(I Also Write Children's Books!)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Beta Readers and the Writing Process

As I am that mysterious, mythical, magical beast known as the 'successful published author', I get frequent questions about how I do anything and everything.  While I wait on my publisher to get back to me, I might as well share the process I've been going through this month.

When last we left off, I finished the manuscript on the book I personally call At Least I Didn't Blow Up OUR Moon, but when I'm sure the marketers will name Please Don't Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon.  They have a really pretty font picked out, and everything.  I wish I could resent their decision, but I'm sure they're right and it's necessary so people will identify the series.  I just wish it wasn't necessary!

Now, personally, I go through several stages after that.  First, I take a break and try to write something else to get my thoughts out of any rut they may have fallen into.  This time, no dice.  I felt SO much pressure that I still haven't shaken it off.  Professionally, this book is super important!  I started my edits about three days after finishing the manuscript.  In the personal edit process, I make sure continuity is consistent, add foreshadowing to major plot events, and particularly make sure that everyone has an interesting, consistent voice.  Especially the narrator.  This is SUPER important in making a book compelling.  That process was really slow, like 10% of the book a day, so it took well over a week.

On a related note, I must make a confession.  We're re-editing Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm A Supervillain, and that will give me an opportunity to fix a gigantic, glaring, actually important continuity error.  There's no point in hiding it.  I changed my mind about Claire's hair color from golden blonde to platinum blonde (like her mother, see?) in the very first chapter, and forgot I'd done it!  It's subtle in the first book, but it's an active plot point in the second, so I'd gosh darned well better fix it.  Derp derp derp.  Bad author, no cola.

So, personal edits done.  Next, I give the manuscript to beta readers, people I know who aren't as tightly tied to me as the alpha readers.  Their job is pretty simple.  They read the book and tell me how enjoyable it was.  All I'm looking for from them is whether any parts weren't fun, or if I jumped the shark anywhere.

This is harder than you think, because of the major obstacle all writers face in proving themselves - reading requires effort, and lots of it.  Even avid readers cannot be predicted to finish a book in any kind of reasonable time.  Exactly one beta reader finished this weekend.  She reported multiple times when she was unable to tear herself away and had long, unintended reading binges, and that she'd be afraid I would jump a shark and then when it happened, it would go smoothly and perfectly.  Since those are things I'm proud of in my writing, I took that as all the useful feedback I was ever likely to get anyway.

Which means that yesterday I sent the manuscript to my publisher.  Next?  She'll send me editing notes for Book #1.  After those are done, we'll edit Book #2.  My part of book editing is really fast, just a few days.  Hers may take longer.  I only have to respond to her notes.  She has to pore over the book in depth!

Off and on during the whole month the marketing team and I discussed cover art.  I haven't heard anything from them in days, but it's not like they have to decide until the editing is done.  Last thing to happen was me sending in a set of sketches of my various ideas that I got my alpha reader to lay out, since describing the ideas was difficult and imprecise.

What happens from here?  I don't know!  I've had some success getting back into writing A Sidekick's Tale in the last few days, but I'm also still tense as a violin string about getting this book all done.

I'll try to keep you informed.

Also, I'll try to process these photos of Louisville's supremely tacky clock.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Everybody Keeps Asking When

My publisher has not told me when the sequel is coming out!  I'm expecting them to aim for Christmas, but I don't actually know.

The current status is that the first draft of the manuscript is done.  My personal revisions are almost done.  I'll run it past a couple of beta readers to make sure that I don't have any dull parts and it's not wildly inappropriate for kids (Have you read everything else I write?  I have to watch that part carefull.).  Then it goes to my publisher, and we do the official edits.

All of these stages are fast.  Most of them only take a few days.  So for practical purposes, the book is done and it's about how much of a hurry Curiosity Quills is in to release it.

I hope you people like it.  Keeping the same tone between books is not my specialty, but I tried to make it very definitely a Penelope Akk book.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Dumbledore and Princess Celestia, Mysterious Mentors

Mysterious Mentors are a bit of a trope, because it's so much easier to write a tense and complex story if the heroine doesn't know what the frufru she's doing.  I've been thinking about two of them, who seem the most pointlessly difficult.  Dumbledore (from Harry Potter) and Princess Celestia (from My Little Pony) are perfect examples of the trope, keeping their apprentices in the dark about everything except the most specific information needed to save the world - and sometimes not telling them that!

What interests me about these two is that they don't have to be so secretive, and yet this isn't just an author forcing convenient ignorance.  Dumbledore's explanations for why he doesn't tell Harry the truth are pathetic, and don't at all cover the complete blanket of silence he keeps, even if he can excuse certain specific secrets.  Celestia is worse than Dumbledore, having a clear and obvious understanding that she has a new princess (and if you don't follow MLP, princess=goddess) on her hooves and rarely even telling Twilight about a challenge Twilight will face.

They're far more secretive than they need to be, and why?  Because they're flawed people, and I love that.  It fits completely into their personality.  Dumbledore's childhood was spent hiding his family's secrets.  As a young man he hid that he was scheming with Grindelwald, and when he realized how shameful that was he hid that he'd been involved.  All of this secrecy was reinforced further in the years before Harry's birth, because secrecy was a crucial skill in fighting Voldemort.

Dumbledore tells Harry nothing because Dumbledore never tells anyone anything.  Aberforth accuses his brother of secrecy as part of his nature, and it's absolutely true.  By the time that the Harry Potter books take place, Dumbledore is so used to secrets that he doesn't know how to tell Harry the truth.  It is a personal flaw, a deep personal flaw, and yet a totally believable flaw even in someone who is generally wise and brilliant.  Telling Harry the bare minimum is the only way Dumbledore knows how to behave.  As he says himself, being rather cleverer than most men, his mistakes are of greater magnitude.  We, the readers, are foolish enough to gloss over that.  He means it.

It's hard for readers to understand that intelligent, good-hearted characters can lie and make idiot mistakes.  As authors, we write our characters having flaws, but it's hard to keep that in mind when reading.

Celestia is secretive for a different reason, and like it took the whole series to learn enough about Dumbledore to understand his flaws, it has taken a long time to put together enough about Celestia to understand hers.  What the latest season has shown us is that Celestia is alone.  Surrounded by a crowd, she is utterly alone.  Immortal, she's surrounded by ponies who think of her (fairly accurately) as a goddess and whose lives come and go like the flashes of fireflies.

Until season four, that interpretation was likely but just an interpretation.  The flashbacks and journal entries revealed that Celestia and Luna were close, so close that they operated almost as one person.  Talking to Twilight about her accomplishments, Celestia stresses that what defeating Nightmare Moon really meant was giving Celestia back her beloved sister.

Outside of Luna and Twilight, Celestia is detached, regal, kindly but in a distant and divine way.  Her subjects revere her and treat her as a living goddess, which she essentially is.  For a thousand years, whole lifetimes over and over, that is the only relationship she's been able to have with anyone, because she drove away the partner that she'd shared immortality with until Nightmare Night.

It would be weirder if Celestia were completely open with Twilight and told her everything than if Celestia kept secrets.  Being a distant, omniscient-seeming divine ruler is the only way she knows how to act.

Like I said, this stuff fascinates me.  These very good and intelligent characters are not just flawed, their flaws are subtle, realistic, and not obvious sins like jealousy or anger.  They're flaws that peculiarly fit their personalities.  And they turn things on their heads for the audience, because we expect someone that good to be perfect.