A Writerly Proposal: Collectives

This opinion piece from The New York Times, called, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” has sparked a small Twitter revolution this evening (one of many, I’m sure), and got my husband and I chatting once again about publishing.

Writers and readers like Colin Robinson, author of that post and—dare I say it—elitist reader, likely detached from “average” readers like myself, the voracious consumers of genre and commercial fiction, argues that the digital ADD of contemporary readers has led to the death of the midlist and the popularization of writing and reading generally, the so-called “displacement of literary culture’s traditional elite.” He says that current publishing models are leading to the death of the midlist author and a general decline in quality, both of written works and engagement of readers with books and each other.

That’s quite a mouthful.

Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of the “article,” and I’m quite sick of seeing opinion pieces bemoaning the sad state of readership and fiction.

Yes, yes, anyone can self publish on Amazon, and yes, yes, cheap prices may be cheapening content. Yawn. I’m sick of the bitching and ready to start seeing some positive action to make things better.

I’ve gotten myself away from the point I wanted to make—you see, this is the drivel written by easily distracted, untrained female writers like myself!

*grin*

Anyway, husband and I were talking, and my recent infatuation with the marvelous and magical anthology Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells made me think that I’d love to see collectives of writers in similar genres and with similar styles producing serialized novels and/or collections of short stories in digital format.

Writers like, say, the Spellbound Scribes, could work together and release a monthly e-zine of fiction that readers could subscribe to for a low fee, and we split the revenue among contributors. Readers get to read writers they love and meet new authors, follow novel-length stories month by month, and read shorts from writers who aren’t contributing a long work at the moment. If an author I knew I loved joined in on such a project, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat.

Voilà. A new model, right there, one that benefits readers and indie writers. Yes, it’s a commitment. Yes, we would have to police our own quality, and yes, we would need to recruit an artist or two to contribute. But that’s why it’s a collective: authors work together to write, market, and publish their own work.

Easier said than done, but I’m nothing if not a dreamer.

 

Guilty Pleasures

*cough* This is a really old post that’s been in my drafts folder since January. I thought you guys might actually like to read it!

I spent most of today out with a friend and running errands, so I haven’t had time to write.

Translation: I didn’t get home till three and that felt too late to get any real work done, so I decided to do some less productive crafty work and watch old episodes of The Vampire Diaries. Episodes I’ve seen before. Episodes that aren’t particularly noteworthy except for the abundance of pretty people moping about who’s not sleeping with whom.

Yep. I’m a shameless lover of teen vampires. In fact, while I’m confessing things, I’ll admit that I’ve read Twilight. More than once. The Kindle was a godsend because it meant I no longer had to deal with my husband’s mockery when I wanted to read something really and truly awful—now I don’t have to face the shame of, say, the cover of Breaking Dawn staring at him from my nightstand, giving away my weakness. I read Twilight like some women read bodice-rippers, the ones with shiny, shirtless men on the covers: furtively, pop-eyed, and generally while hiding the evidence.

Come to think of it, that sounds rather like one of the signs of addiction. The one where you lie about your problem. Also the one where you feel guilt and shame. And that other one, where you put time and effort into your habit.

I only know about those signs for research, of course. Totally.

I like literature, too, I’ll have you know. I reread Jane Austen’s complete works every year. A Farewell to Arms is one of two books that makes me cry. I am capable of exerting some self control and occasionally reading things that actually merit my love.

But, damn it, every now and then I just like to lose myself in a fluffy, high-stakes romance between two pretty (and often fanged) people. I also like dipping my fries in mustard. Whatchu gonna do, sue me?

I AM NOT ASHAMED.*

The fact is, I’m not alone. Twilight sold a flobbity-gillion copies. Margot Adler incorporated her obsession with vampire novels (including Twilight) into a series of academic lectures. How many people watch The Vampire Diaries? More than a few, judging by Twitter on Thursday nights.

Everyone has a few guilty pleasures. Maybe for you it’s not teen vampires. Maybe it’s wealthy teens who sleep around a lot. Maybe it’s those afternoon soap operas. (Do those still exist anymore?) Maybe it’s some terrible sitcom.

But you know… you can tell me.

This is a safe space. No one here will judge you.** C’mon. you know you want to share. What’s your guilty pleasure?

 

 

*Okay, I’m a little ashamed. Fine, a lot. That doesn’t stop me, though.

**Much

 

Beta Reading 101

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading this year.

Okay, yeah, I’ve been doing more beta reading this year than ever before, and I’ve learned a lot. I have writer friends now whose work I’m eager and happy to read. Plus, I’ve had more finished projects of my own this year, so I’ve needed more beta readers of my own—and hunting for reliable readers for your work is always a worthy challenge.

I KILL YOUR PLOT LIKE IT’S THE SHINY RED DOT.

There’s more to beta reading than just reading. If you really want to help the author, you need to keep a few things in mind. And authors, if you want to get good critique partners and beta readers, you should help them to help you.

1. Know what kind of feedback the writer wants/needs. If this is draft two of five, line editing isn’t going to help that much. On the other hand, if they’re about to submit this work to a publisher, a suggestion for a huge plot change might cause a meltdown of epic proportions. I’m not telling you not to be honest here: by all means, mention the flaw in the plot if you find one. If you find only one typo in the whole work, be sure to flag it.  But I’m telling you not to waste their time or yours by searching for edits they don’t need and won’t incorporate.

2. Read quickly. If it takes you six month to read someone’s work, you’re not helping them. (Unless they say that’s fine.) Plus, if you read that slowly, you’re going to forget details of character and plot, and you’re not going to be able to offer thorough feedback.

3. Read with the author’s voice in mind. It may be tempting to make changes to word choice, imagery, or other stylistic aspects, but that’s not really your job. Unless such an element hits appallingly far from the mark, resist the urge to make suggestions about voice. This is the author’s baby, not yours, and what you think is clever they might fine lame.

4. Read like an editor, but keep a more general audience in mind. Your typical reader of a novel pays attention to four big things: character, motivation, plot, and pace. They want to like the protagonist and her friends, fall in love with her boyfriend, and hate her boss. They want to understand why the protagonist makes the decisions she does, why the antagonist works so hard to thwart her, and root for the choices the protagonist makes. They want an exciting, surprising (but still believable) plot, and they want it to unfold at a pace that keeps them turning pages. Part of your job is to help the writer make all these things happen for their readers.

5. Be honest, but gentle. If the book sucks, don’t say, “YOUR BOOK SUCKS!” That’s like bitch-slapping a puppy. Writers are vulnerable. Be nice. Say what didn’t work for you, and why. Give suggestions for improvement. The flip side of this hot potato (yep, mixing metaphors on purpose!) is that you can’t help an author if you’re not honest, and sometimes that requires a little brutality. If something doesn’t work, they need to know so they can fix it. Just remember to be kind and helpful in your brutality. Like a dentist.

6. Explain your reasoning. Do this for both negative comments and positive. Authors need to know what works as much as they need to know what doesn’t, and telling them why you liked the parts of their book you liked will help them see what is good in their work. Likewise, explaining why things don’t work will help them improve. Plus, you seem like a jerk if you don’t explain. And no one wants to be a jerk.

7. Remember that subjective taste plays a huge role in this business. The character you hate may be some other reader’s dreamboat. This is part of why you need to explain your reasoning—it will help the author sift through feedback and determine what changes she actually needs to make, and how. Ask yourself how much your suggestions hinge on your personal taste, and alter them accordingly.

8. Don’t take it all so personally! This goes for both readers and writers. Readers, this work is the author’s baby, and there’s no way they’re going to perform every piece of plastic surgery on it that you suggest. Their ideal here is more important than yours. And writers, remember that your betas (generally!) are here to help, not to sabotage you. These criticisms aren’t actually insulting the fruit of your loins: they’re critiquing, as a potential consumer, a piece of commercial work. Your work will be better for your readers’ help.

And finally…

HUGS AND PUPPIES FOR ALL! Critique partners, generally, are friendish (not to be confused with fiendish) sort of folks. Do your work, then have a laugh and get a beer. These relationships are important. You’ll move on to another piece of work, and a good CP will be there to read that one, too.

I lurve you, CP!

Unlikable Main Characters

I usually write this blog as a writer, but today I’m going to put my reader hat on and pose a question to all my fellow readers out there.

Do you have your silly hat?

What do you, as a reader, do when you realize you hate the main character of a book?

I usually like unlikable characters. I’m a fan of Scarlett O’Hara and I always preferred Henry Crawford to that ninny, goody-two-shoes Edmund Bertram. But both Henry and Scarlett have a roguish charm that redeems them—they may not be the nicest people around, but they sure are fun.

Sometimes, though, protagonists end up with no redeeming qualities.

You may know that for the last six months (at least) I’ve been engaged in a slow slog through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. It’s a journey with a lot of ups and downs: sometimes I end up sitting in bed, reading way past the point when I should be asleep, and other times I have to force myself to finish the hundred-page prologue before calling the book a dead loss.

So far, though, I’ve managed not to give up. Jordan’s books follow a pretty clear pattern. They start out at a creeping pace, dragging through a very long prologue that often features characters who won’t star in the rest of the novel, then entering the pace of the book itself, which is somewhere at a fast walk or a trot. Then, at about 70-percent, they hit a run, and lots of things happen. This momentum usually carries me into the next book, where I hit a wall in the form of prologue.

It feels a little masochistic sometimes.

A couple of days ago, I started the aptly-named The Path of Daggers. I was really ready to find and actually use the latest MacGuffin, and the first third of the book finally fulfilled that promise. But then I reached approximately 46% of the Kindle edition, and I quit caring.

Why?

A hairy monster of a protagonist, also known as Rand al’Thor.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Rand is our shepherd turned chosen-by-prophecy king of the world. He’s also sitting dancing on the fence between sanity and madness. He’s very, very angry. But he’s not particularly funny or sweet or caring. (There’s no Whedon-villain whimsy here.)

In short, he has no more redeeming qualities. The farmboy we met in Eye of the World has long since been subsumed by a bitter, wounded man with powers that are destroying him.

To defend Jordan, he’s actually worked this (lightly) into the plot by having a secondary character point it out, point out that if Rand doesn’t lighten up soon, he’ll end up destroying the world in a fit of temper.

I just don’t care, though. I don’t even want to slog through Rand’s chapters to find out what main plot events will happen. I like some of the characters, but unfortunately, the main character is kind of an insurmountable obstacle.

So what’s a reader to do?

I said I would complete this challenge, and I will read all of this series. But how do I survive Rand? My soon-to-be husband’s solution in books like this is just skip the chapters with the hated character, but I’m a little too OCD to actually do that… and since Rand is the epicenter of this epic, I can’t really skip him without missing something vital.

What would you do, reader? How do you read books with unlikable main characters?

I Need a Graphic Novel Compass

Does anyone else get lost in graphic novels?

Seriously—I get lost, and not in the “Wow, this is so good, it swept me off my feet!” kind of way. I actually lose my way. Do I look at the pictures first, or the dialog? When there’s a big box that spreads over two pages, where does that fit into the sequence? Are these people talking or fighting, or both? Do I read right to left or up and down? Do I read them or look at — ooh, that picture is pretty!

You get the idea.

When I was about ten, I fell in love with an Elfquest novel so obscure I almost couldn’t find it on Amazon at the moment—a novel, not a graphic novel, one with no (or at least very few) pictures. I loved it so much, I requested another Elfquest book from another library. When it arrived, it was—

A graphic novel.

I was flummoxed. I tried to read it, but it outdid me. It was beyond my ten-year-old powers of comprehension.

That’s weird, right? Kids are supposed to like comic books. Lots of action, pictures, not a lot of reading. But even as a kid, I thought, “There aren’t enough words in this book!”

Now, as a “grown up,” I’m trying to read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but The Dream Hunters, the only one I’ve successfully made it through, was more like a picture-book than a graphic novel. I’ve also ordered The Long Way Home (Buffy the Vampire, Season 8, Volume 1), because I need (that’s an imperative) more Buffy… but what if I get lost again?

Do I need a graphic novel primer? Does such a thing exist? Can you help me? I feel as though my nerd-credibility is slipping.