• CEMurphy

    beta readers

    I did something very unusual this weekend, which was send a book out to beta readers. Normally I…don’t do that. Broadly speaking I feel writing a book is largely a closed loop between myself and my editor: she’s the source of feedback that I need, and I generally find adding more people in to that cycle to be very stressful.

    I am, in fact, finding it very stressful, which is totally on me, not the readers: they’re providing feedback in exactly the way a writer wants them to, which is clearly, concisely and specifically, without emotionally laden language or snarky commentary, and by cushioning it with comments about what they did like, too.

    No lie: the absolute worst editing experience I’ve ever had, when a very rough draft book was sent to second readers without my knowledge, I got feedback from one of those readers that said, literally, when I’d gotten something wrong, “AHAHAHAH NO”. I’m still angry about that, on so many levels. The whole process was so upsetting it took me about three months longer than it should have to edit the book because every time I opened the file I became enraged. In fact, I finally had to turn all the comments off, on that project, and deal with the problems as I saw them in the book before reactivating them and taking one last grim stab at it to answer anything left.

    A good beta reader doesn’t do that, obviously. A good beta reader remembers that they’re involved in part of the creative process and that artists tend to be somewhat delicate fragile flowers about their art. And a good artist remembers that the way to improve their art is to listen to feedback about it…which doesn’t stop me from having an Instantaneous Sulk whenever I get a revision letter.

    I mean, for example, the MAGIC & MANNERS revision letter was so light that even I couldn’t get into a sulk about it, which is pretty astonishing. Normally I glance at the letter, then, regardless of what it actually says, think something to the effect of OH MY GOD SHE HATES ME WHAT DOES SHE WANT ME TO DO TO MY PRECIOUS STORY NO I HATE HER I HATE IT ALL HOW DARE SHE and then about three days later, sullenly, I circle back around and actually read it and go “okay that’s not really so bad after all…” This is my process. I recognize that. :)

    But it *is* my process, which means beta readers tend to put me in the OH MY GOD THEY HATE ME cycle for several days while feedback comes in, and, as I said, I find that stressful. It’s worse when the book is on a (hopefully) short turn-around, as this one is, and I have less time to sit and breathe my way through the sulks because I need to get the edits in place and ready to go.

    All that said, though, in this particular case, though, when I’m revising a 20 year old book and I have far too much baggage clouding my judgment of the material, boy are they being helpful. Two of them (so far) have called out one thing as something that needs either clarification or excising, and a third has commented on something that I…well, I wondered about it, which is why I needed these readers.

    Actually, I wondered about the thing the other two commented on, as well, which is probably good, as it means I’ve probably got a clearer picture of the material than I’m afraid I do…but it also means I really needed somebody else to read it and say “no really you do have to deal with this” rather than allow myself to believe that naaaaaaaah it’s fiiiiiiiiiiiine. :)

    Anyway, despite the stress angle of it, I’m glad I’ve done this, as it’ll improve the book in exactly the ways I hope to. Onward!

  • Uncategorized

    Writing Wednesdays: Synopses

    My latest question from the peanut gallery was about how I write synopses. Or at least, I think that’s what it was about: the entirety of the question, actually, was, “Synopsis?” :)

    I’ve talked about writing synopses before at least once, in depth, as part of the Great Plot Synopsis Project (warning: that contains the entirety of the (2 page) synopsis for URBAN SHAMAN, and is therefore spoilery). However, that was written in early 2008, and I have Changed My Process since then.

    Specifically, in fact, I’ve changed it in the past couple of years. Some time ago–maybe while writing MOUNTAIN ECHOES–I had an unusually good writing go, because I had an unusually solid idea of what I was doing. The same thing had happened with the Inheritors’ Cycle books, in fact, and I began to have a sneaking suspicion that having a thorough outline might be…*good for me*.

    But I used to think that thorough synopses would suck the joy out of writing the actual book. Where’s the mystery! and all that. And, I mean, I knew my process: I would write to roughly the 1/3rd mark and hit a wall. I’d go back and revise, and make my way up to the 2/3rds mark. I’d hit another wall, and revise. Then I’d finish the book, so by the time I reached “the end”, I usually had a pretty darn solid draft.

    Except on those three books, that one Walker Papers novel and the two Inheritors’ Cycle books, I really hadn’t hit those walls. I’d really kinda just blown through them, because I knew where I was going. So for four out of my five most recent books I’ve gotten more serious about the process, even though frankly, I hate synopsising.

    MAGIC & MANNERS didn’t have an *exhaustive* synopsis, not the level I’ll be talking about next. OTOH, I was following (in large part, anyway) the plot of one of the most successful books ever written in the English language, so, uh. I didn’t really need to break that down too much.

    But STONE’S THROE, BEWITCHING BENEDICT (an as-yet un-contracted-for straight-up Regency romance) and REDEEMER have all been synopsised within an inch of their lives. In all three cases I’ve relied heavily on my brainstorming group, and REDEEMER is going to be the most interesting test of this process, because it’s going to be, by a considerable margin, the longest of the three.

    STONE’S THROE and BENEDICT were both in the region of 70K and had synopses of around 3K; given that the synopses I’ve sold on and used as my jumping boards for the past decade were generally around 1500 words for 100K books, that’s quite a jump in detail.

    (The one book of the five most recent that I didn’t do a really thorough synopsis on was, incidentally, a miserable writing experience. It went through five painful drafts before I got to the end, and although it seems to work I’m still not strictly convinced it does. :[)

    So I’ll talk about REDEEMER now. :)

  • Writing

    Reader Questions: Process & Pagecount

    Lots of process questions, so I’m going to tuck them together into one and answer different aspects of questions people have asked!

    Lola & Anne just want straight-up process discussion, which you’d think I’d have covered with the posts for the last couple of weeks, but you’d be wrooooong. :)

    Then Kat Bonson follows up with How does your writing process work (e.g. do you write specific # of pages a day or is it a hit & miss kind of thing)? How does your agent/editor fit into your process?

    I have a pretty standard writing process, which is not necessarily one that I’m always pleased with. It generally looks like “write 30% of the book, hit a wall, go back, fix the things that are wrong, write up to about 70%, hit another wall, go back, fix the things that are wrong, complete the book, fix the things that are wrong…”

    It does not matter if the book is 60,000 words or 175,000 words: those are the benchmarks regardless of word count.

    What this gets me is a pretty clean first draft, or what I call first draft (despite what the folders in my writing directory may say)–the thing I send to my editor, anyway, because by the time I finally get to the end I’ve usually fixed most of what I can fix without outside interference.

    Occasionally there is a massive, massive rewrite called for by editorial, and that begets a whole different kind of process which I will write about soon if I remember. But we’ll stick with non-traumatizing books for now. :)

    Typically I write books in order. Chronologically. More recently, one of the ways I start to know I’m really coming near to the end of the book is that I find myself wanting to skip ahead to write the end. Generally I go right ahead and let myself do that, because it’s much more agonizing to wait than it is to just get it out of the way, and sometimes it informs me about things that have to happen between where I am in the story and where my subconscious is telling me it’s going to end up.

    Probably the first time I did that skip-ahead thing was with SPIRIT DANCES, the 6th book of the Walker Papers, for which I wrote the final chapter immediately after writing, er, COYOTE DREAMS, the 3rd book of the Walker Papers. Then I sent that chapter to my editor as part of my proposal for books 4-6. You think *you* guys had a long wait for that scene, holy carp, my poor editor read it YEARS in advance and KNEW IT WAS COMING but had to wait through the *five other books* I did for her before she got to read the whole story! :)

    (Incidentally, aside from one direct-to-the-reader comment from Joanne, the final chapter of SPIRIT DANCES is actually almost identical to the one published.)

    The last time I did the skipping around was with SHAMAN RISES, the final book of the Walker Papers, which I wrote–by my standards–hugely out of order…but as my husband pointed out, it is The End. It’s the culmination of over a million words of writing. If I’m inclined to write the end out of order, it kind of makes sense that I wrote that whole *book* out of order.

    I don’t know yet if the intensive synopsizing I talked about last week will affect the out-of-order ending (probably not, as I skipped ahead and wrote the end of STONE’S THROE too, and I had a really solid synopsis for that one), but it *does* significantly reduce the 30 & 70% impact walls.

    In terms of daily page count, well, my perpetual goal is 1100 words a day, every day. I never do that. The one year I averaged it was the busiest writing year of my life (and I also moved overseas o.O), but it remains my goal. More realistically, if I get the chance to sit down and write at all, I tend to feel like if I don’t get a thousand words it wasn’t much worth sitting down to even try–but it can be really hard to keep the momentum going when I *don’t* get to write every day, so I try (not particularly successfully) not to beat myself up about it too much.

    It’s easiest to not beat myself up when I’m starting a book and feeling the characters out and stuff. The thing I’m working on now, it took three days and probably four or five hours to get the first thousand words down, but today I did a bit over 4K in 3 hours or so. Beginnings are slow, but once I get my feet under me I pick up speed. The truth is I like to binge write, and if I can get four or five days of dawn-to-dusk writing in I’ll write 30 or 40K and I’m happy as a clam. I don’t write anything ELSE for weeks after that, but it’s great while it lasts.

    Probably 95% of my agent’s input is “work on that, I think it’ll sell” with the occasional “I didn’t like this bit,” which then causes me to go 1. NO YOU ARE A FOOL THIS IS HOW IT MUST BE, *pause for reflection*, 2. NO I AM A FOOL YOUR WAY IS TOTALLY HOW IT MUST BE, HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT, or alternately 1. holy shit, what a great idea, I’ll incorporate that!

    There is no 2 after that one. :)

    My editors’ input is actually fairly similar, though with less emphasis on the “work on this, it’ll sell” and more on the insightful commentary that causes me to be embarrassed that I didn’t see it in the first place. I rarely think they’re fools, although I invariably have a OH GOD YOU HATE ME HOW CAN YOU SAY SUCH THINGS ABOUT MY BAAAAAAAAABYYYYYYY reaction before getting over myself.

    I’ll talk about the occasions upon which they ask for something more dramatic in a different post. :)

  • Writing

    evolving process

    Following up somewhat on last week’s process post…

    Recently on Twitter Tobias Buckell mentioned he was 6K into a 10K synopsis for a 55K book. Kate Elliott chimed in to say that in December, she’d managed 4K a day for 2 weeks straight–far above her usual writing average–due to having a supremely clear idea of what had to happen in the book at that point.

    I myself have become increasingly aware that the more I outline, the more smoothly the book goes. Particular cases in point were THE PRETENDER’S CROWN, which, as part of a series I’d been planning for years, had a leg up anyway, but was doubled down on due to breaking (or murderously spraining) a finger at the same time I was supposed to start writing it, and ending up with 6 weeks to think about it while I couldn’t type, and STONE’S THROE, a 60K book for which I had about 3000 words of synopsis.

    I’m obviously not working at Toby’s level yet, but I’m kind of eyeing it covetously. I’ve just written a synopsis for another short book, and at about 3K am relatively satisfied with its level of detail, but if the proposal is agently-approved, I’m thinking I may want to double the outline’s length before plunging into writing the book.

    I have another project in the works for a *big* book, and at this point I’m guessing a useful synopsis for it is going to run at least 10-15K, and possibly twice that. That’s a hell of a lot of prepatory writing. OTOH, my husband is inclined to feel that in-depth outlining like that should count toward my overall yearly wordcount, so that takes some of the pain away. :)

    It’s pretty strange finding myself inclined to increasingly detailed synopses. I remember quite clearly when I felt that outlining would remove all the magic and mystery from writing (which, when I said that to Toby and Kate, was met with rueful agreement), but what I’m finding is that it’s removing a lot of the frustration and delays instead. I write pretty fast anyway, given the blocks of time to do it in; it could be interesting to see how fast I can write if I’ve got a super, super detailed map to follow.

    Of course, it’ll be equally interesting to determine whether the amount of time put into a detailed synopsis is worth it. I’m going to have to keep track of that, but fortunately that shouldn’t be too hard. I write an average of 1K an hour when writing fiction, so basically if I end up able to knock a 100K book out in 70 or 80 hours, the time synopsising is worth it (and if I could cut it to 60 hours it would be WAY worth it).

    So I’m going to have to see how much time I spend on a synopsis I’m guessing…8-10 hours of actual writing time, at this point? Really not sure. I *do* know that hands down the fastest way for me to write one is to sit down in a chat room with somebody else in it and just talk it out. I don’t even need response, I just need to feel like I’m telling somebody kind of what happens. It removes the formality of the process for me and makes it much, *much* easier. Then I can take that really rough shape, start refining it, and–as I’ve been doing lately–then turn it over to my brainstorming filter, where people tend to make glorious, outrageous suggestions that lead me in directions I might never have thought of on my own.

    And that’s *another* major change in my process, actually. I’ve been hitting the brainstorming filter pretty heavily lately. I’ve always bounced a lot of ideas off Ted, and still do, but–for example–one of the projects I’m working on is in a genre he doesn’t read, so it’s not his strong suit for plot development. So I’m going out to a larger group to get feedback and responses and thoughts at the very initial development levels, which is fascinating and fun and proving surprisingly (to me, anyway) helpful.

    I believe that the point of all this is not only is there not One True Way to write, but in fact, there’s not even One True Way for any given writer throughout their career. :)

  • CEMurphy

    Reader Questions: process & projects

    Joliene asks: [What] drives your writing and keeps the juices flowing? What are the project ideas you have in the works, now that The Walker Papers is being put to bed???

    Occasionally what my publisher is looking for drives my writing ideas–that’s what prompted the Strongbox Chronicles, for example, and it’s behind one of the projects I’m putting together now.

    Far more often, though, it’s a random comment or thought that ends up getting terribly out of control. :) I’ve mentioned before that the Walker Papers were born out of my husband looking out the airplane window as we descended into Seattle and saying, “What do you suppose someone would do if they were flying into a city like this and saw someone running for their lives on the street below? What if they were running from the Wild Hunt?”

    The rest, as we know, is history. :)

    As for what drives the actual writing? The sit down and get it done part? Overwhelming ambition, I suppose. Insane levels of focus. A desire to write over doing almost anything else. The fact that I only get paid if I write, just like anybody else only gets paid if they do their job…

    What keeps the juices flowing is at least partly trying new things. That’s part of why I’m doing MAGIC & MANNERS–I really, really enjoy trying new voices and trying to tell stories in different ways. (STONE’S THROE was huge fun for that reason.)

    And that (to segue into the last question) is a lot of why I’m not planning any urban fantasy for the immediate future. I’ve written 5 series in the past 10 years. 4 of them have been contemporary and 3 of them have been urban fantasy, or, to put it another way, I’ve published (or am soon to publish) 24 books, 16 of which have been urban fantasy.

    That’s a lot of urban fantasy. o.O

    So right now my agent is shopping around a YA epic fantasy series, the one I’ve been working on for my nephew. It’s something totally different and it’s been a lot of fun to write. I also have two more proposals in the works, both of which are profoundly different from anything I’ve published. Right now they’re still so fresh I’m disinclined to talk about them much, but if they go to the agent and then out to the editors, I’ll tell people what they are. :)

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