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On the difference between critics and beta readers.

Published September 12, 2019 by mandileighbean

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

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So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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On the ups and downs that inevitably come with change.

Published April 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

Hello, readers! I am super elated to be writing to you from the Sunshine State when I am taking in copious amounts of Vitamin D and time with family, both of which are essential to maintaining good health.

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I know I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, that you haven’t already experienced firsthand, but the universe in an incredibly fickle place, my friends. Like the late great Frank Sinatra once crooned, “You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May…” because that’s life. I was feeling optimistic about my life and the direction it is heading in until I tried to be honest with someone I loved and the person was dismissive and manipulative, and then I attended a beautiful wedding where I had so much fun I am still sore (and maybe even still drunk), but there was an empty chair beside me. I am on vacation but flinch when I pass a mirror. This all may seem melodramatic and stylized, but E.L. Doctorow once said, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.”

So what’s a girl to do?

Life changes moment to moment; nothing lasts forever and the trick is reminding myself that I believe that’s a good thing. There needs to be some kind of karmic, cosmic balance. You take the good, you take the bad, and then you have the facts of life … right? As corny and clichéd as these quotes may seem, I really think it’s an essential part of survival. People grow and change, so why shouldn’t circumstances? Why do we have this desire to nest and be stuck and comfortable and complacent? Isn’t the discomfort with the progress?

I’m thinking about change (and by extension, the lack thereof, I suppose) not only because of events in my personal life, but because of happenings in my professional life as well. This blog post is supposed to be all about change, like I’m supposed to discuss how my writing has evolved. I had a really wonderful conversation with my creative writing students a couple of weeks ago. It ended with a student-teacher they are convinced is a pimp and a werewolf with some stunning and compelling evidence (he was in a three-piece suit with a pink shirt underneath, with impossibly voluminous hair, and his hands were covered in silver rings which, according to my students, kept him from changing into his true self, a werewolf), but we also talked about scrutinizing our past selves. One of my edgier and more alternative students shared photos on her old social media accounts, where she constantly wore beanies she now dislikes and drew cat whiskers on her face with eyeliner. She was absolutely mortified by the fact that she had gone out in public like that, that people had seen her. I confessed some of my more embarrassing juvenile blunders (as in dressing and looking like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance for an entire year, on purpose) but luckily for me, there was no social media. I think there was MySpace, but everyone was new to pasting ourselves all over the internet so none of us really had anything to be proud of, and now, we all have something to be ashamed of.

But the conversation got me thinking of how we change as time marches on and how more often than not, we’re embarrassed by our past selves. Is it because we’re older and wiser? Or are we just adapting to the social norms and continuing to conform? Don’t you think there’s a certain kind of fleeting bravery in teenagehood, where we truly don’t give a shit and are thereby truly free? Either way, I believe it’s a universal experience to look back at something you were super passionate about and cringe. It happens to the best of us.

This happens when I look back on my first novel, Her Beautiful Monster. That does not mean I am not proud of that novel, because I most certainly am. I think it’s entertaining as hell and there are some turns of phrase in there that are beautiful and fresh and remind me that I have talent. However, at the same time, there are passages that embarrass me. I was so naïve to the whole business of writing, and as far as my personal life goes, I had yet to experience any of that character-building stuff known as heartbreak. I was too young to know better, and sometimes, I catch myself believing that ignorance really is bliss. The more I read, and the more I get to know other wonderful writers, I can feel defeated, like it’s never ever going to happen to me. On my worst days, I tell myself my first novel was a fluke, that the publisher was young and desperate like me, and it was good for the moment but that my writing career has no real longevity. I don’t have any real talent and people were just being nice.

My writing since that first novel has evolved, and that makes me happy and proud. I’m not looking just to entertain, although I hope that will always be my main objective. I have some important things to say, some wisdom to impart, and I’m more cognizant of my process and choices. That last bit is a double-edged sword, though, because I can get in my own way. Instead of letting my hands fall to the keyboard, or instead of just putting pen to paper, I overthink it and make my storytelling more complicated than it has to be because of some critique someone offered years ago.

“Moody Blue,” my second completed manuscript, might never be published. And that would be my own damn fault. I sent it out too early and without any real revisions. The first draft was a god-awful mess. This summer, I might change the title and send it back out, see what happens. Or should I just focus on this new story that I’m working on? It’s so hard to tell and on any given day, I can convince myself that either option is best.

I am so fucking annoying to myself.

But let me end on the positive: my writing has evolved to become more unique to me. My plots are better developed and my characters are more authentic.

Will it be enough to get published? I wonder…

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