I’ve had a lot of jobs, but being a former technical writer or a private investigator doesn’t feel like enough of an identity for me. When I hear an especially clever comment from a friend, watch a hummingbird pluck fluff from a cattail for its nest, or feel the icy surprise of sleet on my face while hiking in the mountains, I want to capture that moment in writing. I occasionally make art, too—watercolors and acrylics—and I’m forever trying to capture a prism of sunlight on water or the texture of peeling tree bark in brush strokes, if not in words. My brain is often away on a solitary adventure instead of inventorying the groceries in my refrigerator.

The problem with being a creative person is that our passions are often dismissed as unimportant hobbies. Too many people are willing to pay more for a cup of Starbuck’s coffee than for a book.

So, Vincent, I get you. I’m sorry you didn’t live to see the appreciation that the world has today for your passion. Millions of us understand that a creative mind is both a blessing and a curse. Rest in peace, and thank you for being you.

Back to Real Life?

Like so many, especially those of us who live alone, to me life has felt in suspension for the last two years. So it’s fantastic to get back to doing all those things I did in pre-lockdown days, although I know that the pandemic is not quite over and this newfound freedom may be temporary.

Happy Mystery Authors at Left Coast Crime Conference 2022 Banquet

Last week I attended the Left Coast Crime Conference, in person, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There were challenges. The hotel had recently changed hands and the staff seemed surprised to have a conference on their hands, although the contract had been in place (with the old owners) for two years. The hotel bar closed at 9pm, which, if you’ve ever hung out with authors, you’d know is a crisis, and the surrounding areas in Albuquerque seemed to be occupied now mostly by the homeless and drug-addicted. The only food venue in the hotel was understaffed and under-supplied. But the Left Coast Crime organizers had intelligently required all attendees to be fully vaccinated, so we felt reasonably safe and oh, so happy to see and talk to all our fellow mystery authors and mystery lovers. Left Coast Crime is not a writers conference but a fan conference, so many attendees are not writers, but readers and leaders of reading clubs, which makes this conference all the more special. And of course, we are all mystery fans.

It’s impossible to take a good photo at Carlsbad Caverns without professional gear, but here’s a hint of the scenery.

After the conference, I went on a little exploration of southern New Mexico. First, to Carlsbad Caverns, which turned out to be much more spectacular than I anticipated. Rather than taking an elevator, I walked down the spiraling path into the caverns (1.25 miles and a descent of around 750 feet) to get to the Big Room, which has a 1.5 mile path that encircles the cathedral-like structure. The experience was magnificent, and I loved the cool, quiet, uncrowded walk down so much that I walked back up the same way.

I also went hiking at Dripping Springs Recreation Area near Las Cruces, where I visited ruins of an old ranch, asylum, and mountain lodge wedged back among the rock formations. The park volunteer told me there is an oryx (!) in the park, and I kept a sharp eye out for that African antelope, but he stayed hidden. I felt so sorry for the poor oryx, an exotic import from a previous landowner who favored shooting rare species. What does an African antelope think about being stranded in a foreign country with only free-range cattle for company?

Lodge Ruins in Dripping Springs Recreation Area, New Mexico

I explored the area as a solo adventurer this trip, happy just to be outdoors and seeing new sights. And it was marvelous to be in the company of all the creative authors and appreciative readers at Left Coast Crime.

Is this real life again? I’m cautious, and I’m fully vaccinated, and oh, I so hope we can all share in many good times to come!

Unplanned Adventures

Most of my favorite experiences in life have been unplanned adventures. There’s nothing I appreciate more than a good surprise, and they make great fodder for writing, too. Here’s one of my favorite unplanned adventures that I will never forget.

When I was a teenager in Oklahoma, I had a horse, and so did many of my friends. I’d worked hard and saved all my money for years and carefully planned on how I would buy and board my horse in a nearby pasture, and as a teenager, I finally accomplished my dream to have a horse. My mother always thought riding was a reckless activity, and she told me that if I hurt myself, I couldn’t complain to her.

One day I was a guest at another girl’s horse farm, and we decided to go on a trail ride. I was given a big white gelding to ride, and we set off, with me in third place behind my two friends. Near the beginning of the trail, our horses needed to jump a log that lay across the path. It wasn’t more than a foot thick, so no problem. But after my horse leapt over it, he started acting wild, wanting to get off the trail, and as I held him back, he reared. “Hey,” I yelped at the owner, “What’s wrong with this horse?”

When she glanced back, she said in a casual tone, “Oh. I forgot. That’s the beginning of the jump course, and he’s trained to finish every time he starts. So please, just let him go and ride him around the course.”

This is definitely NOT me

Uh. Two problems with that. 1) I’d never ridden a jumper, and 2) I was riding in a western saddle, which is definitely not designed for leaning forward against the horse’s neck, which is needed on jumps, especially high ones. But I figured, what the heck, this horse clearly knows what to do.

And he definitely did. He cantered into an arena that was close by, and we soared over the first few relatively small jumps. I was only hanging on; the horse was the expert. Then we approached the final pole jump, which was about five feet tall, my own height. Yikes. I will always remember thinking that it would be a miracle if I ended up in the saddle on the other side. The horse rose up beneath me, launching himself in a nearly vertical position, and I did my best to lean forward over the saddle horn. Then he came down on the other side in just as vertical a position, but forelegs first, of course, and I tried to sit back.

When we first touched down, I whacked my little finger on the saddle horn, and I’m pretty sure I broke it. But I remained in my saddle, and the pain was nothing compared to the thrill of riding that horse. After the ride, the owner showed me a whole gallery of photos of that horse in action; he was a champion jumper. I splinted my little finger at home and said nothing to my mom. But I smiled for days.

Now, when the weather is damp, my little finger is often very stiff, but that reminds me of the day I accidentally rode a champion jumping horse.

Those Darn Words

I think every writer has words or phrases that she writes too often. I know I do. My particular nemesis is the word “look.” In my rough drafts, my characters are always “looking” at the landscape or each other, “tossing someone a look,” “giving something a hard look,” “looking bad,” “looking like a fool,” etc., etc., looking etc.

Just how many times did I write “look”?

After I finish a rough draft, I always have to go searching for this enemy word and do my best to annihilate it whenever I can. But I find it difficult to use substitutions without sounding stilted or losing the meaning I want. Do you have repeated words or phrases that haunt your writing?

Then there are the words or phrases that make me cringe when I hear someone say them. I guess it’s the editor in me. At least I’ve learned over the years not to constantly correct others, but sometimes it’s hard to keep my lips zipped. The common phrase that I cannot hear without wincing is “I could care less.”

I just want to scream, “That doesn’t make sense! We could always care less about anything. What you mean is that you couldn’t care less! Could not care less! That’s the insult you’re aiming for—use it!”

But of course, carrying on like that would probably get me banned from the few social gatherings I’m invited to in these times of lingering Covid restrictions. Another word, not quite so grating for me, is “irregardless.” It means the same thing as “regardless,” so why add the extra “ir”? But Webster insists it is actually a word. I have to remind myself that language does evolve and it sometimes evolves in nonsensical ways.

My mother hates it when I write that a character “trekked” somewhere. To her, a trek is only a major expedition in the Himalayas; it can’t be just a long arduous hike like my character Sam Westin often undertakes. Another one of my writer friends takes the word “pray” to always mean beseeching God when I often mean “fervently hope”; she marks that word and also the adverb “hopefully” every time she finds them in my drafts. So, I guess we all have our word challenges. What are yours?

And yes, in between rants, I am s-l-o-w-l-y crawling toward the finish line on Cascade, my sixth Sam Westin wilderness mystery, which involves avalanches and wolverines in the North Cascades. I’ll dig out of the snow filling my brain and finish one of these days. I promise.