Benefits of Beta Readers

 

Or, Fortune Favors the Bold

readingNearly two years ago, I was stuck. I knew I couldn’t go any further with my novel without some help.

So I started looking for beta readers.

It’s not easy finding someone to read a draft of a novel, let alone find someone who will offer helpful criticism.

I submitted the first chapter to a few review sites and got some initial feedback. One person said my world building lacked something. He suggested I read the works of LE Modesitt as an example of awesome world building.

After reading one of Modesitt’s novels, I still didn’t know what to do. The other commenters offered conflicting advice.

Then I found one person who read the entire book. She had some helpful comments, but I wanted a bigger sample.

So I tried GoodReads.

This was an interesting and enlightening experience. I found a thread in the forum where people swapped beta reads.

Through the swap, I read some original and interesting novels, most of which were well-written and engaging. I offered my suggestions for improvement as diplomatically as I could.

Some of those who reviewed my book were not so kind. Snarky, condescending and downright insulting is what I would call the comments from one.

Another didn’t finish the book, stating while she thought the writing was good, there were too many unanswered questions, so she got too frustrated to continue.

That was interesting. It somewhat paralleled the “world building is lacking” comment from another reviewer.

At that point, I got distracted by some family issues and other projects, and kind of lost my nerve about reading the comments from the last two reviewers.

So a year later, I finally got back to the beta reading comments.

To my surprise, both of them offered thoughtful and detailed comments.

One suggested starting the story a little sooner, to give me a chance to show the world in a larger setting so readers would be more grounded in the world I’d created. Reading this comment was like having a light shine on a dark spot in my mind. I finally understood the “world building is lacking” comment, and the other reviewer’s frustration.

Now I know exactly how to fix this problem.

The other reviewer was very good at picking up times when characters acted out of character.

Both reviewers were good at picking up inconsistencies: “I thought he was already in the house” or “didn’t he just accuse her of the opposite?” They also spotted repetitions and noted scenes that seemed to make the action drag.

And I know what to do about all of this.

The lesson is that fortune favors the bold. I took the risk and put my work out there. Sure, I didn’t get rave reviews (not that I was expecting them at this point.) What I did get was enough encouragement to continue, and some specific ways to improve the telling of the story.

What a great feeling to be back on track!

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Reading for Summer Rainy days

raindrops-1127223_640Summers, I love to be outside. But when rainy weather keeps me indoors, there’s nothing like a great book.

Lately I’ve found several that drew me into their worlds and kept me there, entranced by the story and eager to know what happened to the characters.

The Pearl that Broke its Shell

The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi is one of those books that will stay in my mind for a long time. The stories of two Afghan women are woven together, showing the similarities of struggle and hardship they faced, even though they lived nearly 100 years apart.

Rahima is one of five daughter living under Taliban rule. Their drug-addicted father does nothing to support his family, and their only option is to use the ancient custom of bacha posh, or dressing a daughter like a son until she reaches marriageable age. Rahima is chosen for this role, and as a boy, can freely attend school, visit the market, or even just leave the house.

It comes to an end when a vicious warlord sees her and wants her as a wife. Just thirteen, her father gives her in marriage. Her life has gone from difficult drudgery to near slavery. Her aunt buoys her spirits with tales of her great-great grandmother, who also lived as bacha posh to build a life for herself.

The Pearl that Broke its Shell is difficult reading at time, as the conditions and hopelessness of the women’s lives is both heartbreaking and enraging. What emerges is a testimony to hope, that escapes can be found in the most unlikely ways. And that bad events may be what is needed to gain the courage to make a change.

The Keeper

I had been resisting Amish fiction for years. But the enduring popularity of the genre made me wonder. So I decided to give it a try.

The Keeper by Suzanne Woods Fisher is a romance starring Julia, whose fiancé has just postponed their wedding for the second time. It becomes clear to her that Paul’s cold feet are likely to be permanent. Then she finds out Rome, the Bee Man, was responsible for Paul’s change of heart.

How Julia navigates her family’s growing financial problems and deals with her conflicted feelings for both Paul and Rome is a sweet story. It wrapped up a little too neatly, but that’s a minor flaw. If you like clean romance, this is a great choice for you.

Contact Us

Contact Us by Al Macy is a new twist on the aliens-have-arrived theme. Everyone on Earth sneezes, at the exact same time. Before sense can be made of that event, an alien spacecraft appears and broadcasts a message of death and destruction. Bizarrely, the message is from an alien who has taken on the form of Walter Cronkite.

The alien seems to be both threatening and offering to be Earth’s only hope against another alien ship which is hovering around Jupiter. Jake Corby, ex-FBI troubleshooter, is called out of retirement to help the President’s team defeat the alien threats. The struggle to understand the motives of the alien before he causes more destruction kept my attention till the very last word.

RIFT

Rift by Andreas Christensen is an interesting twist on a dystopian theme. A few hundred years after the disaster, it appears society has been rebuilt. The main characters are mostly several young people who have reached the age when they are assigned their roles in life. Most of the options aren’t very appealing, but some better than others. The smartest are chosen to be Students, the strongest, Janissaries, soldiers who defend the land’s northern borders. Others are chosen to be Wardens, who guard the western border and the Rift, the border of the wastelands. Others are sent to the Corpus, where they toil as slaves. Those not chosen live out their lives, but at fifty they are put to death. No resources can be wasted on those who can’t produce.

Sue and her friends are selected to be Janissaries and Wardens. They quickly learn that much of what they’ve learned was a lie. The more secrets she uncovers, the greater danger she finds herself in.

The world building got me hooked, and the characters kept me interested. This was so enjoyable I got the second book. Then I found out that the RIFT series follows another one. I’m intrigued enough to want to read that one as well.

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The Secrets of the Mud Room

door-536461_640

Not a true story.

As long as I could remember, my great-aunt Sharon never used her back door, the one that led from her kitchen to the back yard.

Summers, she’d fill that back yard with a massive vegetable garden, growing everything from tomatoes to okra, onions to watermelons. I don’t think there’s a vegetable she didn’t try, at least once.

Some did better than others. The watermelon never got bigger than cantaloupes (and yes, she knew they were fruit. She just called the whole thing a vegetable garden.) The strawberries, on the other hand, took over and just about choked out the green beans. The corn, the one year she attempted it, didn’t grow higher than a dog’s eye, let alone an elephant’s.

Tomatoes and zucchini, those she could grow. We were eating salsa and zucchini bread long before they became popular. And if only iPhones were around then, we would have documented her zucchini lasagna, probably the first people in the world to eat it.

Raised beds of flowers circled the vegetables. Marigolds and begonias, impatiens and violets all raised a riot of color during much of the summer. The hostas and day lilies did their share as well, the cool green and white leaves of the hostas contrasting with the bright yellow of the lilies.

Aunt Sharon loved that garden. From dawn to dusk she’d toil away, weeding and deadheading, tilling and fertilizing, anxiously calculating how much water to give her tender plants. She’d only come inside for lunch, then head back again.

The odd thing was she’d never use the back door.

Even though her house had a large mud room at the back, she never set foot in it. She’d leave the house by the front door and walk all the way around, through the dim coolness of the side yard with its six maples and a birch, then get her tools from the garage that stood twenty feet away from the house. To go back inside, she’d repeat the journey. At the front door she’d shuck her gardening shoes and replace them with a pair of slippers she left just inside.

Even when she came home with groceries, she didn’t use the back door. And the time Uncle Otis fell on the ice and broke his leg, what did she do? She drove him up to the curb in the front and eased him up the long walkway with its eight steep steps and in through the front door. The back way was much shorter and had only two steps. Why Uncle Otis didn’t argue I never understood.

Sometimes I’d hear him, asking her if they could get it fixed. “It would be more convenient,” he’d say.

She’d always refuse, saying it worked fine and they didn’t need to spend the money. “Besides, it’s good exercise, taking a few extra steps.”

Once time she caught me with my hand on the door handle of that back door. “No!” She screeched so loud I jumped almost high enough to hit my head on the ceiling. “Never,” she told me, wagging a finger in my face, “never use the back door.”

I was too scared ask. But over the years I wondered what was in the mud room. Treasure? Dead bodies?

Not long after, I was spending the night with Aunt Sharon, snuggling down in the feather bed in her spare room. The silence of the night was only broken by the chirping of the cicadas and the gentle hum of the air conditioner.

A loud crash like a dozen pots and pans hitting the floor cracked the silence. I sat bolt up in bed, listening. Was that swearing I heard coming from below? Some of those words my ten-year-old ears had never heard. Surely that wasn’t my Uncle Otis?

No, it wasn’t. I heard the door to the other bedroom open. “I told you so,” said Aunt Sharon.

There was a low mutter that had to be Uncle Otis’s response.

Since neither of them seemed to disturbed by the ruckus below, I slid out of bed and went into the hall. “What’s going on?” I asked.

Aunt Sharon was already halfway down the stairs. “Come and see, boy. It’s time you learned a thing or two.”

Uncle Otis rolled his eyes and pointed down the stairs. “You might as well.”

The swearing got louder as we descended. Aunt Sharon led the way into the kitchen. My eyes widened as she marched over to the mud room and swung open the door. Finally, I would learn the secrets of the mud room.

The first thing I noticed was the open back door. Then a volley of cursing brought my attention to the mud room. Or rather, the gaping hole where the mud room floor should have been. Instead, there was a gaping hole. Leaning over to look, I could see two men, one lying on the floor clutching his ankle.

“It’s my burglar alarm,” Aunt Sharon said with a smirk. “My free burglar alarm. Otis here was after me to get one you had to pay for. Waste of money, I told him.”

She looked down through the whole at the two men, who were now demanding to be freed. “We had a flood here, years ago and the mud room floor fell in. So I got an idea. I just covered the hole with a mat. And I put hung all kinds of metal pots from the bottom of the mat so it would make a big crash if someone fell through.” She grinned at me. “I never locked the back door after that. If someone came to break in, they’d come in that way. And get caught.”

Uncle Otis hung his head, shaking it back and forth. “Ok, ok. It worked. Now can we fix the floor so we can use the back door again?”

“See?” she said, directing her words to me. “It worked, but he wants to give up on it. All to use the back door. For what? To save a little time? Time is what we’ve got, not money.”

When the police came, it took them awhile to understand just how Aunt Sharon caught two members of a gang that had been responsible for a rash of break ins in the area. Then it took longer for them to free the would-be burglars from their temporary jail to take them to another one.

As for Uncle Otis, I think he gave up on ever using the back door again.

 

 

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How to Get Unstuck Part 2

winning-1529402_640Last week, we took a look at two ways to get unstuck. Today we’ll look at three more

Third, aim high.

I think about Olympic athletes. None of the ones I heard interviewed said his life goal was to become high school champion. Or state champion.

Most of them said they knew they wanted to be Olympians from a very early age. That’s the goal they set their minds to. High school or state championships were just stepping stones to the real goal

Sometimes it’s our goals that are getting us stuck. We don’t set our sights high enough, so we only do what it takes to achieve them.

And our writing (or whatever it is we’re trying to do) never gets any better.

Sure, goals that are too ambitious can make us afraid to even try. But setting goals that challenge us just a little bit more can be the motivation we need to get moving. And to try just a little bit harder.

Another Olympics example. I was watching the women’s gymnastics individual finals. When it came to the vault, everyone knew that Simone Biles was going to win. The gold medal was hers to lose.

What did the other women do? They could have played it safe, and battled for the silver. Many of them rejected this path. They knew that their only hope of winning a gold was to do a much harder vault than they tried in the earlier competitions.

Several of them tried harder vaults, and failed. But had they succeeded, and Simone Biles not done her vaults perfectly, someone else could have gone away with the gold medal.

And that’s one way we can get ourselves motivated. To play for gold, not second best.

Fourth, celebrate your achievements.

Along the way to achieving those higher goals, you’ll hit many milestones. Celebrate each and every one.

And celebrate others. You finally come up with the perfect name for a character? Celebrate.

You manage to resolve a plot hole, or just edit a chapter or two.

Or you finally find a way to conquer your procrastination. (If that’s you, can you share your secret with me?)

Whatever the achievement, savor the moment. Remember that feeling. You’ll need that memory when things aren’t going quite so well.

But whatever you do, never give up!

 

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How To Get Unstuck Part I

DSC03289Once upon a time there was an ambitious young executive—we’ll call him Lance. He was doing all he could to climb the corporate ladder: he’d work late and volunteer for special projects. The one thing he was missing was face time with the CEO. Lance well understood that the political game was just as important as what he actually contributed to the company.

One evening he had his opportunity. He was working late one night and saw the CEO standing in front of the shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

“Listen,” said the CEO, “this is a very sensitive and important document here, and my secretary has already gone for the night. Do you know how to make this thing work?”

Lance was thrilled at his opportunity to be perceived as helpful, knowledgeable, and competent. He put the paper into the shredder and hit the start button.

“Wonderful!” said the CEO as his document disappeared into the shredder. “I only need one copy.”

I’ve seen this story floating around the internet in various forms for years. But it resonates with me, and I’m sure many others, because we’ve all been there.

We try so very hard to achieve something, and disaster strikes. Or maybe we just get stuck. No matter what we do, we can’t make the progress we want to.

I’ve been in that same place with my writing. So instead of letting myself stay in the rut, I thought about ways to get out of it.

The first is to understand the task. What I am trying to accomplish? Our friend Lance assumed he know what his task was. And while I can’t fault him for assuming that the CEO knew the difference between a shredder and a copy machine, Lance could have avoided the catastrophe by simply articulating his understanding of the task.

“I’ll be happy to shred that for you,” would have made all the difference.

As I edit, I get bogged down because I’m trying to do too many things at once. I’d make far better progress by focusing on just one aspect, like character arcs, and making sure they work before moving on.

Second, going back to basics helps. Many pro athletes who end up in a slump will spend some time just on basic drills, the same ones they spent time on when they were just starting out. This is often all they need to get their performance back where it should be.

I know I’ve found that by just reviewing a good article on whatever I’m working on, whether it’s dialogue or setting can help me focus my thinking. I then can make my edits easier and end up with a better result.

That’s just two ways to get unstuck. Next week we’ll look at three more.

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The Story in the Picture

DSC01449If one picture tells a thousand words, then what does my collection of photos tell?

Thousands of stories, if I can only unleash them.

What stories could this Indian tree tell? We were told that the Indians used these trees to mark their trails. They’d bend the sapling the way they wanted, and the tree would grow with permanent angles.

This particular tree points the way to get from the bluff to the water. What if a government whistle-blower knew of the tree, and used it to hide stolen documents that could bring down a corrupt president? After the whistle blower is found dead (along with four other people who had come forward), it’s up to the last surviving member of the group to find the documents. All that’s left are vague clues and a blurred photograph. Will he find the hiding place in time to save his own life and bring a criminal official to justice?

And then sticking with the tree theme…

DSC01500A hiker in the mountains stumbles on these trees growing out of the side of a mountain. A sudden storm causes him to seek shelter under the roots of the tree. There he stumbles into…what?

Could it be a portal back in time, where he emerges just in time to get caught up in an earthquake that changes the course of a nearby river? Or could it be a cave that holds treasure? Or an air vent that leads to a secret underground lab, where scientists are splicing human and animal genes to create enhanced capabilities. In one experiment, they merge human genes with a cheetah’s, to try to create muscles that will allow men to run as fast as the animal.

The hiker overhears enough of what’s going on that he begins to investigate. Then the corporation behind these experiments finds out someone is asking questions, and the hiker finds himself in mortal peril.

162 cemetaryA cemetery holds a story for every death. This cemetery in Zambia tells a thousand variations on one melancholy theme: deaths from AIDS. So many die each day that it’s hard to keep up with the need for fresh graves. And many leave young children behind. How a pair of orphaned siblings build a new life for themselves and many other in the face of overwhelming odds leave a challenge and inspiration for the rest of us who haven’t suffered as much.

And then there’s the cat.

DSC02420What if a stray cat slipped into a hospital, and hid in the radiology department. Over time, the radiation builds up, and the cat somehow learns to read. A maintenance man finds the cat and takes it home. Then strange things start happening.

Stay tuned. Maybe someday I’ll turn one of these into a novel.

 

 

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A Mixed Bag of Summer Reading

afghanistan-60641_640Usually when I read for pleasure, I’m looking for entertainment. While fantasy and historical fiction are two of my favorite genres, I’m not stuck on them. This week I read books in three different genres: fantasy, mystery and non-fiction.

 

White Hart

White Hart is a fun twist on the idea of mistaken identity. Mae is one of the last few magic wielders in Aegunland. She’s kept her secret closely, not wanting anyone to know of her abilities. The king scours the land, looking for a suitable craft-born girl to marry to his son. When the searchers arrive in Mae’s village, the social climbing miller pushes his daughter forward, claiming she has the powers the king is seeking in a bride for the prince.

When the village is attacked and many killed by villains who kidnap the miller’s daughter is kidnapped in order to exploit the talents they think she has, Mae and the spoiled prince set out on a quest to rescue her, and to avenge the dead. Little did Mae know what a wild ride she’d started, and what dangers lay ahead.

Dear Zari

Turning to non-fiction, I found the compelling story of Zari, who was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul during the endless wars that have plagued her native country. She moved to London, and there produced a radio program for Afghan women. Dear Zari is a collection of the letter she received through the years, telling the difficulties, struggles and victories of the women who survive through heroic efforts and perseverance.

Some of the stories, especially those told by women forced into marriage at a very young age, are heartbreaking. Much of their suffering is due to long-held traditions, and the women share some unimaginable horrors: being given as a child bride to repay a debt, to a life spent in a dark room, weaving carpets, to widows, shunned by society. Worst of all was the story of a girl brought up as a boy.

The bravery of the women to speak out and share their stories gave the author courage to face her own past nightmare. While difficult reading, the courage and resilience of the women is an inspiration to anyone struggling.

Last Writes

Switching genres yet again, Last Writes is a mystery featuring Claudia, a handwriting expert. When her friend Kelly’s estranged half-sister shows up with a story that her husband has kidnapped their daughter. The couple had been living in a secluded compound belonging to the Temple of the Brighter Light. Claudia uses an opportunity to put her forensic handwriting skills to use while searching for the missing child. She uncovers disturbing hints about the cult and its leaders. Meanwhile, the time for an ancient prophecy to be fulfilled draws near, making Claudia wonder is the missing girl—and others—are in mortal peril.

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More Fun Than Facebook

texting-1490691_640See all those kids with their noses glued to their phones? That’s what my mother used to say about me. Except my nose was stuck in a book.

People scoff at those who seem glued to their devices. I’m feeling a bit more tolerant these days. Somehow I’m finding myself surfing the net or reading Facebook or playing Sudoku more than I used to, rather than picking up my kindle (or an actual book). I guess I’m just getting lazy. Or is it that the mindless posts or games are more intriguing than the books I’ve been reading?

Sadly, I think it’s a combination of both. But the good news is that I have found a few books I found compelling, enjoyable and memorable.

Poison Study

Some books just reach out and grab you from the start, and this is one of them. Yelena is rotting in prison, waiting to be executed for murder. Instead, she’s given a second chance. Only the condition is she has to accept the position of food taster for the Commander, the ruler of Ixia. Slowly, as she studies poisons and grows into her new position, she realizes she may have a bigger role to play in the political dramas that surround her. I loved this book so much I bought the rest in the series.

King Peggy

Peggy is working as a secretary in the Embassy of Ghana in Washington DC when she gets a phone call from a relative. Her Uncle Joseph, king of the village of Otuam, has died. The village elders have selected Peggy to be the next king.

So begins the true story of Peggy’s life changing from ordinary secretary to king of a village. She arrives to find a truly sad state of affairs. The royal palace is nearly in ruins. Tradition demands that her uncle’s funeral be held at the palace, which is in no state for a major event. A series of events teach Peggy that she was chosen to be king because the elders thought a woman, long-distance king would never find out how they were stealing the village funds. How Peggy managed to overcome the ingrained corruption and bring wells, ambulances and better schools to the village made for an entertaining read.

What was especially interesting was how the traditional beliefs and customs were presented. I felt like I got a fascinating glimpse into traditional Ghanaian thinking.

Evensong

We’ve all wanted to find ourselves in the world of our favorite books. That’s exactly what happened to author Jeff Powell. He wakes up to find himself in the world he created for his series of fantasy novels. His characters, however, aren’t happy with him at all. They complain about the drought and dragons he’s sent to plague them, and want some of the evils he’s conjured up erased. The problem is that enemies he didn’t write are on the prowl, and no one can figure out how to send him back to our world so he can rewrite the end of the story. A clever and engrossing read.

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Making Characters Grow Emotionally

image-698390_640Last week I looked at a few novels to discover how the protagonists grew emotionally.

Now I’m trying to think of the ways my main characters grow and change, and how the events of the novel change them emotionally.

Iskra, my protagonist starts out as a kind-hearted person who wants to do the right thing. She’s also a bit timid, fearful of criticism, but has an uncomfortable habit of asking questions. She’s too smart to blindly accept what’s she’s been taught, when the facts are telling her something isn’t right. But her horror of not being accepted or criticized keeps her silent.

Then a horrifying event happens, which is partly Iskra’s fault. She sets herself to discover the truth. Her timidity causes her to go about this in a roundabout way, but in the end she learns she can’t live a double life. The only way to happiness and peace is to choose.

This goes against all she’s been brought up to believe, along with the idea that safety is the highest good. Anything dangerous is evil. Eventually she learns that there are worse things than taking a risk.

Tarkio is a much braver soul, as he faces it daily along the trade routes he follows from town to town. In the beginning, he believes (with some justification) that his smarts will get him out of every tough spot.

He learns, to his shame, that he just because he’s smart it doesn’t mean he can’t make a mistake. The mistake he made sets up many of the tragic events that follow. His efforts to fix things only make them worse. He has to accept that he’s like the rest of us, muddling along as best we can. Being the person he is, he claims responsibility for his folly and vows to make things right.

Kaberco is the bravest of them all. As Ephor in charge of the village’s safety, he confronts bandits, wild animals and the occasional drunk with ease. He’s driven by the fear of failure, of being seen as incompetent. The antagonist in the story is mostly the government/king. Kaberco, as his agent, starts out relatively benign, but to Iskra’s dismay, he becomes the face of the oppressor and the keeper of the lies.

And then there’s Mazat. I originally conceived him to be a villain, but after a beta reader said he was a stereotype and too evil to be believed, I decided to change him up. He’ll keep some of his crude and gruff ways.  But he and Iskra develop an uneasy alliance.

It’s Mazat’s son Udbash who takes on the villain role, with Mazat selfishly refusing to help Iskra out of her dilemma. He’s almost like the opposite of Iskra, who learns to take the risk to defy the system, where Mazat prefers to keep his opposition to it under wraps. Udbash, who knows all of Mazat’s secrets, can betray his father. Mazat knows it, and allows Udbash to have his own way.

And I’m just getting started with these people…

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Books You Can’t Forget

woman-1323576_640What makes a novel memorable? Is it the plot or the action?

Or is it the characters?

I think, even in fantasy and action genres, that the characters are the aspect that stick in our minds and make us want to keep reading. It’s because of them that we want to enjoy more of their adventures, to re-enter the world in which they live.

And one way characters become memorable is the way they grow emotionally. Many people could endure the same horror, face the same trial, but only that character will respond and change in their own unique way.

To get an idea of how this works, I thought back to some of my favorite novels.

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to mind. He stars in entire series of detective novels. In the first one, he’s more concerned with his clothes and wine than anything else. He’s convinced that he can have anything he wants, simply by working for it.

By the end of the series, he’s learned to be more concerned with the feelings of others than simply his own. He gets over his past romantic pains and learns to not just commit to one woman, but to open up to her.

Jane Austen’s Emma is another character who assumed life would go her way. She was a bit more arrogant than Lord Peter, and even tried to manipulate many around her by playing match maker. By the end of the novel, she’s learned how badly she over-estimated her own powers and ability to read people.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam both grow emotionally. They learn that they have strength of their own. They also come to grips with the fact that doing the right thing may have very bad consequences. In the case of Frodo, it meant he would never be able to enjoy the way of life he labored so hard to preserve.

Then there are examples of what not to do.

I’ve read lot of young adult fantasy lately, and in the process, read a lot of stories about a headstrong, well-meaning young person. In trying to solve whatever crisis she is facing, her impulsive actions make everything worse. Or her thinking that she, and she acting alone, is the only person who can save the day. Both of these scenarios have been done so often, they feel like clichés.

So writing a flawed young person needs to go beyond their own unwillingness to listen to advice that causes problems. Maybe it’s because they did try to follow someone else’s counsel, and some unforeseen calamity occurred. Or maybe they tried their best and just weren’t good enough.

Either way, it creates lots of room for growth.

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