Friday, April 21, 2017

To Beta or Not to Beta?

That is a question many new authors ask themselves, as we all try to find out who we are as writers: our style, our voice, our audience, even our genre. Submitting your work to other people for feedback is something many people do, if they are able, but there is a debate in the writing community about how useful this is. Is it necessary for other people to read your work before you...query, submit, publish? Does anyone's opinion matter but yours?

As I said in my last post, I just finished the initial draft of my next book, Bog Body (previous working title Up from the Bog), a dark romantic fantasy, and I'm typing it up to get it ready for...Beta reading. This is the sixth manuscript that I've finished (1 nonfiction monograph, 3 novels, 2 novellas), and the sixth time that I am sharing my work with others before I consider it "finished," in a state ready for querying. As I take a little breather from writing and start to reflect on my various projects, polishing them before moving on to other concepts, I'd like to share my thoughts on the next potential step in the writing process.. Here are four benefits of using Betas, and four drawbacks.

THE BENEFITS OF BETAS

Fresh Eyes

Sometimes your mind and your eyes are in such great sync that you miss your own mistakes. It could be something minor like a typo, or it could be a turn of phrase you thought was eloquent (and therefore overused), or, in the case of a fantasy story, you might have made a logical leap in reality, and left the readers without access to mind-reading behind. Another reader will see only what's on the paper, not in your head. This is good, because you can see if those things match up, and what it might take to make them match, to give the reader the reaction to your work you wanted them to have.

Objectivity
All readers are subjective, yes. But only you love your story the way you do. Another, unfeeling person will tell you what resonated with them and what didn't, and point you, sometimes painfully, to the things that fell flat. Even if you loved them. A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary sometimes to elicit the best product. I have a tendency to hang on to turns of phrase that I like, even when they're no longer relevant. Someone else telling you it doesn't work for them will help you get over the hump of attachment, and force you to be the best writer you can be.

Confidence
A good Beta will do exactly as I just said: tell you what worked, and what didn't. In an industry that is centered on rejection, and usually with no explanation to accompany it, it's important for budding writers to know that, no, what you wrote may not be perfect, or ready for general consumption, BUT..it had a good premise, believable dialogue, nice worldbuilding...fill in the blank. That kind of feedback can be essential to hear, and I've found personally that it can be a guiding force to figuring out my own personal voice.


Examples:  "I didn't appreciate the humor": Know your limitations. "The descriptions made me feel like I was really there"  Go all in. "It feels more like fantasy, less like romance." Now I know what I'm writing, and how to pitch it.

The good things Betas tell you can help you know yourself, know your audience, and know what to lead with when talking to potential readers, reviewers, agents, and publishers. And let's face it, we all need help doing that.

Patterns

This encompasses two different things: your patterns as a writer, and patterns in your feedback. Another reader will notice your tendencies, good or bad.

Examples: "You use the word 'seem' a lot," "your dialogue often starts with 'well,'" "most of the sentences being with 'I'," "you tend to use passive instead of active voice," "you confuse your tenses a lot." Being aware of these things gives you the choice of what to do about it.

Secondly, Betas can provide feedback in patterns. If you have two or three people responding to the same passages in the same way...you should be paying attention. One Beta alone is not enough--a few good ones will do the trick, though.

Now as I said, all writers are different, and perform differently with different methods. Betas...hell, writing careers in general... are not for the thin-skinned, and therefore should be used with caution by those who are more sensitive to the opinions of others. Here are FOUR drawbacks of using Beta Readers.

Self-Doubt

This is the biggest problem. If you have a hard time seeing past what didn't work, even the best-intentioned notes can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. If it's serious enough, it may discourage you from writing altogether. But if you love to write, you shouldn't stop.

Confusion

Patterns among Betas are great, and can be really useful. But in the real world, everybody has their own opinion. If you get a slew of readers who say conflicting things, that can leave you in a pickle. Then you have to do the hard, sometimes impossible work of figuring out why something may have worked for one person and not another. If your Beta is a friend or relative, you might be able to guess, but sometimes the best Betas are found in online communities like Facebook or Goodreads, so it's not a guarantee that you'll know your Beta well enough to make that call. In those cases, you can feel like you're back at square one.

Deadbeat Betas

I hate it when this happens. You send your stuff out to someone, all excited that you'll finally get some feedback...and then nothing. It happens. A lot. Even with friends and family (especially with friends and family-jk love you guys!). Then what? Hound them? No, that's not sending the right message. Be forever angry? In some families, that works. In an I-talian family like mine, someone's always mad at somebody, but who cares? Then again, it can put you in a perpetual state of feeling "unready" to face the world. Then you agonize about why they didn't finish. That confidence in Betas thing can be a real double-edged sword.

Overly Critical Betas

This can also be a problem, and you should always try to figure out what you want out of a Beta and set the tone before waiting for notes (Questionnaires that address your own concerns can be helpful, and make the Beta pay attention where you want them to.) It is the nature of some people to point out every flaw (which you want, of course, you want complete feedback), but you want someone who will do it in a way that is constructive. Constructive criticism is the name of the game: it's a form of support that is challenging, but ultimately rewarding. If you get a Beta whose sole response to your work is "It was a waste of my time, you should stop wasting yours," then unfriend that person immediately. There will always be people who don't like your work, and that's just life, but you want a Beta who avidly reads the genre you write in, and can try to show you how your work fits into that whole in the mind of a reader. This is why sometimes online acquaintances are best. It's so easy to find people with like-minded interests, and the result will be better than if you, say, foist your steamy romances on a hubby who never read a romance book in his life, even if he's willing (thanks, by the way-love you too).


There you have it folks. Me personally, I have been bred with a tough skin from academia, so I can handle the heat of my Betas. And I know it has made me a better writer. Whether the pros outweigh the cons is for you is for each author to decide. Ultimately, how much the voices of others matter is up to you. They are the Betas, but YOU are the Alpha.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Deceptively Beautiful - The Queen of the Night

I'm super proud (and relieved!) to be finished with the first draft of my standalone WIP,  Up from the Bog. I'll be polishing the first draft in preparations for betas, but first I must Type.It.Up. Before I throw myself headlong into that, I scratched the itch that has been digging at me for the last third of the book or so, to read. I'll be doing that like a maniac until I can feel normal again. Book abstinence has driven me partially insane, where for the past two days I kind of forgot I had a life while I blew through the 500+ pages of Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night.

I'd been anticipating reading this book from my shelf for some time-I'm a sucker for stories of intrigue within the art world-in this case, the opera world. Lilliet Berne, a world-renowned singer with a rare and delicate Falcon voice, believes the secrets of her life to be discovered when a stranger presents her with a new opera, a story of her own life, in which she would originate the role, the greatest honor for an opera diva.

Lilliet runs through the options of who might have finally divulged her secret, telling her story with each of these characters in turn: as she says, one who loved her, one who owned her, one who is dead, and one she hopes never thinks of her at all. The language is lyrical, hypnotic, carefully crafted, and I laud the effort to mimic the narrative structures of a variety of opera throughout the course of the book. I was drawn deeper and deeper with fine details and the tremendous research of 19th-century Paris, its opera house, and major political players.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women
merely players
-that's what Lilliet would have us believe
But the beauty of the words is a thick veil, and masks the flaws in narrative tension and development of character. The premise presented on the flap of the book is merely a frame story, for 90% of the book is consumed with Lilliet Berne's past. It robs that intrigue of its urgency, and since all these tales are Lilliet's secrets, it's easy to forget that they are secrets at all-in fact, almost every character you encounter seems to know exactly who she is and how she came to be an opera giant. So the fear with which she tries to decipher the thin mystery feels overly dramatic. Her memories likewise suffer from not being immediate or urgent for, after all, we know she will one day find herself where the book begins, singing to worshipping audiences at a lavish ball at Luxemborg Palace. And those past stories, though well-crafted, are sadly not so original, or shocking. They can be powerful because they are sad, not because I wasn't expecting it. It's nothing like the tension that grips me when reading Wilkie Collins. Now that man had secrets.

The many travails of a courtesan-
This book reminded me a lot of
du Maurier's Mary Anne
Much of Lilliet's sorrows are of her own making. Which isn't a flaw, per se, but throughout the telling of her whole life, she lives under the delusion that she is a caged bird, her fate determined by the powerful figures surrounding her. Many times, I found it easy to see how her story could have been different, how she did, in fact, have choices. She is not as controlled as she pretends to be, only she surrenders to the will of others-for vanity, mostly-for jewels, fine dresses, and the fame of a diva. Freedom, happiness, and a simple life are only out of reach because she makes it so. That pattern of decision-making does not change, even as she continues to encounter the same figures, and falls in with those who would exploit her terribly time and again, instead of resorting to: flight, murder, her on again off again deception of being mute, liquidating her assets, or forgiving the sins of others for which she is also guilty. Honestly-how is a courtesan upset about her lover doing the same?

In the end, I cannot be as sorry for her as I believe I'm meant to be, simply because I did not see any virtue in her choices-she could have been happy, had she been brave. I was left wishing for more heroism, and more of the darkness and fantasy that the original premise suggested. In truth, what this book needed was a little more Phantom.

K Rating: 7/10
**New Author Goal** 7 out of 30





Sunday, April 9, 2017

Shoulda Stopped at Three - Into the Fire

Books with shirtless men are normally not my thing. Don't get me wrong - I rarely pass up a tale with a romantic thread in it, given that the context is of interest-something gothic, fantastical, supernatural, or historical. But I have extremely high reading standards, especially in regards to the actual craft of writing, and lots of seemingly good concepts (like vampires) are largely wasted on people who couldn't write something worth reading to save their lives.

The Night Prince series by Jeaniene Frost came into my orbit by accident, but once I set myself to try it, I read books 1-3 within a week or two. I was able to forgive instances of lazy writing when they were balanced by explosive romantic tension between Vlad Tepesh (yes, the real one, we're told), and Leila, a girl whose body is a constant conduit for enormous amounts of electrical power. The fantasy-action oriented plot was continuous over the course of the series, and though impractical most times, it held together the romance story nicely. As usual, by the end of the third book, one problem was solved, but another was just beginning. Vlad, the chauvinistic, medieval prick, finally buckles to his love for Leila, who, despite solving most of her own problems, is repeatedly kidnapped and tortured. Those darker strains of the plot are interesting, but when Frost tries to pack in too much supernatural ability and too many characters, a lot of things get lost in the shuffle.

Into the Fire, the last installment of this series, was the most disappointing of the bunch, and the many flaws dramatically outweighed its good points. Leila is magically tied to Vlad's stepson Mircea, the mastermind behind the betrayal in the last volume. When he gets cut, she gets cut, and vice versa. So when someone kidnaps Mircea to manipulate Vlad, using Leila as a target, the clock is ticking to sever the spell binding them together.

How the couple is meant to achieve that is one of the glaring examples of how thin the plot is. Could the answer lie with magic, necromancy, legacy power, Cherokee mysticism, demonology, vampirism, Egyptian mythology.... So many options are presented that it's hard to keep up. The worst bit:by the end, it appears that the link is NOT severed. So plot-wise, the book is pointless.

But who cares about plot in these guilty pleasures? You came for the romance, not the plot, right? Well. It's the slimmest in this volume above all others. Apparently marrying the characters drained them of their romantic interest - another myth this book abuses. Deeper than that, there's no character development here. The tension in the earlier books worked because you watched Vlad struggle to accept, and then express his emotions, without being an overbearing idiot that puts Leila at risk even as he tries to save her. The impression of their current relationship: Vlad isn't changing his destructive ways, and Leila is going to live with it. I'm sorry, but no. That's not how marriage works. That's not how character development works.

Finally- to refer to Dracula as drivel is a laugh. Without that "drivel," this book wouldn't exist. There's a reason that an ultimate work of mood and genre has never been out of print for more than a century.

The purpose of new books in a series is to give you at least a little something new. I feel cheated.

K Rating: 1/10

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Specter of the Indian - Cover Reveal!

I'm super pleased to share the cover of my nonfiction book, The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Seances, 1848-1890 with you. It's being released in September by SUNY Press, and I could not be more thrilled with this first impression.






Here's the summary from SUNY Press's website:

The Specter of the Indian unveils the centrality of Native American spirit guides during the emergent years of American Spiritualism. By pulling together cultural and political history; the studies of religion, race, and gender; and the ghostly, Kathryn Troy offers a new layer of understanding to the prevalence of mystically styled Indians in American visual and popular culture. The connections between Spiritualist print and contemporary Indian policy provide fresh insight into the racial dimensions of social reform among nineteenth-century Spiritualists. Troy draws fascinating parallels between the contested belief of Indian as fading from the world, claims of returned apparaitions, and the social impetus to provide American Indians with a means of existence in white America. Rather than vanishing from national sight and memory, Indians and their ghosts are shown to be ever present. This book transports the readers into dimly lit parlor rooms and darkened cabinets and lavishes them with detailed seance accounts in the words of those who witnessed them. Scrutinizing the otherworldly whisperings heard therein highlights the voices of mediums and those they sought to channel, allowing the author to dig deep into Spiritualist belief and practice. The influential presence of Indian ghosts is made clear and undeniable.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Silent Hill meets the Twilight Zone - The Shock Labyrinth

Asian cinema is one of the few subgenres of horror where not only do I expect things to lean towards the weird side, I hope for it. The premise to Takashi Shimizu's The Shock Labyrinth (2009) is deceptively simple. A group of schoolkids visit a dark ride, and revisit it again as young adults, minus the girl who died the first time around. Without revealing almost everything cool about what happens in this film, it was compelling to watch because the fear factors were very similar to the concepts of survival horror seen in the Silent Hill game franchise. The most mundane things can be the scariest, when they do impossible things -red balloons floating in decrepit bathroom stalls, a ratty backpack of a stuffed bunny flying through the halls, a woman perpetually climbing a spiral staircase only to fall down it again with a sickening thud.

The group has still not gotten over their traumatic experiences the first time through this ride, but when the friend who should be dead appears out of nowhere, they find themselves back where they began. The past is never very far from them, and those lines are continually blurred in compelling, and yes, shocking ways. By the end of the film, all the disparate images that you see become clearer in their meaning and significance, holding your interest for all the time spend in such a very small, but brilliantly crafted, set. There is deliberation in every scene that is overwhelmingly impressive. It's that kind of artistic effort that keeps me coming back to Shimizu's work over and over again.

Rating: 8/10