Lessons from a Flawed-io-book

I seldom finish a book I don’t like, but I recently got all the way to the end of a romantic suspense audiobook that I almost gave up on.  Since I was usually exercising or doing housework while I listened, my tolerance for the book’s shortcomings was greater than if I’d been sitting and reading, and I had two reasons to endure the whole thing:

One: To find out how it would end.

Two: To learn from the author’s mistakes.

Obviously, reason number one says she did something right. Even close to the end, I had no idea who committed the murders. She laid the clues well, along with effective red herrings. I thought I knew “who done it,” but then I realized I was wrong. It came as a big surprise. I didn’t like the main characters, though, and the writing was noticeably flawed. As I said above, the flaws were educational. Each time I noticed one, I thought: I’d better not do that. Here are some examples.

  • Overused words. Characters in this book don’t turn their heads, shift in their seats, or look around; they twist. “I twisted my neck” occurs particularly often. Between reading aloud and getting input from critique partners, I catch more and more of my habitual words, but I’m afraid I acquire new ones as I cure myself of the old.
  • The descriptions of settings and actions are excessive. Detail has its place, of course. It’s useful that she gives the layout of the male lead’s house, because it’s an important setting as well as an unusual structure. But she also describes the complete décor of a rental cabin we’ll never see again, right down to the color scheme of the braided rug. A man doesn’t simply open a package, he takes a pen knife from his pocket, unfolds the knife, slices the paper diagonally, etc. Sex scenes are so long and so much alike, I could have skipped them and picked up the story again without having missed a thing (and half-way through the book, that’s what I started doing.)  Sometimes it’s okay to tell, not show. Or at least to show a lot less.
  • Not only is the food described in excess detail, far too many scenes take place in kitchens and in bars and restaurants. Yes, we all eat three meals a day, but in fiction, conversations can have more varied settings. Sameness gets stale.
  • Secondary characters keep popping in uninvited, showing up on the street, or in those bars and restaurants, in order to deliver plot points. Some even fly in from another country to have an argument face to face rather than on the phone. Their presence feels contrived. I need to make the main characters’ choices and actions drive the plot,  instead of using too many convenient intrusions.
  • The main characters are stunningly attractive, and yet they eat huge unhealthy meals (always with  dessert), drink a good amount of beer, and they never seem to exercise. How does he have that amazing rock-hard muscular body? How does she have a figure that makes everyone stare at her and desire her? They ought to look ordinary, not above average. I can be unrealistic and not notice—one of many reasons to keep getting multiple critiques. I do plenty of research, but beta readers have still caught things I overlooked.
  • Every single person in the whole book is white. I’ve never lived anywhere so homogeneous, and since I use real towns and cities as settings, my characters reflect the diversity of those places. But do I fall into some other kind of unconscious pattern with my characters? I’ll have to look for it.
  • The book is padded with conversations that could have been summed up in a sentence or eliminated altogether. I suspect the author was so fascinated by her characters and by exploring their relationships that she couldn’t bring herself to kill these long, dull darlings. My pantsing first drafts are full of material like this.  I discover a lot by writing it—but it needs to take place offstage.
  • Characters echo each other’s words. “I saw him.” “You saw him?” “Yes, I saw him.” Even if people occasionally talk this way in real life, it slows down the story. I should start dialogue where it counts, not with the warm-ups.
  • The revelation of who committed the murders comes through a spate of expository dialogue in which the two conspirators tell each other what they already know, having an argument full of “That was our plan” statements. The protagonist is a witness to this, but she’s tied up, and until that moment she never had a clue what either of them was up to. The police show up after she’s heard it all and is in mid-escape. I can’t let the mystery be solved solely by accident and chance. And if I want to reveal a secret or backstory through dialogue, I need to set it up with conflicts, questions, and challenges to bring out the information in a believable way.

I picked up some valuable reminders from this audiobook, and most have to do with cutting and revision. I need to know more than my readers do, and then choose what to tell them and how.

 

 

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

 

Keeping a Series Strong

Amber in tree finalI hope this hasn’t happened to you, but … have you ever picked up the sixth or seventh book in a series you follow and been let down? Maybe the author crushed you with backstory aimed at new readers. Or worse, the author took your loyalty for granted and got self-indulgent with a book full of “darlings” that should have been killed. Series fans, myself included, sometimes forgive all of that and keep reading because they love the characters. New readers who happen to start with a later book in the series won’t be so forgiving.

Authors who handle backstory well (in my opinion) give very little and slip it in only as needed. In one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels, she briefly mentions that Anna acquired her dog, Taco, after accidentally causing the death of her friend who owned him. That’s it. No other details. The story moves on. To me, this was brilliant. The reader knows just enough with this bit of painful background to understand Anna’s feelings about Taco. I hadn’t yet read the earlier book, Blind Descent, in which the accident occurs. When I did read it, nothing had been spoiled.

I’ve started other series late in their progress and quit without finishing due to backstory overload. It wasn’t just dull; it ruined the earlier books for me. Of course, a series character’s personal life changes and grows in each book, and it’s inevitable that book three will give away transitions in the lead character’s love life or family life, but it shouldn’t spoil the mystery plots of books one and two. I suspect that most people like to begin a series at the beginning, but others grab the newest book first. Sometimes the new release in a series is the only thing my library has available in audiobook, so off I drive with no prior familiarity with that author. It’s usually a good experience, but once in a while I get a book that threatens to put me to sleep at the wheel with tedious summaries of the characters’ previous adventures, sometimes in the worst way possible: expository dialogue. “Remember when we solved the mystery of the missing heiress? You saved my life and hers.” “But it was your quick thinking that got us there.” “And then the press made a hero out of her husband, of all people.” On it goes. Both characters were there and know what happened and yet they tell each other so the author can tell the reader. Yawn. Hit eject button. Pull over for coffee. Try a different audiobook.

This experience has motivated me to get a new critique partner for each book in my series. I have long-term reliable partners who know my work and my characters, and who do great plot critiques, but I also need fresh eyes on each book. Because of my aversion to backstory, I include as little as I possibly can. The new person who hasn’t read the prior books lets me know what was unclear, and then I can insert the necessary minimum at the right place. The new reader also will not be as tolerant of scenes that are fun for me and for people who have a long relationship with my characters, but which are slow in moving the plotsymptoms of that other error which can creep into a long series: self-indulgence. My new critique partner will catch it and help me cut the fluff.

I want the person who picks up book five first to have a complete, compelling experience within that story, and to be curious what happened in the rest of series. Also, I hope for the later books in the series to be as alive and exciting for long-term readers as the first book was.