Friday, March 28, 2014

Do you use beta readers?

I've used beta readers before, but recently I got them from a difference source. For once, they were readers and reviewers instead of other writers. And they were strangers, sort of. I knew them from review sites, and Goodreads, where I try to at least act like a professional and not the neuroses-riddled approval-junkie that I am. I mean, other writers get that, but with readers I try to act just a little bit like how I imagine a grown up should act. Sometimes I even pretend I'm wearing shoes when I email them. 

And there are things you can say to writers when they beta your stuff, that you can’t say to readers who beta. The main one being: Is this okay, or is it absolute shit?

Writing’s a bit like an embroidery. From the other side, it's messy. 


And sometimes we writers spend so much time picking at the knots at the back, we forget what the picture looks like. We get so interested in the technical aspects, in all the stuff it took to put it together and all the stuff that threatens to make it collapse into one massive plot hole, that we lose all perspective about the things that matter.

My co-writer and I spent so much time worrying about the little stuff --

Are the chapters too short?

Is using Roman numerals above our tiny little scenes artistic, or is it pure wankery?

Are we trying to hard to push this metaphor?

-- that we forgot about what counts for the reader: the story and the characters.

And the feedback we got about those was solid. It was good. It was enthusiastic.

They liked this character.
They wanted to know more about this one.
Can we put some more back story in?
This villain is a monster!

Feedback from readers is very different than feedback from writers.

Get both.


Have you used beta readers before? Did it work out for you? 

Monday, March 24, 2014


I find language fascinating. I read books on etymology for fun. Word nerd alert. 

I have a particular love for languages such as Tok Pisin or Bislama, that were created to facilitate trade between English-speaking merchants and settlers, and native peoples. Creole languages appear deceptively simple on the the outside, but of course they're not. Even the simplest languages will find a way to communicate complex ideas, at least eventually. In the short term, I'm sure, they're a handy way to look at a native population as savage and uncivilised, and therefore steal their land. 

I am fascinated by translation. I remember studying the Treaty of Waitangi at university; as Wikipedia says so succinctly: "The English and Maori versions differ." Which is kind of a big deal when you're talking about a treaty that covers sovereignty. 

I am fascinated by translators, these invisible and often nameless people who hold such power, and recommend Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation to anyone else who's interested. 

Sometimes translation works. Sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes it is accidentally magical. 

But mostly when it comes to language, I'm fascinated by its limitations. Are all people fundamentally the same, or does language frame, and limit, the way we think? Pre-language, what were we like? In feminist psychoanalyst theory there's the chora, a stage in an infant's development where we haven't figured out yet where we end and the world begins. At the same time as we start to figure that out, we also start to develop language. There are suddenly rules and barriers. We're taught that language frees us, but what if that's not the case? Language is a very narrow framework when it has to support everything. More importantly, can language really bridge the gap between what we feel and how we make that understood? 

My language is English. Would I be a different person if I thought in another language? Can we ever learn to think in a foreign language? 

The Germans probably have a word for it. The Germans have a word for everything. Like Schadenfreude. A perfect word for a very familiar human emotion. But why isn't there an English word for it? Did the English not feel Schadenfreude, or did they simply not acknowledge its existence because to do so would be to admit to something distasteful about human nature? 

Which brings me to this list of foreign words we could use in English

My favourite from the list is pana po'o, a Hawaiian word that means scratching your head to remember something. 

Do you have a favourite foreign word? 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Plot Bunnies

Sometimes, my life is infested with plot bunnies.

Which is not a bad thing. I like plot bunnies. They make my days more interesting. Exciting, even, because the thing about plot bunnies – and possibly why they’re called plot bunnies – is because they multiply at dazzling speeds. Where this morning you only had one, suddenly you’ve got this:

And therein lies the problem.

Too many bunnies is not a good thing. It’s overwhelming. It’s chaotic. And while all things are created from primordial chaos – who remembers the opening credits of Monkey Magic? – what you need to turn a plot bunny into a book is order.

First, you need to separate a plot bunny from the herd. (Bonus points if anyone knows the collective noun for bunnies. I’m going to vote for a cuddle. A cuddle of bunnies.)

Then you need to cage it so that it can’t escape.

And then you need to give it everything it needs to transform from a plot bunny into an actual book.

The germ of an idea isn’t enough.

Where’s your world building?

Where’s your character development?

Where’s your theme? Where’s your action?

Make your bunny earn his keep. It doesn’t matter how cute he is. Cute doesn’t cut it any more. Test him. Is he clever? Is he agile? Is he strong enough to carry an entire storyline?

If he’s not, then let him go. He wasn’t ready.

But it doesn’t matter. There are eleventy-billion other plot bunnies out there, just waiting for you to catch them. And one of them will work for you. With odds like that, how can it not?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I was watching one of those reality TV shows this week -- don't judge me. Somehow I'd lost the will to live and was unable to change channels. And it got me to thinking: what’s with all the reality shows aimed at wannabe singers? What about us authors? Not that I’d want to be on a reality show, but you know … some recognition of different forms of creative art would be nice. Writers have dreams too! And origin stories. And heartbreak and obstacles and stuff.

I would watch a show about writers. Because I think that writing is absolutely fascinating – but I think a lot of the stuff that occupies my thoughts is fascinating. Otherwise I wouldn’t constantly get distracted by it when I was supposed to be doing other stuff. Like paying attention at work.

But while I think writing is fascinating – the entire process from plot bunny through to finished book – I do admit that it might make for some really boring TV.

Day 3: Jen wanders around in her pyjamas, humming tunelessly and staring at the sky.

Day 9:  Jen spends three and a half hours at the laptop. Then takes a nap.

Day 10: Jen starts laughing at something she writes. Then deletes it.

Day 15: Tensions occur in the house when the housemates realise that they haven’t been alone this whole time.

Day 18: The housemates engage in a five hour discussion of what “high concept” means. Nobody knows the answer.

Day 22: Rumours of an agent sighting, while exciting, prove false. 

Day 25: A crisis. The Internet crashes.  The housemates turn to wine.

Day 26: The housemates sleep until noon and later get into an argument about which POV is best.

Day 32: The network replaces the show with reruns of Neighbours from the 1980s. Neighbours rates higher.


Would people want to watch you write? Or do you keep all the drama on the page?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wow. So what happened to my plan to be more organised when it came to blogging? 

Um... I think night work happened. My first night work after three months off, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Blogging? Can't blog. Sleepy. Go away. I KILL YOU ALL! 

Sleep deprived Jen is a scary, scary thing. 

So while I spend my days off repaying that sleep debt and thinking about cleaning the yard due to the latest cyclone watch, here are some words for things that you might not know: 

I'm delighted to discover that semantic satiation is a thing there is a word for. I thought it was just me! 

Have a great week, everyone. 


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