Category Archives: Gregory D. Little

Gregory D. Little

The Impact of Mere Words

Growing up, I was never a fan of English class. It’s not as though I didn’t have some great English teachers, because I did. It was the curriculum. I can appreciate grammar for the sake of what it brings about, but I’ll never love it for its own sake. And as for the literature side of things, for every The Count of Monte Cristo (Murder! Betrayal! Intrigue!) there were three or four nightmares along the lines of The Old Curiosity Shop (Walking! Talking! Dying of natural causes!).

It’s therefore safe to say I didn’t hold out much hope for AP English in my senior year of high school. I figured it would net me some credits that would get me out of what would probably be an even worse class in college, and that would be that for my formalized English education. Earlier in the week I talked about a crisis point where I nearly gave up writing. Today, because I apparently enjoy working in reverse chronological order, I’m going to talk about how critical my AP English teacher was to my decision to become a writer. Because while I’d learned I could enjoy writing two years prior (as detailed in this old post), she was the person who convinced me I was good at it.

I’ve never been a particularly self-confident person. It’s a problem that persists to this day. In high school I was a very good student but never top in my class, and I was content to let the truly elite students grab all the embarrassing attention that came with all that confidence and all those As. But my teacher in twelfth grade ran a different kind of English class. She postponed tests on a whim. She let us play croquet outside once the AP exam was over in the spring. She would regularly trade examples of Simpsons trivia with me. She was a lot of fun, and she enjoyed her job. When a teacher cares about what she or he is doing, it’s always obvious.

Now because the senior reading curriculum was a little more flexible we were able to tackle books that had more complex themes. I found these more complex ideas interested me. Her writing assignments held my interest and weren’t just a rush to put down on paper what I thought the teacher wanted to hear as quickly as possible. I was really analyzing the stuff I read, thinking hard about how I interpreted books like Heart of Darkness and The King Must Die.

Which brings me to another thing my teacher tended to do that would prove significant. When she’d hand back essays, she would mention aloud the one or two she thought ranked among the best in the class. Just rattle off the names to give a little public praise, always a good thing. And because I’d been going to school with the same group of kids my whole life, those names were rarely surprising. Until one day, getting near the semester break. Our teacher listed off the same one or two students who, as usual, had produced sterling essays analyzing whatever book we were reading at the time. And then she said “but Greg is really turning out to be a dark horse candidate for best writer in the class.” I’d known she liked my writing from her comments on my papers all year up to that point. But I remember being startled to hear it spoken aloud and phrased in such a fashion. Not just good, but one of the best?  I’ve never forgotten that comment.

I learned to like writing my sophomore year. But I started believing I could be good at it my senior year, thanks to Mrs. Whitten. And however good a writer I was then or have become now, I doubt I can ever fully convey my gratitude in mere words. So please keep in mind, whether you’re in the position to influence a young mind or not, how much of a positive impact your words of praise can have on a person. I know I count these particular words among my greatest gifts as a writer.


The Gift of Scorched Earth

BookToday’s post is going to cover two gifts for the price of one, both intangible and tangible.

I began my first novel manuscript in January of 1999. There were three of us then, and during our winter break from college, we set out to write the greatest epic fantasy novel known to man. I probably don’t have to tell you our plans didn’t quite pan out. But flash forward four or five years, and that book, the first thing I ever tried to write with a serious intention of publishing it, was nearly the reason I quit writing for good.

My co-authors dropped out early in the process. We enjoyed talking about our story’s awesomeness more than actually working on it together. But I’d continued plugging slowly along on the book throughout college. And by the time I was graduated and then married, I had a couple of hundred draft pages. That seems like a tiny amount to Present Day Greg, but at the time it was by far the longest thing I’d ever written. The trouble was, I’d basically stopped working on it.

I told myself I was just busy. Working at a full-time job and commuting three hours daily left me very tired by the end of each week. But that wasn’t it. In truth I no longer believed in the story I was writing. I was no longer excited by it, because there was a dissonance between the plot and the protagonist. I didn’t believe that this protagonist would be responsible for the acts of his recent past that formed the foundation of the plot.

I’d be willing to bet a lot of writers don’t consciously decide to give up writing. It just sort of happens bit by bit, day by day until they look back and realize it’s been months or years since they’ve written. The point of no return is when this thought no longer bothers them. I came pretty close to that point. A more experienced writer would have just tossed the idea and started on a new one, but that wasn’t how I looked at it. The germ for this story had been in my head for a decade. If I couldn’t even see it through, what hope did I ever have of being a writer? But the Sunk Cost Fallacy had me in its claws. For those unfamiliar, the Sunk Cost Fallacy is the human tendency to “throw good money after bad” and continue investing in something that isn’t working just because you’ve invested so much into it already.

I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I gradually gave myself permission to scrap what needed scrapping in order to the save the story. It started with rewriting the protagonist into the antagonist, but by the end I trashed every single word of text and started over. Some of the characters’ relationships to one another and some of my original world-building concepts would survive, but every bit of the prose was fed into the furnace of reigniting my excitement for the project. It was total scorched earth, and as much as I’d dreaded the concept, it was surprisingly liberating once I’d committed myself to it.

Eventually I finished my monster of a first manuscript, An End to Gods. The final product is infinitely better than the project was originally shaping up to be. I’ve gotten much faster and trimmer as a writer since then, and the book is still too big and too Byzantine to publish as a novice writer, but I love it for all its messy complexity. My cousins even collaborated to get it printed and bound in leather for me several Christmases ago, complete with custom chapter icon artwork (Ben and Duncan, you guys still rock!) and it is still the coolest gift I’ve ever been given. It’s sitting on my shelf behind me as I type this (and in the picture at the top of this post). I don’t mind telling you I got teary-eyed when I first laid eyes on it, and I still plan on publishing it one day, however many rewrites that takes. I’ve already done it once, after all.

So there you have it. Two greatest gifts for the price of one. Kevin J. Anderson likes to use the phrase “dare to be bad (at first)” and that’s excellent advice. But if that first draft is so bad it’s discouraging you from continuing to write, it may be time to tear it down and start again.

Beta Reading: The Book Report You Trick Your Friends and Family Into

BETA_(capital_and_small)“Oh, you’re writing a book?  You have to let me read it when you’re done!”  If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ll probably have heard this a time or two.  Little do they know that a book needs beta readers.  But what is a beta reader and how can you shamelessly leverage their time and good will into making your manuscript the best it can be?

Because I am an engineer as well as a writer, I’m going to use the laziest possible analog for the technological age.  A beta reader is exactly like a video game beta tester.  They are the people that take your playable (readable) video game (manuscript) and play (read) through it, looking for bugs (terrible parts) so that you can fix them before they get seen by the general public/publishing industry.  Now, one quick point of clarification:  when I say “readable” I mean that the draft of your manuscript is complete with no missing parts that you haven’t gotten around to writing yet.  A beta reader should be reading your best attempt at a complete story draft.  Someone who is only reading incomplete chunks of your story is called an alpha reader, which is a subject for another post.

So who should you select for your beta readers?

1.  Above all, you need people who are willing to (very generously) grant you their valuable time to both read and provide feedback on your manuscript.  Because they are willing to do that, these people probably like you, which can actually be a problem. People that like you might not want to be brutally honest with you, so…

2.  You want beta readers who are willing to be honest with you (brutally or not).  If there’s a problem with your story, they are doing you no favors by holding back on it to spare your feelings.  And even if they believe they are being honest with you, they are probably still holding back subconsciously.   It’s understandable.  They’re excited for you!  You wrote a book, and they want to like it!  It’s just a general hazard with any beta reader that you need to keep in mind.

3.  You want beta readers to cover a wide spectrum of, well, everything.  As writers, it is tempting to wrangle only our writer friends to beta read.  Other writers are usually willing to “trade” beta reads of each other’s work, so convincing them can be easier.  Writers also understand what another writer needs in terms of feedback, so their feedback can be more constructive, incisive, and to the point.  But writers also love to over-analyze writing, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up with a story that only other writers will love.  So have writers beta read for you, but also pick beta readers who have nothing to do with writing, and even ones who don’t normally read the genre your story is in.  Non-fans of the genre will be the toughest sell, so you’ll get the harshest criticism, and if your writing can overcome that initial handicap, you’ll know you have something special on your hands.

So, now you’ve gotten your beta readers your manuscript and they are busily reading away.  What do you tell them regarding feedback?  Obviously everyone has a different style, but I always try to follow the following guidelines:

I DON’T: require my beta readers to give me feedback in a specific format or in a specific level of detail.  Rather, I ask them to provide feedback at whatever level they are comfortable based on their schedule and their preferred style of reading.  Some of them like to go so far as to line-edit your work (more so in short stories than in novels given the time commitment).  Some prefer simply to give general impressions (“I liked this part but didn’t understand when the character did this.  This detail confused me.  What was even happening here?”).  For me, the important part is that they don’t worry so much about the level of feedback that their experience of reading the story gets impacted.  Ideally you want them reading your story like anyone else would.

I DO: ask my readers to have the reading and feedback done by a certain (reasonable) date.  In my opinion it’s perfectly fair to do this as long as you explain it up front so that everyone’s on the same page (pun intended) and as long as you are willing to be flexible because obviously we all get busy.  But if you don’t assign some (again, reasonable) date you’ll find yourself waiting for months, unwilling/unable to do major edits until all your beta readers are finished.

I DON’T: let my beta readers talk to each other until they’ve talked to me.  I don’t want them to start cross-contaminating opinions.  Treat them like suspects in a crime (but much more politely) and request feedback separately from each.

So now you’ve got your feedback.  What do you do about it?

– Look for trends.  Does everybody think the main character is a big jerk?  Maybe that’s okay if that’s what you’re going for.  But does everybody think the main character is such a huge jerk that they would have stopped reading if not for the fact that they promised you they’d read your story?  That’s a problem.  Conversely, if everyone has a different problem with the same aspect of the story, but they all agree it’s a problem, you need to look at it again.  Don’t be afraid to follow up and ask for further clarification.  I’ve had instances where every reader but one  mentioned an aspect of the story that bothered them, and I specifically went back and asked that one person if plot point X bothered them at any point.

– Conversely, take complaints that only one person raises with a grain of salt.  I’ve heard it said that if nobody can agree on the issues your manuscript has, you’re doing all right because you’ve gotten it down to the realm of personal taste.  Everyone does have different tastes, after all, and they won’t all like every aspect of something you write, no matter how well it’s written.

– Lastly, remember that you, the author, have the final say.  Beta readers are offering recommendations, not ironclad must-haves.  The buck, or in this case the word, ultimately stops with you.


Sweating the Small Stuff

I was twenty-one when I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  At the time, I thought it was embarrassingly obvious advice for such a supposedly renowned military mastermind.   “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

“Oh please,” twenty-one year old me thought, rolling his all-knowing eyes.  I was set to label Sun Tzu “Captain Obvious” and never look back.  But I’m older now (just a teensy bit), and I’ve learned that when the pressure is on, we often forget the most obvious, self-evident courses of action entirely.  So it goes with war and with things closer to home for the Fictorians, like networking.

When I was younger my dad gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten.  We’ve all heard the old axiom “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but my dad put it in more numerical terms.  He told me about the three twelves.  When meeting you for the first time, a person will be able to form an impression based on your first twelve inches (your face), the first twelve words out of your mouth, and the first twelve seconds of the exchange.  Now my dad has spent his career in the business world, and his advice was meant primarily for job interviews.  But in the writing world, when we are meeting agents and editors at conventions, what we are really doing is kicking off a sort of protracted job interview.  And first impressions can make or break you.

Writing is like any other field of human interaction.  It’s often not what you know, but who you know that’s important.  Every time you smile, introduce yourself and shake a hand at some event that brings the people of our field together, you are hopefully sowing the seeds for a friendship, but you are also adding another potential link to your growing chain of contacts.  It may sound clinical, but it’s important you keep both aspects of any relationship in mind in the early stages.

Now, my dad’s advice may need to be tweaked a little for our industry.  In the business world, personal appearance is very important and deviating too far from the standard suit and tie is frowned upon.  Writers are a little more relaxed in this regard, I think, owing to the more eccentric personalities that permeate the writing world.  Mary wrote an excellent piece detailing branding earlier this very week, in fact, so check it out if you haven’t already.   This advice applies more to those who have yet to establish themselves and who are simply trying to meet agents, editors and fellow writers.  It’s important to dress as if you are a professional who is ready, if needed, to discuss professional matters.  What that means in context is that if you are going to a convention that has a sizable fan contingent (say, Worldcon) and you want to indulge in some cosplay, you may want to set aside a day where you walk around in your Iron Man costume and another day where you dress, if not necessarily formally, at least nicely, looking like a professional, not a fan.  If you are attending a convention that is almost exclusively business-oriented (World Fantasy Convention) then it’s best to leave the Spock ears at home entirely.

You’ve heard all the stuff I’m going to say before, believe me.  Nothing I’m about to tell you is going to widen your eyes with sudden awe and understanding.  But if you clam up like I do when trying to impress someone, it helps to remember the small things.  Things like:

-Don’t dominating the conversation with talk of yourself.

-Avoid invading someone’s personal space.

-Take cues from the other person’s body language.  If you go up to introduce yourself and catch them at an obviously bad time (this happened to me at last year’s World Fantasy Convention) politely extricate yourself as quickly as possible and be on your way.

-Practice basic hygiene.

There are many others, but they all lead to the same general result.  What you want is to leave a positive impression of yourself on everyone you meet, something that says either “should the opportunity arise, that person would be pleasant to work with,” or in the case of a possible fan “wow, that person is really nice.  I should check out their work/continue reading their work.”  I hate to make it sound so clinical.  It almost comes off as mercenary.  But remember, this isn’t just a fun gathering of like minds you are attending, it’s a business trip.

And advice extends beyond the world of meeting people in person.  When you submit stories or novels to agents or editors, be unfailingly polite.  If they send you a rejection, do not respond at how only stupid people would fail to understand your genius, no matter how much your raging id may think so.  The world of publishing is a small one, and the last thing you want to do is end up on someone’s black list.

There’s another quote I’d like to leave you with, one I’ve heard attributed to many successful coaches.  “If you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.”  So devote a little time to sweating the small stuff.  You might be surprised at what comes of it.  That Sun Tzu guy may have known his stuff after all.