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How to use your beta readers effectively

I recently finished another manuscript and needed some beta readers. This is far from my first one, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. Let me share some with you now.

#1 – Give them instructions. Chances are, your beta readers are not professional editors, agents, and publishers. They don’t understand exactly what’s needed in their analysis. That’s perfectly fine, just give them a bit of instruction. For example, this manuscript I just finished is a picture book. Unless you have read the countless dozens I have, studied them as I have, read advice and articles as I have, you’re not going to realize a few things. One of those things is that the words don’t tell the story so much as the pictures do. I recently read The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket, and a prime example of this relationship. Nowhere does the writing tell what the bad mood looks like or that it’s floating around, etc. The artist does that. This is one of the instructions I gave my beta readers.

#2 – They aren’t trying to break your soul. OK, you just poured your literal soul onto a piece of paper, and someone had the audacity to criticize it?!?!?! Yup, that’s pretty much what just happened. But like our real soul, where we think we’re doing right but may be doing things very very wrong, we need a little instruction every now and again. When someone tells you something about yourself you don’t like, you probably dismiss it at first but then maybe, later, when you’ve grown a bit, you realize they might have been right all along. We don’t have that kind of time here. Take a deep breath, here it goes. Most say just keep getting critiqued over and over and you’ll get used to it, etc. Not for me. That didn’t work. What did work was to stop looking at it like the love of my life and more like a business. I’m building a car, not displaying my insides for the world to see. They’re telling me the gears don’t switch well, not that my favorite character isn’t working. What worked for me is to step back, aka strip the story away from my chest kicking and screaming, and then look at it. Once I’m in that mood, I take suggestions far more easily. It still hurts, but I’m more open to it, and that makes a better story.

#3 – Don’t take every single statement to heart. Like I said, they’re not professionals, and even if they were, each one will be different. I’ve seen countless authors, “One beta reader said this and now I have to fix it.” I’m like, “Why? Is it actually a problem? How many betas did you have?” If your answer is 6 or more, why do you care what that one said? Don’t get me wrong. That one could see something no one else did that does need to be changed. This is where you have to put your manager’s cap on and make the big decisions. Not everything they think needs changing needs changing, and you have to be the one to decide that.

#4 – Make a list and check it twice. Not everyone is cut out for beta reading. If they never get back to you, if their suggestions don’t line up right, they’re probably not the best reader for your books, just like a certain agent isn’t the best agent for you or a certain publisher, or, you know, a spouse. Everyone is different, and not everyone matches up. That’s OK.

Hope this helps you with your next manuscript. Good luck!

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When your writing quits writing itself

I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve been there. A LOT. But there’s always that chapter/scene where the writing stops. It’s like, “What am I supposed to be doing now? What’s supposed to be happening?” Even with a detailed plot structure with clear instructions of what is and is not supposed to be happening, it did it again.

Then my son asked a question.

The other day I was asking for help in coming up with a title for my current WIP, and my son asked, “What is the MC’s goal?”

And he had me.

Such a simple question. THE question, and I knew it was a problem since day one. I had the goal, but I didn’t. Not really. Whenever I tried to write an elevator pitch for the blurb, it just crumbled into obscurity.

And that’s when I realized. I have been over complicating things.

This whole time I kept thinking I needed more plot, more complexity. Alas, I needed more simplicity. I kept concentrating on the villain, kept claiming that defeating him was the goal. It so wasn’t.

The goal was XXX. The villain just gets in the way. Like my mother said, “KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.” And she was right.

Start with the simple and embellish later if you need to. Not sure I’ll ever be good at that, but at least now I know what the real goal is and that the villain has very little to do with it.

Oh yeah, the writing. See, without the correct goal, I was just spinning my wheels, my characters were passing time until the next big thing happened. NOW, my characters have a desire, a purpose, and my writing will go back to taking care of itself. Just to be clear, I did know their goal is what drove the story before this revelation. Whenever I would get stuck, I would think, “What does my character want? What would they do?” But this time, I have a clearer picture, a big picture, the right picture. Oh, and I also have an elevator pitch 🙂 Hoo yeah!

So, the next time you get stuck, ask yourself, “What would my character(s) do? What do they want?” They have to keep trying for their goal. If that doesn’t work as well as it should, reanalyze your main goal. Is it really defeating the villain, or does the villain just get in the way. Good luck with your writing!

The problem with Query rejections

We’ve all had them, from being completely ignored to a well thought out reply, even the notorious “form rejection”, querying is as much fun as jumping in a swimming pool full of razor blazes and alcohol. But let’s talk about something I don’t think most authors realize, and certainly not the agents. That’s right agents, I’m talking to you. Listen up.

I’m in the middle of querying, and I’ve gotten ignored. I’ve gotten obvious form rejections, and recently, I’ve gotten what I thought was a nice rejection. But it wasn’t. Let me show you:

I have now read your query. I can see the work put into the query and that you have effectively captured the nature of the novel, but I confess that it is not for me. I didn’t love it, and, unfortunately, if I don’t feel that strongly, I’m the wrong agent for the work. Publishing is a notoriously subjective business, and every author needs both an agent and an editor who do love their work. It’s hellishly difficult getting editors to take a look at new authors, so that initial enthusiasm is vital.

FYI, I’ve taken on five writers as clients and turned down well over 4,000, so far… I know it can be as difficult to get an agent as it is to be taken on by a publisher. You just have to keep plugging away. Good luck.

All best wishes for the future.

Yours,
XXX

Ah, what a beautiful letter! So full of kindness and encouragement, but here’s the problem. I took it to heart. I honestly thought I had “effectively captured the narrative of the novel,” and was prepared to review the written query in order to use it as the main backbone for future ones. My first clue this might be a mistake was that I didn’t send this agent any material. How could they possibly know I “captured the narrative” if they never laid eyes on it?

At first I assumed they, knowing far more than I in the biz, were somehow able to deduce this on their own. But just to be sure, I posted this letter on QueryTracker. Guess what? Someone else got exactly the same letter! Hmmm….

This agent wasn’t the only one like that. I had others with the same problem. And I remember, years ago, receiving a letter from an agent informing me that they just didn’t connect with my characters. While that is definitely advice to take to heart in writing and something which should be on the forefront of every manuscript, it was very likely not true. It was probably just another form rejection.

So, dear agent who wrote this, thank you very very much for trying to be nice and encouraging and wonderful but bear in mind, it almost cost me big time. The query I sent you was not my best, and had I used it as such, imagine the consequences. (although to be honest at this point I have no idea what’s best or worst as far as my queries go) Just leave out that little part about effectively capturing, and it’ll be great! And my thanks is most sincere. The last paragraph of chugging away is something I will probably print and mount to keep me going. To hear that from someone such as yourself brings tears from the knowledge of understanding and compassion. Thank you.

And, dear authors, this is a warning to you. Don’t take every rejection to heart. Research to make sure they meant what they said. QueryTracker is a great way to do this. TTFN! And good luck with your querying! You’re going to need it.

The Importance of Character

Many authors, like myself, get caught up in the plotline or, and this is my big booboo, the setting, the premise. So I’m really into sci-fi, etc, and the thought of watching a movie/reading a book where a building fades in and out of existence, taking its inhabitants to parallel worlds or even places of the universe is pretty cool. But that’s not what hooks the audience. It’s the characters. I know. I know. It’s hard to imagine for those visual effects people out there like me, but maybe this will help.

One of my absolute favorite games to play was/is Beyond Good and Evil. Ah Jade, Pey’J, even Double H, these were the characters who made up that game. The premise was amazing, the gameplay-amazing, the graphics, the collections, the photo taking, all great. But, and I didn’t realize this until I watched a trailer for it this morning, that’s not what made the game for me. It was the characters.

See, Jade is the character you play, and in the sequel us fans have been waiting on for 15, yes 15, years, she’s not in it. I watched the trailer this morning and didn’t recognize a single aspect of it. Pirates? Hmmm, OK, I guess I can pretend pirates had something to do with it. Different graphics? Well, it’s not my cup of tea, but I understand the audience wants the game to be up to date on the graphics side.

Wait.

Where’s Jade?

That’s right, the main character who you won the game with, the character you strove to keep alive, to save Double H and Pey’J with, the hero who struggled through and survived to live another day, who had the chemistry with Pey’J, yeah-she’s gone. And that was it. I was done with the game. I have no more desire to play the sequel, finite, nada.

This is why character is so important.

When I wrote the sequel to Anya and the Secrets of Cupola, the first chapter was almost a preface. It included, not the main characters of Gevin, Anya, and Taika, but a skinwalker named Azizi. A friend of mine read it and actually stopped themselves to look at the cover to make sure it was the right book as they didn’t recognize it as such. Ew. That’s bad. Real bad. Did I make a mistake? I hope not. I mean, there is a bit of a difference between one chapter without your characters and an entire book. Just look at Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now granted, my books don’t have movies and millions of fans to help the story stay in your head, but Azizi was mentioned in the first book, just like Riddle was in the Harry saga.

So by now you’re asking yourself what my point is. My point is that even though the setting, the premise, the built world is amazing and spectacular and will draw readers in like a mosquito on an otherwise perfect day, you’ll lose readers without good characters, and believable ones at that. Until next time 😉

Redneckgenuity

Yup. We’re rednecks. And proud of it. Our redneckgenuity has saved us thousands of dollars and untold heartache and time. It’s allowed us to do things we would never be able to do otherwise. Anyone who can’t appreciate that, well, we just can’t be friends. (insert appropriate emoji here)

Anywho, we bought a hot tub. Looks a lot like this.

It was used, of course, and they lied to us, of course. The pump was completely rusted and froze up, and the cover for the control panel is still missing. But, the jets and lights all worked, and the pipes were fairly clean.

We spent two months getting it to work, then several days cleaning and disinfecting it. We built a little room around it (still building), and as you can see, it was amazing, awesome, and beautiful.

And then…

We’re sitting in it, the roof finally overhead, and my son (whom I pretty much bought it for) says, “This is just like a real hot tub. It feels like it. It smells like it.” Hot tubs were always his favorite thing at hotels and such. Now we don’t have to worry about finding hotels with them, something I always tried to do because he loved them so much. Nor do we have to worry about the nasty, cause honey, I done seen me some nasty in them hot tubs!

So, right after he says this, the pump starts turning itself off and on. Off and on. I reach over to turn it off. No go. Arlis screams, “Get out! Get out!” We’re all worried it’s gone off the deep end or possessed by aliens like in Maximum Overdrive, and we’re about to be electrocuted any second. He pulls the breaker and it shuts off.

We spent the rest of the evening troubleshooting.

  • It overheated
  • There’s not enough water
  • The filter’s dirty
  • Blah blah blah

Nope. No success. Turns out, that missing top of the control panel was essential for keeping the water out, and as a result of its absence, water got into it.

We took it out, put it in rice, etc. Once dried. We hooked it back up and voila! It’s working again.

Now comes the problem. My original suggestion of Ziplock and duct tape won’t work, they say, because duct tape isn’t water resistant enough. They don’t make that control panel anymore, and even if we were able to get a cover for it, the gel that blocked the moisture from getting into the wiring had to be torn out to get it dry. No, we needed a safe place to mount it, and its original spot was not it.

So, we did this.

This first thing we did was fill up the hole. I found an old Tupperware dish I didn’t even know we had. Arlis cut the bottom out and ground down the edges, sanded it rough on one side and attached it over the hole of where the control panel originally sat with silicone caulking.

 

(I know the picture makes the water look gross, but it was dark.)

Then, we built a place for the control panel to safely rest yet be within reach should we want to use it.

Why yes, the cover is in bad shape. It’s called filling the holes with Great Stuff until we can afford a new one. And yes, it works AMAZING at keeping that sucker warm! Also, the top parts of the walls will be screened in instead of boarded up. This room is a work in progress.

And finally, we needed a way to keep the control panel from getting wet again when our wet fingers reached up and touched the buttons.

And there you have it, folks. Redneckgenuity at its finest. It works great again, and all it took was a bag of rice, and old Tupperware dish, and one Ziplock bag.

*Bows graciously*

Thank you. Thank you. 🙂

Balance

I recently rewatched one of my favorite lines:

Seven of Nine is toasting at a baby shower and says, “May all of her desires come true except one, so she always has something to strive for.”

I have had many goals and dreams in my life, and I have pursued most if not all of them. I have been a complete homesteader, making or growing all of my own and my family’s food. I homeschooled my child. I have sang on a stage to people literally chanting my name. I even finally got that book written. OK, several books written. And I finally, after several years, got a picture book published, albeit independently.

I’ve failed at more than I’ve succeeded (We outgrew our land and were never able to make a business out of it), but I’m pretty sure that’s normal for everyone. If we all succeeded at everything, as Seven so elegantly put it, what would we have to strive for?

I still have a goal, of course. I’m sure it’s more than obvious. I wish to be traditionally published. Will it ever come true? My doubt is growing, but that’s OK. See, I have something to strive for. We all need dreams. We all need something to look forward to.

A coworker friend of mine cruises a lot. At least once a year, sometimes several, and he told me that without the next cruise to look forward to, he gets horribly depressed. As any longtime reader of this blog knows, I have anxiety, but ever since I started writing, that anxiety has become manageable. Oh don’t get me wrong! The veins in my arms are presently burning with the desire to get something done. That will, unfortunately, never go away. But I can function far better now because of my writing, because I have something to strive for. If that desire is taken away, I become lost. It isn’t pretty. Does this mean that once I get my dream of becoming published I will no longer know what to do? Absolutely not! There are awards to yearn for, accomplishments to be had. I do not believe I could, or will, ever reach the top.

This blog post made an impression on me. Although it’s mainly about people who have peaked and therefore need a new life direction, it can be beneficial to us all, I believe. I’ve often pitied those who have reached the top, especially at a young age. All the athletes and gymnasts, now what do they do? It’s a shame really. We all envy them then, but in reality, their lives are but a tiny flash of joy sandwiched between the desire to reach that joy and the depression which follows.

So maybe I’m better off never reaching this goal. Maybe this is my one desire I will have to strive for. And I’m starting to be OK with that.

POC on a book cover

POC is a broad term including pretty much everyone that isn’t stereotypically white, and since a great deal of the world bunches all us “white people” together into one very stuffy, very stale bowl, it obviously doesn’t include everyone. But I recently watched a presentation by Barry Goldblatt, literary agent for Barry Goldblatt Literary, that spoke to me. He said there is still a firm belief within the publishing world that placing a POC on the cover of a book will keep it from selling, at least as well.

I don’t doubt that. But not for why you think.

As a child, when I saw a POC on a cover of a book, I groaned and moaned because I knew the book was going to be one of those serious “teach kids a lesson” books that would bore me to tears. It was usually a girl with some detrimental look on her face who had lived some terrible life of slavery and concentration camps and while very interesting and educational (probably more interesting to me now as an adult 😉 ) they were not fun. In fact, they were often depressing.

Fast forward to today. We pretty much have the same thing, only now the POC’s are Arabic and Indian.

But wait.

I’ve seen a very very few books with POC on the front that looked fun. Of Giants and Ice is one (although they left the POC off two of the four covers, never figured that out), Princess Cupcake is another. This blog post shares 12 books with POC where the topic isn’t racial. Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion looks cute.

I did an internet search and an Amazon search. Both came up with pretty much nothing but serious books that completely turned me off from the get-go. I had to really search to find a book with a POC on the front that was just for fun, like the ones I mentioned above. And I truly think that’s the problem. I think that’s the reason “POC covers don’t sell”. If the publishing community would quit treating POC like some sorrowful event we all have to read with our heads bowed, they would sell more. But that’s just my opinion.

What every character needs, actually … wants

As promised, here’s what I learned about character. Now, this post is not going to go in near the depth the class did, so I highly suggest you check it out.

Every character must have:

  1. A want. If the character needs something, the story is about fate. If they want something, it’s about the story being driven by the character. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they want it.
  2. A weakness. As the instructor in the videos said, “We love Superman because he’s vulnerable to Kryptonite.” Imagine for a moment if he weren’t. Every character has to have a weakness. Maybe it’s their anger, their jealousy. Maybe they’re allergic to air or moondust. It doesn’t matter, just find one (or more) for them.
  3. Where are they from? This is both geographically and emotionally. Their region of upbringing will affect their language, their culture, maybe even their strengths and weaknesses. Think about how growing up an army brat would change a person. Their emotional baggage they bring with them affects their personality, the way they react to anyone and everything. This needs to be discovered before they first word is written.
  4. Where are they going? This one’s a little more difficult to explain as the teacher didn’t explain it very well to me. What he said was if you know where the character is coming from and what they want, you will know how they will react to obstacles they come across or are thrown at them. I think what he meant was, are they going to have a smooth ride? Will they get what they want? What will happen to them along the way? That sort of thing.
  5. What do they do to surprise you? Pantsers’ characters surprise us all the time. I had no idea Anya would get jealous of Gevin when he was chosen, but by golly she did! She was such a strong character to me, book three really shocked me when she broke down and panicked. That should have been a warning bell for me, and it was. The scene where they face their greatest fears? Yeah, that took me days to figure out what hers was. She didn’t seem to have any, and I kinda made one up in the end. But hey, it worked, so there. This is one reason I’m recommending you do all this before you start writing. That way you don’t wait till book 3 of a series to finally discover what gets your character’s goat.

That’s all I’m going to discuss in this post. Again, I highly recommend you take the class, and good luck with your writing!

Handing in my pants – but not permanently of course

I’m gonna knock your all’s socks off.

I’m plotting.

No. Serious plotting. As in, I’m spending today doing nothing more than creating my characters. It used to be that I discovered plot and characters as I wrote. I totally pantsed my stories, unless or course I ran into a dead end or something. Then I brought out my trusty 8-point arc and went from there. But recently, I found the 8-pointer didn’t do it for me anymore. So, I got more serious with my writing.

Now, I’ve always been serious with my writing, and I’ve wanted to take courses for years, but I only recently have been able to (mainly due to not being able to find any, especially cheap enough I can afford it—aka free—and yet still legit). I’m glad I waited to be honest. I think I’m learning more from it now than I would have in the past.

So here’s what I’m taking:

https://www.coursera.org/specializations/creative-writing

It’s a 5 course series offered by Coursera. In order to get graded and join in on the peer reviews, you have to pay the $50/month, but all the lessons and actual assignments are otherwise free, just not the grading a peer reviews. I’ve only done part of the first course, but I’ve learned a great deal and am very impressed. While I plan to do every assignment, no matter how silly I think they may be, I’m also working on my next story while I do.

For example, we’ve learned the major plot points, but explained in a way I’ve never had explained before. I feel like I’ve leveled up to a higher plane or something. Also, we’ve learned about character. And that character drives the plot. I’ve heard a lot about plot driven and character driven before, but I’m only now understanding it. I’m going to explain a bit about the characters’ needs and wants for the story to have a greater depth, but I’m going to make a separate post for it. Here’s a link:

What your story’s characters need.

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