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.

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Characters Are Not Webcams

funny-pictures-cat-does-science

Actual photo of me.

Brace yourself. I’m about to drop some serious science on you.

Are you ready?

Okay, I’ll wait.

How about now?

Fuck, put that helmet down, what do you think science is?

All right. Ready now?

Good. Here it is: there are five senses*.

Ground-breaking? Not really. But you’d never know that by reading some books.

Characters in these books look, see, observe, stare, and glance, but they don’t often smell. Or taste. They hear, because dialogue is important, but they don’t feel. Well, except for emotional feels.

Now I get that sight is important, but it’s sure as hell not everything. I’m far more likely to have a visceral reaction to a scent than a sight. The smell of a perfume I used to wear in high school makes me nostalgic; the unique smell of a hospital emergency room–disinfectant, panic-sweat, blood, and stale coffee from the vending machine–makes me tense.

Then there’s sounds: a song you used to love, back when you were a different person; the whine of a plane’s propeller as you left; the slow, wet swish of a mop removing blood from a tile floor.

And let’s not forget the things we touch: the weight of your favourite leather jacket, perfectly worn; the stiffness of new jeans; the coolness of a metal pen as you sign that contract.

Did any of those descriptions make you smile? Did any of them make you uncomfortable? Good. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Without them, the characters might as well be dispassionate webcam observers, seeing and talking but never touching, never smelling, never tasting.

That’s boring as shit, and as writers we can do better.

*At least. The scientific community is divided on whether things like spatial awareness, etc, should be considered separate senses or uses of the five commonly accepted ones. But for this post, let’s just concentrate on the five we all agree on.

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*

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.

Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

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Monday Challenge: Playing Catch With The Dark Lord

If only it was this simple.

Last week, I read a kid’s book that was fun, interesting, and, strangely, morally challenging.

Not a usual description of a book meant for ages eight to twelve–and, let’s face it, not exactly a cover blurb that would appeal to the intended audience–but from the point of view of a well-read, slightly jaded adult, it made the book so much better. And, while they wouldn’t put it that way, I imagine it improves the story from a kid’s point of view, too. There’s so much in kid’s lit that’s safe and nice that it’s not a surprise more kids don’t read. If you think children can’t spot your condescension a mile off, you’re in for a very rude awakening.

Remember the stories you liked when you were a kid? Better yet, remember the ones you told yourself? How many of those were nice? I’m betting not a lot. Because kids, as a rule, aren’t nice. Not in the way that adults think of the word. They can be sweet and funny and amazing, but nice requires an emotional maturity that most kids don’t have yet. Developing that is part of becoming an adult.

Kids are like tiny barbarian warriors: everything they feel is bigger and stronger than adults, but there’s not a lot of subtlety. When they’re happy, it’s really fucking happy. When they’re sad, the world is ending. And when they’re angry…batten the fucking hatches, because a Category 3 Kid-icane is blowing through.

And all this stuff usually comes from the one kid.

The School For Good and Evil details a school where the descendants of fairy tale characters learn to be heroes and villains. Simple enough. But, because these are the children of famous characters, we see the stories from the other side. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter whose dad was always away at work. The son of a slain werewolf, who’s just trying to make enough money to give his father a proper burial. The vain, greedy daughters of princesses who found their happy ending. The stupid, musclebound poser prince who was taught every day that looks and shoe size are the only things that matter when choosing a mate.

It’s a simple reminder: there’s more than one side to every story.

Monday Challenge time, children: write a popular story from the point of view of someone who cares for the antagonist. Everyone has someone: their parents, their children, their friends, that first grade teacher who still sees something worthwhile in them.

And maybe go read that book. It’s a good summer read, no matter how old you are.

Monday Challenge: Springy

The worst power up ever.

Maybe it’s because my lawn is finally starting to look like something other than the Devil’s frozen asshole, but I feel…springy*.

I’ve been doing a lot of digital cleaning. Mostly because, when my hard drive took a long walk off a short pier, I had to restore everything from a backup. Which took forever. But, being the sunny natured optimist that I am, I found something good in it: I could now reorganize my hard drive. After all, I had to erase the whole damn thing. Since I have a clean slate, it seems like a good time to think about an organizational structure.

I likened it to renovating after a house fire: yeah, I probably could have lived with things as they were, but now that it’s been burned to the ground, I might as well fix the weirdly shaped kitchen, patch that crack that was always in the floor, and clean out the nest of sentient crab spiders that roosts in the attic and throws parties on Tuesday mornings. It’ll improve things in the long run, and it’s not that much extra work compared to the Herculean effort that was already going on.

The result is a digital workspace that is better, cleaner, and more efficient. So the whole ‘my computer shit itself’ week had at least one good outcome: the laptop feels brand new again. And with a fraction of the cost–though a thousand times the work–of actually buying a new computer.**

Monday Challenge: write about something old made new. Spring springing, phoenixes rising, old ladies stealing the bodies of children to continue their quest for immortality, galactic armadas siphoning the power of a young star system to breathe new life into their war machines.

I’ll be over here, digging through the remains of my hard drive like a renegade archeologist looking for the Holy Grail. Or at least some interesting porn.

*To paraphrase Scrubs, ‘springy’ like the season, not like the inside of a mattress.

**Though I wonder how much longer I’ll get out of this machine. Like a double agent that claims it’s really on my side, I no longer trust it.