Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!


Getting Publication Ready with Jane Friedman

Jane-Friedman-1First off, this woman looks eerily like my sister-in-law. I had to get that off my chest. It’s like future Annie has come back to the past to tell me about books.

Second, Jane Friedman is a publishing beast. Co-founder of the Hot Sheet, former editor of Writer’s Digest, Ms. Friedman has a bio that makes me want to curl up under a blankie and weep at all the majesty. She managed to pack one metric tonne of information into the three hour class. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit it all into a single blog post, so I’m only going to talk this week about just getting your book ready for publication. I will come back to address the other topics- the five categories of publishing and how to go about them- in more detail in later posts, so fear not. Start looking for those toward the beginning of next year, maaaybe a little sooner if I get an unexpected hole in my schedule.

But if that’s too long a wait, I came across this class, How to Publish Your Book, with Jane Friedman, while perusing a catalog for The Great Courses. It looks like it might cover some of the same information, and is massively on sale until 26 October. You know, if you’re the impatient type.

However! being the impatient type is not the best way to be when hoping to publish a book. Slow down, cowboy! Let’s talk about the steps you must go through to successfully get your book ready for publication, whether that’s traditional, indie, or somewhere in between.

The first step is to make sure that your book is its best possible self. This includes drafting, self-editing, beta editing, rewriting, maybe even professional editing, the works. This is a very long process, and it can be hard to tell when you’re really done here. The yardstick I’ve been using is that I am a) stupidly proud of the work, and b) feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head every time I open the file again. It’s a strange balance. But after your manuscript is the absolute prettiest it can be, then you can turn your mind to preparing for publication, and that means market research.

The earliest parts of research can be done from within the comfortable confines of your very own story- you have to know what you’re selling. Know whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, know what your intended age group is, and know your category.  For fiction, have you written mainstream, literary, or genre? For nonfiction, is the MS narrative, prescriptive, or inspirational? Each of these groupings will point toward a different target audience and, if you’re traditionally publishing, a different submission target.

Be aware of the different age categories and try not to straddle them. (I am so bad about straddling age categories, ugggggh.) Also, never claim that your project is “hard to categorize”. Nobody likes that and it doesn’t give potential readers any information. Instead, say that it’s “multi-genre” or has “crossover appeal” and mention just two specific categories.

Once you have your book all neatly categorized, do some market research. Your goal here is to understand the commercial viability of a project, which is important whether you plan to enlist the help of traditional publishers or to go it alone. But just for general reference, I’m going to list some of the positive and negative signs a publisher will look for when deciding whether a book is marketable or not.

Positive Signs (do this stuff) Negative Signs (avoid this stuff)
  • Uses standard lengths (wordcount)
  • Written in a commercial genre
  • Author has a solid platform (for nonfiction)
  • Wordcounts that are way outside of norms (<50k, >120k, etc)
  • Tough sell categories (cookbooks, picture books, travel books, short story complication, etc)
  • Memoirs without a high concept or publicity angle

If you find that your book has some of those negative signs, maybe give it a closer squint before moving past this point. (Huge books by unknown authors are a hard sell, no matter which publication route you choose. Most cookbooks are sold by celebrity chefs. Keep these things in mind when figuring out your own market viability.)

For traditional publishing, this is where you start getting your submission packet ready, which probably includes something like a query, sample pages, and a synopsis; know ahead of time whether you want to query agents or publishing houses directly, because you’re not supposed to do both at the same time, and follow submission guidelines exactly. Novels and memoirs must be finished, edited, and polished before beginning the submission process. For nonfiction, write the book proposal first, including a business plan; since publishers don’t have the finished materials, you have to convince them that this book will sell.

If you’re going the indie route, you don’t need a proposal or query, but you still need a lot of the bits and pieces that would go into them, including a business plan, sales copy, and a finely polished project. In addition, you’ll also need to work out your book design, including formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc. If you’re not a professional [editor/book designer/artist/etc], pay for one like any other book publisher would.

When putting together back cover blurbs/pitches, business plans, and author bios, feel free to pick the brains of your friends, family, and neighbors on the bus to work. This stuff is hard to write, but having extra eyes on it can help you pick out the pieces that aren’t clear, or that sound strange, or whatever the problem may be. Just as you wouldn’t try to publish a work that hadn’t been beta read and closely edited, don’t try to do that with this stuff either. These things make up the sales pitch of your book, whether you’re addressing it to agents, editors, or readers. Give it the same care that you have given the rest of your book.

After you have all these scores of little duckies in a row, it’s time to get your rhinoceros-thick skin on. You’re ready to step into the publishing ring! Good luck!

Reedsy Broadcast Recap: Revising and Querying

EditingSome months ago, I listened to a broadcast hosted by Reedsy called Revising Your Manuscript and Query Letter; it was moderated by Ricardo Fayat, the founder and CMO at Reedsy, and presented by five editors and literary agents from their network. I’ve since signed up for several of Reedsy’s free 10-email courses through Reedsy Learning, which you can learn more about here. Reedsy is a self-publishing service based out of London and, although I haven’t quite hopped on the self-publishing bandwagon just yet, I’m always down with further educating myself.

Anyway, I took a bunch of notes from the broadcast and quickly forgot about them. But recently, in preparation for an upcoming writer’s conference, blew off the dust and thumbed through it to help me get ready for a manuscript review. So here’s the quick version of the broadcast.

Revising Your Manuscript

For your opening, make sure that you start with action- something visual, intense, and unexpected. (‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a gunfight or crossing swords. Action can be much quieter so long as it’s clear and powerful, drawing readers in.) Whatever your opening scene entails, be original and above all else, don’t be boring.

Some of the most common manuscript mistakes the broadcast’s presenters see are:

  • Telling instead of showing
  • Unbelievable conflict (forcing the plot, character out of character, etc)
  • Confusing viewpoint
  • Unnecessary Wordiness
  • Disruptive dialog tags (usually, just stick to ‘said’)
  • Misuse of tense

Once you’ve revised your manuscript as much as you can (read: several drafts), it’s time to get other eyes on it. (The broadcast didn’t specifically mention beta readers at this point, but in my opinion, they should have. Beta readers are great!) Professional editors are spendy, but they can also be transformative.

Because it can be such a costly investment, take care to make sure you have the right agent for your project. Start by searching reputable websites, such as Reedsy. 😉  Once you have a few potentials, take the time to do some background checking. Ask for testimonials or recommendations from previous patrons.

When you have an editor you trust, send the following information: kind of editing wanted; genre, synopsis, and target market; and a sample of the book. When deciding what kind of editing you want done, keep in mind that different types of editing usually cannot happen in the same sweep. (If you’re specifically getting ready for submissions, the broadcast folks recommend focusing on developmental editing.) Also keep in mind that good editors are often booked out months in advance. Don’t expect a rush job.

When your manuscript is all edited up and ready to go, shift your focus over to preparing your submission materials.

Sending Out Your Query

Well known agencies receive between one to two hundred queries every day, so it’s hard to stand out from all that.

The first hurdle to jump is avoiding these common querying mistakes:

  • Rudeness, arrogance, and a lack of professionalism
  • Not following guidelines
  • Too much plot and not enough hook
  • Submitting work that isn’t fully edited
  • Lack of research (both within genre and in querying specific agents)

As far as researching agents and publishers goes, there are a lot of resources out there, such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Authors Publish, Submittable, and Publishers Weekly. You can search through genre specific blogs for agent interviews with more specific information. Most agents these days also have a public blog you can comb through. If you’re on Twitter, you can run a search for publishing pundits’ manuscript wish lists.

This kind of specific information is perfect for a query letter’s personalization; personalization isn’t necessary, but does make you stand out a bit more, flatters the editor/agent, and at the very least shows that you did your homework. If nothing else, a more personal query encourages a more personal rejection, feedback which can then be used for later revisions.

While querying, it’s important to keep yourself organized, especially if you’re doing multiple submissions (which you absolutely should). Nothing screams amateur quite like accidentally querying the same place with the same piece twice. (Intentionality is different. If it’s been six months and you’ve completed heavy revision, it’s usually okay to resubmit- just be sure to mention it in the query.) Keep all your information in one place with a spreadsheet, keeping track of names, dates, etc. Prioritize your top agents and send out batches of queries (they suggest about six at a time), giving each batch about six weeks before moving on to the next group. As you learn from the process and (hopefully) feedback, make tweaks as needful. If you get feedback but feel strongly that it’s not appropriate for you or your project, don’t feel like you have to implement it. The agents and editors of this broadcast also suggest that, if you don’t get feedback, it’s okay to politely ask for it; you might still be ignored, but you also might get some insights otherwise left unsaid.

The thing that was stressed over and over throughout is to not give up. The submissions process is grueling. If you’ve been at it a while and still aren’t making much headway, don’t give up. Keep polishing, keep researching, and keep querying.

Happy writing!

Editing: The Art of Self-Surgery

editingYou know that scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin has to fish a bullet out of his own belly?  That’s about how I think of self editing.  It’s messy, painful, and exhausting, but ugh, it’s gotta be done.

Between smugly typing THE END and hyperventilatingly clicking SEND, you will (or at least should) spend many many hours self editing.  How these hours are spent varies from person to person, like all other aspects of writing.  After a nice long rest of at least a month, here’s how my editing process usually goes down.

First, I set a deadline.  I, my father, my children, and all of my brothers absolutely require a non-negotiable deadline to do anything at all.  If it’s not pressing, it’s not happening.  I give myself enough time to get through the thing (typically a two to one ration of editing to drafting time), but not much wiggle room.

As part of my deadline setting process, I start with a fast read-through.  I try to finish in just a few days, at about the same pace I would read a really engrossing novel.  This allows me to take a big picture view of what I’m working with, making it easier to see any plot holes, dangling storylines, sudden changes in eye color, whatever.  I take detailed notes throughout this reading so I know exactly what the problems are.

Once I have my list of issues, I set a realistic deadline and get to work.  Working outside of chronology, I usually start with the easier problems first, the things that I can already see the answers for.  This allows me to work- and again immerse myself in the world- while still devoting a large portion of my brain power to thinking about the problems that I don’t have the solutions for yet.  As I did when compiling problems, I write down any and all solutions I can come up with- no matter how stupid they may seem.  Eventually, I can usually sift through enough pyrite to find a few good nuggets.

Hopefully, by the time I work my way through the simpler problems, I’ll have come up with the glorious, surprising, satisfying solutions to the trickier problems, too.  But the reality is that I typically spend about a quarter of my editing time fixing the easy issues, another quarter of my time sprinkled here and there just trying to work my way toward the harder solutions, and then a quarter on the bigger issues once I have those solutions, and the final quarter on the clean-up at the end.

This ‘final’ cleaning process is done chronologically, starting at the beginning and working my way slowly toward the end.  I tend to require the same tweaks in everything I write, and so I’ve developed a to-do list that doesn’t vary much from MS to MS.

Fix spelling and grammar.  Bit of a no-brainer, but when I’m pounding out a quick draft, I apparently have no brain.

Skim out crutch words.  Your list of crutch words will be different, but mine includes: suddenly; up; again; back; and like a bazillion others.  The internet is rife with lists of words to seek and destroy in your manuscript, so if you’re still not sure, just run a Google search and get that Find function ready.  (Also, Scrivener has a really cool Word Frequency thing under the Project -> Text Statistics tab, which makes it super easy to know exactly what words you use the most.)

Assess adjectives and adverbs.  I’m a descriptor junkie.  My speech is peppered with them, as is my writing (especially these informal blog posts you all suffer through).  In drafting, nearly every sentence has some useless fluff about exactly why this character was squinting, or exactly how shiny that character’s hair is.  Most of these get snipped, so those of you who have read my work and seen how many get left behind have some idea of how many start out. (Yikes!)

Beautify language.  In drafting, I am a huge fan of SVO.  She- kicked- his face.  He- ate- a sandwich.  These sentences- bore- readers.  Readers don’t want to see the same structure over and over and over.  So I take pains to vary sentence structure and length.  I clarify.  I remove unnecessary descriptions and add the parts I missed.  I read prose and dialog out loud and fix up the awkward tongue-twisters that somehow sneak their snickering way into my stories every single time, blast you silly sibilants!

And the newest addition to my final clean-up:

Change all double spaces to single spaces.  I know, I’m very late to the party.  But if there’s anybody else out there who has terror-laced nightmares of Mrs. Hardman in the fourth grade standing over your shoulder as you tentatively tap out your book report on- I kid you not- the typewriter, let’s all just take a deep breath together and move on into the 21st century.  Edit -> Find. Replace. Simple.

Once I’ve completed this cleaning process, I do another quick-as-possible reading.  If something isn’t up to snuff, I go through all the same steps again until it is.  Once everything is to my satisfaction, I start lining up beta readers, with the understanding that I will be going through the whole document again once I get notes back from everyone on all the bits I missed.  Ah, what joy.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of editing, but I understand the appeal.  You get to massage your ugly draft into something beautiful; you can tune the language and deepen the meanings you only hinted at in draft mode; you can work in the foreshadowing and setup for that killer plot twist you came up with three-fifths of the way through the novel; you can seem like an intelligent person who actually knows how to spell.  Editing can be awesome!  So grab that red pen with ruthless delight.  As fantastic as your draft is, you’re about to make it a thousand times better.

Happy writing!

(PS- While editing this post, I nixed over a hundred words in adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive clauses.  Haha, I have a problem.)

Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:


Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!

Receiving Negative Feedback

critiqueA few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence.  Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic.  In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.

Not quite.  One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back.  He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy.  Lazy.  But thank goodness he told me.  After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.

Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it.  We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves.  Rest assured, it’s not.  As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.

When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story.  Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document.  Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high.  Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever.  Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.

Still, favor or not, it stings a bit.  Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.

Don’t argue.  Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor.  Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it.  Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion.  Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).

Listen carefully.  Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing.  I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes.  We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point.  It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out.  So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves.  Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.

Trust yourself.  Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world.  If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it.  Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers.  Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them.  Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision.  Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.

Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise.  Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective.  Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym.  You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be.  If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.

How about you, lovely readers?  What do you do when you get negative feedback?  Any tips for the rest of us?

Giving Negative Feedback

feedbackI beta read a lot.  In fact, I probably beta read almost as much as I read published books and stories.  A lot of the stuff I read is really good- some of it fantastic.  But some of it is also merely decent, and some of it downright dismal.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to give or receive negative feedback, but you will do both throughout your career (and your life), and it’s best to learn to do them gracefully.  This week, I’d like to write about giving negative feedback, and next week about receiving it.

This post outlines my personal style of giving feedback.  Yours may be different, and mine probably isn’t ideal.  (I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section at the end!  Pretty please!)  But this is the practice I’ve developed over the years and I think it’s served me pretty well.

When beta reading, I tend to return feedback in a fairly standard set of sections, whether my reaction was positive or negative.  When I didn’t enjoy the manuscript so much, I find that the standard format helps me to draw my own attention back from all the stuff that I hated and look at the document more objectively; more professionally, if you will.  Depending on the document, there are usually between four and seven sections, but they mainly focus on the following three aspects:

Writing Class Stuff  This area helps me pull my attention from all the stinky stuff because of its relative objectivity.  Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable?  Did I find the worldbuilding believable?  There’s usually a fairly clear answer.  I’m pretty passionate about books (I have been known to fly into the occasion book-throwing, arm-waving, ranting fit that sends my husband fleeing for the door…), so having dispassionate things to write about first clears my head a bit.

Nitpicks  This is where I put the complaints that didn’t come up in the first section(s).  After calming myself down, this is easier to address in a way that won’t break someone’s heart and make them swear off writing (and me) forever.  In documents that need a lot of work, it’s not helpful to point out every single teeny weenie error and pet peeve; it’s hurtful.  Just pick the biggest problems- the things that bothered you the most, the things that messed up the story the most- and focus your attention there.  Remember, we beta to help writers make their stories the best they can be.  Railing on absolutely everything wrong discourages and overwhelms authors.  Not quite what we’re going for here.

Positive Aspects  This is where I put all the stuff that I liked about the story.  I always end reviews on an encouraging note.  Who among us doesn’t need a little encouragement?  Plus, knowing what they’re doing right helps a writer to know their strengths, which they can then extrapolate out into the rest of the story.  Try to note as many positive aspects as you can, but for pity’s sake, don’t lie and say you liked something unless you honestly did.

And then I close with an invitation for further conversation.  My reviews tend to be fairly long and in-depth, but it’s preeeeetty rare that an author doesn’t take me up on the offer.

I don’t always use this format.  If a manuscript is pretty polished and I have little broad commentary to make (or if it’s a short story), I return feedback as line-by-line notes.  And of course, if a writer sends along a list of questions with the manuscript, I answer them.  (Beta readers should always respect the author’s wishes.  If you’ve been asked to focus on story and character development, but instead you focus on spelling and grammar, you’re not helping.)

No matter how you format your review, always keep these things to keep in mind:

Be positive!  Even when you’re saying technically negative things, try to put it in a positive light.  This manuscript is someone’s baby and they put a lot of work into it.  Nobody’s work is perfect, and if it was, they wouldn’t be asking you for help.  Take pride in the opportunity to take something very important to someone, and help make it better!

Be honest!  These authors want to be professionals, so have the courtesy to treat them that way.  As important as it is to be positive, don’t ever lie in your review.  Misleading an author about the enjoyability or marketability or whateverability of their manuscript will only lead to more heartache further down the road.  Honest feedback is more important than warm fuzzies.

Be specific!  We’re not here to tell the author what to do or how to do it, but we are here to point out problems.  Even broad problems such as a meandering plot can be addressed using specific plot points.  Point out the problem and trust the author to find their own solution.

Be open!  Open yourself up to conversation.  Authors love to talk about their stories and explain their ideas, and it will give you further opportunity to elaborate on your notes- especially important if you had to do a lot of truncating in the name of staying positive.  Offering to continue the conversation helps the author feel their story is valued, and allows you to continue to help fine tune in a less formal (read: less intimidating) format.

Giving negative feedback is scary business, but everybody knows its value.  Negative feedback is what helps writers to fix the problems that we can’t see.  It shows us our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them, and helps us see where our stories need work- which is super valuable when we’ve already read it twelve times ourselves and just want the work to be done.  As un-fun as giving negative feedback can be, it is probably the kindest gift a beta reader can give a budding author.  Give it thoughtfully and truthfully, and your authors will thank you.

So what about you, readers?   How do you give useful, encouraging feedback on manuscripts that need a lot of work?  Let me know in the comments!