Anyone Interested in Beta Reading?

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This month, I’ve finally gathered up enough energy to get back into my revision of Cliff with No Edge, and I’m just flying through! I’m pretty confident I’ll have it ready for beta readers by the first week of October. Very exciting!

But that also means I better send out a call and start compiling my list of willing test subjects readers. And you, lucky friend who just happens to be within my social media sphere, qualify! If you have any interest, please read on for more details.

Here’s how it works:

Beta readers agree to read the nearly-finished draft of my novel and give me comments to help improve it. There are no special requirements – beta readers need only be people who like to read and who want to help me improve my book.

I will send out a list of questions along with the book. These questions are there to answer specific questions I have about the reading experience. They aren’t meant to limit your feedback in any way. They are more of a tool to help you think critically about specific aspects of the book (think third grade book report: “what character was your favorite, and why?”)

The book will be provided in a Word document so that you can use the “track changes” and “comments” functions if you so desire. If you want a different format, I can probably swing it, just let me know. If you don’t know how to use “track changes” or “comments,” I can probably show you!

Beta readers get to read my book before it is completely finished. That means I love them most of all my friends, but it also means they’ll have to read a pre-publication-quality book with errors and problems. They have to promise to point out these problems and errors with complete honesty. They also have to promise they will still love me even after seeing “the” misspelled for the fourth time.

Speaking of misspellings, although I will always appreciate every word of feedback I receive, there is no need for beta readers to get too down and dirty with my prose (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Final polish & copy editing is a whole separate ball game, and happens after I have made all the content changes for the book (why spend tons of time on a section I might cut?). At the same time, I promise that I have been over the draft several times already, and it should not be painful or unintelligible.
A couple notes on content: Cliff with No Edge is an adventure fantasy, and has magic, action scenes, and a different world and culture. It also deals with some heavy subjects. There is violence, both in the “fight scene” sense and the domestic violence sense. It is not, in my opinion, overly graphic, but if you are sensitive to these topics, it may not be for you. Check out the “sneak peek” section for an idea of the intensity level.

I hereby set this deadline: I will finish and send my book to beta readers by October 5. This means that beta readers will have 6-8 weeks (think end of November) to read and respond about the book. In December, I will begin the next revision. That means I will appreciate and read late feedback, but it will be less useful to me depending how far into the revision I am.

If you would like to be added to my beta reader list, just let me know! I can never have too many opinions at this stage, so the more the merrier. Message me, tweet me, post on my wall, leave a note in the comments section, whatever. I will need your name and email address to send you the file. If you have expressed interest to me in person, I didn’t have a list then, so I probably don’t remember – sorry!

Thank you all for your wonderful support!

Critique Tips Part 2 – The Snowflake Effect

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Welcome back for the second installment of critique tips! In this series of posts, I’m sharing some insight derived from my own critiquing experiences. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read my previous post on this subject – but if not, I invite you to check it out.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Snowflake Effect
Let’s be honest. When we turn something in to be critiqued, we all secretly hope our readers will return with nothing but praise. Academically, rationally, realistically, we know that’s not what will happen. We probably know enough to at least say that we don’t want that. Being intent on improvement and serious about developing our professionalism tends to strengthen our understanding of the value (and necessity) of a solid critique.

But we love what we’ve written, and somewhere in our hearts we long to be told that it’s perfect and we’re special snowflakes. Or pretty ponies, or glimmering unicorns, or whatever term your kindergarten teacher used. When we hear that it usually takes decades to break into publishing, we can’t help but think “not for me!” We’d rather identify ourselves with those exceptionally talented/lucky/special people who sold their first book for a trillion dollars. Who wouldn’t, right?

But depending on how well you squash that tendency, actually hearing people criticize your work can be anything from disappointing to devastating. Maybe you get defensive, maybe you get depressed. There’s a whole gamut of negative reactions that can appear when we believe people are dumping on our manuscripts (and by extension, ourselves and our dreams). When we’re in this state, what we hear isn’t helpful feedback and we can’t use it effectively.

Critiquee:

This is mainly up to you to solve. I can (and will) suggest some things that can help externally. If you try them, you probably won’t be labeled as the difficult person in the group. But to actually approach critiques with a grounded, stable attitude – the kind of attitude that will let your writing grow from the offered criticism – you’ve got to want it.

It’s like learning to be confident. It isn’t about what other people say or do – it is about your reaction to it. You can change your own reactions/actions, you have no control whatsoever over other people. Taking a critique well is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Ask yourself: “How much do I want to be taken seriously as a mature, professional writer?” If that’s what you want, criticism can’t crush you. You also can’t dismiss it out of hand.

Learning to value yourself and your work in the right way is something you have to live in order to learn. I’m not qualified to teach you that. But I suspect that this is one of those situations where “faking it” can sometimes help you make it.

I suggest that if you feel strongly at all, whether it is Hulk-like defensive mechanisms or overwhelming hurt, you say nothing. In fact, I subscribe to the say nothing school of critique-receiving anyway, strong emotional involvement or not. It’s too raw. Take notes, sure. Listen carefully. You may ask for clarification, but not if you’re using it to argue – you know the difference!

Then go away from it. Don’t come back until you can do so calmly (sometimes that means I let things sit in a drawer for a couple months). When you’ve got some distance, you’ll be able to analyze people’s comments more effectively.

This does not mean put it away forever! Don’t use this as an excuse to let your stories die from neglect. If you have a tendency to lose confidence after critique, give yourself a time limit. Put it on your calendar – in two months, force yourself to revisit that story. You’ll find that when you read it through again, it’s better than you remember. At the same time, you’ll probably suddenly agree with some of the comments your critiquers made.

If this is a real problem for you, try submitting something you either 1) don’t care much about or 2) haven’t polished up yet. I find it is much harder to look for feedback on something you thought was done.

Remember – you actually are a special snowflake. We are all a unique combination of skills, talents, and willpower. That means you are worthwhile, your work is worthwhile, and you can and should demand that your critique sessions remain respectful.

It also means that you are learning, just like everyone else, and you don’t get to magically skip all the time and effort it takes to write well. Give yourself permission to make mistakes (see perfectionism), and then take a few deep breaths. You don’t need to be defensive or scared. You asked for help, the people giving you feedback are doing their best to help you – take it in that spirit, and then use it to succeed.

Critiquer:

In critique groups, the snowflake effect tends to manifest externally as a defensive, argumentative response to feedback. Obviously, there are many other ways it can affect the writer personally, but they have a lot more to do with how a person feels about themselves, their work, and their success. You are much less likely to be in a position to notice – much less respond to – these other manifestations. So for critiquers, it is all about the defensive writer.

Honestly, this isn’t up to you to solve. You offered up your feedback in the best spirit of helpfulness, honesty, and humility. You did your best to word your critique as kindly and clearly as possible. You would have been completely blown away to receive a critique of that quality on your last story.

Maybe that’s a little much. But you tried. You certainly didn’t intend any offense, and you really believe in the comments you gave. You honestly want to see the critiquee’s story succeed. Good. That’s all any of us can do.*

So in reality, no – you can’t solve this problem. But you can keep from feeding into it. It doesn’t have to be a big dispute, it doesn’t have to leave you (or anyone else in the group) with negative feelings.

Because you care about the critiquee and his/her story, and because you take pride in doing a good job, it is easy to get emotionally caught up. Maybe you feel guilty, resentful, or frustrated when a critiquee wants to argue or dismiss what you have to say. Maybe they dared to call you “wrong.” Ouch.

Disengage. Don’t respond. Be the bigger person. However you want to put it – just let it go. You don’t need to defend yourself. I’m not saying not to clarify a point or participate in some other totally valid form of interaction. I’m simply saying that it isn’t your piece – it isn’t your responsibility. Their manuscript is their problem! If you have been kind and clear (please don’t read this as license to be harsh or cruel), let it go.

They heard you; they have your written notes. If they’re being defensive in the moment, they still might take your advice once they’ve had a chance to process it. And if they don’t – again, not your problem. Maybe they have a completely different vision for their work than you do, maybe they just don’t want to be awesome. It doesn’t matter to you – there is literally nothing at stake for you here.

If you want to take it a step further, try to understand why they might react that way. If you’ve ever put up a manuscript for critique, you’ve probably felt what they’re feeling. You’ve probably received feedback that is waaay off the mark (at least in your opinion). You’ve probably worried that your work is crap, or dreamed of becoming an instant bestseller and resented those who insisted on pulling you back to reality. Remember those feelings, stir up that empathy, and use it to resist your argumentative instincts. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

*By the way, if you don’t feel this way, if you don’t want other people’s work to succeed, then examine why you are involved in critique at all. This is a destructive place to come from, and you probably are not doing anyone – others or yourself – any good.

Critique Tips – Perfectionism & Voice

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In a writer’s life, critiques are as unavoidable as death and taxes. And like death and taxes, feedback and editorial remarks are often a source of stress, fear, and general unpleasantness. But there’s no absolutely no reason this should be so.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that critiques are the single most useful learning tool available to a writer. Not only that, but the ability to give and take feedback seems to be a hallmark of the serious writer. So it would be beneficial to learn how to deal with giving and receiving feedback – and I think I can contribute to that conversation.

In this and the next few posts, I’ll be sharing a few things I’ve learned from my own critiquing experiences*. Hopefully you find something useful. Let’s get started!

Perfectionism

I feel pretty confident stating that perfectionism is problematic whenever it shows up, no matter the circumstance.  It is born of fear and ego – a fear of rejection that presses you to pursue unreasonable standards, and to project a facade when meeting those standards proves impossible.  Perfectionism can sometimes push you to excel, but more often it freezes you in place, makes things feel hopeless, torpedos your self-confidence.  I know this because I battle with perfectionism all the time.

In writing, perfectionism can keep you from submitting or finishing a story.  It can prevent you from even starting.  When seeking feedback on your stories, perfectionism can be the root of guilt, fear, and poor productivity.  It can prevent you from seeing the good in your stories and stunt your growth as a writer.  When the impossible standards of perfectionism extend to judging other writers’ work, they can result in harsh critiques that do more harm than good.

Critiquee: 

Bringing what you think is a perfect story to a critique group is a waste of time.  Praise is not what you want.  It isn’t helpful.  You aren’t trying to impress them.  You want to get their feedback early enough in the process that you will be able to use it to strengthen the story.  That means don’t bring a final draft.  At the same time, it is hard to see beyond grammatical and awkward sentences to the story beyond.  It is considerate and good form to bring a story you’ve cleaned up enough to be readable.

Recognize that your critiquers are there to support you.  They are writers in the same position you are, probably with many of the same hang-ups.   Let yourself be vulnerable by showing things a little earlier than you are comfortable with, and you might be surprised by the new ideas that can be sparked by the conversations about an unfinished piece.  Learn to have confidence that you can fix anything – it helps me to keep in mind that I have as many drafts as I want to fix things.

Last, there are people out there who are not interested in other people’s success.  There are also people you will not mesh with, whose critiques (even with the best of intentions behind them) are honestly unhelpful or destructive (note that I do not mean they give you their honest, sometimes-negative opinions).  You are justified in putting distance between yourself and these people.  There is no point in maintaining a critique partnership that does not help you to grow as a writer.

Critiquer:

If you are a perfectionist, it is easy to get frustrated with pieces that do not meet your personal standards.  But you aren’t reading for pleasure.  There are going to be things wrong in the piece, that’s the whole point.  Trust that the writer will be able to use what you’ve given them to bring their story up to scratch (and even if they don’t, it isn’t your story).  Be patient with the errors you find, even if the errors repeat over and over again.  We all have blind spots, and sometimes we need them pointed out many times.

In addition, think carefully about how you phrase things.  If you have a penchant for harsh self-speak (argh, this sucks, I suck, I’ll never get published), then it is likely to come out in your comments on other people’s work.  Honest is necessary, harsh is not.  It has helped me to learn to view my comments as opinions and suggestions, not rules or corrections.

The Voices in Our Heads

The problem with writers giving critiques is that we’ve all got loud voices in our heads.  When I read a phrase that I would have constructed differently, even if it is technically correct, I’m trained to rearrange it to what is most pleasing to me.  That’s my voice, or my predilection for certain words and phrasings and story structures.  I spend a great deal of time cultivating my voice, because it is one of the few things that belongs uniquely to me.  I like it, depend on it, and trust it above all else.

It is really hard to ignore, even when it is comparing apples to oranges, measuring someone else’s work.

Critiquer:Try to recognize that the story you are reading is distinct from your own writing.  Consciously admitting that is important.  It is going to make it easier to let go when the author makes choices you wouldn’t.

That doesn’t mean you don’t say what you’re thinking, point out the option you saw, talk about the thing that rubbed you the wrong way.  If you can separate out a problem that is bigger than your opinion, do so – grammar, spelling, punctuation, character development, plot, etc.  If you can’t, point it out anyway – the critee can decide if he/she agrees.  But try to remember that if it isn’t some solid rule of the English language (and sometimes even if it is), right and wrong don’t enter into it.  And as always, don’t stake your happiness on whether or not they take your advice.

Critiquee: Yes, you have your own voice.  Trying too hard to write to other people’s tastes will probably result in stiff, derivative prose.  But it is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing rephrasing suggestions or vague notes like “awkward” in the name of voice.  Your voice requires development, just like every other aspect of writing – it doesn’t spring forth fully-formed and gleaming with glory.  If you are too inflexible, you won’t learn what does and doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, it is really difficult to see these things in the moment.  There have been instances when I am so unaware of how the words play outside my head that I pig-headedly ignore the excellent advice of my excellent critique group – only to flinch at the awkwardness during a later reading.

Time and multiple critiquers will help.  Give yourself plenty of time between writing and rewriting so that some of the puppy-love can wear off.  When you do sort through your notes, pay close attention if multiple people comment on the same thing or you have a strong negative reaction (I find when I read a comment and immediately want to scream WRONG! it is either abhorrent to my soul or absolutely spot-on).  Consider every note seriously.  You might still reject them, but at least you took some of the emotion out of the decision, and that’s usually the best you can do.

If you do find your text devolving as you work in suggestions from other people, you might need to give yourself permission to disagree.  You have to have confidence in yourself and your words, enough to know whether a comment rings true to you or not.  Sure, you run the risk of making the “wrong” decision – but this is art!  It cannot be designed by committee, and it will not be yours until you learn to take risks.

*I want to send a special thank-you to my current writing group, the Cloud City Wordslingers. I am extraordinarily lucky to be a part of a group with such talented and dedicated writers. My work would suffer enormously without their feedback.  And if they were the only critiquing experience I had, these posts would probably not exist!

What’s Taking So Long?

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I am not anywhere close to finished with my final revision – in fact, if you look that way —–> you will see that I’m still less than 1/4 of the way through. I recently had a friend ask what I could possibly be doing on what is technically my FOURTH draft (really rough, rough, first, now second).

She’d read the book during the beta read, and liked it pretty well (yay!). So clearly I can’t have missed that many big things, to require what will certainly be more than a month of revision. I must be slacking!

Well, yes. I am slacking. But in between bouts of slacking, I am actually doing some pretty drastic revisions. But since you’re interested, I’ll give you some insight into the process.

First, I received feedback from my beta readers. A lot of it was good (good for my ego, bad for the writing), some brought up completely surprising issues (good for the writing, frustrating for me), and some of it showed me problems where I knew there were problems (= a kick in the pants for me).

Sorting through the feedback is what takes the most time for me. I have to go through several phases:

1. Denial/anger – That’s stupid! My writing is perfect! They just didn’t get it!

2. Denial/hope – No, they mostly said good things, I was just focusing on the negative

(look back at the comments)

3. Depression – They’re right, my writing sucks 😥

4. Analytical – Come on! Buck up! Can I fix that? Let’s list the ways.

5a. Relief – Thank goodness, if I change this ONE word here, it’s fixed. Moving on…

5b. Denial/anger – I can’t possibly do that! It’s too much work/not what I want/this isn’t fun anymore!

6. Acceptance – OK fine.

7. Inspiration – Oooooh! If I do this it will be so much better!

Repeat for EVERY FREAKING comment, and for EVERY FREAKING cascade change that must take place because of the change I decide on.

I’m not kidding.

Now the good news is that through practice, I can usually live through the first 3 steps in about 60 seconds of turmoil. There are some instances where it takes longer, usually because the passage or character in question is one of my darlings (which means I have an abnormal love or attachment to it for some indefinable reason). I am pretty proud of this*, and hope to be able to shrink the jump even further, until I hardly even notice the emotional blip.

Actually, what takes the longest is the jump from #6 to #7. For larger changes, that is pretty necessary, because if I’m just resigned to it rather than excited about the improvement, I won’t write the section very well. In fact, there are changes that I knew needed to happen with the last draft, but I couldn’t get to step 7. So I put it out without the change rather than make a change I didn’t believe in. I am happy to say that at this point, I have worked out all of those problem areas with help from this last round of feedback. The reason I couldn’t solve the problem was I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.

“Inspiration” is a little bit of of a misnomer here – what it really means is I need to find the perfect way to integrate the change into the story. It is rarely the first solution that comes up – for some reason my brain needs to soak up the change and come to terms with it before it can spit out a good idea. It can’t be too predictable, and it needs to fit the characters and situation well. The greatest solutions fix multiple problems. Sometimes I end up going with what a reader suggests, but most often I come up with my own way.

Then comes the actual writing. I have to rewrite the scene, and all the scenes the change affects. I actually collect up as many things as I can before I start writing, so I have a comprehensive sense of the new story (I try to do them all, but something new always comes up while I’m working).

And once all of the changes are made, I have to go back through and polish the new writing. That includes a ton of stuff, all of which is absolutely essential to a good final product. To give you an idea, here is about 1/4 of my “polish” checklist:

– Add weather, smell, sound, touch

– Run checklist in “Fire in Fiction” pp229 for violent scenes

– Check setting descriptions & comparisons – tied to POV character & character’s current emotions?

– Check first and last lines of scenes, chapters, book

– Watch for emotion/exposition repetitions

– Check use of my problem words: breath, caught, grab, saw, heard, felt, looked, almost, about, quite, nearly, really, actually, just, stepped, started, that, had, was, stare, finally, eventually

– Check speech tags & actions

– Check injuries have lasting effects

– Read for character motivations & conflict

– Read aloud

– In-line corrections from feedback that haven’t been dealt with

So anyway, that’s what I’m up to. Trying to clear the distracting stuff and make the pretty stuff shine brighter. Maybe I’ll do a demonstration sometime, and show you from comment to the change I settle on. But I think this post is plenty long as it is!

*Speaking of, if you are interested in developing this skill (it is a skill), here’s what I did – seek out harsh, honest criticism. If they don’t say something that gets your panties in a bunch, they aren’t doing their job. When you find it, SHUT UP and listen. Write it down, or have them write it down. Fume as long as you need to. Don’t work on that part of the book/story until you can read the comments without the emotions taking control. Then consider the comments seriously, and think about it until you can see why they gave that feedback – it isn’t always what they identified as the problem. Brainstorm a solution. Save a copy of your story before you start to change it in case you want to go back, and then butcher it mercilessly. Usually, you will discover part way through that it was a good idea. Repeat, over and over.

Critiques and Ducks

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Another week ending and I come home again with duck blood on my pants! Thankfully, we were able to stabilize this one. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do something for his injuries.

Tis the season for duckies to pair up for spring – which means it’s also the season for mallard-car interactions as our webbed-footed friends waddle about the place looking for nesting sites. Most ducks and geese are monogamous, so once they pair up they stick together. I’m sure we’ve all seen a piteous living duck beside the road, trying to stay near their dead mate after an accident. For human safety as well as bird safety, don’t forget to watch carefully while you’re driving, especially near wetland areas. Remember – they’re short, and there are always two of them!

OK, on with the show! I haven’t made very much writing progress this week – only about 1500 original words. I’m not unhappy about that though; I’ve been critiquing a friend’s manuscript. I always learn something from critiquing, so I count it as work towards my own writing goals.

Critiquing is a strange animal, and it does not come naturally with writing (or even knowing a lot about writing). I’m trying to improve my own critiquing skills; I want to be as helpful as possible to my group. I can usually identify where something doesn’t seem right, but it is very difficult to uncover the root of the problem.

It is getting easier for me as I learn more and more about writing. Right now, I’m reading a book called The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine. It isn’t as detailed as some of the other writing books I’ve read, but it does help tie reactions in the reader with possible story problems. I have not finished reading it, but so far I’d recommend it to anyone who needs to learn or polish critique skills.

Communicating what you see can be a bigger challenge than identifying the problem, especially for me. I tend to be a very task-focused problem-solver type, which means “finding problems” while I’m critiquing. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to receive feedback, so I must work very hard to be sure I am being sensitive, especially since I tend to focus on the problems above the good stuff.

Realizing this also helps me distance myself from negative comments about my own work. Even if it is difficult to hear, my alpha readers are doing their best to help me. The more I listen to experienced authors the more I accept that every story, by every author, in ALL of history has problems at first – and it is no big deal. I can fix it!

Revision is part of the process. We writers own computers and word processors. If we were afraid of hard work, we wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. We’re creative, we’ll solve the problems eventually. The thing about creativity is that you are only limited by yourself – the well will never run dry as long as you are open-minded to change. Amazing books are made by people who are willing to visit that well until the story is right.