Beta Readers. Hate my book? Thank you!

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It sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. For those of you following along on my fiction-writing journey, I’ve made quite a bit of progress since the last update. I did finish the book and even found (or more accurately, was found by) a fabulous beta-reading group, whose members just finished giving me feedback.

Side note, I was tempted to do a big “I finished the book!” blog post, that somehow seemed weird since…what is “finished” anyway? Sold? Edited? Printed? Abandoned?

At the risk of getting gushy, I’ll say that I could not be happier with these beta readers. They are all fellow-writers and they all know how to tell a story. But even better, they all know how to critique. I knew that these people would be helpful, but I had no idea just how helpful. Everyone had good things to say. Everyone had good ideas on what needed work. Except for…one person.

She hated it. She hated it with a passion that burned. In fact, she said that she got angrier and angrier as she read and could not bring herself to finish it. Wow. Shit. Ouch.

Now, this could have gone somewhere negative with hard feelings and harsh words. But luckily, our group is run by a clever lady who encouraged this reader to summarize her feelings on the book and relate them to me constructively. And so she did.

The fact is, this book has some awful people in it. Underneath the story about an assassination and coup attempt, it’s about a broken man who collects broken people. The subtext to the story is about clinging to the devil you know and about putting up with abuse in order to be safe. When my reader demanded to know, “he treats them like that and they’re supposed to thank him for it??” the answer is…well…ummm, yeah. That’s the society that they live in. It’s not a book about a great place we’d all like to live. It’s about a bloodthirsty society where you’ll let someone kick your ass and thank them for it if it means they won’t give you to someone who will eat you (figuratively in general, but for one character, kind of literally).

So my first instinct was to chalk it up to this reader not getting it. But as I spent a few days intermittently pacing around my house, staring off into space while her complaints tumbled around in my head, I realized that the things she had said were the solution to a plot problem I was having. My book has a traitor, and I’ve been having trouble filling out that traitor’s motivations with anything other than simple fear. I knew this character needed development, but my instinct was to give it to the beta group as it was to see what reactions came back to me. And it turned out that this one reader’s complaints were exactly the sort of thing that my traitor would feel. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the traitor has been missing. Ah hah! Eureka! Thanks, book hater!!

Mind you, she’ll still probably hate the book…but that’s okay. It’s still great practice for dealing with all the other people who will hate it. And I’ll thank her for that too.

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Book Review: Weapon – A Visual History of Arms and Armor

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A few weeks ago, I saw a piece on boingboing.net about a book on weapons. The book is called Weapon – A Visual History of Arms and Armor and it may have been the best $25 I’ve ever spent. Actually, I ordered it from Amazon, so I think it ended up being a bit less than that, but that’s the price listed on the back of the book.

This book is a fabulous resource for weapons of all kinds, from the very first throwing and stabbing weapons of the ancient world to modern firearms being manufactured and used as you read this. It has high-quality photos of most of the weapons along with detailed descriptions of their uses, years of popularity, materials they’re made of, problems with durability or functioning, particular advantages, etc. There is also some great information about the culture and history behind the weapons and the context for why certain weapons and means of warfare evolved.

While I own a few weapons of my own, those are the only ones I feel qualified to talk about or to use in my writing. I’ve ordered other books on firearms, etc. in the past, but always felt like they fell short in helping me understand the weapons such that I could write about someone else using and owning them.

This book changed all that. Reading through it with my little pack of post-its, I was able to go back through my current book to enrich so many of the fight descriptions in ways I would not have been able to without this book and its detailed descriptions and lovely, glossy pictures. An Indian punching dagger that allows my character to weave his hand and wrist through the handle like an extension of his arm allows ever so much more capability and description than would a glorified kitchen knife gripped in his hand.

I won’t even get started on the guns because I could write all day. Great information on ammo, weapons with jamming problems, how firing mechanisms began and how they work now, gun weight, speed of barrel replacement on sub-machine guns, handguns, rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons! As I said…I could go on.

Information about armor spans from the ancient world to modern military helmets and their composition.

Extremely cool book. In short, if you need to write about weapons, get it!

More Book Reviews – Coming Soon

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I’m going to try something new…ish. I’m still plugging away at writing fiction, but most of my time has been sucked up lately by a big freelance job (read: job that pays the bills and maybe gets us out of debt) so the fiction thing has slowed down considerably. In the meantime, and in an effort to keep this blog from just being me whining, I thought I’d do some book reviews.

Fair warning…if I think a book sucks, I probably won’t review it. If there is one thing I’m learning as I write short stories that other people review, it’s that there will always be people who hate it and there will sometimes be people who love it. And who am I to slam somebody else’s hard work? This isn’t to say that I’ll exclusively gush about every book. In fact, the first review I’m planning to post (Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk) has pluses and minuses, but it’s overall a thumbs up for the book and the author, whose work I happen to love. If I don’t have anything nice to say, I’ll just shut the hell up.

So I hope you’ll find these useful and maybe even entertaining…and maybe you’ll learn about an author you hadn’t heard of before. First one coming soon!

Highland Feud – More Flash Fiction from Chuck Wendig

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This week our evil overlord (a.k.a. fabulous author Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com) bade us to write a 2,000-word story by picking an entry from each of three lists – The Who, The Where, and The Uh-Oh. We could pick randomly or by choice. I decided to combine the two by allowing one of my teenagers to pick for me. This got me An Accountant, in a Mad Botanist’s Greenhouse, Beseiged by Supernatural Enemies.  The result was…

Highland Feud

by McKkenzie

               “…and please leave a message at the beep.”

               Aidan cleared his throat as his assistant’s recorded voice finished and the tone sounded. “Hey, Max. I’m guessing you bugged out of the office a little early. Uh, which is totally fine. My meeting finished early too so I’m stopping at Dr. Banks’ house to get those signatures and then I’m just going to head home, so I’ll see y…” He stopped short at the sound of the phone being snatched up.

                “You did not just say you’re stopping at Banks’ house.”

                Aidan chuckled. “Hello to you too, Maxine. And yes, I’m in front of his place now. It’s no big deal, he’s harmless.

                “Uuuh, yeah, gonna have to disagree with you on that one, boss. The guy’s fly-munching crazy on his best day.”

                “But he’s rich, he’s a regular client, and he pays his bills on time,” Aidan reminded her. “Besides, I left a message on his phone that I’d be coming by so he’s expecting me.”

                “Come on, Aidan. I’ll go back with you tomorrow, or I’ll have Banks come to the office. You know better than to go to that whackjob’s house.”

                “Thanks, mom, but I’m a big boy now. I even used the potty earlier.”

                “You’re an accountant, not a superhero, Aidan. Come on, I’m serious.”

                “Me too. See you tomorrow, Max.”

               Aidan hit the End button and pocketed his phone. He’d be the first to admit his little business would probably go under without Max’s hovering, but some days it wore a little thin. If he couldn’t handle a 70-year-old, crazy botanist he might as well turn his balls in and call it a day. He congratulated himself on not saying that last bit to Max. She’d probably have come out here to kick his ass. Chuckling, he grabbed Banks’ file from the passenger’s seat and stepped out of the Jeep.

                He shivered a little in the crisp autumn air, though he had to allow that the chill might be from the atmosphere. It was only 4:30, but the days were getting shorter and it wasn’t entirely pleasant being here as the sun was going down. He glanced around at the unkempt lawn, the unraked leaves, and the overgrown shrubbery. The place was a mess, much like its owner. Something about the big, old mansion just made it seem to lurk. It made the hairs stand up on Aidan’s neck, but now that he’d been dismissive and brave to Max, he had no choice but to go ahead.

                Aidan stepped forward to ring the bell and saw a note taped to the door handle.

                “In the greenhouse in back, Mr. Ferguson.”

                Fabulous. Aidan had been hoping to go no farther than the front porch, but now he’d have to wander back onto the sprawling property. Could he claim not to have seen it? Say he rang the bell but nobody answered? He rejected the notion with a sigh. Max would take one look at what she called his “earnest wittew face” and know he was full of shit. No way she’d ever let him live it down.

                Aidan squared his shoulders and trudged around the porch to the huge wooden gate. It was situated like a door in the middle of the thick hedge that surrounded the back of the house. The gate was so heavy, he nearly bobbled Banks’ tax folder as he heaved at it.

                “Christ,” he muttered. “Has this thing ever been opened?” He saw the greenhouse as soon as he cleared the side yard. It was enormous and lit up like a beacon in the middle of the dark property. As he headed across the weed-choked lawn, he had the creeping realization that if the greenhouse lights were to go out he would be plunged into darkness — or at least duskness. Was that a word? He took a deep breath. “I am thirty-eight years old,” he muttered to himself. “I am a college graduate, I have my own business, I run four miles every day, and I’m trained in karate. I am not afraid of the fucking dark.” Well okay, he admitted mentally, he had learned the first three katas and quit…but still.

                He reached the greenhouse and jumped a little at his own reflection staring at him from the mirrored door. That was weird. Wasn’t the whole thing supposed to be made of clear glass? He took a moment to compose himself, running his fingers through his short brown hair and trying not to look like he’d been spooked.

                The stifling heat hit him like a warm, wet slap as he walked through the door and he wrinkled his nose at the peaty, organic smell that permeated the air. “Dr. Banks?” he called. He preferred city smells and had never understood anyone who liked to get dirty, even when he’d been a boy. He closed the door behind him and headed in, hoping to make it quick.

                The place seemed deserted. “Sir,” he called again. “It’s Aidan Ferguson. I got your note and I’m here with the papers for you to sign.”

                As big as it was, the place was bright as the damned sun and it seemed impossible he wouldn’t be able to spot the man. Aidan set his mouth in a line of grim determination and marched deeper into the loamy maze of rows. He had just reached the center of the structure when all the lights winked out.

                “Son of a bitch!” he yelled. He whirled around, heart hammering as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The crazy old fart must have been locking up outside. “Dr. Banks, can you hear me? Don’t leave! I’m in the greenhouse and I can’t see!”

                The deep chuckle that rose up out of the darkness made the skin on his back feel like it was trying to crawl up over his shoulders. What the fuck? He froze, unwilling to call out again in case it made it easier for the chuckler to find him.

                “Ferguson.”

                The voice was so menacing, for the first time in his life, Aidan had a clear understanding of the urge to piss yourself in fright. He managed to avoid that indignity and tried to work up some bravado. After a moment, he swallowed hard and settled for snark.

                “Good guess since I just announced my name,” he called out, pleased at how steady his voice sounded. “Who the hell are you and where is Dr. Banks?”

                “Banks is unimportant,” the voice said. “We are here for you.”

                Instinctively, Aidan squatted down, clutching the file folder to his chest. As he did, a spade whistled by, exactly where his head had been a moment before. Shoving the file folder under a bench, he scrambled away on his hands and knees, stopping as he reached the wall of the greenhouse.

                The chuckle sounded again, deeper and so resonant that Aidan felt it in his chest. There was a heartbeat of silence and then tools and pots from all over the greenhouse began to rain down on him. Aidan scrambled along the wall amid the deafening chaos in what he hoped was the direction of the door. As he hit a solid corner, he realized he had gone the wrong way.

                Aidan began kicking frantically at the glass, thinking he would break the lowest pane and crawl out to make a run for it. He cried out as his foot rebounded off the thick glass. Blood dripped into his right eye and he swiped at it, realizing his forehead was cut. Half blind now, he leaped into a squat and headed along the next wall knowing he had to hit the door eventually.

                As he rounded the second corner, a hand reached out and yanked him off his feet. Before he could cry out, another talon-like hand clamped over his mouth and dragged him under one of the long tables.              

                “Shhhhh,” a voice rasped hot breath against his neck. “It’s Dr. Banks. Don’t give us away.”

                Aidan twisted around squinting with his unobstructed eye and was just able to make out Banks’ crazy hair and prominent nose. Banks hissed into his ear as the cacophony of breaking pots and clanging tools went on unabated. “I’m sorry, they gave me no choice!”

                “Who?” Aidan demanded. “Why?”

                “The ghosts!” the old man giggled. “They hate you…your family. They’re going to kill you!”

                “But I don’t have a family!” Aidan protested.

                “That’s the thing,” Banks began.

               The crashing stopped abruptly and the air began to vibrate again. “They’re looking for you,” the old man gasped. “The door is that way!” He gave Aidan a shove down one of the rows.

               Aidan shuffled along, skirting the tables as quietly as he could, heading for an opaque rectangle that he hoped was the door. Yes! He was only a few yards away now and he could see the handle glinting in the moonlight. He reached out and something slammed into his chest. He landed hard on his back with the air forced out of his lungs. Aidan sat up, struggling to breathe as a huge pot of dirt sailed out of the darkness to crash into his shoulder, flattening him again. He goggled at a cloud of glowing mist that slowly began to gather in the aisle.

               “Finally,” the voice said as the mist coalesced into the form of a man. He was tall and heavyset, with black, slicked back hair and a nose that reminded Aidan of Dr. Banks. “The last Ferguson is mine. Your line dies tonight.”

               Aidan forced himself back into a sitting position as he gulped air into his oxygen-starved lungs. “Mister,” he gasped. “You don’t have to kill me to get rid of the Fergusons! My parents are dead, I’m an only child and I’m not even married. I don’t want kids. Just wait a few years and we’ll all be gone anyway!”

               “Revenge is not something I leave to chance,” the ghost replied. An enormous pair of pruning shears floated through his nebulous head and angled down to aim at Aidan’s throat.

               “No!” he screamed. He tried to roll under the nearest table, but found himself held fast by invisible claws.

               The door to the greenhouse burst open. A petite young woman with spiky blonde hair stepped through, holding a staff high over her head. The tip of the staff was an Egyptian-styled eye that emitted a blinding light. She leaped forward and stabbed the ghost in the back, thrusting straight through his chest. The ghost screamed and burst apart. Aidan struggled as the claws that held him began to tear at his hair and skin.

               The woman’s hand flashed out and Aidan felt something hit him square in the chest.

               “Put it on!” she screamed.

               He looked down as the necklace she had thrown at him fell into his lap. It had a heavy gold chain that ended in an amulet with two crescents cupping an open hand. Aidan slipped it over his head with an effort and felt the grasping talons fall away as the pressure left the greenhouse with a shriek, shattering most of the walls as it went.

               The woman approached Aidan with a smirk, offering her hand to help him up as the lights blinked on.

               In a daze, Aidan allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. “Max,” he gasped. “What the hell? How did you know? Where did you get this stuff? What the…”

               “Easy cowboy,” she soothed. “Let’s get the hell out of here and I’ll explain it all over a drink.”

               A mad little chuckle floated through the air, making Aidan flinch. He and Maxine looked across the wreckage to find the mad botanist puttering around, sweeping up debris and giggling to himself.

***

               “Demon hunters?” Aidan repeated throwing back his second Glenfiddich. His forehead still stung a bit and his ankle and shoulder were killing him, but the scotch was beginning to help.

               “Well sort of,” Max clarified. “They hunted the dark magicians who consorted with demons. Which is how they ended up killing off the last gifted member of the Morgan clan. Seamus Morgan, the gentleman you met tonight, vowed revenge at his death and he’s been after the Fergusons ever since.

               “And my dad hired you to look out for me?”

               “Well, technically his estate did. The lawyers handled the whole thing.”

               “Why didn’t he just tell me?” Aidan shook his head and held his glass out for another round.

               “And what would you have done if he had, Mr. Skeptic?” Max asked pouring generously.

               “I dunno…I…”

               “You would have laughed it off and put the amulet in some box somewhere. You’d have lost it and you know it. And now you’d be dead.”

               “I guess…maybe,” Aidan allowed.

               “Your dad knew you, sport. Get over it.”

               “I tried to tell Morgan that the Fergusons were done anyway. He didn’t have to go to the trouble.”

               “Yeah, well that’s not exactly true,” Max drawled.

               “What the hell does that mean?” he demanded.

               “Remember that cute redhead you had the thing with at that accountant’s conference?”

               “Yeeeaaaaah…”

               “She’ll be popping out a new Ferguson in about five months.”

               Aidan sat back and stared at her in stunned silence. “Did you arrange that too?”

               “Ha! Nope. That was all you, sport. I was just charged with providing support for any little bastards you might produce.”

               “Will the baby have to wear one of these too?” he asked, fingering the amulet.

               “Yep. I’ll be waiting in the delivery room to slip it over her tiny wittew head.”

               “Her?” he asked.

               “Her. And it already looks like she’s going to have all the magical talent you lacked.”

               “Well that would have made my dad happy.”

               “I’m sure that’s true.”

               “So I guess my days as an accountant are pretty much over?”

               “You’re back at the family feedbag until she’s done with her training, yeah.” Max smiled and poured him another drink.

 

Distractions and a NOT-New Year’s Resolution

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There is something I need to change. I’ve been resisting this change, not because I don’t want to do it but because the realization has come to me at just at this time of year. It feels like a New Year’s resolution…but I hate those things.  They’re stupid and useless. They’re so widely broken within days or weeks that they’re a societal joke.

The obstinate, childish part of me wants to wait a month so the change isn’t connected to January 1st…but forcing myself not to be tied to a date is just as stupid as being tied to the date, right? And this change is seriously needed.

The holidays are big at our house. We have kids, we have extended family, we have pets, we have lots and lots of traditions…maybe too many traditions. We have movies we watch, places we go, songs we listen to, games we play, food we make, gifts we buy, stockings we fill, about 5,000 decorations we put up both inside and outside and 20+ years of ornaments to put on a tree that we must go out to purchase each year because fake trees are evil (that last one comes from my husband). Even the smallest member of our household has a stocking that must be put up and duly filled with ferret-loot.

The holidays are awesome and we love them…but all that we do adds up to a huge, almost insurmountable, month-and-a-half-long DISTRACTION. Paying work competes with book writing on a daily basis at the slowest of times, but during the holidays…ugh.

I hung in there for a while, but around mid-December actual fiction writing gave way to holiday prep and mental masturbation (my tacky term for stories that are written only in my head). It must be said that mental masturbation isn’t a total waste of time. I use these mental tales to create back stories for my characters. How they got where they are, how they grew up, etc. I’m sure it helps the writing overall and I often have little epiphanies — “Right, so that’s why she does that thing that’s in the actual book later!” But as far as advancing the word count of the book I’m trying to write, nada. I did get a couple of little blog posts in, and I finished a paying freelance job, but my book…nope. I even missed the last installment of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction exercise and that bummed me out. So what went wrong? Why did that happen so easily?

As always at times like this, I turn to my wise UAMs (Unwitting Author Mentors) to guide me. The advice I found – write every day. Every day. Even if it’s just a few hundred words written in a spare moment…do it. Not having this requirement for myself made it all too easy for the writing I love to get shuttled to the back of the line. So my NOT New Year’s Resolution is to write fiction every day.

While I’ve seen some authors who count blog posts, non-fiction, and even emails in their daily word count, that’s not going to work for me since I write non-fiction for a living. It would be too easy to say “yeah, I wrote 2,000 words every day last week…uh, but not one word in my book.”

I started this not-resolution late last night. Instead of allowing myself to fall into bed for sleep, I brought my trusty laptop with me so I could bang out maybe 300 words. That turned into 900+ in a heartbeat and I had that wonderful, “yeah, there it is” feeling again.

Other writers…how about you? Does this happen to you each year? What do you do about it? Do tell in the Comments…and Happy New Year, all!