Beta Reading 101

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading this year.

Okay, yeah, I’ve been doing more beta reading this year than ever before, and I’ve learned a lot. I have writer friends now whose work I’m eager and happy to read. Plus, I’ve had more finished projects of my own this year, so I’ve needed more beta readers of my own—and hunting for reliable readers for your work is always a worthy challenge.

I KILL YOUR PLOT LIKE IT’S THE SHINY RED DOT.

There’s more to beta reading than just reading. If you really want to help the author, you need to keep a few things in mind. And authors, if you want to get good critique partners and beta readers, you should help them to help you.

1. Know what kind of feedback the writer wants/needs. If this is draft two of five, line editing isn’t going to help that much. On the other hand, if they’re about to submit this work to a publisher, a suggestion for a huge plot change might cause a meltdown of epic proportions. I’m not telling you not to be honest here: by all means, mention the flaw in the plot if you find one. If you find only one typo in the whole work, be sure to flag it.  But I’m telling you not to waste their time or yours by searching for edits they don’t need and won’t incorporate.

2. Read quickly. If it takes you six month to read someone’s work, you’re not helping them. (Unless they say that’s fine.) Plus, if you read that slowly, you’re going to forget details of character and plot, and you’re not going to be able to offer thorough feedback.

3. Read with the author’s voice in mind. It may be tempting to make changes to word choice, imagery, or other stylistic aspects, but that’s not really your job. Unless such an element hits appallingly far from the mark, resist the urge to make suggestions about voice. This is the author’s baby, not yours, and what you think is clever they might fine lame.

4. Read like an editor, but keep a more general audience in mind. Your typical reader of a novel pays attention to four big things: character, motivation, plot, and pace. They want to like the protagonist and her friends, fall in love with her boyfriend, and hate her boss. They want to understand why the protagonist makes the decisions she does, why the antagonist works so hard to thwart her, and root for the choices the protagonist makes. They want an exciting, surprising (but still believable) plot, and they want it to unfold at a pace that keeps them turning pages. Part of your job is to help the writer make all these things happen for their readers.

5. Be honest, but gentle. If the book sucks, don’t say, “YOUR BOOK SUCKS!” That’s like bitch-slapping a puppy. Writers are vulnerable. Be nice. Say what didn’t work for you, and why. Give suggestions for improvement. The flip side of this hot potato (yep, mixing metaphors on purpose!) is that you can’t help an author if you’re not honest, and sometimes that requires a little brutality. If something doesn’t work, they need to know so they can fix it. Just remember to be kind and helpful in your brutality. Like a dentist.

6. Explain your reasoning. Do this for both negative comments and positive. Authors need to know what works as much as they need to know what doesn’t, and telling them why you liked the parts of their book you liked will help them see what is good in their work. Likewise, explaining why things don’t work will help them improve. Plus, you seem like a jerk if you don’t explain. And no one wants to be a jerk.

7. Remember that subjective taste plays a huge role in this business. The character you hate may be some other reader’s dreamboat. This is part of why you need to explain your reasoning—it will help the author sift through feedback and determine what changes she actually needs to make, and how. Ask yourself how much your suggestions hinge on your personal taste, and alter them accordingly.

8. Don’t take it all so personally! This goes for both readers and writers. Readers, this work is the author’s baby, and there’s no way they’re going to perform every piece of plastic surgery on it that you suggest. Their ideal here is more important than yours. And writers, remember that your betas (generally!) are here to help, not to sabotage you. These criticisms aren’t actually insulting the fruit of your loins: they’re critiquing, as a potential consumer, a piece of commercial work. Your work will be better for your readers’ help.

And finally…

HUGS AND PUPPIES FOR ALL! Critique partners, generally, are friendish (not to be confused with fiendish) sort of folks. Do your work, then have a laugh and get a beer. These relationships are important. You’ll move on to another piece of work, and a good CP will be there to read that one, too.

I lurve you, CP!

How to Be a Helpful Critic

I had a big post planned today on the women of Supernatural, but I’m sad to say a beloved cat of mine passed away this morning. She was 19—we’d been friends since I was 8—and lived a happy life, but I’m obviously heartbroken all the same. So instead of new content today, I’m reposting one of my most popular posts of all time, which originally ran in December 2010. Enjoy!

I’ve been thinking this week about how writers help each other. This thread over on Reddit, specifically this comment, made me wonder if we’re doing ourselves any favors.

While I realize that there are writing groups who help and support one another, many writers who try to help other writers do more harm than good. I’ll be bold and throw something out there: inexperienced critics fall into two camps, neither of them particularly helpful. We’ll call them the enablers and the hypercritics.

Enablers encourage bad habits in other writers in order to justify their own bad habits. I tell you it’s okay that your first novel will be 300,000 words, because then it makes it okay that my book will be 200,000 words. We’re so nice that we hurt each other rather than help. The enabler will tell you that your space-vampire-steampunk-erotica is really good and that the world needs more space-vampire-steampunk-erotica, just like it needs more space-werewolf-steampunk-erotica, which, incidentally, is what they’re writing right now. Or they’re the people who are so timid in their criticism that they won’t tell you when something doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes things just don’t work, and saying, “It didn’t work for me,” doesn’t help the writer. Critiquing is already so subjective that saying, “It’s probably just me that didn’t like it,” gives the writer an excuse to say, “Well, that’s just him. Other people will appreciate it!”

Hypercritics attack other writers to make themselves feel better. I call your work a load of crap because that makes me superior to you, and if I’m superior to you, then I’m definitely a better writer than you, and I’ll get published way sooner than you do. Hypercritics will also latch onto your use of voice in first person and trash it for the fussiest reasons, because they’re insecure about their own first person voice, or they don’t like first person, or because that’s the only thing they feel confident enough about to criticize.These are the people who, once published, tell you how impossible it is to get published, and talk about ‘wannabes’ and ‘professionals’ in a condescending tone of voice. There are writing forums filled with hypercritics: avoid them like the plague. Yes, it’s hard to get published, and yes, it’s good to be realistic, but don’t piss on someone’s dream!

What kind of a critic are you? I’ve been known to act as both. I tell people it’s okay that their book is too long because my book is too long, and I make fun of people who attempt a ‘literary’ voice because I’m not brave enough to do it.

And look: I just hypercriticized my criticism, but it’s okay, because I don’t have a lot of practice.

Paranoia

There’s a Lacuna Coil song called “When a Dead Man Walks” that runs,

Paranoia
In which I think I’m not that confident
A tiny hope that burns into my breath
A bitter smile delights me at the end

But I don’t look back…

This song has been stuck in my head for a couple of days.

Why? On Friday, I finished a fairly solid second draft of Shaken and sent it out to about 10 beta readers. (I rolled with sending it to everyone who asked for it, figuring from some of my blog-readers’ experience that only about half of those beta-readers would even finish the book, let alone give me feedback.) I was excited, giddy even, glad to have earned a break from the book and eager to get some feedback.

On Saturday, I woke up at about 7 a.m., sat straight up in bed, and said, “What have I done?!”

I’d sent my baby out to almost a dozen people, some of them practically strangers! It was like I’d sent them all naked pictures of myself or something! I was crazy to ever think I could write a novel! My plot was stupid, my main character too unlikable! I didn’t warn anyone that it’s R-rated, and I didn’t tell my San Francisco-based friend just how much I’d violated the geography of that lovely city! The world will end if someone notices that I put a hotel on a coast that has no hotel!

I’m sure you fellow writers have your own version of that speech memorized.

Terrified, I got up at that unholy weekend hour, only to find a message from one of my lovely new beta-readers. She’d stayed up all night reading the book and had loved it. My ego could go soundly back to sleep… of course I’ve been too nervous about it since then to even pretend I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

By now, I’ve gotten some more positive feedback, but here’s the nutty thing: It hasn’t helped.

What if they’re just being nice? What if they don’t know me well enough to tell me they hate it? What if they’ve actually been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by doppelgangers who say only nice things? How can I stand not knowing?!

Exactly.

Suddenly the whole submission process has gotten unbelievably real. Yes, I wrote this book and created this character, but I have to let it and her go out into the world and make her own way. I can’t protect it: I can’t tell people how to read it or what to look for. But like the song says, I can’t look back. If I want to proceed with this, I have to let the book go.

I brought up paranoia because I’ve been doubting the good things I’ve heard, preparing myself for the absolute worst, because I know it’s still out there. Rejection is inevitable.

Is it paranoia, then? Or am I being smart, trying to protect myself from getting hurt? I really can’t say.

To the writers out there: How did you feel when you first let people read your novel? Were you terrified? Confident? What did you do to stay busy while you awaited feedback?

My plan is to work on my balcony-garden, do some beta-reading myself, and start writing the materials for a seminar I’m teaching this summer. That was the plan. In reality, I’ve mostly been watching Downton Abbey.

On Loving and Letting Go

Bonus blog post!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first novel lately. (I love that I can say first. Happily, none of the following applies to my second novel.) I started reading it back in December, and some of those early chapters are… well… they’re not good.

Readers, between you and me, some of it is just plain bad. I was still finding my feet and my voice, and failing to find some other metaphorical-anatomical parts I shan’t mention.

Other parts of it are pretty good, though.

Still, it needs more than a polish. It needs a new engine, a new chassis, and to be completely ripped apart and put back together with new, shiny paint on the outside… and unfortunately the paint-and-polish part comes last.

So what am I going to do?

As tempted as I am to just chuck the whole 215,000 words into the trash —it would be a write-off, after all, since that’s almost a quarter of my million bad words—and start fresh with the story, I’m not actually going to pitch the whole thing. I need to read all of it, to see what I did well in addition to what I did poorly. Some of it could probably go into the new version of the book.

But here’s the big thing: I’m going to break it into a trilogy.

Yes, I’m doing that which I said I never would. It’s a big story, more than I really should have tried to handle for my first book, but no new writer ever listens to that advice. Each character’s plot needs more development, and there’s no way I could do that in a single novel.

Still, it’s going to be a secondary project. Right now my focus is on Shaken. I need to work on a snazzy second draft, get it to some beta readers, and begin the Great Agent Hunt. Mitzy’s a strong character, I’m told the voice is good and funny. With some polish, I think Shaken could do well.

Here’s hoping.

Ever ditched a big project? Did it bum you out, or give you the same weird feeling of empowerment that I have right now?

The Bad Words

No, I’m not talking about the four-letter variety. I mean those proverbial million bad words that every writer has to write before getting published.

Whether or not you buy into the million bad word theory, you have to admit that most of our early writings are pretty bad. I started skimming over Conspiracy today as I was starting the Great Transfer from Word to Scrivener (headache and a half, BTW), and some of the early stuff is just appalling. It makes me cringe. Adverbs, glances in the mirror, distant viewpoint… oh, it’s so bad, some of it.

A tiny part of me wants to say, “The hell with it!” and just rewrite the whole damn thing from scratch without ever looking at the first draft.

That’s not a productive thing to do, though, and I’ll tell you why.

I started a new job today. It’s part-time at a small gifts, jewelry, and et cetera store, right on our town’s lovely little square. I enjoy shopping at this store, and I think I’ll like working there. I’m old-hat at retail, too, so I’m learning the ropes without too much hair-pulling.

But every time anyone starts a new job, there is much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing. You inevitably charge someone too much, make an ass of yourself, and can’t find the socks in a shoe department, just because you’re new at the job. It’s horrible, you’re rushing around like a kid on field day at school, and nothing adds up.

A few months later, you look at those days and grimace. Thing is, though, you would never have become competent at your job without those awkward headless chicken moments.

The early words in a novel are like those early days at a job. You’re getting your feet under you, learning your characters’ voices, figuring out where the socks are and who needs them.

I feel this metaphor is unraveling as my cold medicine wears off, so I’ll wrap it up with this: You have to learn from the bad words. Don’t ignore them, or you’ll never figure out why they’re bad. Just let them teach you how your novel works, and in few more drafts, no one will ever know they existed.

Is that a Run in My Story?

Oh, pantyhose. I had to wear pantyhose at my first job. I worked in the junior’s section at a department store in small-town Texas, helping old ladies buy Tommy Hilfiger clothes for their teenage daughters. One time an old guy asked me to try on clothes for him so that he could “see what they would look like on his daughter.” Yeah, right. I said no, and he approached another sales associate. Eventually the managers banned him the store.

I’m not sure why I told that anecdote. I guess I’m setting the scene.

Yikes. There's no hope for her.

Anyway, you ladies (and gents, perhaps) who have worn pantyhose should know that moment when you first spot a tiny hole in the fabric. Just one small spot where you see bare flesh peeking out through the iridescent fleshy fabric. And you know you’re doomed. Because one tiny hole stretches, and it creates another, and another, all the way up the leg, a tiny ladder of destruction revealing that you haven’t actually shaved your legs in like a week.

This same principle applies to stories, too.

You’re writing happily along when you realize you’ve forgotten something. Maybe you put a gun on the mantelpiece and then ignored it. Maybe you changed your mind about something, flagged the places where you would need to make the alterations, and wrote on without actually fixing it. Whatever you did, the holes run all the way back to the beginning of your story.

I know that my first book is full of runs at least as bad as those in the photo. I changed my mind about the plot several times as I was writing, and I floundered in the middle trying to get to an ending I hadn’t anticipated. One character took her story by the balls and went wild. Another got a little confused when things didn’t go his way. (Like how I blame them, when it’s indisputably my fault?)

Knowing about those holes has kept me from starting the editing process. I’ve intended all week to move the silly thing over to Scrivener from Word, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s a lot of work, and I’m afraid I’ll discover I have to pitch the pair of pantyhose that is my novel.

It would be so easy to give up. We know that nothing can fix that doomed pair pantyhose. Some people say apply clear nail polish to stop the run before it gets ahead. But I’ve tried that, and I still had to go to the eight-grade Christmas dance with an embarrassing hole in my black stocking. Sometimes things just can’t be fixed.

Still, there is hope. Novels are not pantyhose: even a thousand runs do not necessarily mean the trashcan. Sometimes we may have to ditch whole chunks of our writing, thousands of words that will get tucked away into “If only…” or “What was I thinking?” folders. Sometimes we have to start over from scratch. But the seed of the story, that little nugget of potential remains.

You just have to find the right way to tell it.

Early NaNoWriMo Lessons

Well, three days and 8000 words in, and I’ve already learned a few things.

Day one started on a low note (“But… I’m sleepy… I don’t want to work!”) and ended on a high note (“Woo! This is gonna be awesome! I just wrote a great scene!”). The high note carried into day two, but didn’t carry me through, and yesterday ended on a very low note (“I’m tired… I went to the eye doctor today… I’ve done a week’s worth of writing in two days! Is it December yet?”).

Today I needed a shake-up, and that’s how I realized what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Seeing people is good. I hadn’t really left my apartment in four days, except for the brief unpleasant trip to the eye doctor, so I was going a little Shining stir-crazy. Today I went to Barnes and Noble to write at Starbucks, and the simple change of scenery–plus a healthy dose of caffeine–helped with the crazies. I knocked out a thousand words there and a thousand words at home after lunch no problem.
  2. I edit a lot. I never realized before how much I edit as I go. Very rarely do I see a poorly constructed or just plain bad sentence in my rough drafts, because I rewrite as I go. This is what makes me a slow writer compared to some, I think.
  3. I can silence the Inner Editor by defying her. On day one, I made a tiny grammatical error. I started to go back and change it, then realized what I was doing. I stared at the error. It stared at me. I wrote a new sentence… and moved on with the scene. Oh horror of horrors, I left it there! And the Inner Editor shut her mouth when she realized that I’m the boss.
  4. I am lazy. Writing 3000 words every day has been strenuous, but 2000 a day? No problem. I’ve written in the last three days what might normally take me two weeks. That’s just absurd. After this month is over, I’m leaving the 1000 word per day goal in the kiddie leagues where it belongs.
How’s your NaNoWriMo trek going? Learned anything about your own process yet?