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Category Archives: Editing

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked the difference between a beta reader and an editor, and the cost one might expect to pay for the services of either. When I said that one should not pay for beta readers, there was disagreement. However, I still maintain that one need not pay for beta readers.

Consider them your product testers. They’re the focus group who tries out the new invention, samples a new product, gives feedback on an upcoming ad campaign, views an early cut of a movie, or tests a new video game to see if it plays as it should.

If you (or a close, trusted individual) are the alpha reader of your manuscript, then beta readers are the folks who see the final, pre-publication draft. That version can still be a manuscript, or it can take the form of a galley or proof copy of the book.*

In return for their effort on your behalf, give beta readers a signed copy of the published book, or offer to read or test something they’ve created.

But don’t hire beta readers as you would hire an editor. And while editors can provide a similar service in the form of a manuscript critique,** there’s nothing like getting feedback directly from readers — who are, of course, a writer’s intended audience.


UPDATE (8-7-16): The paragraphs below are from a reader’s comments in a Facebook discussion sparked by this blog post. They expand upon and better explain what I attempted above.

A beta tester for a video game or other piece of software enters into an agreement wherein he receives a free or discounted early release of the software to use, and in return, the tester will tell the company what he thinks about the software — what does or doesn’t work, what is or isn’t intuitive, what he would like to see changed or further developed, etc. The beta tester is not paid for his work. He is asked, as an average user, to give the company his average-user opinion of the product. At best, he gets a free copy of the software, but it is both understood and accepted (and generally stated in some Terms and Conditions document somewhere, for legal reasons) in the IT community that beta testers are not compensated.

Testers who are hired on for their services are not hired to come at the software from the average user’s perspective; they are hired to make sure that the software functions appropriately (e.g. program doesn’t crash on loading, save function actually functions, etc.). They are hired to seek out and fix problems with the software, not to provide the average user’s perspective. These testers are not referred to as beta testers, because that’s not the job they do.

A beta reader receives a free or discounted early release of a book to read, and in exchange, the reader will tell the author what he thinks of the book — what does or doesn’t seem to fit or flow well in the story, what does or doesn’t make sense, what he would like to see further explained or developed, etc. This makes a beta reader the exact literary equivalent to a software beta tester. Traditionally, beta readers are treated the same as beta testers — that is, they are not paid for their services. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For clarification, if any reader, compensated or otherwise, provides any services outside what I listed above (other services include but are not limited to any form of editing, proofreading, etc.), then he has ceased to be a beta reader and strayed into editor/manuscript critic territory.


* It’s best if beta readers are honest with you about what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t like, and are willing to give specific feedback (not merely generic “I hate it” or “I like it” statements, but detailed responses).

Prepare a list of questions for them to answer, so they know what kind of feedback you need. Example: “In the scene where Tara is driving Sven to the airport and they encounter an overturned ambulance, is the dialogue and action believable? Why or why not?”

Keep the questions simple and straightforward, and keep the list short. Try not to make the readers feel they’re doing homework, but make it easy for them to help you.

Also provide readers with a simple way of reporting any typos or grammar issues they find. It’s handy when they provide you a page number, and maybe even a paragraph and a line number — “page 35, paragraph 3, line 7” — as well as a description of what’s wrong (“dipsolve” should be “dissolve”). 

** Manuscript critiques may cover such issues as continuity, characterization, worldbuilding, etc. Regular editing may also touch on those issues, but will also focus on the writing itself.

 

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Where Are You Going?

Where Are You Going?

“Progress” is merely motion in a certain direction, as in advancement toward a goal. Depending on the goal, your motives, or your methods, that progression can be positive or negative.

People say, “Hold on! It’ll get better!” but sometimes we need to let go. As much as we admire people who trudge onward toward their goals, there is, indeed, a time to give up.

Sometimes we persevere in the wrong direction. We may not know it. We may know it but not know how to change it. Our effort, skill, hope, endurance, loyalty, courage, and strength of will are expended in vain.

Step back. Examine goals, motives, methods, relationships, results. Is this truly the path you want to tread? Is this the end result you desire?

Don’t be discouraged by how much road — or how much life — lies behind you. It’s never too late for a course correction.

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

 

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Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Ever been labeled something that puzzled you?

Recently, a fellow writer wrote that I was unethical. At first, I thought she meant someone else, and thought, “What does she mean? That’s not true of that person,” but then realized she referenced a blog post I wrote last year regarding how pride can get in the way of receiving feedback or criticism. No names were mentioned. In fact, the only person readers knew was involved was me, and I admitted that even now, after decades as a writer, my pride is still sometimes stung by harsh criticism.

Hey, even the most thick-skinned of veteran writers still wants his work to be liked and read, no matter how many bestsellers he has behind him. (I’d like to have at least one bestseller, but that’s a goal yet to be reached.)

Another label put on me in the past — this time by a publisher — is “the editor who makes authors cry”. That is not an appellation of which to be proud. By no means. My goal has been and always will be to help authors produce their best work. Sometimes, they can be so in love with their creations that they cannot see flaws or weaknesses, missed storytelling opportunities, or clunky sentences. When an editor tells them what needs revising, they don’t receive the news well.

There is an implied compliment in the fact that someone else is taking the time to not only read one’s work, but to help one improve it. However, we writers often react with affront, with offended pride and scathing words toward the “clueless”, “high-handed”, “overbearing” editor. We don’t see his/her true intent. All we know is that we didn’t receive the praise and the rubber-stamped approval we desired.

Before we slap labels on folks and burn bridges we might need to rebuild, might I suggest a bit of reflection? Some distance? Perhaps a walk, a rant to a friend, a scribbled diatribe in a journal? A good night’s sleep? Prayer? Something that allows us to grow calm, to be objective, and not to say or do something we’ll regret. (Related reading: “What’s Your Filter?“)

We may find — as I did while editing Dragon’s Rook — that snarky, scolding feedback that shoots wide of the mark can still contain something valuable. When I stepped back and looked at the advice with cold objectivity, I saw a couple pieces I could use. As a result, I tore apart one scene that had been troubling me. The reconstructed version is many times better than the original.

So, then, what should I do when I’m now the one giving the ugly, scathing criticism?

Write it all out, and then don’t say most of it.

Recently, a PR firm requested I review a new novel by a young author. After reading the back cover blurb and the dark, well-written prologue, I had high expectations for the book. Below is the review. For the author’s sake, it will not be posted elsewhere, and has been edited here to obscure the author’s identity.

~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~

Although marketed as contemporary literary fiction, this novel could also be described as speculative fiction, a mix of modern and futuristic, of post-apocalyptic dystopian and the quest for utopia-via-enlightenment, of a perverse coming-of-age/search-for-meaning story with a science fiction existentialist-absurdist tale.

Try saying that ten times, fast. 😉

[Story synopsis, character list, and website links have been omitted to preserve author anonymity. However, quotes from the novel text remain unaltered, but for the characters’ names.]

It is not often I write a review like this. I want to write only the positives, but the cons are weighty. To be blunt, this book needs an editor, for content as well as mechanics.

It runs the risk of being “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). The writing is often preening and pretentious, but that could be the result of a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the author, matching the attitudes and egos of the characters.

Yet it sometimes feels like the writer is trying to make use of every high-sounding turn of phrase he can conjure or every word he can find in the dictionary. One is left wondering if, by the sheer volume and length of words, the author believes he has communicated—but, perhaps, I am not the audience for this work. I can wax lyrical with the most poetic of the poets, but prefer straightforwardness to roundaboutation.

Macbeth^Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Macbeth

As Macbeth might say, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly,” (Act 5, Scene 5).

Despite proofing errors (the repeated use of “causal” in place of “casual”, for instance) and some awkwardly-constructed sentences or phrases (what are “cathartic muscles”?), there remain many quotable lines:

“I take it you’re the self-proclaimed chosen one?” (Leroy) asked. “Prophets are rarely successful. Even when they are, society kills them.”

(Walter’s) thick lips gave way to a line of crooked teeth. “Hence, it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” (p77)

Later in the same conversation:

“The day is not calm when you discover humanity to be ripe for the taking.” (p78)

And some lines read like refugees from a modern-day “Jabberwocky”—they have a sound and a rhythm, and therefore the reader might almost think he understands their meaning or the author’s intent. But repeated readings reveal, no, the words really do make no sense.

This paragraph on page 121 transforms from poetic imagery to lyrical nonsense:

The notes of a distant piano played a melodic Bach and a blue Chopin to the beat of Kerouac. The sounds were unremitting as they’d always been in her mind. Real, but at the same time not real. Resonating. Vibrating. For she was a lollipop made of cherry and petrol, more given to the depths of trench coats and dark alleys; lethal-red lipstick, rocking a tear that was not a tear, but moisture secreting the nostalgia of an instinct held away from mankind by the missing link. From the real show and state.

Thank you, Google Translate. Sense to make, you do not.

The novel’s subtitle—[redacted]—is a clue to how readers are expected to view this work. The publisher’s mission statement, as well as the author’s explanation for the story’s existence, seem overly earnest, betraying a certain immaturity and youthful desire to ‘make a difference’:

[mission statement redacted]

Below is a quote from the introduction:

In the novel you’re about to read, I do not seek to victimize technology, nor to condemn our evolution, but to instill the realization that we are the product of our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own dreamed of reveries. We are the discomfort and leisure of humanity, the bright flame and its grey ashes. By nature we are born free.

Can’t argue with that last line. No doubt the author and I would find agreement on several other points. But how does one “victimize technology”?

Confession: I skimmed the second half of the book. Perhaps the story improved as it progressed. However, despite seeing interesting passages, I was not compelled to continue. The green-visored, cigar-chomping curmudgeonly editor who lives in the back of my brain could tolerate no more, and he suspects that publisher, editor, author, and the originator of the “editorial review” on the back cover are one and the same.

Nonetheless, [name redacted] is talented and intelligent, and is definitely an author to look for in the future. Give him time.

And his website waaaaay outclasses mine.

 

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Excellence v. Mediocrity

Excellence v. Mediocrity

From an article by novelist Athol Dickson on his site, discussing excellence v. mediocrity in writing:

It’s true many novels by Christians are poorly written. That’s also true of many other kinds of novels. In fact it’s true of most novels of every kind, but it’s not a particular indictment of mediocre writers or the readers who enable them. Most people don’t really care about excellence in architecture, sculpture, painting, or dance . . . or government, commerce, marriage, or anything else in life that ought to matter.

What interests me, is why. In our discussion about the “Worst Books” list, some of my author friends speculated that so many people dislike those novels because they were forced to read them in school and disliked them then. But these books truly are works of genius—most of them are, anyway—so why didn’t we love them in the first place?

It’s a thought-provoking read, not only for writers who happen to be Christians, but for any writer who strives for excellence.

As an editor, I am constantly confronted by the “good enough” work of fellow writers who just want me to sign off on their manuscripts rather than helping them shape those manuscripts into polished books. The constant fight to challenge other writers toward excellence can be wearisome, but it’s not a fight I can ignore.

Just this past week, I had an e-mail conversation with a rookie novelist whose work is being published soon. He acknowledges that it needs more crafting, but it’s been praised so highly by so many people—I was his only negative reviewer—that he’s going ahead with publication, because (as he put it himself) it’s good enough.

Not to sound overly pessimistic, but I’ve been feeling like the “lone voice crying in the wilderness”—and then I read Mr. Dickson’s eloquent, thought-provoking post. I’m dropping a copy into my archives so I can pull it out whenever I need encouragement. Or a kick in the pants.

originally posted October 18, 2012

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,

 

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Confession

Reblogged from Penworthy Press

Most people who know me also know I am a writer.

They’d have to be oblivious not to know. It’s an almost constant ingredient in my conversation. (Yes, I am that boring.) I love writing. It’s “the hardest work I’ll ever love”, and I dare say this love of words and stories is a calling.

It has given me work and has enabled me to help and encourage other writers, whether they be students writing only to finish assignments or aspiring writers seeking to be published. It has frustrated me, too, and the arduous process has taught me to let go of perfectionism and to persevere.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear and pride, and it prevents progress. It is one reason I chose a pseudonym: If people didn’t like my writing, I could hide behind another name.

However, there were other equal or greater reasons for choosing a pen name many years ago:
1) minor stalking from a few creepy guys when I was younger and better looking (alas, alack, time has taken its toll);
2) identity theft (a close family member was impinged upon by someone with a criminal history who married into the family, and then my information became linked to that person);
3) my real name doesn’t fit well with the types of stories I tell (“Elizabeth Easter” sounds like a romance writer, and while there are sometimes love stories in my work, I mostly write fantasy and science fiction); and
3) a desire to keep my editing work separate from my writing, and some writers — offended by the editing of their manuscripts — have called into question my abilities. I didn’t praise them as they wished, I made suggestions they viewed as insults, or perhaps I told them large portions would have to be rewritten. Therefore, rather than examine their own work, they attacked mine.

It is this behavior, among others, that led me to resigning from a publishing house and to shuttering the freelance editing business. Online creepers and offended authors weighed my spirit, and outweighed the many times writers had been encouraged and grateful for my help. I needed to step back and gain a clearer perspective.

An aside: If we live our lives offended, and if we make decisions out of that offense or we expect other people to tiptoe around us lest they offend, we are shackling not only ourselves but everyone else.

I have been edited by too-lenient teachers and by snarky, overbearing fellow writers. Good editing is a delicate balance: telling the absolute truth while still being kind and encouraging. As an editor, I strive for that balance, but have not always succeeded. As a writer, I also struggle to receive less-than-kind feedback and apply it objectively.

Another struggle: Should I reveal my true identity?

Another reason for choosing a pseudonym — and a masculine one, at that — was to practice writing male characters. Despite the push of political correctness, science confirms that men and women think differently. No secret there. However, after much experience editing romance novels, I became weary of the heroes mirroring the heroines: men who spoke, emoted, and behaved like women.

Also, a male reader’s feedback on an early, rough, uncompleted draft of my novel revealed that my male characters spoke and thought too much like the female characters. The feedback was not delivered with any thought to my feelings, but it was honest, and I respected that.

I needed practice. I chose a masculine pen name, started a blog, wrote a short story and a science fiction serial, and joined social media. Although I am a heterosexual woman, I found it comfortable, easy, and freeing to write as a man. As him, I could say things that Elizabeth couldn’t, and I was heard. The people with whom I engaged in conversation online where mostly men, and we could express ourselves without the clutter of delicate emotions. There was respect and honesty that wasn’t commonly present in conversations with fellow female writers. And, until I revealed the truth to a select few, people seemed to accept without question that “Keanan Brand” was a man.

The advertising, spam, and inappropriate invitations have accentuated that notion. There are spam-bots and actual women who have sent indecent proposals. Oy vey.

Yet another reason for choosing a pseudonym: to test my storytelling abilities without the impediment of my soft-sounding real name. The results have been mixed. Female readers have not liked the battle scenes, the violence, and the lack of erotic scenes, while the guys have wanted even more action and less poetry. However, some men have responded well to the emotional elements — not only the love stories, but also the scene where one character contemplates suicide, and there are strong friendships and family bonds — and some women have said they liked the action and thought the story was suspenseful. They did not seem influenced by the author name, but male readers seemed more inclined to my story when it came appended with a masculine pen name.

The truth will out.

There have been times when Elizabeth crept to the forefront of Keanan’s posts, and a couple times Elizabeth signed Keanan’s e-mail.

Writers whom I respect and like, and what started as a casual crossing of paths online have, in many cases, turned into friendships. Those friends deserve the truth — though I will understand if they do not remain friends after having been deceived by my online persona.

Regardless of the consequences, the time has come to confess the truth. Keanan Brand is really a woman, and Elizabeth Easter wrote this book:

Dragon's_Rook_Cover_Keanan_Brand_Susan_Troutt

 

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Shakespeare, Modern Romance Novels, and a Rant

MuchAdo

“We are the only love gods!”

I kept hearing this line in Denzel Washington‘s voice, and couldn’t recall why and where and when, then it hit me: He’s Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh‘s version of Much Ado About Nothing. *

What does that have to do with anything? Well, it happened to wander through my head after I posted this on Facebook:

Just finished proofing a romance novel with naughty bits. Those bits could have been reduced from pages to paragraphs, or been excised altogether, and the story would have been better for it.

I have said many times I am not the audience nor the editor for romance novels. And yet in which genre do I have the most editing experience?

Yep, you guessed it.

Perhaps my canted eye — that distrust and dislike of the common romance novel — makes me a good choice to edit such books, because I am not enamored of them. Everything — depth of character, depth of relationship, dialogue, plausibility, etc. — is scrutinized. Perhaps more than if the books were in a genre I enjoyed.

But, please, SOMEbody, let me edit more Westerns or mysteries or speculative fiction. I beg you.

Yes, I was a bit cantankerous at the time, and further explained my mood thus:

Every once in a while, the curmudgeonly editor has to have his say. He blows off a little steam then gets back to work.

The novel that sent me down the editing path was a Western, and I think there may have been romance somewhere in the plot. In my own novels there may be characters who are in love, but my tales aren’t much akin to modern romance novels. My mom used to read romances written in early decades of the 20th century, and I’m a Jane Austen fan, so I’m not against love stories.

However, many of the romance novels I’ve edited/critiqued/proofed have seemed to exist mainly as catalogs of physicality. **

Y’know, I don’t care if I’m the odd man out. I don’t care if I’m called a prude, old-fashioned, or whatever. I really am not interested in reading that stuff. Shakespeare is full of bawdy puns and ribald jokes, but at least there’s wit. Chemistry is great, but give me romance with more depth than hormones.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Feel free to disagree, but please keep comments respectful, on topic, and clean. Many thanks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

* I like this version slightly more than Joss Whedon‘s update of it: Much Ado About Nothing. However, both versions are great fun, and are excellent renditions of the Bard’s work. Michael Keaton edges out Nathan Fillion in their different portrayals of Dogberry the idiot sheriff, but both are comical. (Read more about the play here.)

On a side note, my favorite Hamlet is Mel Gibson‘s portrayal in the Franco Zeffirelli film, followed by Ethan Hawk’s and Kenneth Branagh’s portrayals.

** “Physicality” — in other words, the porn-y stuff that now comes standard in the average romance novel these days. And have the authors actually tried some of the stuff they make their characters do? From folks in the know — and by that I mean folks who’ve tried it and lived to tell — sex in the shower is an emergency room visit waiting to happen. Or, at the very least, a series of visits to the chiropractor. 

Other places that the adventurous advise against due to logistical and physical issues: the bathtub, the car, the couch, the alley, the public restroom, and the list goes on. Pretty much, folks, keep it horizontal and in the bedroom. (from an online blog post or author interview or panel discussion that I can no longer find, or I’d provide a link)

But, as the consolation prize, links regarding the pervy side of Game of Thrones, which is by no means romance but does include similar, uh, physicality:
The naked hypocrisy of Game Of Thrones’ nudity
Hollywood’s Secret Rape Culture
Dehumanizing Actors for Our Entertainment
a faith-based commentary at Speculative Faith regarding the TV show

 

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Pushing Out the Walls

Pushing Out the Walls

Sometimes, I need to push the walls out.

Not go all Big Bad Wolf and huff and puff and blow the house down, but push the walls out. Give myself room to breathe and think and be.

This doesn’t necessarily look right to others, who might see me as dismissive, disrespectful, proud, rude, superior, whiny, isolationist. I don’t mean to be. I just need them to step back.

Think of animals who might allow a stranger to scratch behind their ears or they might snap at the friendly hand. It’s not necessarily ugliness on purpose. There’s often an underlying reason for the two responses.

It’s a strange push-pull: I want to help, want to be friendly, want to share and be with people — people, not crowds — but there are times when the air is sucked from the room and the walls lean too close and I need to get out. Now.

The same feeling sometimes happens when I’m alone. It’s one reason I closed the book review list and limited the editing projects.

There’s weight in editing the work of strangers, people whose voices I never hear, whose faces I never see. These people exist merely as words on a screen, as avatars on social media, nothing more, yet they are real. And the burden of getting the work right for an author who sees me as unreal, as nothing more than words and avatars? Who can either send more work my way or burn my reputation in an online rant?

Crushing.

I entered this biz because I loved stories — reading them and writing them — but that joy slowly bled away and left behind anger. I hated reading. No longer did I select books for their heft and promise of a good yarn. I went for the quick reads, the light fare. Rarely did I sink into books and let their worlds absorb me. Now I edited them as I read.

I resented books.

The same with writers. If they weren’t from the publisher, they were freelance clients. If they weren’t clients, then they knew people who knew other people who knew me, and they were looking for free advice. If they weren’t looking for free advice, then they had found my reviews online and wanted me to review their work, too. Yet when I asked for beta readers, book reviews, or other help in similar vein, only a few responded. Nearly everyone I’d helped before was suddenly too busy to help me.

This may seem whiny and foolish, and I’ll concede that point.

Consider this: If a hotel housekeeper comes home from a busy day of making beds and cleaning toilets, how much physical or mental energy remains to clean her own home? If a mechanic spends his hours fixing other people’s cars, how much energy or time will be left to repair his own?

Where do we draw the line? Where do we stop the encroachment and say, “Enough. This far, no farther”? When do we stop putting ourselves at the mercy of everyone else?

I am a Christian. As such, I am instructed to serve others. However, when does everyone else’s version of service stop being the standard? Where do we stop “serving” them and start doing the other tasks that need doing? When does the housekeeper tell the kids to clean their own bathroom? When does the mechanic tell his wife to take the car to the quick-lube place and have the oil changed there?

I don’t know.

But the walls have come too close and the air has grown too thin, and it’s time for me to move on.

If I came across as angry, I was.

If I whined and whinged, I apologize.

If I seemed rude, dismissive, disrespectful, or otherwise ugly, I didn’t mean to be.

I still want to help my fellow authors get reviews, but I also want to love books again. I want to wander among the shelves of secondhand paperbacks and come away with long-out-of-print old friends. I want to revel in new adventures.

I want to help my fellow writers craft their work, but I also want to fire my own imagination. I want to regain the joy and the wonder of creating the kinds of stories I crave.

So if I go missing from the blog or from social media once in a while, I’m not necessarily gone. I’m just pushing out the walls.

 

 

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