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.

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*

Recycling From The Fail Pile

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Not Pictured: That Manuscript. This is a completely different one.

I wrote a scene for a book ten years ago.

Shit. Writing that sentence was the first time I stopped to do that particular math. Fuck. That was longer ago than I thought.

Anyway, this was my first finished book. It sucked. I mean, it’s not spectacularly bad– it doesn’t physically hurt me to read it, like some of my earlier, unfinished stories–but it still sucks. It will remain in cold storage indefinitely, or until the sun explodes and burns us all to a crisp.

But there was this one scene. I liked it. I still like it. Not the way it was written, because, dude, I was just starting out then. I had spent the previous six years writing academic papers. My fiction writing was not great, to say the least. I could over-explain like a boss, though.

But I liked the idea behind this scene. It’s one of the only parts I remember really clearly from that first book, so it stuck with me, even after the rest has been mercifully flushed down the memory hole.

And over the weekend, I was doing the brain work on another story and I realized something.

I had written that scene for the wrong book.

The one it belonged in was the one I was working on now.

So what’s the moral of this tale? Well, it’s not never throw anything away, because some of the stuff you produce will be complete garbage and you should absolutely throw garbage away.

But some things don’t stay on the compost heap. They claw their way back. And those…those you should give a second look. Because it might be a case of right place, wrong time. Write place, wrong time, maybe, if I’m allowed a moment to be completely insufferable.

Old scenes, old characters, old plots can be reused, especially if you originally created them for something that never quite came together. Break it down for spares and use the parts that work.

And let the rest stay on the fail heap. For now.

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.

Broken

Blood of Enemies

Mugs like this help, too.

You are broken.

That’s okay. So am I. So is, I assume, everyone else reading this, because if you’re of the age where you think you’ve got a story to tell, then you’ve probably got a few cracks. Whether you know it or not.

Sometimes they’re hairline fractures, hardly big enough to see, but definitely big enough to feel. Sometimes they’re fissures wide enough to let the darkness in until it seems like the darkness is all there ever was and ever will be.

That’s okay, too.

Because if you’re trying to tell a story–whether it’s with words or pictures or chords or steps–then all those broken pieces are where it starts.

We want to hide those pieces. If life teaches a lesson, it’s to keep that shit to yourself. No one wants to see that. No one else feels this way. Fuck you, you think that’s a problem, there are people starving to death, you entitled first world asshole.

But telling stories is sharing, and not in the kindergarten sharing-is-caring way. Sharing is ripping yourself open and examining what falls out of the cracks, even if it’s bloody. Especially if it’s bloody.

We’re afraid of what other people will think about it, but that shit is fuel and vehicle, N2O4/UDMH and rocket, guzzoline and War Rig all in one. And everyone’s got their own. We all come equipped to roll, but most of us never make it out of the station and into the desert.

People ask writers where their ideas come from. It’s there. The cracks and the stuff in between. The only question is: what will you do with it? Will you put all those broken parts on display? Will you drag up the stuff that’s too personal, too sharp, too real, and use it? Because if you do, you’ll tell a story that’s more you than anything else. The story only you could tell. The only one that’s worth telling.

So write about it. Write about shitty relationships and broken homes. Write about being ten years into a life you chose and not being able to sleep because what if you chose wrong? Write about struggling and falling down and not knowing if you want to get up again. Write about escaping, about fighting, about settling, about watching the clock roll over to midnight and realizing that another day is over and you didn’t do anything that you wanted with it. Write about the stuff you left behind and the stuff you carry with you into the desert.

You think no one want to hear that? Fuck you. The only story no one wants to read is “once upon a time everything was fine.”

And we don’t want that because we’re all just as broken as you.

So tell that story. And don’t worry about the judgement. Underneath we’re all held together with duct tape and rusty staples.