Words for Writers

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Beta Readers

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Beta Readers

One of the most invaluable resources a writer can ever have is a second pair of eyes.

Called a beta reader (like a beta-tester in programming), a secondary reader, or sometimes just a straight up editor, having someone else read through your work is an invaluable step in the editing process.

This is important because while writing a story, writers live very deeply within them. We can be blind to all sorts of mistakes – little ones like typos, or big ones like failing to close a plot gap, or to make a Chekov’s Gun payoff, or changes to a character’s appearance, or simply forgetting to write a whole chapter. I’ve done all of these things. It’s easier to miss than you’d expect, because you think you’ve done the thing and when you re-read the story, you can easily see what you intended to put on the page, instead of what you really did put on it.

Of course, putting a story away for awhile and coming back to it with fresh eyes is a great way to find errors and ensure the book you’re working on reads as intended, it’s still easy to miss things, or to assume something works when it doesn’t. Afterall, it’s nearly impossible to be fully objective about writing we ourselves put on the page.

To this end, that second pair of eyes is a vital part of the process of turning a first draft into something professional and legible. Especially if you want to make sure that characters come off the way you intend them to, twists happen at the right moment and the right pace, and nothing is too predictable or too gonzo or simply doesn’t make any sense.

Secondary/Beta readers are also great because they may clock onto something that you missed – an opportunity to explore a way to tell the story better, or introduce a twist, or broaden something that they say in the book but you didn’t realize you’d put there.

The number of times I’ve said “Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to put that in there, but that’s a much better idea than what I was going to do!” is nearly obscene. ~_^

And the truth of it is that as much as people would like to believe we are special and talented enough to be above needing those second set of eyes, not one of us is.  Not a single writer.

So, I usually run my books/short stories/screenplays/(and sometimes even my fanfics) through three to five levels of secondary readers, depending on the intended use of the story:

  • A friend/someone from my writing circle who likes my work  
    • Why? This is someone who’s read a lot of my work and knows my patterns and habits, both good and bad, and help me spot them and work with them. This is
  • A friend/someone from my writing circle who hasn’t read much of my work or doesn’t often read in this genre.
    • Why? Because someone who likes my work, or loves the genre I’m writing in, may be blind to the flaws of the story that come from me leaning too heavily on genre tropes or my own habits.

>>This is where I generally take the feedback from these folks and go do a re-write or a second draft.

  • An editor
    • Why? This is someone whose sole job it is to find errors, both structurally and/or line-by-line (depending on which kind of editor you’re working with), and help you as a writer improve both the manuscript and your craft. They’re trained professional storytellers.
    • If the book is already contracted, then this person generally goes last on my list, because it’s the editor at the house that’s going to be working on it and carrying it through to the end of the project. I’ll give it to my agent before this editor to get her feedback.
    • If this is a book I’m self-publishing, then I skip my agent as she’s not working with me on this particular project, and hire a freelance editor to work with me.
    • If the book isn’t already contracted and I am giving it to my agent to shop, then I usually work with a freelance editor in some capacity at this point to give it a look-over before it goes to my agent so I’m certain that the version going out to houses for consideration is the best that it can be.

>>Another draft usually goes here.

  • My mother
    • Why? She is the Queen Of Finding Typos. She won’t comment much on the story, but boy howdy if I spell something wrong her eyes go right to it!

>>Another another draft goes here.

  • My agent
    • Why? Because she knows what’s saleable and marketable, and she might ask me to make changes to make the book easier to sell.
    • Depending on whether the book is contracted or is going to be shopped around, it will go to my agent either third or last.

While securing Editors and Agents may not be the easiest thing, there’s lots of information out there on how to do it, so I’m going to skip straight to talking about where to find those friends/people in your writing community who are likely fellow writers and can act as your beta readers/secondary readers/extra set of eyes. And you, of course, for theirs.

  • Friends
    • Did you take writing classes with any friends? Do you have people in your life who just love to read and do so a lot?
    • Have you met any other writers online, via blogs, or communities, or contests, or sites like Archive of Our Own or Wattpad?
    • Have you cultivated a group of fellow writers you can ask?
  • Family
    • Is someone in your family in creative writing, or teaching, or journalism?
    • Do you have family members who love to read and can be helpful but objective about your writing?
  • Local Writer Community
    • Check out local writing contests, bulletin boards at libraries or campuses or bookstores
    • Does your school have a writing or book club?
    • Attend book launches to meet a wide variety of authors, not just the one launching – we usually go and support one another.
    • You can also meet fellow writers in the crowd at  literary festivals, or conventions.
    • Is there a local social group – like a local horror writers association, or a monthly meetup for a group, like a YA Author’s Pub Night?
    • Does the writer’s union/collective in your area have nights open for non-members, or if you are a member, socialization nights?
  • Online Writer Community
    • Check author websites and FaceBook pages to see if they foster a community of writers or hold contests, like Miss Snark’s First Victim or Gail Carriger.
    • Join your local NaNoWriMo Forum on the website, and follow their social media accounts. Many have a forum where you can post your search for a beta, and answer someone else’s.
    • Check out the forums and community boards surrounding your favourite conventions, fandoms, or fiction archives.
    • Does your local writer’s union/collective have an online community, facebook group, or posting board where you can search for betas?
  • Classes. Schools, and Courses
    • Take a course or after-school or community class in writing. You’ll make friends and find great support there.
  • Professional Editors / Betas
    • Consider hiring a professional to give your book a read at some point, because their job is literally to make your book better. And they have the education and skills to catch a lot of what you may miss or be unaware of.

In the end, no matter how you choose to find a Beta Reader, I cannot recommend one highly enough. And keep in mind that it is expected that their service will be reciprocal (unless you’ve hired a professional); if they read your book, at some point they are probably going to ask you to read theirs and offer critique and feedback in return. Be prepared to support and help them in the same way.

The Writing community is an awesome one, and we’re all ready to help one another succeed!


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

A young writer reached out to me on Instagram last month looking for some guidance when it comes to Character Development. She said that she was afraid that she spent a lot of time describing what her characters were doing at any given moment, but was failing to reveal why they were doing the thing, and what they were feeling when they did it.

This can be a problem for a lot of writers, especially those who aren’t thinking critically about the underlying layers and motivations of emotion in the scene they’re writing. Books, after all, serve only one real purpose – to tell a story that makes you feel something. The peril of simply reciting a character’s actions instead of revealing to the audience how they feel while they do them is real.

And because humans sympathize with others so strongly, the overarching way to make a reader feel something about a book is to share with your readership what the characters themselves are feeling in the moment. You need to provide readers with the opportunities to experience the emotion in tandem, and to watch those characters learn, evolve emotionally, and grow as people as the adventure happens.

Now, that’s not to say you have to drown the prose in blunt, obvious phrases like “I’m sad,” or “I’m so angry at you right now!” Novels are still, overwhelmingly, more successful when they can show and not tell.

I mean, I liked Lord of the RIngs okay when I read it, but ultimately I found it very boring as a story as it was a recitation of actions and histories and descriptions, with little to no glimpses into Frodo’s thoughts and feelings on the Quest. I couldn’t feel the weight of the ring digging the chain into his neck, I didn’t thirst with Frodo when he was parched, didn’t understand how bone-tired he was as he snuck through Mordor. I didn’t glory in the sun of the Shire on his face or the grass of the meadow below Weathertop on his feet.

But then Peter Jackson gave us this:

And this:

And yes, I am aware that this is a film, and a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s feeling in these screencaptures, even as they’re static. In both of them you’ll note that Frodo is sitting down, resting, mind far away and leaning back on something.

But he’s not at all feeling the same thing, and his posture, body language, where he’s looking, what he’s holding, and how he’s reacting to the environment around him all gives the viewers a clue to what is happening to him internally.

And writers – lucky us! – have to do the same, but, you know, with letters instead of pictures.

When writing a scene, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • What is the Character FEELING in that moment?
    • What is their overriding emotion in this scene?
    • And what does that emotion motivate them to do, or not do?
  • What is the Character HIDING from those around them?
    • What secrets do they want to keep. Is it something dire?
    • How does holding that secret make them feel?
    • Is this secret distracting them from what’s happening? Are they paying attention?
  • What is the Character REVEALING Accidentally to those around them
    • If they’re hiding something, are they giving it away? Are they a good liar? How does that affect their body language? Can others tell?
    • What happens when the others around your character understand what they’re trying to hide?
    • If they’re not intentionally hiding something, they may still be giving clues away to something else – what do they looking, what are they wearing, how are they moving? What’s on their clothes? Think Sherlock here – and keep in mind, who in the rest of the group can read those clues, and how accuratly?
  • What is the Character REVEALING On Purpose to those around them
    • If they have a secret, are they hoping others will figure it out? Are they helping other figure it out?
    • Are they sharing information some other way, besides talking?
    • Are they actively sharing the info, or passively?
  • How does that affect the ACTIONS of the Character in that moment
    • Taking all the above into the account, what does the character do, where do they move, what actions do they make as a result?
    • (For example – if they are lying to their mother, would they go sit at the table directly beside her? Or stand further away? Why make that choice? To what advantage to them?)
  • How does that affect the BODY LANGUAGE of the Character in that moment
    • Are they excited? Bouncing on toes? Throwing hands in the air?
    • Are they exhausted, slouched against a wall or another person, struggling to stay upright?
    • Do they look guilty? Or are they cool as a cucumber about a secret they’re keeping?
  • How does that affect the PHYSICAL FORM Of the Character in that moment
    • What does guilt feel like? Squirming on the inside, heavy with shame, a headache?
    • What does happiness feel like? Lighter than air, the urge to dance?
    • What does hunger feel like? Curled in on stomach, weak, cold from lack of calories to burn, sleepy.
    • etc.
  • And lastly, why is the Character doing that particular ACTION at that particular time
    • If you’re adding actions just to add actions, sit back and think of how natural they are. Would that character actually do that thing, at that time, with everything else around them happening the way it is?
    • Stillness is also a choice, and it can be a powerful character-revealer, depending on how you use it.

Let’s do an exercise:

Go back to the moments where you character is DOING and not FEELING. Put a pin in them – flag it, highlight it, print it out and put an actual pin in it, whatever works for you. Then, when you’ve found several moments that need fleshing out… step away from the keyboard.

And act it out.

Say what your character is saying. Do what they are doing. And above all, trying to feel what they are feeling.

The first time through, do it exactly as your character is doing it; copy what they say and each action precisely. Mark the places where what they’re doing or saying feels stiff, awkward, or forced. It likely is.

The second time through, pay attention to those awkward moments, and try doing them a new way. Get into your character’s head and improvise; ball your fists, kiss the back of your hand if there’s a smooch, punch a pillow, pace, jump, use your body the way you really would if you really were this person in this actual situation. Make that cup of tea or take down that bowl from the cabinet.

Try to access the emotions of the character – and then pay attention to how those emotions affect your body.

When you want to cry, what happens? The back of your eyes burn, there a lump in your throat, your chest feels tight, your chin starts to shake, your nose runs.

When you’re elated, what happens?  Your blood feels fizzy, your heart beats fast, you bounce and hop on your feet, your head feels light, you’re giddy and giggle, your hands flutter. You can’t focus on just one thing.

When you’re furious, what happens? You slam doors, to grunt and huff, you punch the air, you stab your finger in someone’s face, your face flushes, your hands shake.

These physical reactions to emotion are a human  universal, and moreover they show the emotion the character is feeling rather than tell it. It’s like a cheat-code to getting your reader to understand what the people they’re reading about are feeling, are going through, without having to outright say that they’re sad, or elated, or furious.

When you reach the end of the scene, make notes on what you changed. Then run through it as many times as you need to find the right balance.

And then sit down to the keyboard and make those changes. I’m certain you’ll find the scene much stronger. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Soon you won’t have to stand up to do it at all, you’ll remember that this is stuff you have to add into the prose and will do it as you write – practice, after all, makes perfect.

If this exercise doesn’t work for you personally as a writer, then try to find another way to access this emotional reality of your character as you’re working on the scene. Remember, emotion is the driving force of all action. What you feel dictates – or drives – what you do, and how and why you do it. This is no less true for made-up people.

And as always, I advocate that each writer try to get out of their PJs and away from a keyboard and take an acting class or two. In highschool? SIgn up for drama classes or join the club. Outside of school? Audition at a community theatre, or do evening improv classes. If you’re not up for public acting, read books on acting techniques, character motivation, and performance. Something, anything that helps you access the understanding that physical gesture is born of motivation, which is driven by feeling, which can reveal character. And then practice it.

Or watch movies, see what the actors do – how do they make you understand so clearly what they’re feeling, and why? And then practice describing that.

I promise, it will help you become a better writer.


There are also some great resource out there to help you understand how character drives motivation, which drives feeling, which drives action:


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

This is a question that came in from social media, and I’ve been pondering the answer for a few months. I could say something glib like “When I’ve hit my publisher’s word count!” but of course, this question is, I think, more about when you know that you’ve finished telling the story you wanted to tell – beginning to end and with all the adjustments and edits added during the drafts.

I think, if I may projet, what you’re really asking is, when are you satisfied enough with the manuscript to call it “done” (or at least, done enough to start pitching around or to give to your editor/agent.)

And that’s a hard, hard, hard question for any author, but a doubly hard one for me – see I nearly always write the ending first.

When I start a novel, I usually start by writing the scene that is, for me, the most powerful, the most attractive, the most fun and filled with the most flavor of the book.  Usually it’s either the first act, second act, or third act/novel climax, simply because of the way my brain works. By that point I more or less know where in the timeline of these character’s lives the story needs to stop, and where it needs to start. But of course those things can slide depending on edits and the need for background info, epilogues, a better tie-up, etc.

For other writers, they plot the whole book before they sit down, so they know before they start where the ending is. And for others, they just write until it seems done, and solidify that endpoint during the editing phase.

But as for knowing when the story is finished?

Yowza.

That’s a hard question to answer.

Don’t laugh, but for me it’s when the story stops squirming. There’s this feeling I get in my stomach, under my skin, that’s like a wiggly itch – it’s the physical manifestation of knowing that something is off, I just don’t know what yet. When I read the book and there’s no squirm? It’s done.  You could also be really morbid and compare it to a pinned live butterfly as well – flipping and flopping all over the place, shedding wing-dust and scales all over the velvet. I have one pin in it – at the tip of a wing – but I have to get another pin into the other wing, and then another in the bottom wings, and another in the thorax and … yeah, okay, I know I sound like a serial killer.

But the idea is the same. When the story is pinned in place from all corners, and the full picture is spread out, beautiful, and legible, then the story is done.

A good way to check is to write the meaning and beats of each scene down on note cards as you re-read the book over, like this:


The Untold Tale

Chapter One:
Scene 1:

Beats: Forsyth sees Mother Mouth approaching with Pip through study window –  goes down to meet them in the foyer – they check for/neutralize spells on the body Mouth has brought – body is alive, it’s a woman – Forsyth brings her into the house and they set up a room for her – Forsyth stays by her bedside, ostensibly as a host but really to keep an eye on her in case this is a ploy

Needed Because: Sets up Forsyth as caring and overly servile; intros world, Turn Hall, Mother Mouth; sets up Forsyth as spy (readers don’t know yet); introduces Pip’s scars.


When you have all your cards for all your scenes, pin them to the wall and connect them with color-coded string – for example, anything scene/card that builds Forsyth as the Shadow Hand will be connected by, say, Purple, while anything about Pip and her scars is connected in green. You can also do this with color-coded highlighter marks, sticky notes, stickers, etc.

(I do it digitally via Scrivener, which has a pin-board and color coding built in.)

When you’ve done this all, step back and look at it – does every card have a string attached to it, or a color coded dot in the corner? Do all the things you’ve set up pay off? Do you have a scene that is a repeat of another, does it re-establish something that was already established once, or drags, or is superfluous? Did you describe the same place three times or did the character growth arc flipflop?

And if it doesn’t serve the overall story? Cut it. Or fix it. Or rewrite it.

I call those moments “decks” – we build a lot of decks for our characters to hang out on in fiction, but we should really be building staircases. Your staircase can have some landings, some places to rest up and catch your breath, but ultimately they should be going up up up. If your characters / plot / forward momentum is chilling on a deck with a frosty bevvie, then the deck needs to be rebuilt, tilted upward, and forcing your story back into motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to book has to plow ahead, no-holds-barred. Your story can meander, and linger, and be slow, can treasure quiet moments and have multiple episodes that feed into the main narrative – that’s fine. So long as everything needs to be there. So long as it goes.

But a book should be waterproof and air tight, no matter how many words long it is.  Looking over it shouldn’t give you squirmies. Everything should connect, no scene or moment or even sentence should be meaningless.

If you can say that you have ruthlessly reviewed every plot point, every scene, every sentence – going from macro to micro – and can confidently and honestly say that everything that is there is something that needs to be there for the sake of the story, or the plot, or the character arc, or the world and/or word-crafting… then I think that’s when the book is done.

When all of the story that needs telling to make it a story is told, then then the story is complete.

I know it sounds complicated and rigorous, but with any luck, you’ll have your own intuitive version of the squirmies that will let you know when there’s still one more draft to do.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

My writing has been featured in the Bedside Press books “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls” and “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Redux

I caught up with publisher Bedside Press to discuss storytelling and the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. You can read the blog post here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

 

#NationalAuthorsDay falls on the start of National Novel Writing Month. This is my 16th NaNoWriMo and I want to talk a bit about what this ‘competition’ has meant to me.

I have ‘won’ a total of 12 times – that is, I have hit the 50k word mark 12 of those 16 years.  The years I did not, I failed for a few different reasons. In 2011 I ended up in the hospital just hours after the kickoff party due to Sudden Organ Death (weee). Luckily, I still managed to scrape a short story out of the idea, which was published in an anthology. That story actually helped me win a grant last month to write the full version next year (so I guess I know what I’m doing for my 17th NaNoWriMo already!)

The rest of the failure years, I had signed up and plopped down a few thousand words. But things like a thesis or deadlines for other books due to publishers got in the way (ironically, all of them past NaNo projects themselves). I did sign up with the intention of at least trying to win those years, but I just couldn’t make it happen.

And I’m going to be really honest – how I do NaNo now is not at all how I did it at the start.  In the beginning, I followed “the rules” pretty stridently: new project on November 1st, started nothing before that date, outlined or pantsed (tried both). And that was fine. It worked. I wrote two novellas and the lion’s share of two or three books like that.

But the more I NaNo now, the more I find myself Rebelling. One year I wrote some shorts that I had promised folks and never finished. A few times, I wrote scripts (one now signed with a prodco). One year I wrote pitch documents and starting chapters for a few different projects, as this is what was due. Some years I’ve finished novels I’d already started (pausing when I hit about 20-40k in August/September to finish the last 50k in November). This year I am revising an existing novel, rewriting huge swaths of it, and in some case just out and out deleting and utterly redoing full chapters. This will likely be at least 50k New Words anyway, so I’m comfortable with Rebelling in this way.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s not cheating.

Because while the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write 50k on a brand new novel, the real true value of NaNo is not in walking away with a stack of papers. It is in learning about what you need to write.

 

Committing to 1667 words per day means that you need to carve out time, space, and mental energy to devote to the story you want to tell. Over time you develop habits, and figure out how to correct or accommodate them. You learn what kind of planning you need to do in advance (if any), what sort of environment you need to write (I can’t attend write-ins because I find them too loud and busy), what time of day you write best (I like quiet, at night), what sort of writing you prefer to do (I jump all over the manuscript instead of writing the story completely in order – thank god for Scrivener).

But these things that I know about myself as a writer, these things that I do and I need? I would never have discovered them if I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo. If I hadn’t tried it at least once. In fact, if I hadn’t tried a few times. Practice makes perfect, they say, but practice also reveals process. Like granite revealed as softer soapstone is worn away by the elements, the core things that you need as a writer – writing environment and time, kinds of pressures, outlines or pantsing, types of edits and beta reads – will remain.

NaNoWriMo can also introduce you to other writers, who can mentor you, or become your beta readers, or teach you new methods, or processes, or just plain help you (just as you’d help them in return) along your storytelling journey. Publication may not be your ultimate goal, but having friends who understand and support you as you create is still valuable. Community and support networks are so important as a creator.

Why bother at all if you’re just Rebel Writing every November, you may ask? Well, part of it is just straight up nostalgia, I’ll admit that. But part of it is that I do actually like the deadline. I say it every year: 50k words does not a novel make. But it’s a lot more words on the page than 0 words. There’s value to at least having that much, even if it isn’t a full complete novel. (Novellas, on the other hand, are 50k so that might be a complete story when you’re done it!) In that same vein, you can’t edit what doesn’t exist, so it forces you to at least get the darn thing on the page even if it sucks. That’s what editing is for.

Deadlines do genuinely help me as a writer. They give me motivation and a target to aim for. And who doesn’t like putting a gold star sticker on a chart, or a checkmark in a ticky box? There’s a sense of accomplishment that I treasure in watching the stats bar go up. That works for me.

But deadlines like this are horrifying for other writers, and I accept that.

The big truth about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not for everyone; but trying and failing at NaNo and learning that this form of writing is not for you is just as valuable as succeeding at NaNo. The stress, the deadlines, the community, the way it’s all set up – it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s okay. Now you know that about yourself, and you didn’t know that before. So in a way, you still won.

While getting those words on the page it important, the real thing you win at the end of National Novel Writing Month is not a novel, but a better understanding of yourself as a storyteller.

 

For more discussion on the value of NaNo, visit Chuck Wendig’s twitter threadAnd come be my buddy on NaNoWriMo’s website.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here, including past posts about NaNoWriMo.

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