Beta Reading—Part 1

Beta reading has been a hot topic on my blog and others. Most, my own included, have focused on specific aspects rather than the entire concept. I thought a short series of posts that define beta reading and lay out some guidelines for both the writer and beta reader could be useful.

When done well, a beta read can help take a writer’s manuscript from the slush pile to the bestseller list. When mishandled, it can shatter a writer’s confidence and drive him away from an activity he loves and should still be doing.

Although beta readers don’t have to be writers, this series of posts is designed for writers who want to “beta read” with another writer. The guidelines for beta readers, however, apply to non-writers as well.

Today’s post, and those on the next three Saturdays, will cover this topic. I hope to provide a clear understanding of this important act that requires extreme tact, respect, and sensitivity. Continue reading

Do Real Readers Read Unpublished Writer Blogs?

Psst. Over here. I mean you, real person—not that spambot in the corner, or the SEO guru sneaking into the room, or the flamer, or the troll, or whatever insider term I haven’t heard yet. I mean those of you who enjoy picking up or downloading books and reading them.

Can you help? You see, there’s a lot of blogging advice out there for unpublished writers like me—what we should blog, how to network, how often to blog, how to drive traffic to our blogs, how to establish our unique brand.

Here’s the kicker, though.

As we all work on the next great American novel or create the newest Harry Potter wannabe or try to launch the zombie-probing alien vampires who channel Jane Austen craze, we read all of this advice. And it says we have to build an audience before we even publish a book.

I thought YOU packed the probe. And wasn't Gortz supposed to bring "Pride and Prejudice?"

Does that make sense to you? Isn’t that like saying a band has to have an audience before it performs in public in order to get a recording deal? But every agent and editor and writing magazine and book tells us we must do this.

So we suck it up and start a blog (along with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other time sucks social networking devices). A lot of us are here at WordPress. And you know what? We find each other.

Unpublished writers are good at finding each other’s blogs. And we follow each other and support one another as we try to finish our works, edit them, rewrite them, polish them, and hopefully make our way out of the slush pile and into a world where we can call ourselves published authors. Don’t get me wrong. That’s great.

But experience and blogging advice articles tell me many of us are bad at attracting readers—real people who read books and might someday read ours if we get them published.

Oops. That’s, um, like one of the main reasons we’re supposed to blog, right? To attract a reading audience?

So what do we do? We obsess think about this. We read blogging advice articles. We write posts about it. We make sage comments on each other’s posts. We ask what we should do.

But most of us don’t have good solutions. Well, maybe they are good, but they don’t often work. Why? Because most readers don’t have all day to read blogs. It’s hard to attract real readers to a writer’s blog unless the reader already likes that writer’s works. So unless you’re friend or family to an unpublished writer, that means you visit blogs of your favorite published authors when you have time. For the rest of us, it’s a chicken-and-egg thing or a Catch-22.

This wasn’t a problem for writers like Stephen King, Sue Grafton, or even a relative newcomer like J.K. Rowling. They were all successful authors before anyone even invented the idea of a blog. When they started blogging or any other social networking, hey, guess what? The audience was already waiting in the theater—stamping the floor and chanting their names.

What am I getting at, you ask? Well, you see, I’d love to get your ideas on how to improve unpublished writer blogs. What would interest you? Would you skim or ignore posts about writing hints or writer’s block but stick around for samples of a book-in-progress that sounded interesting? What would you like to know about the writer?

Sigh. But here’s the problem, of course. How many of you are even reading this post?

A Writer’s New Year Confession – I Don’t Hate Adverbs (Or Adjectives)

The poor adverb. What did it do to turn everyone against it? How does a perfectly legitimate part of English grammar become a literary pariah? Was there a “dark and stormy night” moment that led a secret conclave of agents, editors, and publishers to decree it is no longer welcome? “A curse on adverbs! We will no longer accept manuscripts that use them! So let it be said and done!”

I know adverbs get overused, especially when we tell when we should show. And a story written in 2012 that’s full of “he said forcefully” or “she said wistfully” constructions will never escape the slush pile. And okay – sometimes they’re just redundant to what they modify, as in “He ran quickly.” I get that.

But adverbs are all over my drafts. And they serve a useful role there. Adverbs are my place holders as ideas rush out and my fingers can’t keep up with them on the keyboard. Later, when I’m editing, they remind me what I was thinking. “He reached clumsily for his keys” can be revised to “He fumbled for his keys.” Or, “She said gently” reminds me to make sure her dialogue makes that feeling clear.

You can see them in this early draft from Death Out of Time:

Madeleine suspected it had fallen soon after it was erected and had quickly been covered by soil and grass. [passive, too]

Or

But then she added more firmly, “Of course—the carver could’ve transposed the numbers.” [ooh – not just firmly, but more firmly]

I feel the same way about adjectives. When I look back on those early drafts, they’re everywhere, too. Summer at the Crossroads was full of “doublets.” For example:

Even though they hadn’t seen each other in three years, they quickly moved on to more philosophical and retrospective issues, something they had always done, even as teenagers. [check for adverbs, too]

Or

They decided on a split of pinot gris for the evening meal, opting for its cool and crisp citrus accents on the hot and muggy evening. [I got two doublets in there]

All right, that last one is total overkill. In my defense, the story was only two months old at the time. But some schools of thought would strip those sentences down to nothing – “The wine refreshed them,” or something like that. I want a happy medium. Just as I like body and flavor in my wine, I enjoy some descriptors in the books I read. It’s probably no surprise that I’m not a Hemingway fan.

And so, I won’t remove them all when I polish the manuscripts. After all, they’re part of the language for a reason, right? I believe there’s always a place for a few of them, well-placed, within my novels. And if the day comes when I’m lucky enough to attract an agent and publisher, I plan on fighting to keep them in the manuscripts – or at least some of them. (Excuse me a moment – the Muse just fell out of her chair laughing. . . .)

My argument is that sometimes we have to tell instead of show to move the story along. And an appropriately placed adverb (or adjective) can speed that telling along. Is that so bad? Sometimes that gently/roughly/irritably/calmly modifying word . . . just . . .  sounds . . . right.

So who’s with me? Who can give adverbs (and adjectives) a little love?

PS. And now for a random thought on the rule of “show, don’t tell.” What are writers? Story tellers. What do writers do? We tell stories. Just a thought.

A New Endeavor

Let me be clear about one thing from this very beginning point. I am NOT a Luddite. I use the Internet for work and fun. I am on Facebook, and I can even use the GPS system in my car. But I am also NOT a technology or social media nerd. Smart phone? Nope, not yet. Blogs? Okay, I read some and follow even fewer. But writing one? Me? I never saw that one coming.

But if you’ve read the “About Me” page, you know I’m working on some novels. They’re not published yet – like I said, I’m working on them. But the writing magazines I subscribe to and the websites I look at all say the same thing – if you’re going to be an author, you have to have a social media presence even before your first work is published.

Now there’s a conundrum for you. Who wants to read a blog by a writer who isn’t published yet? What can someone like that have to offer? After all, I can’t give you advice for how to get an agent. I haven’t got one (yet). I can’t tell you how to get published. I’m not there (yet).

But I can give a behind-the-scenes look at what I’m writing and how I go about it. I can give moral support to other writers like me who are trying to break free of the slush pile and become a published author. And maybe I can give a few minutes of entertainment to people needing a little break in their daily routine.

And, just maybe, we’ll all get to see the beginnings of a new career.