Beta Readers: What are they & why do I need them?

#amwriting #amediting #revise

First of all, as with Critique Partners, you’ll notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them. Period. So what are they and how do you get them?

First you might ask: how does a Beta Reader differ from a Critique Partner? Both are all about helping you create the best story or novel you can. Critique partners usually focus on the “bones” of your manuscript, looking at grammar, sentence composition, punctuation. In other words, all of the elements that make your story function, that make it easy to understand and to read.

A Beta Reader’s job, on the other hand, is to look at the big picture: are there plot threads that got lost? did a character do something unexpected and unexplained? Are the characters likable (or at least identifiable) at the beginning as well as at the end? did you overlook something that seemed to be important in the thrilling denouement? are there unanswered questions in the reader’s mind when they get to the end? is there anything about your story that seems impossible or improbable?

While some of these questions may have been answered by your critique partners, there are probably some things that don’t become obvious until the work is read as a whole. Critique partners often swap a few chapters or a given number of pages at a time; Beta Readers are normally asked to read the entire story at once, and base their judgments on the entire manuscript.

books stack

Beta Readers don’t necessarily need to be writers, but they should be avid readers with an interest in your genre. The Beta Reader can be given a list, similar to the one you gave your Critique Partners, so that she or he knows what specific feedback you’re looking for. While neither a critique partner nor a Beta Reader should ever be sent a first draft of a story, Beta Readers should be given the final version: after your critique partners have finished and you’ve made all applicable changes. They get the version that you would deem good enough to send to a publisher. The Beta Readers are the final step in the chain to make sure your story is publication-ready.

As with the critiques you’ve received previously, your work is your own: no matter what feedback you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your beta readers – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.

So, how does one find a Beta Reader? Again, if you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “beta readers”. Twitter and Tumblr also offer connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, beta readers are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.

Did you use a beta reader’s services? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.

Next: what to do if the relationship with your critique partner or beta reader doesn’t work out …

Critique Partners: What are they & why do I need them?

#amwriting #amediting #revise

First of all, notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them, and they need you. So what are they and how do you find them?

A critique partner is someone who reads your manuscript after you’ve gotten it to a somewhat polished state. A critique partner should never be given the first draft of your novel (unless that’s the arrangement you’ve made with them up-front). Don’t expect a critique partner to do your work for you. Do your spell-check, check the grammar rules, and make your manuscript as good as you can without independent feedback.

Yes, independent. As in, not your mother, your best friend, or your great-aunt Sadie.

books glasses

The best critique partners are people who also write, and normally critiquing is a give-and-take situation. They critique your work, you critique theirs. It’s often best to pair up with someone who writes in the same genre as you do. I’ve had critique partners who write in other genres who have been an enormous help to me, but I’ve noticed that writers in my genre have been a little more specific about their suggestions, because they understand the wants and needs of the genre better.

So, what does a critique partner look for? That’s largely up to you. You can agree upon any or all of the following services:

  • Grammar check (with or without punctuation)
  • Sentence construction (varying lengths of sentences; repetition in the openings of sentences)
  • Cliche identification
  • Fact checking
  • Plot consistency, resolution, & pacing
  • Consistent characterization
  • Excessive back-story or descriptive scenes
  • Showing vs telling
  • Any other area where you feel your skills are not as strong as they could be

When you list a want ad for a critique partner, offer your own skills honestly. If you’re not a grammar maven, that’s okay – just don’t say you are. If you’re a danged good researcher, offer fact-checking as one of your strengths. Whatever your skill level, you want to team up with someone who needs your skills and who offers what you need. And make sure it’s someone who wants as much work done as you do: if one of you is doing significantly more work, chances are that person will soon be feeling a little resentful.

The most important thing about critiquing is to be kind. Be honest – no need to tell a lie – but couch your criticisms in kind words. You are offering an opinion on a manuscript that someone else has taken months or years to create. Say anything that needs to be said, but don’t say it in a way you wouldn’t want to hear applied to your own work.

The second most importing thing is to be constructive. “I didn’t like Chapter 3” is not a critique. “I felt like the plot moved slowly in Chapter 3” is better; “In Chapter 3, my attention wandered due to the amount of back-story” is even better. Be precise, give a specific idea of what’s amiss, and be sure to add praise when the story exceeds your expectations. If Chapter 3 is slow, but Chapter 4 is perfectly paced, be sure to mention Chapter 4 in your critique of Chapter 3.

But remember, the critique you’re giving is only your opinion: your partner has absolutely no obligation to accept it. And vice-versa. Your work is your own: no matter what critique you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your partners – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.

So, how does one find a critique partner? If you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “writing critique partners”. Twitter also offers connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, critique partners are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.

Did you use a critique partner service? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.

Coming next: Beta Readers …

DEFINING GENRE: or when is a Western not a Western?

One of the most difficult things about writing fiction is deciding on a genre, particularly when your work hits several of them tangentially.

For instance, my style is more literary than contemporary.  But the Literary genre requires more than a literary style.  It identifies character-driven stories that explore the reactions of characters to universal situations, situations often fraught with emotion.

In the broad sense, my novel WHISPERS IN THE CANYON does those things, but some would not label it as Literary Fiction because there is too much resolution.

What do I mean by “too much resolution”?  Literary Fiction is focused on making the reader do some deep thinking, and usually leaves at least one open question in the reader’s mind.  My novels are character-driven and, at the end of the books, the major conflict is resolved. However, there are questions left open pertaining to the future of the characters and how deeply the issues will affect them going forward.

On the other hand, most genre fiction has a definite set of rules to follow.  A Western, for instance, is plot-driven, and will usually flow this way: hero cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town.  A twist on that involves a woman, sometimes posing or dressed as a man, fighting obstacles to win the guy/ranch/revenge.

Now I realize this is very simplistic view of a plot and many variations are possible, but most Westerns will follow this formula.  And just as Romance readers expect a happy ending, most Westerns readers will expect the formula to be followed, at least to some degree.

So how is my novel, set in the 1880s Arizona Territory, not a Western?  To start with, the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement.  The cowboy wins the girl (and the ranch) very early on.  However, the repercussions of the dead outlaw’s deeds figure prominently in the story until the very end.  And to top it all off, the hero manages to create a situation that threatens both his happiness and that of his woman.

So to sum up, a novel that’s set in the Old West but that deviates from the expected norm is, by definition, not a Western.  WHISPERS IN THE CANYON is a Literary novel set in a Historical time period and most definitely not a Western.

 

Those Lowdown, Lonesome Query Blues

How does it happen? How is it that this perfectly written, perfectly polished, perfectly appealing manuscript of mine gets so little positive attention?

Of course I’m kidding. First of all, I know that nothing’s perfect. Secondly, I know that nothing will appeal to everyone. How many book are there that I haven’t taken out of the library? Tens of thousands. How many authors have I read once and not returned to, because they weren’t “my cup of tea”? Hundreds. How many times have I started reading a book and put it down before I finished? Well, that last number is probably 3 — I’m pretty optimistic that even the most unappealing work will eventually get better. After all, it did find a publisher!

Which, at this point, is more than mine has. I’m still trying to snag an agent. And that’s not as easy as I thought it might be when I started my quest.

Specifically, the number of rejections I’ve had on my query letter just hit 30. I think this is a milestone — it shows both that (a) traditional publishing is indeed a subjective business, and (b) that I’m persevering in spite of the obstacles. One I can’t do anything about, the other I can be proud of.

As I review the rejections, I’m struck by one thing: in an industry that requires absolute adherence to the guidelines in a query letter, there’s no cut-and-fast standard for responses. I’ve received everything from a 4-word text (“Thanks not for us”), to extremely helpful critiques from agents who enjoyed my work and wanted me to know specifically why they passed on it. I’ve mentioned a couple of those letters here previously and I’ve used the advice in all of them to improve my story.

Most letters are either kind or professional; even the form letters have thanked me for considering the agent. But a couple have registered pretty high on the rudeness scale. So how do I keep from getting aggravated, depressed or outraged?

Frankly, sometimes I don’t. But I try to keep those times to a minimum and go on to something that’s going to help me a lot more than grousing. Recently I’ve begun to send out two more query letters for every rejection I get, and two more for every query that hits its “expiration date” with no agent response. That way, each rejection turns into two new prospects for publication.

And I constantly remind myself that really great authors have received just as many, just as awful rejection letters to their masterpieces. Did you know that Rudyard Kipling once received a letter telling him he “didn’t know how to use the English language”? Emily Dickinson was told her work was “devoid of true poetical qualities“. Chicken Soup for the Soul received over 100 rejections, while the first Harry Potter book was rejected 14 times. Ouch! In the long run, I bet it didn’t hurt as much to get those letters as it did to send them!

So I thought I might try my hand at writing a rejection — specifically a rejection of a classic novel. I decided to turn Jonathan Swift’s delightful irony around; I’ve taken cues from responses I’ve received, included a few digs of my own, and created the following rejection letter for Gulliver’s Travels.

Dear Dr. Swift;

Thank you so much for your query, but we’re going to decline at this time. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your project, however, your characters didn’t seem realistic. A ships’ surgeon who gets involved in shipwrecks? People who wage war for no reason? Where on earth did you get those ideas? And talking animals — well, it’s pretty cliché. You’re beating a dead horse there.

In addition, it is considered quite rude to refer to vertically-challenged folks as anything other than “little people”. I do so wish that you authors would observe the current conventions and mores.

I would also recommend researching “limited third-person POV”. Rather than hopping from one character’s thoughts to another’s, you should write your story from the point of view of a single character. Granted, this can be quite challenging at times when the character is unconscious, but rules are rules after all.

We also encourage you to gather beta readers and critique partners to help hone your craft; their suggestions can be invaluable, and you might have avoided some of the aforementioned pitfalls by seeking them out. Please keep reading writers’ advice booklets, taking writing courses, and study some books on writing well. And practice your writing — it is a learned skill.

Or perhaps consider that this business may not be for you.

Thank you for considering us for your work and we wish you well in the future.

Sincerely,

Bud I. Donhafacloo
Snobb & Bish Literary Agents

So tell me, have you received a rejection letter that made you wonder why you should keep going? Do you want to try your hand at rejecting a classic? Submit your “G-Rated” letters below — and have a ball!

Contest News: DFW WRiTE CLUB

The annual DFW WRiTE CLUB competition is going on right now!

Choose any 500-word passage from your unpublished story or poetry and submit it before the April 31st deadline, and you could win  FREE ADMISSION TO THE DFW CONFERENCE IN DALLAS FOR 2016,  plus a professional critique of your work  AND  a $75.00 Amazon gift certificate.

For complete instructions, rules, etc., click here.

This opportunity won’t come around again until 2016, so enter now!

UPDATE: Submissions are now closed. I did get my three entries in, and am now awaiting news of the first round winners on May 18th. Join us for the fun of this March Madness style tournament!

Character Exercises: Personality quizzes

What a great idea — I bet we all could learn a little more about our characters! Who knows what new story it might lead to?

Captain (Query) Hook

There are personality quizzes all over the Internet. You’ve probably taken some of them yourself.

But have you ever tried answering the questions as if you were one of your characters? I totally recommend this approach. It forces you to really get inside the character’s head and think like they do. You may have to consider aspects of the character’s personality that you never would have even considered before.

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The Goal

Ever since the New Year, it seems everyone has been talking about “The Goal”. January was a month of promises and optimism; in early February the glitter started to wear off; and now at the beginning of March, so many lament.

With writer friends, specifically, the goals set up were so many words and so many chapters, so much editing and so many queries. The goals were strenuous, Herculean, all but impossible unless every other little thing fell into place. Then life happened.

Now, the laments are for too few words/chapters, not enough editing, too many rejections. In a word, failure.

One lament in particular made me look inside myself and wonder: where was I when all these goals were being established and paraded around? Why am I sitting here now with no lost goal to lament?

The answer is both simple and complex.

I find that I don’t understand the “goal” as a calculated end result. I don’t sing because Pharrell is going to make me a superstar. I sing because the song is in me. I write because the stories leap to my throat and must find their way to reality.

For me, the “goal” is the writing. Yes, I’d love to be published and I’m working on that as hard as I can. Writing is like singing the song — publishing is winning The Voice. Being too old, too sick, too “retro” to appear on The Voice will never make me stop singing. Being rejected for (insert reason) is not going to make me stop writing.

Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps my world is upside down. Or backwards. All I know is that I’m going to make my story the Chateaubriand of stories. Clean my plate, polish it off, and maybe I’ll get Publishing for dessert.

But the goal remains the same — the story must be told.

I understand weariness. I understand the urge to surrender. I understand getting up every day wondering how on earth I’ll find my way through the pain today. And, yes, every once in awhile I give in. I lay in bed and wallow in it. But I. will. not. let. it. win.

Will I find an agent? Maybe. Will my stories be published? Could happen. I’m doing my best every day to make that dream come true.

But, agents and publishing aside, and whatever the pain (physical or metaphysical) is, there is still just this one goal: the story needs to be told.

Slainte!

Bad News, Good News (2)

I got another personalized rejection in response to a query letter recently. If you remember, the first agent liked the characters and plot of WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, but she felt my writing was too brusque. I’ve taken steps to correct that.

The new agent likes my writing and the plot, but rejected it because she did not “connect with the characters” within the first few chapters. And that, to me, is a much more critical problem.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I shared the results with a good friend, also a writer, who read the first few chapters for me and felt the problem might be too much backstory. The portions of these chapters that told the family history were too long. They interrupted the flow of the story and prevented the characters from becoming the centerpiece of it.

Her recommendation was to remove some of it and “sprinkle” it through the later chapters.

“Sprinkle”. I really like that concept. Like you do for the lawn. If you just put the hose out there on the lawn, a small portion of it will be waterlogged, while the rest suffers drought. But if you set the sprinkler up to reach the entire lawn, all of it will be healthily saturated.

So I am again editing, and this time, I’m sprinkling the family history around. Perhaps the next agent who requests pages will find them irresistible. I live in hope.

Slainte!  And a tip of the Stetson to T. C. B. (You know who you are!)