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.

Done Like Dinner: 5 Theories On When A Story Is Finished

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These pretzels know the end is coming.

1. When you reach the end. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know which end. The end of the zero draft? That might not make sense after edits. The end of the second draft? But what about the next round? The end of the edits? Hahaha, just kidding, edits never end.

2. When you can’t stand to look at it any more. This is when I usually send things to beta readers. So, an ending of sorts, but I wouldn’t call it done. Not with the comments that usually come back.

3. When you’re happy with it. This would be great…if there was ever a writer who was completely, one thousand percent satisfied with something they’d written. I’m not sure such a person exists outside the tales of old. Show me this unicorn so that I may ask their secrets.

4. When it’s published. This, once, was the final end. Once it’s published, you can’t change it any more. Or you shouldn’t; Pamela gets weirder and weirder with each version. But now, through the miracle of ebooks, publishers can change books after the reader buys them. Which I’m pretty sure is the opening of 1984.

5. When you have to do something else. This is my preferred level of doneness: when I could change stuff, but, really, I’d rather be working on a different project. Those sequels aren’t going to write themselves. Or that short story. Or that completely different novel.

How about you? When do you consider a story done?

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.

10 Things I’ve Learned In A Decade Of Creative Work

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This wine is for medicinal purposes after realizing how long I’ve been writing.

Writing Tuesday’s post made me do some math, and the result of that was: it has been almost ten years since I completed my first manuscript.

The actual decade mark will come sometime early next year, but it’s close enough. I remember it quite well, because in the spring of 2006 I was finishing up my master’s thesis and wondering how I would fill a year before going into PhD work.

Eight months later I burned all my PhD applications and watched the ashes flutter away in the January wind.

Since then I have not had a ‘real’ job. I’ve worked temporary part-time stuff, but nothing that you can tell people when they turn to you at a party and ask the dreaded question: “And what do you do?” I’ve been writing.

Here are some things I’ve learned in the last almost-decade:

1. There is no validation. Do not expect the easy win. In some ways, doing this is worse than a day job, because at least there someone can tell you if you’re doing it right. Artists are all pitching words or images or songs into the void and hoping something comes back. It is not for the faint of heart.

2. This is a long con. Be prepared for the long haul. This road runs into the desert, and there’s no proof it ever comes out again. Take water and sunscreen and a machete, because you’re going to be out there a while.

3. People don’t get it. Maybe art is something they don’t understand or something they wish they had done or something they feel is morally wrong, but, man, a lot of people do not fucking get it. Tell them you’re an artist and if you’re lucky you’ll get a blank stare. If you’re not…

4. It makes some people angry. On the upside, these people usually act like complete assholes, so you can safely ignore them while they flail around with their judgmental snark and passive-aggressive comments. It’s about them, not you.

5. Even work you love can be hard. There will be days when you want to punch yourself in the brain to make all the words fall out.

6. If it takes more than it gives, then you’re probably in the wrong job. All jobs take, and creative jobs are no exception. The only difference is what they take. In my case, writing has taken my time, my mental energy, my personal financial security, my independence, my other ambitions. It gives me joy, entertainment, freedom, and purpose. If you’re not getting more than you’re sacrificing, according to your own idiosyncratic math, then you’re doing the wrong thing. Actually, I guess that applies to all jobs.

7. You’ll work harder at this than any other job you’ve ever had. A couple of years back I had to put myself on a regular schedule, because I was spending almost eighty hours a week working on writing and was on the verge of burning out altogether. Even now, I work about fifty. That includes writing, outlining, editing, researching markets, sending out submissions…there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into producing art. And you usually don’t get paid for it. Be prepared for that.

8. It makes you a different person. Not a better person, note. Just different. I am not the same person I would have been if I had gone on to do my PhD. Or gone into teaching. Or done anything else. I look at the world in different ways. Sometimes they’re good ways. Sometimes I’m mining personal tragedy for story fodder.

9. You’ll want to quit. At least once. More likely thousands of times. Sometimes all in one day.

10. There is no rush like creation. When everything’s clicking over just right and all your hard work is coming together, you’ll fly. And you’ll never want to come back down.

Where To Find Ideas When Your Brain Has Dried Up

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Come on, the ideas are just waiting. Photo by Stephanie Snow

The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.

The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.

The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.

The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.

The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.

The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.

The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.

The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.

Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.

Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?

The 25 Moments You’ll Have After Finishing Your Manuscript

Crown Royal Northern Harvest

I got your stiff drink right here, hur hur hur. 

1. The Afterglow. Wow. That was…wow. Hand me a cigarette, would you? And that bottle of whiskey.

2. The Replay. Did you see how I wrapped up that nagging plot thread at the end? And that climactic scene…that was amazing. I’m amazing.

3. The Exit. Well, this was fun, but it’s time send it to beta readers. Not that they’re going to find anything to comment on, right?

4. The Send Off. Enjoy, beta readers! You’re in for a treat.

5. The Next Thing. I should start a new project.

6. The Worry. It’s been 24 hours. Why haven’t the betas gotten back to me? Didn’t they stay up all night, red-eyed and weeping, unable to put my book down? What’s wrong with them?

7. The Reassurance. They’re probably just taking their time to enjoy it. Yeah. Yeah.

8. The Temptation. I should call them.

9. The Resistance. No. Be strong. You’re not that needy.

10. The Questioning. Are you?

11. The Distraction. Come on, man. Get it together. They’re a busy person. They’re probably not spending all their time reading your book. They have to…work, or sleep, or some shit. Just write this short story until they get back to you. That’ll keep you busy.

12. The Failure. I hate this short story.

13. The Dark Turn. I bet the betas hate my book.

14. The Darker Turn. I hate my book.

15. The Peek. It can’t be as bad as I remember. I’ll just read some of it over…

16. The Reveal. Huh. Didn’t remember that dropped subplot. Or that vanishing character. Or that name switch.

17. The Hope. Maybe they won’t notice.

18. The Truth. They’ll notice.

19. The Horror. Fuck me, another plot hole? And where did that guy come from? What happened to that guy’s head? How many problems are there in this thing? How did I not notice them before? Was I fucking blind?

20. The Scramble. Maybe…maybe the betas haven’t started yet. Yeah. Sure. They’re busy people. Maybe I can fix all this before they read it and email them another version. A better version. Yeah. That’ll work. Then they never need to know how I–

21. The Notification. Was that my email alert?

22. The Return. Shit.

23. The Resignation. Well, as long as they sent it back, I might as well see how bad it is. They must have hated it. It’s got so many problems. Maybe the comments they left will make it easier to give up writing and become a wandering kung-fu master.

24. The Comments. Wow…this…this isn’t as bad as I thought. I mean, yeah, there’s issues, but…they liked it. Mostly. Except for these bits…and I didn’t like those, either, so…

25. The Rewrite. I can fix all of this! Crank up the atomic turbines and brew the coffee! I’m going back in!

Dominos Falling: When The Story Takes Over

Only one way to go from here.

When writing a novel, there comes a time when things become…inevitable.

Not in the boring sense. But eventually you’ve done all the work setting up those dominos in intricate patterns all over the floor, and the only thing left to do is knock them all down.

Also like dominos, this tend to happen fast. So fast that writing is like trying to stay ahead of an avalanche: move fast, step light, and for god’s sake don’t stop.

I have reached this point.

This is where the pace picks up. 1500 word days suddenly turn to 3000 word days. Or 5000. Or more. And all I want to do is keep writing until the inkwell runs dry.

So that’s what I’m going to do. As of now, the blog is on hiatus until this novel is finished. Time to stock up on coffee, crank the tunes, and hold on for dear life.

See you on the other side.