Care and Feeding of Beta Readers

Writers Tears

DO: give thematically-appropriate gifts.

DO give them a properly formatted, grammatically-correct, spell-checked manuscript.* It’s annoying as hell to wade through someone’s poor grammar to try and understand their story.

DON’T respond to critiques about poor formatting, poor grammar, misspellings, or misused words with “that’s just how I like to do it.” That’s fine if you’re journalling just for yourself, but the second you give someone a manuscript to read you’re on their time and you owe it to them to follow the rules of engagement. Also, you sound like an entitled twat.**

DO include any relevant reference material. Maps (especially for alternate world settings) and glossaries are useful for understanding some stories.

DON’T foist your whole world-building bible off on them so they can be awed by your genius. They won’t be.

DO offer compensation. Some don’t want it, but you should still offer. It doesn’t have to be money. I have paid beta readers in reciprocal critiques, hugs, wine, knitted socks, and curry.

DON’T only give them what you promised if they say they loved it without reservation. Seriously, if you’re this fragile, you don’t need a beta reader; you need a therapist.

DO listen carefully to whatever they say. You don’t have to like it, but you should listen.

DON’T summarily reject or accept everything. Think about it all, and then take what’s useful. If they’re a good critic, most of what they tell you will be useful, even if you don’t want to hear it.

DO secure your baggage. Mostly, stow your fucking ego.

DON’T ask for a critique if you don’t want to hear it. Ask for something else. Some bubble wrap, maybe.

DO someone else while the beta reader is working on it. Literally anything else. Work on a new story. Write query letters. Learn ancient Arabic. Regrout the bathroom. Anything.

DON’T nag them to finish. Are annoyance and obligation really the feelings you want your story to evoke?

DO expect a reasonable time-frame for return. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ will vary according to every reader. You should talk about it when you hand over the manuscript.

DON’T expect them to drop everything else to work on it. People have lives, and they do not revolve around you.

DO treat them with respect, and thank them for their time. Really, this should be your mantra for dealing with everyone. And if it’s not, well, it’s going to take more than a writing blog to help you.

*As much as you can. Software can do weird things, but you shouldn’t do weird things on your own, and if you can’t master the rules of grammar, spelling, and proper word use, you should work on those before you go looking for beta readers.

**If that’s your ‘brand’, then please go away forever.

14 Steps To Planning For That Big Writing Project.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest

Better fuel up.

1. Figure out how long it is. Or should be. Or will be.

2. Figure out how many words you can write/edit/extrude/divine in a day without completely losing your shit.

3. Berate yourself for not being able to get as many words done as a famous person/another writer/some imaginary version of yourself.

4. Drink.

5. Get a calculator. Or your phone. They’re the same thing.

6. Divide the number of words needed by the number of words per day OH GOD I’M ASKING YOU TO DO MATH THIS IS WHY YOU TOOK UP WRITING YOU HATE MATH.

7. Figure out how many days a week you can devote to this project. Don’t forget to include other obligations, including but not limited to: jobs, families, pets, exercise, sleep, world domination, reading, taxonomical classification of nose hairs, and banned genetic experimentation on the ants in your backyard.

8. Divide days needed by days per week. This is your number of weeks.

9. Add, like, ten percent to that number, because shit happens.

10. Add on an extra week to account for the time in the middle when you’ll realize you made a mistake four chapters ago and now have to fix everything.

11. Examine the resulting timeline. Don’t forget to include any scheduled vacations.

12. Realize you’ll be done shortly after Christmas. Christmas, 2035.

13. Drink again.

14. Start.

Writing Technique Deathmatch: Fix Now VS Fix Later

For Steph-174 (1)

Your next opponent is this peacock, because peacocks are assholes.

Time for the ultimate editing showdown: fix your plot holes and story problems as you go, or wait for the end and go back? It’s head-to-head time for these two competitors, so let’s ring the bell and get in there!

*DING*

Fix That Shit Now

Pros:

-Less of a nagging sense of doom hanging over the project.

-Can fix the problem while it’s fresh in the mind.

-Nothing to pile up on the MS to-do list, turning it into an impassible quagmire of shit.

Cons:

-Might realize the fix was another mistake, leading to another fix.

-Endless reiteration through the same five chapters of the manuscript can lead to overclocking your brain and having it melt all over your desk.

-Possibility of never finishing the goddamned thing.

Fix That Shit Later

Pros:

-Can concentrate more on what’s happening right now in your story.

-Fixing things while in editing mode is easier than trying to fix them in cracked-out-zero-draft mode, because you are marginally less of a lunatic.

-FINISHING. Oh god, finishing, sweet sweet finishing.

-The world might end, rendering the problem moot.

Cons:

-Might forget what the fix is supposed to be.

-Hard to reference early events if they’re different but you haven’t written them yet.

-Makes actual finish date seem like three days past never, possibly leading to giving up writing altogether and starting your own goat-weaving collective.

Final Verdict:

Edit later on zero drafts and anything else where you’ve got to dump out your brain contents before your sort them; edit now for second drafts, editing passes, and other, more difficult, story wrangling.

I HAVE SPOKEN.

*DING DING DING*

Editing, Video Games, and Vaccination: Too Many Metaphors

shrimp-fcks-cabbage

Editing: it’s important.

For me, editing is the hardest part of writing. And it is a part of writing. It’s the part that takes whatever you produced during the other part of writing and makes it suck less.

But editing hurts. It kicks your ego right in the fun bits. And it can be really, really fucking frustrating.

A thought: if writing was video games, first drafts would be like fighting games: AAAAHHHHH HIT THAT GUY NO NOT HIM THE OTHER GUY WHAT’S HAPPENING BUTTON MASH BUTTON MASH. You’re hanging on for dear life, just trying to make it to the end of the round.

Whereas editing is a puzzle game: okay, if I move this block, that door opens. But if that door opens, then that torch goes out, and I need the torch to see the block, so I need to find another torch or another block…or maybe a lever? Maybe…

…followed by ninety minutes of moving things around and then rage-quitting to do literally anything else.

Drafting is flying high; editing is patiently grinding away on the ground. But you need both, and of the two, editing is usually the one that gets neglected.

And you know what happens then?

You produce shit, that’s what.

This is the problem with bad self-published works. No one edited them, so none of the rough edges have been worn off. It’s like the author crapped out a first draft and, instead of hitting ‘save’, hit ‘publish’ instead.

Which is a shame, because I’ve read some fantastic self-published works. But they’re surrounded by festering clumps of toilet-bowl manuscripts. And those unedited crap-piles make it harder for people to take self-published works seriously.

To shamelessly switch similes, editing is like vaccination: yeah, it hurts a bit, but if you don’t do it you’ll get rubella.

Wait. No.

If you don’t edit your stuff, you’re letting your story be that unvaccinated kid wandering around Disneyland: they’re not as strong as they could be and you’re compromising the effectiveness of everyone else’s work.

So, for the love of whatever Invisible Beard In The Sky you believe in, edit your work.

And vaccinate your kids.

Round and Round: How To Re-Outline A Writing Project Because You Made A Terrible, Terrible Mistake

GOTG

Spin me right round, baby, right round.

1. Write down what happened. In your current draft, anyway. Simple sentences, scene by scene. Cover everything. Everything important. Hint: if you leave it out of your outline, it’s probably something you should think about cutting, because you couldn’t be arsed to write one goddamn sentence about it.

2. Code them. If you’re using Scrivener or Trello or some other index card maker thing, then mark the scenes somehow to indicate different metrics. I mark plots/subplots and viewpoint character. Then I lay them all out in order and see how they stack up. Does one of the subplots disappear, only to reappear at the end? Or never reappear at all? Am I spending more time inside a secondary character’s head than I am inside the main character’s? Cast the augury of the cards. They will reveal your weakness, through which your enemies may strike at thee.

3. Patch and fill and cut. Move stuff around, change viewpoint characters, create some scenes that resolve that subplot…or cut it altogether. Make it count or flush it.

4. Write down what should have happened. New set of cards, writing down what needs to happen now that you’ve changed fucking everything. This is the worst. It’s okay. We’re almost done.

5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Mark up your new cards with pacing elements: action, exposition, character revelation. Does the flow work now that you’ve added in things? If not, get more cards. Oh god, more cards. Keep working at it until it flows like sweet, sweet bourbon. Which reminds me: you might need some bourbon.

6. Mark the scenes as Stop, Go, and Slow The Hell Down. I use the Label function to turn my cards green, red, and yellow. Stop is a new scene entirely. Go is a scene that can be taken 90% verbatim from the old draft. Slow The Hell Down is a scene that needs to be tinkered with in order to fit. Try not to freak out over the amount of red and yellow cards.*

7. Begin. Again. This time with a plan.

*For example, I sat down with a huge coffee at the local caffeine pusher and worked my way through all these bloody cards and here’s my breakdown: 13% Stop, 55% Go, 32% Slow The Hell Down.

Set It All On Fire, Child: Editing

Set It All On Fire

I found this on my phone, and I have no idea why I saved it, but I’m glad I did.

I’m picking my way through my manuscript right now, piece by excruciating piece. And, as that last sentence might tell you, it’s not fun. Few things in writing are less fun than looking through your own stuff for every fucking thing that’s wrong with it. Unless, you know, you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In that case, one, yes there is, and two, you’re in for a rude awakening when you ask for feedback, cupcake.

Anyway.

Sometimes the only way to get through this crap is to set goals. Make a chart. Figure out how much you need to get done in order to reach the end, and then divide that by the number of working days. I can only edit for a max of about two hours in one go before my brain melts out of my ears, so 110,000 words at two hours a day is…

A long time.

Well, not that long.

Other things probably take longer.

Like building a house. Or learning a second language. Conquering Australia.*

But, still, in writer terms, this is taking a while.

And it should. Finishing it too fast would mean I rushed through it, which means there’s still problems I didn’t find.

This way, a piece at a time, I can get…well, not all of them. But most of them. Plot holes are like ants, or the mystery pens: I don’t know where they come from, but if I see one, guaranteed there are a thousand more of the fuckers hiding nearby.

My job, on this second edit, is to expose their places, mark the locations, and come back later with fire and poison. Editing as I go leaves me with a tangled mess, as the plot holes scurry back into their nests because I’m too busy remembering what I changed here to find what I should change there. I need to take my time and get this right, or at least as right as I can.

So, when you’re tearing through your story, making it up for editing, remember: go only as fast as you can and still do a good fucking job. Otherwise it’s more work later, and one more chance that you’ll either fuck it up or get frustrated and give up.

Edit first; fire later. Say it to yourself.

I’m almost to the fire. So close.

But not yet. First…first I’ve got a lot more of these days to get through.

* I kid, Australia. We’re cool.

30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.