Wulf Moon’s SUPER SECRET #40: It Takes Two to Make It Out of Sight!
Copyright 2019 by Wulf Moon
In our last episode, I left you with a cliffhangar: How do we get the proper amount of help on a story, without losing our Voice?
Good question! Because when you’re working alone in your laboratory creating baby krakens, there comes a time where you might stand back, appraise your abomination--I mean, wondrous creation--and ask yourself, “Should I really be putting a beak on my baby kraken? He looks like Daffy Duck! Wouldn’t a rotary tongue with with a giant carbide steel drillbit be more functional?”
In these dark moments of self-loathing and self-doubt, it’s good to have a successful mad scientist in your pocket you can invite over for a beaker of home brew and then ask that discomfiting question, “Say, would you mind stepping down to my poorly lit laboratory in the root cellar to take a look at something?”
And if that mad scientist has made a few successful krakens that took down prizes like the Queen Anne’s Revenge--AND you have properly lubricated him--he might be sweet-talked into stepping down those creaking cellar stairs with you. Might even display some magnanimity by showing you how to improve your baby kraken so that he’s krak-a-lakken. With another beaker or two of home brew, he might even let slip a few of his most sacred secrets that made his famous little kraken indomitable.
Like I’ve said, when you’re an aspiring writer, getting someone this skilled to read your manuscript is tough. The higher up the food chain the writer, the harder it’s going to be to get them to agree to read your manuscript. Hey, they worked hard for this knowledge, and they have a living to make with it, and it takes time from their own writing to do a worthwhile critique. Your best bet here is to find a pro writer that does freelance editing--it will cost you, but if they have good references, one solid critique might change everything for you. Alas, most aspiring writers are dirt poor and cannot afford such services. So what’s a girl to do?
Well, you could simply keep practicing. On your own. By the time you write 500,000 to one million words, you’re going to learn a few things. Especially if you’ve been reading well-written stories along the way, and have also been reading good books on craft. But just as you’ll build some good habits, you’ll likely pick up some bad. Human nature being what it is, we all have an awfully hard time seeing, admitting, and changing our bad habits. Whereas others can see them as plain as the nose on Jimmy Durante’s face! Here’s the good news--you don’t need a bestselling author to tell you what these flaws are.
What you need is a good friend. Good friends believe in you, but they also have the courage to tell you like it is. Good writer friends do the same thing. You don’t need a roomful of writer friends to get good advice. As in real life, you usually only have one or two trusted companions that believe in you, but also are willing to speak up to help you reach your full potential. They’re usually the ones you know will show up when you’ve found a new home and it’s time to load the moving truck. Well, critiquing manuscripts for new writers involves some heavy lifting, too. You’re going to need someone that’s got the back for it, and will handle your delicates...delicately.
I submit that you will need two friends like this. One will be your Writing Partner. This is the person that will read your manuscript within a reasonable amount of time, and while they may not be a professional writer, they are working just as hard as you to become one. They will know things, because they’ve been learning just like you, and that knowledge will help them see those bad habits you are blind to. Unfortunately, not all of their advice will be good, but neither will yours be for them, and at least together you can work toward figuring out how to make your work better, which will eventually give it a real chance at selling and getting published. If two people are working hard at this, a synergy happens between them, and they can motivate one another to write more, to write better, and to submit their work to writing markets. You can actually build one another into your own pro writing companions to help one another succeed. Just like good friends, this shouldn’t be random. You need to keep an eye out for this person and become a real friend to them. Synergy is MUTUAL benefit that creates an outcome greater than the sum of its parts.
So you’ve found your Writing Partner (What? You still don’t have one? You should be able to select from some compatible writing partners by now just by observing members of this group and their writing samples.) Okay, one down, one to go. So who is this second person you will need? This person is called your Wise Reader. The cool thing about Wise Readers? They don’t have to be writers. But they do have to love reading and be widely read. Hopefully, they have good knowledge of grammar, sentence structure, and what makes for good storytelling. Wise readers can’t often tell you how to fix something, but they can tell you when something didn’t work for them, which can be quite valuable. Let’s face it. When we’re telling a story at the coffee shop to a friend and she looks at us in confusion and says, “Huh, I don’t get it,” we realize we didn’t give her an important detail. So we back up, fill her in, and when she nods and says, “Ohhh, I get it, it was your *second* cousin on your father’s side, not your brother-in-law’s wife’s great uncle,” we can tell the added details helped her see the connection. We can go on.
This is the same thing a Wise Reader does. They help us see what was obviously in our head, but didn’t transcribe to the page. They are also really good at picking out misspelled words, words that are spelled correctly but have the wrong meaning (something word processors fail miserably at), repeated words in the same paragraph or page (I call these echoes), and lots of other stupid stuff like forgetting to put down the period at the end of a sentence. Their eyes are fresh, and if they’re good Wise Readers, they will see things we missed.
Okay, so you’ve got your Wise Reader. What? You still don’t have one? Did you look at your mate? Your roommate? Your buddy from college? That friend from work that keeps telling you that you should be a writer? Ask them if they’d like to help you, and figure out how you can help them with something. Make it a win for both of you. Many feel honored that you value their opinion and would trust them to give you advice on your story. And guess what usually happens over time? They get better and better at it.
I have always had two. 1. Writing Partner. 2. Wise Reader. While I would have liked to have had my successful pro buddy as my writing partner, he certainly didn’t need me as one--he was already the most published author in Analog. Would he do me the favor of reading something if I really needed it? Yeah, but again, he already knew how to write the perfect Analog story blindfolded--doing regular critique swaps with me would have offered little benefit to this Nebula Award winner. So I hunted for someone with the same fire in their gut that I had, found them from a writing group, and had my ready writing partner to swap stories with, to get encouragement to keep writing, and to bounce plot ideas off of. It’s really important to have someone you can quickly turn to for this. They also keep you from that lonely feeling of writing into the dark, because when you finish writing something, you hand it to them. You get instant feedback on your work, and if they’re good, they won’t just tell you what you did wrong, they’ll tell you all the things you did right. And that’s pretty important, too.
For my Wise Reader, I’ve always had my wife, thirty-six years now. She’s a voracious reader, and cross genre as well. Readily accessible--just outside my office--and with a “Hey, honey, I’ve got less than an hour before midnight’s contest close for you to read this Moongirl story, can you do it?,” I am happy to say she’s saved my bacon more than once. No, she’s not a writer. She can’t say, “If you place a near-death event in your protagonist’s past that causes PTSD, it’s going to give her a greater internal story arc.” But she can say, “This part didn’t work for me. I don’t know the reason she freaks out when her path is blocked.” And really, isn’t that all you need? You’re the writer! This is the moment you’ve been training all your life for! You can fix this without polling twelve other people to make sure you're doing it right.
Want to know who else uses this system? Our instinctive Leah Ning, Super Secret challenge beastie and winner of Writers of the Future, Volume 36. I hadn’t written this Secret yet, but when I called Leah and asked about her win, she told me she had studied everything in the Super Secrets, that they had seemed logical, and so she implemented them in her writing. When she wrote the story that would become her winner, she shared it with two people. 1. Her husband, who is not a writer but has that Wise Reader eye. 2. A writer friend that helped her with things good writers know, like sentence structure and proper grammar. Together, she had everything she needed to produce a winning story that would make it past first reader Kary English, that would make coordinating judge David Farland put it in the Finalist stack, and finally pass the scoring of the four acclaimed writer judges for her quarter. Did she have a dozen beta readers go over it and try to work every suggestion into her manuscript? No. She found two people whose judgment she trusted, each for different but vital needs, and she stayed true to her Voice while examining their suggestions and applying only what she felt would enhance her story.
Did it work? Leah will be at Hollywood next month, learning even more tricks at that workshop and picking up her award. Oh, and just like in Jim Carrey’s The Grinch, when Leah comes to WotF’s Whoville Whobilation to claim her award, she’ll be able to say, “Did someone mention a check?”
In closing, of course this Super Secret is just one way. It’s my way, and I’ve been using it for decades now. You paid the big bucks to get into this course, and I want you to get every penny out of it. : ) Stop and consider how many people do you really need to give you advice as to how to fix your stories, which is what a critique is all about. Remember my warning about protecting your Voice. Save you it can! Mind what you have learned!
I wish all of you much success. I wrote the Secrets to help you succeed. Keep blazing your trail.
All the beast,