Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beta Readers

I've mentioned this a few times over my last few posts, but my manuscript is nearly ready to be reviewed by beta readers.  If all continues on current trajectory, I will have a "beta-ready" draft by April 3rd.  As I prepare to send this to a few readers, I thought I'd explain the beta process in a little more detail, particularly with regard to my own ideas and expectations. 

Caveat: This is my first time sending a novel out for beta-review, so ideas and processes may change over time.  Not every writer approaches their review in the same way, and this might not even be the best way, but it makes sense to me right now. 

What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who is willing to read a complete, but as-yet unpublished manuscript and provide feedback to the author (me).  Here's the Wikipedia definition.  The beta should provide constructive criticism -- honest, useful, and insightful feedback -- on the work in question. 

From my perspective (and I imagine every author would feel approximately the same), it's not useful to say that you don't like me or you hate the book.  I need to know why you hate the book.  I need to know if and where plot holes exist.  I need to know if you got bored, or where there's not enough description.  I also need to know what you liked, and if you were excited, engaged, or couldn't put it down. 

What I don't need is a line-by-line copy-edit (although if you happen to see something, especially if it seems to be a recurring problem, go ahead and let me know so I can fix it). 

What are the expectations?
I think this is probably different for every author, but I'm going to request the following of my beta readers...

1. Deadline:  
We all have time constraints and life issues, but once it's out there, I'm going to be sitting on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, tearing my hair out, to find out what you think.  So...I will give you a month to read it and send back your feedback.  I'm not going to do any work on the manuscript after I send it out, so this will also give me some time away from it to have a fresh perspective when I'm reading through the comments.

2. No Sharing:  
Do not share the novel with anyone else at this point.  Not your mom, not your best friend, not your next door neighbor.  It's a work in progress, and I know there will be additional revisions after I get everyone's feedback.  If you like the story, FANTASTIC!  Tell everyone how great it is and then tell them that some day, once it's finished and published, they'll be able to buy it.  You can even tell them the premise of the story and why you liked it.  But please do not share the actual novel until it's published.  If I find out you've passed it along to someone else, I will hunt you down, okay, that's not true, but I'll be really upset.

Along with the manuscript, I'm going to send out a simple editing guide to use while reading the novel.  Essentially, I would like the beta readers to mark up the margins with their comments, using a legend of sorts to organize their thoughts.  For example, if a passage is boring, I want you to put a big "B" in the margin and explain in a few words why you're bored.  Like, "B - too much walking through the woods."  Or if a section is really exciting, it might be "E - LOVE IT!".

4. Be critical, but don't be mean: 
'Nuff said.

What can beta readers expect in return?
My undying gratitude.  And maybe a case of beer or a bottle of wine, your choice.

Okay, but seriously, I am trying to turn this into a career, so I will do my best to act professionally in my response to comments.  I will endeavor to not take any feedback personally, and I will not argue with your impressions of the book.  In fact, unless there's a comment that I truly don't understand, I promise to not bother you about it at all, unless you bring it up in conversation or something, and even then I promise to not get upset. 

Well, I'll do my best. 

It's a hard thing, putting your work out there for other people to tear apart.  But I really do want the criticism, because I need to learn and improve my writing.  I don't want people to coddle me and tell me that "it's just so wonderful."  That's why moms are not going to be allowed to read it (sorry Moms - you'll get to read it when it's finished).  Of course, I don't want to be crying over the darn thing either.

For those of you who are my beta readers -- and you should know who you are, but if not, you'll find out soon -- this is your chance to bow out.  If you don't think you can make the timeline, or don't want to put up with my Type A personality BS, you don't have to be a reader for me.  I won't get mad.  Believe me, I realize that it's going to be a bit of work, and we all have jobs, hobbies, and other commitments.  I will 100% completely understand. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

DropBox - a Lifesaving (okay, Writing-saving) Productivity Tool

It seems that I like posting on Tuesdays.  This was unintentional, but I guess routine will sometimes sneak up on you!


Today is March 15, which means I only have a couple more weeks before my self-imposed deadline.  Unfortunately, things are progressing much slower than I had hoped.  In part, that's my fault, because last week was not very productive for writing.  This happened for a number of reasons, but suffice to say, I let myself get distracted. 

This week, I'm trying to keep my butt in my chair as much as possible.  Luckily, I've been introduced to a new tool that will aid my progress.  It's called DropBox, and it's a super easy way to transfer files between computers.  All you have to do is save your file to the DropBox folder on your desktop and it will appear on every other computer that you've installed DropBox.  So now I don't have to go through the time-consuming process of saving the files to a flash drive and transferring them manually, or opening up Google Docs on a webpage to download the file.  It's already there!  Best of all, it's FREE!

I'll be working hard this week, and I still intend to make my deadline, come hell or high water.  I WILL have a beta-ready draft by the end of the month! 


On an unrelated side note, some of you may know that I have a Japanese exchange sister, Sachika.  In the aftermath of the earthquake, we were able to contact her.  She and her family are safe and sound, but the devastation has been brutal.  If you are interested in financially supporting the relief efforts, and want to make sure that 100% of your donation is being used directly in those efforts, you might consider donating to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  They have pledged that "your gifts...designated for the Pacific Earthquake and Tsunami will be used entirely (100%) in response to this disaster."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Work Hard and Finish What You Start

About a week ago, maybe more, I had a conversation with a good friend about my book.  She's read a bit of it and helped me through some tough choices that I've had to make on the early rewrites.  We were talking about the amount of time I've spent working on the novel, and how I've learned so much from this process.  Given today's knowledge, if I could start all over, I would do things very differently, though I don't think I can face starting over completely on this story.

She had one comment that really struck me during this conversation, and has stayed with me ever since:

"Don't stay married to the novel, just to justify your efforts." 

On first glance, that might seem like a terrible thing to say, but it wasn't, and I didn't take it that way.  Rather, she was forcing me to consider why I'm writing, and what it is I'm trying to accomplish.  She was helping me assess the work in progress.

Now I'm going to say up front that I'm not going to set the novel aside until I have a completed manuscript.  I have to finish the story.  I tried to explain why during the conversation with my friend, but I don't think I was very eloquent about it. 

Luckily, there's someone else out there that's been in the business much longer and is better equipped to speak on the subject.

David Coe is starting a new series of posts on Magical Words called "Back to Basics".  Part 1: Be a Writer posted on Monday.  Of the many good pieces of advice in that post, there was one that particularly struck a chord, because of this past conversation. 

6. Keep Moving Forward:  Ask Faith, and she will tell you that you are not a writer until you finish something — a story, a novel, something.  And she’s right.  I know so many aspiring writers who reach that tough section in the writing process and either retreat into rewrites or give up and start something new.  Revisions are important; the new-shiny is a great part of writing.  But writers finish what they start, and you need to keep moving forward with your Work In Progress.  Writing isn’t easy; part of the process is fighting through the stubborn sections of a work, finding that solution to a nagging plot problem.  Keep moving forward.  Finish what you start.

This brilliantly explains why I can't just stop working.  I can't call myself a writer until I've finished an entire work.  I've written a few short stories, sure, but they were intended to be writing exercises, not serious projects.  The novel is my first attempt to create something that's worth publishing.  The act of "finishing" the project will prove that I can, in fact, write a novel.  If it's not good enough this time, maybe the next one will be, but I can do it. 

Far too many people decide that their goals are just too hard.  They don't want to put in the time, effort, energy, money, or make the sacrifices necessary to achieve their goals.  They're afraid of failure.  And maybe they're even afraid of success.  So they quit mid-stream and go back to something that, at least on the surface, seems easier.

Life takes work.  Dreams take work.  There's no fairy godmother that's going to wave her magic wand and poof, you're a princess.  It doesn't work that way.  You pick a path, choose your goal, start at the bottom and work your way to success.  I don't care if you want to be a farmer or an astronaut, a ballerina or a WWF wrestler, you have to work to your success.  What's that old adage?  Anything that's worth doing is difficult (or something like that).

I want to be a writer.  I've spent nearly two years working on this novel, but I'm not yet a writer.  I will finish the novel, and then, only then, can I call myself a writer. 

Ultimately, I want to be an author.  If this novel isn't good enough for publication, then I'll start on the next project.  I will finish that one.  I may have to go through the process two or three more times, but eventually I will be published and then, only then, can I call myself an author.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Today is March 1st

This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.  March 1 follows February 28.  Not a complex idea, unless it's leap year, and then March 1 follows February 29.  Luckily it's not leap year.  And yet, somehow, March has taken me by surprise.  There's a lot wrapped up in this month.

This is the last month of work before my self-imposed deadline to have a complete manuscript for beta readers.

I have 4 weekends of solid writing left before that deadline (5 if I cheat just a little) and one of them will be spent traveling.  With the exception of time on the plane, I probably won't get a whole lot accomplished over the weekend away.

There are four Fridays before it all hits the fan at the day-job: a major workload lands on my desk, my boss goes on paternity leave, and I'm managing a new staff person.  (This was a big part of why I set my manuscript deadline for the end of March; April will be stressful and I won't get much writing done).

March is a writing month.  I have to get it done, there's just no alternative.  The pressure is invigorating, as it forces me to pull my thoughts (and myself) together.  I'm looking forward to finishing the manuscript and finding out whether people like it, even though I guarantee the end result will be more work.  After all, what's the point of having beta readers, if not to incorporate their feedback?  But I'm hopeful that the last year and a half spent writing and re-writing this particular novel won't be left gathering dust on the virtual shelf.

Okay, that's enough musing on the date.  Time to get to work!