I have a new piece up on The Scriptors about being kind to yourself and turning your writing struggles into something productive. Go check it out and tell me your thoughts.
Not a Triumphant Return to Blogging
Hey, everybody. Long time no see!
I’m not dead! This is not my triumphant return to blogging. But here’s what I’ve been up to lately:
- I recorded a podcast with Geekish Cast. We talked about fiction, storytelling, trashy Eighties movies, and… yeah, more talk about trashy Eighties movies.
- I wrote a thing about worldbuilding for the Chapter Book Challenge.
- I’ve been blogging over at The Scriptors, about creative voids, outlining, and other things.
- I got a writing job working for Blinq. I’m also a loyal Blinq customer. Really. I’m wearing the Fitbit I bought there as I type this on the Chromebook I bought there, and I’m happy with both. They’re good people.
- I finished the draft of Etheric, the sequel to Orison, and sent it out to beta readers.
- On his site A Cook and a Geek, my buddy Brian Vo started posting tasty recipes around the theme of Etheric. You should read them, then make them and tell me how you liked them.
Anyway, so there’s that. I’m sure there’s probably something else, but I’ve forgotten.
Good catching up! Hope to see you around!
Surly Questions: Matthew Graybosch
Author of the “gonzo metalhead science fantasy epic” series STARBREAKER, Matthew Graybosch is an author with a day job in a dream. In this week’s Surly Questions, he talks with us about his upcoming projects, digital sharecropping, and the tragic loss of his grenade launcher. His novel Without Bloodshed is out on Amazon now. Thanks for the interview, Matthew!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t say I ever wanted to be a writer. What happened instead is more complicated, but not necessarily more interesting. I’ll try not to be too emo about my teenage existential crisis.
I was in college studying computer science because I had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I had pretty much given up on music, because I realized I’d never do for the viola what Eddie Van Halen did for the guitar. Religious life wasn’t for me, and my nearsightedness and problems with authority precluded a military career. Since I wasn’t trained for a skilled trade, and unwilling to spend my life bagging groceries, I stayed in school.
I was too poor and socially awkward to go out and get laid like all the cool kids were supposedly doing. I didn’t even have a car; I rode a bike to work and took the train to college, which gave me time to OD on genre fiction. After reading a particularly egregious fantasy novel, I decided that even a schmuck like me could do better.
So I set out to prove it. It seemed only natural that a bookworm should try his hand at writing, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do with my life. Eighteen years later, I’ve got a science fantasy novel called Without Bloodshed on the shelves, a sequel called The Blackened Phoenix in progress, and a serial called Silent Clarion set to start next week. And if you’ve already decided this is too long, just wait. It just gets worse from here.
What, for you, is the most difficult part of being a writer?
Every time I finish writing a scene, I’m stuck with the suspicion that I’ve just dumped a few kilobytes of fresh, steaming crap onto my computer. I can’t be objective about my own work. I assume it’s utter shit, because I want to surpass Moorcock and Zelazny and Heinlein and Dumas and all the other novelists whose work I respect.
As pathetic as this sounds, I need external validation. I need someone else to read what I’ve written and tell me that I haven’t wasted my time despite any imperfections present in the work. Otherwise, I’m liable to waste years rewriting the same material over and over again. I didn’t finish a satisfactory draft of Starbreaker until 2009 because of my perfectionism.
You describe Starbreaker as being heavily inspired by metal music. What music in particular informs the story, and how?
To start with, I stole the title from a Judas Priest song off the Sin After Sin album. Then there’s the series’ primary antagonist, Imaginos. His initial inspiration was a concept album of the same name by the Blue Oyster Cult. Like his BOC namesake, my Imaginos is an actor in history. He manipulates humanity for his own ends, however, rather than those of Les Invisibles. I also borrowed somewhat from a few of Iced Earth’s songs about their mascot, Set Abominae.
Nor is Imaginos the only character inspired by metal songs. Morgan Stormrider was inspired in part by Judas Priest’s “The Sentinel” (from Defenders of the Faith) and Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” (from Powerslave), as well as “Breaking the Silence” from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime and “Psychotron” by Megadeth.
Naomi Bradleigh, believe it or not, was inspired by a Deep Purple song called “Knocking At Your Back Door.” Sweet Lucy was a dancer / but none of us would chance her / because she was a samurai.
What makes your book special to you?
I met my wife through Starbreaker. I’m not kidding. The gonzo metalhead science fantasy epic I started writing because I couldn’t get laid in college was how I met my wife.
We met on a Yahoo! forum for aspiring fantasy writers, and I suggested swapping stories. We ended up talking about more than stories, fell in love, and got married in 2004 after a four year long-distance relationship. We’ll have been married ten years as of Halloween 2014.
I laugh at people who complain about “long distance” relationships crossing state lines, because Catherine lived in bloody Australia while I lived on the East Coast of the United States.
What does your typical writing day look like?
I usually don’t get to write until my lunch break. I’ll either duck down to the cafeteria on the first floor of the building where I work and write for an hour, or drive down to a nearby pizzeria where I’m something of a regular. On a good day I’ll belt out at least 500 words.
After work, if I’m not too tired or my brain isn’t too fried from my day job’s demands, I’ll write some more after work and finish the scene I’m currently working on. Either that, or I might write a blog post. If I manage between 1500 and 3000 words a day, it’s been a good day.
Your blog is titled A Day Job and a Dream. Can you tell us a little about both?
I’m a self-taught programmer. I think I’m good at it despite not being one of the obsessive types who would ignore the attentions of a goddess to belt out a few more lines of code. For me, software development isn’t a vocation from God. It’s a skilled trade, and a way to earn a living.
As for the dream, I think you’re already familiar with it. I want Starbreaker to be bigger than the Devil. I want a movie, a Broadway rock opera, manga adaptations, action figures, breakfast cereals, T-shirts, and flamethrowers. Though I think my wife will veto the flamethrower. She took away my grenade launcher soon after we got married, which makes the morning commute far less pleasant.
However, the blog is named after a series of New York Lottery advertisements. They all used the same slogan: “All you need is a dollar and a dream.” No doubt a poor grasp of probability is also useful, but the odds of my getting rich writing sci-fi aren’t that great either.
You recently “re-branded” your blog to tilt it in a more positive direction. Can you tell us more about what inspired that decision?
I was a nice kid until my first day of kindergarten, when I learned about bullying the hard way, and figured out that being nice didn’t pay. I became a heartless, cynical, irreligious asshole as a defense. But while being a vicious bastard is a reasonably successful defense mechanism against other assholes, I take it too far and tend to alienate people. I want to stop doing that. It isn’t good for business, and it might not be good for me personally, either.
I’m not going to say I want friends, because how can you want what you never really had? Nor will I admit to being lonely. However, I don’t want to lose book sales because I pushed people away.
When do you know a book is done?
I know a book is done when not only am I thoroughly sick of it, but so is my wife. Trust me, Ragnarok could come and go, and I could still find aspects of Without Bloodshed that could use improvement.
Maybe I have too many viewpoint characters. Maybe there’s still some wooden dialogue. Maybe I didn’t explain something as well as I could. Maybe I over-explained something else, and left too little to the reader’s imagination. It’s always something, but if I don’t draw a line and say, “Fuck it. I’m done.”, I’ll never move on to the next book.
You seem to have something of a conflicted relationship with social media and marketing yourself. How do you deal with that?
I think social media has made digital sharecroppers of its users. We create terabytes of content annually, but do not retain ownership of our work or profit from it. I deal with it by maintaining my own website and syndicating to corporate-owned social networks like Google+.
Nor am I particularly keen on marketing myself. I’m not particularly good at it. Nor is improvement a straightforward process due to cacophony of conflicting advice aimed at novelists seeing a wider audience. No doubt winning over readers is a process akin to making friends, but I was never much for making friends, either.
Despite my distaste for both social media and marketing myself, I cannot simply let my work speak for itself. Though I would rather it were otherwise, that way lies obscurity.
What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
“Don’t quit your day job.” It’s also the worst writing advice I’ve ever received, but more on that in a minute.
Having a day job allowed me to focus on writing for myself, without any concern whatsoever for marketability. Readers want boy wizards because Harry Potter and the Magical McGuffin is hot? Don’t care. Readers want soulful teenage vampires because Twilight sells like hotcakes? Not my problem, Jack.
I don’t have to chase trends to pay the bills. Instead, I can focus on my craft. With Starbreaker, I can take a shot at starting a new trend.
The downside is that I don’t get to have a “writing day” without cutting into my weekends. Instead, I have to steal what time I can for writing while also spending at least eight hours a day making somebody else richer in exchange for wages. I work at least two full-time jobs. Three, if you count being a halfway-decent husband.
If I had kids instead of cats, I’d be utterly screwed.
Tell us about your next projects.
I’m juggling two right now. One’s a sequel to Without Bloodshed entitled The Blackened Phoenix. The other is the first of a new series called Before Starbreaker, and is called Silent Clarion.
The Blackened Phoenix is the more complex of the two, and will continue the multithreaded narrative begun in Without Bloodshed. Morgan Stormrider and his friends think they grasp the extent of Imaginos’ crimes and the Phoenix Society’s corruption, and need only seek evidence of the truth. But the truth is far stranger than they believed, and the evidence not so easily found.
Silent Clarion is a prequel to Starbreaker starring a twenty-year-old Naomi Bradleigh. She’s a year into her service as an Adversary, and her first anniversary with her lover John has come to a disastrous end. It’s a good time for a vacation, but she can’t leave well enough alone after learning of unexplained disappearances in a town called Clarion.
Anything else you’d like us to know about you?
I’m actually a big black cat named Virgil. I just hide behind the identity of one of my human slaves, and dictate to him because he has opposable thumbs. In fact, we cats have been using you humans for over five thousand years. Thanks for all the fish, by the way.
Orison Release and Lessons From First Novels
Hi! In case you haven’t heard, Orison’s release date is today! It’s available on Amazon and BN, as well as directly from the Nine Muse Press store, in ebook format. (Paperback coming soon!)
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been blogging much at Surly Muse lately. I was working hard on making Orison the best book I could make it, and that took all the time and energy I had to do so. Flash fiction, blogging, and even supporting other authors as much as I wished to all went by the wayside. But it’s over now, and in the breath between this book and the next, I’d like to tell you a few of the things I learned along the way.
Between June and now, I’ve felt much less prescriptive about writing advice, so take them as my experience, nothing more. Here are the lessons I learned from my first book:
You must sacrifice. For over a month, I did almost nothing but edit. I managed to keep up with my day job, but only barely. Friendships, social gatherings, games and TV all had to go. I needed every ounce of focus and drive to get this book out the door. The book ate my life. I looked back on the lackadaisical months and years I spent procrastinating and stalling on previous books and realized just how wrong I’d been doing it. This is a lot of work. That first draft you’re so proud of? Only the beginning. It’s like Frodo and company getting to that little house at Buckland and having a beer. You’ve still got Mordor to go, and the road is long and hard. So get moving.
Revisions can take all your energy. On the up side, I have never enjoyed such black and dreamless sleep as when I was in the throes of edits. I would shuffle to bed at the end of each day and collapse, my brain utterly exhausted. It made me grouchy and terse. Few noticed, because I’m always grouchy and terse, but that’s beside the point. People ask “hey, how are the edits coming along?” and I would grown and slam the phone handset back into the cradle, or would have if I still had a landline, or if people called me on the phone.
Planning and detail are key. Finishing Orison made me less of a pantser than ever before. Why? Because every detail needs to be consistent, every plot needs to come together, every foible and behavior of every character must add up. If they don’t, readers will notice, and the more planning you do ahead of time, the more intimately you know your characters and your plot, the less work you’ll have to do on the back end. No disrespect to anyone who can just improvise their way through a novel. But I’ll never write that way again.
You need people. Beta readers, reviewers, artists, and friends — you’ll need them. Remember that Lord of the Rings analogy I was making earlier? Yeah. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam. You’ll need support, and advice, and caution, and praise, and someone to hold your hair while you throw up. Okay, maybe not so much that last one.
When you think you’re done, you’re not done. I sent the “final” draft of Orison to my publisher with the thought that it was really close to done! Nope. It was still so very far from done, and I didn’t even realize just how not-done it was until the third round of revisions. After a full rewrite. Revisions will bring to light new and exciting flaws you’d never noticed before! Thrill as you realize your plot has a huge hole! Marvel at the way your characters change without said change being evident to the readers! Dread fixing it! Know you can’t avoid it! Throw away passages you loved because they no longer work! No time for tears, it’s revisions!
“The best you can make it” and “the best it can be” are two different things. This was a tough one. More than once, I hit a dark patch in my revisions where I considered rewriting the entire book from scratch. (I also considered setting my computer on fire, but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t serious about that). There were still a few problems. The themes weren’t quite as resonant as I wanted. The supporting characters could use more development. The scope could be a bit bigger. More, and better, and this change and that change, and soon I was looking another rewrite in the eye, and I couldn’t face it. I realized it’s terrifyingly easy to just tweak and edit a book forever because you want it to be perfect, and it never will be.
When you hate your book, it’s finished. Before it was over, I all but loathed poor little Orison. I wanted it, and all the characters in it, to die. Mostly because I was tired. Tired of trying to perfect every moment and nuance, tired of trying to bring every emotion and note to the page. When I finally finished my revisions, I had a really solid book… but boy, was I ever sick of looking at it. That’s how I knew it was done. I still loved it, of course, but in the way you love a child who has been playing a game called How Loud Can I Scream for two months solid.
Marketing can bruise. Promoting your book can be rough. Getting attention is difficult. You worry about irritating people. And guess what, you’ll almost certainly irritate somebody. And if your release has taken a long time (like this one has) even the well-meaning jokes can start feeling a bit face-slappy. You just have to get through it. Thick skin, and all that. But remember to retreat and take some time out when you need to.
There is only the next work. People kept asking what I had planned for the big release day. The truth? I just want to work on the next book. Turns out sitting back and reflecting on my accomplishment (singular) isn’t really my style. I couldn’t make Orison perfect, but I think I did make it damn good, and now I’m excited to make the next book even better. I hope you’ll come with me on that journey. After all, Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.
Speaking of which, I couldn’t have gotten here without the help of Anna Loy, Gina Swensen, Angela Goff, Ruth Long, Eric Martell, Tracy McCusker, Khairul Hisham, Lisa Tomecek-Bias, Aaron Engler, Matt Kessen, Christina Ramey, Paul Ramey, and many more. Thank you all.
(P.S. my book bears little resemblance to Lord of the Rings. Just wanted to be clear about that.)
Writing for Charity: Iron Writer 2013!
Hey there! In lieu of a regular blog post, I’m writing to let you know that on Saturday, July 13th, I’ll be participating in Iron Writer, an all-day marathon writing contest sponsored by Dreadful Cafe, with proceeds going to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
For Iron Writer 2013, I will be knocking out the first draft of ROLLING BLACKOUTS, the official full-length follow-up to BURN (which some of you may have read — and if you have, thanks!)
If you’d like to pledge some money on my behalf, the donation button is on Iron Writer’s page. Please feel free to send donations of any amount. If you feel like pledging by the word, I am planning on writing at least 10,000 words, possibly more, so donate as your conscience (and pocketbook) allows!
I don’t want to handle the money personally, so if you want your donation to add to my total for prize purposes, please just put my name in the notes when you donate via Iron Writer’s page. The kids get the money either way, which is what really matters.
I will be on Twitter and Facebook on and off Saturday, taking time out to post my progress, so please feel free to follow or “like” me if you want. In the meantime, I’d love it if you could spread the word and share this post around, if you’re so inclined.
Thanks, and I hope you’ll consider pledging some money to St. Jude on my behalf!
Lessons From Dead Books
As I write this, ORISON is in the hands of my editor at Nine Muse Press. While there is still no official release date, we are officially in the home stretch, and I am as anxious as anyone to get my book in the hands of readers.
Even a year ago, this is not where I expected to be. I recently came across an unpublished interview from 2011 I did for another blogger (we mutually decided to wait until I had a book out before posting it) and I was amazed at how much had changed between the time I answered the questions and now. In said interview, I say, and I quote:
I like Orison, but it’s really just an action-adventure novella. I think it’s an entertaining read, but not what I’d call thought-provoking. It’s basically a big gumball. Fun for a little while, and then you’re done.
Ouch. I’m kind of horrified at that sentiment now, because that’s not how I feel about Orison at all these days. Shaking the book to its foundations, then rebuilding it Steve Austin-style from the wreckage, entirely changed its character and direction, and to me, it’s far from a “big gumball.” It’s now the best thing I’ve ever written, and I’m damn proud of it.
There’s something to be said about humble-bragging and self-deprecation in regards to the answer quoted above, and how it can lead us to devalue our own work, but really, re-reading my own words got me thinking about the lessons we learn from our failed projects.
Fail, Learn, Repeat
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being among other writers, it’s that everybody fails. Projects stall out. Plans fall through. Collaborations blow up in your face. Writers get exhausted, because rewrites and revisions can be an ongoing struggle. Blogs enjoy a strong start and then languish for weeks at a time. (Cough.) Sometimes, the project we think is The Big Thing turns out to be something small, or sometimes nothing at all.
But we can learn a lot from our failures. In fact, we must, if we’re ever going to get anywhere.
When I wrote the answer above, I was working on an epic fantasy called Daughters of the Moon (at the time, I had not bothered Googling to see if the title was taken; it very much is). Daughters is the story of a young woman getting revenge on the murder and kidnapping of her family by making a pact with dark gods. She learns to wield terrible destructive power that gives her the ability to rescue her family, but alienates and terrifies them in the process. The novel was set against the backdrop of an encroaching invasion by foreign powers, and had an ever-growing stable of characters and a rich, complex storyline. I liked it. The people I gave the draft to liked it. It had problems, sure, but it was a good story.
So I kept working on it. It grew in size and complexity. It grew so large it became the first book of a trilogy. I couldn’t wrap it up in the space of a single book, so after finishing and revising the first volume, I wrote a sequel (for Nanowrimo 2011, I believe).
The story grew larger and more complex still. It turned into something majestic and sweeping.
I worked on it some more.
Then I scrapped it.
It wasn’t an easy decision. It hurt like hell, in fact. But the original story had some huge, ground-level problems that I just couldn’t get past, even if my loyal beta readers could. I had written entire subplots to distract myself from my lack of a coherent ending. I had run circles around the story problems, perhaps in the hope that they would grow dizzy and fall down. And, finally, I decided that it just wasn’t Daughter‘s time.
So I put it to rest. Then I picked through its corpse and took some shiny bits for Orison, dressing my new darling up in my dead darling’s prose. Ghoulish and merciless, but that’s show biz, sweetheart. Sometimes fiction is a form of necrophilia. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
I still love Daughters of the Moon. I may revisit it someday, under a title that’s not taken. Or it may just become part of the writer’s compost heap, slowly decaying as the best bits of it float away to become part of something else.
The circle of life, or something.
Love Your Dead Books
So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes, you have to know when a project just can’t be salvaged. Even something that’s actually pretty good. Editing and revision is hard, necessary, vital work, but sometimes, a story is better off being torn apart for scrap than held together with baling wire and solder so it can limp across the finish line.
Knowing where to draw that line is a deeply personal thing, so I have no real advice for you there. I believe that inspiration is, at times, overrated; that we as writers often hope that our hearts will always sing with joy for the stories we tell, but that ain’t always the case. Some days, we’re just going to wake up, look at our manuscript, and be this far from throwing it in the trash.
And sometimes, that’s what needs to be done. But the question is, what did you learn from it?
For me, I learned that I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That I damn well better know the ending before I start, or I’ll just keep writing while I search for one. I learned that I can inflate my word count to enormous proportions while I flail about for an arc, and then later I’ll despair as I must stalk my darlings and shoot them in the back of the head, one by one. And if that sounds morbid, believe me, it is. So I learned to write a leaner cut of story from the beginning, and save those poor orphans from a terrible fate in the cemetery of prose.
I learned that sometimes you have to walk away, instead of continuing to tinker.
And that sometimes, that can be a beautiful thing.
Song of Nice and Ire: The Subversion Becomes the Trope
Today, I’m going to spare a post to talk about Game of Thrones, because why not? The rest of the Internet certainly can’t stop talking about it right now.
For that meager handful of you who haven’t read the books, watched the show, or somehow missed the inundation of memes and reactions that followed the most recent episode of the HBO program — I can only offer my green-eyed envy. Briefly, the “Red Wedding” has arrived on television — a scene in which several beloved characters die horribly, in a fashion that should be familiar to all GRRM fans, and yet is somehow a big surprise.
If you don’t yet know all about the Red Wedding, some spoilers follow, and names of dead characters are named.
Before we start, I will say I have read four of the Game of Thrones books, and the entirety of the Wild Cards series before that. I am pretty much done with it, and Martin in general. I have no real quarrel with him as a writer. He just doesn’t write the kind of thing I enjoy. Just so we’re clear that I’m not trying to smear Martin. He’s fine. We’re fine. You may continue to enjoy his work, or not, as before.
So anyway, Martin killin’ characters. That’s a thing. A very well-known thing. Probably the thing for which Martin is most well-known, at this point, and yet people continue to be shocked by the brutal deaths of their favorite characters. The range of reactions varies, from horror to anger to glee to self-important proclamations about how everyone else should have seen it coming. I’ve even seen some people angrily lecture about how feeling shocked was, in fact, the reader’s fault for having the temerity and naiveté to engage with Song of Ice and Fire in good faith. That’ll teach you, you big dummies!
Cartoons and memes and Twitter posts abound regarding Martin’s bloodthirst. Martin himself is on record as saying that he writes to keep his readers in suspense, and he’s killed off specific characters specifically to be unpredictable:
I knew it almost from the beginning. Not the first day, but very soon. I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.
So Martin kills off beloved characters in order to subvert reader expectations. But after the first two times, what does the reader actually expect? What if you’ve read Wild Cards and find Martin’s debasement and slaughter of protagonists not only not surprising, but pretty much Martin’s stock in trade? Are reader expectations still being subverted then? I’m not trying to make the case that the massacre of fan favorites is all SoIaF has going for it. That’s hardly the case. But it is the thing people tend to talk about most often.
And that, to me, is the trap of “shocking” writing and unpredictability for its own sake. The same thing has happened to Joss Whedon, whose fans start ticking off the lifespan of a character the moment they get in a relationship, because they’ve seen them end badly so many times. Joss Whedon killing off characters in love is no longer a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time with his work. The subversion becomes the trope.
I think writers can also run into trouble when they try to double back and super-double-secret subvert reader expectations by letting characters live, or taking a break from the grim darkness to let certain characters off the hook. When you specifically raise the stakes through brutality, easing off can be seen as the calm before the storm, or it can just be interpreted as a sign you’ve gone soft.
Books on craft tell us that when we tell a story, we enter into a promise with the reader. We introduce a protagonist, set up a conflict, and make a pact that by the end of the book, there will be resolution — favorable, unfavorable, satisfying or infuriating, but met with integrity and consistency. We can be reasonably sure that SoIaF won’t end with flying saucers bombing King’s Landing. The series ending with every character the readers ever cared about dead, though, that’s another story.
It does raise the question of what the promise of a book is, when the storytelling rails are removed and the writer leaves the reader catapulting along an uncertain track. To some readers, this is exquisite agony; to others, a good time to jump off and board another train. I’ve parted ways with Game of Thrones, but it will be interesting to see if his series fulfills whatever promise it’s made to readers, and whether the next “shocking” death will still carry any real shock.
Thanks to Michael Hansen for correcting this post and pointing out that it was not actually the season finale!
Beta Feedback Loop: Making the Most of Critique
Last week, I wrote a post on finding a beta reader for your story or novel, and how to make the beta reading experience fun and profitable for both reader and writer. This week, I want to talk a little about how and when to incorporate the feedback you get, in the hopes of making your story better.
Know Thyself (Well, Your Story, at Least)
To reiterate a point from my previous post: knowing what you set out to do with the work is critical to getting good feedback. By the time you’re ready for a beta read, you should know your characters, and your story, inside out. That one character… is (s)he a misunderstood hero? A villain? A glorified extra? What’s your main character’s story about, internally and externally? These are questions you should already have answers to.
If you don’t, then make that part of the process. Let your reader know that you’re shaky on a particular character or subplot. Let your reader know your worries, so they know what to look for when probing for weaknesses.
Set Your Ego Aside
If you’ve chosen your beta reader well, then you best saddle up for some body blows. Even if they love it, a good beta reader will have some problems with it — because there will be problems. So be prepared for readers to hate characters you love, champion the side character you thought was a meaningless nobody, find your “fascinating” subplots a meaningless diversion, and your resolution possibly incomprehensible. Maybe worse.
I’ll be all right. You can take it. Do so gracefully and with a smile. Don’t come out swinging in defense of your beloved word-spawn — or, if you must, do it silently and to yourself. If you feel your story is being treated unfairly, open a discussion about it, but don’t get into a bitter argument that will only alienate you both. A reader’s reaction belongs to them, and you have a responsibility to respect it.
That’s not to say that you must accept their every criticism as gospel. Your reader may dislike that plot or character because they missed something vital — and that may mean that you didn’t emphasize it enough, or it just may mean that they missed it. It happens. That’s your cue to do some detective work. Talk to them, and find out if they did gloss that troublesome plot point.
It’s always up to you on what feedback to take to heart and what to ignore. That’s where this next step comes in.
Decide Your Deal-Breakers
To be blunt, if you’re not open to compromise and improvement, then having someone beta read your work in the first place is probably a waste of everyone’s time. But if you are, that still leaves the question of where you will and won’t compromise.
It’s easy enough to say “just be open-minded” — a noble goal, but one that ignores some of the complexities at work in the beta / writer relationship. The story you want, and the story your reader wants, may be two different things. They may make recommendations that could undermine or even completely alter the premise of your work. Their ideas may be great, but not right for the story, or terrible, and better than what you have now. It’s a minefield that you’ll both be running across, trying to meet in the middle for coffee.
That’s why it’s vital to have a solid grasp on what you’re trying to say before you submit your book for a beta read. If you don’t, you may find that the lack of intersection between what you want and what your reader wants can become a deadly chasm, and you fall into it believing that your book sucks, when in fact that may not be true at all.
Remember last week, when I said beta reading should not be entered into lightly? This kind of thing is why.
To Pander or Not to Pander
But what if the opposite of all that happens instead? Your beta loves your story. They especially love a particular subplot, character, or element. They want more. They demand more. And who are you to question a reader wanting more? You want to give it to them, right?
Not necessarily. Sadly, you need to be just as careful with praise as criticism, and judge carefully whether to sprinkle sugar all over the things your reader enjoyed.
Because sometimes wanting more is a good thing. Sometimes minor characters work because they have one charming scene and then vanish. Sometimes subplots work because they’re an entertaining diversion that lasts just long enough. If your reader wanted more because they felt something was underdeveloped or unclear, that’s a good sign you should probably revisit the material and consider adding to it. If they wanted more because they loved it and didn’t want it to end, that’s probably a good sign you should leave it alone.
Beta reading — the good kind, not the “I liked it” kind — can be complicated and nerve-wracking. Is it any wonder that so many readers come back with “it was really good!” and leave it at that? Who has the time to engage on this level and navigate all these metatextual hazards?
Well, not everyone. And that’s why, if you have a good beta reader, you hang on to them with all they’ve got. Bribe them with chocolate. Send thank-you notes. But most of all, listen. Then decide for yourself what to do with the data you receive.
Hunting the Elusive Beta Reader
Writers long to be read. Why else would we be in this business? Completing a book can be a lonely and isolating experience, and if you’re anything like me, gnomes of self-doubt will be gnawing at your ankles the entire way. But once we’ve struggled through that first (and second) draft, and finally hunted down and exterminated all the problems we could find… there is likely a big smelly heap of problems still lurking in the prose, waiting to ruin the good time of an unwary reader.
That’s where the beta reader comes in. Hero to millions, purveyor of wisdom and hope. That trusted soul who will weed out the treacherous needles in your precarious tower of haystacks. The paragon who delivers insight you never would have stumbled into on your own. A good beta reader is more precious than gold, and can make the process of editing and revising much easier.
Finding that perfect reader, on the other hand, can be damned difficult.
Here’s the thing. Almost every reader I know is also a writer, and writing and reading take a lot of time and energy. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the books, write all the prose, blog all the posts, and also live the sociable, hygienic life of a fairly functional human being. Asking someone to beta read your work — or agreeing to beta read the work of another — is not a pact to be entered into lightly.
How to Be an Awesome Beta Reader
Be communicative. Taking the time to read an author’s work is only the beginning of the process. Chances are, if you’ve agreed to be someone’s beta, that writer will be on pins and needles within minutes, bleary-eyed and twitching as they sit by their phone or computer waiting for your email. “So did you like it?” they will yearn to ask, every five goddamn minutes. Hours will stretch into years, each day an eternity, stars guttering in the void as aeons march past like elephants on Vicodin. Hit your writer with a three-word “I liked it!” email at the end of all that time, and they may well end up wanting to shank you with a staple remover.
Is that fair? Not really. But a writer looking for a beta reader is a writer in search of meaningful feedback. Getting a “like” or a bit of praise for your writing on the Internet is not actually that difficult. Post a snippet on Facebook or on your blog, and you can probably get a plus or a like from somebody, even if they’re just supporting a friend. Real, constructive feedback takes time and effort. I’m not saying you need to write a book of your own in response to theirs, but be ready to drop a few thoughtful paragraphs, at the very least. If you’re not willing or able to do at least that much for your writer, then maybe you should reconsider taking the assignment, to avoid wasting both your time and theirs.
And if you really want to earn your writer’s devotion, drop them a line every once in a while to tell them about a bit you just read. They will love you for it.
Be engaged. One of the toughest things about finding a good beta reader is narrowing the field down to those readers whose taste and interest intersect with yours. To get good feedback, you need someone who understands what you’re trying to do, knows the genre, and is excited to read your work. The sad truth is, someone might fulfill one or two of these criteria, and in general be an awesome person and a good friend, and still not work out the way you’d hope.
Even the most supportive, enthusiastic friend may not end up being your best choice for a beta reader. There are some people out there I’d love to give my work to for critique — people I interact with daily and whose opinions I value. But some don’t read much in my chosen genre. Or they’re too busy with their own work. Or any number of other reasons. This is all the more reason to choose carefully.
Be tough. In their bitty secret hearts, all writers hope that our half-complete second draft will blow everyone’s socks off. But we also know that it won’t, and probably shouldn’t. Praise, while nice, is only good if it reinforces what works on the page — and it must be balanced out by what doesn’t work. Spot the problems, point them out, and be tough. I don’t mean lay into the writer with the blazing fury of a thousand suns. But if something in the work made you uncomfortable or angry, say so and detail why. Because one thing is certain, people are far less forgiving and cordial out there in the marketplace.
Be available. Simply put, don’t commit to reading someone’s work if you don’t have the time. Sure, things happen, life circumstances change, and time you thought you had might unexpectedly disappear. But don’t just leave your writer hanging. Tell them what’s up, and politely beg off if you have to. But don’t just leave them to assume the worst. And don’t agree to beta read “to be nice” if you have no real intention of following through. Turns out that’s actually not nice.
How To Be an Awesome Writer (for Your Beta Reader)
Be choosy. Don’t just throw incomplete work at anyone who looks at you cross-eyed. Most of all, show consideration for your prospective beta-reader by making sure they’re interested, available and willing to put in the work. Don’t try to guilt them into it or force reading on them. That way lies strained friendships and sadmaking.
Be clear. Outline your expectations up front. Put together a couple of paragraphs on what you wanted to accomplish with the work, what kind of feedback you want, and any questions you want your reader to answer. Don’t expect them to use their telekinetic powers to glean what you want from the cosmic ether.
Be patient. Reading takes time, and reading critically even more so. It can be nerve-wracking to wait for any scrap of feedback. But that’s the road. You may wait weeks, or months. Deadlines may come and go before your reader regretfully informs you that their car exploded and the dog got chicken pox somehow and they’ve been selected for the next moon shot. It happens. If you simply must pester your reader for progress reports, do so gently and politely.
Be grateful. Even if things didn’t work out like you expected, take the time to thank your beta reader. They took time out of their life to read and comment on your work. That’s not nothing, especially if you’re someone they’ve never actually met in real life. And for the love of Heidegger, don’t unload on them or argue with them about your book if they level a criticism you don’t like. Nod your head, consider their point, and if you must, quietly resolve to find a different beta reader next time and just move on. But you gave out your work with the express purpose of getting another person’s opinion on it. Respect their reactions and alter your work, or not, as you see fit.
Finding Beta Readers
So I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, those criteria are great, I’ve finally learned how to be picky and difficult, what a treat. But how do I actually find beta readers?” Well, if you’re looking for a magic bullet, I don’t have one to give. But here are the things that helped me find some awesome beta readers:
- Talk about your work. Not in a spammy way. Talk about what excites and scares you.
- Share excerpts and see who gets interested.
- Support other readers and build relationships.
- Pay it forward. Volunteer to beta read for writers you know.
- Blog about what’s important to you. Reply to comments.
- Be awesome to others.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank those people who took the time to try to make my work better. You know who you are. Thank you for being awesome.
How Goodreads Saved (and Ruined) My Reading Habits
First of all, just so you know, I am not going to talk about Amazon buying Goodreads. That’s a conversation I am totally enthusiastic about… never having again. With anyone. At this point, my position can best be summed up with the words “don’t come crying to me.”
Now, if you’re not familiar with Goodreads (or, like Anna Meade, are frightened and confused by it), let me take a moment to poorly summarize it. Goodreads is Facebook for books. No, that’s terrible. Let me try again. Goodreads is a social media site for readers that allows you to add, rate, review, and share your reading experiences with others. Why would you want to do this? I don’t know. Ask the people who built it.
Now then. I am here not to bury Goodreads, but to praise it. And then bury it. You see, thanks to Goodreads, I went from a horrible, sloppy reading habit of one or two books a year to over fifty. Fifty! That’s ever so much more than one or two, yet a pittance compared to these people I see on Goodreads who go through like fourteen hundred books a year or something. What is with these people? Are they posting from some future cyberpunk utopia where they ram needles into their frontal lobes and experience all of Dostoevsky first-hand in a matter of seconds, like “The Inner Light,” but with screams and chainsaws instead of a little flute?
Well, anyway. The point is, I’m reading a lot more these days. And that’s good! Except when it’s bad. How can reading be bad, you ask? Well, it’s not. So, I admit I lied just now. It’s not so much the reading that’s bad as how Goodreads changed my reading habits — both for better and worse. Let’s examine this in detail, won’t we?
Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having eleventy-billion friends on Goodreads (okay, 412 and counting, close enough), I constantly get recommendations on new books. My reading list just keeps growing. So many great new books to read!
Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. I just finished a book and now I can share this super-important knowledge with everyone! “Like” button! Sweet validation! Virtual cookies for doing something I like doing anyway! I’m like a mouse in a lab who just got the cheese! Wait.
I can rate, review, organize and tag books! It’s like some kind of beautiful dream. If I wanted to know how much steampunk I read in 2012 for some reason, I no longer have to rely on my faulty memory. Remembering things is hard. Thank god for voluntarily submitting to data mining.
The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Finally, a way to feel superior to everyone else. It’s like a marathon without having to get up off my ass! Twenty books? Why not fifty? Why only fifty, Freddie, why not a hundred? Imagine the sweet Schadenfreude when all my friends fail and I metaphorically sail across the finish line… of reading… some stuff? /Chariots of Fire theme
Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having 412 friends and counting on Goodreads (feels more like eleventy billion), my reading list is growing faster than I will ever be able to read. I am going to die with thousands of books unread. Glancing at my Goodreads feed is now a terrifying gaze into the black heart of my own mortality. Now I’m reading Emotional Structure for Screenwriters. Now I sink into an alcoholic haze in a blind idiot universe that punishes and rewards without reason or mercy. I think I’ll polish off an entire bottle of wine and go watch Charmed or something.
Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. Thanks, Goodreads, now everyone knows I abandoned that indie book I promised I’d read and the author is probably crying and defriending me on Facebook as we speak and then without meaning to I publicly admitted to liking a Dragonlance novel and now my author cred totally lies in ruins somehow only nobody actually cares so why am I thinking about this?
I can rate, review, organize and tag books! Yeah, because I totally wasn’t OCD enough to begin with. How will I know if I’m enjoying this book unless I properly categorize it by painfully specific minutiae?
The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Yes, thanks to Goodreads, I have totally turned my own reading into some kind of perverse commodity. I think twice about reading anything if it doesn’t contribute to my abstract and totally meaningless Reading Challenge goal. Beta read your manuscript? That’s valuable time I could be putting toward collecting more Goodreads brownie points! Disappear into that thousand-page epic novel? We can’t do that, dude, it messes up the averages. I could fall behind schedule, committing to a long book like that. Are you crazy? Go outside? See people? I’M IN THE GOODREADS CHALLENGE HERE PEOPLE.
Of course, none of this is the fault of Goodreads. This is a prime example of digging a hole, throwing oneself in it, and then complaining about this hole somebody dug that one is now stuck in. And then clicking “Share” so everyone knows you’re miserable about being in this hole. I could walk away from Goodreads tomorrow and make my reading habits less pathological almost instantly. Reading challenge? Sir or madam, I submit to you, schmeading challenge. I can quit anytime I want. I just don’t want to.
So what do you think, reader? Goodreads! Balm or scourge? Threat or menace? Chicken or fish?