But seriously, folks…

Maybe I ought to take my writing more seriously. I mean, I care about my characters, and I certainly care about writing as well as I can, but I seldom devote a moment’s thought to the notion that the story I’m telling has any deep significance. Still less do I imagine or hope that it will have any impact on the world at large.

I started asking myself this question as a result of some random reading I’ve been doing lately. It started with a biography of composer Lou Harrison. Harrison’s passion for music and his commitment to it are inspiring, and they’re very unlike anything I experience as a part of my own artistic processes.

And then I brought home from the library a few books of essays. Judith Thurman, whom I had never heard of, writes for The New Yorker. Her collection Cleopatra’s Nose opens with a study of performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, whom I had never heard of either. Beecroft has apparently fashioned a successful career out of doing very strange things, some of which are photographed. It’s hard to imagine that, anywhere but in the hothouse art world of New York, Beecroft would be seen as anything but a crank — possibly a harmless crank, or possibly not harmless.

And then there’s Allen Ginsberg’s long exegesis of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’ve only read a few pages so far; I may get back to it. The point is, Ginsberg takes Whitman seriously. He traces connections between Whitman’s poetry and the deepest pools of the human soul, if you believe in a soul, or of human experience if you don’t.

What all of these artists have in common is New York. (Harrison was a Californian, but as a young man he spent a few years in New York, where he made important contacts and had a nervous breakdown.) I suppose New York must rub off on you. I’ve never been there. I can imagine young artists in New York thinking, implicitly or perhaps explicitly, “I’m in The Place, and I’m doing The Thing.” Anywhere else, and especially in the wilds of suburbia, the best one is likely to do is, “I’m in a place, and I’m doing a thing.” Indefinite articles, no caps.

What would it be like, to take one’s novel-in-progress with that level of seriousness? Would I sit hunched over the word processor far into the night, huddled in a pool of lamplight while the raccoons prowl in the yard outside my window? Would my characters be more eloquent, or more strange, or more obsessed with their own strangeness? Do I dare to eat a peach?

It’s a delicate question. One doesn’t want the novel to be sucked into its own navel and disappear. It’s just a story, after all. People have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years. Why should I imagine that mine be worthy of any particular note — and would I be making a mistake by thinking that it might be, or that I could steer it in that direction?

A steer is a castrated bull. Maybe trying to steer would be asking for trouble.

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Believing Is Seeing

On some level or other, a work of fiction has to be believable. Readers will happily cut the writer some slack: They want to believe that the story they’re reading is real — that it could have happened to real people, exactly as described. Perhaps the laws of physics or biology would have to be fudged a little, but readers will go along with that. Alice talking to a caterpillar, and the caterpillar is smoking a hookah? No problem. As a character, however, Alice is believable. She’s a perfectly sensible girl, and she’s doing the best she can (including being polite) in bizarre circumstances.

Once it has been established that the circumstances themselves are bizarre, anything goes. The reader has, in the modern phrase, buy-in. The reader is not going to go along with the bit about the rabbit with the pocket-watch and then object strenuously that playing croquet using flamingos as mallets is not believable.

If the scenario itself is more realistic, the author has to do more work to make it believable. That difficulty is what I’ve been pondering this week. Allow me to explain.

One of the three chief villains in the epic fantasy I’m working on is the high priest and hereditary ruler of a theocratic state. For various reasons, not least among them the fact that I wanted a spectacular setting for the climax of Book 3, this young man has moved out of a comfy mansion in the city in favor of his ancestors’ castle in the nearby hills. Living in the castle with his lady friend (they’re not married, and I’m not sure why they’re not — they just aren’t), he issues cruel decrees and stirs up assorted mischief.

This all makes perfect sense. But as I dug deeper into the rewriting, a disturbing question forced itself upon me: Where are the courtiers? The young man and his lady friend seem to be living in the castle much as if they were 21st century Americans living in suburbia. With servants, of course, but even so, they seem to dwell quite alone in this large, drafty castle. Yet he’s the head of state, ruling over a nation of somewhere between half a million and two million people.

Where are the sycophants? The social climbers? The toadies? The schemers? The pompous, self-important advisors? Dang — I need to add them. And this is a problem, for a couple of reasons. First, Book 3 is already jam-packed with characters. It’s entirely long enough and complex enough as it is; I’m nervous about trying to stuff half a dozen courtiers into it. Second, and even more vexing, in several key scenes having courtiers underfoot is going to wreak havoc with the plot. Clear back in Book 1, this young man flies off to a distant city (in a wizard-powered aerosphere, I should perhaps explain — a small passenger craft) by himself. On arriving in the distant city he stirs up some serious mischief. Hires an ogre to kill the heroine, that kind of thing.

In the present draft, he makes this trip alone. If I add a couple of fawning courtiers, that segment of the plot is going to be a mess.

In Book 3, his lady friend meets and befriends one of the good guys (not knowing that she has now opened the door to a spy). If she’s accompanied by an entourage, the encounter becomes really very difficult to envision. Their chance meeting has, really, too much of a modern American flavor to it. (It happens in a dress shop, if you must know.) There’s too much circumstance in the encounter, and not enough pomp.

The key question for the author, then, is this: Are readers going to object to the rather glaring absence of courtiers? Or can I get away with it?

Well, no, the question is actually worse than that. Due to circumstances beyond our control, once the lady friend dies (gruesomely, of course), the spy needs an excuse to keep hanging around the castle. The spy — one of my three teenage girl heroines — has to be in the castle at the climax of the story. But once her patroness has died, she can’t just hide in a cupboard; that would be cutting myself way too much slack. She needs an ally among the courtiers in order to stay positioned correctly for the thrilling uproar that is about to unfold.

I’m obsessive about realism. I want it all to be believable — to make sense. I’m pretty sure a lot of authors just ride roughshod over this kind of problem, but that’s not me. I want to get it right.

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Tow, Don’t Shell

The advice given to aspiring authors, these days, is, “Show, don’t tell.” Examine the stories submitted to a hundred local critique groups across the country and you’ll find the notation “SDT” jotted freely in many a margin.

At its worst, this tic can lead a writer to spin out pages of what in the trades is called “as you know, Bob” dialog — a pseudo-conversation in which one character tells another things that they both know perfectly well, or that aren’t actually important to them at that time but that the reader needs to know. Don’t do that, kids. If you need to tell your readers something in order for the story to make sense, just go ahead and tell them, for Pete’s sake!

Not long ago I thought I’d try reading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which I had picked up at a used book sale and tossed on the shelf a year or two ago, knowing it was a classic but not being immediately drawn to it. Published in 1920, it was a best-seller; it was initially awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (though the prize actually went to Edith Wharton, as the Board of Trustees overruled the jury — high drama on the literary front).

The first chapter of Main Street is almost entirely telling, not showing. Of the ten pages of the chapter, about a page and a half are devoted to showing two brief scenes; the other eight-plus pages are pure telling. Colorful telling, to be sure — and arguably the opening two paragraphs are about a 50/50 mix of showing and telling. Nonetheless, it’s clear that nobody ever told Sinclair Lewis to “show, don’t tell.” And we’re all better off for it.

If we go back to the 19th century, we find Balzac beginning Lost Illusions (1843) with several dense pages describing a provincial print shop. Dickens begins Nicholas Nickleby (1839) with three hefty pages of telling before he introduces a one-page scene.

Turning to today’s action-oriented fantasy novels, on the other hand, we find showing in full flower from the very start. Here’s the opening sentence of The Demon King, by Cinda Williams Chima:

Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.

The first brief paragraph of Garth Nix’s Sabriel sets a scene of falling rain. The second paragraph begins like this:

The midwife shrugged her cloak higher up against her neck and bent over the woman again, raindrops spilling from her nose onto the upturned face below. The midwife’s breath blew out in a cloud of white, but there was no answering billow of air from her patient.

There you go — birth and death, all at once. Something has changed in the literary arts over the past century.

The influence of Hemingway would be hard to dismiss. Here’s the opening of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940):

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

Immediately we’re thrust into the middle of the scene. Hemingway doesn’t even pause the action long enough to tell us the name of his viewpoint character for three full pages.

The importance of showing rather than telling was partly, I’m sure, a reaction to the novels of the previous generation — the abstract and punctilious wordiness of Henry James, for example. Hemingway would probably have agreed with the poet William Carlos Williams, who famously said, “No ideas but in things.” The practice of telling was not, to be sure, absolute in the days before Hemingway. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) begins with a conversation between two men; the telling is delayed until Chapter 2. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) begins with a fully developed conversation.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that telling has fallen far into disfavor. A more important factor pushing literature toward showing may have been the arrival of movies and then television. Suddenly audiences were being barraged with drama, drama, and more drama, all of it shown rather than told. The introductory narrations used in first-generation TV drama by Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock are gone. It’s all action, all the time, and preferably with things exploding.

I can’t help feeling that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, if only by a few inches. Maybe we don’t have to shell the reader with the artillery of our words. Maybe we can tow them along the canal of the story more gently, pausing now and again to let the mules rest while we watch a heron stalking long-legged among the reeds.

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The Story Doctor Is IN

Not long ago I spent $5,000 hiring a freelance developmental editor to critique my soon-to-be-published epic fantasy series. It was money well spent, but that’s a hefty chunk of change. I’m sure there are many aspiring authors who would appreciate some help, but don’t have that kind of money to spend.

Also, I know darn well that there are plenty of aspiring authors who need help, whether they know it or not. Once in a while I stroll over to Amazon and use the Look Inside feature to take a gander at the first few pages of a few self-published fantasy or science fiction novels. Every kind of story problem you can imagine, and some you may never have imagined, is well represented there. Gruesomely bad books are being uploaded every week by authors who have completed a book (yay!) but apparently have no clue about how limited their skills are.

I’m thinking about rolling out an entirely new type of editorial service for aspiring authors: advisory editing. As an advisory editor, I would not do an in-depth job on your manuscript. What I would do, at a more modest cost than most other editors, would be to read your manuscript (full or partial, rough draft or already e-published) and offer suggestions about where you might want to focus your efforts so as to bring the manuscript up to a higher level.

With one author, I might say, “Your prose style is very good, but the story premise you’re using is shopworn. It was a current idea in the 1950s. Here’s a list of newer SF novels you could read that may suggest fresher ways of dealing with that concept.” With another author, I might say, “This is a terrific story premise, but your plot sags badly. For several chapters, there’s no forward movement. I suggest this how-to book on plot construction.” With yet another author, “Your grasp of grammar and punctuation is not up to speed. Your story is solid, but you need to hire a good copy-editor.” Or perhaps, “Your grammar and punctuation are very tidy, but your shifts in narrative tone and narrative distance are distracting. Here’s a how-to book that will help with that.” Or perhaps, “You need to spend more time thinking about the emotions of your characters. They seem flat and uninvolved in their own drama.” Or, “Your dialog is stilted and unconvincing, and your use of dialog tags is not what most people regard as smooth or effective.” Or, “You seem to be trying to tell two entirely different stories, and they’re fighting with one another. Maybe you have two books here, not just one.”

Naturally, each of these suggestions would be accompanied by a few specific examples of passages in the manuscript where the writer I’m working with could benefit from giving more attention to that particular element.

Brainstorming is another area where some (or many) authors could benefit from the services of an advisory editor. Show me the half-finished manuscript in which you’ve gotten stuck, or toss a few story ideas at me. I’ll ask questions — the same kinds of questions I would ask myself if I were writing your story. Together, we’ll see if we can’t get your story moving forward.

I don’t know how much I would want to charge for this service. Every project might be a bit different. Maybe start with a $100 advance payment for three hours of work, and after that you could decide whether to continue. The point of offering this service would be to help authors move forward without having to spend huge amounts of money, and to help them pinpoint the weaknesses in their work so that they can move forward efficiently and economically, without having to thrash around and perhaps waste money hiring an editor who offers the wrong type of services for their particular needs.

In case this blog post turns into a promo piece for my services, perhaps I should mention my qualifications. I’ve had two paperback originals published by mainstream New York houses, many years ago (Walk the Moons Road by Del Rey and The Wall at the Edge of the World by Ace — both are long out of print). My stories have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and other magazines. I spent 25 years as a staff writer and editor at Keyboard, where I wrote innumerable nonfiction articles on music technology and also served as the in-house copy-editor. After leaving Keyboard in 2002 I wrote several nonfiction books, also on music stuff and still available from Hal Leonard Publishing and Cengage Learning. I was the series editor for a while for Backbeat Books’ Power Tools music technology series; I also edited a couple of music books for Peachpit Press. It’s a varied resume, but I think you can safely assume I didn’t just crawl out of the woodwork. Also, I have a shelf of how-to-write-fiction books that, if stacked up, would be taller than I am.

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Recently a fellow who had strolled into our Facebook writers’ group was talking up his obsession with original ideas. This is a group of fantasy and science fiction writers, and of course fresh ideas are the meat and potatoes of those genres. But how many ideas are really original? Darn few of them. In truth, most of us are recycling ideas that are decades or centuries old, giving them a fresh twist or two, and sending them off into the world with our own name on the cover.

This is not a cause for outrage, despondency, or chagrin. Thousands of talented people have been laboring in the field of imaginative fiction for decades. In the process, they have unearthed, developed, and possibly bludgeoned to death most of the ideas that will actually support a novel-length work of fiction. If you have an idea that will give birth to a novel, somebody has had that idea before you. Trust me on this.

The ideas that have never been seen on the shelves of a bookstore are, almost entirely, those that are so far out on the fringe that they won’t work. Once in a great while, a genuinely new idea comes along and proves fruitful. But it’s rare.

What matters, as several of us pointed out to this fellow, is not how original or exotic your ideas are, but how you develop them into a story. It’s the development process that sets your tale of King Arthur apart from other people’s tales of King Arthur.

I like to say that originality is both impossible and inevitable. It’s impossible because, during the entire course of your literary career, you may have one or two truly original ideas. It’s inevitable because the insights and limitations you will bring to your exploration of that idea are unlike anybody else’s insights and limitations. You can’t help being original, because you’re you.

I don’t think we convinced him. He kept trotting out new ideas for our scrutiny. One was of an alien race that had eight sexes. This is truly an original idea, I’ll grant you that. But imagine the dating and mating difficulties if you have to find seven other compatible people in order to get it on! Then try to work out how such a species could possibly evolve. And that’s before we even get into the anatomy of the gozintas and gozoutas.

I started musing about originality tonight while dipping into an anthology called The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Volume One, subtitled Alchemy with Words. I must have bought it — it was sitting there on my shelf. I don’t think I’ve ever read it. In the first chapter, “Roots of Fantasy” by John Teehan, there’s a tidy list of five themes that are notable from the romances of King Arthur: the commoner who is really a king; an old wizard who guides the hero; an enchanted sword or other artifact of great magic; a quest for a relic with great powers; and diverse companions.

And wouldn’t you know it — all five are prominently featured in the fantasy epic I’m writing. The fellow in the Facebook group would probably shriek in horror on discovering such a thing and tear up his manuscript. Far from reacting that way, I’m encouraged and more confident. It’s clear I’m hitting the sweet spot. I’m doing something right.

The originality in my story lies entirely in how I’m doing it. I’m hoping to have Book 1 and Book 2 out by the end of the year, so you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

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Sing Me a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Some people in the Facebook writers’ group were touting Grammarly. I pooh-poohed the idea that it could be useful, but quickly realized that I was talking through my hat. I didn’t actually know. The premium plan is $30 for a month, with a seven-day money-back offer. So trying it out is going to cost me nothing.

I’m pleased to report that I was right. Gruesome examples follow. Here’s a brief passage from Chapter 1 of my upcoming book:

They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away.

What’s amusing about Grammarly’s attempt to grasp this rather simple paragraph is that it flagged the second instance of the word “messenger,” but not the first instance. The second instance, according to Grammarly, is a “possibly confused word.” “The word ‘messenger,'” the software announces, “doesn’t seem to fit this context. Consider replacing it with a different one.” Since the first instance of the word passed muster — Grammarly accepted it without a qualm — I’d say this “error” qualifies for a WTF.

It soon becomes clear that “doesn’t seem to fit this context” is a catch-all message that should perhaps be understood as “the software’s comprehension algorithm just failed miserably.” At the beginning of Chapter 2, I have the sentence, “Tell Meery what the statue had said?” Grammarly thinks the word “statue” doesn’t seem to fit this context. A few paragraphs on, in a flashback, I mention how after Meery’s mother died, “the owner of the apartment building had slammed the door and turned Meery out to beg.” Grammarly thinks “beg” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “be.” Yowza.

Later in the chapter I mention that a man “looked strong enough to toss a horse over his shoulder and stride out the gate with it.” Grammarly thinks “stride” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “strode.” This is a complex software error. First, “stride” is in a parallel construction with “toss,” which makes the present tense mandatory (because it’s an infinitive). Second, on what basis would a verb tense error be flagged as “doesn’t seem to fit this context”? That makes no sense at all.

To be fair to Grammarly, it also picked up a word in Chapter 2 that I misused, though it had no idea how I misused it. It flagged “parry” with the same message (suggesting “party,” believe it or not). When I looked it up, I discovered that a parry is a defensive maneuver, which is not what I was describing. This earns Grammarly half a point!

Grammarly regularly flags passive voice verbs — but of course there’s actually nothing wrong with an occasional passive voice verb, so this is an example of the software acting like your seventh-grade English teacher. Once in a while it hits something that isn’t actually a passive verb at all, as in this sentence: “We are educated people, not elves of the forest.” Do you see the problem? It snagged on “are educated,” but it wasn’t capable of noticing that “people” is a predicate nominative being modified by “educated.”

Here’s a weird goof. I have a brief passage of internal monologue in which the paragraph ends like this: “(No, just a coincidence. Don’t think about it. But….)” Grammarly thinks that that’s an unnecessary ellipsis. “The ellipsis in your sentence may not be necessary. Consider removing it.” But … if there’s no ellipsis, we’ll have a one-word sentence: “But.” Quite aside from the fact that the ellipsis is meaningful in context, would Grammarly prefer that one-word sentence? Evidently it would. When I delete the ellipsis, Grammarly goes through the file again and doesn’t flag anything there.

The elf looks at the injured horse and says, “This horse. Its leg.” The elf is not a native speaker of the language they’re using, so his speeches trip up Grammarly elsewhere — no point belaboring the software over that. But here, Grammarly specifically suggests “It’s”. Whaaat? Okay, I guess that would be, technically, a complete sentence in pidgin: It is leg. So maybe I shouldn’t slam Grammarly over its mistake, even though it’s specifically recommending the wrong form, which would add a commonly made mistake to the text.

Here and there it suggests adding an optional comma where I didn’t want one, and then, a few sentences later, suggests deleting one where I had used one. I should write a whole post about optional commas. Once in a while, its comma advice is even worse. Consider this sentence: “Only after she said it did she realize that both she and the elf had spoken Sa’aknan, not Garathian.” Grammarly recommended putting a comma after “said,” which would be 100% dead wrong.

Here’s another Grammarly punctuation booboo. My sentence is, “The afternoon was warm but not too warm, the sky scoured blue by a fresh breeze.” Grammarly wants to change that comma to a semicolon, which of course would be wrong, because the second clause has an implied “was” that’s left over from the first clause. Possibly Grammarly thinks “scoured” is an active verb whose subject is “sky” — but “scoured” is a transitive verb. Does it think “blue” is a thing that the sky scoured? Let’s hope not.

And check this out. My sentence begins thusly: “When the sheets were hung and the empty baskets set back against the wall, Meery grabbed and hefted a heavy stick….” Grammarly wants to see a comma after “hung.” It thinks “and” is “the coordinating conjunction … in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence containing two independent clauses, a “were” would be required before “set back.” In fact, this is a parallel construction (again, the elided copula, and if you don’t know what an elided copula is, you can look it up) in a subordinate clause (“When the sheets … and the empty baskets…”).

Something similar happens again here: A man says, “I reckon the lad and I can manage today,” and Grammarly wants to put a comma after “lad,” because it thinks the “and” is “the coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence, the first clause would be, “I reckon the lad.” Does anybody here think “reckon” is a transitive verb that can take a simple noun as an object? No, “reckon” requires an entire clause as its object. Here, that clause (“I can manage…”) happens to have a compound subject. So again, Grammarly is just plain wrong.

Grammarly thinks highly of and consistently recommends what Fowler calls elegant variation, the needless and indeed confusing use of synonyms and alternative phrases when a simple repetition is all that’s needed. In fiction one quite commonly wants to repeat a word because that word is the subject of the fucking paragraph! But Grammarly doesn’t care for it. In the opening paragraph of Chapter 2, Kyura and Meery are hanging wet sheets on the clothesline, and the word “sheets” is used twice. The second time, Grammarly recommends “using a synonym in its place.” The suggested substitute is “leaves.”

Pathetic, really.

Oh, and I love this. In one sentence Grammarly objects to the word “large” on the grounds that it’s a “weak adjective.” The software suggests replacing “very large” with “huge” or “tremendous.” In itself this isn’t bad advice, it’s just wrong for the tone of this particular bit of dialog. But later in the scene I describe a minor character as “a massive, sleepy fellow.” Here, Grammarly suggests “that the noun ‘fellow’ might combine better with an adjective other than ‘massive.'” And what word does it suggest replacing “massive” with? You guessed it: “large.”

I typed out the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and fed it to Grammarly. It’s a short chapter, but Grammarly found 17 places where Hemingway ought to have used a comma. Using commas would have weakened his writing, of course, but Grammarly doesn’t know anything about strong or effective writing. Grammarly did, however, spot the fact that I had plagiarized the entire thing, which tells me the app connects to an online database.

Next I copied the opening of a self-published book (not my own) from Kindle and tossed Grammarly the raw meat. When not fussing about commas or whining about duplicated words, Grammarly managed to make a mistake that would destroy just about the only good sentence in the whole passage. The sentence: “The Chairman of the Conclave spoke, soft as a snake’s slither.” Grammarly wanted to change “snake’s” to “snakes”! Never mind that that would have made the “a” wrong and also made hash of the sentence.

A couple of paragraphs down, the writer had the sentence, “He pointed a finger at the young man.” Grammarly thought “pointed the finger at” would be better. This was described as “wrong article with set expression.” That is, Grammarly thought this was a standard metaphor, when in fact it’s a literal expression of what the other character in the scene is physically doing. That’s the essence of the problem, right there: Grammarly is not reading the text. Software can’t do that — not today or tomorrow, and maybe not ever. It’s applying a set of fixed rules. If the rules are misguided, misapplied, or even nonsensical in a given context, Grammarly does not know it. And if you’re relying on software to check your grammar, you probably don’t know it either. In order to take advantage of its occasional useful suggestions, you have to be able to separate the sheep from the goats. But if you know how to do that, you don’t need the software.

As a final, acid test, I wrote a deliberately bad paragraph for Grammarly to fuss with. To be fair, it did find many of the errors I had created. I then used its editing interface to change the sentences. I found ways to make the sentences even worse without tripping any of Grammarly’s sensors. That is, I cheated. In the end I had a truly awful paragraph that Grammarly rated as 100% good. Here it is:

It was David’s birthday, a day to celebrate about him. David’s grandmother gives for him the blue and large telescope. Looking through the telescopes at the stars were much bigger and bright than ever while David is looking them. Before the telescope is his own; David could not see much about the stars at all. He hugs of grandma. Separated from his new shiny toy sadness and emotions filled David’s listless joyful and feelings. It was a more exotic gift he never was gotten. Can five telescopes too many?

If you write like this (and I’m sure you don’t — just saying), Grammarly won’t help you at all. In the end, Grammarly gets half a point for prodding me to look up “parry.” Other than that, its advice turns out to be consistently bad.

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Beta & Switch

As I near the finish line with my fantasy epic, I’ve posted requests for beta-readers. I have now sent out Book 1 to several readers, and have received a round of responses from people who actually sat down and read the silly thing.

They’ve made a few good suggestions, and basically they’re being very complimentary. They like it — yay!

Sadly, this silver lining has a cloud. These readers are themselves writers, having in most cases produced self-published novels of one sort or another. So I figured, what the hell, the least I can do is buy their books to repay them for their hard work in volunteering to read mine. Scoot over to Amazon, download a few novels to the Kindle app. Mission accomplished.

I’m not going to name names, because one or another of these people might stumble upon this blog, and it would be hideous to repay their support and enthusiasm by ripping holes in their egos. But after slogging my way through Chapter 1 of a novel by one of my readers, I’m compelled to wonder whether the whole idea of beta-reading is a mistake. What’s the point of having someone compliment you on your writing or your characters if they’re not actually writing at anything like a professional level? If my writing were bad (it’s not — I’m just saying…), how would such a reader know? Can I trust their judgment? Clearly not.

If they make specific inept suggestions, I can easily breeze past the suggestion and move on. What concerns me is the big picture. Well, that and the medium-sized picture. The opening chapter that I read this evening was written with no conception of tone or mechanics, no conception of how to ground the reader in the scene, and no conception of how an opening chapter ought to get the plot in gear. If I were making any of these mistakes, it’s clear that this particular reader wouldn’t notice.

I think I’m probably going to scrap the whole beta-reading process. I could certainly use good solid feedback on what I could improve, and in fact earlier this year I paid a professional editor several thousand dollars for exactly that sort of feedback. It was money moderately well spent.

Hiring another editor at this point, though, strikes me as not really very cost-effective. I think I’ll just publish the damn thing, warts and all. The nice thing about electronic publishing is that if I get feedback from readers who bought the books after they were published, I can make a few changes and do a 1.1 release.

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