Be a Better Beta Reader

So, your friend wants you to beta read his book. It’s a masterpiece, a baby carved right out of his soul. You tell him he’s smart not to send that baby out into the heartbreaking world of “Dear Agent X” without someone else taking a look at it first.

The manuscript arrives in your inbox, and you soon discover that your friend’s baby weighs 300 pounds. It’s not really that fun to play with and screams a lot. It vomits on you occasionally. And the diapers...ugh...you’re knee deep in them.    

So when you hand that 300-pound baby back to him two months later, the poor thing has a single comment on every chapter, right at the end. They read something like this:

“Great opening chapter!”

“Hmm...Something wrong with this scene, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well...I’m not sure about this...I no longer like this character. Check motivations.”

“Meh.”

“Great chapter! You’re back!”

Most writers have to deal with critiques that are less than helpful, but a bad beta read is just depressing. The writer is left with a vague feeling of unease, because it’s obvious this baby needs some work. Vague unease does not lend itself to an enthusiastic and targeted revision.

So the next time you say “yes” to that desperate writer friend, think about the following tips:

1. Stay in your comfort zone: If you hate police procedurals, don’t beta read your friend’s cop mystery. If you’ve never read a romance novel, you’re absolutely the worst person to beta read your buddy’s Scottish highland erotic adventure. Pick your beta reads carefully, and learn to say no.

2. Stay on your toes when you’re reading: Your writer friend is most likely lost in his or her own revision. Take the time to mark specific locations in the manuscript. When the story made you laugh, make a note on the paragraph.  If you were moved to tears, mark it. When the narrative slows and drags, find the spot where that began and make a note. The comments don’t have to be long, but this approach to beta reading can help shave dozens of hours off of your friend’s revision.

3. Be specific:  Good critiques pinpoint dropped plot threads, weird character motivations, and ugly dialogue tags. Your comments should also suggest revision ideas, although it’s best that you include fleshed out examples in a comment bubble rather than inside the text of the manuscript (writer friends can be sensitive about their babies).  

4. Don’t forget to praise: It’s not all about telling your friend what’s wrong with the book. More than anything, your writer friend needs to know what’s right. A beta read that constantly focuses on the negative can hobble a writer during the revision process. Positive reinforcement encourages the writer to reproduce that excellence again.   

5. Tell the writer when to cut: So here’s the truth. It’s not a baby. That means that cutting a chapter is not like cutting off your kid’s arm. Help the author realize that and let go. Sometimes it’s better to ditch an entire chapter than spend six months revising something that will never, never work.

Beta reading is part of any thriving writing community, but it’s also part of being a good friend. Learn to do it right, and you’ll get the same treatment on your own 300-pound baby novel when you really need it. 


GRATEFUL

I am a writer, so it’s only natural that I create an elaborate metaphor to talk about… well, to talk about anything. My mission in this post is to describe DFW Writers Workshop and my experience with the group. I could go on to say that the DFW Writers Workshop is an accidental blessing that I am grateful for walking into. I could explain how it’s a community of diverse people gathered together by one strong pull to create and keep creating. I could go on and on about how much this workshop means to me and how much I have changed by participating in it each week. I could say a lot. Trust me. Instead, I have decided to deliver a metaphor.

Forgive me now, I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. In light of the holiday season, it has come to mind that the workshop reminds me a lot of Thanksgiving. 

Stay with me.

Every week, people travel across the metropolis to gather together and celebrate their work. We ready our reads in the comforts of home and then slug through traffic to be with one another for a few fine hours. Old friends and new members mingle, discussing what will be read that night. I hunger to hear other people’s stories like I hunger for good turkey. I hold my own brand of creation in my hands hoping to be critiqued and also hoping, just hoping, someone likes it enough to say I should continue cooking up the plot.

The actual workshop works like this: you read aloud a small piece of your work for fifteen minutes or less and people critique you for five minutes. A collection of people sits around a table, each of us serving up a piece of genre and letting others digest our words. And then we talk. We talk and we listen. Okay, sometimes we argue. But that only strengthens the analogy if you think about it.

And even though we only wait a week between meetings, people catch up with each other as if it’s been a year because we discuss not only our lives, but also the lives of our characters.

 

            “My protagonist is acting up again. I can’t get the voice right with this one.”

            “Yep, I am still working on the climax. It’s going… well, it’s going.”

             “I have not written a thing in months. I know, I know, it’s been a hard month.”

             “I have an event this Saturday. Hope y’all can come.”

 

We are a group. We are a tribe. We are a family of our creation. And there is nothing like working out the kinks of your writing with a family that truly understands what you are going through. For that, I am grateful.


TIME IS RELATIVE: Making Time to Write

Whenever I am asked, ‘So, what do you do?’ I fumble through a series of emotions, defaulting on a grin-and-bear-it smile.

Wife and Soccer-Mom-of-Three by day. Emergency Room and Neonatal nurse by night. Breastfeeding Educator. Romance Author.

Eyes normally get wide and the person who just wanted some small-talk responds in one of two ways:

“Whoa, what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen in the ER?”

“Really, you’re an author? Where do you find the time?”

The first question is easy and usually starts with some genius who said, “Hey, hold my beer.” The second is pretty tough.

A writer needs to write. Everyday. I compare it to training for a marathon, except you don’t get the satisfaction of a medal or a sticker for your car when you type “The End.” My world doesn’t allow for writing rituals or long stretches of time with my fingers feverishly putting words on the page. Over the years, I’ve tried little ways to find time. I carried my tablet around like a fourth child in the off chance I’d have a moment during soccer practice or that my brain would be able to restart and re-tool a scene between patients. But those situations didn’t always work out. I needed to be a mom at soccer and a nurse in the ER.

When I finally started calling myself an author, I gave myself time. Billable, bursts of time where I officially put on my romance-writer hat. I stopped trying to find time to write and made time to write. I get up early. Stay up twenty minutes late. I let my children play the iPad (yep, I’m that mom). I complete three mom chores, and grant myself equal amounts of time to work as an author. My children know I work in the hospital and on the computer. My co-workers simply ignore the fact I talk out my scenes while turning over beds or charting vital signs. And my husband understands why some days the laundry doesn’t get finished.

Sure, the “Mom Guilt” monkey hitches a ride on my back every now and again, and somedays my precious thirty minutes is spent deleting three sentences and googling a word. Maybe all you do is draft or doodle. Maybe it’s listening to the song that inspires your story. If it fires your imagination and is solely devoted to your craft – it will never be time wasted.

Don’t look at your day and decide there isn’t time for you and your story. Don’t try to give 100% to five different things at once. The outcomes are never worth the effort.  Except for cooking. Crafting a scene while making dinner always turns out nice and spicy. 

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Let Me Tell You About My Precious

DFWCon will be my fifteenth writers’ conference. In my heart, I still feel like a newbie. In my head, I know that’s nonsense. And I have learned some things along the way.

Two years ago, I penned a blog post called Finding Your Tribe. In it, I argued that conferences are about finding your tribe. That’s still true. There’s nothing more important than finding or rejoining your tribe at a writers’ conference. But there is also some business to be done.

For many first-time con-goers, the conference is about “The Pitch.” That perfectly wonderful opportunity to go all Gollum over their novel.

They fret about which agent to pick. They fret about over what clothes to wear. But most of all, they fret about making fools of themselves.

I’m here to tell you to relax.

Because if you’re like me, you will absolutely make a fool of yourself. The pitch will be so bad the agent will burst out laughing and then check her watch and then ask if you’d like to do it again because there’s still plenty of time. And that’s when you’ll realize…

It’s just a pitch.

It’s not a life-or-death situation. It’s not a make-or-break moment in your writing career. It’s merely one opportunity to tell one agent about your work with only two potential outcomes. The agent will either ask you to submit something. Or they won’t.

That’s it.

They won’t punch you or scream at you or call you a fool if the pitch is bad (though I have had an agent come close to that last one). They won’t applaud you, sign you, or give you a book deal if it’s good. The agent will either ask you to submit something. Or they won’t.

That’s it.

And here’s something else to remember, you have no control over whether your novel resonates with an agent. Many perfectly well-written novels never see the light of day for this simple reason. You can’t control it. But you can control pitching and querying more agents and, more importantly, writing more books. Persistence is the only way to increase the likelihood that your work will resonate with somebody.

Don’t get me wrong, every pitch is an opportunity and shouldn’t be wasted. You should prepare. You should practice. You should be sure you hit all the key notes required to be successful. But then you should pitch again. And again. And again. And you should write another book. And another. And another.

And as for that first one, it’s just a pitch. So don’t sweat it.

And if you do, then commiserate over it with your tribe

-- Brian Tracey, DFWWW Director and Member since 2012


Process? What Process?

A few months ago I was talking to my friend about my lack of progress on my current project:

“I SHOULD HAVE A PROCESS BY NOW, BROOKE! WHY DON’T I HAVE A PROCESS?”

Melissa Lenhardt

You see, I’d just read a book on writing that addressed how to write fast and regularly. It all sounded so easy, but when I tried it, I stopped after only two days. This is most likely due to my general lack of follow-up. Seriously, it’s a minor miracle I ever completed one manuscript, let alone five. But, this borrowed process I was testing out didn’t click. So, I went back to my higgly-piggly way of writing when inspired (which means I spent most of my time procrastinating).

Turns out, that’s an even worse process than borrowing someone else’s. Which is why I’m going to lay out, right here, what my actual, real-deal process is. And hopefully it will help you figure out yours.

First, what is process? Is it the way you create a book, or the way you get it down on paper? I think those are two different things. Let me explain.

Creating a book starts with an idea, a character, a plot, a setting, and everything spirals out from there. With Sawbones, it was the setting. With Stillwater, it was the character of Ellie Martin. With my current project, it was the plot. (You see why I say I have no process?) Inspiration comes when it comes, with little regard to what I want, or what is the easiest way for me to create a story (FYI, it’s with character). During the creation phase there’s a lot of reading, thinking, sitting around and staring into the distance, note taking. Regardless of the genesis of the story, it never clicks until I get a handle on the characters, and who they are. Once I have that, everything else falls into place.

Now, to get the story down on paper. Am I a plotter or pantser? Morning writer or evening writer? Daily word goals or time goals?

Yes.

I winged my way through the first five books, with a good idea of main plot points, but nothing at all like an actual outline or plan, though I had a clear idea how each ended, as I do with my current project. When writing BLOOD OATH, I sat in front of the computer every morning and said, “What happens next? Let’s have them get caught in a thunderstorm on the plains with nowhere to hide! And Laura gets separated from the group! And, almost dies! There’s a fire!”

I’m not making that up for this article by the way. Read all about it May 23! (shameless plug)

My current project started with a plot, and an outline! I’m not surprised that it’s been tough going; I hate being told what to do, even by my well-intentioned plotting past self. My early struggles stemmed from my lack of character understanding. Once I had that, and had decided on “how” to tell the story (POV, etc), the words started to flow.

My advice: It doesn’t matter when you write, or what your daily writing goals are, only that you write daily and have goals. Do what works for you, however imperfect or wheels off it may sound to the disciplined writers who love to humblebrag about their daily schedule of early rising, writing, mid-morning walk, writing, power nap, writing, all of which leads to their typical 5000-word day. When it comes down to it, the reader doesn’t care how the sausage is made, only that it is, and that it’s delicious.

Melissa Lenhardt is the author the Jack McBride mystery series, as well as the Laura Elliston historical fiction series. Her debut mystery, STILLWATER, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest, and SAWBONES, her historical fiction debut, was hailed as a "thoroughly original, smart and satisfying hybrid, perhaps a new subgenre: the feminist Western" by Lone Star Literary Life. A lifelong Texan, she lives in the Dallas area with her husband and two sons. Her latest book, SAWBONES is now available in paperback. Her next novel, BLOOD OATH will be available on May 23, 2017 (as shamelessly alluded to earlier). 

 



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