So It Begins….Beta Round 2

Last night, I sent the Paradisa Beta Round 2 draft to most of my betas. The others will be later today, when I snag their email addresses. I spent most of yesterday doing my final typo fixes, although there are probably plenty of typos I missed. I was at the point where I needed to get it out the door.

I thought I would be very nervous hitting “send” and shipping it off to some web friends, acquaintances, and outright strangers. In the first Beta Round, I was about ready to puke sending it to my parents and my best friends! But honestly, I was not nervous this time. Excited, maybe a little hesitant, but ultimately I realize that this process is a beneficial one. And even when I got negative feedback last time, I was never hurt or offended by it. I almost always agreed with it, because I did recognize the problems in my book. I perhaps needed these problems confirmed by other people, or I welcomed their suggestions on how to make them better.

Funny enough, I find the story elements somewhat solid in this draft, except for some gripes about exposition/world-building and the antagonist arc. I think there are a lot of things I still need to clarify. But the thing I’m most nervous about is exposing people to my writing style. I go some days thinking “hey, I’m not that bad.” And other days thinking “this is the most clunky, dismal, unpublishable thing I’ve ever written.” I guess that’s subjective anyway.

On my own, I don’t mind the way I write. But it’s hard to stay confident when I see everyone side-eye my style, declaring it “wrong”, from the present tense to the over-the-shoulder POV (rather than the deep stream of consciousness soap opera style that is apparently en vogue. You know, where everything sounds like a hypothetical question at the end of an Adam West Batman episode, or a line from an overacted telenova. You can’t just say “she gasped as the terror rose.” You have to say “her heart exploded in her chest! Who were these men? What did they want? Why did they torture her this waaaaaaay!”)

I’m not trying to trick the readers into thinking they aren’t reading a book. I want readers who like to nestle in with a book and enjoy having a story told to them.  Who want to make new friends out of the characters instead of experiencing a cheap self-insert fantasy. I want to establish trust between the reader and I so much that they don’t even doubt the novel. Like, “Hey you. Yeah, you. I got this. Everything has a reason. It’s all gonna come together. You just be patient, now.”

Who knows if I’ll achieve that? I have 11 betas and a broken clock is right twice a day. Odds are, someone will really like it. And odds are, someone will really hate it. Most will probably fall on a bell curve of 2-4 star ratings. That’s just life. The important thing is figuring out what this group comes to a consensus on, because those are the areas where my story probably needs work. Or maybe they’ll come to a consensus on something good, and that will be an element I’ll know to leave alone. As stressful as the beta process is, I could not be a successful writer without it.

Open Call for #BetaReaders! (Gods, golden guns, and diversity – sound like fun?)

I’m well-rested from my vacation week, and I seized that free time to finish Draft Six of Paradisa. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be polishing it, and then October means another beta round! Interested in becoming a beta? Keep reading ;)

What’s it about? Paradisa is a 90,000 word modern fantasy centered around mythological characters. In the realm of Paradisa, all deities from world’s religions, past and present, begrudgingly cohabitate. Despite their personal disagreements, most residents of Paradisa share a common goal of protecting and serving humanity. But now, this truce strains under the weight of a growing new evil – a monstrous entity and underground alliance which threatens both human and heavenly realms.

When Connor Bishara – an ex-SEAL whose life was ruined by DADT – has a permanently damaging encounter with this evil, he is left only two choices: join the fight and be cleansed of the damage, or run from the darkness until it kills him. Luckily for Connor, he has the help of a variety of allies, including the archangel Raphael, Greek gods Hephaestus and Aphrodite, and his college-aged sister Clara. With their combined strength, they will defend gods and men from the encroaching dusk…or watch helplessly as evil conquers a mission as old as time.

What is it like? In spirit, it can be compared to modern adventure fantasies like Artemis Fowl, Supernatural, Once Upon A Time, or even Doctor Who . This is not “urban” fantasy like Lost Girl or The Mortal Instruments nor is it “high” fantasy like Game of Thrones. I promise that unpronounceable names and leather clad werewolves are absent.

What does a beta do? Starting in early October, you will have 30 days to read the book and answer some survey questions. This is a content review only – not proofreading, copyediting, or line editing. You may provide commentary or margin notes, but that’s optional.

Who can apply? Anyone interested in the book who can return feedback by early November. I hope for a mix of both writers and casual readers, as well as a good spread of demographics in gender, age, and race. I would particularly appreciate the feedback of any LGBT, military, and/or Middle Eastern readers, as my protagonist is all of these things.

What format will the book be in? Any electronic form you request.

How do we sign up?. Email me at michelleiannantuono (at) gmail.com, or comment on this post before September 25th. Please provide your name, your email, and why you’re interested. And if we haven’t met, a little about yourself!

I wanted to beta, but you declined me :( Sorry, friend! I’m aiming for a diverse selection of 7-10 readers, so perhaps I already found someone similar to you. Or perhaps I chose someone who knew me less personally, due to their less obvious bias. Most likely, I’m picking on a somewhat first-come-first-serve basis, and there may be no slots left. I’ll be sure to keep you in mind for next time.

What did I get in return? My absolute willingness to beta a novel-length work of your own, at any time in the future. I also hope to provide a small token of my affection. If you live near me, maybe I’ll take you out to lunch. If you live far away, maybe an Amazon gift card. I know what I’m asking of you is a huge favor, so the best I can do is return the favor sometime for you.

Feel free to share, reblog, or link your friends to this post if you think they may be interested. I hope to reply to all interested parties as quickly as possible. Thanks guys!

Do You Let People Read Early Drafts?

Short answer? I don’t. I used to, back when my fingers were on fire while writing fanfiction and I was on the phone with my best friend Alyssa most nights, reading bits and pieces of every chapter aloud. She begged me to read her anything as soon as it hit the page. It was good motivation, I’ll say that.

These days, I don’t have a writing cheerleader constantly over my shoulder (although most conversations with Alyssa still include, “ARE YOU DONE WITH THE NEXT DRAFT YET?!”) And for that, I’ve shrugged off the tendency to show people my early drafts – even going so far to forbid it.

The beta draft of Paradisa from last June was, in actuality, the fourth draft of the book. The first draft was unfit for human consumption. The second and third could potentially be digested by my closest friends or my mother. Only by the fourth draft did I feel like it was ready for a variety of eyes, and even then, I did not allow anyone with a writing/English degree to read it. I had to turn down two willing readers for this reason – my friend Ashlynn , who is an English teacher by profession,  along with my copyeditor uncle Wes. I’m sure I will pass it along to them when the book is more ready, but in draft four it wasn’t.

On one hand, I do not want anyone reading my work unless it is borderline publishable. I want them to be able to compare it to published works within reason, or at least be able to see the potential. On the other hand, I deeply desire collaboration and interpretation to guide me, and it’s important to show people my works in progress while they are still….you know…in progress. It’s much easier to weave in good feedback when I’m still drafting.

I know when my book falls in the slot between “obviously still a draft” and “still capable of being enjoyed” when I’m unhappy with it for reasons I can’t sense. In every draft, I can usually sense problems, and I remedy them in the subsequent draft. I send it to beta when I know it’s not publishable yet but there’s nothing glaring that I’m positive about fixing.

Is there someone you’re okay sending your WIP chapter-by-chapter as you write? Do you write good enough first drafts for betas to enjoy immediately? Or are you a perfectionist who demands every page be immaculate before another soul reads? I think we all vary on how long we wait before we send our work to betas, which is interesting to me. Perhaps it has something to do with how willing we are to take critique, how able we are at sensing critique for ourselves, and how adept we are at getting it all right the first time. I must say though, even with a big beautiful outline to guide my first draft, that it still ain’t good enough for a reader.

Blasphemy or Mythological Fantasy?

For those who don’t know, my novel Paradisa entertains the concept that all gods are real – all religions of the world have truth, and lesser gods/angels are not actually sure who is the true Creator. They simply know that THEY exist and their purpose is to serve humanity.

Religion is a touchy subject. I have to be careful about how I personify these gods. I have to be careful to keep continuities straight and cultures accurate. Sure, compensating for the existence of ALL these dieties requires some acrobatic logic, as well as slanted interpretation, but I aim to stay faithful to the holy scriptures of billions of people.

That being said…this is fantasy. Stargate did this. American Gods and Supernatural do this. Mythological fantasy is a subgenre all its own, and never have I heard anyone get offended by the fictionalization of Pagan gods, or even Christian angels. I think most people accept that, so long as the gods and faiths are not portrayed in a negative light, speculation of their origins via fantasy is a non-issue.

All six of my betas come from different faiths, including Catholicism,  Methodist, Pagan, and perhaps even agnosticism. Only 1/5 Christian betas attends church (my boyfriend Austin,  for reference), so this was not the most fundamentalist group of people. Still, if anyone was to take offense to my portrayal of angels and saints, it should have been Austin. He did not.

Rather, it was my lapsed Catholic beta who worried “if someone as pious as Austin” would find it sacrilegious,  and who insisted that no creative license may be taken with religious figures…and that because world mythology is so vast, my inability to know every bit of it means I should limit myself to only one or two mythological characters total. He already thought that the slight twists of personality I offered my characters was far too deviant.

I disagree, of course. Mythology is only as vast as the parts I care to include, and those parts are well-researched. This is a crowded market, and no agent will buy yet another Persephone book, or a vindictive Aphrodite, or a mustache-twirling Lucifer. Something new has to be brought to the table to keep the gods true to type, yet fresh.

As for those who would still call this book blasphemous…let them. J.K. Rowling paid no attention to whackos who burned her “evil” books. Just from my own beta pool, I think most readers are smart enough to distinguish between a speculative work of fantasy (which paints religion in a nice light, might I add), and a holy scripture.

I am careful with these borrowed sandboxes, handling the characters as of they’re another kid’s toys I have to give back. That’s all anyone who writes in this genre can do.

Writing and Beta Updates

This post is not going to be particularly profound or insightful. It’s just a drive-by statistics post of where I am in my writing and editing, and some thoughts on my two beta responses from this past weekend.

  • My final two betas completed Paradisa and submitted their thoughts. I’d say 80% of their thoughts fell into consensus with the other betas. I think another 10% was probably critique due to personal taste, and the remaining 10% were unique outlooks that made me take a second glance at my outline. So, pretty standard!
  • While 10% uniqueness seems small, I think 5-20% unique suggestions or outlook is a good target.  Otherwise, the collective feedback would be unmanageable. Having a pool of people with about 80% consensus is very ideal and reliable – for both good things (across-the-board compliments on my action scenes) and the bad (oh boy, did everyone hate Clara!). Sure, there’s some outliers (Clara was Mom’s favorite character 0_o?), but when I have five people telling me “this character sucks!” there is obviously an issue there.
  • For the most part, my betas have told me problem areas that I already knew about, but in pointing out their most noticeable hiccups with the book, I can prioritize which problems are the most serious. Going in, I thought my weak antagonists were the most seriously dreadful part. Turns out, most betas were not too bothered by that, but they were very bothered by some traits of the hero characters.  So rather than telling me how to write my book, I think this just gives me a set of priorities for how to attack revisions. *shrug*
  • I have also completed 2 chapters in Draft Five \o/ Hoping to be finished by September 5th. I’ve set myself a semi-realistic schedule. Then, I may spend the better part of September doing some style edits, because I think this is the version of the story that I’m finally going to keep.  And when I pass it off to strangers in the next beta round, I want my style to be sharper. The rain has sucked my energy, so I’m not as peppy about writing as I need to be, but hopefully it will come easier once I warm up those muscles.

How’s your writing coming, Pressworld?

Some Talk On Setting Descriptions…and Follow Friday @NannaWrites !

For today’s Follow Friday, I hope you check out a rising Danish writer named Nanna Andersen. Nanna posts book reviews and tips on writing. I also think she’s just started building her platform, so give her some love!

As for me, my Draft Five marathon begins today! Hopefully. I’m going to see Guardians of the Galaxy at 5, with dinner afterwards, so that should leave me a whole evening of writing. I have finished 19/21 chapters in my new outline, so that is nearly set. My final two betas are delivering feedback this weekend, which will be added into the new outline as best I can do.

But here’s a “writer topic” before I head off to the weekend – setting description. Dad called Mom a few days ago and they talked at length about my book (with rather different opinions, as you might imagine from following this saga). Dad insists that I need more setting descriptions in the book. Like, five-senses surround-sound half-a-page setting descriptions for almost every place the characters enter. Lord of The Rings level description.

My mother’s opinion, and mine, is that no one wants to read all that. Those are the paragraphs readers are most likely to skip – aka, paragraphs I do not want in my novel.

To Dad’s credit, setting descriptions are flimsy in my book. This is because I honestly haven’t decided what everything looks like yet. I should probably go into more detail about the made-up places in my world, for those are places that readers have never mentally, visually, or physically been. A reader may be able to fill in some blanks with their imagination, but I ought to paint a nice two-paragraph picture = A literal visual translation (is this a house? a courtyard? a city?) plus time of day, weather, inside/outside, damp/dry, and a general mood of scary/safe is a good bet for most settings.

However, I don’t find it necessary at ALL to describe, at length, settings that a person can imagine clearly without my help. Like the airport. We’ve all been in airports. We know what they look like, smell like, feel like. Even if you’ve never been in one, you’ve probably seen them in movies. I will not waste time describing the ugly carpet, blowing AC, sterile colors, and uncomfortable plastic seats. First of all, none of that matters to the plot. Second of all, the reader “gets it” without that needing to be said.

In general, I won’t spend more than 200 words on any setting description, even if we’re in a new place. Not only can setting descriptions be peppered through the scene instead of dumped in one swoop (“he walked over to an antique wardrobe, its teal paint weathered with age”), readers don’t need to know the shape of the crown molding, the number of tiles on the floor, or the parts-per-million carbon dioxide in the air. Do you think about those sorts of things when you enter a new space? Probably not.

So describe the settings to the length that they matter to the characters and story. Trust that your reader has some imagination, and that it’s actually quite fun to make up your own visual scene as a reader. Being spoonfed every detail is not only tedious, but it takes some of the fun out (for me, at least). It tells me that the author is a control freak and doesn’t want the reader to “share” the fictional dream as much as the author wants the reader to “obey” the dream. And I will probably admonish that author by closing the book.

Advice On Beta Readers – Yes, They CAN Be “Too Harsh”

This is a long one, folks.

As writers, we prepare ourselves for inevitable truckloads of criticism. This may come from editors, agents, family members, or some jerk on Good Reads. It’s important to develop thick skin, and to realize that harsh truths help us improve.  I don’t believe that writing “what’s in your soul” automatically deserves publication, or that “there’s a reader out there for everyone.” I believe in formulas, literary traditions, and that being skilled in your craft is what makes you worth reading outside of your friend circle.

That being said, “too much criticism” can happen. And so can wrong criticism.

For my whole life, my dad has been the patron saint of red pens. Even when I was 11, he wasn’t afraid to rip apart what I’d written. Honestly, he’s probably the reason I never finished anything until I started writing fanfic. Whenever I got excited about a new WIP, or gave him the first couple chapters to read, he popped that balloon of joy and brought me down to the realism of “hey, this plot makes no sense and your characters suck.”

As an adult, I felt I could handle his harsh words. More than handle them, I felt like I needed them. That I’m ready for them. And as I’ve been writing proficiently for a while now, I felt like I’ve escaped many obvious pitfalls he noticed in my childhood writing.

However, as I just received Dad’s 100% negative and perplexing critique of my first 30 pages – and the notice that he’s basically given up reading the book and he’ll probably be skimming the rest – I came to a disappointing and important realization: just because criticism is harsh doesn’t make it good.

For example – my father claims to “rarely invest mental energy in ensembles where six politically correct and diverse characters do the work of one protagonist.” That is obviously a matter of taste, but he makes that claim like there’s something wrong with stories like Independence Day, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, or The Goonies. Shoot, even one of my –our – favorite movies is It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. These are the stories that shaped me as a storyteller, and keeping that tradition alive is not a flaw. It’s not even a choice. It’s the heartbeat of my work.

Not to mention the  overt sexism, racism, and homophobia in such a statement. My protagonist is a half-Iranian gay man. His sister is half-Iranian. One of my characters has a severe leg disability and walks with a cane. Another one of my protagonists is an attractive, seductive woman who is just as powerful, good, and important as the virginal sister character. First of all, representation matters. Period. Second of all, these aren’t arbitrary characteristics thrown in for diversity’s sake. In the case of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, that’s just who they are in the lore. In the case of my human protagonists, Connor and Clara, their diversity is realistic (rarely is an American just ‘white’ these days) and both their heritage and Connor’s sexuality tie into their character arcs. Connor was a Special Forces soldier who got hit with the consequences of DADT. It’s not exactly the type of gay character that’s often represented, and that fall from grace is what kicks his story into motion. Additionally, their mixed religious heritage contributes to Connor and Clara’s open-mindedness about the mythological figures they encounter.

So I must realize that it’s not my story’s problem if Dad wants to make one all-powerful 45-year-old white dude save the day by himself. I am interested in writing about the dynamics and relationships between people, not just a single flat hero solving some plot points. This is something I know I must stay true to.

Thus, beneath the cut, I have a few more words of advice when it comes to picking beta readers – and how to be a good beta reader.

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