When Words Collide/August Reading Challenge

21 Aug

So I had a blast in Calgary this last weekend – I know, it’s Friday and the convention was technically over on Sunday – I came back Monday and went to work Tuesday, and it’s looking like another crazy work week.
Let’s start with that reading challenge:
August20
Book with a 1 Word Title: Awakening by Shannon Duffy
A Book Based on a True Story: The Slaughter by Ethan Guttman
Book of Short Stories: Canadian Noir Edited by Claude Lalumiere
A Book you can finish in a Day: Lake in the Clouds by Edward Willett
A Book at the Bottom of your To-Read List: Steam and Strategem by Christopher Hoare

Okay – a little bit of cheating – the book based on a short story is non-fiction, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Book I can finish in a day – technically I had it on my GR for a few days, but I finished it in its entirety at the airport waiting for my delayed flight to Calgary, and still had oodles of time to spare. I figured I was getting more books and didn’t want to bring tons with me, so I was editing a YA book at the airport. The book at the Bottom of my To-Read List: I asked the dealer at the Tyche books what they recommended in terms of steampunk, and it was this one. Read it mostly on the plane on the way home, finished it off at work two days ago. The Book from Childhood is probably going to be Anne of Green Gables, but we’ll see what happens.

So I’ve been wanting to go to WWC for about the two years previous because R.J. Hore and all the other cool kid local genre writers keep telling me how amazing it is – I generally prefer titles from small Canadian Presses, so getting to meet the people behind some of the rejection letters was kind of fun. I got to pitch in person and for the most part everyone was super friendly and supportive, and I’ll totally admit one of my complaints was that there was often more than one panel at a time that I wanted to check out. I also passed out around 8 pm on Friday, coming off a busy night shift with 1 hour of sleep, so lame duck over here did catch up on her sleep deficit. After last night, once again I have borrowed from the sleep bank.

There were tons of topics I could pilfer and blog about, but I think my overall favorite was the one about alpha vs. beta readers. Now, I’ve been calling R.J. my beta reader for years, based on I always assumed a ‘beta’ was the next set of eyes to look it over. It was always my job to get the manuscript as good as I could get it, but I liked having someone point out obvious confusions, flaws, etc. The panel talked about finding different partners to go through the alpha stage (where you’re willing to change things) and the more beta stage (where you’ve got a more refined manuscript – you’re not about to change crucial things due to how much work you’ve sunk into the manuscript). Hard part, though, I find is finding the people who can be objective.

Granted, one could put the same argument about writing in general – I’ve been to writing groups and in general, I found most readers won’t try to see what you’re trying to do, so much as tell you what they do and don’t like and make the issue about them or be condescending about my age. Some of that kind of feedback’s fine – if you happen to need that group’s type of preferences but the danger thereon is that one tends to write towards the group.

I think that’s the most crucial aspect of anyone giving feedback – someone who’s willing to see or at least entertain what it is you’re trying to do. I know when I offer feedback, I never make one suggestion to change something. At the bare minimum, I offer three because I don’t like the idea of “I’m so right about this character – do this!” and it’s really up to the author as to what they want to do with that manuscript – although it’s not up to me offering feedback options so much as pointing out a plot hole or a rational issue, I like throwing out ideas as a launching point. I might like tragedies, but I should see someone else’s saccharine-sweet ending for what it is and offer feedback at a level that helps refine that manuscript for what the author wants it to be.

The hard part, of course, is finding people who can give that sort of feedback reliably. People who offer to read and review and won’t read it at all. I find if I ask people who are ‘too close’ they either don’t want to hurt my feelings or they read into the text, and make it a personal attack, which makes me want to share cream of nothing. Of course, when you’re starting out is the most discouraging – you want feedback you can use to fix the book on the whole, and people like to point out that you comma spliced so you obviously know nothing about nothing. Most feedback seems like nitpicking and putting you in your place. Granted, if you’re going before an editor, it helps to have the appearance that you know what you’re doing. That kind of stuff can be learned, I’ve read books that have obvious grammar and spelling issues but they’re creatively better than stuff that’s technically correct, because my little brain usually figures out what the author was trying to do. It’s not my job, the writer should blah blah blah, don’t you complain about other writers and their crappy writing? I guess my attitude is we all start somewhere. People with bestsellers should have an editor.

I guess, the best way to get that feedback you want is to try to give it to other people. R.J. and I switch stuff back pretty much monthly, and when we started out I gave him a list of 40 questions. This sounds daunting, but my questions are like, “Give three alternate titles” and “What is the premise”. The intent was always for me to get used to coming up with titles and to get good at the one-sentence pitch, something that I felt weak at, as I answer the same questions he does. Granted, if we’re more than halfways through the book and R.J. can’t come up with the premise, I know that there’s an issue with plot and pacing.

So in a nutshell: the alpha reader is the person you ask for general feedback on everything, the beta is a ‘fresh set of eyes’ who’s better at picking out inconsistencies and spelling/grammar issues from a manuscript after it’s been through several rounds of edits and the macro editing has been done. The idea behind both of them is for the writer to get to the ‘best possible point’ and getting the manuscript near perfect because competition is so fierce at the slush pile. I guess my two cents to add – don’t be shy about asking specific questions for feedback to give it some aim. You don’t have to accept the feedback, (and I’d never fire back, “Well, so much for what YOU think!) and I think if you’re willing to have a working relationship with others at your same writing level, you’d probably be able to find consistent feedback provided you’re also giving them something to work with.

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