Challenge Yourself: You Don’t Know What You Can Achieve

It’s the first Wednesday of the Month which means it’s officially Insecure Writers Support Group Day. Thank you, Alex J Cavanaugh, and thank you our Rocking co-hosts for the March 7  posting of the IWSG: Mary Aalgaard, Bish Denham, Jennifer Hawes, Diane Burton, and Gwen Gardner.

Several weeks ago I found this compilation of “11 Quotes for facing your fears” on www.Dictionary.com. They are still on the website as of this morning. There are some good quotes and I  wrote a few of them down and have them hanging beside my computer. I like to read them from time to time. One of my favorites is:

“Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you can’t begin to explore your possibilities.” – Tim Fargo.

Fargo has written some business books which I’m fairly sure I will never purchase or read. I do love this quote and little things like that can inspire me when I begin to feel like throwing all my writing out of the window like Harper Lee did with her manuscript for “To Kill a Mocking Bird” except without the snow. While I was browsing through the quotes, I  recognized many of the names to which the quotes were attributed. There was another quote I want to share.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”—Natalie Goldberg

The quote and the name sounded familiar and I realized she is the author of “Writing Down the Bone: Freeing the Writer Within.” This book was published in 1986 and I read it when I was writing my first novel and really enjoyed it.

I looked at the quote and thought that was a tall order. I use my emotional experiences as a source to draw on when writing fiction. Several days later I found myself writing a poem about my very deepest pain. I’m not a poet. I haven’t written a poem, or rather I haven’t tried to write a poem since I was in junior high. That was a long time ago. I think there were still dinosaurs roaming the Earth at that time.

I poured so much of myself and my pain into that poem, but I used a lot of symbolism. I still can’t believe I did this, but I entered the poem in a poetry contest. The only person who came close to understanding what the poem was about was the person judging the contest.

It wasn’t a free verse poem but it didn’t really follow any of the standard forms of metered quatrains. The judge wrote that she could feel all the emotion in my poem.

I won third place.

I crossed the bridge and I explored my possibilities. I also feel like I allowed myself to be split open. I exposed myself even though it was in an allusive manner.

I cried a bucket of tears. I crossed another bridge. I achieved exploring another possibility.

 

If you would like to read more blog posts from the IWSG, you can find links to their posts at the bottom of the page after clicking this link.

Insecure Writers Support Group

 

 

 

A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 3

I apologize for taking so long to get to part 3. Part 4 will be posted by Jan.30th or sooner.

In 1917 The Inland Press printed “Mark Twain’s 3 Rules For Writing.” The article said the first was write. The second was write and the third was write. One of the most well-known quotes on writing by Stephen King is this one. “If you want to be a good writer you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.”

This is good advice and a great foundation but it is practically impossible to become a great writer in a vacuum. At some point, we all need feedback on our writing because it’s difficult to look at our own work objectively.

Too many times I have read writers lamenting the difficulty of getting thorough, in-depth, thoughtful, and helpful reviews. Many of these writers send out copies of their manuscript to anyone that says they’ll take a look at it and the only direction they give to the potential critiquer is ‘tell me what you think of this.’ With this approach, 99.99% of the time they will be disappointed. If the percentage is lower than that, they just got damn lucky and they should take note of anyone that didn’t disappoint them for future reference.

I agree that it is difficult to get good critiques but it’s much easier if the writer accepts their share of the responsibility in this process and does the work required. The three primary tasks for the writer are:

  1. Finding the correct people to be your alpha readers, beta readers, and advanced readers that are willing to dedicate some of their time and energy to help.
  2. Letting these readers know specifically what feedback you would like from them with a mutually agreeable timetable. The feedback will change some at each stage in the process.
  3. Reciprocity is the typical currency between writers but some of your critiquers will not be writers. Small gifts for your alpha or beta readers are appropriate and not prohibited as long as the gifts are not dependent on them posting reviews. I’ll discuss advance readers in a later post.

 

In my last post, I listed the most popular points in the writing process for writers to seek critiques. The first one is early in the writing process before doing a line edit. Some writers do this with their first draft but I recommend doing at least one rewrite before getting your first readers or alpha readers. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on punctuation errors, typos, misspellings, etc. but you do want the draft you send to be intelligible. If it is difficult for your alpha readers to understand your writing, you will lose them.

The next step is to find 3-5 alpha readers that you know will give you thorough and helpful critiques. That number is just my suggestion. Some writers use more and some less. If you are lucky enough to know 3-5 thorough critiquers that will agree to be your alpha readers, cherish them and treat them well. If you don’t, then your search for alpha readers begins. Below is a list of recommended do’s and don’t’s and steps to take in your search. This list is very detailed and meant for writers that are new to the process so J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, you can stop reading at this point.

  1. Many new writers ask their close friends to be alpha readers. They are not likely to give you thorough and helpful reviews. If you don’t believe me, test it. When they come back and tell you it was wonderful, be thankful you have friends that didn’t want to hurt your feelings and move on.
  2. Family members are also not recommended. If your relationship is good, the result is the same as in #1. If the relationship is not so good, they are likely to shred you. That’s not useful.
  3. Join a few critique groups in your book’s genre or websites that have critique groups in several genres and get to know the members and their critiquing styles. Get involved and if you’ve never performed critiques, now is a good time to learn. You will be amazed at how much you learn about writing through critiquing. I recommend doing this well before you get to the point of needing alpha or beta readers. If you didn’t plan ahead, take this time to rewrite, edit and polish your first chapter. Then put your manuscript away and start working on your next project. Get involved with these groups, get to know the members, and learn and/or practice critiquing.
  4. After at least a month to six weeks (Don’t blow a gasket! The world is not going to end because you waited a few more weeks to start getting feedback on your manuscript. Well…it MIGHT end but it won’t have anything to do with you waiting and this time is well worth the investment. Having put your manuscript away and being focused on other things will also give you a fresh perspective on your novel.) you should be more familiar with the members. You should also have learned a lot about critiquing and understand how much work and time are involved. Hopefully, you will have begun to discover a new perspective on writing. Now you’re ready to take the next step.
  5. Now you’re ready to ask for people to critique your first chapter in each of the groups. Ideally, you would like to get as many people to volunteer as you can. One of the reasons for having them just critique your first chapter is so you can get these critiques back fairly quickly. Agree on a timetable and let them know that you have specific concerns that you would like them to assess and you will email that list to them with the first chapter. Also, let them know that you’re interested in any other suggestions or comments that they have.

Before I go to next step I want to point out why you only want to send the first chapter. You want to get these reviews back quickly so you will have the information you need to choose your 3-5 alpha readers. You will hopefully be able to assess which of the critiquers give the most thorough and helpful feedback and which ones stick to the agreed-upon timetable. The latter is not nearly as important as the former but it is important.

The second reason for only sending out just the first chapter is that once your little band of alpha readers has reviewed your entire manuscript you’re going to rewrite the novel. You are probably going to cut, add, shred and possibly stand on your head. And when you’re finished with the pulling out hair and gnashing of teeth, you are going to need beta readers that have never seen the original form of your manuscript. You want fresh eyes and you may want to get some volunteers from the groups to which you belong. Let’s face it. No one wants to read the same book again just after they finished it. Not voluntarily…for free! Now back to getting your first chapter critiqued.

  1. When you email your revised, rewritten, spit-polished, and edited chapter 1, in the agreed upon format (typically pdf), you want to attach it to an email thanking your reader for their time and agreeing to help you. Reiterate that you are including a list of specific concerns that you have but this list is not meant to be restrictive. Any and all feedback, suggestions, and comments are appreciated. Here is my suggested list of topics/questions for first chapters:

 

  • Hook – Does the opening have something that keeps the reader from putting the book down? If so, is it introduced quickly enough?
  • Characters – Are they well rounded? Is the Main Character likable, sympathetic, or do they inspire respect? Are there enough facets of the character revealed to give them depth and give the reader a clear picture of who they are?
  • Plot – Do you think the first chapter gives the reader a clear picture of the primary conflict or at least a good idea of what it is? Can you detect foreshadowing of the conflict to come? Too much? Too little? Does it cross the boundaries into telegraphing?
  • Pace – Does the story feel like it’s going somewhere? Is the story moving too fast or too slowly?
  • Language and voice – Did you “feel” the story? Is the narrative clear?
  • Setting – Is the reader grounded in real scenes? Is there sufficient description of the setting? Is there too much?
  • Themes – Is the theme apparent at this point in the story? Is it original? Appropriate for the times? Or some astounding new philosophy that can change the reader’s perspectives?

 

These questions can be adjusted based on your manuscript but you do want to include all 7 topics. Now you can send off your first chapter and you should get a lot of helpful feedback on this chapter along with the information I mentioned earlier. While you’re waiting for your critiques, go back to working on your next project and leave your critiquers alone.

 

In Part 4 I’ll discuss chapter 1 critiques, the 4 types of critiquers, the hunt for the elusive alpha reader, suggested questions for the successfully captured alpha readers when reviewing your manuscript, and other such fun things guaranteed to cure insomnia. Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Your comments, suggestions, and feedback are always welcome.

Thanks to everyone that read, liked, commented on, and reblogged parts 1 and 2.  I deeply appreciate it. Thank you, KC Redding-Gonzalez for posting the link to your Horror/Dark Fiction/Poetry critique group in the comments on Part 2. If anyone else would like to share links to critique groups they like, please feel free to post them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 2

Who decides if a book is good? I’ll give you 3 guesses and the first two don’t count. I’m certain you don’t need 3 guesses. Just in case you’re exhausted, running a high fever and the walls are talking to you, or you just woke up from surgery and you’re still groggy from the anesthesia, I’ll go ahead and say it very clearly. The readers. The readers ultimately make that decision.

You can write that first book that you think is great. You can market the hell out of it. You can learn all the tricks to get that book to top ranking on Amazon and you can even use all the ways to manipulate that book to the NYT Bestseller list. In the end, if readers that love the genre(s) of your book don’t like your book, that may be the only one you ever sell.

What does any of this have to do with getting and giving critiques, reviews, and feedback?  Absolutely everything. Identifying your target audience is the first step in getting and giving critiques that have real value. These are the people whose opinions matter.

In this post on review and critiques, I am primarily referring to those performed before publication. The value I’m  speaking of is the quality of the feedback in helping you improve your craft and your book.

Once you have identified your target audience, the next step is to identify individuals within the target audience that like or write books that are similar to your book. This is the pool of people you want to recruit from for critiques and reviews. To identify these people join some reading and writing groups in that genre if you don’t already belong to some.

There are no local groups available to some writers but there are plenty of reading and writing groups available on the internet. You may want to join some internet groups even if you are in local groups. Granted, some groups are better than others and some groups require membership fees. Those fees can vary greatly. Get to know the readers and/or writers in the groups. Look at what types of books within that genre individuals in the reading groups like most. Do the same with the writers.

Most importantly don’t join the groups just for this purpose. Be an active supportive member of these groups. You could enjoy it and learn a lot in the process.

There are also beta reader groups and reviewer groups. You do want to make sure that you get reviewers that love the type of writing you want to be critiqued or reviewed. I read and love a wide range of genres but there are a couple of genres I will not review for two reasons. First, I would rather poke myself in the eye with a needle than read a book in either of those genres. Second, I know I would be doing the writer a disservice because my bias would affect my review. Also, remember writer etiquette: Get a review, give a review.

There are at least 4 points in the writing and publishing process where a writer might want to seek  reviews or critiques:

  1. After the first or maybe the second draft, when the manuscript still has typos and grammar errors but the reviewer can still follow the plot and evaluate the other important aspects of the novel. This is done before any major time is spent performing line editing. Why waste time doing line editing of sections that may be cut or in need of major re-writes?
  2. The writer, at this point, has possibly done several rewrites and the manuscript has been polished and edited.
  3. Advance reader copies (ARCs) may be sent to advance readers when the writer thinks the book is almost ready for publishing.
  4. Reviews after publication.

 

In my next posts on critiques and reviews, I will discuss each of these types of reviews and how they differ. I’ll address what the writer can do to improve their chances of getting the feedback they need. I’ll also give some tips on how reviewers can provide helpful and useful reviews at the different stages.

I mentioned marketing earlier in my post and I in no way mean to diminish the importance of marketing. Before you spend countless hours and invest money in that marketing, it’s important that you at least have feedback from your targeted audience.

 

I do not claim to be an expert on this topic. I just want to share some of the things that I have learned. If you have thoughts on this topic, please feel free to share them in the comments. I’m interested in hearing any thoughts you might want to share.

 

 

A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 1

It’s the first Wednesday of the month and so it is once again time for the IWSG Blog Hop. I would like to thank Alex Cavanaugh and also the other members of this wonderful group for making this possible and for the support they provide. Special thanks to the co-hosts of the January 3, 2018, posting of the ISWG:  Tyrean Martinson, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Megan Morgan, Jennifer Lane, and Rachna Chhabria!

 

One of the most challenging steps for an insecure writer is putting your writing out there for reviews and critiques but it is also one of the best things you can do to help your growth as a writer. Conversely, giving reviews and critiques to other writers is also one of the best things you can do for your own writing skills. Giving reviews can help you develop your analytical skills and apply those skills to your own writing.

The most significant experience that helped me begin the process of overcoming the fear of putting my writing out into the world to be read, reviewed, critiqued, criticized, loved or hated was agreeing to be a beta reader for another writer. The writer was young and it was the first novel for this writer. I’m not sure if the writer was male or female so I’m just going to use the pronoun she for simplicity. She lived a half a world away but with the internet, I now know authors and writers all over the planet.

She was having trouble finding beta readers for her WIP (work in progress). I had no experience with being a beta reader at that time but I’m an avid reader, I’d written several novels, and I’d taken novel writing classes from successful authors. So, I thought, why not agree to read her book and I volunteered.  I also found several groups of beta readers and gave her the names and links to the groups. She ended up with about two dozen beta readers.

I received the manuscript and after reading the first two chapters, I wanted to jump out of a window of a very tall building for agreeing to do this. I slogged through 8 more chapters because I had made a commitment. At that point, I just gave up. I had read calculus textbooks that elicited more emotion. I tortured myself for days wondering how I was going to give her feedback on her novel without being a total jerk.

By putting myself in her shoes, trying to see the story through her eyes, and by assuming she wanted honest feedback on how to improve her work, I eventually found a method that worked in this case. I was thanked profusely for being the only beta reader that gave her useful feedback. I was told that the other beta readers that bothered to respond came back with responses like “looks good” or “sounds fine.”  Not being able to get useful and helpful reviews and critiques is an issue I’ve heard from a number of writers. I’ve decided to write a short series of posts regarding this issue.

This experience helped me to understand that I had to overcome some of my insecurities about putting my writing out there for reviews if I wanted to take another step in improving my writing.

 

Notes of interest:

Don’t forget to mark your calendar for the next IWSG Twitter Pitch Party – Thursday, January 18!
With hundreds of agents and publishers, this one will be ten times bigger than our first event.

To read blog posts from other members of The IWSG use this link because the HTML code doesn’t work on my site:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

 

NaNoWriMo

Otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. I’m sure that most of you have heard of it but November, every year, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Last I checked there were about 400,000 writers signed up this year.

Many have never written a novel and are using this as an incentive to finally achieve that goal. I applaud you for that. Even if you don’t hit the 50K word count mark, hopefully, you will see that you can achieve it and will be so addicted to writing by then you’ll keep going.

Many of the participants have done this before and know that the support and camaraderie will get you a long way toward achieving your goal. Many have done this and achieved 50K words all the time but being part of this group just inspires you. There are as many different reasons for signing up as there are writers who made the commitment.

I signed up to do this for the very first time. Then I got cold feet and was going to back out before I read a blog post by an author I know (by his writing and through FB) and after reflecting on the whole concept of 1,666.666 words per day (yes I did the math) I realized it was a great opportunity to just write without worrying about every single word choice, whether it would be good enough, and all the other neurotic thoughts that are a hindrance sometimes. I have also found a group of people that will band together and support each other through this process. I feel very lucky to have met these writers. They are a real gift.

On December 1st, I will either be jumping for joy or I will be locked in a padded room wearing a straitjacket and I will have a 50 thousand word document comprised of one sentence repeated over and over.  “All work and no play makes Liz a dull girl.” Luckily I don’t own an ax.

Good luck and happy writing to all the NaNoWriMo participants of 2017!

(If you don’t get that reference, it’s from “The Shining”) If you like this post, please share it or comment. If you hate this post, please comment. If you really hate this post make a voodoo doll of me and stick pins in its hand so I’ll never write again –ok please don’t do the last one.  If you’re a NaNo and need another writing buddy my username is LJLeighton.

 

 

 

 

Writing Through the Insecurities

In “Journal of a Novel,” John Steinbeck wrote, “I know it is the best book I have ever done. I don’t know whether it is good enough.” I’m no John Steinbeck and never hope to achieve the status he did as an author, but even he had insecurities about his writing.

Maybe my insecurities are justified. That’s one way to think and going down that particular rabbit hole is where I find myself too often. I constantly have to ferret out all the voices in my head that tell me that the last sentence, the last paragraph, or even everything I’ve ever written is just drivel. It somehow makes me feel better, and not so alone, knowing that even John Steinbeck struggled with such insecurities.

For the past few decades, most of my writing has been technical, nonfiction, or novels. I recently made the decision to pursue my passion for writing novels once again. I never tried to publish my last two novels and I’ve told myself for years that I was just happy with my accomplishment. The truth is that my insecurities held me back and have kept me from writing another novel until now.

Since I made that decision, I’ve set aside some of my reading time for articles and books about writing.  One of the suggestions I’ve read from numerous sources is that novelists should give flash fiction and short story writing a shot. Each writer gave lists of reasons for doing so, but the one that caught my eye was that it could stimulate creativity.

I was very insecure about this new fiction form. How could anyone pack a story of any interest into such a compact space? I gave it a whirl anyway with a lot of starts and stops. I didn’t count how many times I edited it.  Then I finally posted it on a website where I knew it would get serious reviews. I was terrified and expected to be shredded. I felt vulnerable and exposed.

I was torn between wanting to see my reviews and never wanting to even check them, but humans are inherently curious and curiosity won the battle. I had to see what kind of “train wreck” I had written. I was so shocked when I read my first reviews that I thought there must have been some mistake. There were genuine critiques of my story, but my aggregate rating was 4.5 out of 5 stars.

So, to all of the insecure writers out there, tell the negative voices in your head to shut up. Do it every time they try to sneak into your thoughts. I have to do it constantly. Remember that even John Steinbeck had insecurities and most importantly keep writing.

Maybe I’ll try poetry next…….Nope! Not a chance!

 

The North American Solar Eclipse 2017

and some most unusual photos

 

Preparation for the Solar Eclipse

After waiting 38 years for today’s solar eclipse, I’ve been anticipating this astronomical event for months.  I planned to travel to the 70 mile wide band that would experience the total eclipse but circumstances arose that made this trip impossible for me.  However, the eclipse would be 73% where I live and I was determined to enjoy what I could.

I researched the appropriate glasses for viewing and ordered a set recommended by the American Astronomical Society well in advance.  I gave the extras to friends and family who also wanted to witness this fantastic event but had not thought about it far enough in advance.  There was no place to buy the glasses locally and I was so happy that I had gotten extras to share.

3 days ago the weather forecast predicted 40% cloud coverage here and 20% chance of rain.  I was disappointed in the forecast, but I tried to remain optimistic.  The odds were still in my favor.

The Waiting was Over

I jumped out of bed this morning full of excitement.  The eclipse would begin here at 11:46 am, reach the 73% maximum coverage of the sun at 1:16 pm and be over by 2:45 pm.  I looked out at the sky and there were a few clouds,  but not many.  Things were looking great!

I finished my morning routines and gathered together the things I needed to make my trek out to my friend’s farm.  I live in an apartment complex surrounded by buildings and trees that would obstruct the view and she has wide open fields, perfect for viewing.  I had 2 pair of the eclipse viewing glasses left—one for each of us.

Disappointment or Success?

As I drove, I noticed the cloud coverage increasing.  I finally reached the farm and the cloud coverage had gone to about 80%.  “Meteorologists!”  I muttered to myself.  “What other job could get by with being wrong so much and still keep their jobs?”  I was getting a little frustrated.

We both looked at the enormous dark cloud separating us from the sun.  I muttered a few choice words and we decided to go inside and watch the photos coming in from Idaho on the TV coverage.  The eclipse had reached totality there and the photos were incredible.  The diamond effect the footage showed as the sun began to reappear were gorgeous and something I’d never seen.  I gasped at the beauty.  I have to admit the clear blue skies I noticed in the background, as the totality ended in Idaho, sparked a twinge of envy.

We walked back outside to see if there were any changes in the cloud coverage here.  I peered through my protective glasses up at the sky.  I saw nothing but black.

Suddenly I began to notice a dim light appearing.  As I watched, a small break in the clouds appeared and then a clear view of the sun emerged.  I was so thrilled.  The moon was at about 15% coverage of the sun.  I think I yelled I was so excited.  It was only visible for a few minutes, but we had gotten our first view of the eclipse.

Yay!

On TV, I watched as Nebraska experienced totality and afterward I noticed the clear blue skies in the background there.  This time I was still so psyched after seeing our first view here in Texas that the feeling of jealousy was gone.

We got a few more breaks in the clouds and were able to catch a few more minutes of viewing here and there while we were approaching the maximum coverage we would experience here- 73%.  We began to watch for sunlight and the appearance of shadows on the ground as we viewed the live coverage on TV.  When we noticed these, we would scurry outside for another view of the eclipse.

About 2 minutes after the partial eclipse had reached its maximum, the clouds began to break up and we were able to watch the rest of the eclipse without any issues.

It never occurred to me to take any photos of the eclipse after the articles I had read.  My friend had read some other articles on taking photos that suggested we could take some with our phones using selfie mode. That way you didn’t have to look directly at the sun.  I decided to give it a try.  I pointed my camera over my head in the direction of the sun or what I hoped was the right direction.

In order to see what we had really captured in our photos, we took them inside to evaluate them.  They appeared to be disappointing at first glance.  Upon closer inspection, we saw some very interesting artifacts in the photos and I want to share a few of them with you.  I saved the best photo for last.

In spite of the changes in plans and all the challenges with the cloud coverage, it turned out to be quite an exhilarating experience.  I’m already looking forward to the “Ring of Fire” solar eclipse on Oct. 14th 2023 and the next Total Eclipse on April 8th 2024.

 

Some Most Unusual Eclipse Photos

 

picture 2 (4)
First attempt at eclipse “selfie”
picture 2 (5)
Artifact from 1st photo
picture 1 (5)
Artifact from 2nd photo
IMG_20170821_135016_edit (2)
Artifact from my friend’s photo