Working With Other Writers

Michelle D. Argyle shares her knowledge about working with other writers, including how to find a beta reader, how to take criticism, and how to critique.

Too Many Cooks In Your Kitchen?

Too many cooks spoil the broth. It’s an age-old proverb, but it’s as true now as it has always been. The sad thing is that it has taken me all 37 years of my life to figure out how important it is to keep cooks out of my kitchen, so to speak. I can track a lot of my issues in writing, publishing, parenting, friendships, etc., back to too much input from others and not enough listening to myself. I’ve done a great job at learning to ignore my instincts and relying on other people telling me what they think I should do. 

So where does that leave me? This year I’ve made a conscious effort to get back to discovering me. What are my values? Not what everyone says I should value. No. What do value, and what choices will get me closest to those values? This is much more difficult to determine than I thought it would be, but once I truly made a commitment to figure it out, things have been falling into place. It’s pretty amazing.

It’s not that I don’t value other people’s experience and opinions. I do! And they are absolutely essential, but only to a certain extent. This is where the “too many cooks” idea comes into play. I’m learning how to cull my circle of influence, and it’s not easy. Social media makes it especially difficult. I’m sure you can see why. So many voices, ideas, opinions, ads all the time. I think this is why some people find themselves a lot happier when they decide to cut down on social media. Less cooks.

As far as writing goes, I’m in a much happier place lately as I’ve made some tough decisions on who sees my work before it’s published, who I want feedback from, and when I want and need it. I’ve already noticed a big difference in how quickly I’m writing and how many ideas I’m allowing myself to entertain because I don’t feel as much pressure to second-guess those ideas.

So here’s my question. How many cooks do you let in your kitchen? Have you had experiences that slowed you down or steered you in the wrong direction because you were trying to listen to, and please, everyone at the same time?

 

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in About Me, All Things Publishing, Working With Other Writers, Writing Process, 1 comment

On Jealousy

Authors-AnonymousLast night, I watched the movie Authors Anonymous. It was a movie I’d only heard of yesterday, thanks to a friend on Facebook. Since I had spent the day bent over the toilet and feeling like crap from some sort of flu bug, I decided a movie was in order, so I rented it. I’m glad I did because it’s an interesting, almost painful story that hit me in several spots. The story is about a group of unpublished authors who welcome in a new author to their writing group. But this new author quickly finds an agent, a huge book deal, and a movie deal. Jealousy — extreme jealousy — sets in with the rest of the group. One of the authors, a Tom Clancy wannabe, decides to vanity publish his book with no success at all. The other authors — well, watch it to see what they choose to do and where that leads.

What struck me so hard was that I could relate in the most painful ways to these jealous authors. All of us authors know, or have even been, that successful author. Those jealous feelings are familiar. Needless to say, the story ends in a way I predicted, but satisfyingly surprising, nonetheless. One of the themes was:

THE ONLY WAY YOU’LL GET ANYWHERE IS BY STICKING YOUR BUTT IN THE CHAIR AND WRITING EVERY DAY

Which is true, absolutely, but even if you get everything you want, it may not last, and it may not be what you thought it would be. Plus, there is something to be said about getting stuck and not writing and figuring out important lessons along the way.

One of the authors has a picture of herself with the quote, “The only way you’ll fail is if you stop writing.”

True, true, but you’ll find failures when you keep writing too. And as I’ve said in an earlier post, the problem with the advice “never give up” is …“Never giving up will guarantee you exactly one thing every single time — experience — and sometimes nothing more.”

And the thing that really struck me is how important it is not to let success go to your head. None of the characters in this film were black and white, necessarily. Some of their stereotypes were pretty typical, but I liked how the film explored different facets of their motivations. It’s a stinging satire, filmed in a mockumentary-type style. Not everyone will appreciate it, but I certainly did. The one author who wasn’t truly jealous … let’s just say I’m a little inspired to make a few changes in my own writing life.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in About Me, All Things Publishing, Working With Other Writers

Is Critiquing a Friend’s Novel a Bad Idea?

I am lucky enough to have met Holli Moncrieff a few years ago online. I have yet to meet her in person, but I do hope one day I get the pleasure of doing just that because she is one of the most caring, patient, and hard working people I know. Today, Holli is sharing an experience of hers with critiquing a friend’s novel. What’s funny is I am currently reading one of Holli’s novels to critique, so I read this post of hers with great interest! I do hope you will give Holli some encouragement today and leave a  comment as well as visit her blog. She is sharing some really exciting news that I’ve been waiting for over a month for her to announce (and I didn’t even know what it was!)

It was 2:30 in the morning. I couldn’t sleep.

“Don’t email her again,” my boyfriend protested as I tossed off the covers and lunged for the computer. “It’s like you’re drunk texting her.”

Ignoring his advice, I staggered bleary-eyed to the keyboard. “Please don’t hate me,” I typed.

This may sound familiar if you’ve ever agreed to critique a friend’s work.

Novelists are sensitive souls. That sensitivity is required to create characters who live and breathe. Unfortunately, we also have to be thick-skinned if we want our work to improve. Enter the novel critique.

If you’re a writer, you most likely have writer friends. Who better to commiserate with over each tortured paragraph, each tired adjective? When you need an honest critique of your latest novel, short story, or poem, it makes sense to ask your writer friends, right? Wrong.

Please, I beg of you—for your own sanity—when a friend asks you to edit her work, Just Say No.

Because here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll tell yourself it’s only right to help her. She’s your friend. And besides, you know she writes brilliantly. Critiquing her work should be a snap. A few corrected typos here, an inconsistency there—zip, zap and you’ve done your good deed for the day. What could be easier?

But what if you start reading, only to realize the story has serious issues? What if there are significant problems that will take a lot of time and energy to fix?

In that situation, you have two choices. You could lie to spare your friend’s feelings, thus doing her a great disservice … or you could tell the truth. And risk her hating you forever.

No matter how much we want to hear the truth about our writing, an honest critique can be painful. And there are enough people in the world who will tell you that you suck without having to hear it from a friend.

Your friend may be able to take it. She may welcome your bravery and value your critique as a way to make her story better, even if it doesn’t feel too good at first.

But in the time it takes her to let you know that, you will go through hell. You’re a writer, after all. You’ll imagine the worst. You’ll second-guess yourself. Were you too harsh? Did you remember to tell her the good things about her story? Will she know you were just joking when you scrawled the word “barf”?

By the time your friend gets back to you, you will have lost hours of sleep. Acquired a few gray hairs. Bitten your nails to the quick.

In my case, my friend thankfully didn’t hate me. But I was a complete wreck when I got her email—I must have hit refresh on my browser five million times. She valued my critique and will even implement some of my suggestions.

But we’ve both agreed she’ll never ask me to critique her work again. For my own mental health.

Have you had a similar experience editing a friend’s work, or vice versa? Some friends make great crit partners, especially if they’re used to each others’ editing styles, but for me, it just isn’t worth it. I still support my writing friends—I comment on their blogs, go to their book launches, and give them great reviews—but it’s probably best they find a different critique partner.

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Holli is sharing one of her novels on her blog today (Oct 18) at www.thekickboxingwriter.blogspot.ca. She would love to see you there!
Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Guest Posts, Working With Other Writers

How Do You Feel About Authors Reviewing Books?

A few years ago, I noticed an interesting thing happening amongst author acquaintances of mine — the book review exchange. Author #1 agrees to review Author #2’s book if Author #2 agrees to review his book in return. But when Author #2 gets online and sees Author #1’s review of his book, things aren’t looking so happy. Three stars? It “wasn’t up to par?” But Author #2 gave Author #1 FIVE stars, and a glowing review. Isn’t that what authors are supposed to do for each other? Where’s the support? But Author #1 doesn’t feel bad. Author #1 says, “Hey, you said leave an honest review. Why are you so upset? I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve helped you out.” But did he? If he honestly didn’t care for the book, is he supposed to lie in his review? Find a clever and more professional way to say only nice things about it and give it a higher rating? Pull out of his obligation to write the review in the first place? Should authors agree to only give a review if they loved the book? Do we all just need to grow a backbone? These questions are valid not only for review exchanges, but authors reviewing any books in general. What is professional? Is there a line?

I’ll admit I did the review exchange a few times. Sometimes it worked out great, sometimes it didn’t. I also reviewed books on my own without any exchanges, but I eventually decided that as a published author I was no longer comfortable reviewing books, whether I knew the author or not. I took all books off my Goodreads profile, deleted every review I’ve ever written online, and decided never to say yes to exchanging reviews or review requests (even from friends, and yes, this was a difficult decision). I’m happy to blurb/endorse a book for another author, help out with marketing where I can by spreading the word, and recommend books in certain situations, but to this day, I am not comfortable writing reviews in public under my author name.

I’ve heard authors say, “Well, I read and review books, and I always will. I’m a reader as well as an author. I have every right to review books and share my opinions about them.” I think that may be so, and perhaps some authors can pull it off more gracefully than I can, but I’m far too worried I’ll unintentionally hurt feelings and burn bridges with an honest review, or cause distrust and skepticism with a ridiculously glowing one. Not to mention the hurt feelings I’ve observed when authors take time to review some books, but not others, when there’s clearly not enough time for authors to review everything out there, even from all their author friends.

How do you feel about authors reviewing books? If you’re a published author, do you review books online under your author name? I’m curious as to other viewpoints on this topic, so share how you feel. I’m curious!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Reading and Reviews, Working With Other Writers

What Feedback Means for a Writer

I just received two very nice, very helpful emails from some beta readers for Scales. They contained some great compliments and some suggestions for improvement according to their viewpoint. They were well-thought out and very kind. I like that kind of feedback. What I usually do to evaluate feedback is lay it all out, read it about 800 times, and then start piecing together what I feel will work for the book and what won’t.

Deciding What Works

This is the tricky part, because I feel that writers really do value what others think of their work. But they also know that as the author, their own opinion is the most important. They wrote it. They’re married to it. They know it better than anyone. So what do they do when they get feedback and they really respect the person who sent it to them, and they can see their point, but they’re all wishy-washy on whether or not to use the suggestion?

The first thing I do is evaluate whether or not a specific point ever crossed my mind before it was mentioned. If it did, then more than likely, I will want to use that suggestion.

If a suggestion feels like it could maybe work in the text, but I’m not sure, I’ll look at it from all possible angles. Will it drastically change the characters, the plot, the themes? If so, do I want to do that much revision? Will it be small changes? Does it affect my original vision of the story?

If I initially feel defensive about a certain suggestion, about nine times out of ten, it’s something I should use. I think this is because I feel defensive when, deep-down, I know the person is 100% correct. Sometimes my ego gets a kicking. I get over it. The story is all that matters!

What Has Changed

I think feedback has gotten easier for me to work with the more I write. It’s not such a huge guessing game anymore, and I think that comes about with practice. I think it also might have to do with finding beta readers I’m compatible with. That’s a huge deal. But I also think it’s because I’ve become aware of my writing on a different level. It’s fluid. Changeable. I’m not afraid to let it evolve, but I’ve also learned that I don’t have to please everyone, even my betas, and sometimes the story is what it is and shouldn’t be changed. Every time I talk to my husband about feedback I just received, he looks at me and says, “Remember the Steven King rule. If only one person mentions something, ignore it. If you get up into 5 or 6, you’re entering into consideration. More than that, do not ignore.”

Since I sometimes don’t use that many betas, I stick to percentages instead of numbers of people, but it’s the same idea. I’m not sure where my hubby read that, but he quotes it all the time. I’ll have to look it up!

What It Means

What feedback really means to me is something quite precious, actually. That there are people out there willing to read my imperfect, often dreadfully typo-ridden drafts and offer me suggestions is incredible. I’m deeply grateful for that, always. As more time goes by and I do this over and over, I think what I’ve learned is that while as much as I’d like to write in a vacuum, I know it’s impossible. My work always, always, always gets better when I allow feedback and actually use it to revise. And it’s not because I’m trying to please people – it’s because my focus is usually too narrow and I miss things.

I hope that if you’re a writer, you have found a good way to evaluate feedback. Honestly, it used to reduce me to tears. I used to stress about it, and I used to dread it. These days, it’s a breath of fresh air for a project. Night and day difference! It’s definitely possible.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Working With Other Writers

No Magical Touchstone

Last night as I was falling asleep I had an interesting thought about my own work and what people might think about it. Sometimes I get frustrated when people I’m close to don’t react to my work the way I would like them to. There is, of course, nothing I can do about this – nor is there anything I should do about it. Nobody controls how I react to a book, and I wouldn’t want anyone to. Talk about a violation. But this led me to an interesting realization that because a book takes on a different life depending on who’s reading it, that it might suck to one person, and be amazing to another. That’s a given, right? But I also thought about how almost every artist I know seems to have this innate need to know if their work is good or not. Publication, public display, awards, etc., seem to fulfill some sort of validation that something is good and worth sharing. Okay, that’s fine, but what about before that? And what about after? Because even after publication, so many writers still seem to feel like they need validation. This might have to do with the fact that, gasp, people still might think something sucks even after publication, public display, awards, etc. Oh, dear.

The point I’m getting at today is that no matter what you do as an artist, writer, creator of anything, you will never please everyone, and while we all know this inside and out, it often doesn’t seem to help. At least it hasn’t for me, and I think it’s because I’ve been missing one key element to a more healthy way of thinking about my work: allowing the possibility that my work really does suck to the people who think it sucks. They aren’t wrong or stupid or ignorant. They just didn’t like my stuff. So freaking what. And it doesn’t matter why they didn’t. It’s really none of my business. The key is that if I allow myself to let their opinions and feelings affect how I feel about my own work, I’m doing myself the biggest disservice possible.

There is no magical touchstone on top of which we set our work and get a yes or a no on whether it’s good or not. There is no ultimate weighing scale. It is what it is, and the only opinion that I feel truly matters is your own and anyone helping you to get your work out there. If you’re a writer, that would be your beta readers, your agent, publisher, editor, etc. For me, readers are absolutely 100% essential, and while I respect their opinions and care about the general feedback on my work, I don’t think they should ever act as a measuring stick. As a reader myself, I’ve read three books in the past week and a half, and while I liked one more than the others, I would never expect my opinions of any of the works to determine the value to the author.

Maybe I’m crazy for only now understanding this concept. I think I knew it before, but it’s only recently become clearer to me. I think it’s going to help with my writing, as well as my enjoyment of other books.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Working With Other Writers

There Are No Right Answers

michelle-d-argyle-monarch-coverI am still kicking myself for not bringing a camera to get a picture of the book group I visited this past week. I forgot to do this last time I visited a book group, as well. This particular one chose Monarch as their book for January, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled when they asked me to join them as their guest author. What made it even more special is that this group is based in my hometown and it has been a dream of mine to do things like this in the place I grew up. So thank you to Cari’s book group for such a wonderful evening.

One of the members was wearing a pretty butterfly necklace, which made me smile. We talked for nearly two hours about the book and answering questions from the reader guide. The best thing of all was sitting in a room with ten other people holding my book in their laps. It was a little surreal!

One thing I realized during the book discussion is something I’ve always know, but keep forgetting. The group passed around a jar of papers, each one with a question from the reader guide I mentioned above. The hostess for the evening joked that I would be able to tell them if their answers were correct. I laughed and said, “There are no right answers for these questions.”

And that is undeniably true.

Spending the evening with a roomful of readers has opened my eyes. I hang out with a lot of writers, so it was fascinating to see the different reactions to the book and the different answers given for each question. Everything discussed was untainted by a writing perspective, so some of the answers surprised me and brought even more depth to the story I had written – things I had never even considered before. I might even join this book group because I think I can learn a lot from spending time with everyday readers. What happens inside someone’s head when they read a story is an amazing thing. A story I create will always mean different things to every single reader, and I think that’s one of the most exciting things about being an author – knowing your story becomes bigger, different, and more unique with each different reader.

Visiting book groups is something I would love to keep doing throughout my career since it’s possible to do visits over Skype, as well as in person. My novels seem to lend themselves well to book groups. It’s exciting to find a little space where they fit!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Books, Monarch, Working With Other Writers

How Do You Find a Beta Reader?

I’ve had a lot of people asking me about beta readers lately, so here are my thoughts.

When I first heard the term beta reader, all I could think about was my beta fish in college. I had that fish for two years. I named it Jessifer. I don’t have that fish anymore, but I have beta readers. I also have alpha readers. I don’t have a set critique group, which can work differently from beta readers who might change from project to project.

Alpha Reader – Someone who reads a written work in stages as it is being written and provides feedback, often very positive, to the author for moral support and to spot any large issues as they’re happening.

Beta Reader – Someone who reads a written work as a completed draft and provides feedback, often constructive criticism, to the author for revisions and edits.

All writers seem to need different things since we’re all different. Yesterday I wrote about publishing your first book too fast. I wrote about that because more often than not, my own work needs some hefty read-throughs and revisions before it’s even close to ready for publication. I couldn’t do this without beta readers and it’s hard for me to imagine writing something so wonderfully perfect that it doesn’t need help from outside my own brilliance. And yes, I’m being sarcastic when I say brilliance. My first drafts are anything but brilliant. I have noticed, however, that the more I write the less readers I need. I think I will always need at least two.

So how does one go about finding a beta reader?

For me, friendships! My friend Scott G.F. Bailey has a mighty fine alpha/beta reader whom online he calls Mighty Reader. I’m not sure if she reads his work in the stages as it’s being written, but I do know she’s close to him personally, and she is an avid reader. He trusts her to read his work because he trusts her as a person. He also lets me and our friend Davin Malasarn read his work in draft stages. The three of us are beta readers for each other, and occasionally alpha readers on some things. We also blog together on The Literary Lab. We’re friends.

For my advice on how to find good beta readers – just get out there and make friends. If you’re reading this blog, you obviously make your way around the blogosphere. Put a call out on your own blog or social network for other writers or readers who are interested in helping you beta read. If that doesn’t work or the beta readers aren’t giving the kind of feedback you need, join a free site like Critique Circle. Everyone there is looking for critique help. You’re bound to find a few good matches for your work. Currently, one of my best beta readers is a friend I made through this very blog. She commented a lot on here, so I started following her blog where she only had 5 followers. We got to be friends and she ended up purchasing and reading Cinders. She loved it so much and gave me such great feedback on it that I let her beta-read my novella, Thirds. Now, she has read almost everything I’ve written. She’s fantastic. I had to make an effort to find her and build a friendship. I value that friendship and her help with my work. I also return the favor and read her work, as well. That’s often how beta reading goes, but doesn’t always have to work that way. Find friends outside of the internet who are willing to read your work in its first stages – people you know who love reading. They are often the best beta readers, and valuable to have when you need an opinion not colored with a writer’s viewpoint.

Are there different kinds of beta readers?

Absolutely. For me, a beta reader is someone I must trust and get along with. Two of my beta readers are friends I didn’t make online through writing. They are my two friends who don’t write. They are readers only, and their input is extremely valuable.

How many beta readers should you have?

As many as you need. I use a different amount of beta readers for different projects. Sometimes I need three, sometimes four or five, and I’ll ask different people to beta read at different stages of the work. For the first draft, two betas will work. For the third and fourth drafts when I’m getting close to finished, another two betas (usually Scott and Davin) will work.

Should your beta readers stick with you?

It depends. For me, I have beta readers who read almost every project I work on, but I’ve also had other people who have only beta read for me once. Sometimes a beta reader isn’t a good fit for you or a particular project. Sometimes a writer just needs different readers all the time. For me, it depends on the project for who reads what.

What if a beta reader is taking too long or isn’t working?

I’ve had this happen a few times, and it’s frustrating. But you have to remember that people are busy. If your beta reader promises to get back to you in a specific amount of time and they’re taking longer, then maybe there’s an issue with them not liking your work and they’re too afraid to tell you. Or maybe they’ve had something come up that is unrelated to your work. Either way, communication is key. If the beta relationship isn’t working and this person is a good friend, simply tell them you value their feedback, but for that particular project, it’s not going to work out. Keep it professional. No friendship is worth ruining over a book, so be cautious when choosing your beta readers, too.

I could go on and on about beta readers, but let me know if you have any advice here in the comments section. Do you have beta readers?

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Working With Other Writers

You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About! Reading & Critiquing In Layers

Ah, more layers. I did a post awhile ago about Working In Layers. And now I’m expanding to talk about Reading & Critiquing In Layers.

What Is Layering?

As explained in my earlier post, think of layering like your body. Underneath everything is the skeleton. Add muscle tissue, skin, and then all the fine details that make the person interesting and unique on the outside.

When I spoke about Working In Layers, I explained how I edit in different stages or levels – or layers. It’s all the same concept. First I’ll write the story, then I’ll edit for fluff. Then I’ll edit for tension. Then I’ll edit for grammar, and so and so forth. Every layer adds something more to the work as a whole, and ultimately you’ll end up with a polished novel. I don’t like to do all of it at once. It’s too much. I find that if I work in layers, I can keep things much better organized and under control.

I also talk about layers as in layers or levels of meaning in a work. I also add layers like the symbolic layer. This often comes later when I can see how symbols and themes in the novel are coming together and where I can tighten them and make them shine.

What Is Reading In Layers?

I currently have my novel Monarch up for beta reading and up on its own novel blog for invited readers. After receiving some great feedback, I suddenly realized that like working in layers, we can also read in layers.

If you read The Great Gatsby, for instance, you might first read it for the PLOT layer. Then on your next read, since you know the plot, you’ll read for the SYMBOLS layer. Then maybe for the CHARACTERS layer. And so on and so forth. Being an English major, I usually read multiple layers at a time. However, I don’t think most readers do.

Judging from the feedback I’m receiving on Monarch, I’m beginning to see that many readers critique only specific layers. One specific reader (and no, it isn’t anyone who reads this blog) made me want to scream, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! Didn’t you see what I was trying to do with that point of view? Hello! It’s obvious. If you would just read a little more carefully!”

Then I took a step back and made myself breathe normally.
This reader was not seeing certain layers – besides the fact that I have not made that layer CLEAR enough yet, anyway. After realizing this, it was suddenly evident what I need to work on and which layer needs the most attention. I don’t want that layer to be obvious, but I certainly want it clearer than it is!

I don’t know about you, but I always read in multiple layers. Many readers pick up a book for only one layer – the ENTERTAINMENT or PLOT layer. I know I do sometimes. But many other readers are looking for something more to sink their teeth into.

What Is Critiquing In Layers?

My novel Monarch works on many different layers, but many of them are still not meshing right yet. It creates a discord that many readers cannot pinpoint.

For those of you who critique other works, try and remember that there may be several layers to get through. A good critique often involves more than one read-through. However, I know I certainly don’t have time to beta read a novel more than once! So I try and put my time to its best use and critique several layers as I go.

If something doesn’t feel right, I’ll step back and look at it from different angles. I’ll ask myself, is the writer trying to be symbolic here? Is that a layer I have not paid attention to yet? Sometimes it helps to take notes of certain threads and layers running through the story so you don’t forget.

But that’s just me. I’m a layer girl.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Working With Other Writers