My main focus for vocal depth is finding places that need a boost to elevate the prose from (blocking and action) to “literature.”
Not just facts, but poetry.
The first layer is “What’s a cooler/more interesting way to X…?”
Second layer is “What’s a way to tie this description/phrase to the story theme/aesthetic/tone/plot?”
Third layer, and the only one that gets approval** for my own work into final drafts, is “How/what does X (description/phrase) mean to my narrator/speaker, and how would They frame X?”
**because no matter how awesome a phrase might be, if it doesn’t sound like it comes from my narrator’s voice, then it could throw the reader off at worst, but will weaken a reader’s connection to the narrator at best.
Page by page, I seek out a wide-angle thematic balance, and–when possible– book-wide character themes. Like, say romantic interest has a hard personality but a vulnerable ego, then I might craft their descriptions to relay that directly or indirectly by which devices I choose (maybe they’re compared to melons or maybe I just keep adjectives about their physical actions “crisp and brittle” while keeping descriptions of their voice “soft”).
I tend to go broad with these when it comes to characterization or repeat settings, sticking with things like seasons or basic elements (water, fire, +), so it doesn’t feel forced or too obvious.Also, the broader the theme, the greater span of sensory experiences and vocabulary range to use in expanding the character’s visceral reactions and word choice.
Random thing, but it’s best, for most readers apparently, to save the most intense descriptive language for moments when the narrator is first describing something (unless that scene is very active), or when it’s an emotional moment that the language can help bolster with “this is important” energy.
Hot tip: use your narrator’s zoom lens to spot concrete details, flaws, or specificity, rather than trying to describe everything anew or “completely.” Better to describe a character’s lone mismatched button than their entire outfit. Even when the narrative point is “excess,” attention can get lost easily in lists of facts, so the zoom is a writer’s best friend in that regard.
I’ve been seeing a lot of resistance (negativity, misinformation, outright opposition) to the betareading process over the last few months, and . . . it upsets me.
I believe in the beta process the way toddlers believe in Bandaids. OK, so that’s a mediocre example. I believe in it like a good dog trusts its human.
Betas make books better, and better books make happier readers who will read more books. But what you get out of your beta, and where your story goes in revision, is up to you, not your readers.
If you’re worried a betaread will change your story, try following these five tips to run a successful beta to protect it (from others and yourself) while improving both the work and your craft.
1. State your vision for the work clearly, even if you don’t share the specifics with an audience.
This is the most important step, in my opinion. It can be as simple as “to entertain my readers with a fun adventure story” or as complex as “to inform readers about X and Y so that they walk away with a changed perspective on Z.”
Doing this will help you, as the writer, decide what feedback is most important to you and protect what matters most to you as feedback pours in. Not doing this step can be dangerous to your voice and confidence with your work.
2. Write down reader reactions you hope to receive.
I learned to do this after my first few betas, simply because it challenges me to think ahead to what I want to hear. For each major character or event, I jot down my hoped-for-responses. It looks a little like this for my most recent beta:
Main Character: “Poor __ tries so hard!” and “Yay! ___ figured it out!”
Primary Antagonist: “I hate ___ so much,” and, “Ohhhh… I see why ___ is like that now.”
Major Plot Event:“I did NOT see that coming,” and “Holy $&#@, what have you done to me?”
If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll even plan ahead what I don’t want to hear.
Doing this step gives a metric to compare with actual feedback to, to better gauge how the story is meeting its goals.
3. Know your target audience.
This is the step I hear recommended most, and it bears repeating. Aside from age and genre category, though, I suggest going a few details further to identify your target.
Who is the reader who needs this story?
Where are they in life; where are they emotionally?
What is the obstacle they dream of overcoming?
Depending on which revision your story’s in, these answers could change. While it’s great to get positive responses from readers outside the target, it’s important to weigh that against negative or neutral responses within.
4. Decide on the one thing you would never change.
Ask yourself why you had to write this story.
Did an idyllic childhood memory spark the story in your heart, and you’ve poured yourself into reproducing that setting for others?
Are you an #ownvoices writer intent on sharing your personal struggle with young people so they can see themselves pulling through it, maybe even better than you managed?
Whatever your motivation for writing, pick the one thing that can’t change lest it become a different story — somebody else’s.
Then make a wish list of secondary items that are mildly more negotiable. This exercise helps to back up what you decided in #1 and keeps you flexible when receiving feedback.
If someone tears apart the thing you’ll never change, do you care? If three or more target readers take issue with a story issue of secondary importance to you, are you ready to address that item or remove it? What if it were a major publishing house suggesting the change? Would your reaction be different for different readers? (These are uncomfortable questions by nature.)
One of the most detrimental things a writer can do in revision is to lose sight of their “why,” their reason for this story, in an attempt to please every reader. Pick your battles and stand firm for them, so that you recognize the story you end up with as the one you aimed for in the first place.
5. Process your craft knowledge.
This is so tricky, because at any point in time, we know less than we knew before. So many of us, in love with our ideas or this or that string of beautiful words, lose sight of where we truly are.
When I finished my first novel, I had this euphoric rush of “Look what I did!” only for it to devolve into “Look at all I have to learn!”
I’m not suggesting anyone demote themselves in their mind or social media pages from “writer” to “aspiring writer,” but at least acknowledge how little or how much has been mastered. Learning never stops in this field.
Processing where your craft is right now will help when navigating feedback that hurts or cuts deepest at the author ego. Ask:
Are readers commenting about things being under or overwritten?
Are they recommending grammar or craft websites because of persistent weaknesses they’ve spotted that I haven’t seen?
Are they mentioning craft “rules” I’ve never heard of?
Before reacting with a slash and burn edit (or worse, lashing out at the reader), do some research and get up to speed on those craft concepts.
Not only will it improve your revision, but it will have you better prepared to tackle your next story.
I would love to hear what helps you prepare your mindset before you beta. What works best for you?
This blog post is a part of Raimey Gallant’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop. Find more handy tips by searching the hashtag on Twitter, or join us by clicking on the toolbox.
Fair warning: Some of these lessons might be carryovers from 2016, while I was lurking and cheering on friends. And there are a gazillion great lessons to learn from a contest like Pitchwars, but these are mine for now (and counting!).
Subjectivity in Story
I thought subjectivity was something I fully understood. I’ve even *gulp* blogged about it.
But I was wrong. My thinking was incomplete, flawed.
Subjectivity is more than how one person perceives in general, it’s how perception slants taste and attitude on a rolling basis. This brilliant thread was key to helping me see that.
So, as I prepare to query my complex and quirky time travel paradox space opera, it’s important for me to remember that many potential readers may not be in the mood for what’s on my pages. Even if they are, my early pages and query (or pitch) need to alert them to the tone of my story quickly, or else I’ll be facing a wall of not-what-I-expected reactions.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m a huge grammar and punctuation junkie. But just because I was using punctuation correctly in my manuscript doesn’t mean I wasn’t drawing all the wrong kinds of attention. After a particularly enlightening mentor comment, I took another look.
Look at this madness, y’all.
Ellipses = I had 195, but now 34 and falling
Seems I love ellipses. Cutting these was tricky, because there are some moments in speech or internal dialog when the thoughts cannot connect, when the character is reaching for, but failing to find, their answer. So, in order to trim 93% of these pesky, disruptive punctuations, I looked line by line at what effect the ellipses had on the scene’s pacing and flow. I kept a lot of them, I think. And 34 may still be too many, but I’m alert to the problem now, at least.
Semicolons= 9, now 4 (totally OK with this)
That’s not so bad, right? Well, I hope not, but, writing YA, I decided none of my semicolons were necessary unless they were used within a list. Two long lists in one book? I’m OK with that.
Emdashes= 314, now 134 and falling
Emdashes are definitely an issue I have. Why do I have all these broken thoughts, and, better yet, why do my characters? I trimmed 58% of these, but I’ll take another look in my next editing pass to see if I can cut further.
The tricky part with this count is that I also used dashes for some of the epistolary logs, but maybe I shouldn’t, and importing from Scrivener makes em-dashes into “double dashes” instead. (Also, maybe I should remove the dash key from my laptop, because my pinkie aches to reach for it so often.)
Anyway–Back to the list! In every contest I’ve participated in, I’ve seen the same hopeful soar and desperate crash mentality. There are so many giving pep talks and reminders of “This is how the industry works,” that nothing I have to add matters. Still, keeping my own attitude in check (this time, at least—I’m no angel) has made this the best contest yet for me.
Emotions happen. Acknowledge and understand them, but don’t let them dictate personal interactions or spill out as vitriol into public spaces. Sounds easier than it is.
Meanwhile, support each other! There’s room for all our stories, not in this one contest, but in the world.
Those are my most valuable lessons learned through this Pitchwars experience so far. I can’t wait to see what else I learn once mentees are picked and celebrated, and more lessons and trends from the slush pile emerge.
How about you? Has lightning struck to help you with your writing process? Have you learned anything about yourself, your writing, or the community recently? Comment below!
**This post is part of the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop writing superhero Raimey Gallant. To find more monthly craft bloggers digging through writing craft, process, and life, visit her site or watch Twitter for our hashtag midmonth on Wednesdays, though I’m a few days late posting.**