Monday, December 31, 2012



Or: League of Extraordinary Gentlefolk

Let's end the year with a bang and make plans for The Writing Career in 2013. If you're prone to procrastination or writer's block, I highly encourage you to get your ass in a chair and hammer out a writing plan for 2013 in the form of New Year's Resolutions. 

It's going to be an action plan of ten things. An action plan that will benefit you, and get you moving at a solid pace, will have realistic and measurable goals. 

If you're a newbie writer, among the top five of those goals should be to acquire a Beta. And the goal after that should be to become a Beta yourself.

Adding an extra T to Beta gets you Betta fish.
 Let's get on the same page about what a Beta is and why you need one, then I'll list some qualities to look for. (If you know what a Beta is, you can skip to Guidelines.)

The term Beta Reader refers to a person who reads your WIP after you've written it, before you've submitted it to agents, publishing houses, or indie-pubbed it in eformat. 

Wikipedia says the term Beta Reader was appropriated by the writing world from the programming world. After a computer program is conceived and created, it goes to Beta users, whose aim is to find flaws with the program before it goes to market.

Beta Readers do the same thing: find flaws in your WIP before the public sees it. And don't get all uppity and defensive, thinking your WIP is flawless. It's not. I guarantee it's not. Because writing with an eye on spelling, correct grammar, clich├ęs, dialogue tags, etc. is a slow and crippling way to write. That's why I frame these posts as if you've already written your story, and you're in 1st through nth revision, and not information you should necessarily have in your head while you're describing a messy evisceration. 

When your WIP is done and you've revised it yourself once or numerous times, you might know it too well. You know why Adam ran away from home. You know what the inside of that magic castle looks like. All that is in your head. 

A Beta can tell you if you've been successful painting scenes in your reader's head.
To bring it back to the programming analogy, a Beta Reader will test your WIP for flaws that garble your message

Those flaws could include:

  • A horrendous plot hole: If they have flying carpets, why couldn't they fly over the Forest of Epic Evil instead of going through it?
  • Character inconsistencies: Old Man Barley used to be really nice to Jack. How come in Chapter 18, he's a total dick?
  • Detail inconsistencies: If he broke his leg while fighting Jorba the Giant Pimp, how is he sprinting down Lombard Street?
  • And a myriad of other flaws ranging from simple typos to story structure.  

Can one Beta do all these things? The truth is no. I guarantee that as well. Reading is subjective and every person will have a different set of cultural values, writing experience, professional expertise. So while you can have a Beta that does a lot of flaw-finding, keep in mind that what one Beta might consider a "flaw" could be another Beta's "ground-breaking experimental structure by the literary genius of our time." 

There are Betas who will read through an entire WIP and offer just a few but critical notes on each chapter. Some may hand back a hardcopy with so much red ink, it looks like they used it to staunch blood flow from a gut wound. How do you know which type you're getting?


Guidelines for choosing a Beta:
Know your Beta. This isn't about trusting them with you and your muse's love child. This is about understanding your Beta's talents and limits. Asking these questions up front can lead to an easier relationship down the road.

A. Do you want to know what I (the writer) need from you, or do you prefer a cold read? Some Betas prefer having a bulleted list of what they should look for: plot holes, believability of sex scenes, slow pace, etc. Others don't want this information and prefer to find issues on their own (if there even is an issue with something to begin with!).

B. How do you prefer making notes? Some Betas do Line-By-Line (LBL) notes. Those look like this: 

In the gloaming preceding true night, we stood looking at the watched stars wink into existence, and named naming each one for a life extinguished in battle. 

Other Betas prefer to use "New Comment" on MS Word, which allows them to explain why they suggest changes. Like:

Click to embiggen.
Some prefer to work with only hardcopy, or only digital copies, only a few pages or chapters at a time or the whole book at once. Some are flexible in how they make notes, some won't work with you unless you do things their way.

Ask about this. Know what method helps you and your story best.

I prefer making notes to explain why I suggest a change. I've worked with some people who have gotten used to my shorthand: M > TSTL Ch8. *triangle symbol* (In chapter 8, your protag becomes too stupid to live because__, change __.); CAF (Cut this, dip it in Acid, and burn it in Fire.). Shorthand for things I enjoyed: AWESOME and ROFLMAO.

C. Do you read my genre? This seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how often not asking this can lead to issues down the road. Each genre has specific elements which identify it as appropriate for certain readers. At its simplest, a "genre" will be the location in the bookstore or category in Amazon or Smashwords where your story can be found by people looking for that flavor. 

If you pick a Beta who hasn't read your genre or doesn't read it enough, they may question why your focus seems to be on the romance blooming between Peter and Prescott, when obvi they should be focused on X, Y, or Z instead.
Or they'll look for elements they're familiar with and lament the fact that there's actually no dragons in the entire story.

Does this mean you must pigeonhole yourself into genre-specific Betas? Absolutely not. Take what help you can get but be conscious of their background and apply your knowledge to what they make comments about. 

A reader of historical fiction may question the evolution of magic in your world, which could mean that something rings false and you need to include more worldbuilding elements. A Beta who reads mostly YA may ask why your younger characters talk and act like adults. A Beta who reads mysteries may point out that a lot of your details seem purposely misleading. 

In other words, your story – your message – is being garbled. Address the issue by showing more truth of your story's world. 

D. How quickly do you work? Betas are real people with lives that may or may not hold writing in the same priority as you do. Waiting can feel like gouging your eyes out slowly with a rusty melon baller. Better to get a timeframe in place at the beginning than to have a sad surprise months down the road. 

For example, is it part of your ten New Year's Writing Resolutions to have your WIP read and revised by June so you can start querying that month? Or do you plan on publishing independently sometime before school starts, before your family reunion, as a gift for an anniversary, as a book to mark a personal milestone? Communicate this.
And listen to what your prospective Beta says about their personal timeline. Perhaps they're a student. Perhaps they have their own WIP's to work on too. Perhaps they're juggling multiple Beta projects. Consider what they say and see if it works for you.

A good Beta can give you a finish time. A great Beta will deliver as promised. 

Faster is not always better (LBLs take me about an hour per 1k words.). Slower doesn't always mean more thorough. It could be there are big issues that require repeated looks. 

E. Is there anything I can do for you in return? Of the utmost importance, this question. Betas usually don't get paid in money. (When people I Beta for insist, I refer them to crowdfunding projects on the right side of my blog.) There are precious few solid rules I write about in my blog. This is one of them: When you find a Beta, ask this question. Most are also writers and reciprocity is appreciated. Beta for their WIP in return either while they work on yours, or for a future project. 

A good Beta will help your current story. A great Beta will help your writing career. Their comments and critiques should challenge you. Swap samples first. If most of their comments make you feel like your story is bulletproof, you might need a Beta with more experience.

Some caveats on Beta relationships:

1. A Beta is not your WIP's housekeeper; do not expect them to fix your mistakes. It is your responsibility as a writer to have a firm grasp on your craft's tools.
This includes knowledge of:
Manuscript format for your chosen method of publication
Genre elements
Betas should receive a WIP that is as close to perfect as you can make it so they can find the flaws you couldn't catch. 

2. Respect each other's boundaries; Betas will not rewrite scenes, chapters, your entire book for you, nor should you expect that of them.

3. If a friend asks to Beta for you, understand that it can have an impact on your friendship. I had a friend ask to Beta for me once, and I gave him the WIP. He made it to Chapter 5, I think, and offered just a few comments. Interested in what he had to say about the rest of the story, I kept waiting for him to finish it. How many times can you ask if they're done before they get annoyed? Not to mention the mind games you play on yourself: are they not reading it anymore? Did they think it sucked and they're trying to spare my feelings?
Turns out that story was too dark for him… and had no sex scenes.  

If you have a friend who is genuinely interested and has some writing background, go for it. Or if your WIP has technical or historical aspects you'd like to run by someone who has experience in that field, awesome. Otherwise, try not to give in to the temptation of taking advantage of a friend who asks to Beta unless your friendship can take the strain.

Yes, it will be strained. Writing reveals things that you may not want close friends or family members to know. Heck, it can reveal things about the reader too. I once pitched a story idea to two dozen friends. The story dealt with issues of faith versus obligation to one's community. My friends were split down the middle as to who preferred what I considered to be the selfish option versus the option of sacrifice. Holy sh*t, was it an eye opener. 

4. A Beta is not your marketing tool. Their comments should not be used to get other Betas or future readers. If they liked something about your WIP, bask in the praise, keep that section as is, and use it to motivate you. If the Beta finds a flaw or suggests a change, reflect on their comment and either implement or ignore. A comment advertised out of context can make you or your Beta look bad. 

5. Be honest and curious, not defensive. You can scream "So and so doesn't know what he/she's talking about!" to your dog as long and often as you want, but it's unprofessional to do so to the Beta, especially in public. Betas work for free, remember? And whatever the critique, there was a reason for it. If you don't see it or disagree, for f*ck's sake, ask

One step further: A good Beta will tell you why they have that critique. A great Beta will listen to you explain yourself and may even offer suggestions on how to achieve what you were trying to do. 

6. Thank them, often and honestly. And if it seems like all their comments are things that need work, ask them what they liked about the story! And ask them if they'd like to be thanked in your book before doing it.

Lastly, be a Beta Reader yourself. This goes beyond the reason of reciprocity I listed above. 

Beta Reading offers the following advantages:

* Even if you've never taken a Creative Writing course, you have read many books. You know what works. Reading someone's unpolished (or even heavily revised) WIP can show you what doesn't work so you can avoid those issues in your own writing. 

* A different story, written from a different POV or with a different Voice, can reset your mind and help you see your own story through fresh eyes. 

* It will help your reading skills – perhaps to an extent you regret. (I critique almost everything I read now – even Twitter blurbs! Argh!) It bleeds into your life. Spotting and pointing out "Show, don't Tell" makes group presentations pop. Asking for "More Details" helps you see the world more vividly. Noting "Pacing" issues, however, has ruined many movies for me.

Do you absolutely positively need a Beta Reader? It depends on who you ask. I'll offer a final example.

This is a diamond. No, really.

 Writers sometimes tell me that their early drafts seem wonderful one moment, horrible the next. To which I reply that all early drafts are as ugly as new diamonds (they look like quartz, don't they?). When you first wrest the story from the chaos and darkness of your mind, it's flawed and dirty. Only after you've cleaned it up and chiseled it into shape can you see the true beauty hiding within. 

Lots of people can find gems, given the motivation and opportunity. But it's the work afterwards that yields the best results.

Lots of people can write a story. The execution, the writing, is what can make your story stand out. In other words: How clear was your message? How transparent was the boundary between your world and mine?

A Beta Reader might have the skills and tools you haven't acquired yet. They might better see what to cut, and what to leave alone. 

So in the end, perhaps the question you can ask is not whether or not you need a Beta Reader, but where to find one.

Here ya go:
Absolute Write Forum: Build relationships here.
Writing Groups in your area.

Happy New Year!

Coming up in 2013!
Show vs. Tell
Jay Groce
Dialogue Tags
Robert Bevan

Monday, December 24, 2012



In which I interview a talented artist.


All images in this post belong to Brian Mumphrey. Click to embiggen. Trust me, you want to embiggen.

Now that would be a cover that stands out. That's what I thought when I first saw your art. No swords. No half-nude barbarian women (or men). No hooded assassins with a five o'clock shadow. Also, your characters weren't patently Caucasian!

Instead I saw a strong influence of Otherness. The characters you depicted were very real but exaggerated, the way heroes often are in classic literature and comic books.

1. As a writer, I would love to ask you about your childhood and all that jazz, but I have a limit of 1000 words per blog post, so let's get to the important stuff. What kind of books do you like to read and why?

Brian: A lot of the books I read tend to be fiction-based, in any number of settings.  My favorites are science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history but I try to stay versatile in my interests as it fuels my concept work. While I read mainly fiction for entertainment, I probably read a lot more in history and space/science exploration to further increase my ability to create believable environments and characters for my own projects.

2. Name three authors who have changed your (artistic) life ie. how they've influenced you.

       J.R.R. Tolkien (For his work on The Silmarillion. His creation myth for The Hobbit and LOTR were amazing to read and for someone to put so much work into a world they created...)
       Alan Moore (The Watchmen and From Hell were amazing narratives.  Watchmen in particular was great for me to read for the first time because of the character Doctor Manhattan.)
Chuck Palahniuk (Snuff (yeah it's gross, but so good), Pygmy, Fight Club.  Although his subject matter is usually pretty, uh, disturbing?  He has a way with words and descriptions I have always appreciated.)

Now, let's put our serious pants on. (Hands Brian a pair of serious neon green pants.)

3. Do you need to read a writer's completed manuscript? Or can you work with a plot synopsis or character descriptions?
Brian: It really depends on what I'm working on for the story, but usually a plot synopsis/character designs are all I need to get started.  As things develop I like to be as informed as possible in order to get the best image for the current goal.  For a front cover, the more the better, as it's always nice to throw subtle hints in with the overall design of the story to come. (J: Badass.)

4. I blog for writers who have already finished a story and might be considering self-publishing on platforms such as Kindle and Amazon. As an artist and reader, what do you look for in a book cover? In other words, what draws your eye to particular books?

Brian: As far as what I look for in a book cover or even when I'm designing one is to go for broad strokes that are visible from a distance, but details that can be appreciated when looked at more closely.  

Sometimes balancing this can be tricky because something that might look good from a distance in a store or as a small thumbnail on a website such as Amazon might fall apart when you go in for a closer look, and vice versa.  A buyer can be attracted to your design when they see it among all the other books in a search option, click on it but then are quickly turned off when they go to view it closer.  

This can reflect badly on the contents of the book and cost you a sale, so it's important for me that the design can read from all distances and sizes.

5. I just looked at some of your recent futuristic squid vacuums and baddie silhouettes. One question: How do I get into your world? Seriously, though, when looking at your work, I feel stories behind them. 

That's how we ended up collaborating on some pieces a while back. You were really easy to approach with changes and you replied promptly to all my questions (like: can you make a symbol that looks like a thing with a pointed thing across it?). What do you look for in a collaboration?

Brian: As far as the worlds and characters I create they're really just fueled by the real world more than anything. One of the most important lessons I learned from creating believable characters and environments is they have to be grounded in a recognizable ideal that most people can digest.  

Making a smoke alien from a planet that supports life of that type might be very real and scientific but there's nothing on this planet that looks like that so people tend to quickly dismiss it as lame. Now, if you take an insect, make him 2 times larger and slightly change anatomy, stance, and mannerisms then it's something that people can relate to.  Then all you have left to do is make it look "cool."  

Openness is the most important thing for me in a collaboration. I need the person I'm working with to be happy with the work, or else I'm not happy with the work. More often than not I'll prefer to do Skype/video chat with a client so I can better judge their approval/disapproval for a design/idea, especially if they don't like what I'm designing or they like it but have such a specific idea in mind they're having a hard time portraying that in a typed email. (I'm never hurt by someone not liking a design. Not every design is right for every story.) With the ability to see the look on the person's face, I can tell if it's something they're truly stoked about or on the fence about or just plain hate. 

6. Do you have to like the story to work with a writer?

Brian:  No but it helps!  But seriously, it's not that I have to "like" the story as much as accept that it's not my project or vision.  To that degree it has just as much credit and validation as anything I would create, but for a different crowd.  Then all you have to really ask yourself is if my designs fit your narrative.  Most people who are writing a romance novel wouldn't approach a designer like me considering 95% of the things I draw have guns or skulls on them.  Or both. 

7. How much do you charge, and what does that price range depend on?

Brian:  What I charge depends on the project and the funds of the person or organization.  A flat rate I usually tell people is $25/hr but that's really steep for a lot of people who are trying to publish on their own and I would never expect that rate from anyone unless they were an actual founded company.  What I charge independent writers and people just starting up would be between me and the client and would depend heavily on what other projects I'm working on as well as how passionate I am about the story.  Which isn't to say I won't work on it if I don't like it, but it helps if I'm not getting paid much (or at all) if I believe in and enjoy the project.

Thanks, Brian. I look forward to seeing more of your art!

I also have a permanent link to his site on the right side of this blog.

Happy writing,

Coming up: 
Jay Groce
Dialogue Tags

Monday, December 17, 2012


Pacing and Details

Or: The Pendulum


Warning: This post contains a scene which may be unsuitable for some readers. Skip Blue text. 

Comments: "Get on with it already!" Or "I totes skipped chapters 3, 5, 8, and 10." Or "This is eye-gougingly boring."

What they mean: Your pacing could use a little work.

At its simplest, pacing is the rate of activity or movement in a specified time. In other words, how much happened in one scene

If a scene has a lot of action, ie. a character does 8 different things in a few paragraphs, one could say that scene has a fast pace. If the character does only a few things, it might be called a slow-paced scene. This term is applicable to the entire book. 

Recall my post on Details? Details and Pacing have an intimate relationship: the quantity of one can directly affect the other. A lot of details can slow pacing to a grinding halt. Trying to pack a lot of action into a scene by omitting details can create a fast pace.

Think of it this way. The relationship between Story, Details, and Pacing is akin to a pendulum's movement. 

First, let's get on the same page about pendulums (as J understands them). The vertical axis represents potential energy. The horizontal axis it swings across represents speed. When the pendulum swings, you have variable potential energy vs. speed values. As the pendulum reaches its zenith on either end, it reaches points of maximum potential energy, zero speed (it stops so it can fall down again.) 

At its lowest point, the pendulum reaches maximum speed and a moment of zero potential energy (kind of.) 

Applied to writing, the vertical axis can be thought of as details. The horizontal axis is pace. As the pendulum (the story) swings up, you increase details, but the pendulum slows down until, at the zenith of its swing, you have infinite details and no movement. 

Like a ten-page chapter of nothing but narrative description. 

As the pendulum swings across the pacing axis, it sheds details in favor of speed until at its nadir, you have maximum pace (action) that almost defies description. 

Action happens so quickly, it seems sloppy and incoherent. 

Click to embiggen.

So it seems like that's just the way it's gotta be. Sacrifice one aspect in favor of the other at different points in your story. 

Action scenes are usually heavy on verbs and lean on descriptions. Narrative scenes are usually the opposite. And for the most part, a solid story uses a mix of the two to varying degrees based on genre. 

Notice how I'm waffling? 

This is where you come in. When you're writing your first draft, write it. (Personally, it feels like an exorcism.) 

Then during your first (or nth) revision, find moments in your story to challenge the "action scenes must be fast" and "narrative scenes must be detailed" idea. But, you should have a solid idea of where and why and how much

Don't do it for the sake of adding details just to flesh out a scene. Manipulating pace, as with any other choice, should serve the character first, which will serve the story as a whole. 

Let's put our serious pants on.
Today, we're going to change this awfully generic action scene:

I strode across the pavement1, grabbed her by the neck2, and stabbed her in the back six times.3
1. Purposeful movement. Good.
2. Always weird when I come across this phrase (is it also weird I read this a LOT?). Seems like it could be tightened.
3. Dayum! Not just one stab but six? That's pretty specific. 

Overall, if framed by narrative leading up to the event, this reads fast and that's just fine.

But, does it need to read fast? 

What if:
a. this is the Protag's first murder?
b. the Protag has super powers?
c. the Protag has heightened awareness or senses?
d. the Protag has a different set of moral values or different way of thinking about such acts?

What if you have a scene that seems like it needs to be fast and detailed

Try manipulating:
1. Sentence length. Short sentences read faster than long ones.
2. Commas. Readers pause a beat at commas, which would slow the pace. Purposely omitted commas can be awesome but leave a reader feeling breathless though so use with care.  
3. Paragraph breaks. Many breaks can read fast. Few breaks, between large paragraphs, can read slow.
4. Repetition.
5. Rhythm and word length.
6. Dialogue.
7. Emdash.


I strode across the market square. Past sagging, dusty awnings melting in the heat. Past wide-hipped women in flared cotton skirts. Past hustlers and bustlers, woven yellow baskets on their heads, bread tucked into the crooks of their bare brown arms.

She was there on the corner, eating a candy bar. Its wrapping glinted silver like a tiny mirror flashing, blinding me, but her silhouette was burned on my eye like a black shadow on the sun, dancing away. Her back to me. Bare heels to me. 

I grabbed her neck with my left hand and turned her, embraced her. Oh, how the sun had warmed her skin and ripened the soapy smell of her neck! I breathed. She breathed. I stabbed.

The first stab was easy. Did I even – 

The second stab was quick as yanking the knife out again for the third stab. The knife caught on something inside her. It grated a tremor through my palm, shook my wrist, my forearm, my shoulder; scratching, like spreading butter on burned toast. It made me clench my jaw, grind my back teeth until a bittersweetness coated my tongue. 

I stared at the grease stain on the pavement behind her, shaped like a man. 

Not a stain but a shadow. Not a man but a guard. Watching me stab the woman, knife going in and coming out slick as dipping a wick. Three more times because it was easy, then I let her go. I turned away from the guard and the woman and headed back the way I came.
If this was the first time he did this, perhaps I'd slow it down even more by adding more details - five senses! Action-reaction! World-build!
Conversely, if this is the third or eighth time, perhaps shrink it down to just once sentence like the previous example. 

But! If this was the moment in which something pivotal happened - remorse, regret, someone decides to stop him (finally!), etc - perhaps I'd slow it down again. Or keep it fast? What if he was just one character in a book with six POVs? Or what if he's my only main character? What if this was in omniscient POV? What if this is supposed to be historical fiction? Narrative non-fiction? Romance? 

Lots of choices, but each choice must serve the story. 

In your WIP: Find scenes that are meaningful to your characters and see how you can manipulate the pace to highlight those scenes in your story. 

Happy Writing,

Next week: Interview with Brian Mumphrey, Artist.
Coming up:
Dialogue Tags
Robert Bevan