Thursday, April 26, 2012

Here beta, beta, beta...

Average Blog Reader
One of the biggest challenges with creating my blog entries is writing to my entire audience. I have friends from grade school, high school, and college who visit here. I also have acquaintances from my days in radio who stop by from time to time as do friends I used to reenact the civil war with. Recently added to the mix are persons in the field of writing and publishing. And on top of that strange venn diagram scenario, my family swings by as well. It should be noted this is not the limit of my visitors.

According to Blogger, the majority of my blog viewers, 90% in fact, are in the United States, while in second place is Russia with 8%. This is odd to me since Canada, a country where the majority of residents speak english, is in third place and the United Kingdom, again english speaking folks, comes in below Germany. And since we are talking blog stats, I want to offer a shout out to all of the PC users out there since 78% of my views are not from a Mac.

Also, to the 3 people who have viewed my blog using the Netscape browser, it's time to put on the big boy pants and stop using that computer you found at the bus terminal.

So as I write my thoughts for all my circles to share, in the back of my mind I am always thinking, "Do I need to explain what I mean?" This is likely one of these times. Oh, do you smell that? It's a brief description I just baked and am serving up to those not in the fields of writing and publishing. Today I would like to explain what a Beta Reader is, rather, today I would like to let Wikipedia explain what a Beta Reader is.

International Symbol for a Beta Reader I Just Drew
"A beta reader (also spelled betareader, or shortened to beta) is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described[1] as "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."

the Beta Band featured in the film High Fidelity
Since I started writing again three years ago, my Beta Reader is my lovely and talented wife Paige. She has a thorough knowledge of literature, speaks fluent french, and is a librarian. She also has experience editing having worked on movie pilot scripts in the past. She downplays this experience as it was for an old flame but I do not make that distinction. When Paige says she likes something I wrote, I know I can trust it and when she says she doesn't like it, I get sad which is odd validation for her statement.

Case in point, I completed a children's book manuscript recently and after she read it she said to me, "You forgot to include a story." Sadness led to me realizing Piage was right. The characters were there in great detail but I failed to place them on a path.

The 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest is ongoing as I write these words. My Novel which I started writing last September made it into the quarter finals, being chosen as one of the top 5% of 5,000 entries. Unfortunately, it will go no further as it was just eliminated. After the 5 stages of grief completed pissing on my wheaties, I am ready to start editing and carry on.

I had a Beta fish when I was in grade school
First I need to pump up my ego a little and recognize that in the relatively short time I have been back at writing, having a novel make it that far the first time out is pretty impressive and an accomplishment I could not have made without my Beta Reader Paige. Even with this level of first time success, Paige still reminds me I need to find another Beta Reader to help put a finer point on my pencil, especially for the children's book manuscripts I have.

So how does one go about finding a Beta? I would love to hear back from some writers out there with their stories and advice of how they found the right critique partner. Then again, maybe I would learn more from the stories of the wrong connections. Feel free to place a comment below or drop me a line directly. This new writer would sincerely appreciate it.    

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

(don't) Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler
"To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him."

My sister-in-law, a soon to be published author by the way, once described me as being Lloyd Dobler.

Because of her I sat through Say Anything, a movie which some had raved about being a great film. I didn't think that much of it but maybe that was because I was being characterized as teenaged John Cusak (aack!). To know me is to know I am much more the tormented newly grown up High Fidelity John Cusak type.

What left me really scratching my head was why the movie was called "Say Anything?" I first confused it with a Kirk Cameron movie about a debate club. My wife, who is one of those people who thinks Say Anything is a great movie, quickly corrected me. By the way, the title of the Kirk Cameron movie is Listen To Me. Clearly you can see why I got confused.

Believe it or not, the subject of why Say Anything is called what it is was already answered on Yahoo and as it turns out has nothing to do with Lloyd's character, rather the annoying father-daughter bond he needs to work inside of and eventually destroy (Yahoo Answer). So am I Lloyd Dobler, the deceiver who steals daughter's hearts from their fathers? I say no, but I really can't back that up with more than a desire to not be that guy.

Perhaps we should mentally place the ambiguous movie title aside and look more at Lloyd's character. Thanks to the internet I met Kate White, a writer for the Pittsburgh Examiner. She wrote a wonderful column on why every woman wants to meet and be with Lloyd Dobler (Kate White, Pittsburgh Examiner). As she wrote, "He is the urban legend of dates and the Holy Grail of boyfriends. He is the weirdo underdog, the rogue charmer, and the sensitive loyalist. He won our charred, dead hearts one romantic, offbeat line at a time." Well alright, now, sugar! This works for me and personally I think it describes me rather accurately. However it does nothing to get me my 100 minutes back that I spent watching that movie.

Humbly I admit I am a rogue charmer, offbeat, and definitely the underdog, especially when it comes to my writing style. Soon I hope to be able to show my work to the world in a more professional manner. For now I play the aspiring author paying his dues by sending out queries every week and languishing in my own hemlock society of gathered rejection letters.

The vast majority of the general public has no clue how a form rejection letter from a complete stranger can damage one's underdog qualities. Sometimes it takes days to get up and dust yourself off. Occasionally a bit of providence steps in and lifts you up quicker.

Normal Maclean
This week I came across such a bit of providence in the form of a letter at the Letters of Note website that would prove to be very uplifting and make me more aware of an author by the name of Norman Maclean.

He wrote A River Runs Through It and in 1975 he thought things were going well as the Alfred A Knopf agency was ready to publish it. Then they backed out. I know exactly how he felt at that moment as earlier this year I was in talks with a publisher in the UK who wanted to publish two of my children's book manuscripts. They kept me on the line for three months, then the publisher's executive director resigned leaving the agency in damage control mode and my manuscripts in the dustbin. I still feel a lump in my throat when I recall that event.

As luck would have it for Mr. Maclean, the University of Chicago Press picked up his work after Knopf dumped it and it became the celebrated novel it deserved to be. Wait, it gets better. In 1981 he was contacted by an agent at Alfred A. Knopf who was interested in finding out if they could get a shot at Maclean's latest work. The best presumption is the agent had no idea that Knopf had previously toyed with Maclean and the offer would likely upset him.Well, old Norman let him have it in a response letter that makes for great reading, especially for frustrated writers. The entire text of the letter can be found here (letter) and it is a must read for the writer having no luck at being accepted.

Here is my favorite part of his letter to the publisher who left him at the altar six years previous. "The dream of every rejected author must be to see, like sugar plums dancing in his head, please-can't-we-see-your-next-manuscript letters standing in piles on his desk, all coming from publishing companies that rejected his previous manuscript, especially from the more pompous of the fatted cows grazing contentedly in the publishing field. I am sure that, under the influence of those dreams, some of the finest fuck-you prose in the English language has been composed but, alas, never published. And to think that the rare moment in history came to me when I could in actuality have written the prose masterpiece for all rejected authors – and I didn't even see that history had swung wide its doors to me."

Let me make it clear, these are not my words, at least not at the moment. I am still in the ass-kissing and asking for seconds part of my writing career which means I can not afford to burn any bridges yet as I can not afford the big boat to cross the water on my own.

Someday, maybe I can be as honest and glib as Maclean was, but right now I want to assure agents and publishers that I want to be their very own Lloyd Dobler.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Holiday Road

American Popular Culture is rife with stores of the family road trip.

From the Donner Party, to The Grapes of Wrath, and even Lost in Space, we Americans love stories about families hitting the road and the difficulties encountered on the way.

As a child I grew up with the experiences of vacations featuring roadside scenes captured from the back of a GM Station Wagon outfitted with a full size mattress and pushed forward with a gasoline sucking 454 cubic inch V8 engine.

It was the culmination of the Monroe Doctrine, the American Family pushing outward on the back of 5,000 pounds of road kill producing steel. On these trips I met my fellow countrymen and sampled local delicacies like scrapple (sort of like corned beef hash). It was also where I bonded the most with my family.

My father usually drove. My mother usually criticized how he drove. My sister had the middle seat to herself. She needed the room for all of her teenaged attitude. My brother and I laid on the mattress in the back and tried to talk to truck drivers on the CB.

And even though we saw things like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls,  I don't think that was the purpose of the trips.

It was on these two week long imprisonments that I learned the most about my family. The confinement forced interaction and tolerance between us. Although resentment was easy to find, compassion and caring was never lacking. We knew we would survive if only we stayed together.

In 2005 I finally got divorced. It was the last gasp of a marriage in which I had spent more time separated than together with my wife. For two years previous to the divorce I learned what it was to be a single dad and considered myself an expert. To celebrate the possibilities and the future that came along with removing my wedding band, I planned a vacation road trip with my son who was five at the time. With 3,200 pounds of camper being pulled by a 2.5 liter Honda V6 we headed out.

Stopping at the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, and Mount Rushmore on the way, we brought along our Chicago good sense and blazed a trail to Yellowstone National Park.

Once there we saw moose, bears, buffalo, and geysers. As visitors we quickly came to realize the importance of preserving the National Parks as well as not leaving trash outside of your camper.

On the second night of our visit tragedy struck. My son had a split tooth and at 2 am, 1,400 miles from home, we had a problem. Using cold water to soothe the pain so he would stop screaming, he finally fell asleep.

Later that morning I found myself on the road again, this time to Saint John, Idaho, and the closest dental clinic. At the advice of the dentist, after the temporary filling was in place, we headed to the local pharmacy for a huckle-berry shake.

My son and I shared a huckle-berry shake in a pharmacy somewhere in Idaho that still had a soda fountain. You just can't get that on an airplane.

Fast forward nine years. As I write this, I am feeling a little better, having finally recovered from a road trip to Florida with my family. On the way I developed bronchitis which needed a trip to the immediate care center, watched my now 14 year old son buy a disgusting alligator head, tested my wife's patience with my stubbornness while she battled with "is that a cop?"-itis, and scolded the 4 year old repeatedly for simply not listening and continuing to mess with his brother.

As awful as it was, I am sure I will always look back at that time with great fondness.