Posted in publishing, writing advice

SORTING THROUGH THE NOISE: HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF BETA READER FEEDBACK

The words are a giant blur. You’ve read them so many times that they have burned themselves into the grooves on of your brain. You know the story by heart. Every detail. Every phrase. And therein lies the problem.

We become so close to our stories that it’s hard to see the flaws. It doesn’t have to be on the page. We know the backstory, the nuances. It makes it nearly impossible for us to spot issues because we know it so well. That’s where beta readers come in. A beta reader is someone who reads an unfinished manuscript and provides feedback on the overall story, characters, and so on.

Beta reader feedback is as wide and varied as the individuals giving it. Each reader will each have their own preferences and styles. They will all find different things in your story, and the more betas you have, the more feedback you have to sort through. It can easily be overwhelming. Here are a few quick tips to help make sorting through the muck and mire a bit more bearable.

Give your betas specific questions.

If you ask someone to tell you what they think about the story. They are likely to give you vague answers. “I liked it.” “This character was cool.” While that can be fun to hear, it’s not going to make your story better. Limit the risk of unhelpful feedback by asking about specific characters, settings, scenes… whatever you’d like. Just make sure you provide them with a question that requires more than a one- or two-word response.

Look for common themes.

Somebody once told me that every book is somebody’s favorite. There is also a flip side to that. That same book will be someone’s least favorite. That’s why you can’t take a single comment too seriously. If Sally is the only one that doesn’t like the allegator chasing the protagonist out of the moat, maybe it’s okay to leave it there. But if the vast majority of your beta readers tell you John is hateful in a scene where you want him to be funny, you should probably look at rewriting it. Read through all the feedback. If something is mentioned more than twice, give it a closer look.

Take everything with a grain of salt.

The whole purpose behind this madness is to find the flaws in your writing. Yes, we all want everyone to love our work and tell us how amazing we are, but that’s not what we are doing here. If that’s all you want out of your betas, give your story to a relative you adore and let them give you feedback. They’ll tell you your great, but your story won’t get any better. Understand that you are asking for readers to point out the issues. They will find things they like too, but if that’s all they tell you about, then you are wasting your time.

Beta feedback is hard to manage. That’s all there is too it, but if you take a careful, well-constructed approach, you’ll come through it just fine.

What tips and techniques have you used to sort through the feedback you’ve received? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted in publishing

Making the Call: Why I Decided to Fire My Editor

Finding a good editor is hard. Even when they seem amazing, they may not be a good fit for you. That’s why you do sample edits and have a few conversations with them before making a commitment. It’s important to find a good balance between correction and encouragement. 

I thought I’d found that with my first editor. Every conversation left me feeling like I could take on the literary world. She didn’t just tell me what was wrong; she explained why it needed to be changed. In some ways, I learned more looking at her sample edit than I had reading an entire craft book. I knew she would be perfect. Then the wheels fell off.

It started off with a lack of communication. I like to think of myself as a fairly understanding person. Life happens. I get that. If plans need to change, let me know. Sure, I probably won’t be happy about it, but I can deal. But you have to tell me. It took me sending three emails to get one response. 

This lack of communication led to no explanation for missed deadlines. I’m a stickler for punctuality. In fact, I tend to arrive everywhere and get things done a bit early. I don’t like being stressed. If I can eliminate stress from my life by getting to places or finishing things early, I do it. So missing deadlines with no rhyme or reason was causing me to doubt everything. The longer I went without a reply, the more stressed I became. The release date that I’ve been working so hard towards was being put in jeopardy.

It had taken me three and a half years to reach this point. Now, my entire literary future was being held for ransom. Except, my bookbaby’s kidnaper wasn’t making any demands. The stress combined with the threat to my book’s future forced me to cut ties and ask for my manuscript back. It was a hard decision to make, but it had to be done.

I bare this editor no ill will. They are amazing. Life just has a way of happening sometimes. Luckily, I found a new editor and got everything back on track. This experience taught me the value of communication and that it is okay to put my foot down when I have to. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that again anytime soon.

Posted in writer life, writing advice

Lessons From Life’s Curveballs

You look at the calendar and see a date circled in big red ink. It’s the moment you’ve been working towards. You’ve dreamed of this moment for as long as you can remember. Your lips curl into the barest hint of a smile. The day is finally here, but it’s not what you expected. Your smile falls along with your spirits as your dreamed of publication date passes you by.

I know this feeling all too well. My original plan was to publish Batter Days in Fall 2020. As you can see, that clearly didn’t happen. A house fire in January 2019 left my childhood home in ashes and my parents homeless. I spent the next five months driving three and a half hours one way every weekend to help them rebuild. That, along with a litany of other unforeseen issues, left me running on little more than fumes. Rewrites took twice as long as I’d expected. Then 2020 happened. Do I really need to go into details? After all of that, this year kicked off with my editor falling through and having to start the search all over again. 

Life has gotten in the way more times than I can count with publishing my debut novel. I’ve had to push things back and rework timelines over and over again. It sucks! There’s no two ways about it, but dealing with these delays has taught me some valuable life lessons.

LESSON 1: EVALUATE YOUR PRIORITIES

Writing is important. Every writer understands that, but there are going to be times in your life that it will have to take a back seat. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean writing isn’t important. Stepping back to take care of family, your mental and physical health, or whatever else may go on is okay. Spend a little time being honest with yourself. Look at what is in front of you and decide what is most important at that moment. It doesn’t mean you’ll be in the same spot forever. Give yourself some grace and focus on what you need most right now. The writing will be there when you come back.

LESSON 2: ADJUST YOUR GOALS

I’m a very goal driven person. Always have been. You put a target in front of me, and I am going to go all out until I hit it. Goals are phenomenal. I’ll be the first person to tell you that, but if I have learned anything in the last few years, it’s this: there comes a time in everyone’s life where you have to adjust your goals in order to better yourself, take care of family, and live a life you can be proud of. Adjusting a goal does not mean you failed. It means you recognize your current situation and reframe your focus. For me, that was pushing back publication. The stress and strain of my self-imposed deadline was detrimental to my mental health. Rather than letting myself wallow in shame for missing my mark, I adjusted my goal so that I could continue to move forward.

LESSON 3: REMEMBER TO BREATHE

This sounds simple. Breathing is automatic. No conscious thought is required for each inhale and exhale, but the breathing I’m talking about is not a simple expansion and contraction of the lungs. I’m talking about taking a moment to center yourself. We get so wrapped up in everything that is going on and what we need to do that we often forget how important it is to just breath. Take a moment. Relax. Regroup. Then get back out there and work to get it done.

Dealing with delays sucks. Having anything in your life derailed is never fun, but if you can take a moment evaluate what is happening and take a step towards a more advantageous future overall, then you’ll always come out a winner.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Magic Hour

In photography, there is something called “the magic hour.” It’s right before sunset or just as the sun rises. Photographers call it that because of the natural lighting this time brings. It is soft, diffused across the landscape. It gives everything this ethereal glow and makes photographs come alive. Don’t you wish there was something like that for writers? Here’s a little surprise. The perfect time to write exists. It’s just not the same for everybody.

Every writer has their own natural rhythm. The trick is finding the time that works best for you. Here are a few quick tips to help you find your magic writing hour.

  1. Vary the time

Try writing at different times throughout the day. If you normally write after work, try getting up a bit earlier to write before you leave in the morning. Maybe your lunch break proves to be the optimal time. Try shifting your writing time every other week and see how you feel. If you notice a time that feels more productive and natural, consider making that your designated writing time.

2. Vary the length

The amount of time you spend writing is just as important as the time of day. Try a combination of writing sprints and marathon sessions. You may find that your brain works better in short intervals as apposed to longer sit downs Whatever you are doing right now, try the opposite for a week or two. See if that doesn’t leave your brain feeling less fatigued and your work more shining. Maybe you need to alternate from day to day. Play with the amount of time you spend writing and keep track of how you feel and the work you are doing. This will show you the perfect amount of time you need to spend wordsmithing.

3. Trial and Error

I wish I could say you will find that magic moment right away. Unfortunately, it may take some time. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t nail it the first time. Just keep going. Listen to your body, keep trying different combinations, and soon you’ll find your own personal magic writing hour.

I’ve done my own experimentation to find my magic writing hour. My time is 30-45 minutes first thing in the morning before work and on my lunch break. I find I can get more done in these shorter periods than I can on a Saturday afternoon when I settle in to write for hours. (I usually end up just piddling around on the internet.) What time did you find works best for you?

Posted in writing advice

Making Time To Write

Life is full of a thousand different activities that pull us in every direction imaginable. There is work, family, friends, housework, yardwork… The list goes on.

Finding time to write amid all this is hard. With everything happening in our daily lives, writing can seem pretty low on the priority list. I argue that making time for your writing is just as important as making sure you brush your teeth. 

Those of us who call ourselves writers are different. While many people have stories running through their heads, writers have an overwhelming compulsion to put them on paper. Not doing so makes us feel like a little piece of our soul is missing. Like we aren’t properly caring for ourselves. It’s just as important as exercise or snuggling your children. If you can create time for those, you can create time to write.

It doesn’t matter how much time you carve out. Maybe you don’t even do it every day. Maybe it’s just fifteen minutes once a week. Whatever that time is, treat it like it is sacred, because it is. Mark it on your calendar. Put it on every schedule imaginable and stick to it. 

If your best friend, Susie, calls you on Saturday morning asking you to go to the farmer’s market with her when you have it in your schedule to write, don’t go. It’s okay to tell people you’re busy. You have to take care of you. As a writer, making time for writing is part of that. Constantly pushing it aside will only leave you unfulfilled and angry because you are not seeing the progress you want. 

Steven King said it best. “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” Writers need to write just as much as they need to eat or drink. So, make time for your writing. Put it on your calendar. Then stick to it until that time is as natural as breathing.

Posted in resources, writing advice

The Writer’s Toolkit

Craftsmen have toolkits full of the essential equipment they need to do their jobs. Writers are no different. We work with words the same way a carpenter works with wood. We build on our ideas and whittle away at them until we have something beautiful.

Every writer’s toolkit is going to look different, but just like a carpenter’s hammer, there will be a few key things every writer will need to make sure they are prepared to do their work.

  1. Notebooks/Note Pads/Pens/Pencils
    • Ideas are like waterfalls. There is no stopping them when they come to you. Having something to jot those ideas down as you work can help you keep your flow without losing what comes to mind. Take a brief moment to write down what pops into your mind as a reminder to come back to it later. Once it is out of your head, you can get back to focusing on the task at hand.
  2. Drinks/Snacks
    • Eliminating as many distractions as possible before you start makes it easier to stay on task.  Make sure you load up on your coffee, tea, water, girl scout cookies, granola, or whatever you prefer before you get started. This will help reduce the number of times you get up and walk away from your work.
  3. Comfy chair
    • You are going to be spending a fair amount of time in your writing spot. Whether you do long sessions or sprints, you need to make sure you are comfortable. Constantly shifting around in your seat is going to distract you from your work. Find yourself a good office chair that will support your spine and allow you to settle in and pound the keyboard when the time comes.
  4. Blue light glasses
    • Now, bear with me here. I know not every writer wears glasses, but we do spend a lot of time looking at screens. This can put unnecessary strain on your eyes. Blue light glasses can help reduce this strain without the need for a prescription. You can pick up a simple pair at most box sores or on Amazon for relatively cheap.

These are just a few things to consider putting in your toolkit. For more ideas on what you might need for yours, visit the Modern Boss Boutique.

Posted in writing advice

Do You Have A Plan?

Editing is terrifying. You know your manuscript needs more work, but the number of details you have to think about is overwhelming. You have to think about plot, character arcs, grammar, and more. It’s mind-boggling. You can’t be expected to do it all at once. That is why you need a plan.

An editing plan is a strategic process that helps ensure you address each story element. There are dozens of things to consider when editing, but for simplicity’s sake, I have lumped everything into three major categories: plot, character, and prose.

Trying to focus on all these elements at once is impossible. There is a reason professional editors do multiple passes on a manuscript. Instead of trying to keep a thousand spinning plates in the air, focus on just one. I prefer to start with the big picture and work my way down to smaller details.

I start with plot. If the overall plot is rubbish, my amazingly witty heroine won’t be enough to keep readers engaged. Starting with plot helps identify areas of weakness with the overall story and adjust pacing. Maybe you’ll find a scene or character that doesn’t need to be there. (Remember Killing Your Darlings?) Ensuring the plot is solid will make each subsequent editing pass easier.

Now that the plot is straightened out, I can evaluate my characters. Each principal character needs a clear arc and growth throughout the story. Their behavior must be consistent with their motivation and backstory. Personally, I suggest doing a pass for each character. This makes it easier to ensure each one is realistic and serves a purpose in the story.

Prose is the last thing I look at. These are the nitty gritty word choices that will keep you up at night. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, this is the final bit of polish to make the manuscript shine. Doing this last is strategic. There is no point in waxing poetic in a scene that is cut from the final product. So, by waiting until the end to work on prose, I am maximizing my time and efficiency.

But Erin, what if I notice something else while I’m editing? Can’t I just stop and fix it? Sure. There are no hard and fast rules here. If that missing comma is going to make your left eye twitch so badly that everyone thinks you’re winking at them, fix it. Another option is to keep an editing notebook. Jot down the things you want to address later. This will keep you from having the thousand and one half finished editing runs and relieve any worry you have about forgetting what you wanted to work on.

Now that you have an idea of how to build an editing strategy, I hope the process will be far less painful for you in the future. Maybe you already have a great strategy that you use. I’d love to hear about it. Until next time, happy writing!

Posted in writing advice

Combating Impostor Syndrome

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. We all experience moments of doubt that cause us to question what we are doing. The feeling that we are unqualified, not smart enough, ill equipt… the list goes on. Impostor syndrome can be crippling, but I’m here to give you a few ideas on how to combat this roadblock and get back to work.

  1. Keep Good Feedback

Let’s face it. We all like to know that we are doing a good job. As kids, we get gold sticky starts and pats on the back for a wide variety of things. As adults, those moments of recognition are few and far between. So we need to learn how to maximize the few moments we do have. I keep a file of good feedback on my computer for this very reason. It is full of emails, photos of cards, and documents with recounted conversations I can go back to when I’m feeling low to remind myself that I do a good job. This little pick me ups remind me I’m better than I think and allow me to keep going.

2. Remember Where You Started

It takes years of hard work and repetition to achieve greatness. When you start to feel like you are going nowhere, look back at where you were when you started. I promise you will have more to show for your efforts than you think. True, you may still have a way to go before you reach your target, but every little step forward is progress. As long as you have that, you’re golden.

3. Focus On What Is In Front Of You

I’ve noticed that when my mind starts to circle the drain of impostor syndrome, it focuses on everything I have yet to do. This increases my stress level and makes me wonder why I thought I could ever handle any of this in the first place. When this happens, I force myself to stop and take a breath. I close my eyes, release the tension in my shoulders, and unclench my jaw. Then I open my eyes and focus solely on the task that is right in front of me. I can’t start the others until this one is finished. So I focus all of my attention into whatever step in the process I am on in that moment. Once it’s finished, I go to the next. Focusing on what is right in front of me helps keep some of that extra brain noise to a minimum, allowing me to make more progress.

4. Allow Yourself Time To Learn

Nobody is a master when they first start. I don’t care who you are about to name. They very well could have been a prodigy, but I can promise you, look into their history, and you find they had a teacher somewhere along the way. None of us are born knowing everything there is about our craft. It takes time. Give yourself a bit of grace and acknowledge that you are still learning. You will always be learning. This growth is a key element of life. One we should embrace with a smile and welcome, because the day we stop learning is the day we stop really living.

I hope a few of these tips are able to help you the next time impostor syndrome creeps into your life. Are there any other techniques you use that are not included on the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. We can always learn more from sharing ideas with each other than we can functioning on an island alone.

Posted in writing advice

Killing Your Darlings

Every writer comes to a moment where they have to make a decision. You have been crafting this story element for what feels like days. It’s one of the best things you’ve ever written. You’re in love with every aspect of it. There is just one problem; it doesn’t fit the rest of your narrative. That’s when it is time to kill your darlings.

Killing your darlings is a common term in the writing community that refers to cutting out scenes, lines, or even whole characters in order to make the story better. It is one of the most painful moments of the editing process I have had to endure.

I recently had to cut one of my favorite scenes out of my manuscript. It told you so much about the characters and their relationship to one another. It has some of the best prose I’ve ever written, but the scene didn’t move the story forward. I fought to keep it. I moved it to different places in the story. I changed some elements to try to make it fit, but no matter how many changes I made, it just wasn’t working. So to the butcher block it went.

One of the good things about writing is that ideas do not have to be confined to their original source. That scene served no purpose in this manuscript, but it could be the glue that holds together a crucial moment in the next. The same is true for characters that you cut out. Maybe the sweet old woman isn’t needed in this story, but she could be a valued confidante in another. That’s why I keep a folder full of discarded story elements. Perhaps I can resurrect them in another project farther down the road.

Killing your darlings is painful. There is a reason you love them and want to hold them close. Just be careful that holding them near and dear to your heart doesn’t lead you to diminishing the rest of your work simply because you couldn’t let them go. Taking them out may be painful, but it will all be worth it in the end when you see the finished product shining back at you from publication.

Posted in writing advice

Surprise Emotions

Have you ever had one of those moments where you go from sitting quietly to having tears running down your face? There is no rhyme or reason for it. Just unescapable emotion welling up inside of you before you can even acknowledge it’s existence? I hate it when it happens to me. Crying is one of my least favorite things in the universe, being surprise attacked by it even more so. Having experienced one of these moments recently, I realized that there is a lot we can learn from them. Not just in our own lives, but in the lives of the characters on the pages we read.

Unexpected emotional outbursts of any kind can serve as a window into unknown pieces of our hearts. It shines a light on feelings that have either been suppressed or ignored. Maybe you didn’t even know seeing something was important to you until it happened, and you found yourself crying in relief at the sight of it. A single tear running down a character’s face can be more powerful than a Shakespearian soliloquy when deployed correctly. Let me give you an example form something I’m working on. Paige’s hand trembled as she ran her fingers across the frayed edge of the clipping. Her chest grew tighter as image after image of her father’s scrap book danced in front of her. A shuddering breath passed her lips. Closing her eyes, she imagined her father’s smiling face beaming back at her from the edge of the arena and smiled. There is a lot going on in that passage. Now imagine what it would have looked like if Paige had just started talking about the images she was seeing or what she was feeling. “I can’t believe it,” Paige said. “He kept all of these? Every last article. Every campaign. It’s all here.” She turned to her mother, a tear making its way down her face. “He really did care. Didn’t he?” The Bard I am not, but you get the point. The exact same thing is happening in both passages, but one has significantly more impact than the other. The stillness of the moment makes everything more intense. It’s in those quiet moments when we let emotions run free that we learn the most. About our stories. About our characters. But even more so, about ourselves. What events in your life have brought up these “surprise emotions”? What did they teach you?