Asking an Expert

I wish the author had asked me some questions. Asked someone with expertise in exercise science. The plot of a book that shall remain nameless depended on a near-impossible event having to do with exercise physiology. While this diminished my enjoyment of the book, it did remind me to do my own research diligently. A minor factual error doesn’t bother me much, one that slides by and doesn’t change the story. In another book, I noted a character saying that spring is nice in New Mexico, and I thought: Have you been here in April? Do you like high winds blowing grit in your eyes? But the plot didn’t revolve around the weather. And, well, the  spring temperatures are nice.

I’m partially confessing to an error that plagues me in one of my books. It wouldn’t change the plot, just some descriptive details, so I’m not going to tell you what it is, but if I’d asked an expert in person rather than looking things up, I wouldn’t have made it. Readers who catch the error may be a bit annoyed, though none have contacted me. Yet.

One of my beta readers does a lot of camping, something I’ve done in the past, but not for a long time. Ghost Sickness includes a camping scene, and she caught all the places where my memory hadn’t served me well. Sometimes we think we know, and we don’t. Or we used to know, and we forgot more than we realized.

I’m working on a book in which two characters are trivia buffs and play pub trivia. There aren’t any trivia game scenes, but I decided to go the Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. on trivia night anyway, just get a feel for their experience. I’m now hooked on the monthly trivia night. One time, I teamed up with two tourists from Chicago who were hiking in the area, and I found out that the world’s longest trivia tournament takes place in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I can picture one of my trivia buff characters attending that event in a future book, or I could invent such a tournament in in T or C, and have fun with the portion where competitors have to explore the town to get answers. Another night, I teamed up with a friend’s daughter who is a wild land firefighter. I have a character who’s in that line of work, and have only featured him in one book so far, while he’s home between fires. I’d wanted to ask her questions for future books, in case I gave him a larger role in the future, and she was eager to share. The great thing about talking to the expert, not simply looking things up, was that she could tell me things I didn’t think to ask. We stayed after trivia and I took lots of notes and got her contact information. I can’t wait to bring back the firefighter character, though it may have to be three books in the future.

My research contact list is growing.  I’ve talked to my neighbor who is the county medical investigator. She loves talking about her work, dead bodies and all. (There’s still no murder in my future books, but there may be a death under extremely awkward circumstances.) My meeting with an antiques dealer radically changed my plans for a crime in my work in progress. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but I’ll have to discard it and plan anew. It’s okay.  I don’t want anyone reading my book and thinking : The whole plot turned on that one thing, and she didn’t get it right. Why didn’t she just ask someone?

*****

Curious about mysteries without murder? The boxed set of the first three Mae Martin Mysteries is on sale for $2.99 for the next two weeks.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Writing

You may have heard of this phenomenon, but if you haven’t, here’s the short version: studies by Dunning and Kruger found that competence and confidence don’t always go together. Being a professor, I’ll give an academic example. Students who have the least knowledge of a subject often think they did best on the exam. They lack the foundation from which to question themselves and are amazed when they get Fs. Students who understand more of the material tend to be critical of their performance, in part because they assume others worked as hard as they did. Also, they know enough to know they aren’t perfect. Their sighs of relief when they get As and Bs are sincere. They had doubts. Confidence goes back up when students have real mastery, but not as high as the confidence of the truly ignorant.

What does this have to do with writing? I don’t know about you, but I had no idea how bad the first novel I wrote was at the time I finished it. The theme and the setting still speak to me, and the characters have potential. The writing, however, makes me cringe. I know enough to recognize its faults now and am glad I didn’t inflict it on anyone. Salvaging it would be more work than it’s worth.

Having reached competence but not genius, I’m now in the dip in the confidence curve. I’m stunned that my critique partners haven’t suggested major changes in my work in progress. They noticed places where I could improve it, of course, but I expected they would find problems in the plot, and they didn’t. They said the mystery works. Maybe it flowed well because it started with material I cut from an early draft of the book before it, Ghost Sickness, and because it deals with themes I care about: ethics, spirituality, health and illness, and the exploitation of desperate people.

Nonetheless, before sending it to the next set of readers, I’m going through it to see where it could tighten up further now that I’ve been away from it for a couple of months, drafting the book that follows. So far, I’ve kept myself from acting on the urges of the little demon in my head that’s telling me I should rearrange huge chunks and cut others. I can think of important scenes I almost cut from two other books, scenes which turned out to resonate deeply with readers, so I’m not giving in to the demon, but I wonder if I’ll be relieved or alarmed if the next set of critiques don’t tell me to tear it apart and start over.

Over the Easter weekend, I did my first ever book signing event. After ten years onstage acting and then twenty-odd years as a college professor, I didn’t have jitters about either the reading or the question-and-answer session. It was informal and enjoyable. I sold a few books and got feedback that I should narrate my own audio books, so I trust that my perception of success is not a Dunning-Kruger effect. I plan to try reading the WIP aloud after I complete the current round of revisions and see if it feels alive and ready for an audience. I’ve never done that as part of my self-editing process, but it may be exactly what I need. The actor in me may notice pacing and energy in ways the silent reader doesn’t. If I hear it and cringe as if it were that old first manuscript, I’ll know I have more work to do. If it plays, then it’s ready for the next beta readers, and I’m ready for whatever they tell me. The challenging thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that when it applies to us, we can’t tell. One of many reasons I can’t live without my betas.

I Couldn’t Have Done It Without You, or Critique Partnering

Amber in tree final

IMG_1610jordaina1

I have a writer friend who has never used a critique partner or any beta reader other than her husband. She’s done quite well that way, but not all of us could. Whether you’re a writer who hasn’t worked with a partner, or one who has tried the process but not yet found your critiquing soulmates, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how it works when it goes well. Each member of my main critique team* takes a turn in this post. Although they talk about me more than they mention each other, it’s not because I’m more important in this trio; it’s because I’ve been working with each of them for years, while their partnership is more recent.

Amber

Before I published my first book, I joined an online critique group. I learned much from group members who came and went, but Jordaina Sydney Robinson and I have carried on long after our formal group chose to dissolve.

The Calling, my first book, had been chapter-by-chapter critiqued with a prior partner when Jordaina joined the group, so it’s the only one of my works she ever received in a fairly polished state. For all the others, she’s been the first reader, the person I trust with my possibly off-key experiments in plotting. I appreciate her attention to emotional and psychological detail. She notices what rings true or doesn’t and what needs clarification. And she comments on what she likes as well as what needs improvement. What writer wouldn’t like to know what pops into a reader’s mind?

I found my other indispensable critique partner, Janet Simpson, when I needed someone to read a completed draft of Shaman’s Blues. After processing Jordaina’s chapter-by-chapter feedback, I needed another perspective on the whole book. Janet turned out to be great at noticing the phrases and sentence structures I overused as well as looking at the big picture of the plot and the characters. I added her to my permanent team. A valuable critique partner tactfully but honestly tells you when something doesn’t work. Her feedback on my latest book, Ghost Sickness, motivated me to give a major subplot an overhaul.

When Janet needed an additional critique partner last year, I introduced her to Jordaina, and we are now a kind of circle. We are genuine fans of each other’s work. I think this is essential for writers working together long-term. In the formal group, which was dedicated to paranormal mysteries, there sometimes were members who wrote varieties of the genre such as vampire fiction or YA that didn’t appeal to me. No matter how well-crafted these chapters were, it made my commitment to weekly critiques more of a job than a labor of love. My offbeat variation on the mystery genre—no murders—isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, either. Jordaina’s and Janet’s humorous mysteries delight me. Both make me laugh. This isn’t a chore. It’s a pleasure.

We don’t have a schedule. Each of us sends what we need critiqued—a full manuscript or a chapter or a revised section or two—when it’s ready. Sometimes one of us has a deadline, sometimes not. It works, like a healthy relationship, with balanced give and take. No rules needed.

Jordaina

Personally, I think the biggest hurdle any writer has to overcome (ever!) is the fear of showing someone their work. Whatever state it’s in, whether that be the poorly punctuated first draft that doesn’t really make total sense (I’m allergic to commas – just ask Amber, she’ll tell you!) or the most polished and shiny draft you have in you (what Amber normally sends me under the ridiculous heading of “work in progress”).

It doesn’t matter though, because whatever I send Amber, I feel safe that she won’t judge (except for my lack of comma usage – I know she tuts over that) and that she’s committed to helping me make my story as compelling as I possibly can make it.

My first book, Beyond Dead, looks very different now from the first draft Amber critiqued, and many of the larger changes in the book came from her critiques. And that’s one of the best things about critique partners – they don’t just tell you about typos and plot holes, they give you options of how to fix them. Or, at least, the best ones do. And, with Amber and Janet, I’m lucky to have two of the best.

I have a few friends who are just starting out on the first drafts of their very first novels, and I keep telling them they need to start looking for critique partners now because finding a partner that you trust is more difficult than finding a husband (not that I’m particularly looking for a husband). And anyway, I think I’d rather have a great critique partner.

Note: Some commas in Jordaina’s section come courtesy of Amber.

Janet

 I have been around a bit. I was a good time girl looking for a permanent partner, flitting from critique relationship to critique relationship, never quite finding my perfect fit. And then I found Amber. The first book in my series had been published when we bumped into each other online at Sisters in Crime and we’ve never looked back.

When Amber told me the genre she wrote, I wasn’t sure it was going to be my cup of tea but once I started reading I was hooked. For me, her plots are secondary; it’s all about her characters, and if she takes them in a direction that doesn’t work for me, then I am happy to tell her that her characters are wandering off.

What do I get in return, other than a free read of her books well before the general public get a look in? Commas. Sad but true. I have no idea where commas go either. I go from sprinkling them liberally, like confetti at a wedding, to leaving them out altogether. However, Amber is good for more than a smack upside the head in regards to the proper use of punctuation.

I’ve got a confession to make. Don’t tell anyone, but I used to write romance, and sometimes I get carried away and forget that my Daisy Dunlop books are mysteries. There is a hint of, will they, won’t they, between my two main characters and when I wandered too far down the will they path in my last book, Lost Property, Amber dragged me back on track. A couple of other people who read the first draft loved the move towards a less platonic relationship and the drama of a cliff-hanger ending, but Amber didn’t think it worked. I trust her when it comes to my books, no matter how many other people cheered me on to keep going with what I had. If Amber says don’t do it, then a major rewrite is required. Was she right? Well, the positive reviews the book is getting would indicate that I made the right decision to trust her judgement.

Honest critique relationships take time to build. Some people don’t want the truth; they just want a pat on the head. Other people don’t want to tell you the truth; they just want to tear you down to build themselves up. Amber has never been anything other than honest and open, and I can’t imagine writing a book without her input. Not only Amber’s but Jordaina’s as well. Together they give my books the polish—and commas—they need. Thanks ladies! X

Another note: Amber may have removed some of the commas in Janet’s section to punctuate Jordaina’s.

 *****

*Although this post is about reciprocal critique partnering, I’m equally grateful to my beta readers who have helped me polish my work after my critique partners have worked with me through its early stages. Among them are Claire Murray, who saw why I needed to restore the original ending of Soul Loss, Heather Stetler, who has an attentive eye for the subtle details, and Kate Collier, who knows where to cut.

If you want to explore this topic further, a recent post on Maine Crime Writers, one of my favorite writing blogs, was about beta readers.

http://mainecrimewriters.com/brendas-posts/beta-love