Monday, June 1, 2015

What Comes Before Alpha?

Not long ago, I found myself intrigued by another writer’s thoughts on reading others’ works, and we got into an exchange, and he shared his MS with me. I wanted to share my own in return, but AX has been done to death (sigh!) and the WIP is so early, everything I “write” is literally sketchy. To call it a draft is perhaps even a misnomer, because right now the only non-research work on the novel is telling MYSELF the story.

I threw what passes for a first chapter or so his way, and got very quick feedback, in detail.

The most interesting part of this is that he took it seriously enough TO critique it. To me, this “writing” is strictly throwaway; if it’s draft at all, it’s still only first draft, and that means nothing of it will exist after revision, perhaps not even after a first pass at it. The scene itself, I think is probably where the book does begin, but I’ve been wrong before (and then wrong again) – and I know how early I am in the progress; I know enough to know JUST how much I don’t know right now. Any statement I make about the WIP is bound to become idiotic in a year’s time, in two years’ time (deliver us all from its taking a decade again, but even so my work isn’t the sort of thing that moves like NaNo) (and now somebody needs to record that as a Weird Al style parody of Moves Like Jagger).

This is why anything I write about the WIP is conceptual, rather than particular.

So it was actually a remarkable pleasure to get feedback like it was real writing. It provides something I didn’t really have with AX, and it also opens up doors – and poses questions.

The first of which is, if a beta reader is like a beta tester, making sure a product/novel is ready for RELEASE, and an alpha reader is the one who gets the fun of cleaning the butterknife … what comes even before alpha? I mean, I haven’t even bought a knife for this dragon, y’all, and it’s no time to go bandying at the beast while she’s still sleeping and I’m miles away in a little quiet glen.

Or something like that.

Feedback is that thing writers savor and sicken from; we can indulge too much and get indigestion, and we hate it and love it in equal measure, even simultaneously. Yet it is always – always – generous of anyone to GIVE a writer feedback. To fail in gratitude for any reader is foolish; even critique we don’t take on is an effort made on our behalf.

Feedback isn’t self-gratification. It is always a gift.

Even if the gift doesn’t fit, they took the time to give it. Even that one person in your crit group who always seems not to “get” your groove, if they speak to your work, the ONLY reason for that is “to make it better” (that their idea of “better” may involve invariably pretty people getting it on, or Must. Have. Werewolves. or whatever their particular thing, is beside the point). When you ask for it – and you get it – feedback is never anything but the result of someone thinking of your work.

That’s a hell of a big deal, really.

I lost Mr. X for a reader when he disagreed with other feedback I was taking, massive cuts to AX when he thought “there was good stuff in there.” And the thing is, he was right, there was good writing. It just wasn’t good writing that served the ultimate goal, which was telling the right parts of the story. He couldn’t take the waste; he was more attached to my darlings than I was. Except that: it wasn’t. Words can be very, very pretty indeed, and even exciting – and still have no use as one part of a whole. This is why the call it killing the darlings, of course. You don’t just kill off the ugly and the useless and the weak, you have to take the scimitar (or the butterknife …) to GOOD WORK, if it doesn’t honestly contribute to the greater structure.

There are many, many beautiful pieces of art and furniture and so on I admire and might even love to have, but not all the beauty in the world will actually fit inside my house.

This is what drafts are for.

And so I have a lot of pretty “writing” right now, which has earned the irritating scare quotes I know are probably giving some of you a case of the hives, and which will not be a part of the final MS. I’ll know it happened. I may even let it continue to exist electronically, for when I finally do get published, establish myself as a literary light, and the Ivy Leage university library of nobody’s dreams someday needs to curate my body of work for posterity.

(Or, y’know, just because I am vain.)

The pretty things don’t live any less because I don’t put them in a glass display case and preserve them at all costs.

Some pretty words are … just exercise.

But it’s always nicer to have an exercise partner, and to remember that writing *is* exactly that. That it is a limbering, a means to some kind of fitness, and that doing it with others takes away some of the fear and the anguish and can be motivating and just more fun.

I found out not long ago one of my dearest friends, TEO (The Elfin One), harbors regret that she never helped me when I asked her to beta read AX.

Now, I certainly complained about that blasted butterknife and no backup. And obviously that revision was not a good one; once That Certain Agent gave me an R&R, and good feedback, it got somewhere. But merely surviving the dragon wasn’t enough for that MS, not that first time.

But that someone would regret not being there with me? That she would apologize after all this time, and re-up for service on the WIP. That it would even be an emotional matter … ?

I was stunned. It had never occurred to me.

Like so much about writing, it hardly ever occurs to us as is doin’ it, that there’s anyone else in the world who’ll ever really, truly SEE, read, hear, be there in and with and for it. I still never have gotten the hang of being able to really feel it when anyone has my work. The idea is literally inconceivable, at least for my wee and paltry little brain.

And so empirical evidence there is someone stalking in the world I am still learning how to build … it’s curious, and one of those shocking surprises as an author.

This work exists. And it’s garnered an opinion, it’s sparked a thought.

Amazing. And I’m always glad, too, if that thought isn’t “yawn” or “what-the … !???”


Anonymous said...

Learning good storytelling, to me at least, comes from more than reading books.

It comes from listening to good, well formed songs. It comes from poems that hit the right spot. Good storytelling is told around campfires or in long form jokes. It (dare I say it?) comes from movies and television series and all of those things that are a waste of a writers time as well.

Now I realize, you can't write books if you don't know them. I think it is of the utmost importance to be well read if you want to be a writer, and well read in your genre. But we writers get so caught up in the rules that we occasionally forget to throw them out once in a while.

Last year I read a book on writing a screenplay. I don't write screenplays, but I figured anything that helps me tell a better story is worthy of my time. Much like you, I am a panster and not big on the whole plotting piece, but what I found so interesting about reading a book about screenplays was exactly how much of it applied to storytelling in general.

The first and most incredible thing that was illustrated in this book was what writing really is. Back in the day, when people went to movies with friends after reading showtimes in the paper, you had 3 sentences to sell your movie to people. That's it. You had to prove your movie was better than all the other movies, and better than going to the bowling alley or the bar or the club or than sitting on a hill and watching the stars, all in three sentences or less.

It got me thinking a lot about what you're saying above.

The writer drew the conclusion that you sell movie tickets to a lot more strangers than you do friends and family (if you're doing it right) and so he would come up with a one line pitch for whatever project he had and start market testing it in the line at the grocery store. He said "The less people wanted to listen to me, the more accurate the result." Because no one wants to be bothered, especially in NYC. I'm surprised he didn't get punched out a few times. But the concept, oh the concept, is brilliant. Like walking around with a sampling tray and shoving things into people's mouths and saying "Would you buy a tray of this cheese if it were $6.99?"

This, in my humble opinion, is what comes before Alpha. This is, to me, what is missing from the process for so many writers. Because when we start to treat writing (even half-formed testing-the-waters writing) as... well... writing... we start to learn what it is we have.

I take every opportunity to give feedback as if a product is finished for the sole intent of bringing to light, if only for a brief moment, exactly how long and winding the road ahead really is. Because if we're going to take the journey, we should probably have a general sense of the work it requires of us.

I believe in the pre-alpha system because lots of other creatively-driven industries use it. It's market testing. It's a way to discover how the thing in your head comes across to the average Joe, because I hate to say it but Joe's the most important guy you know.

He's the one buying your movie tickets.

Donnaeve said...

Ah, the Alpha and Beta phases of testing. Oh, wait, I'm NOT at Nortel..., but honestly, you did remind me of those days.

I like what Brian says above, about the pre-test phase, i.e., more like a sampling, or maybe "design." I like design first, and then you give a "sampling" of the design.

I agree too, that with the early writing for me, it's conceptual (again, back to design). There's a lot of tearing down, and changing around, and the structure doesn't really exist yet. If this individual is willing to go it the long haul, it would be GREAT. You just have to be sure they don't get burned out on reading stuff too quick/too soon.

(Thank you for what you said on JR's blog. I was feeling rather glum. XOXO)

DLM said...

Donna, my friend, YOU ARE THE GINCHIEST.

Brian, you're not half bad either! LOVE the cheese analogy. Though, being the cheesophile I am, I probably would buy that tray ... :)

Thanks for coming by, y'all! Stay tuned for ... Janet Jackson, and yet more thoughts on clothes ...