Four Ways to be Intentional Online

I’ve been thinking about online presence quite a bit lately. This is due, in part, to running social media for myself and four different organizations to some extent, but also because I’m helping college students understand some key ideas to having success in a digital and technological world.

In discussing this with a colleague recently, I realized I still had a lot to learn. Todd Petersen is a published author who is also very engaged project-based learning and active in the higher education community. His website reflects this as well as other interests that help people understand a bit about him.

My website was not what I wanted a while ago, so I moved it, and have been slowly (too slowly) working to improve what I have there. There can be a great temptation to be online “develop a presence”, so much so that people forget that before the internet, we dressed for the job we wanted to have, we highlighted ways you were involved in the community, at work, and the skill sets we had.

Just because we can do this more easily doesn’t mean our message can all of a sudden get sloppy.

1. Think about your audience. 

John Lee Dumas is a very successful entrepreneur, creator of eofire.com and the associated podcast. He explains the necessity of really considering our ideal client, or what he calls, our avatar. This means we need to lock in and think about who is going to be looking for us.

When I first started blogging, I knew I needed content but didn’t know what. I actually had two blogs before working on the one I have now, and the first was called Random Thoughts of a Mom. What did I blog about? Whatever came to mind. That might have been a book I liked, something funny my kids did, that random quote I saw that I liked, or if there was a challenge that sounded fun. My only followers were family, and that may have been out of relative obligation.

Fellow TTOF contributor Elaine Vickers has done a great job thinking about her audience: she writes middle grade, her site reflects that. Her Pinterest board explores all sorts of middle grade novels, with pretty much any category you might imagine, and she sent advanced reading copies for LIKE MAGIC, her book that received a Kirkus star last week. She has considered her audience, has worked to make her posts reflect that, and it is scaleable.

2. Allow your audience to get to know the real you. 

This can be a scary part. You don’t have to let them know your deep dark secrets (I wrote a character who loves spiders but they seriously creep me out). You do want to give them an insight into who you are though.

Rita award-winning Laura Drake does this well. She posts pictures on Pinterest and Facebook that showcases what she likes (writing things, the west, beautiful and secluded settings, funny and/or cute animals with cats and horses being at the top). Following her on Twitter allows her audience to know that she like writing and cowboys because she posts a writing quote of the day and cowboy quote of the day. She also talks about fly fishing, riding her motorcycle or pedal bike, and life in Texas.

Sharing a bit about the person behind the craft allows our humanity to come through and creates the opportunity for readers to connect beyond what we create, and even has the possibility of drawing new readers to what we write because of what we are willing to share.

3. Steady, consistent content is key

PLEASE don’t flood your readers with tons of things, and really think about how you can make each platform unique. Those people who share the same thing on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all the time think they are saving time, but really, they are dissuading readers from following them everywhere because everything is the same.

There is a mantra out there that suggests our postings should be 80% about cool things others have done and 20% promotion of our own stuff. Share books you’ve loved, engaged in online communities, have conversations with people, and nudge occasionally regarding what you have been doing. Seriously think about the kinds of people you will find at each place. As a women’s fiction writer, I have a great chance to access to my readers on Instagram and Pinterest, with Facebook probably next and Twitter toward the end. However, as a contributor to a professional community, I know that my interactions with other writers will most easily take place on Twitter, that I can develop deeper relationships with other writers through Facebook, and that sharing insights about me are better served through Pinterest and Instagram. I do have a Tumblr account what goes through ebbs and flows, and I’ve not yet seen a reason to explore Snapchat but it could be valuable to younger readers.

Not sure which platform gets the most use for you professionally and for building and interacting with your audience? Think about writers who have been in the game longer than you, search them on each of the applicable platforms and look at the REACTIONS to their content. Not how much content is there, but how much people interact. At the very least, register for an account on each platform you know of so that, if at some time in the future, you want to use that platform, you have already got your accounts to reflect who you are.

Which brings me to my last point.

4. Have the same username/profile name/web reference across platforms. 

While you might be super excited about a project you have on deck, your next project might be totally different. You want to make sure that you are easily found, and similarly found, on every platform out there. In the olden days, people used to joke that “X” marked the spot. In the digital world, it is your name, your consistency, your content, and your accessibility that mark your spot. Make sure it is solid and your audience will find you.

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Paying it Forward

My son has been participating in an Arts and Music camp all week, a venture that he loves to partake in every summer (because my art skills are limited to a small subset of crafts we find on Pinterest). This year the camp’s theme is “Community,” and when he came home the first day and told me this, it made me reflect upon my writing community. Writers cannot exist in isolation, though we may feel isolated when we sit at our computers with no one but our characters to keep us company. Your particular community may be your critique partners, people you meet for coffee or lunch or brainstorming, a reading group, the people with whom you connect with on Facebook or Twitter, or others. The other week, I saw a post shared by one of my social media friends where she wanted to thank an anonymous person who had paid for her order at a Starbucks drive-thru. In turn, she paid for the person behind her in a drive-thru on a different day. The generous gesture strikes us because it seems unusual and wonderful, but we do this all the time, sometimes without even realizing it: paying it forward without expectation. 

There are so many ways to be part of our writing communities, but I’m struck most often by how we give to each other. How do we pay it forward? Here are some ways:
Offer constructive feedback. You may have your usual group of critique partners or you may regularly beta read for certain writers. But you may also come across a writer who is not part of your regular circles who might be looking some feedback. If you can, offer that occasional help by giving constructive comments to people outside your normal circles.

Offer encouragement. People are on social media because they have something to share: sometimes good news but sometimes not. Try to offer encouragement when you see someone in need. We all have those sorts of days, and empathy is a lovely thing that sets humans apart from badgers.

Mentor another writer. Some writers actively mentor other writers through a process or program that they once went through. For instance, one of my critique partner was selected for PitchWars one year, and she became a mentor for PitchWars the year after that. I was lucky enough to have a mentor during the drafting my first book. He didn’t critique pages like my critique partner did, but he taught me things about voice and impact, and how not to suck as bad as I did. His industry advice was also invaluable. If you feel ready for this step, do it! You may save someone like my mentor saved me.

Participate in a panel or give a talk at a conference. The writers at Thinking Through Our Fingers are great fans of attending or presenting at writing conferences. (For a sneak peek into the inner workings of a writer’s conference and how you can contribute, read this post.) The bottom line is that we all highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful way to meet other writers, learn from other writers, and give back to other writers. And most of all, they can be a lot of fun!

Read a book. Yes, it’s that simple. Writers are readers too, and we must feed the reading monster (it’s a very friendly one) by reading lots of books. Authors are very happy when you feed the reading monster one of their books, especially if you take the time to let them know or give them a shout-out or a quick tweet.

Recommend a book. Love that book you just read? Share the love by telling a friend or by sharing the book itself. (But make sure you remember who you loaned it to, because there is nothing as crummy as losing a book that you love.)

Leave a review for a book. Leaving an honest review is probably the biggest act of appreciation you could give to a writer, especially if you liked the book enough to say something nice about it 🙂

That’s just a small sampling of ways that we can pay it forward within our writing communities. But just as we would become broke if we paid for everyone’s order at Starbucks, we would have little time to write our own works if all we did were altruistic acts. There is a certain value to isolating yourself when you’re writing for the sake of minimizing distraction, but I believe that the reason so many of us have to make a conscientious effort to do so (i.e., take the “writer’s hiatus” from social media) is because we crave that interaction with others. So yes, take your hiatus so you focus more on your story and less on the terrible things that have been plaguing our world as of late. But then be sure to come back into the community and interact again. Because we need you.

How else do you pay it forward within your writing community?

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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, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her at http://www.helenboswell.com.

Engaging in a Collaborative Learning Environment

I’m heavily involved in my local Suzuki Strings group. It wasn’t something I grew up with – playing the piano is a pretty solitary event for a good amount of the training experience. But my daughters both gravitated to string instruments, and just as dads pick up mitts and head out to backyards when t-ball/machine pitch/little league season come around, I started accompanying and then became a board member.

Though I’ve been involved in music since I can remember, what I have learned over the last few years has been significant. But the greatest lesson that has manifested itself differently, and often, is that grouping learners together is invaluable. When an advanced student has to rethink about HOW they make a sound, WHY they are moving their arm, positioning their hand or directing the bow in a certain way across a certain part of the strings, fundamentals within the craft of musicality are recalled, reconfirmed, and a deeper appreciation for this habit is solidified.

The beginning students benefit as well. When they are allowed to make music as a small part of a more advanced group and with their teachers, they get familiar with how their instrument could sound, they have a goal to aim for.

A few weeks ago, my boss directed me to a TED talk by Victor Wooten, where Wooten that the way we learn and teach language is the way we should learn and teach all sorts of things. Children don’t learn to speak by only devoting 30 minutes a day to working through a set of identified words, they don’t learn by repeating just those words. Children learn to speak by being immersed in a world of language, surrounded by vocabulary that is easy and hard, attainable and beyond reach.

As writers, it is easy to slip into comfortable tendency to limit our associations with people who are on the same level as us, whatever that may be, but to totally hone our craft, we need to constantly be immersing ourselves in the art of writing. Of course personal interactions and live feedback are essential, but so is an awareness of both above and below where we are, an awareness of our strengths and weaknesses. We need to reflect on WHY we are at this level, HOW we got to be at this level, and WHAT we need to do to fill in the fundamental things we may have forgotten along our journey that may be hindering our progression.

SO HOW DO WE BUILD OUR COLLABORATIVE CLASSROOM?

Since getting together once a week with writers on different levels isn’t going to happen, the easiest way to do this is through reading, but we have to be mindful of what we are reading. Yes, it is essential that we read our genre, but it is also of utmost importance that we consider the very real possibility that reading JUST our genre could pigeonhole our writing. It’s rare that most people learn anything listening to their own single echo reverberating back through a canyon.

We have to remember the value of the collaborative classroom is the degrees of difference. Diversify the ages of characters you are reading, the degrees of magic, the manifestations of emotion. Experience books and movies and TV shows that are different than what you read, that play with pacing, character development, both intensities and kinds of emotional tensions.

But the degrees of difference show up in other art too. I listen to classical music nearly all day long: it’s the only kind of music I can listen to when I need to work. But in down times, I tune into the soulful brilliance of Adele, the happy feeling of Taylor Swift, the unexpected blends of genres from Time for Three and even rock out to Shinedown. I need to hear how each of these play with the sounds of heartbreak, happiness, celebration and sadness. How they negotiate the shifts in key, transition into a chorus, decide what to repeat and what to let linger as a solitary statement of strength.

And then, most important, I set aside time to consider how each of these artists honed their craft, what techniques they used. If it’s something I can’t figure out, I go back to craft books, looking through at what I’ve highlighted, scanning the table of contents for hints. And then, in the true collaborative nature of a classroom, I start asking others in pursuit of art if they have read, listened, seen, if what happened makes sense to them, if they can figure out how it was created.

For me, the best part of this creative pursuit is the thrill of knowing I can know more, better, deeper, richer, and that my meager thank you to those who have helped me advance in my knowledge and craft is to contribute to the collaboration and advancement of others as well.
_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Watch Your Words

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes a writer. There are many aspects which go into making a writer: long nights, thankless days, all the behind-the-scenes work that go into producing a single manuscript. However once you finish that manuscript, have it polished, and ready for the world, there is another aspect to take into account.

You are the ambassador for your book and the craft.

Recently there’s been a hubbub in the literary world over debut author Scott Bergstrom and some remarks he made in an interview. Frankly, he’s led a charmed existence since first self-publishing his YA book The Cruelty. From finding an agent, to landing a six figure deal, and having a movie company ready to option his book to film. All of this within a glorious year. And in one interview he may have blown it.

In said interview, Mr. Bergstrom relays how superior his book is to other YA novels by saying that his book was “morally complex”. That his heroine who begins as an overweight teen becomes a lean, bad a$$ by hunting down her father’s kidnappers. Even the snippet of the story accompanying the article takes a not too subtle dig at The Hunger Games franchise. And when asked he read much YA he said no.

The backlash was almost immediate as established YA authors such as James Dashner and Victoria Schwab took to social media in defense of craft with retweets and the hashtag

#MorallyComplicatedYA.

With that there was a following of bloggers, fellow writers, and avid readers who now got to see the words for themselves, many finding him arrogant, ignorant of the genre, and truly full of himself. More if not all who participated in the lively Twitter chat swore off buying his book or supporting him in any fashion, leaving his publishing house scrambling to do a PR rescue for their now costly investment.

When you write, you are hoping to see your work in the local bookshop and library once you’re done. Writing the end on your formerly work in progress doesn’t mean you’re done. You still need an audience. Weigh what you say.

Does that mean you can’t speak your mind or stand up for what you believe? Absolutely not. There are plenty of authors who are very vocal about what they believe, but they, in most cases, make it about their personal belief. Most have not attacked the talent and livelihood of their fellow writers.

You may not love every popular book. Heck, you can pick up a book and wonder how the person got a publishing contract while you languish in query limbo. You can have those thoughts and feelings all you want – but stay humble. What need is there to throw others in the  community under the bus? You’re trying to break in and share the spotlight with these people, your peers. They work just as hard as we all do, deserving of some respect. When you make it, you wouldn’t want for that shade to be thrown your way. So stay humble everybody. Don’t let negativity take you down before you even start.

Stay writeous everyone!

_______________________

Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

The Halfway Point of NaNoWriMo: 5 Things To Be Thankful For

Like many of you, I’m currently at the halfway point of my journey through the perilous quagmire also known as National Novel Writing Month. In past years, November has transformed me into an unkempt, unshowered, irritable monster. This year, I’ve tried to take a different approach, for the health and safety of myself and those around me. I’ve tried to keep it fun. I’ve tried not to stress so much about where I am in comparison to the “on par” line. I’ve tried not to feel guilty for having those days when work/life/kids or a combination of all three takes over or alternatively, when my brain decides that enough is enough for the day and goes on break. Above all, I’ve tried to be thankful for what I’ve managed to accomplish so far instead of thinking about how much I still have ahead of me.

Author Leon Uris was quoted as saying the following, which I think is pretty dead on:

“I enjoy writing, sometimes; I think that most writers will tell you about the agony of writing more than the joy of writing, but writing is what I was meant to do.”

If you write, you know that it’s not easy. Taking short breaks or more extended hiatuses is perfectly normal and even necessary when you’re a writer, but somehow we manage to beat ourselves up for it when we don’t live up to our own expectations. I sometimes think we focus so much on thoughts and discussions of how hard things are, or of all of the things we need to do to achieve the end goals that we forget to enjoy the journey. So today I’d like to take a brief moment to ask you to reflect on all of the lovely things that you’ve already accomplished.

(This month, I am thankful for the following:)

1.  Progress
Whether you’ve written 25,000 words or 5,000, celebrate your progress. Don’t stress if your word counts are falling beneath the curve. While it’s fun to compete and root for your NaNoWriMo buddies or just for accountability purposes in general, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how your progress compares to others. It’s YOUR PROGRESS. Plus, some of us don’t work as well in fast-draft mode, but we make up for it in lots of other ways (see my post on writing stress and why daily word counts might not be the best strategy for everyone.)

2. The writing community
One thing I love about writing is the writing community. My IRL critique partners are my people. I’ve traveled to various places to meet my online writing buddies for conferences and book events and writing retreats, and these are also my people. I connect most with these people on many levels, and I’m forever grateful for how much they inspire and teach me. Being part of a writing community comes with a rich and rewarding return of friendship, support, and yes, even this:

3. Your own daily (or weekly or monthly) goals

Some claim that the only way to accomplish the big things is to set lofty goals, and while that may be true, it’s also beneficial to set small goals along the way. Set your own goals. AND CELEBRATE THEM. I mentioned the writing community in #2, and one of my most treasured writing friends is fellow TTOF contributor Megan Paasch. While we live in different states and maybe only get to see each other once a year if we’re lucky *cries*, we text on an almost daily basis to chat about writing and life, and to root for each other. Recently she tipped me off to a cool program called Habitica.com that allows you to set and track goals. Habitica is a fun role-play type app that uses avatars and rewards/incentives to motivate yourself to achieve your writing goals, or to exercise more, or to floss daily. Or whatever you want. And based on your progress, you can earn gear and hatch out dragons from eggs and other cool stuff like that. #win

This is my avatar. I earned a pink wolf! 
Examples of Habitica habits and daily goals*:
*These are obviously my writing-related goals. I have personal goals on Habitica but will spare you from seeing those 🙂

4. Those utterly brilliant a-ha moments
We all have them — those moments where two clunky pieces finally fit together (or at the very least are a little less clunky). Or those moments when a light in your brain snaps on and you figure out the crucial missing element from the backstory of your main character. Or you finally figure out that elusive plot point that is essential for linking point A to point B. These a-ha moments should not be diminished.  They don’t even need to be final. But make sure that you celebrate them!

5. Your creative mind (reward it!)
Speaking of celebrations, you should celebrate yourself most of all. You are creating PEOPLE**. You are creating EVENTS and HISTORY. You are creating WORLDS. You deserve to reward yourself for creating any and all of these things. Give yourself a treat of your favorite beverage or snack. Allow yourself time for a guilt-free break and watch your favorite TV show or Netflix episode. Or sit back and give yourself a moment to take pride in your own creations — perhaps create a Pinterest board for your characters (and to serve for inspiration), or make your characters (and you) a fun playlist, and give yourself a pat on the back for caring enough about your characters to do this for them (and for yourself). I think sometimes we concentrate so much on what we haven’t done yet that we forget to celebrate all of the things we have already achieved. While NaNoWriMo is great for a lot of things, it is just one month out of the year. Don’t forget that there are still 11 other months in the year to celebrate your achievements too. You deserve it. ❤

** Technically, characters. However, my characters object when I don’t think of them as real people.

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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 YA urban fantasy and NA 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, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Her NaNoWriMo username is HelenBozz, and she loves to root for her NaNo buddies! 
Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.

That Time I Disagreed With Hemingway

Welcome to our newest contributor, Matt Williams!

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.”

–Ernest Hemingway 

Who am I to disagree with one of the greats? Seriously, I’m asking because I’m disagreeing with him wholeheartedly. When you think of a writer, many of the first images to be conjured are the traditional pictures of a lone man or woman hunched over a desk with a cup of coffee, an open laptop, and more bags under their eyes than a Michael Korrs store. In some ways this is the actual life of a writer. Writing is solitary. You pitted against the blank page in a to-the-death competition. There’s no denying that. But so is reading, yet many images of readers are a group of people in a book club. They share their experiences and love of one particular thing that they love. It brings them closer together to each other and to their love of reading. Heck, even gamers have moved from a rather solitary pastime to a more open world with people from all over the world connecting online.

So why do they get to have all the fun?

A couple of weeks ago I turned thirty and a few random numbers. As usual, with family around I had a great day, but then the ugly side of life wanted to rear its head. My daughter had to have emergency dental surgery, my mother started to go blind in one eye, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my girlfriend went to the hospital as her body may be rejecting her transplanted organs. As you can imagine writing, with all of this going on, was the last thing I wanted to think about. However I did. And not only thought about doing, but achieved it.

How? (I’m pretending you’re asking so humor me a bit). I managed to get through it by having a support system, many of whom were going through the ordeals mentioned. My mother still questioned me to make sure I’m going forward in terms publishing my first book next year. With all of the tests my girlfriend is going through she still asks about my word count and making sure one of her favorite characters is still alive. When I don’t post a picture of me writing at some point in the day via Instagram or Facebook people start emailing or DMing me to make sure everything is okay.

My life is a lonely one. I’m quiet and introverted, I can speak better through written word then I can with my mouth. It’s not easy for me to open up to anyone at all. I love writing, but my writing can’t tell me it’ll be okay. My writing won’t be there with a hug and a hot cup of coffee. But through writing and my love of it, it’s drawn others to me in a way that’s indescribable. And I’m totally grateful for this.

Life is going to happen, good and bad. And as much as you may want to shoulder it all by yourself the fact is you need others to carry you as well at some points. You can’t keep yourself locked away like a set of fine china to never be touched. Step away from the computer from time to time. Make a connection. Then go back to the computer and make another connection online before you resume writing. Sherlock needs his Watson. Batman needs Alfred and Robin. Frodo needed his Samwise. Writing is a journey, and we all need a little help sometimes. But you have to be willing to expose yourself to someone else. It may not improve the quality of your writing, but it can keep you writing, keep you sane, and keep you happy in the long run. To me that’s a grand improvement.

So who’s ready to build their writing community? All you have to do is be willing to dip a toe into the treacherous waters of the unknown.

Stay writeous everyone!

_______________________

Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

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!

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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.