Friday, July 20, 2012

Plot Nazis at Midnight

Staying up inordinately late seems to be a new habit. (Be assured that it’s being formed out of necessity and not will.) Wednesday night, after having dinner with some Canadian friends, I had a long conference with Tracy Erickson concerning my final edit of a recently finished short story. If you’ve ever been to a book signing at Powell’s or scanned the comments on an author’s Facebook page (including mine), chances are you’ve run into him. Tracy has a keen eye for what a story is lacking and isn’t afraid to tell you. He’s the kind of alpha reader that I searched high and low for. (Tracy, don’t let that go to your head. :P)

When I finished my YA fantasy I found myself in a scary place. I had a manuscript in need of critique and no Alpha readers. I’d never edited a manuscript. How was I to know the difference between what I thought was terrible and what actually was terrible? Left to my own devices, I probably would’ve tossed 75% of the manuscript.

I sent it my writing group, and their critiques were wonderful (as always), but I needed more than three opinions on it. To be more specific, I needed opinions from people who hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. I couldn’t expect my writing group to be objective about my worldbuilding when they know all the bits I cut out. Yes, I could’ve hired an editor. However, there’s no way I was going to be able to afford it. (I work two jobs so I can afford to live with my mother.) Besides, my legion of friends were more than willing. Perfect! So, I sent my manuscript to a couple dozen friends and eagerly awaited their constructive criticism.

I know some of you are groaning right now, and you’re right. It’s far from a perfect plan. But in their defense, most of them followed through.

In my experience, new Alpha readers fall into three categories:

1. Plot Nazi
2. Church Lady
3. “I’m an illusionist!”

Lets start at the bottom. The third category is the vanishing category. They are the friends that are really excited to read the story, but as soon as they receive the manuscript, the excitement disappears like an airplane on a David Copperfield special. There were a few people that misjudged the time commitment this was, or life happened and they just never got around to it...

Regardless of the reason, I never heard back from them and I’m ok with that. I understand why they didn’t do it and I still love them. I’m just not going to send them further manuscripts.

The second category is where a lot of my friends fall. They have good things to say, however it’s usually a variation of “I really liked it” or “you’re so talented. I wish I could write a book like that.”  That’s great, but it doesn’t help improve the manuscript. Call me crazy, but I can’t honestly believe that my manuscript is perfect after one cursory edit. A few of them did point out a few misplaced words and the occasional confusing passage. However, in all, it’s not enough to make me eager to seek out their help in the future. (Sorry guys)

The first category is the most precious and rare. This is where Tracy and my writing group fall. They scrutinize every paragraph for any imperfection. They catch mistakes and oversights that, for one reason or another, I missed in my first pass and they’re not afraid to tell me when a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole chapter needs to be tossed. When something works, they give me a high five and I do a happy dance.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I cater my writing to please my Plot Nazis. I don’t. Rather, I meditate on their comments. What can I say? I’m Japanese. It’s in my nature to do so. We’re genetically and culturally predisposed to seek out perfection in everything we do. If we do something wrong, we want to know why so we can fix it and prevent it from happening again. If we do something right, we want to know why so we can do it every time.

To phrase it in a more Zen-like manner, we yearn for wisdom with every breath.

The wisdom I extracted from these breaths was not only a greater understanding of my friends and who I can count on for what, but a greater understanding of my writing. I’m starting to see the difference between what I think is wrong and what actually is. I’m getting better at identifying a darling that needs to be killed and one that needs to be preserved at all costs. And when I have a specific problem, I know who to turn to in order to find the solution.

Thank you, Tracy, for being the Plot Nazi I needed in the middle of the night. 

(That, you can let go to your head) :)

Saturday, July 14, 2012


A good ninja knows when to strike and when to walk away. Likewise, a good writer knows when to squee and when to be professional. Mary Robinette Kowal talked about this in her blog last week and gave some really great guidance.

I've been to enough signings and seminars that I don't have much of a problem reigning in my inner fan girl. Plus, as an actor, I know how to hide my emotions so only the desired character shows. (I'm not saying that being professional is a character or facade, it's not, but the skill is pretty handy.) The last time I turned into a fan girl in front of an author was during Laurell K Hamilton's A Lick of Frost tour and that happened to be the first signing I'd ever attended so it was to be expected. Since then I've managed to be calm, clever, and professional.

As Mary pointed out in her blog, it's much better to be seen as a colleague instead of a fan. That's why I don't often take pictures at signings, dinners, and release parties (much to the chagrin of a certain friend). I feel that asking for a photo immediately puts me into the fan category. Granted, if I took Mary's advice and prefaced the request with "May I indulge..."I could get away with it. I'd still feel a little uncomfortable, but I could get away with it. There's nothing wrong with being a fan, but I find it limits your interaction with an author. They'll nod and smile, sign your book, maybe answer a question, and then you're on your way. However, I've noticed that if you establish yourself as a peer (through casual conversation and shop talk) the author you're speaking to will relax a bit and you'll get to see the real individual rather than public persona. It's allowed me to have a more memorable experience with the authors I admire and respect, and conversely, be more memorable to them. Instead of just meeting so-and-so, you're instigating a relationship with so-and-so.

However, on Monday night my spotless record came to an end. That was the night I went to David Brin's signing at Powell's books. I love David Brin. He's an incredibly intelligent, well spoken, funny and clever man that writes absolutely beautiful prose. It's almost lyrical. David is also not afraid to flatter a pretty and intelligent woman -- a category I found myself in when I was talking to him after the signing.

I lost control and squeed. I'm not talking about the "oh my gosh, ______ is standing right there!" kind of squee, but the shy and giggling twelve year old kind of squee. It was shameful and a certain friend will never let me forget that shame.To my credit, I didn't squee in front of David, but I did have to make a hasty and discreet retreat so I could hide my mouth behind my hands and blush (just like Sailor Moon). I have to clarify, I'm not a super girly girl. Marriage proposals don't elicit that kind of reaction from me. I'm a calm, clever professional. Speaking to my writing idol leaves me shaking afterwards (repressed nervousness), but not squeeing.

So what was different this time? David caught me off guard. He complimented me. Not once, but three times in rapid succession. I didn't know how to process that. It was too cool. As guilty as I feel for loosing my control, I've come to realize that I shouldn't beat myself up for needing to run away. (He is contrary Brin, after all. Defying expectation is what he does.) An inner fangirl can only be kept in a box for so long. Eventually she'll burst out and wreck havoc. Walking away and venting the squee was necessary. In his eyes (I'm assuming on this since I haven't been able to confirm it with him) I'm still the intelligent pretty woman he met in Portland. He has no knowledge of the squeeing fangirl or of the razzing I received from friends afterward and that's the real goal.

To see and be seen, but never let them hear you squee.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Sorry for the long break. I was suffering from a compounded concert hangover last week. No, it wasn't that kind of hangover. No liquor was involved. The hangover was from wandering around the University Bookstore in Seattle for two hours (signed pretties were acquired), rocking out at the Queen Extravaganza (which was epically awesome), and driving 8 hours round trip in a single day. What compounded it was that I only got two hours of sleep (because of all of the caffeine ingested) before working an insane shift at the day job, followed by a less insane dog sitting job.

That's right. I worked two jobs on two hours of sleep. Yes, I'm insane, but that shouldn't be a surprise to any of you. Be assured that I'm not going to do that again. I don't like being a zombie.

What I will do again is work on my novel on long road trips. Don't panic. I was not typing as I drove. I could have dictated, but I didn't think my passenger would've liked that. What I did instead was bounce ideas off of him. I started working on a short story that I began last year but had to push aside so I could focus on finishing the novel. Ok, in all honesty, I was stuck as well, but it was mostly pushed aside for the novel. So I gave him the gist of the story and explained why I was stuck. We bounced a few ideas around, most of which didn't gain the favor of the other person. Once I convinced him that the story couldn't end up in a fiery inferno (his favorite solution) we finally got to the root of the story's problem and found the solution.

I've used this method many times. I did it with the novel, last month's short story, and some flash fiction pieces I wrote last year. Every time the solution surprised me as to its simplicity and it's always something that I've overlooked. I'm sure that eventually I would have discovered it on my own, but it would have taken days if not weeks. Borrowing a friend's brain (and not in a zombie kind of way) shortened that time frame to a few minutes.

It's amazing what a fresh brain can accomplish.