Basic Tips for Beta Readers

A while back, I wrote a thread on Twitter with some quick tips on beta reading. I’m going to expand on this a little bit here.

First off, let’s get some terminology straightened out.

Beta reader – Your job as a beta reader is to tell the writer overall thoughts, point out areas where you didn’t follow the story or understand the characters’ motivations, and express opinions on style (for example, alternating POVs making it difficult to keep track of characters, certain chunks of the story being written as text messages made plot hard to follow, dialects and slang being confusing). As a beta reader, you don’t have to be a writer yourself, you just have to enjoy reading (and be familiar with the genre the writer is asking you to beta).

CP/Critique partner – Usually another writer of similar or higher skill. As a critique partner, you may want to trade your writing for theirs and ask for a critique in return. A CP should be able to give more in-depth feedback than just general impressions, and should be able to give advice on how to fix issues. Being a CP implies a more lengthy relationship than just a simple “read this when I’m done with it.” As a CP, you may engage in back-and-forth discussion and brainstorming about each others’ works.

Editor – Editors are the ones who polish up your manuscript after you’re pretty much done with it. They’ll check grammar, punctuation, and style. Where a beta reader and a CP will do what they do for free (or in exchange for critiques on their own work), an editor should be a professional who gets paid.

How does one become a beta reader? You can either advertise yourself, or keep an eye on authors’ social media to see when they ask for betas. Before you agree to beta, you should be aware of the manuscript’s genre, length, and the writer’s hoped-for turnaround time. If you’re going to advertise yourself, list what genres you’re willing to beta read (they should be genres you’ve read a lot of already, so you’re familiar with styles and tropes) and an estimate on how long it would take you to complete a book of average length for that genre (i.e., “I’m willing to beta romance novels. My turnaround for an average length romance is 2-3 weeks”). Keep in mind, beta readers are volunteers. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

So now that we have that cleared up, a general tip: use the comments feature in MS Word or Google Docs to insert thoughts and opinions as you go, if anything jumps out at you. Then, also write a summarizing few sentences or paragraph at the end with your overall impressions after finishing the manuscript.

Now, without further ado, here’s a list of do’s and do not’s for beginning beta readers.:

  1. DO pay attention to what the writer specifically asks you to pay attention to. If the writer says “Let me know if you think John’s breakdown in chapter 4 is over the top,” pay particular attention to John and his breakdown in chapter 4. Write your thoughts on it as soon as you get to it, so you don’t forget to tell the writer what you thought.
  2. DO NOT make changes to anything, especially to stylistic things, especially if the novel is in first person. I had a beta reader who put my document in track changes and deleted every ellipses in the story with no explanation. That was neither helpful nor what I asked them to do, and all it did was annoy me. Those ellipses were a decision, not a mistake. If you notice that the writer uses a distracting amount of ellipses or frequently uses the wrong “too” or some other grammatical/stylistic thing bugs you or pulls you out of the story, definitely comment on that, but actually changing things like that is an editor’s job.
  3. DO give feedback on what you like and what does work just as much as you give feedback on anything you don’t like or doesn’t work. “No news is good news” is not how a writer’s brain works. They aren’t going to zero in on the 5 pages with negative comments and assume that the other 195 pages are good. If all they see are negatives, they’re going to assume it’s all bad. A general rule of thumb for feedback is to try to offer a positive for every negative. If you found my ellipses abuse distracting, balance that out by saying that my main character’s pop culture references were spot-on and made you laugh. As you read, use that comments function—even if it’s something as simple as “aww!” or “oh no!” it lets the writer know that their writing is evoking emotion, which is ultimately the goal of writing.
  4. DO NOT say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t think this works” and leave it at that. Why don’t you like it? Is the sentence confusing? Does the action seem to go against the character’s moral code? Similarly, if you read the whole manuscript and all you can say at the end is “I like it, good job,” you just wasted everyone’s time. I’m glad you liked it, but… what was the best part about it? What did you like most, so I can do more of that? And I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. You mean there wasn’t a single point you didn’t like that I could improve upon?
  5. DO look for consistency issues and disappearing characters. If Aunt Sue seemed like she was going to be an important character back in chapter 2, but then we never see her again, that’s worth mentioning. If it’s the middle of winter and then two days pass and it’s suddenly summer, that’s worth mentioning. Writers tend to have brilliant ideas when they start writing, and then change time frames, delete characters, and forget about pets halfway through their writing process, but threads of those ideas might remain by accident. If you notice it, it’s worth mentioning.
  6. DO NOT be sarcastic or make jokes in your comments. This manuscript is a piece of the writer’s soul. Handle with care. There is no sarcasm font, and even the most well-meaning, lighthearted joke can damage the writer’s self-esteem and motivation. Reading feedback on a manuscript is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. The writer is likely hyped up, nervous, cringing at every critique you provided. Don’t make a joke at the story’s expense. It’s not helpful.
  7. DO be nice, but don’t be too nice. No manuscript is perfect, and a writer can’t improve themselves if they’re only provided with positive feedback. You’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to spare the writer’s feelings. However, in the same vein…
  8. DO NOT be a dick. Don’t nit-pick, don’t decide you hate the manuscript and tear it down at every opportunity. If you start reading and realize that you don’t even want to finish the book, you may be better off reaching out to the writer, providing feedback on what you’ve read so far, and politely telling them why it’s not your cup of tea. Even that kind of feedback can be valuable.

Ultimately, your overall thoughts and feedback should include whether the characters felt real, whether the plot made sense, if there were any gaps or places you felt rushed, and anything else major you noticed. It’s also important to note that different writers may expect different things from their beta readers, and you should always ask if the writer has anything in particular they want you to do.

Another thing worth note is that you are working for free, just for the love of reading books. It is possible for the writer to expect more from you than you’re willing to provide. A beta reader is not a CP or an editor. A CP is usually a tit-for-tat kind of relationship, and an editor is usually paid. If the writer wants to call you a beta reader but expects you to edit their manuscript and you’re not okay with doing that for free, you’re allowed to step back. Beta readers are wonderful and amazing people and writers should appreciate them. As a writer, I’d like to say all writers are wonderful people who will treat you like gold, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Beta reading for a person once doesn’t obligate you to read for them ever again.

I think that about covers it! I hope this helps some new beta readers, and maybe even some writers, to know what should go down during the beta reading process! Comment below if you have anything to add!

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Writing M/M Romance – Why?

I am a straight[ish] married chick, and I write m/m romance. I recently asked for blog post topic suggestions on Twitter, and I had someone suggest/ask “Why m/m romance?”

This is a question I’ve seen thrown at other m/m romance authors, and it’s a question I’ve wondered about myself on a few occasions. Why are all my characters gay? Why am I, a straight-ish female, constantly writing about two men doin’ it? Why can’t I just write some nice straight m/f romance that my mother wouldn’t be shocked by?

To be honest, I can’t really answer the “why” of this. Why do all my characters end up gay? I don’t know, why do your characters end up straight? I don’t make an active choice for them to be gay, they just pop into my head and say, “Hey, lady, I like dick.” and I go, “Okay, let me create a handsome dick-bearing love interest for you, dear.”

I can tell you why I read m/m romance, and I suppose the “why” of writing it is the same, or at least partially so. I like to read m/m romance because 1) it’s hot, and 2) I enjoy the power dynamics in a m/m couple more than a m/f couple. M/M romance allows/forces men to be portrayed outside their “typical” gender roles, and I find that intriguing.

Let me start out with why I don’t read m/f romance. I hardly ever read fiction featuring a female protagonist in general. I have realized this about myself and am actively working to read more female-led fiction. As someone who calls herself a feminist, avoiding female protagonists is a huge character flaw of mine. I will probably never read m/f romance, but I want to read more female-led fantasy, scifi, urban fantasy, etc. “Why,” you may ask, “do you, as a woman, pointedly avoid female protagonists?”

Well, I’m trying not to anymore, like I said. But it’s hard. I have issues with female-led fiction. So often in writing, women fall into some kind of pigeonhole where no matter how tough they are, they need to be saved by a man. Or the second a man shows up, they’re overwhelmed with attraction to him and are suddenly not so tough anymore or are terribly misguided because of their feelings.

It’s bullshit. Maybe some women are that way. Maybe some women see a hot guy and suddenly can’t think of anything but boning him. I, personally, couldn’t care less about boning hot guys, and if I was a tough female protagonist, I would have better shit to do than swoon because a handsome muscular man swaggered into my life. Perhaps my strong aversion to female swooning is because I’m ace and don’t identify with the need/desire for sex. Perhaps what I need is asexual female protagonists. (know of any? throw me some recs in the comments. please.)

Oddly enough, I can handle this kind of behavior from a man… because this is not a male pigeonhole. Needing to be saved, being distraught with emotion, etc, are not typical male roles, and you don’t typically see them portrayed in straight male characters. Guys feel the need to act tough. Society drills that bullshit into their heads from a young age (“boys don’t cry,” “man up,” “be a tough guy”) Women are allowed/expected to be emotional and sensitive. When the couple does not involve a woman, there isn’t an “easy out” for emotional events to occur–in m/f couples, women are clearly the more emotional, so they clearly are the ones to start all the fights, cry over dumb shit, and force conversations to occur around tough topics. In m/m couples, these guys have to navigate the emotional waters of a relationship without the aid of an always-more-emotionally-aware woman.

This also leads to interesting power dynamics. In m/f couples, if the woman holds the power in a relationship, the guy is often seen as “whipped” or somehow weak for letting a woman have control over him. In m/m relationships, there’s no gender-related socially-imposed “power.” They’re both men, so they’re on equal footing in the eyes of society. I like that in m/m romance, men often struggle with figuring out the emotional aspects of relationships and that in order to be a healthy couple (which is the goal in romance, after all), they have to kick through that socially-imposed idea that men can’t be soft, can’t be emotional, can’t be “weak.”

So that’s my answer for why I write m/m romance, I suppose. Or at least, that’s my answer for why I read it. And I guess the fact that I read it is why I write it. I used to try to fight my characters, to make them straight. I did it for classes in high school and college. I still recall my high school creative writing teacher suggesting to me that I include more female characters in my writing… so I gave my MC a female love interest. And yet, every time I wrote a scene between the MC and the male antagonist, the damn antagonist flirted. Mercilessly. I kept writing what I call “character exploration” scenes (scenes that don’t make it into the novel, but are just hypothetical situations to see what shakes loose if I put the MC in this position) and no matter what happened, the antagonist and MC ended up hate-fucking and/or eventually falling into grudging love with each other. No matter what I did, they ended up a couple. I never did finish that novel. I have another novel I tried to write in college, a scifi story, and it contained a female love interest, and… I never finished it, either. I tried to do NaNoWriMo back in 2013 with a no-romance fantasy story, and I bet you can guess what happened with that one.

So I gave up. I write m/m romance, and that’s just all there is to it. My muse demands the dicks, and so my muse gets the dicks. You cannot deny the muse.

What do you guys write? Does it call to you with an irresistible urge and no matter what else you try to write, it just doesn’t work?

 

What I Love About Writing

You know how sometimes in life, there’s a thing, and for the most part it’s commonplace and you take it for granted, but then occasionally you think, “…Wow, this is actually really fucking awesome. Literally a mind-blowing cause of awe. Like woah.”

Examples: airplanes. cell phones. the internet. THAT SHIT IS SO COOL. HOW DOES IT WORK? I KNOW THERE’S SCIENCE INVOLVED BUT TO ME IT SEEMS LIKE WITCHCRAFT.

That happens to me with writing sometimes. I write every day, and I have been writing every day for years. Plotting, character development, revision, all of that is commonplace in my life. Maybe it is in yours, too.

But every once in a while, I have this moment of delirious awe about writing. Here I am with this pile of words–87,000 in my current WIP–that are strung together to tell a story. This story ONLY EXISTS because I wanted it to. Because I decided to take the time and devote the energy to birthing it. Sometimes, things in that story need to be changed, but others need to stay the same, so you start cutting great swathes of words out of your draft and adding different words in, and you weave these two separate parts back together in the loom of your mind, with the thread of your words, and no one else could do this the same as you. No one else would write this exactly like you will.

What really blows my mind is when you need to tweak things–remove a minor character, or combine a couple minor characters into one, or rearrange a scene so that the same events happen but at a different location. And YOU CAN DO THAT. You can just magically POOF, shift some words around and BAM, no more George, or BAM, suddenly George and Gloria have combined to form Georgia, a new and better and more efficient character, or BAM, suddenly that dinner scene in Chapter 4 is at a classy Italian restaurant instead of a character’s dining room.

And no one knows! You just changed the fabric of reality! You just DELETED A PERSON’S EXISTENCE. You just lifted characters out of their house and plopped them into an eatery and they continued having the same conversation they were having back at their scuffed up dining room table. And no one will have any idea because you go taka taka taka, and then that’s just how it is.

It’s just really cool.

What’s your favorite thing about writing? Or, for my non-writer followers, is there anything commonplace in your life that just occasionally blows your mind? Drop me a comment!

Featured image credit: Tatyana Chaiko

Becoming A Writer

Earlier this week, I read parts of a discussion on Josh Lanyon’s facebook page about changes in the writing/publishing world over the past few years (perhaps this is specific to the m/m romance genre, but perhaps not). Basically, Josh has noticed a trend of people going from readers to read-and-reviewers and then to writers themselves–the idea being that self-publishing and the internet have made it a lot easier for anyone to try their hand at the “writing” game.

I thought this was interesting. It made me think of how many different “paths” there are to become a writer, so I thought this week I would share an abbreviated history of myself as a writer.

When I was a wee sprite of a thing, I used to draw cartoons and tell stories on construction paper. These stories always featured Sonic the Hedgehog and his pals. I have no idea what the plots were, but since I was 4-5 years old, I imagine they were deeply introspective and profound. My mother still has these wonderful pieces of literature in a box in her basement. If anyone is interested, I’ll ask her to drag them out and scan me a few pages to share.

In second grade, I wrote stories in school for a project (the whole class did). I recall getting a compliment on one. It was about a fox. I also wrote one about a jellyfish whose kitchen cabinets were haunted, I think.

Fast forward to age 11, when I discovered anime.

…Need I say more? I think a lot of people in my age group have similar origin stories.

Within two days of discovering Dragonball Z, I wrote my first Dragonball Z fanfic. Things spiralled out from there. I wrote and published on fanfiction.net . The stories are still there. Don’t ask me for my screen name because I will take that secret to my grave.

The point to all this is that, for me, writing has always been in me. I enjoy reading, yes. If there is a writer in existence who does not enjoy reading, I feel sorry for them. But writing has been my first and foremost passion since I was old enough to string letters into words on paper. Writing is ingrained in the very fibers of my being. I write for myself and no one else–I have never cared if I have an audience, never cared if people liked my writing, never felt the need to seek validation from the opinions of others. It’s just something I do. Eat, sleep, write. I write, therefore I am. Or perhaps, I am, therefore I write?

But I know a lot of people don’t function that way. Not everyone has been writing since they could hold a crayon. A lot of people make that reader-to-writer transformation. A lot of people have an idea in their head for twenty years but never write a word.

So I’m curious. For those of you who write, how did you end up on this path? Are you a lifelong writer, or fairly new to the process? What nudged you to finally put words on the page for that idea you’ve been harboring? Let me know in the comments!

Balance

It’s difficult to find a balance in life. Especially in December, when you suddenly realize if you don’t accomplish That One Thing before the end of the year, you’re going to hate yourself a little bit. (okay a lot) So you have these personal goals you set for your own accomplishments (must submit book for publication!), you have goals you set for your enjoyment (I want to read such and such book soon!), you have obligations with family due to holidays (gotta visit grandmas, parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles), there are expectations due to society (decorate your house? mail cards? bake cookies? buy gifts!)…

Let’s not even bring up your resolution to lose weight this year. Now you have 3 weeks left and you’ve GAINED ten pounds this year. No way THAT’S going away before 2017.

So it’s all hurtling towards this December 31 deadline for all this crap you need/want to do. I have a list of six things I need/want to accomplish this month, and I’ve finished one of them so far. We’re a third of the way through the month. It is not looking good for accomplishing the other five.

My plan for this blog post was to blast through Josh Lanyon’s new book, Curse of the Blue Scarab, last night, and then post a review of it today. But yesterday did not go as planned and I only made it through 25% of Curse of the Blue Scarab. I passed out while reading, because I work a full-time job and then stay up until midnight/1am trying to accomplish all the personal goals I have set for myself, and by the time Friday rolls around and I’m on Day Five of Not Enough Sleep, I am running on nothing but energy drinks and determination.

This is not healthy. I do not have balance. Do not be like me.

I do realize that if i don’t accomplish all of my goals, the world will not end. December 31 isn’t some kind of due date. Real life is not school and we are not going to have points docked from our Life Accomplishments grade if we don’t accomplish all our goals. December 31 is just a convenient date.

Going into 2017, I propose two things:

  1. Breathe. Don’t overbook yourself, don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a deadline or lose inspiration or eat a lot of cookies. The World Will Not End. I promise.
  2. Don’t wait to get started on your goals. You don’t have to wait until January 1 to get a “fresh start” or whatever. Dates are arbitrary and meaningless. Start now. Start now, and tell no one. Do it for you. Forget society’s expectations. Society can suck it.

And if you don’t have a cat, go rescue a cat. Cats are masters of zen and very good at telling society to suck it.

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This is my fat cat, Ryu. He gives no shits about impending deadlines.

What I Learned from Doing NaNoWriMo

I know, a month ago I was saying I probably wouldn’t bother trying to win NaNo this year. Here I am saying it’s great.

This makes my second win in four years. My first win was in 2013. I’d been wanting to do NaNoWriMo since I first learned about it more than five years earlier, but unfortunately I was in school. In August 2013, I finally graduated with my Master’s degree, and in November 2013, with just a full-time job and no homework, I was able to pound out over 1,667 words a day to complete NaNoWriMo a day or two before the end of the month. This year, I demolished the word goal and won the whole kit-n-kaboodle in 20 days.

Here are a few thoughts on NaNoWriMo, things I learned, habits I developed, and why I think NaNo is a valuable expenditure of your time (even IF you don’t go on to complete, revise and/or publish your draft)

1. It forces you to make writing a habit

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve always had things to write. Usually those things were persuasive essays, comparative research papers, and analyses of other peoples’ literature, though. Things change when you get out of school and no longer have deadlines and assignments to keep the words and thoughts flowing, no longer have classmates struggling alongside you to hit that page goal and finish that paper, no longer have teachers there to guide you. If you’re the kind of person who needs to set a goal or have a deadline to get anything done, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator. It gives you a deadline and an achievable goal. All you have to do is make writing a habit. In order to achieve the 50k word count goal, you need to write 1,667 words a day. For me, that’s about 45 minutes of focused writing. If you have other habits–morning coffee, going to the gym, brushing your teeth–then you can attach writing to one of those pre-existing habits to help make it stick. Get up, have coffee, write. Or, brush your teeth, write, go to sleep. Whatever works for you. If you make it into a habit, soon you’ll feel weird if you’re not writing, and NaNoWriMo will be a breeze.

2. You may (probably will) surprise yourself

If you’re not a habitual writer, it may surprise you to realize how much fun it is to write. If you are a habitual writer, it may shock you to realize how productive you can be–and how much you may have been selling yourself short all this time.

I am a habitual writer. I write every night… But if I must confess, I’m very lax about it. I pull out my laptop and sometimes I devote some solid focused effort into my project, but other times I open a word document, get on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc etc, and then fall asleep on my computer (that happens really often you guys. When I was a kid I would fall asleep on books–Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets suffered several breaks in its spine thanks to me zonking out on it–and now that I’m an adult I doze off on my computer).

This year, I participated in NaNoWordSprints. They’re led by NaNo staff on Twitter, and the idea is that you sit and focus on writing for a set amount of time–anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. Really focus. Don’t sit there with twelve tabs open and the TV on and your word document minimized and call it writing.

I wrote nearly 12,000 words in one day doing that. It took me almost the entire day (I took a few breaks), but I’d been hoping to maybe bust out 5,000. I realized that I have been selling myself short for a long time. I can be way more productive than I think, if I just stop dicking around on the internet and calling it writing.

3. There is a great community around NaNoWriMo

If you’re the type of person who needs other people to hold you accountable for your goals, or if you get motivation from competition or from seeing other people succeed, engage yourself in the community. The NaNoWordSprints Twitter account is very active and responsive and supportive. They keep things fun with competitions, such as the #nanocivilwar and #nanohousecup, where your word count per sprint is points scored for your chosen team.

If Twitter isn’t your thing, there are forums on the NaNoWriMo website.

If you’re a more in-person socializer, there are write-ins and meet-ups in most cities.

Authors write “pep talks” which are sent out via message and email to registered NaNo participants. One of the most encouraging things I’ve ever read about writing was the pep talk Neil Gaiman wrote for NaNoWriMo, where he admitted that about 3/4 of the way through his own books, he starts telling his editor/agent how awful his writing is and how he should just quit and trash the whole project. I read that and thought, if Neil frikkin’ Gaiman doubts his own writing, and he’s successful and prolific and talented as heck, then maybe my writing isn’t as awful as I think it is.

The whole environment of NaNoWriMo is nothing but encouragement and support. It’s delightful. So take advantage of it.

4. Maybe you should hire a maid in November….

If your SO/roommate/child/house guest/pet is not a tidy creature, maybe you should hire a maid for the month of November, because when you build that habit of writing and engage yourself in the headlong rush to meet word count goals and finish a novel, suddenly the facts that autumn leaves have been tracked all over your house (thanks dogs) and the dishes haven’t been done in two weeks (…we have plastic cutlery) and there’s no food in your house that isn’t frozen and microwaveable (or stale or rotting from neglect) don’t seem very important anymore. Then, on December 1, when you poke your head up out of your fantasy world and take a breath for the first time in a month, you realize… yikes.

Then, if you’re like me, you shrug and say “Fuck it” because who cares what’s going on in the real world when your characters are about to find the treasure they’ve been hunting for the past 50,000 words?!

5. Never give up, never surrender!

Even if you find yourself 10,000 words behind with only two days to go, IT IS POSSIBLE TO MAKE IT! Obviously sometimes real life interferes, but if you have time, don’t stop. Never stop writing, because even if you only write 20k or 30k words the entire month, you’ve still done more than you did in October, right? And just because you didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean you should quit on your novel. Don’t lose that writing habit you developed in November. Keep plucking away at it. Even if it takes you until next November to finish your first draft.

just-keep-writing

Let’s Not Talk About Politics

I considered writing a blog post weighing in on the political field, but I just can’t deal with it. I try to be an adult and not sweep problems under the rug, but… I’m just overwhelmed by what’s going on in this country right now.

So let’s not talk about it here.

Instead, I continue to focus on improving myself as a person. Improving my writing. Spreading light and acceptance and joy where I can. Books have always been an escape, albeit temporary, for me and millions of other people. Sometimes, when things are out of your control, the only thing you can do is mentally escape to a fantasy world, invest your heart in fictional characters, and share their joy at a happy ending.

I feel like fiction is going to be a very important part of many peoples’ lives in the next four years. I’m going to keep writing. Hopefully I will have something published next year. I’ve been treating writing as a hobby, but I need to start treating it more like a second job. I see all those quotes that say “people need your writing” and I’ve always kind of scoffed at that, but I’m starting to see that it may be true. Given the results of the US election and the likely struggles to come in the next four years, my writing may very well help someone. And if it does, if it can, then it should.

So let’s not talk about politics.

Let’s just focus on being lights in this mess.

Here’s a picture of my cat for good measure.

loki