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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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Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Fellow writers whose royalties are not yet sufficient to pay the bills, or other folk who spend waaaaay too much time at the computer and not enough time actually moving (we’re artists, and we exercise our brains; that’s enough right? 😉 ) here’s a great way to get in shape:

1) Invest in a good pair of gloves, good shoes, and your favorite OTC pain reliever. (You’ll need less of the pain reliever as time passes.)

2) Apply to work part-time at a large store, one with lots of inventory that must be moved and stocked pronto; or work on a construction site, at a repair garage, or anyplace else that might be considered blue-collar and non-intellectual. (As kids, my brother and I worked with Dad in his construction and remodel business. I learned more good work ethics and life skills there than any job since has taught me.)

3) At first, whenever arriving home from your assigned shift, you may be too tired to write or think or even wiggle. You may curse your age, your out-of-shape-ness, your alarm clock, your creaky joints, etc. Let it all out. 😉 Your days off may be spent sleeping rather than writing. Let it happen.

4) One day, not too long after you’ve begun this new, body-pummeling endeavor, you’ll realize your brain is awake with new ideas. You’ve mingled a bit with real people. You might even have made new friends. The sunlight is your friend, not your enemy. Your food choices or cravings will change: more water, less coffee, and more meat and veggies, fewer instant noodles. Your clothes are now too big, but your posture and stamina at the writing desk have improved.* Your fingers, once so nimble on the keyboard, are thicker now due to hard work, but give them a minute or two to limber up, and they remember how to type.

For months, until finances reached a crisis, I resisted returning to ‘real’ job, because 1) it felt like selling out, 2) I didn’t want another full-time job to overwhelm my mind and my time to the point that I couldn’t write, and 3) I didn’t want to be among people. Mingling with my characters and taking the occasional trip to writers meetings were all the socializing I needed.

And I was afraid of the pain. After injuring and re-injuring the same set of muscles and joints (car accident, a fall from a step ladder, and a few other falls), I didn’t want to aggravate the site and invite more debilitating pain. However, although there have been days like today when the pain of last night’s work leaves my shoulder stiff and unwilling, the aggressive activity has been therapy, forcing muscles and joints to work at full capacity and in their proper function. Chiropractic issues are resolving themselves as muscles gain strength to keep bones in alignment.

The doctor told me once that, if I refused the physical therapy exercises, my shoulder would freeze. I’d have no mobility unless I faced the pain. I kinda sorta followed his instructions, and at home I used the chart and performed most of the necessary exercises. But with no one else to  me, to encourage me through the pain, I didn’t do the hardest ones.

The part-time job as a stocker has solved that issue. Sure, I’m typing this in pain, but I’m typing. The pain is merely at a discomfort threshold, far from the Oh-God-make-it-stop level it was after the car accident and the fall from the ladder. Both left me breathless, staring out the windshield or at the wall and wondering if I’d damaged myself this time to the point of no recovery.

We writers, our dream may be to shut out the world and tell our tales, but we need pain, I think, in order to write pain. We need troubles in order to write troubles. Those we write may not be the same as those we experience, but we know the emotions: the worry, the fear, the grief, the despair, the agony, the recovery, the planning for a new future, the hope.

I won’t be a stocker forever. I know this. Just as in nature, life has seasons, and this is merely one of them. For now, though, as strange as it may seem, keeping the shelves stocked with canned veggies, with dog food, with hairspray, with toilet paper, is also keeping me fit for writing.

Working or writing: We don’t have to choose one or the other. There are times when the writing lags, or when the day job must be abandoned, but those are mere seasons, and the two pursuits need not be anathema to one another. Just as winter’s snows feed summer’s streams, and sping’s buds lead to autumn’s leaves, so too does work inform writing and writing lighten work.


* Bought a new, smaller pair of jeans for work, washed ’em, wore a few days later, and they were already too big. Working in the stock room is better than going to the gym — and I get paid! 😉


Just for kicks, April 29-May 6, 2016, there’s a Countdown deal for the Kindle version of Dragon’s Rook. Today it’s .99, but the price will increase incrementally until it returns to it’s usual $4.99.

 

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In Progress

In Progress

In the past, I’ve shared incomplete poems or scenes, or pieces that have been worked and re-worked, to show fellow writers that perfection is 1) often relative, and 2) not a one-step process. Writing is the practice of perseverance.

In the wee hours of morning, when my head hurt and I couldn’t sleep, I pondered the beginning of Dragon’s Bane, the second half of an epic fantasy yarn. Scenes need re-arranging. (Anyone who knows me knows I play “52-card pick-up” with chapters and scenes, mixing up parts of the story until I settle on a progression that feels right.) Emotion needs to be established. (Always tricky.) Mystery and atmosphere must be heightened. (Always fun.)

And I need to write more poetry and fragments of the story world’s history. I used almost all of them for the first half of the story (Dragon’s Rook), so the well is almost dry. Time to dig deeper.

As I lay awake, this gap-filled poem arrived, employing phrases and concepts from the first book, obliquely summarizing the entire story:

in the high mountains
beyond Craydaegs’ gate
behind Brona’s Veil
the people await

past the curtain of night
on the path of the moon
in the land of the horse-kings
_______________-oon

hear the horn of the Woodsman
heed his ____ tread
his fell axe is trimming
the leaves of the dead

the warrior, the flame,
a sword in the west
away, all ye Dragons
let enmity rest

c2016, KB

Once finished, it’ll be the opening poem before the story begins.

lake at Myriad Botanical Gardens, Oklahoma City (c2014, KB)

lake at Myriad Botanical Gardens, Oklahoma City (c2014, KB)

 

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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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Simple Work

Simple Work

At work Thursday night, listening to two young men debate the meaning of a word and why meanings change as people misuse/misapply words, I revealed that I’m an editor.

One wide-eyed kid stared at me and demanded, “If you can do that, why are you here?”

I laughed. “Because this pays the bills.”

He nodded, and went back to stacking boxes.

This is pure speculation, but I think he asked because he’d learned earlier in the shift that someone else received a promotion for which he’d also been a candidate.

I hope, though, he can see stacking boxes as a stepping stone and not as a dead end.

For me, it’s exercise I might not get as a writer, and it’s a means to an unrelated goal. The job has nothing to do with the career, if that makes any sense.

Stacking boxes, stocking shelves, climbing ladders, walking untold steps every day — those may seem mundane activities taking me away from editing and writing. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they leave me too exhausted to do what I want to do.

But after four years of literary employment, the romance of a royalty check is diminished, and the steadiness of a regular paycheck is desirable.

Some of those royalty checks are very nice — don’t get me wrong! — but some are so small the publisher rolls the money into the next month’s check. That means I have to dive into savings to pay the bills.

At forty-something, I’ve seen enough life to realize the joys of a simple job. I used to hate physical labor when my dad made my brother and me haul and stack wood or do other chores. Then, in my thirties, I experienced injuries that could have crippled me. Now, at last, I’m able to move without pain. I express gratitude by working.

I hope that young man can view his job with a wide lens, one that sees past the slights and disappointments — even the monotony — of the moment; a lens that prevents him from transposing a job over a life, but uses work to give himself a life.

I hope he knows the joy of good work done well. There’s no better rest than a deep sleep after a day of good work.

And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt if he, too, became a writer. 😉

 

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Finding the End

Finding the End

After waking in a strange funk, likely caused by falling asleep while watching a Scottish crime series and hearing shouts and gunshots in my sleep, I have the rough outline for the unwritten remainder of Thieves Honor.*

This novel was supposed to be completed in December 2015, but life has its own plans and stories take their own time.

I wanted to advance, but a voice nagged at the back of my mind, so I returned to the beginning of the story and revised or cut passages that had never quite satisfied. Something was missing, too. Like the forgotten spice for the soup, a minor plot element had been left out — and its absence, while not making the story unpalatable, certainly made it less interesting.

When Ray Gun Revival magazine went into hiatus, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I’d planned for three “seasons” of the Thieves Honor serial; for the novel, however, time and material had to be condensed, and the story itself needed to change.

As of this morning, about three years or so later, I know roughly how to do that.**

There’s much to be said for outlines, but I don’t think or create in linear fashion. My mind needs time to hike over wide wide tracts of unconnected wildernesses and brings back ideas I would never have considered but for the wandering. And if I don’t start writing something, a story may never actually be written before it is forgotten.

I plod when I’d rather soar, although some of my best short story work has occurred under a looming deadline. That’s usually after I already know the characters and story goal well enough to fit the puzzle together at the last minute.

It’s good business to produce books quickly so one can build a paying audience and solid readership. There are exceptions to that, of course; a certain famous fantasy writer is known for his slow production rate, but he hasn’t lost his audience.

I wish I wrote faster. My mind is teeming with untold stories.

 

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* If this is the result, maybe I should fall asleep to noisy Scottish crime dramas every night. 😉 After all, in the novel, there’s a dead character with a Scottish burr who “haunts” Finney, the ship’s pilot.

** For readers in the know, Carson Quinn, son of a famous pirate, and Rebeka Bat’Alon, the rebellious daughter of a port governor, are making a comeback in the story, turning their bit parts into pivotal roles. The mystery of the ghost ship Elsinore will be solved, and there’ll be another visit to the outcast colony living in the abandoned mines of the Devil’s Eye.

Readers were first introduced to the colony in “Shooting the Devil’s Eye”, a short story in Raygun Chronicles, a space opera anthology.

 

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“So What? Who Cares?”: Unintentional Writing Advice

“So What? Who Cares?”: Unintentional Writing Advice

So what? Who cares?

Those words were spoken to me with a shrug and a flounce by a fellow writer many years ago, and though they may not have been intended kindly, those questions are some of the best writing advice I’ve encountered. In fact, I’ve co-opted them, writing them in the margins of my clients’ manuscripts and including them in critiques.

You’ve probably heard advice about cutting anything that doesn’t advance the plot, establish the setting, develop character, etc., and may have wondered how to know what to keep and what to cut. How do you know which actions develop character, or which piece of description is unnecessary? That’s when you ask, “So what? And who cares?”

Not a hard-and-fast rule: Don’t ask these questions of your work until you have a completed draft.

Suggestion: Maybe hold off asking these questions for the second draft, too.

Recommendation: Drafts three or four, when the editing and revising is getting serious and nitty-gritty, is probably the best time to demand of every scene, descriptive passage, line of dialogue, even every sentence, “So what? Who cares?”

As an editor, I have had the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking task of telling a writer to cut a beloved passage because it’s a distraction, a rabbit trail, or carries no storytelling weight. It does not serve the story.

Littlest studying an intense game of air hockey (c2014, KB)

Littlest studying an intense game of air hockey (c2014, KB)

Sometimes it’s a detailed description of a house or a dress or a car, but the described item has only a passing place in the broader story, and we never revisit it.

However, if the writer can somehow link that description to the place where a character grew up and how rosy memories compare with reality, or to an impoverished character’s love of couture and her scrapbook filled with magazine cutouts of fashion shows, or to the nostalgia a character has for the classic cars his dad used to drive, then the passage may have a reason to remain.

It may still need to be revised or moved, but at least now it helps tell the story by revealing character.

So what? = Why does a scene exist? What point does a character serve? Why does a character say a line of dialogue, make a particular gesture, believe one thing and disbelieve something else? Why do readers need to know the bakery is across the street from the post office?

Who cares? = Who will care if the dog dies, the car breaks down, the grandmotherly neighbor’s house is invaded? If the reader is supposed to care, the characters must care, and before the characters can have an emotional stake in what happens, the author must be invested in the story.

Everything’s connected.

Characters need dimension beyond cardboard cutouts that merely serve the plot or the action. Think of all those superhero flicks where buildings, cars, and streets in New York are destroyed, as if all the people living or working or driving or sauntering there are not worth as much as one superhero saving another superhero from the villains. Hey. People matter. Characters matter. You — their creator — must imbue them with worth. There must be consequences for their choices, for their lives or deaths, for the other characters who encounter them.

And by consequences, I don’t necessarily mean negative events (punishment, resentment, etc.). Consequences can be emotional attachments, such as a childless couple adopting a child, or consequences can be new perspectives, such as when a classroom full of know-it-all teenagers meet a teacher more interested in their futures than they are. Consequences can be questions, answers, new directions.

So, when your story has been through a round or two of revisions, rigorously apply So what? Who cares? and watch the story gain a tighter plot and a greater emotional connection with readers.

Littlest reaching out for a hug (c2014, KB)

Littlest reaching out for a hug (c2014, KB)

 

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