The Courage to be Published

Next Tuesday, Deadly DesignJune 2, is a birthday of sorts. If a book can have a birthday, that is. Let’s say they can.

My friend Debra Dockter is going to see her first book in print. Sitting in bookstores. In hardcover. With a dust jacket. (It’s awesome cover art, by the way). It’s humbling and inspiring to have seen this entire journey.

We joke that Deadly Design is my step-book – I’ve certainly spilled enough ink on it! I’ve read almost every draft that exists. I’ve seen scenes come and scenes get cut. I’ve seen characters get cut. I’ve seen characters come back, only to die in the next round of revisions, and be resurrected later.

Being a beta reader is tough.You have to be supportive and constructive, and not be afraid to tick off the author, and be ready to stand your ground. Hopefully, you’ve phrased your words well enough that no offense is taken, that the author reads your comments and slowly nods and says, oh, yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that, you’re so clever, what would I do without you? Being a beta isn’t about being a rude, brash, sanctimonious SOB. It’s not about destroying someone’s baby; it’s about helping them raise that baby. Every writer should be a beta reader, because it lets you see this entire crazy roller-coaster without having to actually be on the roller coaster.

I honestly don’t know how Deb did it. I don’t know how any of us do it. Her perseverance and dedication are phenomenal.

I remember the book that Kyle originally appeared in, sort of:  a medical mystery she’d drafted. The character I liked most was this smart-ass twelve-year old. Sometimes, characters demand their own books. I knew even then that Kyle was too big for this one – he couldn’t be a secondary character. And Deb knew it, too.

But that roller coaster. My God. How many drafts? How many red pens? I remember one year for Christmas, Deb gave me red pens. 🙂 How many queries to how many agents? She’d send out queries, and the cars would slowly start to inch their way up. There was no telling how long it would take for them to reach the top – sometimes, not more than a day or two, other times, a month or two. One memorable agent responded more than a year later with “Hey, sorry! Send me the first chapters!”

And I remember sitting in my favorite coffee house one afternoon and getting an email. Penguin’s interested. They’ve made an offer. What do I do? I sat there for a minute, and then typed back, Let’s sit here for a moment and appreciate how surreal this moment is, okay?

We talk about how brave it is to finish a book — and it is, definitely, that takes work and patience and dedication and time away from things you’d also love to be doing — but I think the real work begins when you start querying. When you start putting your baby out there into the world to be either rejected or accepted. Over and over and over and over and over. That takes a special kind of courage. A kind I’m not sure I have. Courage to open the emails and see the rejections. Courage to keep trying. Courage to sign on the bottom line, wondering if this is really the right agent, or should I hold out, or what do I do? Courage to remain patient as your agent shops your book to editors. Courage to either accept or reject the first offer.

And the courage to face the re-writes! Because there will be rewrites. My God, will there be rewrites.

So when you see a book – any book, but hopefully Deadly Design – on the shelves at your local bookstore next week or the week after, remember that. I don’t think being published is about fame and glory and money; I don’t even think it’s about sharing your creation with the world, as noble as that sounds. (Dr. Frankenstein wanted to share his creation with the world, too, remember!)

I think it’s about courage.

So, Deb and all the other published authors out there — I’m raising my cinnamon dolce latte in salute to you.

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Betas in Action: My Critique Session

FINALLY!!!!

I met with my beta readers, Deb and Cynthia, today to go over the revised first book of my series. And let me tell you, they were spot-on perfect.

First:  they talked about the good. My initial version of this novel was in third person, and they both loved the change to first. They loved my MC’s voice and her sarcasm, they liked being in her mind and knowing her thoughts, and they liked seeing the growth and change she undergoes. They liked some of my secondary characters a lot, especially my comic relief team. 🙂

Second:  they got down to the nitty-gritty. And what was amazing was that they both had pretty much the same things to say, and that we were able to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they saw.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene (if you don’t know Latin, that means “note this well!”):  if your betas agree on the same thing, that’s something you need to fix.

Those Blasted Secondary Characters:  One thing they both agreed on, which was something that had already been in the back of my mind, is that two of the secondary characters do not play a huge role in the story. They will play BIG roles later in the series, so I had to introduce them now. But Deb and Cynthia felt they were too peripheral, and that I had two choices. A.) Make them more important and put them in scenes where we get to know and like them better, or B.) Eliminate them. I will have to do some thinking on that, especially since I’ve never seen myself working in waste management. But. Secondary characters have to play a role:  they can’t be window dressing. So we brainstormed ways to give them solid roles in the story.

See? Betas are good! 🙂

“Oy! You’ve said this already!”:  They also picked up on some key phrases that I overuse. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have that problem,” HA!!!! We all have “go-to” phrases that we revert to when we’re writing, even subconsciously. You need to train yourself to look for them. Sometimes they’re scattered throughout the manuscript, and it takes a fresh set of eyes to find them all. And sometimes, just some time away will let you see that you’ve used that same phrase four times in two pages. Ahem. Not that I did that or anything.

A Different Perspective:  Betas are also good because they have different knowledge and backgrounds than you do (or they should, if you’ve chosen properly). Deb teaches psychology, and she had some great suggestions for the massive conflict that forces my MC to break up with her boyfriend. Things I hadn’t even thought about, because I’m a historian, not a psychologist.

That inevitable “What the fruitbat?” moment:  One thing that did catch me off-guard was the sudden emphasis both Deb and Cynthia had on my MC’s family. They appear in just one tiny scene at the end, but they both felt that my MC’s entire family couldn’t hate her. (My inner writer is still saying, “Hmm. I remain unconvinced. I must think upon this.”) But Deb made a very good point:  she said, in effect, “When I read this, it made me stop reading and wonder why her entire family were jerks.” And one thing you never want to do is take your reader out of the story. Therefore, Deb’s reasoning was absolutely valid. As a beta, remember, one of your key tasks is to help the author make the story better. In the end, I think we all agreed on the fix.

I’m not saying it was always easy to hear the criticisms. There were certainly instances where I felt my inner writer rise up and say BUT I LOVE THAT AND IT’S NOT COMING OUT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY YOU MEAN, MEAN PERSON!  Wait. That was my inner drama queen, sorry. It was my inner writer that made me sit back in my chair, carefully consider everything they said, and admit that they were right. Or at least, that their opinions had validity. 🙂

And the clearest example of this was the vehemence with which Cynthia hated my ending.

I love my ending. It took days to craft into perfection. It’s bold. It’s full of intrigue and danger, and sorrow and sacrifice. According to Cynthia, it’s also full of crap.

For one very good reason, though, which she explained (and with which Deb agreed):  because there’s no real resolution to the largest problem. Yeah. I know. It hurt to even write those words. I was trying to blame the fact that Cynthia just got married on her insistence on a happy ending. But damn it, she made a good point:  we never really solve the mystery of who killed Someone Very Important, and we need at least one bloody thing resolved in this book. Not everything gets to wait until Book #381 to be explained or solved. 

So we spent quite some time going over Who Really Killed This Very Important Person, and why, and how to impart that information. As Cynthia put it, “Erin (my MC) is throwing everything away, including her academic career, to help this girl. It has to be for something.” So now my job as the writer is to incorporate those changes in a way that makes sense, is true to the story, and yet enables us to still have a bit of a mystery. Yay!

All told, this was such a great session. This wasn’t about them telling me what was wrong; this was about us working as a team to make the book better. When you, the writer, come into a critique session with an open mind and a willingness to admit your betas have a point (because if you don’t, then why did they just waste their time reading your manuscript?), magical things happen. And when your betas come to the session with both the good and the bad, and the confidence to state both equally and give their reasons for their opionions, magical things happen. Magical things = Your Book Gets Better.

I know mine will. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

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.)

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!

What do you do with a problem like a beta? (to be sung to “What do you do with a problem like Maria?”)

Okay, maybe I’m a bit biased this week. My betas are wonderful people (and since they’re about half of the subscribers to my blog, I need to be nice to them!). 🙂

A beta — or beta reader — is someone who reads your manuscript BEFORE you send it to an agent or editor, or self-publish it. And if you think you don’t need them, please think again. You have only to go to Amazon and look at the thousands of free e-books, written and published in what must have been two or three days, to know you do. Betas are part of what set writers apart from good writers.

In this blog, http://www.smallbluedog.com/what-makes-a-good-beta-reader.html, author Belinda Pollard lists the main characteristics of what makes a good beta reader. It’s a great read, as it really makes you think. Even if you already have beta readers, are they really the right fit? Is the new book you’re working on a different genre, that might require new betas? Are they really giving you encouraging, but real, feedback? All things writers need to ask themselves!

This post by Joel Friedlander, http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/03/5-things-you-should-know-about-working-with-beta-readers/, offers more great advice. Everyone’s different. Some will prefer to read your manuscript on their e-reader, others want that hard copy so they can make free with the red pen. And I think the most important point in Joel’s post is this:  never, ever give them a draft. Ever. Not even if your life depends on it. If you think your first draft is good enough, forget it. Put it away for a month. Then come back to it. Don’t be in such a freaking hurry. Trust me, once you look at that MS with fresh eyes, the first words you’ll say will be something like, “What the &%?@!!!# was I thinking?!”

Rule of thumb:  if you wouldn’t send it to an agent, don’t give it to your betas, unless you have a specific reason to do so. For instance, I went through 15 drafts of my latest manuscript before giving it to my betas. Then, a month later, I recalled those copies and did another 5 drafts before giving it to them again. But this time, I did it knowing there were things I didn’t like, but didn’t know how to fix, and I gave them specific instructions to read not for typos, but to see how the plot lines flowed and if there were holes anywhere. The problem is, I know my manuscript too well. I need my betas to read it with fresh eyes and no preconceptions. And that’s exactly why you need betas as well.

I hear you, I hear you:  but what if they — gasp! — steal my idea??? Trust me, they won’t.

I hear you, again:  what if they don’t read it? Yeah. That is a problem. Everyone gets busy. I get that. But you’re waiting for people to read it, because you need to make those changes. That New Year’s resolution of “finish MS and find agent!” is looming, big and red and angry on the calendar. And all you can do is sit back and give them gentle nudges every now and then, and pray that they actually follow through. Nerve-wracking, isn’t it?I know. I’m there. I’ve been there.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Give them a deadline — but not a horrendous one. Ask them what time frame they think they can have it done by. Then, extend it by at least two weeks.
  • Are you going to meet in person, or have them email you their feedback? Either way is okay, but make sure that if you are meeting face to face, that the meeting doesn’t go off-topic.
  • Are your betas really ready to read this? Sometimes, people just aren’t. If the deadline has passed and they haven’t finished — or even started — your manuscript, it probably isn’t priority and you should ask them to be honest. Do they really want to do this right now?
  • Have several betas. Don’t rely on 1 or 2. Join a writing group, where there’s peer pressure to provide timely feedback, or join an online group (links at the bottom of the page!) where you can read others’ works to earn credits towards having your own read.
  • Be a beta reader yourself! Ideally, your own betas are also writers. Be sure you’re willing to read their work as well, and make sure they know that. And if they do ask you to read their work — do it. Be constructive. Be prompt. Be positive. That will also give you an idea of how hard a job you’ve asked YOUR readers to take on. 🙂
  • Move on to the next project. You’ve given them your manuscript and they have a deadline. Now, distract yourself by being productive for the next two weeks or month or whatever.

Now. There are some sites where you can read others’ work and get feedback on your own. Here’s links to some of them:

http://www.behindthestory.org/club-faqs/

http://www.scribophile.com/

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ (not only can you ask questions on several different forums, but once you’ve had 50 posts, you can join the Share Your Work forum!)

http://www.worldliterarycafe.com/forum/125

http://thewritersguidetoepublishing.com/authors-are-you-looking-for-beta-readers-and-book-reviewers (there’s a link in the article to the group’s Facebook page)

There are probably MANY others, and your local bookstores probably know — or even host — writing groups local to you. So there’s no excuse now to publish something that’s crap! Get out there, find your betas, and get going!