Writers, Keep Your Promises

Hello writers! Nice to see you again!

During November I did NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month), as I have for the last four years. But something different happened this time.

See, as I draft, I’m usually also leaving notes for myself. My first write-through is ridiculously messy. Brackets all over the place, bits of outline here and there, cut scenes left behind so I don’t forget what I was doing when I come back to it. It’s completely unreadable by anyone’s eyes but mine.

I call this my Draft Zero. It is choppy, and sparse, and almost never does what I want it to. But it’s the bare bones of my story, and having it helps me go back to revise later, rewrite, move things around, and clarify things.

As I wrote this time, I tried to be more aware of a couple of things. I’m a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they often talk about Scene/Sequel format, and Promises to the Reader. I attempted to work a Scene/Sequel awareness into drafting, but it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing it right, and I felt too much pressure to make something blow up. (Thanks a lot, Howard.)

But the more I wrote, the more I’d find myself seeing things as a reader might. A little revelation of, “Wait, if I introduce this really cool thing here, I need to make sure I use it at the end.” Or, “Oh wait, they don’t know what that thing is…I should foreshadow it more before I use it like this.”

To be honest, I’d never considered Reader Promises in stories until I’d heard these authors talk about it. And the thing was, it made sense in a logical way, but I’d never seen it in practice, or looked for it. So it took hearing it repeated many, many times before I started seeing it. Once I knew what to look for in my own reader/viewer reactions, I started to notice it. Whenever something felt off, or I didn’t like something about a story, I would try to figure out why. Almost always, it came down to an unfulfilled promise.

Example: I just watched NOW YOU SEE ME again the other day. I LOVE that movie. Mostly. I love the mystery element of it, because the twist is one I never saw coming. The only problem I have with it is the very, very end, and I’ll tell you why it bothers me.

We spend the entire film watching four magicians pull tricks, follow anonymous instructions, build these amazing acts, and they are followed by another magician who shows us exactly how they did it. The entire first ninety-eight percent of the movie is all about telling us how magic is done, and how easy it seemingly is to make the rest of us believe that magic is somehow real.

And at the end? That last two minutes? They tell us magic is real. There was zero foreshadowing for that. Nothing in the whole rest of the movie even hinted at magic being real.

It was so anticlimactic it made me forget about the movie for months until I saw the DVD in the $5 bin at the store. I immediately remembered how much I hated the end, but also remembered how much I loved the first ninety-eight percent, so we bought it.

All this is to say, as writers we need to make sure we’re telling the story we promise to tell. If you begin a story with a murder and end it with a couple kissing and not discovering who the murderer is, you’ve either started or ended with the wrong thing.

How about an example of the right way to do this? In STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson, (my apologies that I keep talking about it, I’ve been rereading this over and over for two months because it’s helping with my draft) the main character, David, is terrible at metaphors. If that were it, it would probably come off as kind of weird and maybe not every reader would catch it and it wouldn’t really make sense. But Sanderson makes it a point to tell us about it in more ways than one, throughout the book. David not only knows he’s bad at metaphors, but is constantly trying to think of better ones, impress others with them, and explain them when they don’t make sense.

And so it’s immensely satisfying when, at a point about two-thirds of the way through, he gives us a metaphor so ridiculous that it actually does make sense. And it succeeds in impressing a certain other character. Just thinking about it makes me smile, because the moment is perfect.

Keeping track of the things you’re promising takes practice, and beta readers. You can practice by looking for what your expectations are as a consumer of media, and then watching for how the creators fulfill (or don’t) that expectation. And when your beta readers say “oh, I hope THIS happens!” that is a good sign that you’ve foreshadowed something. If you want to foreshadow it, leave it. If you don’t want to, take it out, or make it more subtle. You don’t want unnecessary foreshadowing to get in the way of the main story.

Try it out! Maybe, if you’re going to see STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS this week, you have some expectations already. Maybe you don’t? Maybe your expectations will be blown away in the first minute of the movie. But whatever the case, try (though it will be difficult) to keep track of what you expect to happen.

Where did that expectation come from? Where and how was that promise made? And how, if at all, do the creators fulfill it for you? Is it satisfying? Does it make you feel happy? Sad? Bittersweet? Or does it make you grimace in dissatisfaction?

Let’s hope there’s none of that last, though okay?

Whether it’s with STAR WARS or some other book or movie you’re finishing this week, try this. Let me know how it goes.

May the Force be with you,

-DC

How To Say No

One of your favorite writers puts out a call for beta readers. You’re in the middle of revisions, but apply anyway because one time chance!
The next day, you come down with the flu, making it difficult to spend any time looking at a computer screen for either revisions or reading.

One of your writer friends offers you an ARC to read in exchange for review in two weeks. “Of course!” you say.
Anxiety strikes, making you not want to do anything.

Your best CP needs a quick read-through. “No problem!”
Your partner gets in a car accident that afternoon.

~

“Self, no. We need to finish our own stuff first.”

“Hey, I know I said I’d read this, but stuff came up and I really need to focus on other things for a while. I’m sorry.”

“We had a family emergency, man, I can’t get to it in time. You might want to find someone else.”

~

It seems like I re-learn this lesson every few months. I just want to help everyone. Partly because it makes me feel good to be that help, and partly because I know–in the writing community–that help given will always come back to help me. Writers are awesome like that.

All of the above examples (except the car accident, that was another bout of sickness) have happened to me in the last three weeks. I jump at the chance to help wherever I can, which is great when life doesn’t pour troubles down on me like Nickelodeon Slime.

I have a hard time saying the things in that second section above.

As you can tell, this becomes a problem. I’m currently in the middle of a bunch of reading I promised to do (because I totally wanted to and still do!) and with me being sick (physically and mentally) and dealing with sick children, plus family and church and school and work, it’s been a struggle to get through it all without everything blowing up in my face.

Has this happened to you? Am I making sense?

Luckily, I have amazing friends who have been completely understanding and have given me the extra time I need to finish it all. I’d be willing to bet you do too, even if you think you don’t. Still, part of me wants to put it all away and never volunteer ever again. I mean, I haven’t written anything in almost three weeks, and I’m feeling it.

It actually feels really great to just sit down and pound out this blog post. It’s on a deadline, and it MUST be done, and so I’m putting the other stuff aside to do it, but really. Hearing the keys click and feeling the rhythm of the words flowing, it feels so amazing.

We all know that feeling.

I’ve been telling myself I’d write after I finished everything I promised to do, but I’m starting to realize I can’t do that. One of my critique partners is always telling me to put myself first, and I have a really hard time doing that. But I need to.

Make me do it, guys. And you can do it too.

Good luck, friends. Write well. I’ll most likely see you in the morning.

-Darci

Beta Readers

One of the biggest differences I see between work that is tightly paced and well-plotted and work that is not, is nothing in the story—it’s a tool that is entirely outside of the story that often makes or breaks it: beta readers.

When someone else’s book isn’t working for me, the most frequent thought I have is, “Man, they needed better beta readers.” That’s because I read like a writer. If I read like a NORMAL person, I would think, “Ugh, that had some really boring parts,” or “Eighteen million things just happened in that scene and I have no idea what’s going on,” or “I call BS. That never would have happened.”

But I’m a writer, not a normal person, and so I know the problem with the story I’m holding is that it got to me without going through the right beta readers first. You need them. And you need good ones. So let’s tackle 1) what they are 2) why you need them, and 3) how to find them.

A beta reader is someone who is looking at a second draft—or later—of your work. They should not be first drafts. No one should be looking at your first drafts except for you. If you MUST show a first draft to someone, it should be a critique partner/group and no one else. Beta readers are different than critique partners. They’re not really looking at things at the line level. You need them to respond to the story as a whole, so they should be looking at the entire story at once, not chunks as you finish them.

Ideally, they should be looking at your work when it’s as good as you know how to make it. Then they’ll find what’s not working, and you’ll fix it, and now you’ve got something.

Beta readers don’t have to be writers to be effective. They just need to have a good sense of story and know when something is falling apart. Honestly, they don’t have to explain why it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t. They need to be able to react to your work the way your non-author readers, who are your real audience, will. For example, one of the first beta readers I lucked into had graduated in English and loved the fluffy genre I was aspiring to write in. She read my first manuscript and would mark things with “Pulled me out of the story.” She couldn’t explain WHY it did, only that it stopped her short. It was my job to figure out the problem each time I saw that note. Was it that I had a character speaking or acting in a way that seemed contrary to their nature? Had I included a distracting detail?

One of the best things you can do is find a beta reader who is willing to flag something as “Boring.” YES! I can work with boring! I know I must have gotten too bogged down in something, or I need to break up exposition with some dialogue to speed it up.

Basically, a beta reader should be a litmus test to tell you at one point a future actual reader might check out of your book, and you then go to work figuring out how to fix it so no one checks out.
The hardest part is finding beta readers. You’ll be able to find plenty of people who will pat you on the head. That’s validating, maybe, but . . . well, it’s not actually helpful. “It’s good!” or “I liked it!” won’t make your story better. So here are a couple of Do and Don’t suggestions.

1. Don’t ask published authors to look at your work.

I know this sounds mean, but you are asking them to make a major investment of their time, experience, and skill and they’ll get nothing in return. This is a lot like asking a surgeon to perform an eight hour surgery, pro bono.  Published authors spend years honing their craft, and asking them to invest 10-20 hours in YOUR work instead of theirs isn’t fair.

2. Don’t ask family to read it.

If they’re objective enough to give you helpful feedback . . . you know what? They won’t be. And if they are, you probably won’t listen because relative so-and-so is always critical of you, etc. Mostly they’ll tell you you’re a genius. You’re not. Yet!

3. Do ask other writers in your genre.

They write in it because they love it, so chances are they’ve read widely in it too. They’ll know the conventions and be able to tell you when you’re falling short.

4. This is trickier, but if you have a Goodreads friend who you’ve seen offer consistently thoughtful reviews, ask them if they’ll look at your work.

It’s best if it’s someone you know in real life too, even if it’s not someone you know well, because then you don’t have to worry about piracy/plagiarism.

5. Find an English major.

Bonus points if it’s not a close friend. It’s not that English majors are superior Word Beings so much as it is that they’re used to reading critically. Downside: they can get bogged down in nitpicking at the line level because they think it’s fun (weirdos) and that’s not what you need. Remember, beta reading is about the Big Picture.

6. Writing conferences.

Go to as many as you can, and if they offer critique group sessions or boot camps where you can trade feedback with other aspiring writers, DO IT. Then pay attention to who is giving good feedback and ask if they’re willing to trade manuscripts. Make sure your feedback to the group is good to so that people will want to trade with you.

Which brings me to the final point: IF YOU GET ANOTHER WRITER TO BETA READ FOR YOU, YOU ARE PRETTY MUCH OBLIGATED AT A BLOOD OATH LEVEL AND BY ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY TO RETURN THE FAVOR.

Over the years, I’ve figured out which beta readers are going to be good at identifying problems with plot versus character, etc. And I also know where I want to use them in my process.

I started with my first manuscript by sending it to as many readers as would agree to look at it, and then assessed who really gave me helpful feedback. Over the next several manuscripts, I fine-tuned what round to use readers in, always trying a new reader or two with every manuscript to figure out who to make a regular part of my process.

In the first round: those who are going to tell me if the story is going to work for the casual fan.
Round two is someone who is going to flag spots with notes like, “Too much talking,” or “She’s being too bratty here.” The final round is going to the people who, no matter how good I think a manuscript is, will still find ways it needs to be improved. They are my FAVORITE. When you find them, treat them like GOLD.

And the funny thing is, the more you act as that kind of beta readers for others, the more of those Golden Betas you’ll find. Magic, huh? And inversely, if you’re pouring your heart out in a beta read for someone and don’t get much back when they read for you, drop them (just ghost them, don’t be mean) and move on. That’s not an equitable relationship.

All right, go forth and get betas, my pretties. Fly! Fly!

___________________________

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Get Thee a Community

Let me give you a glimpse into my writing life.

Every other week, my writing group and I physically meet to discuss and brainstorm 15 pages (ahem, or variations thereof). We are each other’s alpha readers, knowingly plowing through pages that are drafty and have notes that say *something romantic happens here* or *research 15th century churches* or the like. We point out plot holes, character inconsistencies (like that time when I had a character with two different last names in three pages – not a chick, didn’t get married), where there needs to be more reaction, any reaction, and reminders that blocking out the physicality of a scene is pretty essential. 

As I have finished a revision, I sent my current MS off to four beta readers, then jumped on two different forum pages (one specific to what I write and another where there are several people in varying levels of published) asking for some feedback on my query. I’m a member of half a dozen facebook pages for writers, seeing questions asked and asking my own, as well as communicating when face to face visits are possible. 

This level of activity spills over to my Instagram, Pinterest, Goodreads and Twitter as well. 
If you have never done any of these things before, this can sound like a pretty daunting level of involvement. There are times when I will have internet quiet for a while, but I’m pretty consistent about hitting all these things at least several times a week.
It is a lot of work and there is no way that I can deny that. Some of it is done while I’m listening to my daughter learn a new position on her cello, while tapping my foot while another understands the heartbeat of Baroque music at her viola lesson, or while watching my son kick a soccer ball toward the goal. Some of it is done when I am watching M*A*S*H or Scandal, or when I have ten minutes before dinner is ready. I transitioned into this level of activity – it didn’t happen over night. 
But let’s look at what happens because of this again. 
Four different people gave me feedback on the draft of my book. 
And additional four totally different readers are contributing after a more complete reading experience. 
And the request I had for people to critique my query granted me with six reviews. 
This is all happening before I submit a single query letter to an agent. 
Because as much as writing is a quiet, solitary, individualized creation experience, the feedback, camaraderie and flat out friendship that occur when we stretch beyond our awkward not sure what I’m doing comfort zones improve our writing beyond what was previously believed possible. I have had the opportunity to read some amazing books that aren’t yet, to share in the ebbs and flows of this writing endeavor that let me know what I’m experiencing is normal, as well as leaning to those who might be a step or two behind me in the journey with encouragement and offers to help. 
It’s the give and take cycle that allows writers to have success. 
How have you connected with people in the writing community? Suggestions for someone who is just starting out? 

_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Beta Readers: Why We Love Them

In the craziness that surrounds holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on how wonderful my beta readers are. Beta readers are the people who read your finished manuscript and give you feedback before you submit to your editor/submit for publication (if self-publishing) or before you submit to agents for querying. They are avid readers who also may be writers, editors, bloggers, fans, or any combination (or sometimes all) of the above. They are as busy as you are, and they deserve appreciation!


Every beta reader is different. 
Every beta reader will be different in what types of feedback they’ll offer. Some betas prefer to leave line-by-line comments, where they talk about specific things that don’t work for them and also things that they like. Other betas might give you general impressions, including what they enjoyed about the plot and characters or what they perceived as plot holes, what they might have been confused about, or what they thought could have been developed more. Some will focus more on the mechanics of sentences. Others will focus more on the characters.
Some betas will want to give you feedback as they go along. Some will want to wait until the end. Some betas will focus on the things they loved. Some will focus on the things they didn’t. Some may gush at you. Some may swear at you. 
Every beta reader’s feedback is valuable.
Not every beta reader will love what you write. Some beta readers may even suggest major changes, and then it’s your responsibility as a writer to decide what to do with the feedback. My advice is to seriously consider each and every comment that your beta readers give you. These are in effect your test readers before your book hits the world-at-large. In inviting your betas to critique your work, you should ask them to be candid and honest with you. After all, wouldn’t you rather know what needs to be changed now when you can still make those changes?
___________________________________
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. 
AND SHE LOVES HER BETA READERS!
Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.
 

The Secret to Networking, Part Two

Today I’m continuing with the theme that my awesome critique partner Erin Shakespear posted on yesterday: how to make meaningful connections with other writers. Her blog post, which focused on writing conferences, may be found HERE!


I’ll be talking about a different way to connect with other writers. The idea for this post started with questions one of my friends recently asked me:
 

“How can I find critique partners?”
“How can I find beta readers?”
“Do I really need CPs or betas?”

First, why these types of partnerships are important:

Critique partners (CPs; sometimes called alpha readers) critique your pages during the various stages of the writing process. CPs give valuable feedback on elements like plot and character development and may point out potential plot holes or issues like pacing, etc. that need to be reworked. Critique partners are also writers and can therefore offer tips and suggestions that they’ve learned as they’ve developed as writers.

Beta readers become very important in the later stages of writing. Manuscripts become “beta-ready” when you are fairly confident that you have a complete story. Beta readers may be avid readers and/or writers, and they usually offer more general feedback as to what they liked and/or didn’t like about the story. Like your CPs, they may also point out plot holes or pacing issues that may need to be reworked before you submit/publish your story.

Second, what are some avenues you could use to find CPs or betas:

1. Real-life connections: In addition to attending writing conferences, (see Erin’s post on this topic HERE), you could look in your local community for other writers. I was approached by a friend to join her local writing group two years ago. These are four fabulous women that I meet with on a biweekly basis, and lucky me — they live right in my hometown! We exchange pages by Sunday of those weeks and meet at someone’s house on Thursdays to offer constructive feedback (and to eat lots of popcorn.) These people are such an important part of my writing community, but honestly, it was serendipity that allowed me to connect with them. #IAmOneLuckyDuck

2. On-line writing communities: I also have critique partners that don’t live nearby, and we do exchanges via e-mail on a less scheduled basis, often of the “I just wrote this scene and need feedback because (insert reason). Could you look at it, pretty please?” sort. One of my CPs and I use the Voxer app to talk about scenes-in-progress on an almost-daily basis. All of my beta readers except for one are long-distance as well, and I e-mail them whenever my MS is “beta ready” and then proceed to bite my nails for the next three weeks. These people are also an important part of my writing community, and I’ve traveled to Phoenix and Seattle over the past year to meet up with and tackle-hug some of them in person.
Amazingly, I met all of these people on Twitter. This fact kind of astounded me when I sat down and really thought about it. Out of curiosity, I conducted a quick and informal Twitter poll this week to see how common this was.



These are the replies I received over the next few days. The vast majority of these replies indicated that these writers met most or all of their critique partners and/or beta readers from Twitter:


I tweeted the following question right after the original:


I received zero replies to this second tweet.

I’m a scientist, and this was NOT a scientific study. The fact I conducted this poll on Twitter in the first place lent an obvious bias to the types of responses I received. I’m sure if I ever got my butt in the car, traveled to writing conferences and asked the same question, I would receive very different results. Also, there are other on-line communities such as Facebook and the recently-launched Ello that serve to connect people. I’m a member of several Facebook groups that are wonderful for writing-related support (giving and receiving).

My informal poll illustrates one very important thing:

Writers who successfully use Twitter to form meaningful relationships are enthusiastic about using Twitter to form those relationships. 
(The same applies to successful use of other social media outlets, but I’ll be focusing on the use of Twitter for this post.)
 
Thinking about using Twitter to make meaningful connections? Here are some key things to remember:
Be yourself. 
Any 7 year old will tell you that robots are really cool, but don’t be a robot on Twitter. Scheduled tweets are okay for some things (e.g., blog posts) but should not take up the majority of your tweets. Engage. Get in real conversations with people. The “reply” option there is there for a reason. Yes, conversations take time, but you get out what you put in. I originally met some of my CPs and betas by joining into hashtag convos or joining sprints like the ones hosted by @FriNightWrites and their #writeclub. I became friends with people by following those with similar interests and having real conversations with them about things.
Don’t be on Twitter to advertise yourself, which brings me to the next point…

(photo credit: William James Boswell, 7 yo)



Don’t be spammy. Please.
Don’t use Twitter as a means to constantly advertise yourself. There is a “mute” option for a reason. If you forge real relationships, partnerships will naturally follow. If you make real connections, your friends will be excited for you when you have something big to share, like news of an agent, or a book release, or of something cool you posted on your blog. But no one likes to be spammed all of the time with “Buy My Book links.” And for heaven’s sake, Do Not Send DM’s To Your Twitter Followers With Book or Blog Links. Because there is also an “unfollow” option for a reason.

In my opinion, Twitter is not the only way to make important connections, but it’s definitely one way to be part of a pretty amazing writing community. What is your experience? Comment below! 


Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty urban backdrops of her stories. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She would love to meet you at any or all of these sites 😀


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