essays

Progress Report and Movie Review: Tenet

My apologies to friends and family. I haven’t posted anything on my website in many weeks. Lots of excuses, of course!

Anyway, here’s what I’m about. I haven’t done much writing recently. I have a new short story, “The Sword,” which will be published in November in the Northwest Independent Writers Association’s anthology, Escape. I’ve started another but I’m bogged down at the moment.

Most of my energy has been channeled into learning how to do my own audiobooks, and it’s a very steep learning curve! I’ve taken an online course (many times!) and I’m in the process of doing my short story, “Eye of Newt.” I’m sure you know that’s the second of the Driftwood Mysteries, epilogue to Seal of Secrets and prologue to Woman in the Waves. I decided to start small to learn the ropes before launching into a full novel. That was a good decision. Although the book is only an hour long, the editing takes many times that. I’m sure as narrators get more experience, the editing comes more easily, but I spent three hours doing five minutes of the book! Yikes! And after all that, it didn’t pass muster. (There’s a plug-in for the Audacity software called “ACX check” that analyzes the material and determines if it meets ACX criteria (ACX is the Amazon company that publishes audiobooks). The big culprit was “noise floor too loud”—geek-speak for too much background noise. What to do?

You must understand, my recording studio is my wife’s closet. Besides being surrounded by her noise-dampening clothes, I hung towels over her shoe rack and blankets over the door behind me. But I hadn’t taken into account the ceiling. Since necessity is the mother of a lot of nonsense, I suspended a mattress pad over my head. (Good thing I’m not claustrophobic!) That, along with an update to my editing instructions, solved the problem. My next version passed the test. But was it of the quality that devotees of audiobooks expect in their purchases? I sent an excerpt to two people who listen to a lot of audiobooks, and both said the quality was good, but that most narrators try to make subtle distinctions between the speaking voices of different characters. Oh, well, I thought. Not gonna  happen now. Until I realized I had made a critical mistake in the very first sentence!

OK. In for a penny, in for a pound. It takes me fifteen minutes to set up my sound studio, whether I’m doing a retake of a single sentence or redoing the whole book. So back into the closet. I redid the story, trying to achieve some differentiation between the characters. The recording now sits in my computer, awaiting the time I build up enough nerve to tackle the editing again. Stay tuned.

Next, I took a calculated risk and went to the theater yesterday. Recalling my movie-going before the pandemic, in my little town the theaters were often empty for an early weekday matinee ,and I’d get a private showing. Yesterday, there was one other person in the theater, so I thought it was probably safer than grocery shopping at Safeway.

Is Tenet worth the hype? Is it any good? Absolutely. Is it as good as Inception? Well, Inception sets an awfully high bar. It’s probably not that good, but it’s a worthy entrant into the Christopher Nolan canon, and well worth your time. I’ll give you the pros and the cons, cons first.

The Regal Cinema where I saw the film set the bass at earthquake level—I thought my seat might come unmoored from the floor. Should we start considering a class action hearing loss lawsuit against them? Sheesh! Secondly, Nolan is becoming the king of muffled dialogue. At first I thought it was my old-man ears, but I saw comments from others on the internet. Dialogue lost in background noise, poorly articulated by actors. WTF, Christopher! You can do anything on film. Why can’t you let us understand what your characters are saying? Finally, and this is only a minor quibble, there is no character development. The main character doesn’t even have a name—he’s simply The Protagonist. But hey, we don’t go to Christopher Nolan movies for in-depth characterization. We’re there for mind-boggling concepts and plot, and eye-popping special effects. On that score, Tenet delivers in spades.

The pros—what an idea! And I won’t give away any spoilers here. It’s a wildly inventive concept splashed across riveting action sequences that will likely blow your mind, or at least trip a few circuit-breakers. And the deeper you get into it, the more convoluted it becomes (in a good way!). I think I actually understood about 85% of it on a first viewing, which is pretty good for me. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t grasp the real significance of the title until I read about it afterwards. I should have figured that out. Speaking of which—see the movie cold, then read about it afterwards online. The pure nerdiness of the film is enough to blow anyone’s mind. (Ever hear of a Sator Square before? I hadn’t, but it’s woven into the fabric of the film.)

So Christopher Nolan has done it again—created a thinking person’s blockbuster that will leave you talking about it for days afterward. For me, entertainment that engages your mind as well as your emotions is what it’s all about. Yes, you have to work for it, and yes, you’ll have to see it more than once, but I’m onboard. Highly recommended.

My Two Cents

“Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Strange days indeed.”

–John Lennon

 

At 3:00 A.M. this morning, I couldn’t shut my brain off. I got thinking about all the money and energy being spent in taking down the offensive monuments that litter our country. I had seen a news feature earlier this week about how Italy has come to terms with its checkered past. It hasn’t demolished the Coliseum, where thousands of innocents were slaughtered, or the monuments to the Roman emperors who bathed the country in blood. It hasn’t bulldozed the plazas and buildings and statues that celebrate Il Duce, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Instead, Italians try to understand their history. I found myself wondering, “What if we had hired the most renown writers in the world—Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners—and had them write plaques to adorn every monument, explaining its context and what we can learn from it?

The truth is, if we try to erase our past—to repress it—the chances are good it will emerge subconsciously and taint the body politic. We are a nation steeped in blood, from the genocide of the indigenous peoples who were here before us, to the centuries of racism ever since. I believe we must accept the darkness within us—not deny it—in order to keep it at bay. Camus tried to tell us decades ago that we are all “culpable murderers.” Each of us is capable of unspeakable crime, but by acknowledging that fact, we can keep ourselves in check. As Kirk famously pointed out in a classic episode of Star Trek, we can decide “I will not kill today.”

It is a daunting task, recognizing the urge to destroy that dwells inside us. We watch toddlers playing with blocks, and we see immediately that they love knocking blocks over even more than they love to build with them. That same inclination has been evident in protests that turn violent (and self-defeating) under the pressure of “mob rule” and anarchy. There is a part of us that likes to destroy, to break things and burn things down, and we must remain vigilant to keep it restrained. There is also that urge to obey a “strong man,” to surrender our ethical and moral decision-making to someone who appears to be forcefully in charge. Hitler persuaded German soldiers to kill six million people. Stalin killed twelve million. Those of us who believe such atrocities are no longer possible in our “enlightened age,” mistake human nature for something it is not, and do so at their peril.

Every political system, every country, every religion, every philosophy is flawed because it has been designed by flawed human beings. This doesn’t mean we must despair. Rather, we must be attentive, forever mindful, forever alert. We must stay on point, on guard, against the personal darkness that would do terrible harm to advance an arrogant self-interest. Yes, we must pass humane laws. Yes, we must pursue equality for everyone in every possible way. But our pursuit of “political correctness” will not save us from the demons within. We cannot “defund the police” because we need them to protect us from ourselves.

I am reminded of the concluding pages of Camus’ insightful book, The Rebel. He says, “We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn.”

 

Book Review–White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

In the forward to DiAngelo’s masterful treatise, Michael Eric Dyson says, “But whiteness goes one better: it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius. Whiteness embodies Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that ‘the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.’”

Sociologist DiAngelo proceeds to deconstruct everything we think we know about racism. She explains that racism is unavoidable and inevitable in our society, that its patterns are socialized into us from the earliest age. “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.”

She contends that the people who do the most damage in relationships with people of color are white progressives, who assert things like, “I’m color blind. My mother taught me to treat everyone equally. Some of my best friends are black.” We become exceedingly uncomfortable and take great offense at the merest suggestion that we have said or done something racist. There the conversation stops. In DiAngelo’s words, we have no “racial stamina” to continue. And we become complicit with the very system we say we oppose.

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people.”

The author explores how race shapes the lives of white people today, often in ways that are completely unconscious. In so doing, she shines a much-needed light on the protests happening in countries world over, enabling us to begin to understand our troubled history. If you have asked yourself, as have I, “What needs to happen next? Where should I go from here?” DiAngelo gives us a place to start.

But make no mistake. White Fragility is a difficult book to read, not because of its lucid analysis of the most troubling events of our time, but because it makes us look in the mirror. The racist isn’t only the white policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man.

The racist is me.

Book Review: The Plague, by Albert Camus

I am late with this post. I wrote this review on May 2.

 

In the North African town of Oran, rats begin to come out of hiding and die in the streets. Shortly thereafter, residents, in ever-increasing numbers, fall ill with a mysterious fever. As these stricken townsfolk die, Dr. Bernard Rieux recognizes they have contracted the bubonic plague. The city is shut down. Guards are posted at all the gates so no one can enter or leave. Rieux devotes himself to alleviating the suffering of the sick as much as he is able, painfully aware that the city is at the mercy of a scourge for which he has no cure. He “fights against a creation which allows children to suffer and die.”

I first read this novel when I was twenty years old, more than five decades ago, and I still have that paperback copy, its pages yellow with age, passages marked that I read and re-read for years afterward. On that first reading, I remember being shaken to my core. After all, I was a student in a Catholic seminary at the time, and this book challenged all I thought I knew about life. This past month I asked myself, “Will it still resonate? Does it have something to say to our quarantined life?”

At first, I was doubtful. I had forgotten how glacially slow the novel is at the outset. But then, about midway through, the prose becomes poetic, as the characters begin to struggle with their moral dilemmas. As Rieux’s friend Tarrou observes:

“I know positively…that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him…The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is he who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

I wept again at the death of the young boy Philippe, whose “long, incessant scream” is “the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind.” I felt the slim encouragement Rieux offers us, when he comments that in time of pestilence, we learn “there is more to admire in men than to despise.” In our own time of quarantine, I wholeheartedly agreed with his pronouncement that “a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”

I confess I read the last third of the book through tear-dimmed eyes. One passage in particular, which documents Tarrou’s death, made me think of the extraordinary efforts of our own caregivers fighting COVID-19, and the emergency room doctor, Lorna Breen, who took her own life when, as her sister said, she was “in an untenable situation.”

“This human form, his friend’s, lacerated by the spear-thrusts of the plague, consumed by searing, superhuman fires, buffeted by all the raging winds of heaven, was foundering under his eyes in the dark flood of the pestilence, and he could do nothing to avert the wreck. He could only stand, unavailing, on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart, unarmed and helpless yet again under the onset of calamity.”

Ultimately, The Plague is a meditation on the meaning of life and death. It examines the behavior of human beings in the face of ineluctable destiny. Some act heroically; others are driven mad.

No, this is not light reading, but you will be rewarded handsomely for your efforts.

Blog 6: “My Approach to Writing–Writing as an Addiction,” by Thomas Gondolfi

 

My Approach to Writing – Writing as an Addiction

by Thomas Gondolfi

 

Hello. My name is Thomas Gondolfi, and I’m addicted to writing. I’ve been an addict since 1979.

I’m sorry to say that this post has limited use to any aspiring writers out there. The reason is that for me, writing isn’t a lifestyle. It isn’t a fancy. It isn’t even an avocation. To me, writing has become a compulsion. I will tell my tale of weal and woe as a cautionary one.

My NEED for writing started all the way back in high school because of a competitive nature with a friend, Richard Harris, and a creative writing course by Mrs. VanCampen. I love and curse you both to eternity.

A pair of long short stories as school projects became gateway writings to a >300 page, handwritten novel, Dungeons and Dragons adventures, fan fiction, and even my own newsletter for my gaming group. An accidental sale of a piece of fan fiction intensified my habit. The rest is almost classic. I decided that I needed to write and get a novel published. I worked on two at once, sharing bits at a time with other addicts who needed to share their dependencies. Eventually, I self-published my own works and those of two other authors.

I’ll note that there is a common tenant that successful authors should write every day at a regular time. I never fully understood this statement. I kept asking myself, “Why would an author need to train himself or herself to a regime?” Because of the monkey on my back, I can’t NOT write. Let me explain so that you will understand.

Ever had that desire for chocolate <or insert your favorite sweet> even though you know you probably shouldn’t? The craving won’t go away. How about a mosquito bite that you want to scratch, but knowing it will just make it worse? You try to do something else to put it out of your mind, but it continues to nag at you. Nag. Nag. Nag. You dance around it, trying to immerse yourself into something else. In the end, you usually succumb, quieting that longing at least for a moment for having indulged.

Now imagine, if you might, that the itch you have is within your head. You have an image of an unusual story, a snarky character, or a grandiose setting. Then try to picture that the scene won’t go away. You dream about it night after night after night, embellishing it further. You find yourself daydreaming about it when you should have your attention on driving, cooking, or paying attention to your children. You can’t concentrate on most anything else. In fact, sometimes you can’t even sleep until you start thinking about it. This continues until one day you write it down, and your obsession magically disappears – only to be replaced with a new one. If you imagine that persistent itch, which can’t be scratched any other way, nagging at you constantly, you have an idea of what it feels like to be me.

But the need to empty my head is nearly constant. Even when I’m heavily involved in one project, I’ll be bombarded with some new ideas like a meteor swarm. They each have their own requirements. Think that you want something sweet. So you have a cookie, satisfying one craving, but your taste buds insist that wasn’t quite right. You now need a cinnamon bun.

I have only two defenses to this. I can be flexible about what I’m writing to move onto something new at a moment’s notice or to create a file of ideas for the future. That idea files may only contain a line or two about the concept, but it may be enough to slide that need to the background. This file and the bombardment of ideas from… well, nowhere, is one of the reasons that I don’t believe in writer’s block. You may be having difficulty with one assignment, but you still have that itch to get something out of your consciousness. So slide over to another project.

So unlike other authors, my life is defined not by finding time to write but rather wedging time for other things in-between my writing. That mental itch is an unrelenting taskmaster. If I don’t push those twisted thoughts out of my brain onto paper, they just continue to build up. After high school, I think my longest stretch without writing was ten days. I’m surprised the need to put an image to ink didn’t kill me in the last few days. Occasionally my monkey will give me a day or two off to pursue other interests, but it is rare.

So what does all of this mean for you? Part of me wants to say look at me as the person your mother didn’t want you to meet. Friends don’t let friends write. BUT, I’ve only described the negative portions of being hooked on writing.

The ecstasy you feel finishing one of your projects, or seeing a fan geek out over your creation is beyond food, beyond sex, or much of anything. It transcends the mortal bounds and takes you into the realms of the religious. Money isn’t the driving force. Oh, it allows you to continue feeding your habit. But, the real joy, the real pleasure is when you get fans coming back for more and more. When people get annoyed that you haven’t finished your next creation. Basking in the adoration of a person coming back to you with bags under her eyes, saying, “I couldn’t put it down.” Trying not to orgasm when you secretly overhear a conversation between other people about how great your book was.

I won’t stay that the plusses outweigh the negatives. The days I force myself not to write can be painful, if not agonizing. But the highs, no matter how long it takes for me to achieve them, make the pain seem far and distant. They also make me eager to get back to the word processor for my next fix.

I want to be clear that while I’ve written this in a humorous bent, this is not an allegory. Writing can absorb your soul like a jealous god. You have been warned – and hopefully encouraged as well.

 

Thomas Gondolfi founded TANSTAAFL Press in 2012. He is a book parent of the Toy Wars series, the CorpGov Chronicles, and Wayward School, along with numerous other writing and editing credits, which can be found on www.tanstaaflpress.com. He is a father of three (real children), consummate gamer, and loving husband. Tom also claims to be a Renaissance man and a certified flirt.

Raised as a military brat, he spent twenty years of his life moving to a new place every few years, giving him a unique perspective on life and people.

Tom has worked as an engineer in high tech for over thirty years. Before that, he has also worked as a cook, motel manager, most phases of home construction, volunteer firefighter, and the personal caregiver to a quadriplegic.

Blog 3: A Writer’s Love-Hate Relationship With Reviews, by Mollie Hunt, Cat Writer

#3: A WRITER’S LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH REVIEWS, by Mollie Hunt, Cat Writer

 

This is the third in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association.  NIWA serves Pacific Northwest writers working to achieve professional standards in independent writing, publishing and marketing.

 

 

For a writer, there is nothing more satisfying than having their book receive a great review. Conversely, there is nothing more painful than receiving a bad one. Still, reviews are part of a writers’ life, and the best way to deal with them is… well, we will get to that a bit later in this post.

 

Obtaining reviews:

 

First off, you need to get reviews. Reviews matter. If you collect enough Amazon reviews and star ratings, you attract more attention from the all-powerful Amazon algorithms. I don’t know that number—I certainly have not reached it with any of my books, but people do.

 

Reviews may be acquired in many ways. You may solicit, buy, bribe, or cajole. Any way you can convince readers to spend that extra minute letting others know how they liked your book is on the table.

 

Amazon isn’t the only place readers leave reviews. I stopped by my Goodreads page the other day to find Cats’ Eyes, the first book in my Crazy Cat Lady Cozy Mystery series, had three times the reviews it has on Amazon. Who knew?

 

Professional reviewers are an option. They promise an honest, in-depth summary and review posted to several sites. Some pros are free, such as Readers’ Favorite (They have both a free and a paid option) Others you have to pay for, and they aren’t cheap. If you go this route, make sure the company is one that people read and admire. A review off on some obscure website isn’t going to do you much good. Note: I’ve never paid for a review. For me, I don’t think it makes that much difference.

 

Reviews from friends and family are great, but Amazon may kick them off, especially if the Big A decides the review is from a social media pal.

 

There are many reviewer sites that will give an honest review on their blogsite in exchange for a copy of your book. Google reviewers and your genre and see what comes up. I know of several for my genre, cozy mysteries. If they agree to review your book, make sure to give them plenty of time, and let them know when if you need it by a certain date, such as for a prelaunch. Don’t harass them, but if you don’t hear in a reasonable amount of time, an email check-in doesn’t hurt.

 

 

How to use reviews once you have them:

 

Don’t let your good reviews just sit there doing nothing— work them! There is a place on your book’s Amazon page for reviews. People read these, so it’s a good idea to fill them in. Keep it short— remember, most people (including myself) have the attention span of a gnat. Use only highlights of the review, and always credit the reviewer.

 

I also add a few of these summarized reviews in the front matter of my book, or sometimes on the back cover.

 

Don’t be shy. Put out good reviews in your newsletter or in a blogpost. Always include a direct link to the book for shoppers.

 

 

And now, what about those bad reviews?

 

There are various ways to deal with the eventuality of a bad review. You can read it, take it to heart, and try to learn from it, or you can ignore it. I personally try not to read the nonsense, but sometimes it’s funny. I had one reviewer dislike a book because my character didn’t vacuum enough. With all those cats, she said, Lynley should vacuum a whole lot more. Now really! Do you want to read about someone vacuuming their house? Still, the comment inspired me to add a little more vacuuming content to my subsequent books.

 

You can get bad reviews for several reasons having nothing to do with your book. Some people are just mean and have nothing nice to say. You need to remember that others may think very differently than you.

 

Do you have enemies? An evil ex? A jilted lover? A jealous friend? Sometimes these will go after a writer by leaving bad reviews. On Amazon, there is a link to a “Report Abuse” page beneath the comment where you can take steps to have the review removed, but it’s not always an easy task. You can also add your own comment in reply to a review.

 

 

Takeaway:

 

Reviews are necessary. A few times a year I put out a plea on my Facebook Author Page asking readers to fill out reviews. I remind them it doesn’t need to be complicated: “I liked it,” is enough.

 

Do unto others… Reviews work both ways. Have you reviewed the books you’ve read lately?

 

 

Watch for my next post, #4: RESEARCH RESOURCES—YOUR GATEWAY TO AUTHENTICITY, coming the week of April 19-25 on the Tanstaafl Press, Thomas Gondolfi blogsite.

 

Check out this week’s other participating NIWA blogsites:

 

About Mollie Hunt: Native Oregonian Mollie Hunt has always had an affinity for cats, so it was a short step for her to become a cat writer. Mollie Hunt writes the Crazy Cat Lady cozy mystery series featuring Lynley Cannon, a sixty-something cat shelter volunteer who finds more trouble than a cat in catnip, and the Cat Seasons sci-fantasy tetralogy where cats save the world. She also pens a bit of cat poetry.

 

Mollie is a member of the Oregon Writers’ Colony, Sisters in Crime, the Cat Writers’ Association, and NIWA. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and a varying number of cats. Like Lynley, she is a grateful shelter volunteer.

 

You can find Mollie Hunt, Cat Writer on her blogsite: www.lecatts.wordpress.com

Amazon Page: www.amazon.com/author/molliehunt

Facebook Author Page: www.facebook.com/MollieHuntCatWriter/

@MollieHuntCats

 

Mollie Hunt & Tinkerbelle, Registered Pet Partners

Blog 2 From Joyce Reynolds-Ward

 

 

 

Self-Editing, Grammar, and Beta Readers:

Dos and Don’ts

 

This is the second in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association

 

Getting the words down right is the big challenge for every writer, whether you’re independently publishing or traditionally published. At some point every writer has to switch from writer to editor and make certain that the words they’ve written are correct. This search for correctness goes beyond the simple nuances of grammar to the choices of specific words, the flow of sentence phrasing, and more.

 

Two things to keep in mind: first of all, be aware of the difference between detail work and a broader perspective. Every writer can self-edit to some degree in a broad sense. But not every writer is able to perform the meticulous level of edits needed to prepare a work for publication, which leads to the second thing to remember: the more eyes on a final manuscript, the better. In this post I’m focusing on the broader level of editing.

 

First of all, let’s look at grammar in the context of self-editing. I’m not talking about the fiddly bits of word choice and whether you should use lie or lay. Those differences can be easily sussed out using Word’s grammar editor (note: use with caution as Word is not always correct) or a dedicated grammar editor. Rather, I’m talking about sentences that don’t flow for specific grammatical reasons. The big stuff. Clauses and subordinate clauses. The use of minimizing or what I call “weasel words” which soften the impact of your writing.

 

So let’s start with the biggest offender I’ve seen as editor, coach, and teacher, which is leading a sentence off with a subordinate clause. What is a subordinate clause? Basically, it is a group of words that has a verb but is not a complete sentence. One example of a subordinate clause appears in the sentence, “She answered the phone when it rang.” “When it rang” is the subordinate clause, and it’s incomplete as a sentence. Now, think about a whole string of sentences such as “When it rang, she answered the phone.” This is an example of leading your sentence with the subordinate clause. Read both examples aloud, then think about how this sentence flows as opposed to the original. This particular offense can be easily fixed by reading your work aloud, and keep in mind that an occasional case of leading with a subordinate clause is all right. It’s when most sentences on a page lead with a subordinate clause that it becomes tiresome.

 

“Weasel words” tend to modify strong verbs. Did you see what I did in that sentence? Take out the “tend to” and see how the sentence meaning shifts slightly. I am as much of an offender in the “weasel word” category as anyone else. I qualify what should be a strong statement by chucking a few weasel words into the mix. I do it when I’m uncertain about the statement I’m making, either consciously or unconsciously. Weasel words can be used to some effect as a characterization device. But use them carefully and with intent.

 

So. Grammar. Big Don’ts:

  • Don’t lead with subordinate clauses
  • Chop out as many weasel words as possible.

 

Big Do’s:

  • Be mindful in your use of weasel words—use them carefully and with intent.

 

Now that I’ve hit my two big points on self-editing and grammar, let’s take a look at self-editing and beta readers.

 

The ability to self-edit effectively varies between writers. Some writers can do an excellent job; others simply can’t. Often we don’t see the flaws in our language choices in early drafts, or we can spot the errors of language but not the gaping hole in our plot reasoning, or the unintended irregular behavior of our characters. This is where a set of good beta readers becomes effective, as a useful tool for revision.

 

When I speak of “beta readers,” I refer to outside readers who review a draft form of your work that you plan to revise. Some writers prefer to call them first readers or alpha readers, but “beta” is the most common phrasing. Unlike a critique group, betas read and report individually, rather than as part of a group. Reciprocal reading may or may not be involved. The beta does not provide line edits, copy edits, or any sort of detailed work that will be appropriate later on in book production. Rather, the beta reader’s job is to provide feedback about early revisions as to whether the language flows, the plot makes sense, and the characters are believable. A good beta flags those places in the early draft where a reader trips over something.

 

Where do you find beta readers? Just about anywhere. Some writers depend on spouses or close friends. Others organize beta teams from their fans. Betas can be readers or writers. What you are looking for is that other eye that finds the problems that you as the writer are too close to the story to see. But the beta also needs to be someone tolerant of the roughness of early book drafts, because most of us do not turn out pretty early drafts.

 

One thing to be concerned about, though, is a beta that starts rewriting your words. A good beta recommends a revision but leaves the actual work of the revision to the writer. Good betas also don’t get bogged down in line editing or copy editing details. That’s what you pay a good editor to do for you. The beta reader is assessing the story from a reader’s perspective.

 

Most beta edits are done either through friendship or the desire to read an early draft from a favorite author. More substantive detail edits should be paid, either in cold hard cash or bartering of services. Beta editing is not and should not be a substitute for final prepublication edits. It is a tool to aid the author during the revision process.

 

Learning to edit yourself is a crucial task for any writer, no matter where you are in the writing process, and it goes far beyond grammar to the way that your words flow in the final draft. Following these simple suggestions will help improve your writing skill. Good luck!

 

Other posts in this series by Joyce Reynolds-Ward (note: each website owner will post at some point during the week listed).

March 29-April 4th—Organizing Your Plot http://www.joycereynoldsward.com

April 5-11—Self-editing, grammar, and beta readers https://authorwilliamcook.com/blog/

April 12-18—Genre and cross-genre https://tanstaaflpress.com/news

April 19-25—My Approach to the writing process https://varidapr.com

April 26-May 2—Reading to Impact your writing http://www.conniejjasperson.com

May 3-9—Advice for new writers https://lecatts.wordpress.com

 

 

Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer from Enterprise, Oregon. Her short stories include appearances in Well…It’s Your Cow, Children of a Different Sky, Allegory, River, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Her agripunk thriller trilogy, The Ruby Project: Origins, The Ruby Project: Ascendant, The Ruby Project: Realization, are due for release in November, 2020. Her books include Shadow Harvest, Choices of Honor, Judgment of Honor, and Klone’s Stronghold. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019). Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, and hiking, and is a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County.

The New Blog Tour

 

 

Reading to Impact Your Writing (And Can Watching Movies Be a Business Expense?)

 

This is the first in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers Association. I will be hosting five other indie writers here, introducing you to their thoughts about their craft, the books they’ve written, and their websites.

 

Most writers I know read voraciously, pausing only when they are in the final throes of getting their next work published—editing and re-editing, hiring beta readers, formatting and re-formatting to please our Kindle Direct Publishing masters, trying to figure out what the error message “Your fonts are not properly embedded” means. The list seems to go on forever. But until that point, writers READ.

Sometimes we read in our own genre, “to check out the competition.” I remember that once I had created the fictional Oregon coast town of Driftwood for my mystery novels, a friend said I should read Scott William Carter’s The Gray and Guilty Sea. I did, and I came away thinking, “Wow! He nailed it. I hope I can write like that when I grow up.”

At a book signing not so long ago, I shared a table with Chris Patchell, who also writes mystery and suspense novels. I bought her book, In the Dark, and was blown away by the breathless quality of her prose. I decided I wanted that in my stories as well.

We often read other genres, especially with an eye toward pacing, character development, and style of writing. We make decisions about what to emulate and what to avoid, what works and what doesn’t, how best to show, rather than tell, making conversation sound natural, and managing point of view.

Sometimes the books we read have an unconscious effect on our writing. Remember Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and her sentences that went on for a half-page and more? I was busy with a volume of short stories at the time, and when I went into editing the second draft, I was aghast at how long the sentences were in my story, “The Porthole.” That had not been intentional and I was thankful to have caught it before I published it.

Reading can have another, long-lasting effect on our writing, one not so much stylistic or structural, as “constitutional.” The reading I did in my late teens and throughout my twenties changed the way I think. Back then, I had immersed myself in existentialism, devouring books by Camus and Sartre, and their precursors, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. Those philosophical works have shaped me, for better or worse, and influence the way my characters think and move. Acts of will, decision-making, spiritual and ethical motivations are a part of my characters and make them more real (I hope!).

While we’re at it, what about movies and how they impact our writing? I love movies, all kinds of movies, from dainty, art-house oeuvres to slam-bang shoot ’em ups. It’s a vice I swear I inherited from my mother. And the effect? I want my stories to be visual. I want my readers to say, “Reading your book was like watching a movie, except I could feel it and smell it and taste it, too.” The challenge becomes involving all the senses in the story, so the descriptive parts are not just atmospheric, but transporting. I find myself thinking in terms of scenes, rather than chapters, listening to my characters as they strut their stuff, wondering what they’re going to do next. Yes, often I don’t know what my characters will say or do next, and before you decide to call a shrink because I’ve gone over the edge and need a psychiatric evaluation, stay tuned for a future blog when I will talk more about my approach to the writing process.

“I am not crazy!” he insisted to no avail, as the EMTs strapped him onto the gurney and wheeled him out to the waiting ambulance…

 

Watch for the next post in this series by me:

“Advice for New Writers” — at https://conniejjasperson.com/

 

Next week I’ll be hosting Joyce Reynolds-Ward, who will be sharing her thoughts on “Self-Editing, Grammar, and Beta Readers.” Stay tuned!

 

Christmas Letter 2019

Christmas 2019

 

Dear Family and Friends,

 

Truth be told, I didn’t want to write a Christmas letter this year. As you know, 2019 has been a terrible year for me. My son died suddenly, at the age of 42; my dear son-in-law’s father died after a long, debilitating illness; my former mother-in-law, the mother of the mother of my children, died. A Trifecta of tragedy.

I know St. Paul tells us not to grieve as do those who have no hope, but I have found that very hard to do. I’ve raged at God for many weeks. In fact, I may not be finished with that yet. I’ve read books on grief. (They didn’t help.) I confess that I rather liked one book for its raw honesty: Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler.

I haven’t really prayed or worshiped much in the last six months. I cry or get choked up every day. When Sharon isn’t home, I’ll scream a string of profanities to the empty house. I do read a chapter of Scripture daily, and I attend church every Sunday. I tell myself it’s for the discipline, but maybe it’s just an old habit. That said, I’ve found the messages during this Advent season to be profoundly disturbing. More than once, I’ve heard the pastor encourage the congregation (and me—right between the eyes) to let go of anger and bitterness, to surrender the rage and confusion and doubt. Then last Sunday, I was reduced to tears just before the communion service.

I’m not schizophrenic (at least, not yet!), and I don’t usually hear voices, but it felt as though God were speaking to me. “You had your son for 42 years. My son had only 33.”

I suddenly realized something that’s quite cliché, but that I had never really appreciated before. Everything—all our relationships and all our possessions—are on loan to us. Spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, friends are on loan to us, and we don’t know the term of the loan. As a pastor friend told me at breakfast last Tuesday, “Do you want to be bitter about the years you won’t have with your child, or rejoice in the ones you did? Choose now.” I want the latter, but it’s an excruciating, uphill battle. And as I write this right now in the Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, I’m reminded of the origin of the term “excruciating”—”from the cross.”

So if you’ve left for work, and you had an argument with your spouse on the way out the front door, stop now. Turn around and go back home. Kiss him or her and open your heart. If you’re not on speaking terms with a sibling or a parent or had a shouting match with your son or daughter, fix it before you do anything else. It’s your last chance. After all, we never know when the term of the loan is coming due…

I raise a cup of coffee to you now—and later today, a glass of wine—to family and friends near and far. In tears of sorrow and joy, Sharon and I wish you a blessed Christmas and a better New Year in 2020.

Christmas Letter 2018

Dear Family and Friends,

As I begin this, the sun has broken through deep gray clouds and is shining on a beautiful December day. The chill, like the Werewolf of London’s hair, is perfect. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to traditional Christmas songs and carols from the British Isles, struck by how melancholy many of them sound. None of that saccharine sentimentality we hear bleating from speakers in our shopping malls. It’s as though they anticipate the complexity of the events that have been started in motion by the birth of Jesus.

Then I thought about Luke’s Gospel and the prediction that Simeon makes to Mary, Jesus’ mother, when she presents her newborn baby to him in the temple: “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

What’s going on? Where did “We wish you a merry Christmas” go? Recently I visited with a dear friend whose toddler daughter had just undergone another of what will likely be many surgeries to correct a dreadful anomaly. He spoke about how his heart breaks every time she shrieks, “Don’t touch me!” at the rehab therapist trying to improve her range of motion. Rehabilitation, before it brings healing, brings much pain, and my friend is helpless to prevent it. “I would do anything for her, if only I could,” he laments. Therein lies his agony—the piercing sword.

I believe God feels like that about us as well, knowing we need “rehabilitation,” but painfully aware we will refuse him and yell, “Leave us alone!” when he sends his son to heal us. Matthew tells us that Herod was so desperate to destroy the infant Jesus that he had his soldiers kill all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem , a massacre preserved in the deceptively beautiful lullaby, the Coventry Carol.

From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus is seen as a threat to the established order of things. Religious people hate him. Politicians regard him as an odd curiosity. Both groups think that killing him is the only way he will leave them alone, once and for all.

Fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave us alone. He is determined to save us in spite of ourselves. Because of Easter, Christmas is worth the “rehabilitation pain” it inaugurates. We become Resurrection People, newly alive, charged to love as we have been loved. Jesus tells us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

But we need reminders. The world has a way of beating us up. Often we want only to “burrow in,” pour that glass of wine, and lose ourselves in a book or a television show. Not that there is anything wrong with “recharging our batteries,” but the point is just that—restoring ourselves so we can restore others. Christmas is our yearly wake-up call—at once a call to to arms against the evil that would ensnare us, and a call to minister to those wounded in the ongoing battle. We become God’s paramedics—his EMTs—healing the pain of others, furthering their “rehabilitation,” speaking truth in a world of lies and bringing comfort to those who need it most.

Christmas is our annual reminder that we worship a God who “takes a bullet for us,” and we are called to do likewise for our families, our neighbors, our communities. It’s the war room for planning strategy before the battle resumes, the locker room at half-time, when our Commander/Coach fires us up to go back out and fight even harder in the second half.

For all of us, may this coming New Year be a time of courage and compassion—a renewal of mind and heart and spirit. May God’s unique call to each of us be heard above the din of the trite and the trivial. May we, as God’s paramedics and rehab therapists, become the healers he wants us to be.

 

Love,

 

Bill and Sharon