Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

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Sanderling
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Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Sanderling » September 1st, 2011, 1:09 am

The best writing advice I've ever got from a reader of one of my manuscripts was from someone who'd read my ...sub-par second attempt at a novel (I should send her chocolates and a note of apology). She gave me a number of tips and suggestions, but the piece of advice that resonated with me the most, and which has most influenced my writing since was this:

Make the conflict personal.

The story I had written had one of those oft-used plot arcs that found the MC having to, essentially, save the world. And in and of itself there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But she made the great observation that aside from being a goodie-two-shoes with strong empathy and scrupulous morals, the character had no real reason for putting himself on the line in order to save the world. And what the plot really needed was something that made that conflict personal for the MC, something that hit close to home for him and gave him a selfish reason to want to save the world.

It seems so obvious, but until my reader said it to me it was something that hadn't occurred to me in my plotting. I've taken it to heart and, I think, my subsequent work has been much the stronger for it.

How about you? What's the best advice you've received from a critique partner / beta / reader?
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by dios4vida » September 1st, 2011, 11:38 am

I think the one thing that stuck with me the most wasn't a piece of advice, it was a simple question. It made me feel dumb because I really should have taken care of it, but it was a great lesson.

Her question was: what happened to the horse?

I'd gotten so involved in the big picture, getting my (scores of) characters here and there and everywhere that by the time I finished my second draft I had a magical, disappearing/reappearing horse. He's riding, he's walking, he leaves town by ship, oh look he's riding his old horse again.

It made me realize that getting your plot cohesive is only part of the battle. You can't get all the big stuff tied up and say "yay, I have a novel!" No, you have a draft. And you have to revise that draft over and over and over and over and look at all the minutia. Getting details right is just as important as getting major plot points right.

So now, when I'm working on detail checking, I always ask myself "Did I check the horse?"
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Ermo » September 1st, 2011, 2:52 pm

Holy Crap Sanderling - You just made me realize why I hate my plot for my book so much. Thank you thank you thank you. Glorious.

Best advice for me is two-fold. First, I am not Jonathan Franzen or John Stenibeck or anyone of that ilk and I never will be. I may love to read them but I am not them. They are the Michael Jordans of this biz and simply have talent I cannot learn. So, stop trying. Second, I can be the best Ermo and the only way that's going to happen is to keep writing.

Oh, and to read a lot. It really does help you write better.

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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Philabuster » September 1st, 2011, 4:01 pm

I think the best advice I ever got was from an old poetry professor I use to have. The advice is so good that it's almost become sort of a mantra when I sit down in front of the computer. She said it to me when she noticed me stressing out on a short story I was working on. The advice is...

If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.

Sometimes as a writer you get so emotionally involved in your story, your characters, your plot that often it's easy to forget why you started writing in the first place. Because you enjoy it! Whenever your blocked up and ready to smash the space bar with your forehead, take a breathe and just remember why you're doing it...for enjoyment!

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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by polymath » September 1st, 2011, 6:59 pm

I'm into making any narrative as personal as possible. Personal takes many forms. Intimate, a personal narrative with up close and personal narrative distance, personal-private complicatations, stakes, agendas, themes and outcomes. Remote, a narrative that's personal, though remote narrative distance, from public complications, stakes, agendas, themes, and outcomes that matter personally. John Grisham's The Confession to me fits the latter. And any given mixture of private and public complications. etc.

A piece of writing advice I'm coming to grips with. Slow down, don't rush through scenes that benefit from timely development, especially openings.
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Sanderling
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Sanderling » September 3rd, 2011, 1:47 am

dios4vida wrote:So now, when I'm working on detail checking, I always ask myself "Did I check the horse?"
Haha, I love that, Brenda. It's amazing how easily those little details can slip our attention, eh? And even more so when the detail is inserted during revisions - tracking down all the subsequent places where it'll pop up or need to be referenced can be a lot of work.
Ermo wrote:Holy Crap Sanderling - You just made me realize why I hate my plot for my book so much. Thank you thank you thank you. Glorious.

Best advice for me is two-fold. First, I am not Jonathan Franzen or John Stenibeck or anyone of that ilk and I never will be. I may love to read them but I am not them. They are the Michael Jordans of this biz and simply have talent I cannot learn. So, stop trying. Second, I can be the best Ermo and the only way that's going to happen is to keep writing.
I hope you didn't hate it /that/ much, Ermo. :) Glad it helped, though.

Yeah, I think that's something we often forget, too, while writing - we all have our writing idols, but we have to work to become ourselves, not them. It's perhaps the difference between a novice writer and a developing writer: finding and honing one's own voice instead of trying to imitate another.
Philabuster wrote:If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
Definitely great advice, Philabuster. It's easy to lose sight of that; since very few of us are going to support ourselves on our writing, the main reason we have for doing it is because we enjoy it. On a similar vein, something else to remember is that if you're not having fun, no one's making you do it. It's okay to walk away from a WIP if you've fallen out of love with it; or from writing altogether, come to that.
polymath wrote:A piece of writing advice I'm coming to grips with. Slow down, don't rush through scenes that benefit from timely development, especially openings.
Also important advice, polymath. It can be really easy, if you know where the scene is going and are excited to get there, to let your fingers get away from you and speed through the scene. And then I guess some writers have the opposite problem, of slowing down too much to the point that the story bogs down with it. It doesn't seem like it ought to be a hard thing, but it does take time to learn good pacing.
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Chantelle.S. » September 29th, 2011, 9:01 pm

Best writing advice I've ever received:
Your prose isn't too bad, but you do overuse adverbs quite a lot. Particularly when using tag lines for speech, it's much more effective when the reader can tell if something is said 'matter-of-factly' by the words used, than by the author telling them.

On a similar note, a lot of writers on these sites seem to be afraid of the word 'said'. Not every line has to be 'whispered' or 'pointed out' or 'giggled' and such. 'Said' is one of those words that the reader won't notice in most speech, and it means if someone does whisper or shout something it has much more impact. If you really don't want to use it too much, use action as a tag line rather than constant synonyms.
The only genuine critique I've ever been given on fanfiction.net. If I ever continue that oneshot, I'll be sure to thank this anonymous reviewer.

And my hubby's advice: outline!!!!

I'm a pantser, and it was painful to write my second draft of my first novel in 30 days following an outline. But I did it! And it worked because I actually got it DONE. But it came out reading forced (in my opinion, anyway, everybody else seems smitten with it). Still, it's made it TONS easier for me to now go back and edit and revise and polish. It's due a third and final draft but I'm procrastinating by writing the book that comes before that one at the moment. Series. Go figure. :roll:
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by sierramcconnell » October 18th, 2011, 11:29 am

There is one beta reader that I learned a lot from, actually. I only had the beta reader for a chapter because she kept disappearing and then she got rude when I called her on that and her attitude of yelling at me. But I remember a couple things, and she was rather good at getting them.

1) "OMG it's another ellipse. DEAR. GOD." Yes, this was how she betaed. And she was one of my first. And when I asked her to tone it down she got belligerent. But I did learn to hate the ellipse. And I did use it way too much. So I've learned many other ways to separate things and draw things out aside from my once favorite ...

2) "Who the hell are we talking about?! I'm so confused! He then he then he again?!" Okay, so I used context clues a lot. She, apparently, didn't. I relied on them a bunch. I removed a lot of hes because of it and overall it did read a lot better. I learned to read my MS from the eyes of someone else and suddenly it looked much better.

3) "WHAT IS THIS WITH THE EYES?!" ...another problem of mine, but I swear, in that book it did have a point. But I am a visual person. I detail everything. I just have to learn to tone it back a little sometimes. XD I wrote out on a sheet how many times Word found instances of colors and it was staggering. I had to edit it out. I was also an abuser of "he took a breath", too. Common phrases will kill you.

So though she was a jerk, and she disappeared for months at a time, only to come back saying she hadn't done anything and would be right back at it, and only to give me a paragraph of OMG WTF IS THIS...she was a good beta. She taught me of the EM dash. And I luffs it.

EDIT:

I should also note that being a writer is this: With only five minutes to clock in, I was still at home in my apartment, scribbling furiously at my outline because I was on a roll. Hey, you don't rush a writer come work or nothing. Because you can find another job. YOU CAN'T FIND ANOTHER PLOT.

At least that's how I seem to rationalize it as insane as I am.
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Sanderling » October 18th, 2011, 12:43 pm

sierramcconnell wrote:I should also note that being a writer is this: With only five minutes to clock in, I was still at home in my apartment, scribbling furiously at my outline because I was on a roll. Hey, you don't rush a writer come work or nothing. Because you can find another job. YOU CAN'T FIND ANOTHER PLOT.
Hee. I love this; definitely know that feeling. I was at my mother-in-law's a couple of weekends ago and woke up from a dream that would make a great story outline. But I wasn't in my own bed and didn't have my pen on the nighttable beside me, and didn't want to wake the whole house up getting up to find one; so I recited the dream to myself half a dozen times to make sure I'd remember it, and then as soon as the house started waking up, I found a pen and paper and sat down in the dining room to scribble it all out, even before making tea or breakfast. My husband found me there and asked, "What are you doing?" When I answered (briefly, because of my distraction), "Story idea," he said, "ah" with that knowing look on his face and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for me. You gotta write them down when they come to you; ideas are best when fresh.

I can relate to your experience with the CP. I haven't had anyone be that snappy in their comments, but definitely some people are more prompt with their feedback than others. I personally find the disappearers less useful as a critique partner, even if they have strong comments, than someone who gives poor feedback but is at least prompt in returning it. You can't do anything with it if it's not in your hands. I'm afraid that just recently I've actually been one of those disappearers as I've been up on a deadline, but I try to keep in touch and make the CP's manuscript a priority in what little free time I do have, because I know they're waiting on it. Or if I've lost interest or something I'll try to tell them, rather than string them along.
Chantelle.S. wrote:And my hubby's advice: outline!!!!

I'm a pantser, and it was painful to write my second draft of my first novel in 30 days following an outline. But I did it! And it worked because I actually got it DONE. But it came out reading forced (in my opinion, anyway, everybody else seems smitten with it). Still, it's made it TONS easier for me to now go back and edit and revise and polish.
I'm a pantser, too, Chantelle. For my first few novels I didn't do any outlines, other than a very, very minimal backbone. I'm just now starting a new project, though, that came to me with a full outline complete with inciting incidents, turning points, climax and character arcs... Most of the time my ideas begin as just a concept or character, so this was rather unusual. I love the discovery of just pantsing a novel, but there's also quite a bit of anxiety over not knowing where it's going. I'm looking forward to giving this a try; I think there's just enough left unknown with the plot to keep my pantser side happy while still providing enough direction to ease my anxiety. Sounds like it really worked for you!
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by dios4vida » October 18th, 2011, 12:50 pm

Sanderling wrote:
sierramcconnell wrote:I should also note that being a writer is this: With only five minutes to clock in, I was still at home in my apartment, scribbling furiously at my outline because I was on a roll. Hey, you don't rush a writer come work or nothing. Because you can find another job. YOU CAN'T FIND ANOTHER PLOT.
Hee. I love this; definitely know that feeling. I was at my mother-in-law's a couple of weekends ago and woke up from a dream that would make a great story outline. But I wasn't in my own bed and didn't have my pen on the nighttable beside me, and didn't want to wake the whole house up getting up to find one; so I recited the dream to myself half a dozen times to make sure I'd remember it, and then as soon as the house started waking up, I found a pen and paper and sat down in the dining room to scribble it all out, even before making tea or breakfast. My husband found me there and asked, "What are you doing?" When I answered (briefly, because of my distraction), "Story idea," he said, "ah" with that knowing look on his face and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for me. You gotta write them down when they come to you; ideas are best when fresh.
So been here, many times. Even down to the scribbling when you're supposed to be going to work and reciting dreams to make sure you remember then and having the husband go 'ah' and start taking care of things himself. Must be a universal writer thing. :)
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by AnimaDictio » October 28th, 2011, 10:53 am

A major plot point in my wip is a love triangle. Two men vie for a woman's affections. One critique partner said, "this guy is too weak. He's annoying." I thought that having one sweet guy and one tough guy would present a difficult dilemma for the woman but I ended up making the sweet guy ... too sweet, I guess.

The CP wrote a new back story for my "sweet guy" and it totally improved the novel's dynamic. Now, they're both strong in different ways. And it's suddenly more fun to write. That brings me to the 2nd bit of life-changing advice.

If writing the novel is absolute drudgery, i.e. if you've lost that spark that motivated the thing in the first place, go back and find it. Don't write a single page without that initial creative spark in mind or you'll go off track.

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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Sanderling » October 29th, 2011, 3:37 pm

AnimaDictio wrote:The CP wrote a new back story for my "sweet guy" and it totally improved the novel's dynamic. Now, they're both strong in different ways. And it's suddenly more fun to write. That brings me to the 2nd bit of life-changing advice.

If writing the novel is absolute drudgery, i.e. if you've lost that spark that motivated the thing in the first place, go back and find it. Don't write a single page without that initial creative spark in mind or you'll go off track.
Amazing how much difference the backstory makes, huh? We never actually see it in the course of the book, but it's present in everything the character does. Finding a strong backstory for a character can make a huge difference. It's great your CP was able to help you with that.

And that's great advice. I think I fell into that with a recent MS - I got 16,000 words in and something just wasn't working with it. I set it on the backburner while I worked with other projects, but I'll have to backtrack and see where things jumped the rails before I write any more.
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by GingerWrite » October 29th, 2011, 10:38 pm

The best advice I ever got was from *cough* you, Sanderling ;) You pointed out that while one of my main characters went through both internal and external change throughout the story, that my other main character only ever changed externally. Definitely made me rethink that plot line!
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Sanderling » October 30th, 2011, 11:15 am

GingerWrite wrote:The best advice I ever got was from *cough* you, Sanderling ;) You pointed out that while one of my main characters went through both internal and external change throughout the story, that my other main character only ever changed externally. Definitely made me rethink that plot line!
Aw, that's nice of you to say, GingerWrite. :) I find character arcs to be the hardest part of writing a story, because they can be the most difficult to see, especially as the author.
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Re: Best writing advice from a CP/beta/reader?

Post by Gypson » January 23rd, 2012, 6:47 pm

"Make the conflict personal" and "What happened to the horse?" are two lessons I have learned on my own over time, as well as two of the most valuable!

As for other tidbits, I can't exactly remember who and where this came from, but it's stuck with me nonetheless:

"No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." This is basically a reminder to me that if I am bored with the current passage, then the reader will be really, really bored.

"Claustrophobia breeds contempt." This one I invented, and it went hand-in-hand with the discovery that personal conflicts are more interesting. My drafts of teenagers saving the world also included a lot of globetrotting with no real home base. In the past few years I've taken to shoving all or most of my characters under the same roof. The plot and tension rise astronomically when nobody can get a break from each other. =P

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