Tag Archives: writing

From coniferous forest to….

Currently pausing forward progress on my novel rough draft by going back and readjusting/revising generic mountainous forest setting description to…this.

Aka I did my research wrong in the beginning and I need to go back and adjust several chapters to be more awesome.

(Current wordcount: 245k)

Disappointments in Final Books

I jotted down this list last summer, after I’d read a lot of final books in trilogies/series and found that a lot of them were disappointing for the same set of reasons.  I wanted to write up the list while it was still fresh in my analytical-reader mind.  I meant to turn it into a blog post then, but a lot of crazy life stuff came first.  So, here it is now.  Feel free to add your own in the comments. I figure I can refer back to this list with my writer hat on later.

So, without further ado, things I thought made final books weak:

  • New set of main characters introduced, taking time/focus away from those we grew to love in the first two books.
  • New plot/story arcs introduced out of nowhere, then not given enough depth or resolution as the others.
  • Last minute betrayals, romances, or deaths included for “extra drama.”  These feel last minute because the betrayal/romance wasn’t set up or hinted at in previous books, and death wasn’t a possibility or a true risk before (no minor characters had died, so why should a major character die now, etc.)
  • Plot holes and other evidences of a rush job in writing, as if the author/editor were on a much tighter deadline than the previous books, less time allotted to think ramifications through properly, or they’d spent years mulling on or simmering over the first half of their story but only now discovered their ending, and so on.
  • An ending that isn’t given enough time or development to balance out everything that came before it, to feel satisfying or resolved.  (“In late, out early” misused).
  • Not enough hope (to counterbalance all the previous darkness)
  • Too epic, losing sight of the intimate stories and scale of the previous books and what made these compelling.

Anything about ending books that bothers you (as a reader)?

2014 in Review

This year I

  • Went through a full submission process for my novella Queen of the Eight Banners, then decided to use the novella to keep experimenting with publication formats.  Hello, Wattpad.
  • Wrote a novelette, got it read/critiqued, but haven’t managed to come back to it yet, for reasons further explained below.
  • Wrote a short story and a scene snippet set in a world am developing, though neither particularly stand alone.
  • Decided to stop submitting stories to publication venues and focus on playing in a rejection-free sandbox instead.
  • Launched my fairy tale & folktale translation website in July.
  • Annnnd… also in July I became a full-time primary caretaker and my writing, alpha-reading, &c. pretty much came to a screeching halt.  However, I am still managing small monthly updates on my translation website.
  • Caved and got a tumblr page so I can keep track of my favorite artists (after Google dropped their RSS Reader) and also to support my translation website.
  • Started a Patreon fundraising page to support my fairy tale & folktale translation website, and we hit the milestone goal that makes having the patreon worth it–with only two patrons, which surprised me.

In other words, 2014 has been a year full of transitions. We’ll see what 2015 brings.

My alpha/beta-reading CV

The past month has been extremely crazy due to a rather serious medical emergency in my immediate family, (I’ve been among the primary caregivers.)  Hopefully I should be around more from now on, but I expect things to continue to be disjointed and slowest on my blog as I will be focusing on my fiction writing and translation.  Y’know, all that behind-the-scenes meaty stuff.


The other day I was tallying up the range of alpha/beta-reading I’ve done in the past several years.  Recently I’ve been having to say “no” a lot more often than I’d like to, but I’m curious to see what all the projects look like in a pile together.  Length-wise, I’ve tackled projects all over the map.  I have a shelf on Goodreads for them, but it’s hardly representative of the work I’ve done.

Since 2011, I’ve alpha/beta-read

  • historical fantasy
  • dark fantasy/horror
  • time-traveling fantasy
  • space opera
  • translation of a Japanese game
  • translation of a French literary/academic horror novel
  • dystopian webcomic script

Kinda cool!  Definitely didn’t expect that spread when I first started alpha/beta-reading. 🙂

Changing Focus

So…these past six months or so I’ve been really struggling with discouragement in regards to my writing.  This is in large part due to the growing suspicion that what I really want to write isn’t something that editors are going to want to buy/license.  The acquiring markets are really specific in what sort of stories and lengths and styles they’re looking for.  Most short fiction markets, for example, want stories within the range of 5k, and the stories must be standalone, must have a certain kind of hook in the beginning, and so on.  Novels, too, have to be in a certain range, with a certain set of criteria to hit, and that criteria may change per editor but tends to be about the same on the whole.

But what interests me are slower-build stories with multiple layers, connected as a part of a series with repeating characters and growth over the whole series, depth, beauty, wonder, sorrow, the battle between hope and fear, as well as action and adventure and humor and bantering and… of an indeterminate and varied length.

One of the things I hate most about where I am in my writing is that I feel very much alone.  I don’t have anyone I can really turn to and hand over my writing and say, Tell me truly, am I deluding myself, is this good enough? Is this bad storytelling, am I not ‘there yet’?  Or am I running into all these roadblocks because what I like and want is so niche and I shouldn’t worry about whether or not it’s “good enough” and just strike out on my own?

On the other hand, I do know I’m not the only one with this question.  Pat Rothfuss recently posted about his 30k short fiction foray into a story about Auri, which sounds like the same conundrum I’m in, minus the fact that his story is part of an already-established series and he has people he can consult for their opinions and an editor already attached.

I also feel akin to Andrea K. Host’s post about writing the Touchstone Trilogy, and am beginning to admire how she withdrew completely from the submission grind and just wrote and didn’t share her work with anyone rather than deal with the stress and what ifs and so on.

Part of my problem is that with my chronic illness, I don’t have a lot of energy to find readers who might like my style of story and writing and gain feedback.  I have a hard enough time maintaining friendships and doing things with and for people as it is.  I don’t have a lot of money or energy to afford or attend classes or workshops.  I also am not able to write much in a given year.  So, writing a story or two per year and setting that out into the world to be rejected over and over has become disheartening when I know I have learned a lot and my storytelling chops have improved since I started this blog and process 3 years ago.  I’ve been doing the best I can.  I hate it when that best isn’t good enough, though, especially when whats a “good story” is so subjective and I’m not sure what to make of the increasingly varied responses I’m getting.

I’ve also made the mistake(?) of telling a few people about the stories I’m excited about, developing and researching–and gotten the polite, closed-off expression full of misgiving that only has added to my self-doubt.

Another struggle I’m facing is that with my chronic illness, I have a really hard time developing characters and worlds, not to mention I have a really hard time slogging through the muck in my brain to put down words on paper.  Creating just takes so much time and energy, I feel like if I want to be able to do this, to work towards a steady career in writing, that every story I work on must count towards something I could use or could be publishable.

However, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s post on abandoning the preciousness of time and art is something to keep in mind.  If I think only in terms of “I should only write publishable material” that’s putting a lot of pressure on myself.  Pressure I really don’t need.  I’m not saying that what I do shouldn’t be important to me personally, but…I do think I’m happier when I’m not thinking about whether or not what I write will be acceptable to others or whether or not this story will break into community-approved markets.

That’s the other thing.  I’m currently working on a self-pubbed project, to be unveiled later this year, and it’s been a real eye-opener about how just how little money I currently have available for the self-pub route.  See again: disability and a lot of recent medical expenses.

So, if my work isn’t going to be acceptable at more traditionally-minded markets and if I don’t have the resources for self-publishing, what do I do?

I guess…the answer is obvious.  Keep writing what I want to write, stop worrying about publication all together for now.  Pull an Andrea K. Host and write in my bubble for a while since the submission grind is starting to get to me.  Work on improving my craft for myself, with whatever resources I have available to me.  Focus on my health and getting better.  Assume to myself I’ll find a part-time job when I recover and reevaluate at that point.

But I want to write, that’s not going to change.  I am bereft and easily depressed when I don’t.  Stories are who I am.

So, if I’m not going to be writing towards publication for a while, what do I do with this blog?  When I first started this blog, it was a great motivator.  It helped me combat my depression when I was first diagnosed and trying to sort myself out, what I could hope for and expect from myself and the new version of my body.  This blog still gives me an open book to work through ideas and thoughts, so I’m not going to close it, but I do think my focus will be changing.  To what, exactly, I don’t know.

If I’m not going to be pursuing publication for a while, do I really need an empty bibliography?  If I’m going to be reevaluating what stories to pursue or keeping them a secret, do I really need my Storybox?

(Yes, you can see that whatever thick skin I had a few years ago, is currently, strangely missing.)

I think I need a sandbox period.  I just need to play and figure things out and have fun.  I need to go into a mental space with no pressure, no rejections filtering into  my inbox, no criticisms from friends or strangers about how I’m doing everything wrong, no looks of misgiving, no judgments about how they don’t like what I’m doing, no confusion about who I should believe or what my stories are worth.

I have a short story that I’m writing/have written for an anthology I’m excited for, but that’s it.  Am going to draw a line in the sand and say, that’s enough. It’s play time!

ETA:  When this post goes live, I’ll have been sitting on this decision for a month.  So far, it’s made me a LOT happier.

I did backtrack to test the decision, though, to see if it was one I really want to do.  I submitted twice more.  One rejection was very nice,  quite cool and made me happy, the other rejection was extremely disheartening…and, to be frank, rejection isn’t really something I want to deal with right now.  Especially since the previous few weeks of sandbox had been fun and freeing.  So my decision stands, I’m going into sandbox fun mode.  No worries, no cares, no pressure.  Just experimenting and exploring and having fun and shaping worlds and having character adventures.  I know this won’t affect anyone but me and my own mental framework, but hey, you’re welcome to join me if you want.  It’s time to start taking everything a little less seriously.

ETA Again! Hah. I just found this blog post by Robin LaFevers on Surviving Nearly There, which pretty much sums up where I am and reaffirms the decisions I’ve made. It’s… rather uncanny.

2013 Report

Continuing in the ultimate feel-good post tradition, I’m really enjoying making these!  (Here are 2012‘s and 2011‘s to compare.)

In Memoriam book for Jen 005

In Memoriam

This year I –

  1. With the help of an artist friend, put together a print book edition of a collaborative story J. Tamsin Green and I wrote, then sent it to her for while she’s in the South Pacific for Peace Corps.  I also put together a Scrivener project with everything we’ve ever written together and sent that as well.
  2. Alpha/beta-read 4 novels and 1 novelette, including Charlie Holmberg‘s upcoming The Paper Magician and The Glass Magician with 47North.  (Congratulations on the sale! :D)
  3. Participated in Lisa Carter’s literary translation class Defining Writing Style in May.
  4. Explored other online forms of learning by signing up for Charlie Bowater’s Skillshare art class on character design, Virginia University’s sponsored course on historical fiction via Coursera, and Svetlana Chmakova’s Skillshare class on character design.
  5. Completed my goal of reading at least 45 books this year, reaching a total of 63 books.  8 of which were non-fiction, 0 of which were in French, and 2 translations, as per my goal this year to read more of each of those.  I have more non-fiction, French, and translation titles in various stages of completion that will count towards next year.  I’ve also read several French short stories.
  6. Participated in Camp NaNoWriMo twice in April and July and NaNoWriMo in November.
  7. Finished drafts 1.0 and 2.0 of my historical fantasy novella Queen of the Eight Banners.  So, so glad I got that done!
  8. I won a Twitter nanofiction contest with this tweet.
  9. Wrote a short story “Desired,” which was short-listed for World Weaver Press‘ FAE anthology.
  10. I joined the new Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America and then set up a directory and submissions market list for it.

Anti-Discouragement Pill

Last year I got really discouraged with my rough-draft writing.  I wanted whatever I was writing to come out exactly the way I wanted it to go on the first try.  In other words, I didn’t want writing to be a process, I wanted it to be the equivalent of spilling a perfect story out onto the page.   Granted, some of my frustration was illness-based.  I have a lot less control over my process now than I used to.

However, one day as I was musing over my frustrations, I realized something that has become quite a useful observation for me.  I realized that any form of art never spills perfectly onto the page on the first go. In fact, the process of drawing, painting, or other art forms is just that–a process.  Why should I expect my writing to be any different?  When I draw, first I do a thumbnail sketch, then a preliminary pencil sketch with various amounts of erasing and redrawing. Then I wait a few days or draw something different so I can have a fresh view.  Then I ink, then I apply markers, and so on.  Nothing skips magically from my head onto the sketchbook page.

Writing is the same.  Whether you’re an “outliner” or a “discovery writer”, no rough draft is ever the final draft. Ever.  There is always something to tweak or make better. Sometimes you have to completely erase and “redraw” a section so that it comes closer to how you want it to go, and so on.

As soon as I realized that writing is a cousin to drawing, I instantly felt better. However, I’ve found some difficulty trying to explain my epiphany to others. So, in April when I was working on a watercolor experiment with the help of a friend, I took progress shots, and now I’m sharing them with you.

Here we go!

Step Zero- Initial Idea.

This is all in your mind. Some of it is vague, some of it is crystal clear and longing to be captured “just so”.   You hope, just like every other time, that what you’re able to put on paper will match what’s in your head.

Step One – Thumbnail sketch.

Thumbnails, because they’re vague in parts, detailed in others, tend to capture your Initial Idea better than the steps following it. This can be a subject of frustration.

Step Two – Pencil sketch.

I didn’t take a photo of just the pencils, but you can see them here, lightly drawn, getting the basic shapes of what I want.  Even just this first step took some erasing and redrawing to get the shapes closer to how I wanted them. Already there was some disappointment in how the sketch differed from thumbnail and my Initial Idea, but I kept going.

Thumbnail + Pencil Sketch

Step Three – Basic background.

Sketching with paint, is more like it. Trying to get a feel for how the background should function behind the foreground.

Basic Background

Step Four – More depth.

More Depth

Hesitating, Considering

Step Five – Going All Out & Taking Risks.

I really didn’t know how to go from Step 4 to Step 5. How do you fill in a background with color and shapes so that it will function as a sort of hazy background and not detract from the foreground when it’s a finished piece? Yeah, I didn’t know. I badgered a friend (who knows a lot more than I do) with questions. I hesitated and considered for a long time. Then, gathering all my newly-acquired instructions, I made the plunge with crossed fingers and bated breath. Sometimes, we really don’t know what we’re doing or how to achieve the effects we want. But we try anyway and tell ourselves that if we break it, we can still fix it. The point is not to give up but to keep moving forward–and ask for help.

Fleshed-out Background

Step Six – Color correction.

The background turned out too blue for my liking. I have a huge dislike for blue and pink wildflower fields that certain impressionists have done. So I sought help again and tried a wash of yellow over it. Lines blurred more than I liked, but at least the grass is green again. I also tried my hand at some underpainting on the fairy. I didn’t do it quite right, but there was no harm to my attempt, and now I know better.

A Greener Spring

Step Seven – The Faerie & The Poppy.

More painting, and then I brought out my watercolor pencils  for the foreground, which I enjoy working with.   I ended up spilling orange paint on the wing, however, and was unsuccessful at blotting it all up, so it became an accidental feature of the piece. I freaked out at the time, but besides drifting further away from my Initial Idea, there was no lasting harm or foul, and I adapted the mistake to make it work with the rest of the picture.  (Remember how this can apply to writing?)

The Faerie & The Poppy

Step Eight – Flattening, Inks, Details.

Next, my watercolor paper was curling, so I learned the technique to straighten the paper and did that overnight.  Then I inked the foreground to make it pop more from the background, and added the finer details.  I inked with a migraine at the time, so since I could barely see, my hand strayed many times from where I wanted it to go. Each time I made a mistake, I tried to adapt it so it appeared like something I did on purpose.

Flattening, Inks, Details

Here’s a  close-up:


Summary: The whole process took me about a month from start to finish. I worked on it off and on, weighing each step, trying to figure out how to get the piece closer to how I wanted it to go since most of the time I just didn’t know, and seeking help when I needed it.  The process would have gone much faster if I knew more of what I was doing, but the process itself: the thumbnail sketch, sketching and erasing till I had what I wanted, the layering and tweaking of colors, waiting for things to dry before I moved to the next portion, asking for help and a more professional opinion, the final detail work, and adapting to my many mistakes–this doesn’t change.


Whether or not you can write or edit, everyone reading this–hopefully–can read. (I know, bad joke.)  Today I want to talk about what I have learned about the skills necessary for alpha- or beta-reading, and how to apply what you already know about reading, writing, and editing to being an alpha-reader.

But first, a few definitions.

A writer is one who writes. It is his job to tell a story the very best he can. An editor‘s job, then, is to turn that story into something acceptable to a wider audience. (These definitions are simplistic, but I’ve already covered the definitions of various roles here.)

An alpha-reader, also called a “first reader,” exists to help the writer know what it is she has written. Sounds odd, right?  But actually they are incredibly useful. Since the story happens entirely in the writer’s head, it is hard for the writer to tell how much of that story has actually made it to the page and what impact the words she has chosen to paint the story with will have on a reader.

The alpha-reader’s job, then, is to recreate their reading experience for the author.  They can do this in various ways, but the more detailed the description and summary of their various reactions (not just the negative ones and not just the positive ones), the more helpful they will be.

So, then, what  is a beta-reader? Beta-readers and gamma-readers are the next step.  If alpha-readers read the first draft a writer produces, beta-readers read the second draft with fresh eyes and gamma-readers read the third.  Each of these sets of readers gets to see the various drafts before the professional editor ever touches a page,  so the writer can make his writing the best he can before he begins submitting his work to the professional world.

Yes, you read that right. Alpha-readers are unpaid volunteers, but their task is crucial to the professional writing process.  Why are they unpaid? For the simple reason that writers are poor and can’t afford to pay everyone who helps them with their writing. However, many authors reward their volunteer readers with free copies of their published works, and of course, there is the joy of being involved and seeing a story before anyone else gets to.

Want to read books but can’t afford to do so? Become an alpha-reader.

Common Challenges.

Writers often have “Internal Editors” when they write: pesky little demons that sit on your shoulder and tell you everything that’s wrong about your writing.  There comes a point in a writer’s life, too, when they develop pesky little demons called “Internal Writers” that plague them when they read others’ books, babbling nonstop about how they would have written the book differently if its rough draft had first been in their hands.

Internal Editors are the bane of a writer’s “first draft” experience.  Internal Writers are the bane of a reader’s experience.  However, I have actually been able to squash most of my Internal Writer-demons by becoming an alpha-reader.

What A Writer Needs to Know.

When a writer requests the help of first readers, they are not looking to know what their readers would have written. They want to know the effect their book is having in its current form.  For example, a writer wants to know

  1. Clarity.  Do you understand what is going on? Can you picture the setting and the characters in your head? Can you see where everyone is in relationship to each other?  Was the fight scene confusing? Is my word choice obscure?
  2. Impact.  Was this part funny or did it fall flat?  Do you like these characters at this moment? Are you frustrated with them? Do you love them? Are you afraid? Is this intense? Are you bored? Do you wish you could stop reading? Do you feel like you’re there with the characters?  Was this part a tear-jerker or were you annoyed?  Was the ending satisfying or did I drop the ball?
  3. Believability.  How are my characters’ reactions? Does this feel plausible to you?  Is this the way you handle a gun in your experience?  Do I need to do further research about xyz?  Does my fight scene feel real? Does this fit together and make sense?
  4. Interest.  Does this fascinate you the way it fascinates me?  Are you hooked?  Is this too much detail or not enough?

Alpha-readers, especially alpha-readers who are also writers, will sometimes try to “fix” the book like an editor might do or “rewrite” it to suit their tastes. The problem with this is that unless you know what the writer is aiming for, you could do more damage than good–or simply waste everyone’s time tearing something apart that actually doesn’t need fixing.  So the less the alpha-reader tries to “fix” and the more time they spend recreating their experience and answering a writer’s unspoken questions, the more good they will do. This is the challenge. I am not perfect at it, but I’m getting better.


The way I do my alpha-reading is entirely “stream of conscious”.  If I have a thought or I feel something as I read, I record it. Let me see if I can pull something from the public domain to use as an example.

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.—

>>Wow, I wonder what happened to bring him here?  Though I get the sense this Duke fellow has a touch of the theatrics to put his heartache so dramatically.

Haha yes, I just used the first three lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as an example.  So you see–it does not matter how good or how poor the quality of the writing, alpha-reading is about recording your thoughts and your experience as you read.  I do it by quoting a few lines to anchor the writer so she knows what part I’m commenting on, and then giving my reactions by talking back to the text.

Then at the end of the chapter or section, I break to give a broader summary of the most striking points and thoughts I had.

Not everyone does it this way, but this is the way I’ve done it since I started giving feedback in writing instead of in person.  Still, if alpha-reading appeals to you and you want to give it a try, I’d encourage you to recreate your thoughts and feelings as detailed and as complete as possible. The more you leave out, the less the writer knows.  Also, don’t offer editing advice unless the writer asks for it.

Questions? Comments? Additions?

Insomniatic Writings

Insomniatic Writings (click to enlarge)

So Mary Robinette Kowal posted about her writing space and asked about ours and C.N.Holmberg posted about the need for writers to meditate and ponder over their stories. So I thought I’d share my most recent write-space and meditation time:  In bed, in the dark, at an insomniatic (I know that’s not a word but work with me*) hour. Anywhere between 2 and 5 AM.   I went to bed at 9:30 because I was so absolutely dead.  This time I was able to use my insomniatic hours relatively well.  I have 7 of the above pages with “ahah!” moments of plot coming together for both my novel and my short story and bits of dialogue. The above is dialogue between three characters. Ajige, Red Dog, and Ilha.

Well, I thought it was funny. :p  (Also, note the misspelling. D’oh!)

Anyway! I’m going to pass the question along for those who want to play the game. Where do you write?

– – –

*It’s a replacement for “ungodly” since I don’t think there are “ungodly” hours, though insomniatic ones are surely on the top of the list.