Monday, November 4, 2013

The Madmartigan Way

Here’s my advice (and it should be obvious) for any budding writer out there: If you have a chance to beta read for another budding writer, jump at it. In fact, you should be beta reading as much if not more as you are writing, until you know what the hell you’re doing.

I’m still in the “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” stage here, folks. But I’m beta reading another author’s book right now, and I am learning a lot.
Such as?
Getting on with it. Newbie writers (myself included) like to have their characters pause to ponder stuff. You know what? Bad, bad idea – unless it’s something the reader wants them to ponder, and even then, if the pondering is getting in the way of the action, best to have them ponder it at another time.
This reminds me of something Dave Barry said about writing the perfect summer novel: If the main character has to ponder anything, it should not be a moral dilemma, but rather having sex with his/her counterpart, the shark, or the villain. Not that we need more sex in books, but the message is clear here: Don’t let your character’s navel-gazing get in the way of the action. I have this problem in spades. So reading it in someone else’s novel should help me recognize it and kill it in my own.
Carboard Characters, Whether Alone or in Legion. In the book I’m beta reading, one of the characters just died a horrible death, falling off a cliff while being attacked by beings that are crosses of wolverines and vampire bats. I. Do. Not. Care. I can’t even remember why this character is in the book, other than for this Star Trek redshirt moment. When Boromir died, we at least knew quite a bit about his history, his motivations, and his character struggling with the power of the One Ring. When this character died, I had to backtrack even in the death scene to figure out who, exactly, it was who bit the dust. Not a good sign.
I’m sure I do this in my own books. I’m re-writing one now, in which I’ve introduced a number of characters – but one intro is missing because the character developed more as the book went on. And others have faded. Time to weed.
Relationships. So you have two characters who are in a budding romantic relationship. Yippee-skippy. Let them embrace or contemplate the budding in a sentence or two, not entire paragraphs. Or chapters. I’m recommending excising one entire chapter in the book I’m reading for that very reason.
If your characters have to fall in love, do it the Madmartigan way:

Let it happen, but keep the action flowing. Else your readers are going to wander off.
Description. This is my bugaboo. Describing things. Ask yourself, as you describe something: Is it important to the story? Will this help your readers understand what’s about to happen? And be honest. This is for posterity after all.

Note how Count Rugen’s description of the machine and his work on it helps build the tension. And demonstrates how callous he is about Westley’s suffering. If, instead, he’d described the hidden laboratory instead of the machine, it wouldn’t have made sense. Weed this kind of description out of your own writing. I know I’m working on that.
Consistency is Key. Do you have a character mourning the death of a friend on one page, followed by a description of him being silly all that morning on the next page? You do. Uh-oh. Either explain the silliness as part of the mourning process or erase the silliness pronto. Don’t have inconsistent characters or an inconsistent story.
Get into the culture. But not too far. So you’re writing a book that takes place in a culture other than on Earth. Get into it. Use a little vocabulary. Do something to make your characters sound different. But don’t go overboard. Don’t make them sound British to make them sound different. And certainly, don’t make them use Earth slang the whole time. It’s annoying and blurs the characters together (bad news it they’re already muddled).
Find Good. Don’t go into beta reading with a red pen and vengeance on your mind. You’re going to find stuff that’s really good. Compliment the author. Stroke that ego. After all, you’ve got some good stuff in what you’ve written. So read and learn. The author I’m reading handles action, for the most part, better than I do. And he’s got some scenes with great details that demonstrate he is getting into the culture (see above). I’m taking notes.
Being Realistic. Here’s the thing: I love the book I’m reading. It reminds me of the great pulp science fiction/fantasy novels of the 1930s and 40s. But that’s only my perspective. I don’t know from which direction the author got his inspiration. And that’s fine. What inspires someone to write is unique, and sometimes it takes a unique approach. He can take or leave my advice, and I won’t feel slighted or that my effort in reading his book was for naught. Maybe he’ll learn something, or find something valuable in what I have to say. The takeaway here is that I know I’m learning something, and am finding extreme value in the experience.

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