Friday, June 30, 2017

Tiers of Beta-Readers

You can’t judge a reader by their age. Or their clothes, or attitude, or they way they roll their Rs. As much as you'd like to.

Finding beta-readers, critique partners, or editors is a difficult task, even if you are willing to pay. Many people don’t read, many people don’t want to invest their emotions into a work in progress. Even if you do find someone who is willing to put in the effort, they might not be very good at it. Just because someone is a Grammar Nazi doesn’t necessarily mean they know grammar very well. And it’s possible that you’ll find someone who is willing to do the work, good at what they do, but not work well with you specifically. It could be because of clashing personalities, a poor give and take, or even just a lack of respect on either or both’s part.

Over the years I’ve found a good number of people to read my work, and I’ve done so by being open-minded. I discuss it with friends and family, go to writers’ groups, go online, talk to coworkers, and even complete strangers. Anyone who is interested is accepted initially, whether or not I believe they’re in my audience, they’re actually going to read it, if they’re going to be too nice or give me zero credit, they know what they’re talking about, or any other speculation against their ability.

The best readers come from surprising places.

Now part of the problem with this strategy is I also have to deal with a lot of excess garbage. I’m not going to go into details, but having someone with a personal agenda or someone who is not in your audience or even someone who is just incredibly inexperienced but thinks they have all the answers can mislead you, taint your feelings on your work, send you off onto wild goose chases, or even make you fixate on something little while missing the bigger issues. You have to be very savvy of your own writing to not get a little screwed up by bad advice.

But what I’ve come to find is that many readers have their own skillsets and even ones who give poor advice in some areas are excellent in others. As the writer, I consider it my job to analyze their qualities and figure out how I can help them work best for me.

Because of this, I give my prime beta-readers the manuscripts at different times. Of course, officially a “beta-reader” is a reader close to when the book is published/submitted, to give some reactions to what is hopefully what the book will actually end up being. But when I say reader, I am referring to anyone who is just reading my manuscript and giving me their reactions. Each one proves effective at different stages.

First Reader:

She is the only one who might receive a first draft or even an unfinished story. She is someone I trust and respect completely. She likes my writing, is in my target audience, and respects my abilities. At the same time, she is great at giving me a reaction to bigger picture issues, and a general idea of how a reader will take my work. She makes a good balance of praise and suggestions, does not nitpick or line edit, and I almost always agree with what she has to say. I never get a manuscript back without some direction I can take it.

I usually don’t give out first drafts because anything people will say I typically could have found for myself. In fact, I often keep it to myself until three or four. The First Reader is an exception when I am struggling to make a decision. Which way do I take this book? Should I cut this character? How should I end it? Because she is a great brainstorming partner, it also helps for her to know what is already written to help me make those big choices.

And while her criticism is genuine and open-minded, which is great in the early stages of a book so as to not taint creativity or get discouraged, she is not as useful later on. She doesn’t push me further, ask the hard questions, or try to pull apart the fabric of my world. While I hate too much focus on copyediting in the beginning, later on it becomes imperative.

Second Readers:

These are my avid readers, yet generally not people who are active writers or overly experienced in the field. These too are people who are more open-minded and will not make comments like, “I was told you weren’t supposed to have prologues.” They don’t ban words, line edit, show off or try to enforce something that a writing teacher has told them. For some, I am not as close with as my First Reader, and so they don’t always know where I’m coming from and are more likely to be fresh eyed and objective. They are still respectful, non-competitive, and in my target audience, but they are willing to speak their minds. They don’t give a lot of praise, but are more down to business.

I usually turn to them at around draft three or four, around the time when I’ve made the changes in the manuscript that I could and now need another pair of eyes to point out things I’ve missed.

However, while they don’t have their fallback and blanket advice like people more experienced, they often don’t know how to accurately explain their thoughts and especially can’t tell you how to solve it. Most times I end up writing down what they have to say and using their advice to compare to some of the more hostile criticism I may have a problem swallowing.

Critique Partners:

Now that I’ve gotten some general reactions, it starts getting down to the specifics of it. Here I look for fellow writers who I can trust. Still respect is very important.

Having gotten some feedback from my second readers, I then make some of their changes before giving it out to people who have more opinions and experience on the actual writing process. Now on the fourth to sixth draft, the book is starting to shape up to what it’s going to end up looking like. It is still not quite there yet, and it is this stage in which I start examining the tightness and professionalism. Up until that point, I am focusing on creativity and taking risks. Now, at this stage, I’ve likely either started to achieve an emotional and intellectual rhythm and effect, or I am incapable of figuring out how to get there on my own.

Bear in mind some of my Second Readers, though few, are actually writers. The main difference between the Second Readers and the Critique Partners is the first sits back and reacts to the book, enabling me to try and create the story that I truly envision without judgment, pushing the original and daring aspects. The second picks it apart and analyzes it, helping me to determine if it really works, why or why not.

The critique group is superior at needling out the real issues, catching common yet subtle errors, having solutions and generally discussing the mechanics of the book rather than just the story. They are better equipped for giving specific directions and predicting reactions. They know what you’re going through, what you’re working with, and are more likely to catch and call you out on lazy writing.

They help to make the story more effective, satisfying, and respectable.

The problem is, they tend to be more closed-minded. They have their ways of doing things, they have their beliefs, and it is hard for many (myself included) to not continually turn to blanket solutions or allow our pet peeves to blind us to whether or not something actually worked. A good portion of them (though not all) tend to ban things like adverbs, semicolons, passive-sentences, and prologues. Sometimes, they can be very right about what they’re saying, and this can push you into admitting that your prologue really didn’t work, or you do overuse ‘decrepit.’ But other times, they might be just trying to prove you wrong, how smart they are, find easy and obvious criticism, or simply are stuck in their ways. You might find people trying to write for you, their problem being, “That’s not how I would say it.”

I give my manuscripts out to these sorts of people because their advice can be invaluable, they can force you to admit poor habits, lazy writing, ego, or an amateurish style. But they can also drain you of your color and voice. By doing several edits myself and having several responses from more open-minded people, it is easier to examine what I’ve already been told, compare it to what I’m being told now, and see what criticism is based more on what I’m doing and not on what predetermined rules I’m breaking. It also makes the opinions of the less knowledgeable more useful because those with better experience can help explain to you what they might have meant.

Third Readers

The Third Readers are a wide variety of both experts and laymen, but what they have in common is they don’t respect me.

Now I would never go out and deliberately get advice from someone who thinks I’m an idiot, but I will often go out and get advice from people who don’t have the same amount of faith and respect that I do them.

Some of these third readers are writers I personally know and admire, not ones I see as peers. It also may be agents or editors at writers’ conferences, or a teacher.

Sometimes, it will be friends or family who I know don’t give me any credit. It’s never someone who believes I’m completely incompetent, but I will give it to people who I know have completely humanized me and think very highly of themselves.

In the case of the people I admire, the reasoning is obvious. I waited until I’d gone through several drafts and gotten it pretty much where I wanted it to be before getting opinions I very much cared about—partially because being torn to shreds by them would be horrendous, partially because the best advice comes from the best work you can give them.

As for those who tend to be critical and sort of want me to fail, I am exposed to how someone who isn’t giving me credit will respond and either find something to do about it, or at least just prepare myself for future criticism.

I find it’s important to not be exposed to too much negativity and judgment early on. By understanding my work, what I’m trying to do, what I have done, and how many people have received it, I’m better armed to take disrespectful criticism and use it to the best of my ability. I am less likely to be scared out of bold choices and I am also less likely to be hurt by extremely honest ones because it isn’t such a surprise.

Formula Checkers

Over this process, you will have found people who said things you don’t want to hear. Then you’ll be in that awful place in which you aren’t sure if your gut is telling you they’re wrong, or if you just don’t want to agree with what they’re saying. Or sometimes it has nothing to do with whether or not you disagree, you just don’t understand it. Why do they care about this? Are they just trying to make me write like them? Are they rule following? What will this change do? What is the problem they are trying to solve? I don’t see the problem they insist is there. I don’t think that a book has to be the way they say that it does.

For various reasons, you can’t always return to the source of the criticism. Maybe they’re unavailable, or maybe they’re the kind of person who takes offense when you ask questions. Maybe you just hate them and don’t want to talk to them again.

My Formula Checkers are people I turn to in order to help me understand other people’s criticism.

My primary option is my mother.

She is not into speculative fiction or the sorts of things I write at all. She also tends to be critical of me, thinks I lie a lot (she is mistaking me for a five-year-old me), and often sides with whatever alternate party I’m in conflict with. (“Well, he has a point…”)

But she loves me and cares deeply for me. This makes her the perfect Formula Checker. I know she isn’t trying to screw me over or be better than me. So when she tries her hardest to come up with reasons why someone might say something, why someone might be right, when she arrives on an answer, I know she really believes it. She would not tell me to make a change simply to prove the stranger right. Plus, she is empathetic and very good at understanding other people’s minds.

If she can’t come up with any interpretation of what they might mean or writes them off as jerk who’s just trying to insult me, then I have pretty good reason to believe that is exactly what is happening.

My disrespectful readers are often good Formula Checkers for each other because, if we were honest, it’s usually not just me they have a problem with. While most of them will side with another person I’m in conflict with, desiring very much to prove me wrong, all of that changes once what someone else says disagrees with them. They tend to find every argument they can to prove themselves right, so as long as I change the enemy, I can hear both sides of the debate without having to make any argument myself.

But also, they try extremely hard to prove me incompetent, and by the end of talking to them, I’ve usually understood every argument there is to be had for a change.

It should be mentioned that when I find a reader’s arguments too flaky and malleable, I will stop asking them to read my manuscript all together. Someone who doesn’t think highly of you can have good opinions as long as they are really their opinions. Once they start lying most of what they have to say becomes useless.

But this is also a stage for my most trusted and respected readers, my favorite readers. Hearing it said again from a sympathetic mouth can make all of the difference. They don’t necessarily have to read the manuscript, or the new version of it, but act as more of a sounding board about the criticism alone.


After this point it depends on how the manuscript feels. The stages are actually very flexible, and obviously I don’t go through every group for every project. In some cases, if I feel a story is really strong early on, I’ll give it out to all my willing readers at once. Other times, if I have gone through the entire process and there’s still some things I’m missing, I’ll usually go to my favorite readers and have more of a discussion, or ask readers who didn’t end up delivering if they would like to have an updated version and try again.

By the time I reach Beta-Reader stage, it means I’m very happy with what I have and I am ready to send it out. I give it to a few people—offering it to any of my favorite readers if they would like to read the updated version—to make sure they catch anything that was missed.

This copy is formatted as it would be for the specific project is being submitted to, such as, in play and film scripts, having character tags on the same page as a line of dialogue. Many times I’ll include a query letter, if applicable.

I give these readers a strict deadline.


You might find it strange that I have a copy editor after the beta-readers, which is not common practice. It’s not rare for me to do them at the same time, or the betas last, but I prefer it this way because of any line edits or plot holes or sudden changes in the manuscript tend to add errors, while the edits a copyeditor delivers are more cut and dry.

It would/will be different if I ever choose the self-publishing route, perhaps, but I clean up my works for contests, fellowships, grants, journals, directors, and agents, all of which will either see another editor, or the actual words will never be viewed by the public. Beta-readers, for publishers, are intended to catch issues that copy editors didn’t, but honestly, I kind of expect mine to make some sort of suggestion that will inspire an outright change.

Sometimes, for certain projects, the copyeditor is only myself in which I sit down and tediously go through word by word. While I fix typos prior to that, I only do it casually as I see them. I ask my readers to point them out, but I explicitly state I don’t want them to focus on them. The most annoying criticism to get is, “I liked it, but there were typos.”

In other cases, it’s both me and another copyeditor going through with a fine-tooth comb.

There are also some readers who ask for no compensation whose skills make them a better copyeditor than a critique partner. They don’t really give out opinions, just point out grammar errors and words they don’t like. At this stage, I might offer it to them (or finally give it to them if they’ve asked), but you have to be careful; just because they’re anal doesn’t actually mean they know what they’re talking about. If you do not know grammar, spelling, and punctuation well yourself, it is important to find someone who you can trust. (I realize how difficult this can be.) But especially for projects on a deadline, they can be great resources.

Trial Readers

Which brings me to the original point of this post.

These are people who I don’t know what kind of person they would be, what kind of criticism they would give. I’m not every sure they actually mean it when they say they want to read it. They probably don’t. I’m not sure if they’re in my audience all of the time. Usually, you can have a conversation about it prior, leading up to the request for your material, but it doesn’t always come up, and asking after (“Can I read it?” “Well, what kinds of things do you like?”) can seem rude.

The other factor is I’m not going to wait until you’ve forgotten all about it. If you’re a new beta-reader, I need you, I want you, I must have you, and I’m not going to let you change your mind. Sure, there are some people who have proven ineffective or even harmful for their feedback, but those are anomalies. It is likely that your opinion, no matter how little, will give me a better understanding of my writing and how it is received.

Trial readers will get the manuscript in its current form when requested and will get little instruction on what I’m looking for. I do say things like, “I want thorough but well-spoken criticism,” (As in, say everything you want, but don’t be an asshole.) and, “I’m looking for reaction not rewriting.” I also point out that I’m somewhat sensitive to overly nice criticism—“It was really good, so don’t take this the wrong way…” But for the most part, I check them out to see what they’re good at and what category they’re in.

If you are interested in being a beta-reader or critique partner, I’m always interested in meeting new writers, trading manuscripts, and getting outside opinion. Send me a message at

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Be Wary of Those Who Think They’re Normal

This isn’t a post about ‘being the true you,’ although I’m sure you are a wonderful weirdo and you should let your freak flag fly. It’s also not a complaint about being normal either. I can have some pretty pedestrian tastes, and there’s a good deal of benefits from thinking like other people even as an author, such as being able to communicate on a basic level.

Instead, I’m examining the spike of annoyance and fear when I read most writing rules, the reasons that they bother me so much even when I don’t have to apply them, even when I know better. Why do they aggravate me so much? Because I don’t like being told what to do? True. Because of my ego? Obviously. But there’s more to it than that, I could tell even through my confirmation-biased eyes.

I recently read a post about improving dialogue tags that I absolutely hated.

It was in part the attitude:

“Everyone thinks they’re good at dialogue.”

“PLEASE learn to punctuate properly.”


It was in part the inaccuracy of the over simplification:

“Dialogue is never in complete sentences.”

But mostly it was the repeated advice that seems to keep getting the top of the pile which I find not only not all that useful, but at times causes more problems than it solves.

It’s like if there was a fantasy novel that was universally accepted as terrible by those who actually read it, but people new to the genre liked to namedrop it as a source on how to write fantasy simply because they’ve heard of it and never bothered to check for themselves.

Most of these issues are a symptom of the problem, the need to make complete sentences a manifestation of the unintended stilted and impersonal tone. There are typically multiple ways to quickly smooth it over, but typically speaking, one isn’t going to do the trick, and there’s really still a bigger problem at hand; people with overly formal writing are often either writing off of misinformation (the belief that it’s supposed to be formal), or they’re struggling to really get into the heads of their character. In which case, worrying about the meta components will not help them change that.

The misinformation typically comes from someone who staunchly states, “This is the way that it’s supposed to be!” thinking that the peons will obey, their writing will be temporarily improved and they’ll begin to see when it’s okay and when it’s not naturally.

But typically, that’s not what happens. Instead, you get those who don’t like being told what to do and write the whole thing off. Most times, people can smell bullshit, but until they’ve “learned the rules to learn to break them,” they can’t separate out truth in mixed company. Teenagers especially are likely to say, “That doesn’t make any sense,” and then you lose your credibility because you did actually lie to them in your exaggeration.

People speak in full sentences all of the time. More often, I say, than fragments.

Then you got the opposite personality, those who listen to what you say because they want to do things right. I meet with people often who struggle with critically evaluating information, separating the idea from the source, understanding context. They have this choppy, mechanical writing that lacks heart because they have struggled to do what they’re told in the way that it was said, not the way that it was meant.

Because the way that it’s meant isn’t discussed. We shout, “DON’T EVER DO THAT,” instead of going into detail, “Synonyms for said are more likely to detract attention from the dialogue, especially if they’re not congruent with what the reader is already picturing. Sort of like trying to pay attention to what a person is saying while they’re doing something weird with their hands. If the point is that how they are speaking is something the listener is thinking about, then using an alternative dialogue tag makes sense, but most of the time a dialogue tag is only to direct who’s speaking and said keeps it out of the way.” This diatribe is the important part, the why being far more useful than the do. It’s not that we need to know the exceptions to the rules, but rather we need to understand why there are exceptions to the rules, and why one woman’s belief that “she laughed” tags are just “NO” completely contradict another’s opinion on the best means to imply sarcasm.

I commented on the blog, expressing my concerns for a list of do’s and don’ts that were actually more superficially stylistic instead of universal without personal commentary on the author’s reasons. I added these are not the top things people should be concerning themselves with if they want to improve dialogue, they’re something to play around with after asking the hard questions. They are small solutions that don’t delve into the problem.

A gentlemen responded by saying, “The important thing to remember is that people don’t read or write as they speak.”

Now the interesting thing is my first thought about this jumped to a comment made to me a long time ago: “I hate how people suggest to listen to real conversation. Real conversation isn’t like fictional dialogue at all. People expect it to be polished, and you’re not going to include the stumbling of ers and ums or misspoken words or it’ll sound idiotic.”

I wasn’t sure if the blog commenter came down on the side that dialogue was supposed to be realistic or that it very much wasn’t. I sidestepped the issue by confronting the magnitude of his statement; I don’t believe that is important to remember when struggling with dialogue. I think it is problematic to worry about when there’s bigger fish to fry.

No matter which side he came down on though, I knew that he believed there was a correct answer.

“How realistic dialogue is is a stylistic decision,” I said.

As in, there is no such thing as unstylistic dialogue. Even, or especially, words taken directly from a transcript will be a notable choice in the author’s voice. Every piece of dialogue you’ve ever read has a style to it, so a writer should focus on making decisions that work for their intentions, not what is “normal.”

The commenter responded as you’d expect: “Style is something to play around with when you’ve gained more experience.”

No. Style is something that you’re going to be playing around with even if you don’t want to. Even writing in a non-invasive way is a distinct choice. Unrealistic dialogue is not inherently failing while realistic dialogue isn’t inherently successful.

Though blind to it, the blog was preaching a style. Decisions about appropriate dialogue tags and sentence fragments is a style. A style that is not going to consistently create good writing because it is, in fact, a choice, the less important, less concrete factor in what makes for good speech.

I explained to him my above beliefs about writing rules. He mentioned that the blog was for new writers and I said that was exactly why it scares me so much. Adding in contractions and playing around with sentence fragments is useful and I have definitely seen writers who these were good quick tips for, but again, the reason they’re not already doing it is relevant. You can’t tell me that someone who has meaty, meaningful, and human dialogue never realized that “it is” all the time sounds funny. By discussing the real issue, they’re going to unconsciously apply many of these little tips in an organic way as well as many more intangible ideas that will improve the heart of it, not just shine it up.

You can teach a man to fish, or you can teach him how to take a good photo to make it look like the fish is bigger.

The commenter agreed with me, but said that “I think that we’re just imagining different scales of what ‘new’ means.”

Actually, I don’t think the blog was effective for any level of writer. You have your beginners who are hearing the information for the first time who haven’t developed the experience or opinions to supplement badly worded advice. Or you have people with some practice in critical thinking, but I’d say, anecdotally, it’s unlikely that someone who knows how to easily parse out the gray from the black-and-white, doesn’t already have some knowledge about the ever prevalent complaints on dialogue tags and complete sentences. Even a natural critical thinker needs to have a basic grasp of the history of a subjective opinion to objectively analyze the credibility of it. With beginners, discussion is important because understanding the real issue needs to come before finding solutions to it—the cynical questioning has to happen at some point, and it’s difficult, morale-wise, for writers who have learned how to write something “good enough” to then start taking risks and deal with the giant horrible mess that entails.

Those with some experience in the area need to hear the discussion too because they either need to better understand how and when to apply it or need to be persuaded to give something they’ve been stubborn about a shot. And experts, well, they need to hear about the differences of opinions and question their own assumptions, otherwise they too will think their style is the norm and be stuck in their own box.

But mostly, HE was the exact kind of person that I was worried for.

He included his Amazon page, which linked to a series of what looked like self-published short stories (around 30 pages). He told me, however, he worked as an editor. What he actually said, “When I edit for people, they’re already pretty good and I just need to add in a few contractions and ums,” gave me pause.

I knew instantaneously without even a background check he meant he had freelanced for a small publisher.

If you haven’t read about it before, this is exactly what people need to be wary of when signing up with small time publishers. With the height of print-on-demand and ebooks, publishers have very low start-up costs and so you have a lot of inexperienced individuals with a computer becoming a publisher.

A big reason to do your research on any company is that I’ve heard time and time again from fellow authors horror stories about poor editors. These small companies shoot out a Facebook ad, pick up freelancers for far cheaper than what professionals can reasonably work for and toss your manuscript to an unvetted editor.

Typically, (though not necessarily) in trad. publishing, the acquiring editor is your editor. They said, “I love this book!” They went to the board and defended buying it. They fought for you. The blog commenter mentioned how he would get manuscripts that the publisher believes in, but aren’t very well written. Having an uninvested editor assigned typically doesn’t yield in great results.

Inexperienced editors are more likely to be bullies, using no diplomacy and forgoing communication in order to show off their knowledge. They’re more likely to try and rewrite it in their voice. They don’t always know what problems to look for. And, most importantly, they depend on cheap tricks instead of getting to the meat of the issue. These are things you learn not to do the more you work with other writers, but many of these freelancers haven’t really been writing or editing long enough to understand the problems caused by these tactics.

I assume the publisher he edits for is the same he writes for, and I found a series of poorly crafted covers and typo-ridden summaries. Most importantly, when I read the sample pages on the commenter’s books, I found a snippet of his dialogue, and he was a victim of exactly what I was talking about.

The overabundance of “…” and sentence fragments made it difficult to really identify the emotion of the discussion, and it at first it was hard to say if it was good dialogue if he cut back on the style. I mean, I logically comprehended the tone the author wanted the reader to hear, but I certainly didn’t feel it, and I wasn't clear if it was casual or cautious. The back and forth seemed reasonable, but the dialogue was more or less perfunctory without a lot of subtext. How do the characters feel about each other? Friendly? Professional? Acquaintances? Is Steve excited or upset Nick just got a promotion? How do either of them feel about the subject they’re discussing? Is Steven asking because he’s curious or trying to start a conversation or what? Is Nick nervous? Unsurprised? Trying to play it cool?

“Dunno why he couldn’t have asked you… just wanted a senior officer, I s’pose.”

Dismissal of strange behavior is hard to do correctly because when we do miss a red flag, we don’t really pay that much attention to what was going through our minds while ignoring it. We might remember seeing it, but not our actual conclusion that caused us to ignore it. I’d say that the character’s decision to verbalize the thought to immediately accept the first guess is odd, more beneficial to the writer (he draws notice to something important that he doesn’t want the character to be wrapped up in) than it makes sense for the character. In fact, all of the details included seem far more author-motivated. This is extra true considering I know the writer’s opinion on “proper” dialogue.

I should be able to tell if the character’s honestly weirded out and trying to shake it off—that’s a pretty extreme emotion for it not to come through a little bit, or if he’s grown callous to nutcases constantly calling the station—in which case I don’t believe he’d spend so much time explaining to the audience that the guy is foreign if it’s something he didn’t want to waste time being worried about.

I’d say the dialogue would be vastly improved by thinking about the characters’ motivations and making them more opinionated or emotional, cutting way back on the “conversational transgressions,” as the writer called them. Instead of focusing on conveying information to the audience, the speech needs feeling. Is this guy dismissive because he’s tired? Is he dismissive because he’s trying to not look like a pansy? Because he doesn’t want to have to worry about it? Because he’s used to it? Because he genuinely didn’t think much about it? How did this phone call actually make Nick feel?

More to the point, if I received an edit by someone who had just “added some contractions and ums” to my dialogue, I’d severely question his credibility. If I had paid for it? Even as just a line editor, we’d have a problem. I can’t think of a context in which someone doesn’t use contractions and it’s not either a product of a bigger issue or an intentional decision. A good editor, teacher, or critique partner will verbalize the heart of the matter or give reasons why the decision was not a successful one.

What fascinates me most about this conversation is that our disagreement on writing philosophies could easily be seen in the work. I know that seems like it’s obvious, but that doesn’t always happen. People don’t always take their own advice, and typically if someone believes something unhelpful, it’s because they haven’t tried it.

My belief is that good dialogue does not come from what dialogue tags you use, what punctuation you use, or what sentence fragments you use, but rather emotion, pacing, opinions, and motivation, while this writer believes good dialogue comes from idiosyncrasies and participating in realistic vernacular. You can drastically see how the style affects us:

            “Maybe it’s a dud,” Iris shrugged.
            The witch threw herself around. “It can’t be a dud! It should at least malfunction!”
            Iris pulled the muffin apart.
            “What did you do?” Ankica demanded.
            The girl opened her mouth, unable to respond immediately. “I didn’t do anything!”
            With a slap, the witch knocked the pastry from her hands. “You ate something! You drank something! You exercised!”
            “I did not do anything that I haven’t done since you and I met. My life is a bleeding example of predictability,” she spat. “Now don’t touch my muffin.”

This is a sample taken from the manuscript that has been best received by my peers. Out of the 15 novels I’ve written, it was the first to get people asking me to read it. It is one of the few pieces that within three pages, I had multiple parties chagrined they didn’t have the rest. The beginning hooks my critique partners, beta-readers, and agents/editors I’ve workshopped with despite still being only on the second draft. I have received compliments on the characters and their likability from people who do not compliment me often. And, most importantly, I myself like it. While I worked on it, I would get distracted each morning by reading it, spending hours absorbed until I found my stopping place.

In other words, even if the style isn’t appealing to you, it has worked.

But what’s most relevant? After this discussion, I searched for this section knowing it to be my most effective piece of dialogue. Initially, I didn’t even realize just how much I “broke” the rules stated in the blog. I just knew this was the best received exchange that I had and I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to any of these things people were claiming was important when I wrote it. But I didn’t realize it completely ignored everything.

I did not think about ‘said.’ I did not refrain from using exclamation points, nor did I make an effort to put them in out of spite. I did not have sentence fragments or worry about colloquialisms. I imagined the scene, I envisioned the characters’ emotional state, and I put down what I saw, and I wrote something that made people more invested in this argument than any I had written before. It’s success has nothing to do with my refusal to abide by the rules, it’s that I genuinely didn’t think about them. I applied them organically, which in this circumstance, was a lot.

It’s a style, and it’s one that I know people will have criticisms on, genuinely, and that’s fair enough. I say it’s my philosophy for a reason, and I don’t believe everyone reading this is going to like it. But the point is, I didn’t learn how to properly adhere to a style I don’t like and then specifically chose moments it was okay to do what I wanted; I tackled it from a deeper level and focused on my goals rather than artificially mimicking what I thought to be realistic ticks.

The girls’ argument is funny because of their differences of opinion. Periods would make Ankica’s rage more intimidating and more serious. The subtext intrigues people because of their moods, their reactions, their obvious history together. That mood is conveyed non-invasively via punctuation, descriptive tags, and only a few gestures. Rewrite the scene without these things, it could potentially still be successful, but it would be very different. Over time, I may find that yes, there are too many diverse dialogue tags, or that the exclamation points don’t read to others as they read to me. But, by thinking about the overall results and not the little meta-concerns, I crafted a better foundation, and it is much easier to tweak the surface, getting rid of distracting tags, than it is to root around in a polished, flawed narrative.

I never found an example of dialogue the original blogger had written, but I truly am curious to see if and how much she implements her own advice and how it turns out. It’s not that I don’t think writing in sentence fragments and having contractions and being sparse with exclamation points isn’t helpful, it’s that they are powerful tools that prematurely worrying about won’t actually help people looking for advice. If you want to write well, start thinking critically, experiment, and don’t chain yourself to a restrictive style because someone hates alternative options. Hear them out of course, but let’s stop ordering each other around like good literature begins and ends with Hemingway. Just as many people hate him as love him.

Don’t waste your time perfecting a voice you don’t like just so you can “have the right” to develop what you actually want to be doing. Learning how to write realistically first doesn’t mean you’ll be writing in a way that works for everyone, and it isn’t necessarily an effective foundation for the path you want to go.

People who think that the way they write is normal, that their tastes are universal, and that masters successfully break the rules because they sat down and critically evaluated the acceptability to do so are typically people with limited horizons. Someone who doesn’t acknowledge alternative opinions exist is often not the person you should be trusting.

Be wary of people who think their way is the default. Encourage them to experiment with you, because the rule advocates are typically the ones who need a hard push in breaking them.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Advice for New Writers Comes from the Wrong Direction

I recently read an article written by a woman who got married after three dates. If you have been following me for a while, you are probably aware that last year I got out of an emotionally devastating relationship that I’m not entirely sure on why I cared so much about.

The article told her story and then offered up advice to anyone who wanted to remain in a 20 year marriage like she had. One of her top pieces?

“It’s easy to fall in love, but hard to stay in it.”


I fell in love with my ex from afar. One of the things I always told him was I liked him but I despised our relationship. He was smart, interesting, defiant, and sensitive, yet neglectful, apathetic, depressed, and noncommunicative with serious intimacy issues.

I fell in love with him during the dating stages where he made an effort to message me—not as much as I’d like—and seemed genuinely happy to see me—not as much as I’d like. I wrote off our inability to have a fun and casual conversation due to our mutual shyness, assuming it would change once we came out of our shells. I assumed his lack of infatuation was due to it being too soon. I assumed being a non-priority was due to the infancy of our relationship. I assumed all of our problems were temporary and forgivable issues that worrying too much about too soon would be engaging in a defeatist attitude.

I fell in love with him before I knew what it was like to be with him. And once I fell in love, it was nearly impossible to fall out of it.

I don’t fall easy, but I fall hard.

Was what she was saying untrue? Not for her. For some infatuation is as natural as laughing. For others, those like me, it’s impossible. We drag our feet in the acquaintance stages, uninterested in too much socialization and casual bonds, easily but stubbornly resisting crushes and attraction until, one day, the elastic snaps and we go ricocheting into the depths of true devotion.

I hate how I make strangers feel like I dislike them, I hate being inaccessible, and I hate not enjoying, and painfully struggling with, talking to people I don’t know. But on the other hand, I’m about as loyal as you can get.

The point is, people are different. People are drastically different, and when giving advice, it’s important to remember that your biggest flaws and hardships might be the exact opposite of those you’re talking to.

This is the first issue of writing advice. Both writers and readers are very different from each other, which is a good but frequently forgotten thing.

That’s the problem with don’ts.

I read recently a study about how passive people (doormats and people pleasers) tend to grossly overestimate their signs of hostility. A moderate, normal amount of assertiveness (as reported by viewers) is considered by the perpetrator as vastly rude and dickish.

When I see people getting torn to shreds in writers groups, it tends to be those passive people: the kind, quiet ones who tend to respectfully listen. Jackasses are typically pussyfooted around in hopes of keeping the peace until, at one point, someone snaps and breaks the spell.

Yet I guarantee that if one of these quiet, good-natured people turned to an outsider and said, “I can’t stop getting torn apart in critiques,” the advice would be something like, “You need to be less thinned skin and listen to what people are saying,” when in reality they need to stand up for themselves; they need to stop being so open to every single idea and critically evaluate the intention behind it, learning when to tell someone off for being hypercompetitive or tearing them down to build themselves up.

And vice-versa. Instructing someone who is angrily obtuse to criticism that he needs to stand up for himself is going to engrain the issue rather than solve it.

Telling someone who pantses out a mess of a first draft to “never edit as he write,” can be counterproductive because he’s the kind to get stuck when he goes to edit and gets overwhelmed with the workload, but encouraging a perfectionist to go back and read what she made might trap her in a vortex of rewrites of the first page.

Inexperienced writers won’t have the tools to “check the work” of the critic.

There’s a saying, “If you go on a hike, you don’t bring a hair dryer.” It means, “If your story doesn’t need it, then take it out.”

However, I find that saying to be idiotic. Of course you don’t bring a hair dryer on a hike. But do you bring a first-aid kit? Snacks? A book? The important part of the advice is being left out.

What is “necessary” is rarely cut and dried. What’s required for one individual isn’t for the next. The problem with that saying is that it skips the crux of the idea: What is the equivalent of weight in a story? The equivalent of a hair dryer? How do you know something isn’t necessary?

You don’t take a hair dryer on a hike because there’s no electrical outlet and you have to shoulder whatever poundage you pack. But that’s not really as understandable as in a book. Does a book have to be a certain word count? Why or why not? Does an interesting but non-progressive detail need to be removed? Why or why not? When and when not? What’s progressive? Why don’t we just stick to a summary and call it day?

When you’re dealing with a blank slate, they won’t have a lot of experience to understand what they don’t understand. All they know is there’s a section you thought they should cut, and saying, “It’s not necessary,” doesn’t really clarify the issue. What does not necessary even mean?

A lot of advice seems to believe if the writer is obedient, then all is well; eventually they’ll understand through application and make better decisions by themselves. I don’t agree. You learn why the rules are in place fastest and most effectively by experimentation and critical thinking. Over simplification and clever quips take us a step backwards. Obedient writers who are learning the rules for the first time need to discuss when to apply them and how to recognize it more than stubborn cynics and long term creators.

The problem is a lot of “experts” don’t necessarily understand the rules themselves.

One reason rule followers tend to lose credibility with me is because they are often using clich├ęs as a crutch, avoiding any actual analytical thinking on their own. Experienced writers are more inclined to put things in their own words and have personal stories to back up their reasons. The bossier and more simplistic someone is, the less they understand their opinions aren’t universal, the less prepared they are with informed alternative ideas. That tends to mean they haven’t questioned what they’re saying and genuinely don’t understand why they’re doing it.

If you can’t speculate what the opposition thinks, you haven’t really tried to understand the truth.

There’s also the issue of “I’m the exception and you’re not.” You can find people criticizing other authors in the same breath they defend themselves for the identical actions. Last year I followed a self-publisher who trashed talked other indies for writing their books in two weeks. He believed his self-published book was monetarily worth more than theirs because his work was professionally edited. However, even as this proved to be false by his own admission, his statuses evolving from glowing praise to irate complaints as he realized the vast number of errors that still existed, he didn’t change the price.

Some people do not practice what they preach, making it difficult for them to self-identify issues with their advice. Combine the new writers inability to check their work with this and you can see how some philosophies on writing are not only not useful, but can actually be damaging.

They solve the symptoms and not the problems.

Good dialogue tags do not create good dialogue. Neither does realism, a lack of grammar, or sentence fragments. Not necessarily, anyway.

Emotion creates good dialogue. Motivation. Personality. Attitude. Subtext. Telling a narrative instead of accurately depicting how two people in real life would tend to introduce themselves.

I mean, sure, you might decide the entire point of your book is to emulate real life in a way that most fiction doesn’t, and that’s a perfectly valid choice. But that’s kind of the point. How realistic, stylized, simple, or formal you are is about the voice you want. And yet, if you read most tips on how to improve dialogue, they talk about stylistic decisions and not the real reason your dialogue isn’t satisfying.

Every blog I’ve read about how to improve your dialogue starts with what tags you should use. Said? Asked? Smiled? Ejaculated?

My opinion? Shut the fuck up about dialogue tags. It is so down on the list that by the time you get to it, the problem will have already been solved without you neurotically fretting about them. No one is going to go from an awful writer to even a mediocre one if that’s their priority. Maybe mediocre to good, but that’s really only if they’re actually already decent at dialogue and they keep messing it up with bad descriptions—which is pretty uncommon in my experience.

You have bad dialogue? Don’t worry about how often you should use said or its synonyms. Do what feels right, tweak it as you go, and put your focus on the actual issue. Most importantly, by figuring out what the actual issue actually is.

This goes for most of the advice I hear. I find that people fixate on criticism that’s easy to give, not what’s relevant. Mostly because what’s relevant is complicated, subjective, and arguable. “You used an adverb.” You either did or you didn’t. That’s not much you can say to fight it, so that’s what they focus on. “The character is unlikable.” Well, does she need to be likeable? Does everyone find her not likable? There’s a lot more to be discussed.

Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Kill your darlings. Easy to remember. Sounds smart. Can quote a credible source. And, in many cases, it has a basis in truth that is hard to go wrong with.

But it’s not the important part. Why do we show and not tell? What is showing and what is telling? Why did the writer have the compulsion to tell, when does it apply and is there a way to ‘tell’ a good story?

You’ll note that you can take two people who adamantly fight for the same thing only to find that they completely disagree on the above questions. This is a good thing and helps us better understand the use of the advice, but it is important information that is often concealed by the adviser trying to be succinct and assertive.

Improving your writing is about asking the hard questions first, and not everyone knows how to do that.

I’ve found the vast majority of advice has some truth to it, but fails when people try to side-step the journey in favor of instantaneous answers. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are good questions to wonder about whenever anyone tells you how to improve yourself.

Who is this person who found this to be true?

Their history, their flaws, their talents, their tastes, and their relationship with you all factor in to the validity of the advice and the context in which it applies.

What do they actually intend by what they’re saying?

Follow their train of thought, consider their motives, make sure they mean what you heard.

When does this not apply?

No one believes a masterpiece comes from rule following, so why is it that this doesn’t always apply and how do you know?

Where do I apply it?

Most advice is useful in pieces, not whole. “Don’t ever write dialogue in full sentences” is incorrect. “Dialogue isn’t always in full sentences or with proper grammar” is accurate. So where do you chose to not have full sentences?

Why is this true?

Why do people prefer showing over telling? Why do people not like adverbs? What does a ‘said’ tag do that a synonym can’t?

How should I implement it?

You can cut characters, but which ones? You can kill your darlings, but what is a darling and what is an excellent piece of writing? Just because you agree with an idea, how you execute it is a separate question in itself.

Contrary to my rant, I am not saying writing rules are a bad thing, and there are many cases in which fixing a passage could be made easy just by abiding to these quick tips. But the conversation needs to go further than this, and no writer should get neurotically obsessed with obedience or even rebellion if they want to get a good job.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Acknowledging You’re a Number is the First Step to Becoming More

I do well with bratty children, mostly because I am one. Also because I’m good at arguing.

While teaching acting to six-year-olds a few years ago, there was one boy who proved a huge problem. He was unfocused, selfish (even more so than most kids that age), and spoiled. I liked him. We had a good relationship because I could be honest with him, and he liked that I didn’t talk down to him.

There was a crawl space in the corner of the black box where the light booth sat. One class I let the kids take turns going up there, looking around, using the light board. They had a blast, but it was hectic, many kids trying to take several turns, the shier students almost getting bulldozed and forgotten. If I had been actually trying to get back to a lesson, it would have been impossible, but it was the end of the day and I could focus on making sure everyone got a turn.

In the following weeks, some asked if they could go again, but I said no and they accepted it.

This boy, however, liked to push his luck. I said no once and he asked again. I continued to say no and he begged and pleaded.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it will set a precedent.”

(Sometimes at the sight of a big word they’ll clam up, not wanting to admit they don’t know what it means, or thinking they can figure it out. Brats are too smart for this and tend to be confident in what they should or should not know.)

“What’s that?”

“If I let you go up there, all the other kids will ask, and I don’t want to deal with it.”

“Just tell them no!”

“How about I only have to say no once to you instead? Seems easier.”

“Just let me go and no one else.”

“If I let you go, I would be doing you a favor and causing more problems for me. Why would I do that, for you out of everyone, the kid who doesn’t try to help me when I ask him to stop talking?”

“Because I’m your favorite!”

“Try again.”

He was one of my favorites, mostly because he kept it interesting. But what I said was true. I didn’t think it was fair to let one kid do it, and I didn’t want to deal with another episode of making sure everyone got a fair turn.

Most importantly, saying no to any other student would have been just as hard. I hate disappointing them. And it would have been even more difficult to explain why when someone else was doing it. Plus, let’s face it, if I was to favor one of them, he would have been the last kid I would have chosen. I liked him, but he hadn’t earned it. He hadn’t done anything to make me want to go out of my way for him. If it had been the girl who learned all her lines, was constantly engaged, coming up with new ideas, and attempting to make the class period go smoother for me, I might have considered it. For one thing, I could have cited her perfect behavior to anyone who wanted to know why she was the only one who could do it and enforced the merits of not being a butt.

Yet, he truly believed that he should be allowed to do something the other kids weren’t. He didn’t really understand where I was coming from—as kids often don’t—when I reminded him that I had to think of everyone and that his needs and wants were of the same level of importance as anyone else’s needs and wants.

He was one student in a sea of individuals. I loved each kid, I cared about their feelings, I wanted to help them, I wanted them to have what they wanted. But sometimes I have something that everyone wants. I have to give the lead part to only one actor. I have to choose which kid gets to have the giant pencil for a prop. I have to decide who gets to be the Narrator in Mafia. Sometimes giving that something is a lot work for me. If they want me to read something they wrote, I have to do it on my free time. If I take one of their ideas, all of the sudden everyone starts talking. If I agree to go outside, I find myself arguing with them about why I don’t want them jumping off a ledge.  Students have a hard time compartmentalizing that, that for every joy I give you, I could be disappointing someone else, including at times myself. When I make this random student happy, I turn around to see someone else asking the same thing of me. It’s no big deal to read one play, but it is when I have to read twenty. While the individuals of the group need to fend for themselves, there are those of us who have to sometimes sacrifice the desires of the one for the good of the many. Fairness, necessity, or even the question of personal cost factor into how much I can do for you.

Even though maturity tends to quench this feeling of entitlement, there are still people who grow well into their 20s, 40s, 60s, and still don’t understand that they are just a number equal to every other stranger on the planet until they do something to earn it.

People pitch their books by saying how hard they worked on them. They don’t understand why readers write off typos and bad covers so quickly. They expect you to not judge their book before you read it. “It’s only a dollar,” they insist. They are upset at the level of apathy others have for their writing. They give you suggestions on your work without any sort of explanation (demands with expectations of obedience), they just don’t understand why you can’t take a little bit of time out of your day, spend a little bit of money on their book, why you can’t just give it a chance.

The truth is, I want to. When someone posts their book in a status, I want to buy it. I want to take a few minutes to read their blog. I will like your page and follow your Twitter. I want them to feel accomplished, I want to support them, I want to do for them what I would hope people would do for me.

And if it was just one person, I would do everything that was asked of me. But it isn’t.

People try to sell books to me every single day. Because I click on the links when shown to me, Facebook’s algorithms show more of these types of pitches in my feed. (I initially wrote “bitches” here which I suppose is the most Freudian thing I’m going to do in my lifetime). I have near 3,000 friends on that site, probably 80% of whom are writers with books for sale. Think about that; if I bought one novel from each person, that would be over 2,000 dollars, and that’s not including books that go for 2.99 and especially not those for seven to ten bucks.

My Twitter page is even worse. I would argue between the two sites alone I get at least ten new titles exposed daily. Ten dollars a day? And that’s not including the ones I find that are reviewed in blogs I follow or posted in Facebook groups I frequent.

Let’s say they’re free then. If a book is offered to me and I don’t have to pay, I try to download it. I think of the thrill that helping that little number go up is worth having my kindle filled with hundreds of books. I do try to read them, but let’s face it, if I read one book a day every day for a year, I might be able to go through the number that I have now only if I didn’t add anymore.

I have to vet my books, especially the ones I pay for. When I read a story solely because I like the author, it’s much more likely to be disappointing. The unfortunate truth is that those superficial methods we use to “judge a book by its cover” aren’t inaccurate enough to discredit. The self-published novellas with typos in the first few pages and a homemade cover don’t prove to be a genius in messy clothing, they usually prove to be exactly what you’d expect. I have second guessed myself because of an excellent hook or a particular fondness for the writer as a person, but I have to be honest, I have never read a book that didn’t care about looking professional to be spectacular in some other area. I know they must exist, but they are the exception, not the rule. If it looks like the author doesn’t know what she’s doing, she probably doesn’t.

(I’ll admit that sometimes a crappy cover has been misleading. I have picked up some stories that I enjoyed which had the typical papyrus font and stolen internet image, but even in those cases I felt that the story could have been pushed a little further. Partially, this can be attributed my distrust based on the unprofessional cover—it’s difficult to know your reaction without the bias. In all fairness, many excellent covers can be on top of awful stories. Yet, obviously homemade covers do have a least a moderate correlation with inexperienced writers.)

This is why those “I worked harder than anyone I know,” and “It’s only a dollar!” posts don’t work very well. Unless you’re a good friend of mine, you are no different than any of the other people who insist they work hard and deserve some sort of acknowledgement. You do, but I need more than just that to go out of my way and give it to you.

I need to be sold on story. If it was just the issue of one person asking me to do them a favor, sure, I could buy your book for a few bucks, sure, I could spend a few days reading it. I could bear through the pain of a bad story simply because you’ve worked hard and I want to support you.

But I know a lot of people who’ve worked hard. When it comes to writing a book, I have worked hard too. I am fully aware of how much effort goes into writing something—even something crappy, unedited, and unread by even me. I do think that work is worth something, and if I could reward everyone, I would. Yet I can’t spend the money on helping every single writer out there. There’s a lot of them. I have to have some other reason to make you, out of all people, the one I single out to support.

Why would I force myself to read a book ridden with typos on the uncommon chance that the content is good enough to make up for it? Why take a risk on a banal summary simply because they author worked hard when I have another book that I’m more likely to enjoy written by an author who also worked hard?

And let’s face it, sometimes saying you’ve worked harder than anyone you know might be more of an opinion of ignorance rather than reality. Or an outright lie. A post went around about a man who claimed he had 100-hour work weeks. Fourteen hours a day of just writing, no days off. Even if ten of those hours were spent researching and on lunch breaks, he still should have had a higher output than one book that lacked copyedits. If I wrote fourteen hours a day, I could finish a full-length novel in a week. I could read it once a day, seven drafts before half the month was up. I guarantee that if I have seven drafts of something, there would not be a typo on the very first page. Not unless I was completely ignorant of a rule, which grows less and less common every year I’ve been writing.

If you truly work hard and it isn’t apparent in any of the results, then maybe you’re putting your effort into the wrong area. Sure, good research and in-depth world building should be subtle, but I just can’t imagine a person who holds himself to high standards, puts in the necessary time and money, has a good amount of experience and/or taste, and yet still doesn’t know or care about basic grammar, a good hook, or what the most intriguing thing he can say about his story is.

Because, let’s be honest, some writers are lazy. Just like the boy who didn’t seem to realize just how bad his behavior was, who didn’t realize that his talking in class, his refusal to do assignments, his constant unmotivated arguing hadn’t earned special treatment, it’s possible that a writer didn’t put in any real effort at all compared to some of his counterparts, but still expects a reward because the project was time consuming and more work than he’d like to have put in.

Keep in mind that I can’t tell the difference if I don’t know you. You might be the exception. You might be a genius. You also might be a delusional liar. I haven’t met you; I don’t have the wherewithal to know whether or not to trust you. You shouldn’t expect me to. You shouldn’t expect me to immediately recognize the difference between you and every other writer out there, especially not without considering the little information I have at hand.

“Entitlement” is an insulting phrase commonly used for my generation, but we have to admit the label needs to be analyzed. It’s not just what people in their twenties have. Everyone gets a feeling that strangers from all places expect things from them at one point or another.

But what do we actually owe each other? What is entitlement? What is earned? How much should we expect support and the benefit of the doubt from people? Should results mean more than effort? Some people believe that they’re not obligated to give anyone anything. Some people believe we are meant to take care of each other and never be selfish. I personally believe in a balance—take care of yourself first and help others when you can. It’s perfectly acceptable to spend three thousand dollars on your own book rather than on someone else’s, but sometimes we should say, “You know what? I want you to feel good,” and spend the buck on a random stranger’s love-child just because.

The trick isn’t to stop asking for what you want. It never bothers me when a student finds the nerve to request a favor. Entitlement, I believe, isn’t about the idea that you are valuable and deserve more than what you have, it’s refusing to understand the other person’s perspective, to realize that a teacher has to consider all students, that a reader can only buy and read so many books, to care at least a little about the other person’s needs before suggesting they consider yours. We have the right to pick from the masses the book that seems the most enjoyable to us, to spend the money and time on something that catered to the things we cared about, to trust the story that looks better made than to give a chance to the one that seems like it’s never been read by anyone before publication. We get to trust our instincts over the word of a stranger when it comes to making decisions. We get to decide who we want to help and who we don’t. A writer must consider his audience if he wants his audience to consider him, otherwise we have no reason to trust he is more important than any of the other millions of people who also want to be an author. Assume that you are a number first, and then prove you’re not.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

A Quick Exercise on Improving Dialogue

Take a section of dialogue. This can either be your best, your worst, or your first. I recommend the first time your characters speak in a manuscript as many writers make this a slow, realistic evolution rather than something with impact. It’s also notably more fun when you don’t particularly care about the scene itself, such as when dealing with two minor characters.

Make it short. It doesn’t have to be a complete arc or fully sensible by itself, but there should be finality to it—not a cliffhanger with an unanswered question. A couple of lines that come to some sort of point, even a mild one.

            “Aren’t you even going to ask?” I said.
            He caught his breath. “Please.”
            I gestured to Lane. “I meant your brother.”
            They looked at each other. Lane glanced away with an apathetic shrug.
            “I don’t want him to come,” Iden said.
            I smiled impatiently, standing. “Lane, would you be a dear and watch the booth while your brother and I go carelessly frolicking?”
            Iden tensed. “I will not be frolicking. Don’t exaggerate.”
            “Yes, Rhea, my sweet,” Lane smiled back. “Bring me back a basket of daisies.”

On a separate piece of paper, ask yourself:

How do the characters feel?
How well do they know, and like, each other?
What kinds of people do they seem like?

Of course, you have more information to work from than just this one scene, and you should use that knowledge, though try to restrict your answers to what would come through in this specific text.

How do the characters feel?

Iden is on edge. Lane is either returning his brother’s hostility, or is on edge himself. Rhea is slightly amused and annoyed by Iden’s attitude.

How well do they know, and like, each other?

The brothers are obviously family and seem at least angry with each other. Rhea feels fine in antagonizing Iden, so has known him for at least a while. In the hostility, they seem comfortable enough to tease each other, however, so it is probably more of a temporary issue. Based on their desire to “go frolicking,” it seems that Iden and Rhea are dating, and if that’s the case, their attitudes suggest that they have been so for a while.

What kinds of people do they seem like?

Iden comes across as pretty serious, while Lane seems pretty laid back. Rhea is a button pusher, inclusive, yet teasing.

If you find these questions are pretty difficult to answer, it might be that your scene lacks subtext. Even in a short section, attitudes, opinions, and feelings should start coming across, an absence of any  of these a huge statement on that person: an unopinionated person is a big personality trait. Most people have little judgements here or there. Everyone is feeling something, though some are less aware of it than others, and some moments are milder, but apathy, lack of opinions, and just absence of internal life should be a strong choice, not the default.

While dealing with minor characters who are delivering plot relevant information, feel free to completely make up the history in order to answer even though readers may never see it. Again, strong choices will be more interesting and make a greater impact while “everyday” decisions tend to minimalize how much the reader cares. Make up a backstory behind getting to that location. How did the barista who serves the main character coffee get her job? How long as she been doing it? How old is she? Did she party last night or stay up reading? Maybe she’s super serious about coffee and being professional. Maybe she really likes flirting, or hates getting sexually harassed at the counter.

These things don’t have to, and in many cases probably shouldn’t, be spoken out loud. Typically, the reader won’t ever pick up on them. But you can get glimpses of this inner life that add some reality to an otherwise perfunctory scene. It helps increase your imagination and really make you live as the characters in the moment. Mostly, it varies the minor characters and colors the world. Having a bouncy party girl chat about the strange disappearances is going to be different than the morose bookworm who hates her job.

If these are larger characters, the next step is to think about how accurate they are coming across in this little section. It’s NOT a problem if they aren’t “themselves” as long as there is an obvious, in-world reason why.

Recently I read a manuscript in which a main character was described as “gruff” by the narration, but he actually came across as unintentionally insecure in most of his dialogue, and not once would I describe him in the way the other characters would.

So ask yourself about the character’s actual intended emotional states, personalities, and relationships to anchor down the difference between what’s supposed to happen, or what makes sense, versus what was unintentional.

Iden comes off as a bit of a jerk, seemingly angry with his brother. However, the truth is, he’s incredibly nervous. He’s not supposed to be a jerk most of the time, which is something I should keep an eye out for, but acting snippy with family when he’s upset is pretty in character at that moment. In fact, if the reader seems him as a jerk, it implies the subtext was successful.

Rhea, on the other, is not nervous, so if she’s coming off as a jerk in this moment, I would be inclined to do something about it.

Now, find someone who you trust and seems pretty good at reading other people.

It’s important to realize that reading and articulating subtext is as much of a learned skill as writing it. Not everyone is good at reading between the lines, and you will encounter critique partners who wouldn’t pick up on moods in a Harlequin romance. Some people are shockingly literal, and they’re not the best person for this job.

When you find someone respectful, ask them the three questions above and let them talk without any input. If they really struggle, it means one of three things: they aren’t good at that kind of thinking, you picked a bad section, or you’re not conveying humanity in your dialogue.

If you picked a section that you didn’t like and are trying to improve, I would assume it was the last. In which case, I would develop the answers to these questions in depth, rewriting the scene with different options in mind:

This is how pilots who’ve been friends for a long time would react to the realization they’re going to crash.

This is how pilots who’ve just met would react.

This is someone who didn’t really want the job in the first place. This is someone who saw it as his life’s mission. This is someone who was expecting to go home for his daughter’s first dance.

A difference in personality would change how someone reacts to nerves. A difference of mood would change how someone would react to being mocked. A difference in who they’re talking to would change how much insecurity they admit to.

A reader should be able to see the difference, even if it’s not the important part of the scene.

If you picked a section that you really loved, I would first assume it was a bad critique partner. Try again with someone else. If it yields the same results, reflect on why you picked and loved that section. It might be for stylistic reasons, or one funny joke in an otherwise flat moment. In which case, do the same as above and rewrite the scene by changing one aspect of the characters’ personalities, moods, or relationship history.

And if it’s the first dialogue in the book, think about how difficult of a time you had answering these questions. Look at the difference between what you thought the scene said, what you think the whole book says, and what your partner thinks it said. Think about it if truly reflects the first thing you want the audience to know, and if it doesn’t, rewrite with the aim to reveal the characteristics readers are going to care about.

Writing is about successfully expressing yourself and often times the easy way to understand your work is to clarify the difference between what you think you’re doing and what other people see. By just cementing your opinions and comparing it to someone else’s, you’d be surprised how easy it is to know what to fix.

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