Sunday, July 26, 2015

Worst. Author Event. Ever.

By Jodie Cain Smith

As an author who wants to sell books, I occasionally deal with the public.  At a recent signing, attendance was so poor the “public” I dealt with for most of my allotted time was made up of the other two authors present. We shared a table so I couldn’t run away, even as some of the dumbest comments on publishing ever flew from their mouths. Nope, I’m not as sweet as I look, but at least my filter works.

Author 1:  “I double-spaced my book. It’s been a hit with the senior set.”

My silent response as I thumb through the pages of the “Christian Thriller” in question:  I have never read or heard anyone in the publishing industry recommend double-spacing a novel. Large print is an option, but costly, and the line lead varies from book to book and publisher to publisher, but this thing is printed in 16pt font and double-spaced. It’s gigantic! I could render someone unconscious with a book this thick. And what the heck is a “Christian Thriller?” Smile and nod, Jodie. Smile and nod. (If you are unaware as I was, Christian Thriller is an actual sub-genre on Amazon. Thank you, Google.)

Author 2:  “Why did you use a traditional publisher? I don’t want to share my money.”

I responded, “Because I wanted to, and I couldn’t afford to hire an editor.” My inner diva begged me to say, “Watch that tone, Lady. And what’s with the snarl? I hope your face sticks that way.”

Author 1, joining in:  “Oh, I didn’t use an editor. I wanted to see what I could do by myself. Sure, there are mistakes and quirks, but that’s what makes my book unique.”

My inner monologue:  Don’t laugh. Don’t bang my face against the table. Don’t pick up this guy’s “Christian Thriller” and bonk him on the head with it.

Instead I said, simply, “I love editors.”

Author 2, later:  “According to my publishing agreement, I had to buy 1,000 copies of my book, so now I have a good stock of books in my garage. You really should consider self-publishing.”

More smiling. More nodding. More screaming from my inner diva:  Are you kidding me? You didn’t self-publish. You vanity published! And who on Earth is going to buy 1,000 copies of your book out of your garage? Good job with that whole not-sharing-your-money thing.

Toward the end of our time together, I asked my tablemates if they are members of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop. They both nodded “no.” Then Mr. Double-space proposed the following question:

“I mean, what could a writer’s group actually do for me?”

“My chapter, Columbia II, makes me a better writer,” I told him. “They are my first-line defense against bad writing.”

“That wouldn’t work for me. I don’t need other people judging my stuff,” Author 1 told me while straightening his unsold stack of books.

I smiled. I nodded. Then I turned forward in my seat and stared at my own untouched stack. No more talkie-talkie. Let’s play the quiet game.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Just the Facts Please...

By Julia Rogers Hook

It’s been quite a summer for news in South Carolina lately. We’ve had the tragic Charleston massacre and then the ensuing controversial demands for taking down the Confederate flag that flew on the State House grounds. Before the deaths of the nine black worshippers at a Bible study in June by an accused white racist at Emmanuel AME Church, a white police officer was seen on video firing shots at and ultimately killing a retreating black man he had pulled over for a traffic stop.

While across the nation there were riots over similar incidents that also entailed looting and the burning of buildings, in our state the tragedies seemed to unite the people as opposed to dividing them. As a resident, I am deeply proud of my state but as a journalist, I faced some hard questions.

It’s obvious that unless we’re writing an editorial, no journalists’ opinions should enter our work. We are there to “report the news” and not to “comment” on it. We are supposed to deliver the facts and simply tell the story. We are never supposed to become part of the story if we are giving a fair and balanced account of events.

With the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capital grounds, there was a lot of gray area and it was not always a clear cut story.

One side said the flag was representing Southern heritage and history. The other said it glorified the days of slavery and racism.

How does a “fair and balanced” story come out of such a wide gulf? How, when a reporter is allotted only so much space, does he tell both sides and do it fairly?

Can it even be done?

I believe it can be done but it’s tricky because, no matter how fair a reporter tries to be in the delivery of the news, reports could be tainted by past life experiences such as upbringing, religion or politics. The news giver could lean one way or the other and with a few small changes in wording, change an entire meaning of a sentence.

For instance, if we take the police shooting in Charleston earlier this year, if the reporter said that “the officer said the suspect was going for his taser when he pulled out his gun,” that gives the officer some credibility.

But, if that reporter said that “the officer claimed that the suspect was going for his taser when he pulled out his gun,” that throws doubt on the officer’s statement.

With the flag controversy being all about opinions, I tried to find at least one appealing point of view from each side of the argument and then attempted to deliver that viewpoint to my readers as clearly and succinctly as possible. I wanted to give them information, not my personal feelings.

My goal is that what they hear from me will be the truth…unvarnished and simple.

Then I’m doing my job.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What to Do with Beta Reader Feedback

By Kasie Whitener

Three of my four beta readers have reported back and their comments have disappointed me.

Two had trouble staying engaged and the third didn’t understand the purpose of a crucial scene. None of them liked the protagonist, a first person narrator.

Despite the frustration I feel with negative feedback, I understand the important role beta readers play. Giving work to readers with distance from the piece and from me is a crucial part of the revision process.

So what do we do when their response is mostly frowns?

I have an initial response which sounds more like a petulant child (“They just don’t understand.”) but I swiftly push that aside. It took a while to take it less personally.

I use questions about my beta readers to put their comments in perspective. Once I’ve done that, I can revise the work using the beta reader criticism as a starting point.

Who is the target audience for this book and are my beta readers in it?
The target audience for After December is women in their thirties and forties, generation X, or book-club, soccer-mom types. My beta readers were two college-aged women and two grandmother-aged women. So not the ideal readers. That said, the millennials are the age of the protagonist so they may have at least related with his primary conflict. And they did.

What does the protagonist want and did the beta readers recognize that?
I’ve had trouble with this question all along. Only one of the beta readers mentioned it.

Were there common complaints about the work?
They all disliked the main character.

What specific scenes or relationships were mentioned?
One failed to understand a pivotal scene in the book. Others mentioned scenes where the story dragged. One had concerns about the supporting characters and their development.

What parts did the beta readers like?
The younger readers said the characters were relatable. The older ones liked the conflict with his parents. They all loved the prose.

Armed with an analysis of my readers’ feedback, I approach this revision like a surgeon:
I know I need to make the protagonist more likable. I should develop personality traits like compassion.

I know a particular scene’s gravity needs to be better. Think of this like a film director: is the camera angle changing the meaning of the scene? If so, shoot from another angle.

I know I need to take a look at the supporting characters and define their desires better. I’ll need a tool of some kind like a chart or a table to sort those competing desires out.

Mostly I’ve just needed some space. Some time away from the work, to forget what my intentions were so that I can see if for what it really is. Looking at it through the lens of beta readers helps, too.

I’m excited to polish it even more. How have beta readers help you gain perspective on your work?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Read the Bad Stuff

By Rex Hurst

I try to hone my writing skills by reading a lot and observing how others writers put their words together. I do this quite regularly, to the point where I often have to reread a page because I spent so much time analyzing the structure that I didn’t pay attention to the actual meaning.

When one chooses literature, it is natural to gravitate to the great writers in history. Ones that we all hope to emulate and, perhaps, join the ranks of. We dip through Dickens’ characterization or untangle Faulkner’s impossibly long sentences, trying to fill our souls and pens with the joy of the best literature in the world.

But, in my opinion, it is just as important to read bad writers and bad literature, as it is to absorb the good stuff. The reason is simple: to see what not to do. It is good to have a reminder to not indulge in clich├ęs, to see what an awkward sentence looks like, or to avoid using the same damn word over and over again (Word has a thesaurus function, probably one of the best new tools for aspiring writers).

Let me give you an example from a bad book, recently turned into a worse film, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. It is a book I eventually gave in and read after all of my students kept telling me it was “wonderful.” They and I obviously employ different definitions of the word.

“I line up the white ball and with a swift clean stroke, hit the center ball of the triangle square on with such force that a striped ball spins and plunges into the top right pocket. I’ve scattered the rest of the balls.”

Pardon me I think my eyes have melted. Here’s a fun little exercise, see if you can rewrite that passage in ten words or less and actually improve its clarity. It’s surprisingly easy.

Another example:

“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He's here to see you."

A tiny part of my brain rejoices that I’ve learned not to overfill my sentences with extraneous adjectives. The other part has shut down with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people scarfed this book down and loved it.

Still the passage above, and many like it have served to remind me about what I do not want my writing to be like. I don’t regret reading 50 Shades of Grey because by analyzing its awfulness, it has perversely helped to make me a better writer.

My advice is to study these writings. The bad plots churned out for a paycheck. The twisted sentences and flat characters. Analyze these missteps of literature, these forgettable tomes, these purple prose troubadours, and remind yourself how not to follow in their footsteps.