Monday, August 20, 2012

Beta Readers

My novel Cabin Fever is currently out to several beta readers. After an internet search on the term “beta reader,” I realized people use the term to describe a wide range of functions. I’ll describe my writing process, which leads to my definition of beta reader.

Before anyone reads one of my manuscripts, I will have written several drafts. The first draft is to get the story down. I am a pantster rather than a strict plotter, so my story changes as I write. The second draft aligns the first part of the story with the actual ending. In it I add necessary scenes, eliminate excess characters and scenes, plant additional clues and maybe redesign a subplot or two. In the third (and maybe fourth) drafts I polish the storyline and hone the language, probably still tweaking the story to strengthen it.

The writing by this point is by no means perfect, but good enough not to get in the way of the story. I then ask my life partner, Jan Rubens, to read the manuscript. She’ll circle grammar errors, poor word choices, clunky construction and whatever writing errors she sees, but her most important function as she reads the manuscript is to note what she is thinking and feeling in each chapter and list any questions she has. Because this is her first read, she can tell me where I have confused her, where the dialogue is stilted, where she got bored with description and whether the plot makes sense. Her first read through is a big picture critique.

If I have done my work well, she won’t find too many problems, but she will find some and she usually has suggestions for fixes. Draft five addresses whatever she’s spotted and polishes the language. Now the beta readers get their turn.

I send them a manuscript I hope is perfect and know can’t possibly be. Again, I am most concerned with plot and character problems. By character problems I mean two things: (1) flat, stereotypical characters I need to flesh out, and (2) any instances where they think, “she wouldn’t do that!” Plot issues can include anything from pointing out a flaw in my protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) otherwise impeccable logic to internal contradictions (she entered the room through the only door and exited through a second door).

Beta readers will also let me know about clunky writing, typos (despite my careful proofreading and use of spell check, I read right through some errors), and grammar disagreements. Sometimes they point out repeated phrases I have over-loved such as any fire incorporating “dancing flames,” or I’ve developed a ballet of nodding heads, etc.

All my beta readers are avid readers; some are also writers. I like to have between six and eight to get a good mix of comments. Everyone has their pet peeves or interests and I benefit from a broad cross-section of viewpoints. Cabin Fever could still use a couple of additional beta readers. Please contact me if you are interested. In exchange for your insight I’m offering what I believe is my best novel yet and a chance to see your name in print in the acknowledgements when (well, technically if) the book is published.

~ Jim

(Originally Published on Writers Who Kill Blog 2012-08-19)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sowing’s Harvest

Originally Posted on Writers Who Kill on 12 August 2012

When we built our Michigan house in 2005 we had to decide what to plant over the septic field. Grass is the traditional answer; its roots pull some of the moisture from the leach field to let it evaporate, while the rest of the water percolates through the soil. We chose wildflowers. We liberated plants from the surrounding woods and trails and transplanted them.

Lesson 1: Invasive species grow best. Well duh! Since I am not a wildflower cognoscenti we went for pretty—and some of the invasives are gorgeous. Fortunately, soon after I transplanted purple loostrife and spotted knapweed I discovered my error and ripped them up. It took three years to get rid of the spotted knapweed because some had gone to seed before my weeding.

Lesson 2: I didn’t want to mow a lawn. It seemed antithetical to living in the midst of the Northwoods. What I didn’t count on was that the maples, birches, aspens, pines, hemlocks, cedars and spruce thought the meadow belonged to them. Of course they were right; the territory had been theirs since the melting of the last glacier. I traded a periodic lawn mowing for pulling weeds—in this case thousands of treelets every year.

Lesson 3: Not all transplants live. The columbine I found has struggled to survive and I’ve had zero luck with jack-in-the-pulpit.

Lesson 4: Nature has her own ideas. I didn’t plant everything now growing in the meadow. Volunteers showed up, brought in by the wind and bird poop and animal fur.

Lesson 5: It takes time to transform bare dirt into something presentable, but given time it will happen.
Lesson 6: I’m not the only one to enjoy the wildflowers.

Lesson 7: If you’d like, this blog could be an allegory for writing, or you can simply enjoy the pictures.

~ Jim

Friday, August 10, 2012

Romney Scandal on Personal Taxes

I have no idea whether Harry Reid’s “source” is correct that Mitt Romney avoided paying any income taxes for ten years. Furthermore, that fact is not per se important. Judge Learned Hand’s opinion in Gregory v. Helvering states in part:

"Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes. Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands."

The scandal of Romney’s position to only release the last two years of his personal income taxes is not the possibility that he paid no taxes for a decade. If Romney and his tax accountants and lawyers figured out how to legally use the tax code to avoid or defer paying income taxes, more power to them and more reason to eliminate all the deductions under the tax code. (See the Jim JacksonSimplified Tax Plan.)

The scandal is that Romney asks voters to trust him to be president, but he does not trust voters enough to provide them information they need to make an informed decision. When his father ran for president, the senior Romney released twelve years of tax returns.

The son is hiding his past and he is a very smart man; there must be a reason.

The reason can’t be that voters will be distressed about how much money he made. We already know he made a ton, and most people do not begrudge him for it. Americans like success stories. Romney is running for president in large part based on his demonstrated abilities to run large, complex organizations (Bain Capital and the Salt Lake City Olympics).

The reason must be how he arranged his finances relative to US tax laws. As Judge Hand said over seventy-five years ago, there is no sin in paying the minimum taxes required by law. However, if Romney used discredited tax shelters or off-shore tax shelters that he underreported and later took advantage of tax amnesty programs, voters should be so informed.

How did Romney build his IRA to over $100 million? If he presciently purchased stocks that increased over 100-fold in a few short years, he should be trumpeting his financial acumen. If, as some have suggested, he made IRA contributions of purposefully undervalued stock to circumvent the annual deduction limits, voters should know. Again, I have no clue how he grew such an outsized IRA, but I do believe voters have a right to understand the mechanics of this amazing financial result.

When a company decides to put itself on the block it dresses its financial statements in as attractive clothing as it can muster. Analysts know to look past the stated numbers and carefully read the footnotes to understand how the financial statements were prepared. They also know it’s necessary to analyze previous years’ financials to fully understand the current statements.

Romney has noted that he isn’t a business, but to understand his full character, voters deserve full disclosure of prior tax returns. The last two years of taxes are window dressing. To get a true sense of the man’s financial values, we need to know how Romney operated before he knew everyone would be looking over his shoulder.

~ Jim

Sunday, August 5, 2012

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

(Originally posted on Writers Who Kill blog)

Linda Rodriguez's Writers Who Kill blog a couple of weeks back on internet bullying got me considering once again the sage advice Thumper received in the movie Bambi. “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” This holds doubly true for the internet age where anything can and will go viral. Ben Franklin hit the bull’s-eye in the July 1735 issue of Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

Before written communication, for an uncomplimentary comment you made about one person to a second person to go further, one of you had to repeat what was said. By grade school you had learned how well keeping such a simple secret worked. Your best friend forever promised to keep your deepest secret, which was fine until your BFF got mad because you took the last goldfish from the bag and paid you back by sharing your secret with the person you dissed, either directly or through the insidious grapevine.

Worse, the something rather innocuous you may have said can morph into something more negative than you intended. As kids we played the game of telephone. You whispered something into the ear of one person who transmitted it to the next and so on until it came back around the circle to you transformed, sometimes beyond recognition.

Flash forward to the internet. Whatever you write in a blog, a post, an email may stay on a server for ever and ever, Alleluia! If it is public, as this blog is, anyone anywhere anytime can perform a search and find your comments. Ah, I only vent in private forums, you say. And what happens if the person upon whom you dished your best insults happens to later join that private forum and checks prior posts? Or it turns out that person’s second cousin twice removed also happens to be a member of the private forum. Or some “friend” agrees so strongly with what you said that he cuts and pastes your snarky gem and tweets it to the world.

Even something posted on a no longer extant website can stay alive. Websites exist to archive much of the web as it exists at a given point in time. My son demonstrated this to me by finding pages from an old website he and I developed while he was in high school. We abandoned that website some ten years ago.

With electronic communication, the world has shrunk and so has our ability to say something anonymously. As evidenced by the imbroglio at GoodReads described in Linda’s blog, people with certain skills can and will uncover the person behind a post and publish their real life vitals. One very selfish reason to be nice in this age of crazies is to protect yourself from them.

I remember a colleague who would always go out of his way to put down the company he had previously worked for. He’d badmouth their bosses, his former co-workers, their business practices. No matter what endeavor you engage in, the chances of something nasty you said or wrote about one person coming back to bite you are larger than ever. This person’s comeuppance occurred when his former company bought his current company. He was soon unemployed. This is an extreme example, but consider the ramifications of long ago forgotten posts or unflattering pictures unearthed by a company checking your web presence while considering you for a new job.

Before you think I am self-nominating for halo status, I want to fess up to occasionally getting sufficiently angry at someone or something to want to tell the world exactly what I think.

I may even write a wonderful gem that skewers the jerk with my perfect use of wit, comparative analogies, similes and a touch of sarcasm. I write on my personal computer, never on a work computer. Should my blast take the form of an email, I never fill in an address.

I have witnessed too many mea culpas for emails drafted and unintentionally sent—or unintentionally copied to the immediate world. I remember a particularly lusty email one person sent to a co-worker (and all 30,000 people in the corporation) as an egregious example of what can go wrong.

So what about you? Do you have any funny, interesting or cautionary tales to share?

~ Jim