What Women Read (on What Women Write)

Skolani Warrior, blade over shouldersToday I have the pleasure of being a guest on my good friend Kim Bullock‘s blog, What Women Write. Kim’s a very talented writer I met through Writer Unboxed, and she and I serve together on The WU Mod Squad–the moderating team for the WU group page. Kim is a talented writer, and I’ve had the opportunity to read her manuscript and sure-to-soon-be-a-hit-book, The Oak Lovers, based on the fascinating life and times of her great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens. She shares contributing duties on What Women Write with five other talented writers, so being invited to post there was a bit daunting. Being a guy was just a small part of it. But, since it’s almost Independence Day here in the US, I decided to take a bit of a gamble, and write my take on what women read. I figure this time of year, even with the chance it’ll be a dud, or worse, blow up in my face, it’s worth the risk. If it flies, it could be fun to watch the fireworks.

So please join me on What Women Write, for my take on What Women Read!

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_9780536_blonde-girl-in-the-scandinavian-suit-on-a-blue-sky-background.html’>demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Appreciation for Betas (or Readers Rock!)

Question: If a book falls in the forest and no one’s there to read it, does it still stink?

Answer: Most likely.

Reading Girl on a Sofa, by Isaac Israels (1920)

Perverse Process: I know I’ve been lucky. I’ve had fantastic beta-readers throughout my journey. Not everyone has such good fortune. In my role as a moderator for the Writer Unboxed online community, I see it often. Writers are looking for readers. For what is a story without someone to tell it to? The problems come when writers seek said readers too early. No reader deserves to slog through first draft material. And let’s face it, early drafts typically suck. And yet novice writers almost always subject some poor undeserving reader (usually a close friend or a relative) to work that’s not ready to be shown. It’s part of the process. I did it too.

How those early readers of your amateur drivel handle their role can be critical, especially if the writer is sensitive, emotional or has a fragile ego. Feel free to laugh. Of course it’s a joke. (For those who aren’t writers and didn’t get it: We’re ALL sensitive, emotional, fragile souls—why else would we spend most of our waking hours exploring the emotions of people we’ve made up and then hope that others will connect with what we’ve found?)

Honesty Ain’t Easy: I said I’ve been lucky and this includes my draw of early beta-readers. When I finished my first draft, I didn’t belong to any critique groups and I didn’t really know any other writers. And yet some friends and family kindly offered to forge into the murk. A few gave up. A few avoided me afterward. A few pretended it had never happened (“Manuscript? What manuscript?”). But several brave souls either made it through or had the courage to tell me they’d stopped reading and why. To the reader, those who made it through were kind and insightful in telling me it needed work. But more importantly they also showed me there was promise. I continued to work because they kindled hope. It was a special gift.

B-Company Betas: Over the course of seeking a second round of betas, I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and for that I am grateful. After learning there was work to be done, I set about studying the craft and I joined an online writing community. Then I tackled revisions. I did fare much better with the next round of betas (as did they—the work was evidently and necessarily much more palatable). I learned from the first group that I might actually have something. From this next group I started to gain some insight into genuine reader expectations, as well as a bit of traction and enthusiasm for continuing to work (rather than just hoping everyone would say they loved it). I learned something unique from each reader in Company B. They were critical not just to moving forward, but to knowing I could improve it and being excited about it.

Brass Tacks Betas: I’ve written about how fortunate I feel to have connected with my editor/mentor Cathy over on WU (read it here if you haven’t). Because of Cathy and my evolution as a writer, the books all underwent significant revision before this next group of betas, particularly book one. Now we were starting to make them into what felt more like real books. Among the next wave of readers to hit the beaches were my writer friends. Now I was getting real critique (of the variety many of you receive in critique groups as you move along). Telling rather than showing, poor grammar mechanics, adverbs in dialog tags, and just plain clunky writing were all noted and polished.

Right Reader Revelations: After the Brass Tacks round of readers, I did another total rewrite and went into submissions for the second time. Throughout the process I’d been zeroing in on my Right Reader, and providentially I found several readers at this point to fit the bill (females—often younger/new adult females—who are voracious readers and favor epics with romantic elements). Now I felt like I was swinging for the fences. Although the submissions did not yield an agent, I did get a few requests for pages and some encouraging feedback. So no home run. However, the feedback I was receiving from the Right Reader betas made it clear I was solidly connecting with the ball. I felt more certain than ever that this was a story that would find an audience.

Inspirational Beta: One of the Right Reader betas actually inspired this post. She’s an acquaintance I see a few times per year. Several months ago we got to talking at a party about our mutual love of Hunger Games and George RR Martin and she asked if she could read. I sent her book one, but rarely saw her afterward and only in mixed company. All I really knew was that after each of the first two books, she requested the next. What more could I ask? I just ran into her the other night at a chamber of commerce meeting. During the keynote presentation she saw me outside the dining hall at the bar (where else?). Her smile would’ve been enough, but she ran over and gave me a hug, and gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received: “I can’t wait until these books are popular so I can tell everyone I read them first.” I’m still smiling about it.

Let a Beta Be: If you’ve never used beta readers before, a bit of advice (besides striving to offer them work that’s ready to be read). Offer as few guidelines as possible. I usually say something like, “Just read it for flow and for feedback I’ll happily take whatever you’re comfortable giving, even general feelings.” Every beta reader I’ve had has given me something different.

I’ve had betas point out plot inconsistencies, help me change a few names, offer suggestion to keep elements in greater suspense. Betas have helped me make my MCs more likeable and my antagonists more despicable. I’ve even had a former teacher who did a complete line edit of the entire trilogy, meticulously marking and noting every single typo and grammar error (thanks Aunt Cindy!). A few have mostly offered enthusiastic encouragement—which is vitally important, believe me!

The Road Goes (Ever?) On: I’m not sure what will happen with the trilogy, but I am absolutely certain the books are vastly improved and that they continue to be a viable possibility because of my beta readers. I’m thinking most have honestly enjoyed being a part of the process. I’ve been amazed by the uniqueness of their perspectives and I love the process of distilling their various opinions to plot a course forward. I dare say a few of the earliest readers would be a bit shocked by what the books have become.

Couldn’t Builda Betta’ Beta Team: In the interest of personally and publicly showing my gratitude, here is a list of my fabulous Team Beta (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone—forgive me if I have!): Dan Brake, Marsha Carroll, Tawn Horton, and Amy Murray (Early Readers); Cindy Deane, Jenn Gardner,  and Colleen Murray (B-Company readers); Kim Bullock, Valerie Chandler, and Heather Reid (my Brass Tacks/Writer Team, aka The WU Mod Squad); Keaghan Cronin, Laura Kieda, Eileen Kochanny, and Deb Wagner (Team Right Reader). And last but oh-so-importantly, my lovely wife Maureen Donnelly Culp, who inspires and supports me every day, and without whom the trilogy would not exist.

I cannot thank you all enough for your gift. Whatever comes of the trilogy, you have not only helped to improve my manuscripts, you’ve made me a better writer and have brightened my life.

Your turn. Have you been a beta reader or had beta readers for your work? How has it affected you?

Carving My Niche

My Hue & Cry: Many of you reading have come to know me as a member of your online writing community. I’ve often written about how important community has become to my writing journey. I’m not afraid to use the word tribe when describing those I’ve connected with in the writing world. I don’t know quite where I’d be without the help and support of my tribe. Last week I struggled, and admitted to it in this space. The outpouring I received in response to my call was astonishing and humbling. It made me realize not only how much I’ve grown to enjoy this form of communication but how nourishing it is to my life as an artist. In our tribe, we take care of our own.  

Orange Appled: Even with my new appreciation for blogging, questions linger. One of the reasons I resisted blogging for so long was my belief that writers’ blogs had very little to do with cultivating a reading audience or finding one’s Right Readers. I felt as though the two—my future readers and my writing community—were a bit like apples and oranges: both desirable but entirely different. This seemed particularly true because my genre, historical fantasy, and my tribe’s primary home base, Writer Unboxed, seemed to have little in common. But it seems like the distinction is blurring over time. I’ve met more fantasy writers in WU than I would’ve dreamed possible two years ago, primarily though the WU facebook group.

Hitherto: While I was writing my trilogy, I had absolutely no idea who would read it—who my Right Readers might end up being. It might not be fair or wise, but I’ll admit I consider it a point of pride that I didn’t try to gauge the marketplace while I wrote it. I’m not knocking those who can find the pulse of the market and then tap into their creativity to serve it. But I don’t think the approach would work for me. For me a writing project has to start with passion, and I rarely feel passionate about anything in mainstream culture. I can’t recall the last bestseller I read or the last time I bought any music from a popular top twenty list, and I very rarely go to movies. But I know I’m not alone in the things I love.

An Elan: (élannoun \ā-ˈläⁿ\ Ardor inspired by passion or enthusiasm.) One of the amazing things about the internet is its diversity. It may sound bass-ackward,  but I believe that very diversity can actually be a unifying force. David Byrne of the Talking Heads recently commented on the fragmentation of music through the diversity of satellite radio and the internet. He said, “It makes you a member of a tribe. And your taste in music ties you all together. That need is almost more important than the music itself.”   

In almost any artistic niche, one can become a member of a community. Through shared passion tribes are born. Just as with my tribe (we are all passionate about our writing), so too are there tribes built around epic fantasy, midcentury modern décor, and Lady Gaga, to name three of a million-plus unifying passions. Having an élan can be delicious, but sharing it only makes it all the more enchanting. And today any élan, no matter how unique, can be a shared experience.   

Seekers Who Are Lovers: For the sake of illustration, I’ll share one of my musical élans. I love The Cocteau Twins. I clearly remember the first time I heard their music playing in a funky little college record store (remember record stores?) in the late 80’s. It was instant attraction, but it only grew. In subsequent years, I sought out and bought all of their previous releases, most at import pricing, and instantly snatched up everything they did thereafter. Before the internet, finding rare cuts and import EPs was not so easy. All through those years I didn’t know another soul who felt that kind of passion for them. Their music is not an easily acquired taste (although over the years my wife has grown fond of them, thank God!). In fact, I know several people who dislike them. But it never mattered much to me. I love everything about them, from their overdubbed echo-laden ethereal sound to their unintelligible lyrics to their otherworldly album artwork. Heck, I even love their song titles. [Side-note: Each of this post’s subheadings is a Cocteau Twins song title.]

Treasure Hiding: At some point in my early days of internet browsing, I decided to search The Cocteau Twins, and (you guessed it) to my amazement, there is a large and thriving international community of ardent CT fans–to this day. They even have an annual festival in the UK (in spite of the CTs  having disbanded in 1996). There are remixes and rare cuts shared, and fan forums, and hundreds of videos, and so on. I don’t participate much, but the Cocteau Twins community makes me feel less alone and my élan  all the more enchanting. With the advent of the internet, treasures I once had to search out are now hiding in plain sight.

Atlas Dies Laughing: Back to writing. I mentioned my lacking when it came to preconceiving who might read my work. It’s actually worse than most of you know. I always enjoyed reading fantasy that featured elaborate world-building. So naturally, I built a fairly elaborate world for mine. But in the pursuit of my own passions and interests, I did things fairly uniquely.

For example, I’m not particularly fond of dragons, or any kind of intelligent non-humans for that matter. So I didn’t include any. Also, I am often put off by systems of magic in fantasy. They can feel like a cheap way for the hero to gain the upper hand. So I have no magic. I’ve also long felt that fantasy series with an overt delineation between good and evil were too simplistic. The real world is complicated. There is no black and white, only shades of gray. So I created antagonists with complexity and what I hope are relatable motivations. They believe they’re doing the right thing. They think they’re the good guys!

Turns out the joke’s on me. To many readers, all of these elements I neglected or rejected are the de facto definition of epic historical fantasy. The elaborate world I built fits into almost no one’s preconception of the genre I selected to explore.  

But I’m Not: I understand I won’t convert fantasy readers who expect dragons or elfin magic. And a large portion of the established epic fantasy community might reject the strong elements of romance in my work. But I’ve come to see my work’s uniqueness as a potential strength rather than a weakness. I don’t need to conform to anyone’s preconceptions regarding genre. I never had even the tiniest hope that the trilogy would be a bestseller. But those who do like a bit of romance for the MCs and complexity in their antagonists, and who aren’t so enamored of magic or dragons, might be all the more ardent about my work.

Cathy Yardley recently wrote a post I love called The Slow Writing Movement. Do yourself a favor and go read it. In it, she says, “I believe that writing means connecting with readers. I think that it’s important to know who you’re writing for. I think that this audience should be larger than simply yourself, although I think it can be considerably smaller than most would have you believe.”

I’m still striving toward figuring out exactly who I’ve been writing for, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. With the help of my beta readers, Cathy, and my tribe, I’ve come to believe a niche of Right Readers exists, that it can be more easily cultivated than ever before, and that it’ll be large enough.

Grail Overfloweth: I harbor no illusions that the readers of this blog will be the readers of my books, nor even a significant portion of you. I’m sure a few of you might read, and even enjoy them, but still not be my Right Readers, and that’s all good. After all, just because someone might occasionally enjoy hearing a Cocteau Twins song, it doesn’t mean they’ll start collecting albums. Like the CTs, epic fantasy is a distinct taste, let alone adult epic historical fantasy with romantic leanings and no dragons or elfin magic.  

But I clearly see how much my tribe and this forum are contributing to my understanding of who my Right Readers are. And as my journey progresses, and my career continues to grow, the content here will undoubtedly morph and change, and its readership with it. In the meantime, I feel quite blessed to have you beside me along the way.

Hearsay Please: Do you see a niche for your work, or does it have broad appeal? How do you think you’ll find your Right Readers? Who are your Cocteau Twins? Are you fond of something no one else seems to know about or care for? If so, who or what?