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May 2018

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 😉

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