Tips on being an external reader

We authors will often turn to external readers (called betas) to read our early work with a critical eye so we can figure out how to improve it. Those who agree are usually trusted friends — trusted, because that feedback, if not well handled, can be destructive.

The most useful feedback an author can get, and what we usually want to know is what’s working and what isn’t. I’ve had external readers get caught up in edits and send me a long list of typos, when that’s not the point of the exercise: at this stage proof-reading is way down the road.

I’ve also had external readers give me sweeping, general comments that weren’t very helpful either.  “I liked the second half of the book better than  the first half ” doesn’t tell me what you didn’t like or why. Think of external readership as a little bit like  a report card. Little John may need to work harder,  yes, but unless he knows where you think he’s slacking, the comment is pretty useless.

The best feedback comes from external readers who take the time to look at each chapter and each character. “I found this part confusing,” they might say. “This part was a bit of a slog; can you tighten up the pace?” “I liked this character but found her behavior puzzling.”

The ones who find plot holes and gaps are worth their weight in gold. And even better is when they can point to a paragraph or a sentence or a page and say “I loved this,” because it tells us what to do more of.

Don’t just toss off a series of criticisms without balancing that with what you think works well. I’m not a mindreader. I’ve had manuscripts where I ripped out parts in response to feedback only to find out that the parts I removed were actually sections my beta liked; the comments were too general for me to know that.

Don’t tell them (as a beta  told me) that they didn’t like the first 25 chapters and wouldn’t have continued reading if I hadn’t asked them to. That didn’t tell me anything about why those chapters didn’t work. What it did do, though, was discourage me from wanting to work on it  any further  (I thought: what’s the point? It sucks. I’m wasting my time.). Only some subsequent back-and-forth with that beta established that she actually thought it was a good story. Remember, by the time an author asks you to be a beta, they’ve put a lot of work into their manuscript, a lot more than you will in reading it. Be kind.

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It’s a tricky business, writing historical fiction

It’s not easy to write historical fiction, I’m discovering as I continue to work on my manuscript, Famine Bay.  It’s no wonder that books like Shogun are classics; there are so few that do it well.

I’m writing about a period in the 17th century, the 1680s. I can’t even use certain adjectives without first checking to see if the things they refer to were invented at the time. Before I could use “gunmetal grey,” for example, I had to first check to see if guns had been around. Turns out they were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, but these were handheld cannons that evolved into flintlocks, and then muskets, not handguns. These weapons were made mostly of wood. Scrap that descriptor: a character would never describe something as gunmetal grey in those circumstances.

I had a character peer into a mirror in New France,  to give another example, only to discover later that the only mirrors available at the time were Venetian, and they were very expensive and not likely to be found in a colonial settlement.

I can see, though, how it would be  easy to get so caught up in getting the history right that you lose sight of plot and character development. Historical fiction requires world-building in a world that none of us has ever been to. We can write sci-fi, by contrast, and use contemporary language and thoughts, but we can’t pull that off in historical fiction. The language doesn’t have to be formal, but you can’t use the common clichés and metaphors that we’re used to hearing today, since most of these developed much later on.

Now, it’s not like someone from the 1600s is going to criticize my errors. It’s easier, in that sense, to write this book than it was to write about Cuba as I did in my Inspector Ramirez series. When I got something wrong there, readers let me know: thousands of them have been there after all, whereas no living person has ever been in 17th century anything. But I want to at least try to get things right.  I have a doctorate in Aboriginal law/history and a degree in Canadian History so I have no excuse for not trying.

In my case, it’s made more difficult by the fact that some of the French and Haudenosaunee words in the historical documents can’t be translated. No one knows what they mean anymore, not even the professional translators I’ve consulted, not the traditional people. The Aboriginal names of some of the nations that the Five Nations Confederacy claim to have conquered, for example, no longer have content. We don’t know who these people were or where they lived.

And what was the cheval marin that French soldiers killed on the Richelieu River? The Jesuit priest accompanying them drew a terrifying sketch of this horrible monster, and called it a sea horse, but his sketch has long since disappeared into the shadows of time.

I have a character in the manuscript who muses that as long as there is a child somewhere who can learn the language of a dying nation, whole nations can be reborn. For some reason, it made me think of the last passenger pigeon, the one that died in a museum: there’s some attempt to resurrect her apparently by merging her DNA with a common pigeon. I would guess that as close as they come, it won’t be the same.

There were billions of these birds in the 1800s; there could be a million in a single flock. They make an appearance in my manuscript too — a flock of thousands of birds that dips and turns like one single creature, darkening the skies, until they fly away gracefully. I imagine myself watching them five hundred years ago in the midst of constant conflict and warfare and change, thinking at least those birds would last forever.

 

 

 

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Updates!

Hi everyone – I’m back with some news!  First of all, our Homes with Woofs fundraiser was last Thursday and was an amazing success, despite the election, the World Cup soccer game and the rain. We raised around $ 10,000 for the Humane Society!

We had phenomenal press coverage  – probably because the doghouses that local trades/artisans built and donated were so amazing. We were covered by Global National; there were two stories in The Ottawa Citizen,  one in print before the event and another after the event was over that  was online only; we were on CTV twice, and Ottawa Life ran a story about us too.   Meeting Damon Bennett, who offered to be one of our celebrity judges, was an absolute pleasure: he’s offered to be the celebrity face of our event in the future, so that was pretty cool.

We had so much fun! Here’s a sample of a few of the doghouses (this one was built by a team at Minto: it was 32 sq ft and weighed 1,100 lbs!). That’s a picture of the crew in front – they’ve already told us they want to come back and do it again next year.

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So that was fantastic and I’m glad I took the time to get it organized. But I have good news on the book front too! The wonderful folks at Simon and Schuster Canada will be publishing book three (Hungry Ghosts) and book four (Umbrella Man) in the Inspector Ramirez series. (They even donated a bunch of books to our Homes with Woofs silent auction. They’re terrific.)  I’ll let you know when I have more details but Hungry Ghosts will be out sometime in 2015. Woohoo!!!

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Taking a break ….

Hey everyone … like all good things, this blog is coming to an end for a while so I can  catch my breath.

I have posted 650 individual blog posts, mostly about my own tortured path to publication as well as practical advice on how to get published. (A good number of others were book reviews and shameless self-promotion. Mea culpa.) Almost 80,000 of you shared my  journey; close to 1,500 of you posted comments. Thanks to all of you.

But the reality is that I have a day job as a realtor  that needs more attention as we move into the busy spring season and I’m doing some volunteer work that’s dear to my heart that I want to focus on too.

I’ve organized a project called Homes with Woofs, which involves getting designer doghouses donated so we can auction them off, all proceeds to the Ottawa Humane Society. I’m having a lot of fun doing it, but  it reminded me how little I’ve given back to my community in recent years because of the amount of time I’ve spent writing.

Each book takes at least 1,500 hours to write and promote. I’ve written five manuscripts in the last four years. Two have been published; two more are in the publication queue; I’ve just finished writing the first draft of the  fifth. It’s time, I think, to put my pen down and take the dog for a much-needed walk.

So goodbye for now, good luck, and all the best of luck getting published. You’ll meet some wonderful people along the way. Keep your expectations reasonable.  Most of us won’t make a fraction of what we expect to; that’s the nature of this business.

Don’t take negative reviews personally (they really aren’t), and be grateful for all those wonderful people who are willing to give up their precious time reading the product of yours.

There’s no better feeling in the world than connecting with someone through the written word. Thanks for spending some time here connecting with mine.

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Book Reviews – The Poisoned Pawn!

The Poisoned Pawn is about to hit the US market, and the galleys are out and about (those are the advance review copies). Nice to see this  review from fellow author, J.R. Lindermuth, posted in Goodreads:

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This is one of those cases where you should read the first in the series before undertaking this one. The Poisoned Pawn picks up where The Beggar’s Opera left off.

Michael Ellis, prime suspect in the prior book, returns to Canada only to become suspected of another murder—that of his estranged wife. Cuban Police Inspector Ricardo Ramirez is also bound for Canada, assigned to bring back a priest found in possession of child pornography, possibly including Cuban children.

Ramirez is still haunted by visions of the dead, which he fears may signal dementia or some other serious disease. The latest is a cigar lady murdered shortly before Ramirez is to leave for Canada. Because of his pending departure, he turns the case over to a new young subordinate, Fernando Espinoza (who I suspect will be a player in future volumes of the series). [ED. NOTE: He sure is! Peggy]

Shortly after Ramirez arrives in Ottawa, two women die under mysterious circumstances in Havana and the inspector is plagued with the twin concerns of worry about his family and fears of a travel advisory detrimental to Cuba’s tourist economy.

Once more Blair weaves a complex story of secrets and deceit, intriguing characters and insights into very different cultures. In the first book we had the insights of Canadians on Cuban life. This time it is a Cuban view of Canadian society. In addition to Ramirez, who is a solid character on his own, we also meet once again pathologist Hector Apiro, and Celia Jones, who played important roles in the previous book, and are introduced to Detective Charlie Pike, an Ojibway officer.

I’m not a big fan of the paranormal in mystery novels. But Blair doesn’t let it get out of hand and I’m almost tempted to say it adds to the flavor of this series.

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Poisoned Pawn gets a starred review in Booklist!

Bill Ott gave The Beggar’s Opera a great review in Booklist last year; so pleased  to see that he’s enjoyed The Poisoned Pawn (the sequel) as much. What’s great about these starred reviews is that the publishers love them: they use them in their advertising. Those little extracts you see are called “pull quotes.”

praise for poisoned pawn

Here’s (in part) what Bill Ott had to say — you’d have to subscribe to Booklist to see the entire review, which appears in their February 15th edition :

“Blair follows up her outstanding debut,The Beggar’s Opera (2013), with another superb crime novel starring Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of Havana’s Major Crimes Unit, who sees and communicates with the dead bodies whose murders he is investigating. (Are those bodies real? …..

“There’s lots more than that going on, too, and Blair brilliantly unspools her tightly wound plot, revealing more than one shocker in the process. This is a fine series with a thoroughly outstanding cast—not only Ramirez, a wonderful blend of befuddlement and shrewdness, but also Havana pathologist Hector Apiro, whose bone-deep cynicism masks a sensitive soul, and the Canadian lawyer Celia Jones, who can’t seem to stay out of harm’s way. Expect to hear much more about this series; it’s just waiting to be discovered in the big way it deserves.” — Bill Ott

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What I’m up to when I’m not writing/selling houses! #HomeswithWoofs

I’ve had this idea for some time that we should do a fundraiser in Ottawa where we get designer doghouses built and donated by local trades/contractors and then auction them off for charity, proceeds to the Ottawa Humane Society. I finally decided this is the year to do it. And so with the help of  John from Historic Building Co. and my realtor pal, George Prazmowski, we started working out the logistics of how to go about this.

This kind of event started in the US under the name Barkitecture, but they’ve copyrighted that name so the first step was to find another name that hadn’t been used. I threw out a request for some brainstorming on Twitter and Facebook and got a list of great names:

Housebreak Hotel
Habitat for Hounds
Lifestyles of the Bitch and Famous
Homes for Hounds
Homes with Woofs!
“Help put a Woof over their heads” (I can see this as a tagline!)
For Your Paws Only
In the Doghouse
Noah’s Bark
House Sniffers
Bone and Garden
The Canine Condo
Furry Foundations
Fido’s Dream Home
Pooch Penthouses

Homes with Woofs! was the one that we chose. I think it’s great!

We’re working on getting space donated by the City for our event, and we’re meeting with the Humane Society’s events planner on Monday to go over our plans. (They’re thrilled!) We’re hoping to have one doghouse built and on display for the Humane Society’s Fur Ball, and hold the event sometime at the end of May.

So far, we have five confirmed doghouses on the way: two from Historic Building Co. (one will be a little red  doghouse with Snoopy lying on the top; the other a barn), one from fellow realtor Lu Korte, one from Matt Viau at Modern Carpentry, and another from Vala Home Improvements. We need eight or nine more custom doghouses to make all this happen but of the four people I contacted, three said yes, so I have a feeling we’ll get it done!

Richard at Vala Home Improvements was inspired by this idea: a doghouse made out of an old TV console, which I think is brilliant. (photocredit to DIY Home Improvements).

console

If you have one of these old consoles sitting around in Ottawa, let us know so Richard can pick it up.

We decided this should be an event with other things up for silent auction too. John from Historic Building Co. suggested we have wine and appetizers and is going to help us line up donations of those from his restaurant pals.

And since I’m all about events, I’ve ordered a dozen cookie cutters shaped like different dog breeds, and now I’m looking on-line at how to decorate cupcakes like dogs too. (I do huge events for my book launches– live Cuban music, Cuban food, Cuban drinks, Cuban flags; we even had a sculpted car one year shaped like a ’57 Chevy) and it’s those kinds of things that get people buzzing!

Katherine Hobbs, our city councillor, is helping us as well. She’s suggested we contact a local theatre company and see if we can get waiters dressed in dog costumes. Now, that would be fun! I’m thinking we could have a yappy hour like they do in the US, maybe a flea market … well, you can see how much fun this is going to be.

Chloe Benoit, a local graphic designer, is going to help us develop a logo. Fellow mystery author CB (Chris) Forrest, a communications pal of mine, will handle the media.  Nick Bachusky, an Ottawa mortgage broker, has offered to help out in organizing this too. Sandra Spence and Diana Kirkwood have also volunteered as has Diane Ritchie, another Royal LePage pal of mine.

I’ll keep you posted on what we’re up to. And if you want to volunteer ( build, paint, bake, or just hang out) let us know!  Spread the word!

UPDATE: Thanks to the very talented Chloe Benoit, we have a new logo (see below). We also have a date (June 12), a venue (the Jean Pigott Hall at City Hall), some amazing donations and all kinds of stuff to tell you – check out the new blog, www.homeswithwoofs.wordpress.com for deetsdoghouse logo 2 final!

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Three things not to ask an author.

I was at a book club recently (I try to go to all the ones that are kind enough to invite me) and as often happens, I was asked these three things. Each time I cringed.

1) How many books have you sold?  I know this is a hard one for people to grasp because it seems so innocuous, but it is the equivalent of me asking a realtor I barely know how many houses they sold or some other stranger how much money they made last year.

How many books I have sold is between me and my publisher.  If we’ve sold enough to hit a bestseller’s list, believe me, you’ll know about it. If we haven’t, sales may have been disappointing. Most books in Canada aren’t big bestsellers. Some only sell a few hundred copies. Don’t embarrass us by asking us to tell you how many.

Remember that commercial publishing is a business. I do not expect a small business owner to tell me whether their business is profitable or not; it’s none of my business. Honestly, this is a question that every author hates.

2) Are you writing full-time?  I had already identified myself to the group as a realtor. Clearly, I am not writing full-time; I have a job that I very much enjoy that also pays my bills and keeps me connected with something other than writing.

The underlying question, again, was whether I am supporting myself by writing, which makes it a variant of question 1.

Most writers, even the ones you’ve heard about, cannot support themselves by writing. We are like the actors in New York who wait on tables while they wait for their big break. Most of us have two full-time jobs, one of which is writing. This is a question that simply reminds me how exhausted I sometimes am trying to juggle the demands of both of them.

3) So this is just a hobby, then? This was the question that followed my response to question 2 that I was a full time realtor.

A hobby is something I would take up for enjoyment. I would not expect to be paid for my time. Commercial publishing is a business. There are many aspects of it that are not pleasurable and that are out of our control.

The fact I am not writing to the exclusion of all else  does not make what I do a hobby. Suggesting to any artist (visual or written) that their art is a “hobby” is something  most would find offensive.

So what should you ask an author?

Ask them about their creative inspiration. Why do your characters do what they do? Are your characters based on people you know in real life? In other words, stick to the books. Authors are happy to talk about their creations and their creative process. Their personal lives, which is where the other questions unknowingly intrude into, are really their own business.

P.S. One of my friends has pointed out that it’s not unreasonable for a prospective client to ask a realtor about their sales record, and I completely agree. But it would be perceived as very rude for me to ask a fellow realtor how many sales they’ve had or for anyone to ask them what they were paid in commissions. That kind of information is between them and their brokerage. (If they’re doing well, we all know it.)

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