Being a Good Beta Reader: Writing Good Critiques

It’s easy enough to tell someone how to give a good critique. But unless you see them for yourself and have practice writing them, it can be daunting.

So I wanted to share a few snippets from a friend’s story I edited earlier this year. This is Deb Dockter’s YA novel Deadly Design, coming out next June from Penguin (YAY!! Happy step-mom dance!) FYI, you can follower her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, and find her on her website, www.debradockter.com

When I edit and critique, I do a little of everything. I’m a grammar Nazi, so I always (naturally) look at spelling, punctuation, run-on sentences, fragments, etc. I also love a perfectly-crafted sentence, so I’m constantly looking at ways to improve them, make them more clear, give them more punch. I’m a firm believer that every paragraph needs to move the story forward and contain one major thought, so I will often give suggestions on how to rewrite them. I’m also looking for ways in which characters act out of character, and comment if there seems to be no reason for them to do so. And then, at the end, I will sum up with my own thoughts about the novel, where it’s heading, overall story arc and character arc, and whether there are plot holes.

And before you ask, YES, I’m every bit as hard on myself as I am on others — even more so. Last fall when I taught Creative Writing, I took drafts of my own novels, complete with red and purple and green ink, for my students to see. They were suitably frightened. 🙂

So without further ado, here’s an example of a paragraph I suggested rewriting. This was the original:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean. He’s the quiet but tough guy. He doesn’t need anybody else, doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks. He’s a bad boy.” She gives me a sideways glance.

I consider this, then nod in agreement. “Yep, that’s me. I’m bad to the bone.”

I suggested it could be:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean?” At my blank look she says, “Seriously? East of Eden? Rebel Without a Cause?”  She gives me a sideways glance. “Really?”

I shrug. “Rebel without a cause. Yeah. That’s me.” (But, that’s just me – my suggestion – I have an idea most teens even today will know the “bad boy” reference from James Dean and maybe the movie title.)

The italics are my comments to Deb. She can take the suggestion or not; I’ve given my opinion. And if you’re writing a critique, it’s your responsibility to give your opinion. That’s why you’re there, after all.

Here’s an example where I’ve found a paragraph that I think isn’t quite right, but I can’t figure out why I think that.  I make a note of it, and then I offer an opinion on what it could be:

“Don’t come if you don’t want to.” His mouth was full of cornflakes, and there was a tiny dot of milk on his chin. “Your mom and I have always been understanding about you not wanting to go watch your brother. But this is his last meet, ever. He wants us there, all of us. But if you think you’ll sleep all right tonight, not going, then by all means, stay home.” (something about this paragraph reads funky – I think it’s the two middle sentences, structured exactly the same.)

Again, it’s always up to the author as to whether they think you’re right or not. But as a critique partner, you have a duty to let them know that something isn’t quite right there. If it reads funny to you, chances are it will read funny to others.

Here’s an example where I’ve commented on plot and structure:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (I haven’t gotten the sense yet in this version that he is in love with Emma. I did – really did – in the old version. We saw it. But I don’t get that at all yet here.)

By this time, I’d read about 25 pages of the new version, and I’d of course read the old drafts; therefore, I had a different viewpoint than someone who may have just picked this up for the first time. Deb and I have critiqued for each other for a few years now, so we know each others’ characters and plots, and we feel comfortable making comments like this. But let’s say this was the first time I’d ever read this. What I might say instead here is something like:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can get score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (Question:  Is Kyle in love with Emma? You’ve hinted at it — on page 10, for example — but I don’t see it clearly. He doesn’t come right out and say he’s in love with his brother’s girlfriend. And that’s a LOT of conflict to keep bottled up! If he is, let us see it, and let that conflict spill over into the story.) 

There. I’ve asked the question, pointed out a potential flaw, and given the author a reason to fix it — to improve the story.

If you know the story well, and the author, you might also feel okay with suggesting small things. Particularly if you get to know the characters well and see an opportunity for them to do or say something that could add context or depth to the story, or at least would be more in keeping with who they are. Like this:

“Could you go wake him up?” she says. “Emma’s coming over this morning, and I’m sure he’s not going to want to be in bed when she gets here.”

“Sure.” (perfect opportunity for a snarky remark like “Actually, I was sure he’d love to still be in bed when she got there,” or something. :))

As a critique partner, one of your jobs is also to pick up on the small mistakes that the author may make. If you’re a writer, you know how close you get to your own story; it sucks you in, and you start to miss things. Sometimes big, glaring things. 🙂 You skip over mistakes, and gloss over plot holes (“I’ll fix it later!”). But that’s why you have beta readers. Or you get into a big rush to finish it, and you make silly mistakes that you don’t catch later. Like this one:

She tilts her head and smiles at me like I’m the world’s biggest pain in the ass. “As you are probably aware, today is May 15th. In approximately seven days, the love birds will be graduating from high school. They will then commence living in a dorm in Manhattan, while they attend the University of Kansas.” (BOY, it’s a good thing you have me here! Manhattan is K-State. Lawrence is KU!)

So as a beta reader, if you know the fix to a mistake, tell the author! Don’t assume they’ll find and fix it later; give them a hand. 🙂 Obviously, if I didn’t know Deb as well as I do and didn’t feel comfortable teasing her, I’d phrase this differently!

And, of course, always be supportive and kind! It’s as easy as making smiley faces when you find something you like, or writing “Good girl!” in the margins when the MC does something you like, or even just dashing off “LOL!” at the end of a paragraph:

If I was a girl or gay, I’d be instantly smitten. I’d be sending him a friend request on Facebook and moving quickly from acquaintance to stalker. I can’t help but wonder if his name is made up, a way to keep the would-be Triagon worshippers from finding his high school and setting up surveillance across from his locker. (LOL!)

So I hope that helps you figure out some ways to give constructive criticism. Next week, I’ll follow up by giving you some examples from my own novel — things my beta readers pointed out to me, and things I pointed out to myself. Like I said, I’m much harder on myself than they are!

(All quotes are from Debra Dockter’s young adult novel Deadly Design, to be published June 2015 from Penguin. Keep an eye out! Again, you can follow her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, or her blog/website at www.debradockter.com. You can also follow me on Twitter — @RobynNHill.)

“Where do you get your ideas?” EVERYWHERE!

This weekend, I attended the Rose State Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. It’s always full of wonderful workshops, great panels, and fantastic speakers. This year’s capstone speech was given by children’s author Anna Meyers.

In her speech, she said something — and I will screw up the exact quote, sorry — that was very true. She said, “People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

That’s so important, let me make it into a pull quote:

“People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

This is one of the things I find SO frustrating about new writers! Not to go off on a soapbox, but come on! I’ve mentioned before that I frequent the Writer’s Water Cooler. Nearly every week, it seems, there’s someone there asking, “Where do you get your ideas? I have no original ideas. I can’t figure out what I want to write about.”

I need a soapbox icon, don’t I? Here you go:

soapbox

YOU DON’T DECIDE TO BECOME A WRITER AND THEN BEG FOR IDEAS. YOU HAVE AN IDEA THAT DEMANDS TO BE WRITTEN, AND YOU WRITE IT. THAT’S HOW YOU BECOME A WRITER.

I’m lucky; I don’t think I’ve ever had a shortage of ideas, and most writers don’t. We take inspiration from everything around us. A newspaper article. Something we heard on the radio. A “what if,” gleaned from a conversation. A snippet of dialogue, overheard while out shopping.

A lot of mine come from old photographs.

photo 1

Take this one, for example. I collect vintage photos — you’d be shocked at how many you can find at antique stores, rummage sales, heck, sometimes even in the trash! — and my mind often works on the question of who these people were, what their lives were like, who they knew and where they went, what they did for a living. Who were these people? How did they get along? Do they seem like a family to you, almost — or is there some subtext going on under the carefully neutral expressions? Is there one that jumps out out at you, who doesn’t seem to quite fit in? Why is that? Who would have a photo done of his household servants? (And before you think this is a modern photo made to look old, it isn’t:  this photographer hasn’t been in business for almost 100 years.)

 

Or, you could try this one. I found this one in a vintage photo album at an antique store this summer. I bought the albuphoto 1m just for this one photo, in fact — and I am floored by the mystery that I found within the rest of the pages. (But that’s MY story!)

This is precisely how Ransom Riggs came up with the idea for his bestselling YA novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If you haven’t read this book, READ IT. I’m not even remotely kidding. Here’s his website:  www.ransomriggs.com

The point is, inspiration is everywhere. As a photographer, I know that; my camera is never far away. The same thing with story ideas. Your mind should always be a radar dish, spinning constantly for that next scrap or spark. I’ve had ideas that came to me while running (Nicky, my rumrunner, whose story I’m finishing for NaNo this year), stories that came to me while riding the school bus,  and stories that were inspired by the photos I collect (sometimes not an entire story, but just a character — my beta readers may notice that the dark-haired man in the top photo looks an awful lot like a certain ghost they’ve been reading about lately . . .).

So please, please, please, for the love of all that’s holy and everything that isn’t, go get your own ideas! Hit an antiques store. Hang out at the food court in the mall and jot down every conversation you overhear. Read online sites and magazines you’d normally never read. Open you mind. Accept that your next great idea might come from the least expected place. As Diana Gabaldon is so fond of saying, her initial idea for Outlander came to her while she was watching an old episode of Doctor Who — but then, once she started writing, one of the first things that came out was “I’m Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. Who the bloody hell are you?” (Here’s a link to one of her interviews:  http://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/953.Diana_Gabaldon)

You have to be open to ideas. A lot of people are so judgmental — I can’t do that! That’s too hard! I know nothing about X or Y; I’d have to do so much research, I’ve never written about this, there’s that adage about ‘write what you know’ and I don’t know a thing about this . .  .  on and on, ad nauseum. Who are you to judge the ideas that come to you? To brush them away like a flake of ash on your coat sleeve? It bloody came to you. YOU. Go with it! 

Once you’re open to receiving new ideas — never mind if they’re good or not, who cares at this point?! — you’ll be shocked at how many come to you. I have at least six other books besides Nicky and my urban fantasy series, just waiting to be written. Does that worry me? Nope. Not a bit. I’ll get there. And so will you. Get a small notebook. Carry it. Or use the voice notes recorder on your cell phone. Every single idea, every single time. Don’t think you’ll remember it; you won’t. Don’t dismiss anything; that idea may not come through, but if you glean one thing from it, it was worth it.

Where do I get my ideas? Where should you? Everywhere. Now go out and find some, darn it. 🙂

 

Ahem. If you’re still struggling, here are some links to writing prompts you may find helpful:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

 http://writingprompts.tumblr.com/

http://creativewritingprompts.com/

 http://www.pinterest.com/selsmith479/writing-picture-prompts/

http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/

 

Giving Critiques: A Few Hints

It’s that familiar, sick feeling. You want to run and hide, even if the only available place is in the sewer drain.

“Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?”

Does anything strike fear in the hearts of people more than this? Well, except for police sirens. And being asked to speak in public. Job interviews. Spiders. I digress. Your friend/co-worker/acquaintance/fellow writer/family member has just asked you to read their work, and comment on it.

What do you do?

You could accidentally burn the manuscript in the fireplace. Or flush it down the toilet.

Or you could learn how to give constructive criticism.

I’ve been a beta-reader for a good friend for a few years now; I’ve taught creative writing, and I’ve edited others’ works. I’ve had my own manuscripts critiqued by betas. I’m also a peer reviewer with Quality Matters, which is a comprehensive program that reviews online courses for instructors and colleges, and makes recommendations on how to improve them based on eight standards. One of the things reviewers learn to do is provide quality, constructive feedback on each standard. And as I was doing a review this past week, it struck me that these skills are the same skills beta readers need in order to give quality, constructive feedback on manuscripts. So here’s a few hints on how to make your next beta reading experience better — for you, and the writer.

1.) Read thoroughly. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the fact is, not everyone does read things thoroughly. However, you can’t properly critique what you haven’t properly read.

2.) Be balanced. Just as the universe has yin and yang, just as you can’t have a mocha latte without whipped cream, your review needs to have both good and bad comments. A good way to do it is this:

“I really like this paragraph — it’s tight, has a lot of tension, and we really see Bobbie Joe getting into the action. But I’m a little lost on where we are. Could you include more setting here — maybe Bobbie Joe could interact with something in the environment, or see someone moving in the trees, or whatever? This would ground it and make it more alive to readers.”

By starting with the good, you offer encouragement. By offering a suggestion, you cushion the blow. By saying this will do x for the readers, you let the writer know you’re on their side, and that you’re only offering this criticism in order to make their work better.

3.) Be constructive. I know you’ve heard this since fifth grade, and no one’s ever told you exactly what it means. What it means (to me) is this:  pick up only the most glaring things, and then offer solutions as to how to fix them. They may take your suggestions, they may not. That’s up to them. And in the end, it’s only your opinion, after all. Maybe they have this same MS to three other people, and none of them thought that one thing was wrong. Or maybe they ALL did! Either way, be true to yourself and your gut feeling. Someone has asked you to help them. Help them to the best of your ability.

4.) Don’t deconstruct — or demolish! If you called in an interior decorator to come paint your living room and put up new drapes, and you came home to find that they’d knocked down half a wall, put in French doors, changed the hardwood floors to shag carpeting, and installed a water fountain where the fireplace used to be, you’d be pretty darn pissed off. (I hope!) Same thing with this manuscript you’ve been entrusted with.

This is someone’s baby. Sure, maybe the MC’s name changes five times in the first three chapters, and maybe the plot has holes so big you can drive a coach-and-four through them, and maybe the setting is supposed to be Kansas, but there are palm trees and white sand beaches. Fall back on your positive. “Your description of the beach is fantastic — I really felt like I was there! But I thought this was set in Kansas — did you change the setting to Hawaii? If not, you might want to double-check that Kansas has beaches and palm trees.”

It’s possible that the entire thing might be so bad that you need to call the writer and say, “Look, I think you should put this away for a month or two, and then revisit it. I’m not sure it’s ready for anyone to see right now. ” Give them the chance to fix their own mistakes first. But. Be aware that they may not take this well. At all. Been there. Done that. Sometimes, writers get so blind to their own faults that they simply believe they don’t have any faults. If they get too belligerent, it’s time to take a step back and tell them this isn’t going to work at this time.

5.) Don’t make it about the grammar. If you see things, mark them. Especially if you see that the person makes the same mistake over and over, or — as happened to me this year — you see that the writer has made a tiny spelling error that would totally change the plot of the book! 🙂 Now, if the writer specifically asks you to do copy editing or line editing, then by all means, if that’s your gig, go ahead. But for the rest of us, the writer is probably wanting the big-ticket items.

What are the big-ticket items? For me, they’re plot, characterization, continuity, and overall satisfaction. As my beta readers are working on my latest manuscript right now, these are the things I’ve asked them to focus on. Does the plot hang together? Are there holes in it? Do the characters act consistently? Do they ever do anything you didn’t understand? Is the story easy to follow, or are there places where I’ve skipped something, or not explained something clearly? Did you ever not understand how we got from Point A to Point N? And the big one:  did you feel satisfied at the end? Were all the questions answered, all the loose ends tied up? Did the ending meet expectations? Why or why not?

I’m always grateful when people mark the grammatical errors, but I need my betas to focus on the big-ticket items — what Becky Levine calls “big, overall issues” in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. This is one of the best books by far I’ve found for not only learning how to do a critique, but also for improving and critiquing your own writing. Get it. Seriously. 🙂

If your writer is serious about improving, they’ll receive your comments graciously. They may not agree with them, and that’s their right, as it’s ultimately their work and their choice. However, if you make the comments positive and balanced, offer suggestions that don’t step on toes, and prove that you’re solidly in their corner, then the sting of the criticisms will be greatly diminished.

Hopefully.

 

Here’s a link to the book:  http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Critique-Group-Survival-Guide/dp/1582976066/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410714031&sr=1-1&keywords=the+writing+critique+group+survival+guide It really is fantastic!

Making students understand September 11 . . .

On Tuesday morning, I was cleaning stalls and thinking . . . and for some reason, found my thoughts drifting to a very unsettling realization.

My students, for the most part, no longer know what it was like on September 11, 2001.

My eighteen-year olds were only four that day. My nineteen-year olds, just five. How young is too young to comprehend something of that magnitude? To fully comprehend what it was like to know that not only was our nation about to go to war against an unknown enemy, but that thousands of innocent people had died in that opening gauntlet? To watch the reactions from around the world, see the children in Pakistan cheering and stomping on our flag, utterly bewildered that they could take such pleasure from our grief?

To realize that we knew nothing?

I was 25, and I was too young.

I’ve only been teaching since 2008. But I’ve always been able to use September 11 as a touchstone, a way to reach my students. When we talk about Pearl Harbor especially, I talk about the attack itself, the way the Japanese surprised us on a clear, sunny Sunday morning, and the reaction of people across the nation. Then I can say, “This was their September 11.”

I used to see the realization dawning in their eyes, the slow nods of their heads, the solemn, reverent way they now looked at the photos of the listing, smoke-filled USS Arizona on the screen before them. No longer a random date in history; it now had meaning, because they knew, exactly, what America felt that day as the news began to spread that we had lost the majority of the Pacific Fleet, and thousands of American lives, in just half an hour.

I don’t see that anymore. Not really. I see what they think I want to see:  heads nodding, thoughtfully, as if to say, “Yes, I’ll nod, because it’s what she wants and because I really should know what this means, but . . . I don’t.”

And I don’t know how to teach them that.

I don’t even think I can.

As I was thinking over this on Tuesday morning — a bright, clear, sunny day, again — I heard a fighter jet flying overhead, and rushed out of the barn. By that time, it was already gone, no doubt on its way to McConnell AFB an hour away. I went back inside the barn. Five minutes later, I heard another booming overhead.

It took me back to that week like nothing else.

I remember what it was like to look up into the skies and see emptiness. Nothing. I live in Kansas. I live between two major airports and two major Air Force bases. Planes are a part of life. To go on my walks in the country, look up into that clear blue endless sky, and see nothing, to hear nothing, was so eerie. It hit home, over and over, that this was not a normal week. That we were a nation afraid. Unsure of ourselves for maybe the first time in history. And I remember the feeling I got when I went for a walk one afternoon, glanced up — and saw one lone white stream, a single jet. How my heart almost stopped. How I clutched my dog’s leash so tight, she whined. Because all I could think was, why is it there? Where is it going? What’s it going to do when it gets there?

I still remember the twenty-four-hour live coverage. I still remember the shock of the very first commercial — a Toyota commercial. Staring at it, uncomprehending. Who cares about buying a freaking car? It was betrayal. It was hope.

Those are the things I can’t communicate to my students. I don’t know how. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The sad thing is, I am sure that someday, they will have their own September 11.

I hope not. I would rather have to dig deep within myself, dredge up memories I’d rather not, and use my experiences to explain it to them, to try to make them understand, that for them to go through what we did on that day. To watch the towers collapse, knowing that rescue workers were still inside. To remember exactly what you were eating for breakfast, or how you spent that day, or which chair you collapsed into, unable to watch and unable to make yourself look away.

But I watch them, and I know that it’s coming. And I see in them myself, on September 10, 2001. Barely knowing what’s going on in the world. I try to tell them. We talk about ISIS. We talk about the war in Syria. We discuss the Mubarek regime and what it means for Middle East stability — or instability. And I see the totally blank looks. The ones that say Geez, Ms. Hill, let us get back to our Candy Crush already! Nothing’s going to happen. This doesn’t matter to us. 

Maybe it takes out-of-the-blue tragedies to make a generation wake up and realize we’re not alone in the world.

A Passport’s Journey, Part 2

photoSome of you may remember my post from two months ago, https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/a-passports-journey-2/, in which I talked about the awe and joy of finding a passport at a local rummage sale, and the many questions it raised for me.

Since then, life has gotten slightly in the way, but I haven’t forgotten that mystery. Every now and then I open my jewelry box, take out that passport, and look at the man’s photo. Wondering what he was thinking when it was taken. Wondering if he knew where he would be going over the next four years. Looking at the stamps, particularly those swastikas, and marveling again at how close history can come to touching us, in the here and now.

I have been able to discover a little about my mystery man. His name was Ernest Reid. I discovered this photo of him online:  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/oem2002000450/PP/ so it seems he was working for the US government during the early 1940s.  He was at the Mellon Institute. He was a chemist. From what I have discovered, he was born in Chase, KS on December 17, 1890, and died in 1966 in St. Petersburg, FL. He was married to Leila E. English, was drafted into the army during World War I, and then . . . ? I know he was a chemist; he worked for the Mellon Institute, and then for the Chemical and Allied Production during World War II (but in what capacity, exactly, is unclear).

And that’s as far as I’ve been able to go. passport 1

I often thought, over the last two months, that I should go back and talk to the woman, the one who sold me the passport — but it was one thing, in a long laundry list of things, that just never got done. I’d hoped maybe she was related to him, or knew someone who was. I fantasized that maybe they had suitcases and boxes full of his papers and journals, detailing every last trip, observing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, commenting on the tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia, talking about why he was bloody there to begin with, because that’s the mystery that has me wrapped around its little finger!

But, I’m a person who often prefers daydreams to reality, and I never went. Afraid of what I’d find out.

Then, this weekend, I was out rummaging — yet again! — and thought one of the addresses looked familiar. And it was. The same house. The same wonderful lady, who remembered me. And the passport.

Alas, she knew nothing about it. She, too, had bought it at a garage sale! See, daydreams vs. reality. But she was incredibly interested to hear what I had found out so far, and we speculated on what he might have been doing — she even said, “It amazed me that he always seemed to be one step ahead of everything.” So true . . .

So now, I am still on a quest.

If you are related to Ernest W. Reid, or the English family of Macksville, KS (A.G. English was listed as his “emergency contact”), I would love to hear from you, and maybe return this passport to its rightful place — if I can have some answers! 🙂