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Posts tagged ‘beta readers’

Questions and Answers

Last week, I asked if there were any questions you had about “getting a book ready to head out the door.” You folks were awesome with the number of suggestions and questions you raised. I’m not going to try to answer all of them today. There were enough to make several posts. But I will deal with at least a few of them. Here goes. . . . Read more

Good Critic, Bad Critic

Last time I talked about dealing with the destructive inner critic, so I thought that today it might be worth mentioning that it’s not really a good idea to silence or ignore all the criticisms that float through your head. Some of them come from the useful critic, the one you definitely want to listen to. It’s not hard to distinguish them. The Bad Critic makes statements that are usually personal attacks, and are always designed to silence you. The Good Critic asks questions that spark ideas and help you improve the story.

There are lots of checklists of questions to ask yourself, but I don’t find these terribly useful. I prefer to take a step back from the story and see what floats into my head when I try to read it as a stranger might; when I sense a weakness in what I’ve written or recognize an old stumbling-block. A lot of them are things you might expect to hear from beta readers, but I don’t believe in counting on beta readers to fix problems I can catch for myself. Here, then, are some things I might hear from the Good Critic during the journey from initial idea to finished draft. Read more

Unwarranted Assumptions

Some men give their wives jewelry. Others proffer chocolates, or flowers. My husband? Gives me blog posts when he sees that I am tired, overwhelmed, and stretched to the snapping point. I started a post on covers, but after serving as referee in a three-sided sibling war (now, there’s the plot for a space dynasty saga) I was exhausted and listless. He surprised me with a post, and that means I get back a lost hour of sleep. So I’ll get the cover post done for next Saturday and you get a Reader writing on reading today. 

We all make assumptions about life “This is the way things are done”. The problem with that, especially for writers, is that our assumptions are sometimes wrong. For example, I recently read a story where a brother was offering his sister a morning glass of juice, which she refused because she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet. For most of us that is a jarring misdirection. We are taught in the U.S. to brush after meals, not before.

 

    There are many other things we take for granted that aren’t necessarily so. Many younger people assume that any girl can beat most boys physically because so much of our media tells them so. Even older adults often buy into that nonsense to a degree, those who see a FaceBook video with a young woman beating up the bikers molesting her is a prime example, many older men didn’t realize that it was an obviously scripted event that was physically impossible as shown.

  Even in our personal lives we learn things that just aren’t true, not for the majority. I used to think that all our social instructions through books and movies were deliberate misdirection. Our social norms say that men propose and women accept or reject. Every romantic movie seems to have a guy nervously proffering a ring and waiting with baited breath for the girl to say “Yes”. I knew that was false until I was in my mid thirties when I found out that it was probably true for the majority of people. I honestly though all men got proposed to three of four times a year on average, which fiction told us wasn’t true. Then I found out that it was true for most guys.

 

  Since we know that some of our assumptions are wrong it behooves us to keep this in mind when writing. If your hero thinks that he is weird because he is straight you’d better have a good bit of worldbuilding going on and be writing fantasy or deranged SF. Normal humans realize that homosexuals comprise a very small percentage of the population, not the majority.
   Similarly any other minority position in the real world cannot comprise the main thrust of your story without some given reason for believing it. A story with no men in it at all could happen, if you place  it in a convent or other limited slice of life that doesn’t contain the majority of the world. If your character doesn’t interact with the people of the opposite sex, or differing orientation that is fine. Having them not exist takes a lot of back story.

  Since we have to make assumptions to live go ahead and make them, just be aware that everyone may not share your particular assumptions and it may throw them out of the story. This is where writers need beta readers, to point out such oddities. And it is why the rest of us should be open to changing our minds if we find out our assumptions are wrong.

The Madness of Editing

I’ve reached that point in the construction of a novel where beta readers have kindly pored over my words, let me know what is wrong with my baby (nothing fatal, thank goodness) and now I have to pick out parts of the design and rework it. I tend to create metaphors for stories that akin them to tapestries, or needlework. It’s not like stone-carving, you can fix a mistake once it is made. Mind you, if you pick at one thereafter you might suddenly find yourself holding a whole lot of where-did-this-come-from and a plotline unravels before your eyes.

This book is a new experience for me. I started it as I always do, with a clear burst of story, a panoply of images in my head, i wrote feverishly… And that is where it went sideways. It took me two years to finish it. As an extreme pantser, keeping the story alive in my head that long was difficult. For one thing, when I first wrote what was then called Puppies in Space, I didn’t have any idea that I’d later write Jade Star, which turned out to not only be in the same universe, but a direct prequel (by a century, but a central character)  to the story in the re-titled Tanager’s Fledglings. Now, I am having to go over the beginning, which was intended to be a short story, and foreshadow the weight of the tale to come, the appearance (Midway through the book) of a very strong character, but not tie it so closely to Jade Star that TF won’t stand alone.

Editing is madness, I tell you. And it isn’t helped much by my starting work this week, slowing the editing to mere pages a day, and some of that conscious time spent re-reading what I did yesterday to get back into the story. It’s not that this job is tough, it’s demanding mentally and physically and I’m loving it, it’s just what I needed. It’s just… I’m a writer. I’ve spent the last few years either sitting in classes, or on my tuchis in front of a keyboard. My step-tracking app is telling me I’m doing between 4-6 miles a day. And on top of that, I’m learning new stuff daily, and this is Science (I really love this job, have I said that yet?) So if I screw it up, bad things will happen. So I’m focused on absorbing absolutely everything at once. That does not leave much room in the noggin for words.

Words are important when editing. I’m not the kind of writer who feels a need to massage her words into something elegant and refined. My characters aren’t that fancy and will give me funny looks. But I do feel the need to find the right word for the situation. Harder to do when you’re fog-brained.

On the other hand, editing is a process that requires you to read your own work, something I quite frankly am terrible at. I feel all self-concious and awkward. Like the first day at work when you are mostly trying to stay out of people’s way and not break something. Editing runs the risk of breaking the story. Keeping a light touch is just as important as finding all the necessary shadows to cast a faint outline of what is coming for your hero. Much of the story magic is made in the unconscious mind, and you have to trust that too.

I’ll keep this short today, because I’m rambling on. I’ll be at work today, but will check in when I get a lunch break, and again in the evening to answer comments. Play nice!

 

 

Indie does not mean Alone

I was talking with my mother the other day about writing and publishing. Mom is a good writer, and has nonfiction articles published, but not yet her fiction. I’m looking forward to her fiction being complete, and it’s not just that I’m biased toward my mom. But the conversation, and another comment I’d seen on social media, got me thinking. I’ve chosen an independent career, but that does not mean I operate alone.

As I am preparing a book for publication, it has already been read, commented on, edited, and not just by one or two other people. For this book I had an unusually high number of alpha readers. It had three, my First Reader, and two others I could trust not to blow smoke in my *ahem* but to tell me if they saw real problems. Most books don’t need that many – may not need any at all – but for this one where I was struggling with my confidence and inability to distance myself from the story, they are the only reason I finished it.

Once the book was finished in rough draft, I sent it off the beta readers. The comment I’d seen another author make, about only ever using two to three readers, always the same ones, and ones who wouldn’t steal the manuscript, rather boggled me. One, that height of paranoia bordering on arrogance… The manuscript is worth stealing, really?! And further, stealing when there is an easy record of who sent it to whom and when? But besides that pathology, there is a pitfall to using that few beta readers, and never changing them up. If life happens, and it will, you the author are left with even less feedback. And two to three readers is insufficient. Sarah Hoyt taught me years ago that you don’t make significant changes to a manuscript unless three people independently tell you of an issue. And you aren’t going to get that with a tiny reader pool. Also, solicit opinions outside your usual readers. If you can get someone who has never read your stuff before, that’s great! They are less likely to suffer from confirmation bias towards your work and can objectively assess it. I’m not saying send your book to all and sundry. But I am forever grateful to my beta reading pool, who have helped my writing more than they can ever know.

But it doesn’t stop there. From a cover artist, to editors, the Indie Author team is often made up of hired professionals, networked and bartered services, or some combination of those. But rarely does the author work completely alone, and when they do, it handicaps their work. If none but them see the book, they are going to be blindsided by bad reviews.

James Young, a great mil SF author and occasional guest post here, put out a terrific post on cover art, but the process he outlines for working with an artist, from price settings to contracts, is good stuff for working with any professional. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, as author and artist. Let me tell you, it’s not fun to shell out money you can’t really spare for work that never gets done. What he says about the PayPal friends payment, and no recourse? Ever wonder why I wound up becoming a cover artist? I didn’t have a choice – that money was gone, and I needed a cover, but couldn’t afford it at the time. It was a great lesson and led to good stuff for me, but it hurt. I’d rather you learn from my mistakes than repeat them. On the flip side, as an artist, I’ve done work, not collected a deposit, and been out money for supplies and a bunch of time when the author suddenly backed out. Lesson learned: don’t work with certain people and always collect a non-refundable deposit before starting work.

It’s a collaborative effort all the way, what we do. From writing groups to, well, the Mad Genius Club, the great thing about Indie Publishing is that you’re never alone. That’s why I don’t say I’m self-published. I may be pressing the button, but I have a team at my back. Sometimes I am part of that team behind an author. I get silly proud when I see my covers on great books hoping them sell well. I will always be there when someone who is struggling with their confidence about being a writer wants an ear to listen. I have friends who put up with me moaning about how this book is horrible, terrible, no good and will never be finished. In the past I’ve had writing groups and critique groups where I was anonymous (great for developing thick skin towards criticism) and prompt groups… All those people are a part of my path to publication. I’m not alone, and neither are you.

 

Q&A

Thanks to those of you who left blog post ideas. Some of you left ideas here and some on Facebook. There were a number of great suggestions and questions. I’ve decided to try to discuss some of then in a modified Q&A format. I probably won’t get to all the suggestions today, but I promise to file the rest away and deal with them in another post.

Q: How to handle multitasking and switching from writing to other types of writing or to editing or layout without getting tunnel vision on any one task?

A: I’ll admit, I rarely edit and write at the same time, at least not my own work. One thing Sarah told me long ago was not to edit my work until I finished the rough draft. The reason she told me this was because I was getting caught in an endless editing loop, something that happens to a number of new writers. Since then, I’ve learned that the only time editing my own work works before I finish the draft is if I have somehow written myself into a corner and can’t find a way out. Otherwise, I wait to edit until the story is done.

That isn’t the case when I am trying to edit someone else. The only caveat I have for that is I don’t edit the same genre I am writing in at the moment. The reasons are simple. I don’t want my “voice” to bleed over into my edits. As an editor, it isn’t my job to give a voice to the client’s work. Nor am I to try to change the voice. It is their story and not mine. In fact, if you have an editor — be it a content editor, copy editor or proofreader — trying to change the voice of your work, you need to look long and hard at what they are doing and why. Yes, there are times it might be appropriate to say a scene would be better from another person’s POV, but changing the voice of a character is completely different.

As for formatting, I tend to write in the format that will be converted to e-books. I’ve built a template that I will periodically tweak for genre and appearance but basically the format I write my rough draft in is exactly the same format you see in an e-book. Also, because I try to make sure my e-books look as close to the print versions as possible, it doesn’t take long to change page sizes and substitute section breaks for page breaks. Then it is just a matter of tweaking it to make sure everything is as it should be for print.

My biggest downtime any more is between projects, especially if I am changing genres. I’ve learned I have to take at least a week after I press the publish button to just recharge the batteries. Otherwise, I almost always have to go back and rewrite — majorly rewrite — what I tried to do before I made the mental switch from one book/genre to another.

Q: What is the importance of print versions of your work?

This is kind of a loaded question where there is no right answer. The truth of the matter is, most indie authors will never sell enough print books to really justify the time, effort and money needed to put them together. Before, when you could get an ISBN through Createspace for $10, it was worth it. But now, it is hard to justify it, to be honest. Yes, having a print book makes you look more “professional” when readers go to a book’s product page on Amazon, etc. However, with more and more readers going strictly digital, I’m not sure how important that is.

Then there is the belief that having your book printed and distributed through Ingram Spark will get you into the bookstores. No, it really won’t. Yes, you are listed in the catalog store buyers (think purchasing agents) see. But it is also, or at least it was, listed at the back in the section for indie authors. And, let’s be honest, most bookstore operators — ie, B&N — hate indies almost as much as they hate Amazon. As for the owners of locally owned bookstores, you have two things you have to do before you can worry about the stocking your book. The first is making sure you have a valid ISBN so you will be listed in Books in Print. The second, and more important, is you have to establish a close relationship with the person in that store who chooses what books they stock. That means spending time in the store — and spending money — as well as getting to know those who work there. Again, it is up to each indie author to determine if that is worth time.

There is one other thing to consider when it comes to print books. If you, the indie author, make the con circuit, having print books on hand to sell or even to just hand out may be a good thing. However, for every author who manages to actually make money selling books at a con, there are dozens more who don’t make the cost of the table rental back. Then you have to consider what the tax laws are in the city/state where the con is. You most definitely do NOT want to run afoul of those.

Frankly, right now, while I do still put out print books, it is more to make the product page look like a pro page. I work through Createspace and use the Amazon ISBN (free or relatively cheap. Haven’t done it in several months, so I’m not sure what it is right now). It will list Amazon as the distributor and will not be assigned to my imprint, Hunter’s Moon Press. But, it is listed in Books in Print and it is listed in such a way the local libraries can pick the book up and stock it if they want.

I am hearing rumblings that audio is really where we need to start focusing our attention. So I am in the process of trying that out.

Q: What is the difference between using beta readers and having your work edited?

This question came from Facebook and I’ve paraphrased it. But it is a good one and one that I see a lot of writers not understanding. A beta reader, for those not familiar with the term, is a lot like beta testers for software or computer games. It is someone who reads your work before the final edits. They tell you if the book works. They should let you know if something felt wrong to them. Some will focus on proofreading and you’ll get a manuscript back that looks like someone bled all over it — hint, I’ve discovered that most of the time when that happens, the person either isn’t as great at grammar and punctuation as they think or they don’t get that, in fiction, your characters don’t have to speak proper King’s English.

Anyway, your beta readers are there to see if there is anything broken in your book. Many times, they will catch consistency errors or science/engineering/weaponry/whatever errors. This is invaluable to a writer.

Where do you find beta readers? Here is where I may upset some folks. I recommend you not use family for beta readers, at least not unless you have several other non-relatives reading the same piece. Why? Because family will often try to cushion the criticism and that doesn’t help. You want someone who will be brutally honest with you. Someone who will tell you what didn’t work for them and why. If they are really good, they might even offer a way to fix the problem.

You can find beta readers from your critique group. You can ask on social media for volunteers. The caveat here is those who volunteer this way often will not get back to you. It really is sort of a trial and error until you find a few folks you can trust to give you solid feedback.

Another way I differ from some writers is I want one beta reader who isn’t a big reader in the genre of the current project. Why? Because I want to make sure I don’t rely so much on tropes that someone picking up the book because they liked something I wrote in another series or other genre will be able to be pulled into the story. If you rely too heavily on genre-specific tropes, you risk not being able to do that.

So what is the difference between a beta reader and an editor? A beta reader will usually only be looking at if the story grabbed them and kept their attention throughout the story. They will come back with suggestions or critiques but it is still based on their enjoyment or lack thereof. An editor has a different job based on what sort of editing they are doing.

As noted above, some beta readers will give you back a manuscript marked up for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. In other words, they will have acted as a proofreader. IF, and this is a big if, they are good at it, keep them. But take them out of the beta reading circle and give them the manuscript after it has been through the beta readers and editing cycle. They are the last eyes save yours you want to see your manuscript before publication. Believe me, you want to do this because, no matter how carefully you check your work, you will miss something and you will eventually get the review criticizing all the spelling errors or bad grammar etc.

Copy editing and content editing are two very different things. Copy edit is the step before proofreading. One of the most concise explanations of what a copy editor does comes from Wikipedia (which I normally hate but it fits here). A copy editor’s job is  “improving the formatting, style, and accuracy of the text. The goal of copy editing is to ensure that content is accurate, easy to follow, fit for its purpose, and free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.” They are your fact-checkers, your person who makes sure you don’t repeat things unless such repetition is necessary, and who removes all those words that really don’t add to the story.

Unfortunately, too many writers and so-called editors think copy editing is content editing and it isn’t. A good content editor will take your book, read it, be able to increase the impact of a scene by rearranging the order of sentences in a paragraph, etc. They are the doctor instead of the technician. Not every author needs a content editor because they have a solid grasp of story structure, pacing, foreshadowing, etc. If you don’t, then you need to consider finding a solid content editor to work with.

Each of these, from beta readers to content editors play an important role in letting us put the most professional product out possible. The more you network, the more resources you will find for all of these. The key is, especially if you are going to pay for services like proofreading or editing, is to get recommendations, to ask to see finished work by the person you are considering hiring and to check to see what you can find out about them online.

Finally, I’d like to add one more note. If you decide you want to go with a “real” publisher — and I’m not talking one of the established traditional publishers but a small press — check them out. Don’t just look at the usual resources like Preditors and Editors. Do a google search to see what you can find out about them. Do they have a website and does it look professional? What is their payment history? Ask yourself what they can do for you that you aren’t doing for yourself already. Look at their covers. Does the artwork look professional? How about the lettering? Do all the covers look the same, even if the books are different series or genres? Finally, don’t sign anything without letting an IP attorney look over the contract. That is a given for any publishing contract you are considering.

More later. Keep posting your questions in the comments to the previous post. I’ll do my best to answer them later.

 

Humor in Writing

Storyteller

Storyteller

Yesterday my body switched to “off” and left me feeling as though I couldn’t think straight, much less write. Sanford Begley offered to step up and write something for the Mad Genius Clubbers, which was very noble of him, considering he is somewhere at the headwaters of the River Nile when it comes to admitting that he can write. But I will let you judge for yourselves. Here, my friends, is a man who cultivates snark like fine orchids, an inverterate flirt, and a master of the lowest of humor. 

Hi! Cedar is not up to par so I’m teeing off for her today.  A few things about me, so you know how much weight to give what I’m going to say. I am not a writer, pay no attention to what most of the Mad Geniuses say. They share a group mind and one of them loves me so they all approve. I have however spent a lot of time with writers going back more than 30 years. I’ve been intimately involved with one for years. Lately I have been showing some signs of a knack for editing. All those things are not the place where I find the info for this post though. I am a voracious reader of everything and have been for years. Now you know how much weight to lay on my words so I’ll start.

Should you use humor in your writing? Absolutely! Or maybe not. The first thing you have to find out is, can you? Everyone has a sense of humor, unfortunately not everyone has a good sense of humor. There are people who find murder hilarious, most of us don’t. Well, there have been funny books about murder, but the act itself isn’t funny to most of us. Some people love slapstick, others prefer a more cerebral approach. What I am saying is, use humor but only if your target readers will enjoy it.

The above doesn’t mean you can’t use humor in a serious story. John Ringo kills off millions and leaves you laughing at times as he does. Sarah Hoyt writes mysteries with a gentle loving humor infusing all her characters, sometimes even the villains. Louis L’Amour did asides in his books talking about the language they used, mostly to inject humor. Every one knows that Terry Pratchett uses farce and absurd humor as the basis of his work. Erma Bombeck was the mistress of everyday life humor. The funny ones often talked about serious issues through their humor, the serious ones use it to break tension.

Some of you may have noted that I used a small, very small, joke to start this post.  It is traditional to start speeches with a joke. And while this isn’t a speech it doesn’t hurt to put levity in where you can. At least if you can do it well, and place it appropriately. A task much more easily said than done.

So, how do you know if you have placed it appropriately and done it well? The short answer is, you don’t. What you say in your writing is informed by your own unique experiences. Seeing someone get poked in the eye ala The Three Stooges may be hilarious to you, it will not be at all funny to others. Timing is part of it, jokes are funniest if they have an unexpected twist. People make good money to tell jokes. Others, like me, can sit and tell jokes for hours, some of them funny, some not. I have friends who cannot tell some of the jokes I tell and get even a half smile. Then they tell one of the ones I bomb with and the same people who didn’t laugh when I told it roll on the floor.

Now that I have made the prospect of humor as daunting as possible, I will let in a small ray of sunshine. There are things you can do to include humor in your writing and make it work. The first thing is to realize not everyone will get it. When I read John Ringo and David Weber’s We Few one of the major characters in the Empire was Admiral Helmut, Dark Lord of the Sixth Fleet. I didn’t get that joke for two years, never even realized it existed.

Another trick is to inflict the work on friends who read that sort of thing, but aren’t so close to you that they share the same in jokes. This is also called using beta readers. One of the things you need to do when you have beta readers is ask them. Did this joke work? Was that scene funny? Do you buy the one liners the hero is biting off as he is swarmed by Zombies?

And finally, trust yourself. If you hate your work, others will too. If you think a joke stinks there leave it out. If you want to add a silly monkey there just to break the tension go ahead. You will find your audience eventually and they will like it as well as you hope.

For a final statement on the topic I’ll quote a man who can tell jokes for hours. “I tell jokes, some are good, some are bad, some are corny enough to solve the bio-fuel crises by themselves. As long as people laugh more often than they boo I’ll keep pitching them.”