Beta Readers are Wizards

Something magical happens when I send a draft to a beta reader. I’m not talking about the feedback I will receive once the beta reader has read it, or how useful it can be to let the text rest for a while before going over it again – I mean the very instant that mail is sent or that envelope is posted. It’s like waving a wand and abracadabra: New eyes! Typos pop up from the text like mutated gophers. Purple prose wash onto a beach of shame like so much flotsam and jetsam. Paper doll characters bloat and explode upon the page – setting themselves up for execution or refurbishing. Stilted dialog sticks  out like thorns, and logical flaws make themselves known in deafening roars.

It’s hard to explain, but knowing that your words are being read by others makes a difference in how you read them yourself. I’m not saying that I’ll spot every little flaw myself before the wizards get a chance to point them out, but the knowledge of those eyes makes a remarkable difference.

An Obelus Wheeze is in its third round of being read by new eyes – the final round before I make the finishing touches and send it off to proofreading. Each round is different and serves a purpose in the editing process.

  • Round one: I send the first draft to a trusted friend who is also a writer. I almost feel sorry for her for doing this – the first draft is the text in a fetus stage, not something that is ready for the world. But because of the magic of beta readers it serves its purpose, and I am grateful for early feedback if there should be any major plot holes to see about.
  • Round two: A revised draft is sent to another trusted friend who has an eye like a magnifying glass. It is almost annoying how good she is at pointing out anything awry – from characters acting out of character to displaced descriptions of nature. She makes me feel dumb as shit, and I love her for it.
  • Round three: After implementing changes based on feedback from round two, I send the text to a bigger selection of beta readers – six people (this time), to be precise. At this stage, I pretty much consider the book done, what is left to do is merely minor tweaks – or so I hope. I will, of course, take any feedback to heart, but what I’m crossing my fingers for are thumb ups and hell yeahs.

I find that editing a book is a fluid process that takes its own sweet time. I spend more than twice the amount of time editing the text than I do writing the first draft. I don’t have a count on how many times I go over the text – in the end there are far more drafts behind the final result than the ones the beta readers get to read. And in the end the book would not have been the same without the wizards.

THE FIRST DRAFT BEAST

I’m currently editing my second novel: An Obelus Wheeze, the follow-up to Embers at Dawn. Before I started editing An Obelus Wheeze I completed Embers at Dawn, and then jotted down the first draft for the third book in the series The 9 Lives of the Outlaw known as Crazy Cat. I find that this method works well for me (write a draft, and then edit the forerunner). It gives me distance to what I have previously written before starting the process of editing.

Writing a first draft and editing are two very different kinds of beasts. I have realized that there is no point in even trying to write a perfect first draft – I tried it with Embers at Dawn about four years ago – it just ain’t gonna happen.

The first draft is the story in a hairball form, coughed into words by a rambling author. You will commit logical flaws, unsavoury purple prose and less than cohesive sentences. Your characters will be rag-dolls failing at the seams and with too little stuffing, exchanging halting dialogues and performing a series of mundane tasks in between the actual story (that you will later edit out). But that’s fine. That’s exactly what a first draft should be: a rabid, bastard of a beast.

It took me two first drafts of novels before I figured out that a first draft is just that: a first draft. The important thing is to get the story down. The polishing comes later. What I found out after drafting the second book, and then returning to the first book to edit it was:

  • My writing had improved
  • I had somewhere along the way found “my voice”
  • I had gotten to truly know my characters (the only way to truly get to know them is spending time with them)
  • I had made absurd flaws in the story that I didn’t notice while writing
  • I had made absurd flaws that I didn’t notice until someone else pointed them out to me
  • It doesn’t matter if I write by hand, type on my computer or tap it into my iPad – the words and story will be the same
  • It doesn’t matter if I’m at home, on the bus, or on a lunch break. I don’t need a room of my own to write… sort of speak

I have also learned that:

  • Wordcount is a curse. Trying to fill whatever metre you’ve set yourself will only result in a whole lot of mundane noise – that you’ll banish during the editing process anyway
  • There is no point in commencing the editing process as soon as you’ve completed the first draft – you’ll be blind to the text and wrongly think that the rabid beast is not in need of medical attention
  • Paper is king. Red pen is the mighty queen. Get the beast out of the computer and let it breathe – it is so much easier to spot sore paws and the bubblegum stuck in its fur that way

A friend of mine recently finished the first draft of her debut novel. I told her time and time again to quit fiddling with the first few chapters – to get on with the damn story – but of course she didn’t listen. I wouldn’t have listened to me neither, but this is what she wrote on Twitter after finally completing the first draft: “Rewriting is so exciting! If I’d known how much it’d change and how much it would improve, I’d have jotted down the draft sooner!”

I guess that that very first of first drafts is something every author has to face alone and come out of it facepalming herself just like every other noob before her. Seems like none of that “just get it done” business makes any sense until you’ve started editing the damn thing.

What I’m trying to say here is that the first draft is a feral mongrel, as well it should be. Spawning that beast will not teach you how to write, teaching it to sit and not shit on the floor will, or in other words: editing will transform that wild puppy into a (hopefully) nicely groomed champion.

The Wildest Cat in The Crazy West

I’m busy editing the second book in the The 9 Lives of the Outlaw known as Crazy Cat series – I’ll get back to you about that particular process in a dedicated post. The Cowgirl photo project is also coming along nicely. I expect both books to be ready for release in more or less six months. I’m also working on a book trailer for Embers at Dawn, that I’m hoping to reveal to y’all within a few months.

In between editing words and photographs I’ve found the time to take a few pictures of Lee/Ingvild Eiring – I realized that I needed more images to represent my novel and series. I’ve had the idea of making a fake dime novel cover for quite a while and finally got around to put it together.

I’ve added a few items featuring the dime novel cover to the Crazy Cat Dry Goods & Sundries shop.

IndieReader Review of Embers at Dawn

Charles Baker has reviewed Embers at Dawn for IndieReader. Here’s what he’s got to say about it:

Crazy Cat, also known as Lee, also known as Lily, is one of the toughest and baddest outlaws around, and she seems to be wanted everywhere she goes. Unfortunately, at this current stop, she finds that the marshal already recognizes her from the wanted posters. But she has one thing on her side: he’s a crooked marshal, brutal and violent and extremely hated by the townsfolk. So as it is with outlaws and crooked law men, there are some serious shoot-outs. If you like your Westerns dark and morally ambiguous, J.C. Loen’s EMBERS AT DAWN is plenty of both.

The protagonist of EMBERS AT DAWN is, quite frankly, a frustrating, brilliant and brilliantly frustrating character. In the few Westerns, or similar types of stories, that actually feature female outlaws, often the point of the story is this hidden sensitive side she has, or alternately what a cold and heartless she-devil she is. Lee is neither. While she does occasionally show her vulnerabilities in the story, it’s hardly the point of the narrative, and most of what she reveals in these moments is how little vulnerability she seems to feel. But she’s still a well-rounded character, seemingly at times so self-aware and at other times oblivious. She sort of falls in love, but not in a way that betrays her character.

Like a lot of historical fiction, EMBERS AT DAWN is meant to be an immersive experience, and generally the dialect of the book is one thing that really transports, with its Western-style mixture of roughness and elegance: “’Shut up, Stub. We best get this situation sorted and done with afore they come trying to torch up this place again.’ ‘Yous been saying so since afore Christmas. All I’ve heard is a lot of talk. I ain’t seen any doings,’ Cal said.” The first-person narration, strangely enough, doesn’t always match Lee’s dialect, but it often achieves a terrible poetry that sings out quite well: “Three strangers rode into town, trailing a fourth horse that had two lifeless bodies dangling about its flanks,” though more rarely it gets caught up in its own purpleness: “The sun kept rising, glowing through the branches, setting the dead tree alight with an incandescent hue.” But overall, the writing is good, more matching the quality of the former sentence than the latter.

EMBERS AT DAWN is a fairly earthy vision of the American Old West, never shying away from violence and vulgarity, but also not quite as nihilistic as it first seems.

Crazy Cat Dry Goods and Sundries

bildeI’ve opened up a Zazzle store dedicated to merchandise inspired by my western series The 9 Lives of the Outlaw known as Crazy Cat. My goal is always to make something I would wear or use myself.

bilde-2 I’ve ordered a few items to check the quality of the print, and have been very pleased with what I’ve received. More designs are in the making, I’ll let y’all know when something new is out.
The Embers at Dawn T-shirt is available here.

The Cover

I’m thrilled to announce that the cover for Embers at Dawn has gotten a positive mention in The Book Designer’s monthly e-book Cover Design Award. I quote: “Very atmospheric cover that I’m sure will have the desired effect.” This is what I wrote about the cover: “I designed the cover myself. I’m a professional photographer, so it was an easy choice to take that particular job myself. The book is the first in a series. The series’ caption at the bottom is meant to be reused on the upcoming books. It’s a western novel. The face on the cover is the protagonist.”

Evolution of a cover: From rough sketch – via mock-ups – to finished result.

Designing the cover for my debut novel has been a meandering journey in sketches and mock-ups. I’ve been working on the concept for the cover art for almost as long as it has taken me to complete the writing (I have a lot more sketches and mock-ups than the ones shown here). I knew early on that I wanted Lee’s face on the cover, featuring her whiskers and ever present cigarette. I dabbled with the idea of hiring someone to draw the cover, but I eventually decided that I wanted a photograph on the cover and to do the job myself.

Because Embers at Dawn is the first in a series, I wanted a style that could be easily copied onto the upcoming books. The idea is to have a different close-up image of Lee’s face on the cover of each book. Ingvild Eiring has kindly agreed to pose as Lee throughout the entire series. I’m aware of the fact that the title Embers at Dawn is somewhat cryptic, so it was important to have the series’ title in focus too. The “label” (at the bottom of the cover) will be reused on future releases in the series.

To emphasize the western genre I used fonts I bought from Walden Font Co. It’s the first time I’ve paid for fonts, but I’m very glad that I did. I made several mock-ups of the cover using whatever fonts I had at hand, but they didn’t quite “fit” the gritty western style I was looking for. Walden Font Co. have also been kind enough to feature the cover art for Embers at Dawn in their customer gallery. Thanks guys!

If you’d like to wear the gorgeous Ingvild/Lee, I’ve made a T-Shirt featuring the cover photo that can be bought here: Cafepress

Yee-haw, an Indie’s Life for Me

When I started writing my debut novel Embers at Dawn, I simultaneously started exploring the possibilities with self-publishing and found “the deal” enthusing. One deciding factor to not pursue the traditional route of publishing houses was royalties. The idea of getting paid more per book sold (at a lower price), than if I’d been signed to a publishing house sounded like a good idea… Or a very fair lottery ticket. The other deciding factor was control.

I relied heavily on my experiences as a freelance photographer when I made the decision to try my luck with self-publishing. I kept coming back to a want and a need to be in complete control of my first book project. I was tired of my success being at the mercy of others, being given half creative freedom on jobs I did for free and… I’ll stop right there, before I go into an angry rant, but I’ll tell you this much: It’s a whole lot easier to sell a finished product, such as a book, than to boast that something can be done.

Self-published books have started to find their way into the regular charts and bookstores. Self-published authors are being headhunted by agents and publishing houses. This is another reason why I figured self-publishing might not be such a bad idea. I get to publish my book my way, but still don’t opt out of the world of “regular” publishing if I should change my mind.

Choosing to self publish was also an easy choice to make because it has become easy to do, relatively speaking at least. Yes, I have to do pretty much everything myself, but there’s a plethora of guides and forums with all the information one could need. And as you have probably picked up on by now, doing everything myself is just the way I like it. I still have to market my work, but I don’t have to buddy up with the local fashion mafia, hoping to get an editorial in the next issue of [insert name of generic fashion magazine] that would give me half a toe inside whatever door is the trend that season.

I haven’t entirely given up on photography, my previous post should state that fact quite clearly, but I no longer pursue a career as a photographer. I started losing the joy in doing it and decided that I’d rather flip the industry a big, fat bird and enjoy photography with personal projects instead.

The irony in this is that what’s going on in the world of publishing looks a lot like what the world of photography has been through. The digital revolution made “everyone” a photographer and ultimately rendered my hard-earned craft’s certificate redundant, and my endless hours spent in the darkroom a quaint skill. Now, indie publishing has made “everyone” an author too, but what I experienced as a negative effect in the world of photography feels more like a positive revolution in publishing.

Yellow Highlighters & Black Powder

For me, research spans from poring over books to saddling up horses and loading guns.

IMG_4132I hadn’t ridden a horse since I was eleven years old when I mounted one three years ago. I joined a riding class for beginners. I trotted, no: walked around in circles during my first lessons. The riding instructor was the only one there who was anywhere near my own age, except a few of the parents accompanying their 6-12 year olds. And yes, I’m talking about three years ago.

The riding instructor just so happened to be a returning customer at the video rental store I was working at back then. We got to talking, and when I told her that I could hardly wait to go trail riding; she immediately picked up on it. From then on I had most my riding lessons on trails in the woods. It was challenging, fun and inspiring. We’d cross rivers, climb steep paths, gallop across fields and cuss at cyclists who’d come zooming past us – startling both us and the horses.

I believe that being new to horses made me notice things about them that I would have otherwise ignored if I’d been a seasoned rider, details that I’ve integrated in my writing. I can say pretty much the same thing about being a tyro gunslinger.

IMG_2595I handled a firearm for the first time about a year and a half ago at a gun safety course. I had done some research about guns of the Old West, but felt like I was grasping at straws without hands-on experience. I needed answers to questions that no book could truly answer.

My questions have pretty much been answered, and more so: I have found a sport I’m serious about. As far as horses go, I greatly enjoy getting to know their nature and pursue to become a better rider, but horses remain a hobby for me. I have no intention of winning a derby. Shooting, on the other hand, has made my competitive instinct surface. I compete in local ISFF competitions and train several days a week. My love for shooting and the Old West has also brought me to CAS (Cowboy Action Shooting). What better way to live the dream, than to dress up in cowboy attire and shoot guns (replicas) from the Old West era?

But research isn’t all about guns and horses, I’ve spent my share of hours with my nose stuck in a book, or scrolling through websites in search of what truly was. It’s a never-ending search…

IMG_5778In response to the phrase :”Write what you know,” I’m stuck between saying: “Hells yeah!” and: “That’s BS!” I have read countless interpretations of the phrase in writer’s guides that explain it as simply a way to make it easy on yourself: Set the story in your home town, in the present, construct the characters around yourself and people you know, and voila: you don’t have to do any tedious and time consuming research. Obviously, this doesn’t work when writing historical fiction.

Another tip I’ve come across more than once is: If you have to do research, don’t do any until you’ve completed your first draft. That way you’ll only have to do a minimum of research because you’ll have pinpointed exactly what you need to learn. I can see the logic in this, but I find this piece of advice flawed.

I’d like to expand the phrase “write what you know” into: “know what you write – write what you know.” By “know what you write,” I mean: Do your research and know your characters. Having a firm grasp on the what-fors of the period your story is set in will help you from stumbling into the pitfall of assumption. What use is it to do research post writing if you find out that half of what you thought you knew turns out to be plain wrong?

The ultimate kind of research would be to travel to the places I describe in my writing, but until the opportunity to do that arises: I pretty much live the dream anyway.

The Process

My debut novel is at the brink of release. I ordered my second proof copy yesterday and expect that Embers at Dawn is ready to meet its audience once I’ve looked it over one last time.

I’m not going to tell you it was easy. It’s been a long, meandering road…

The project of writing a book didn’t truly kick off until a friend of mine, Isabell Lorentzen, gave me the book How to write any book in 28 days by Nick Daws. It took me more than 28 days to write a book. To be more precise: the first draft took me roughly six months to write. The entire process has taken me almost three years.

Daws’s book gave me a kick in the butt and provided valuable information on how to write a book. It was never my intention to produce a completed body of work in less than a month, but a book-length text became more manageable after learning about how to plan it and how to find time to write.

The first draft was the easy part… And the hard part. I had my story jotted down, it was right there, but that’s just it: it was jotted down. I had a lot of polishing ahead of me.

I went over the first draft for the first time a month or two after completion. I was surprised to find that I had written a first draft that needed very little editing. Then I left it alone for about six months, while writing the first draft of the second book in the 9 Lives series. When I picked it up again, I realized that writing another book had improved my writing skills and that the manuscript needed a lot more work.

At that point I had no idea how many times I would go over the manuscript. The mere thought of poring over the same words over and over again bored me to bits. I have come a long way since then … I don’t hold that thought no more.

Isabell, my writer friend who gave me the Daws book, started writing her own book at about the same time as I started writing mine. We read each others work right from the outset. I’d send her a new chapter as soon as it was done, and she’d do the same. It was good to have someone close who was in the same situation as myself during the early stages of the manuscript. We’d give each other constructive criticism, but even more importantly: we’d show enthusiasm for each others work.

Many drafts later it was time to find beta readers. I’m fortunate enough to know a fair few, all right, I’ll be honest: nerds, who are well acquainted with everything from language to shooting irons. It was scary to allow new people to read my manuscript, but it was something I had to face sooner or later. I consulted their feedback, integrated what I agreed with into the text and kept on editing.

Because I know all these nerds who excel in their fields of knowledge I decided to not hire a professional editor. I know, against the advice of every self publishing guide out there, but I’m confident it was money well saved. I did, however, spend money on proofreading.

As I have mentioned in a previous post: I went for Scribendi. I did not regret it. The feedback I got was beyond anything I expected, or even dared to hope for. This is not meant as an advertisement for Scribendi, but I couldn’t be happier with the work that was done. They had clearly hand-picked a proofreader who is familiar with the genre. The manuscript that was returned to me had been formatted to perfection and was chock-full of valuable feedback and comments. Of course, grammatical errors and punctuation issues had been dealt with too.

The book was almost done, but I still had more work ahead of me in the formatting department. Formatting the book to get published as a paperback through CreateSpace has been somewhat tedious, but not very difficult. I’d advise anyone formatting a book to consult guides on how to format. It’s incredibly easy to not take notice of details that makes a world of difference, if you want a product that looks professional. As I mentioned earlier: I have ordered my second proof copy. I didn’t order that second copy because the first was perfect.

Having pretty much declared the paper version of the book done, I started looking at formatting the book for Kindle. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about how easy it is, but I give up. I’m going to pay the professionals at CreateSpace to do it for me. It’s not very expensive and I want to be certain that the book looks good on all reading devices.

I can think of only one element in the publishing process more vexing than formatting: dealing with the tax issue. I decided to get an EIN. Reading about how much time and effort some people have spent obtaining an ITIN; it was an easy decision to get an EIN. As far as I’ve been able to research, there are no drawbacks about choosing an EIN, rather than an ITIN.

Obtaining an EIN is fairly easy. I simply called IRS, talked to a woman for about 15 minutes and at the end of the conversation I had my EIN, ready to be used immediately. The conversation consisted for the most part of me spelling my name and address, and her reading it back to me. I waited 50 minutes to get through, but I called on one of the first days IRS was open again after the government shutdown.

Once I had my EIN, I filled out the W-8BEN form and mailed it to CreateSpace. I later filled out the same form online. If I’m not mistaken, I came across it on my KDP page and figured it could do no harm to fill it out there too. Shortly after, I received an email from Amazon that stated that my withholding rate had been set to 0%.

I considered pursuing the traditional route of agents and publishing houses, but after a lot of research and serious consideration, I found it exceedingly easy to choose the self publishing trail.

I like the control I have with self publishing. The fact that I’ll get paid more per book than in traditional publishing is not a dazzling lure, but a good sales point. However, I must admit: if a publishing house at some point shows interest in my work and offers me a reasonable deal, I might not decline.

Yup, that’s about it. Only one thing left to do: get the son of a bitch goddamned published.