When Beta Reading Makes Your Writing *cough* Beta *cough*

I don’t do a whole lot of beta reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read. Also, when I read nowadays, it’s not without my back-brain saying things like ‘oooh, I like how they did that!’ and ‘yer, bet I could do it better’. But beta reading is different. If you enjoy it, that’s a plus; but you don’t want to be enjoying it so much that you let things slide because you liked the book as a whole. You get into the nitty-gritty and point out the tiny inconsistencies and mashed sentences. You argue with your writer friends about tenses, and old versus new spellings, not to mention Australian versus American spellings. You tend to be more ruthless, even to nit-pickyness. Something that you might glide over in a run-of-the-mill book you’ve picked up, you don’t glide over. And that’s how it should be. That’s what you want in return. But it is hard work.

Book pile

Besides the obvious benefits of beta reading (someone who reads your work in return, someone with whom to discuss the ins and outs of writing) is another, overlooked benefit. In my mind it’s probably the biggest benefit.

It’s the benefit of recognizing in your own work the very thing you picked at in your friends writing. Come on. You know what I mean. You’ve just highlighted that part of the MS you’re beta-reading: the niggle that keeps happening in their writing. You add a note to remind them that this is becoming a habit. You put aside the MS for the time being, exhausted with your efforts, and settle down to work on your own MS. And as you’re reading the last paragraph you wrote last night in order to refresh your memory, you realize that you’ve done that thing. That thing that you just highlighted a dozen times in the novel you’re beta-reading. You look at it in horror. Go over the last chapter. Find you’ve done it another half-dozen times. Shriek and pull out your hair. Go back to the start of the MS and find the time after time that you’ve done that thing that annoyed you so much in your friend’s book.

It’s annoying. It’s exhausting. But in the end, beta reading is so very worth it. It makes you look at your writing like an outsider again, and if you don’t want your readers being constantly annoyed by that thing, it’s an essential habit to cultivate. Don’t be afraid of the irritation: it’s all part of the process. And if you’ll take my advice, do some beta reading.

The Joy of Last Edits

I started re-editing one of my books this week. It’s a fairytale rewrite of Beauty and the Beast as a murder mystery, regency/steampunk style. I’m working on it with the view to having it published in February next year, and so far the edits have been reasonably simple to do, which means my timeline is thus far intact.

That, of course, has made me think about my editing process. The first thing I notice when editing is generally clumsy words or phrases, and the occasional cough spelling mistake, which can range from a two second fix to a half hour session of mulling over the best way to rearrange a sentence. Lately I’ve even become able to delete whole sentences and paragraphs without so much as a pang (well, sometimes just a small pang), which makes the whole process significantly easier.

Next I start noticing the characters. This usually manifests as a general feeling of unease every time I read a piece of dialogue spoken by the character, or a section of action that just doesn’t sit right for some reason. That sense of unease is almost invariably because the character isn’t behaving in character. The dialogue is too much like another, stronger character, and needs to be made over to match this character.

The first MS that I finished had to be completely rewritten because of character problems. The problem being, my character had no character. She was a cardboard piece, angry because I said she was angry, happy because I decreed it, and was entirely lacking in any quirks or memorable features. The side characters were no better. Once I figured out what the problem was (thanks in great part to Frances Hardinge, whose characters stand up and determinedly claw their way out of the book and into my life), I could start fixing it.

It wasn’t easy, that first book. There was trial and error, a lot of research (me reading a lot of my favourite authors), and many, many discoveries along the way. First, I decided exactly what I wanted my character to be. I decided what quirks she had, what things she did with her hands and feet when she talked/walked/sat/spoke, and the ways in which she reacted to stimuli in general. Then I went over every single bit of dialogue with a fine-tooth comb, cut most of it, rewrote the rest, and thought I could finally see her emerging from the bones of it. I rewrote her actions. I rewrote her thoughts. In fact, there isn’t much in that book that remains of the original bar the basic storyline and the character names.

My second book, (the one I’m re-editing now) was by comparison, much easier. The characters were fully formed as I wrote, and I had all the tricks and methods I’d learned with the first. This time I knew just how to create an idea of a character in a few lines of dialogue, or a short paragraph of action. This has made the editing process a much smoother affair. There are still things I have to change, of course: I still occasionally come across a line of dialogue that sounds more like another character than the one it should, and I still occasionally come across a speech tag or reaction that doesn’t fit with the idea I’m trying to portray of a character. In fact, I rearranged a whole page of dialogue/action just yesterday. It’s a work in progress, this writing business.

The last read-through is generally the one where I catch all the plot/continuity issues that I’ve missed in the preceding read-throughs. Other than that, I try to leave it as it is. There’s always some little niggle that I catch every time I read one of my books again, and it’s hard to know when to let it go if I keep re-reading. So I stop. I let it go (let it gooooooooo- wait, no) and hand it over to my sister or my writing group.

And that’s when the fun really starts.

Milestones

Milestones are a big part of a writer’s life. From the first short story or novel that we finish to the first book signing or reading we give, life seems to be measured in tiny increments of success. I still remember the first novel I ever completed. It’s almost entirely rubbish and needs to be extensively rewritten, of course, but at the time it was a massive achievement for a fourteen-year-old writer who had never completed a manuscript.

Then there’s the first successful short story I ever wrote. The first time someone was excited to read something else I’d written because they enjoyed the first Thing. The first full ms request from a publisher. The first personalised rejection from a publisher (well, actually gutting rather than good, but it was no form rejection).

My first paperback sale felt amazing. Yes, it was someone I knew, but it was the first. And the other day, my first reply from a book reviewer, who said that A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend sounded interesting, and that she’d added it to her list.

Today, my milestone is the 1000th visitor to my blog. 6 months, and 1000 visitors.

stats

Bloggers out there, you know what it’s like. Even if you’re a mastodon, you were once a pygmy like me, delighting in that 1000th visitor. It feels good, doesn’t it?

Milestones aren’t the be-all and end-all of a writer’s life, but they are a lovely reminder that life isn’t entirely always slog. Sometimes you actually get somewhere. And that keeps you slogging on until the next milestone.

The Most Comfortable Chair In The Room

Jane Austen wrote at a small walnut table set close to a window for the best light. Pen and ink, of course. Diana Wynne Jones started first draft in ‘the most comfortable chair I can find in the sitting room, in everyone’s way’, and went on to the second draft in her study. Truman Capote supposedly wrote lying down, with a pencil in one hand, and a glass of sherry in the other. Flannery O’Connor would write facing the blank wood of her dresser so as not to be distracted.

I’ve talked a bit about styles of writing, and a bit more about process in writing. Today I want to talk about where to write.

I have an actual writing room. It has a desk with drawers down one side and a bookshelf on the other, and is surmounted by a green bankers lamp, a big fake book of Lord of the Rings (the real one is in the bookshelf), and a couple of knick-knacks. You don’t have to imagine what it looks like because I have a picture of it in the header of my blog.

Now that you’re back after scrolling up to see, would you like to know where I write?

If you guessed in my writing room, at my desk, you’d be wrong. Well, you’d be wrong about 95% of the time. Sometimes I do actually write at my writing desk. It has a planning board and everything, where I pin up all the tiny notes I write myself when I can’t get to a computer, and the reminders that I write myself as I’m revising- for example, notes to remember to tie off this loose end, or that character’s story.

Unfortunately, my study rarely remains clean for more than a week at a time. When it’s messy, there is literally no room for me to sit at the desk with my laptop, since every conceivable place is taken up with piles of stuff. When it’s neat, I sit tapping my fingers on the desktop, unsure where to start in all this sparkling cleanliness and afraid to mess it up by moving.

So where do I work? The most comfortable chair in the house (a recliner) at the centre of the living room. I can see out the front window to where the tiny birds with blue tails chip at each other. I can see the telly. I can see if anyone comes up to the front door. I am not able to see the washing up that hasn’t been done, and the dog is in view (when she’s not, it means trouble). For some reason, I need all this to be able to do my best work. If the cricket is on, so much the better. I do not use pen and ink. Well, not seriously; not when I’m on a roll. When I’m on a roll, I can barely keep up typing at 80 WPM.

Obviously, I am not Jane Austen.

I can write in most places, but that’s my favourite place. What about you guys? Where do you write? Do you have to be in a certain place? Does it matter? Let me know.