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!

The Three Types of Criticism

As I shuffle through pages of beta feedback, and as I read or re-read writing manuals in preparation for a brutal Draft Five edit, I’ve come to a  realization – writing is subjective.

“Duh, Michelle,” you snort. “Of course art is subjective. We all know that!”

That’s not what I speak of. We all know that our response to art is subjective. Rather, I’m talking about the methodology of our craft, and how it is seriously analyzed by ourselves and others.

Which leads me to the title – the three types of criticism that a work can receive. Keep these in mind when you’re reviewing the comments of beta readers, or analyzing your self-critique.

1. Critique due to taste. I do not like epic fantasy. No huge reason – I just don’t. So I dislike the Lord of The Rings, but that doesn’t mean I think LOTR is bad or invalid. I can still respect that Tolkien achieved something monumental,  and that his work is good. When betas or consumers read your story, hopefully they can self-identify which elements they dislike due to taste, and they won’t dock stars from their review or expect you to change it. If your betas are unable to do this, make sure YOU realize which comments are due to their taste. (This is a big struggle with Dad. He thinks all his comments fall into 2 or 3, when some of them are certainly 1).

2. Critique due to rules. These are the critiques to heed, because they’re the foundations of the craft. Show,  don’t tell. Spell words correctly in narrative and keep spelling consistent.  Follow a three act structure. Cut out the boring parts. Keep your word count competitive to the market.  Make your opposition stronger than the lead. These rules may be tossed if you’re doing experimental or metafiction, or if you’re world famous,  but most of us aren’t. A good deal of criticism will fall into this category,  and it’s honestly the easiest critique to hear. It’s the least personal. Lit rules are usually broken by mistake or ignorance.

3. Critique due to personal philosophy. Here is where you decide what kind of writer you want to be. These are the philosophies that YOU think every writer should follow,  and they’re how you deem other works “bad” or “good.” However, I promise that most are subjective,  and some may even be dated.

I’ve said before that James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure  is a great tool. It’s also becoming dated. JSB recommends opening your book with something like a phone call in the middle of the night,  or an action prologue. This may have been good advice once, but most agents today would cringe at a prologue, or a hook with dreams, waking up, looking in the mirror, or phone calls. That method became oversaturated and passe.

John Gardner and Ayn Rand,  I’ve realized, have personal philosophies that are almost too literary for me. Both believe that the best novelists are people whose language and style sing. Pat Kubris and JSB think that simply telling a good story is the mark of a great novelist.  Who is right? No one. This isn’t a matter of simple taste like #1, where you can brush it off and say “that’s not for me.” These are valid opinions on the “correct” way to write, supported by more than gut feeling.

They don’t have to be from pros either.  My betas certainly have opinions about what makes a book good,  and I have plenty of agreements and counterarguments. But even though I might disagree, I still take note of their philosophies and respect the evidence.   Maybe they’ll change my mind someday.  Maybe they’re on to something. Or maybe I’m good where I am.

As authors, we get to pick any of these sides in order to shape our writer’s identity. As daunting as that sounds,  it’s somewhat exhilarating.  It means that no two writers are likely identical in how they approach the craft. Cool, huh?

Writing,  like all other fields, is rarely black and white. And it’s in the gray where we figure out who we are,  and how to tell our stories.

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.

Continue reading

The Happy Medium Between “Smart” Fiction and Fluff

There is no greater satisfaction for a writer than having someone truly “get” our work. We all dream of having readers understand our stories and our characters on a level that perhaps we, the creators, do not.

Yesterday, I was over the moon to discover that Beta #1, Greg, “got”  Paradisa. It entertained him and resonated with him in equal parts. Despite knowing nothing about the book before he read it, he spoke of the characters, relationships, and world mechanics with as much familiarity as I would.

It was surprising, because I don’t consider myself a particularly deep writer.  Literary yarns about the human condition, or ‘character driven’ stories in general, tend to bore me. As a cinematic author, I admit that I like spectacle.  But while I like writing without pretension, I *do* put a great deal of thought, care, and meta into my work. I use it more as scaffolding than the focus of the plot, but I was thrilled to see Greg recognize it anyway.

Many people read things on the surface these days, as shallow franchises like Twilight and Transformers have trained them to take things at face value alone.  But for every one of those people, you’ve got a Sherlockian or a Whovian who devotes much of their time to pouring over their fandoms with a magnifying glass. I don’t think one is better than the other – rather, I’m searching for a happy medium between the two.

Some of my favorite fictional works are Harpers Island, National Treasure, Pacific Rim and Artemis Fowl. If you’ve seen or read any of these, you know their primary goal is to simply entertain, but there are layers that a “Sherlockian” could appreciate. Harpers is a fun slasher mystery, but you can’t help but do the ugly cry when the lovable Cal and Chloe, and many others, get the axe. Artemis is a fun action romp for teens, but it gets dark when you think about what a broken boy Artemis is, and the struggle between his genius and his conscience. National Treasure is a Da Vinci Code wannabe Disney fluff piece, or it’s about a man desperately trying to  prove his worth and family legacy to his skeptical father (and to have the only man who believes him, Sean Bean, betray him for selfish gain).

I am not a fan of mindless, heartless fluff. But that’s not to say that fluff can’t have heart and have thought. Overall,  the fiction I write aims to be accessible to those who want to have fun, but equally enjoyable to those who want to laugh, cry, and experience a story that leaves them mulling for days. It’s a difficult line to walk, but I’m jazzed to see at least one person’s response was positive. Now I’ll have to figure out what the other six think :P

1 Beta Down, 6 To Go

Big shout out to my friend Greg for being the first person to finish Paradisa. He’s been very encouraging and I look forward to meeting up with him on Monday, where we’ll discuss the book in greater length. Hopefully he’ll lend his fantastic imagination and frank nature to the critique.

This weekend, I’m recovering from a shoulder injury and hanging out with Alyssa, who is in town until Monday. The shoulder injury has kept me down for about two weeks, but one trip to the chiropractor put me in good form again. One bad side effect of being a writer is how badly a laptop will screw up your spine. I’m trying to use my writing desk more instead of writing in bed (bad habit!). My x-rays were scary, guys. If you jut out your neck as far as it can go, that’s pretty much my resting posture. It’s going to take a very long time to fix, but at least the misalignment beneath my shoulder blade, which was causing me massive pain, has been resolved.

I’m also polishing up Goliath to submit to Athena’s Daughters II. I need to have that sent off by Monday night. It’s almost complete, but I need to do a few rereads and detailed edits.