A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader!

Our guest this week goes by many names. To some of us, he is Nanopals, pitiless sovereign of sprints. To others, he masquerades as a lord of the lilliputian lizard, Tiny Pterosaur. And to the readers of his fantastic epic Leylined, he is the inestimable August Samuel Evrard. Without further ado, the Maestro of Michigan, that guy!

If you’re reading this, chances are you have some friends on the internet that you haven’t met in real life. Maybe I’m one of them! And chances are, reading this, that you’re a writer. An excellent choice of profession, I must say. And I’m going to make a third assumption here, and hopefully that will be the last. If you’re reading this, you’re probably still starting out on the road to authorship, at least on the road to that movie adaption. And, being a starting writer, you may have some anxiety over showing your manuscript to another human being, even if/especially because you haven’t met that human being in “real life.”

Now is the time to get over that hump. Now is the time to hand out your MS to your alpha or beta-readers. You’ve written “The End” (or not, why maintain the status quo?) but you’re looking over it and you know it could be better and you know it’s not really done, it’s not the end and-

Just stop. If you’re thinking like that, it’s time for a fresh set of eyes. It’s time for you to read something and get a read back. I promise it won’t hurt. Well, actually, I don’t promise that, but I promise it will be good for you.

I was at a convention this past weekend – Legendary ConFusion in Michigan, to be precise, and I was handing out my cards and letting people know about @Nanopals, and #wordsprints and #betabuddy, and almost all the response was positive. But there was a theme amongst those who said “nah.” The idea that your beta-reader had to be “good” or that beta-reading someone else’s manuscript, unless it’s Huge nom quality, is a waste of time.

Let me first address this idea that your MS is better than someone else’s MS. Maybe it’s true. Maybe your MS is so awesome that it’s going to catapault into the tops of the NYT bestseller list before it even comes out. Maybe compared to yours, all other MSes are absolute trash. If that’s so, congrats. But the fact is, you’re not going to know that until you give your book to someone else to read. You’re not going to know how good you are until you read other people’s work, until you’ve corrected someone’s work. I had one person scoff at the idea of reading other people’s work unless it was “very good” and I said to that person “If you’re not willing to read other people’s work in return for a critique of your own, you need to hire an editor, because nobody is going to stroke your ego for free.”

I have some beta-readers who have read my book and I haven’t read theirs, but they are fairly few and far between. I’m not Brandon Sanderson, I’m not Pat Rothfuss, or Margaret Weis. None of us are until we get there. And until we get there, we aren’t any better than anyone else. We need to learn, we need to teach. We need to learn how to do both of those things. We have to open our hearts and minds to the work and opinions of others, no matter who they are or what they think, because no matter what, you are going to learn something.

So, now that you’ve decided that you should search for beta-readers, or maybe even be one yourself, there’s the question of how to find them. Here’s my answers:

1. Twitter – The @nanopals account will try to refer a betareader to you, and list you on the blog, @thesprintshack is always willing to rustle up a few, the #betareader and #betabuddy hashtags will find you friends, and anywhere #wordsprint are had you will find people willing to read your book, even without reading theirs. Hell, just ask. I’ve gotten responses from just requesting readers on my personal acct.
2. Conventions – In person is the nuts! Your best chance to represent yourself and your work is almost always in person. Conventions are a great places to meet and greet and pass around your work. From people who will just read, to authors and editors who will recommend workshops or even take your work, there’s a million opportunities at conventions to meet, share and learn.
3. Writing Workshops – whether online or in what we so callously call “the real,” writing workshops are a great forum to meet people and improve your writing. There should always be critique as part of the program, and you will certainly learn whose work you appreciate and what you’re looking to improve.
4. Web Forumssfsignal, sffworld, nanowrimo.org, fantasy faction, there’s lots of web forums out there for you to lurk around in, sharing stories and getting tips. I’ve lurked around sffworld the longest, and it’s a great community with lots of positivity and helpful folks who are always willing to get in on an amateur (or pro!) anthology.
5. Friends – don’t deny it, you have them! At the very least, you have me. And don’t shake your head at friends. If you think the pros don’t send their work to their friends, you are dead wrong, and they aren’t always writer friends either. Here’s a little piece of advice from @neilhimself:

“If someone tells you something is wrong with your story, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

A reader is always right, but not always for the right reasons. Your friends are valuable sources of just plain readers. Writers have agendas when they read your work, they’re comparing their skills to yours, your story to theirs, efficiency of prose and all that. Which is all very good, but it’s not writers that are going to be buying your book (unless you’re writing about writing, ad nauseum), it’s readers. Maybe a lot of readers with aspirations of being writers, but there’s a difference. Until you start writing for yourself, you don’t have anything to compare those books to, so you’re still just enjoying them, if only through constant pangs of jealousy.

Don’t be afraid to approach anyone and everyone to read your book; the fact is, you’re only going to be alienating a small population of your potential readership if you ask everyone you know and meet to read it, and it’s terrible. Most of your buyers and readers you will never meet, and they’ll never meet anyone who read that awful first draft.

Guys, I know you’re worried. I know you’re scared, and anxious. If you’re not, well godzilla <oops!> you, how the <hey-o!> do you stay so <yikes!>ing calm all the time?? But let me tell you that it only gets easier, it only gets better. The more you give your writing out, the more you can be confident of your own opinion of your work. You’ll be better, know more, and be more confident. All because you forced some sucker – I mean got a good friend – to read your MS.

A Year in Review

Back in February 2013, and at the gentle urging of my much beloved NaNoWriMo, I purchased my very own copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published at just over ten dollars. With it came the right to a twenty minute session with the authors to discuss my pitch. I mark that moment as the first upping of my game.

Another such moment came when I signed up for Twitter, which I had been resisting for years, mostly for pride’s sake, and began connecting with a larger writing community. Almost immediately, I tumbled headlong into the loving arms of what would become my core cadre. These folks, most of whose names have appeared on this blog multiple times, began wheedling, cajoling, teasing, and threatening me into taking the next step. And I owe them endless thanks.

I finished a final draft (for reals this time) of my book, finally embracing the idea that eventually, a baby must grow up and go out in the world to seek its fortune. I set aside the red pen that had been semi-permanently affixed to my right hand and started writing the second book. Meanwhile, I secured and regaled a group of fantastic beta readers to tell me everything that was wrong with my book. Then I wrote a novella. And finished another novel. And another one.

But my focus didn’t stay fixed on just writing novels. I started a writing blog. (And here you are. Hello!) I filled it with all my wishes, tips, and crazy adventures in the literary world. Hopefully, readers were able to find something of value on here (and I’m always open to questions and suggestions). I wrote bunches of short stories and, full of terrified misgivings, even sold a few. I began entering writing competitions. I even went to a writing convention.

Then I queried agents. (Gasp.)

It’s been a pretty productive year, I think, as far as productivity goes for the struggling wanna-be author without a dollar to her name. I didn’t make much money or sell any books, but I covered a lot of ground in networking, writing, and learning about the publishing game. Maybe some day I’ll make enough money at this to buy a cheeseburger. And I’ll definitely consider that a win.

As far as the upcoming year goes, my writing plans are few and simple. I want to complete at least two more books. And I plan to keep querying agents until my book finds its one true love. That is all. But really, that involves a lot, probably everything I did this year and more. And I’m very excited to continue this amazing literary odyssey I’ve set out on. Who knows where I could end up?

So how about you? What are your plans for this new year in writing? Lemme know in the comments below! Happy New Year and welcome back!

PS- Back in December, I declared January Beta Appreciation Month. Go hug a beta reader. It’s good for you.

Paying It Forward

I am sick as a sewer rat so this week’s update is going to be brief.

I’ve touched on this topic in previous posts, such as The Importance of Being Beta and Where Is The Love?, but I’ll say it again. It really behooves you to participate in the writing community. Writers have a great sense of paying it forward. Every famous writer ever started out as a wanna-be author. Very few of them had an easy time of it, or a straight shot. (Rest in peace, Tom Clancy.)

For most of us, we need friends. Not necessarily friends in the business, although I’m sure that would help. Usually, our writing friends will be just like us: loquacious dreamers still scratching away on that first bestseller hopeful, cautiously internet stalking agents who will probably tell us no anyway.

But these people are GOLD. They may not technically be professionals, but they are darned good at what they do. Here are just a few pairs of shoes that your writing community can fill.

Beta Readers- Got a manuscript, but you want to get some fresh eyes on it? Just ask the people in your writing community for volunteers and you’ll see hands popping up all across the internet.

Cheerleaders- Even if they don’t have the time or the means to read your meaty tome, they will sure as heck wave those pompoms around for all your little victories and rally for all your little setbacks.

Coaches- Or they will smack you upside the head when you’re messing up a play. Chickening out on sending a query letter? They’ll call you out on it and badger you into doing what you know you have to. (Thanks, Madison!)

Sounding Boards- Folks like this are great for pinging ideas off of. They can usually tell you right away if something is sweet, cool, awkward, stupid, or just not at all what Character X would do. They can also work you through the steps until you find what does work.

Devoted Fans- After all the blood, sweat, and tears they put into polishing that draft up, don’t you think they’d want to buy the darned thing? It may not be their baby, but it’s at least their niece’s godchild or something. They care!

Free Advertising- And because they care, they will blast the trump of victory from atop Mount Olympus for all to hear. If they liked it, they’ll let their pals know. After all, they have emotional investment in the thing, too.

What’s the key in all this, though? What makes it work? Pay it forward. I LOVE that my writing pals do all these things for me. But if I didn’t do it for them, too, if I was only in it to step on their heads as I claw my way to the top, they’d dump me right on my selfish rear. Communities don’t exist to uphold one person. Communities exist to support everyone in the community. We’re all in this together. We all come with different perspective and different strengths and different blind spots. I love that my friends help me out so much. But I show that love by helping them out in return.

So go be useful! (And while you’re at it, bring me some orange juice and dicyclomine. Thanks.)

PS- Happy Thanksgiving, Canada! You guys are fantastic neighbors and we love you!

Conference Fun, Part I: Jumping in Cars with Strangers

And what's with that crazy line on my forearm? It looks like a sketch when you don't clean up the lines...

I don’t sleep when I’m nervous. I only eat. This is me about to eat my name badge.

Alaska Writers Guild Conference 2013 was AMAZING! I wish I could draw little stars and rays of glory all around that word, but I can’t so you’ll have to imagine them. The conference was pretty great. I had a blast and met some fantastic people that I regularly left my laptop and writing notebook with- that’s how you know I would trust them with my life.

So much greatness happened that I’m going to divide the conference into multiple posts, just for sake of detail. If I put the level of detail I want all in one post, I’m afraid nobody would read it. So! This week, Part One- the wacky hijinks of the first day. At some point this week, I’ll add a bonus post (or two?) about the fun stuff that happened the rest of the conference. And next week I’ll tell you about some of the things I learned.

(Please note: the following story is completely true. I don’t even need to exaggerate.)

The adventure started at 5:30 Friday morning. My alpha reader, Mary Tait, and I were both too giddy to sleep and made the 375 mile drive with loads of giggling, squealing, and junk food. I had a Friday workshop with Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, and I was super excited, so I had Mary drop me off directly at the hotel before she took off to do her own thing. I went into the hotel and wandered around, and looked at books and peeked in the conference rooms, and went into the bathroom and clumsily applied makeup. (Someone told me that, as a female professional, nobody will take me seriously if I don’t wear makeup. I still don’t know if I believe that person, but I was too afraid to risk it. This is how desperate I was to be taken seriously.) Really, though, I was just goofing around. I won’t burden you with my inner monologue, but it mostly included the words “I’m here, I’m really here!” repeated infinitely. But by this point, I was starting to wonder where everyone else was. The workshop was still twenty minutes out, but I figured people would be showing up early for registration. Come to think of it, where were the people doing registration?

I went to the front desk and asked, “Which room is the writers conference taking place in?”

A very nice young man looked in a giant three-ring binder and informed me, “There is no writers conference.”

Blank stare. Because this was not possible. “Yes, there is.”

He looked down at the book again. “Oh, yes. It starts tomorrow.”

Blank stare. Because this was not possible. “No, it’s today.”

More book checking. “No… there’s nothing today.”

Blank stare. Still not possible. “Yes. There is. At one o’clock.”

By now, he probably thought I was a crazy person, because the manager was now lingering at his shoulder, and another burly desk man had stepped closer. You know, in case I tried to attack him with one of the plastic bananas or something. Writers are like that.

So at this point, I pulled out the conference schedule so I can PROVE to him that there’s a conference today at one and then they’ll knock this junk off and tell me where it is because this IS NOT FUNNY. And I was right. There WAS a workshop at one.

Just not there.

I felt my stomach falling away and I looked up at the hotel employees with naked panic, whispering a husky, “Thank you.” Then I scurried away out the front doors. (Turns out they were right, too: I AM a crazy person.)

I frantically texted, phoned, and psychically summoned Mary to come drive me across town to where the workshops were ACTUALLY taking place. But she didn’t answer. Nary a whisper of my beautiful chauffeur. I was getting desperate. Maybe I’d take a taxi. Would that take too long? Maybe I should just hop in the first car that pulls up and demand they take me to the workshop. What if he had a hockey mask on? Aaaargh!

Then a car pulled up and I prepared myself to confirm once again my utter insanity to the hotel staff that was very well still watching me on their security cameras. But I thought I kind of recognized the guy behind the wheel, so maybe he’s Mormon or something and not a serial killer. Two people came out of the hotel to climb into the car. I definitely recognized the guy, but I wasn’t sure where from, and then Lisa Cron herself piled into the back of the car. That settled that- time to be manic again.

I darted closer and said, “This is gonna sound crazy, but are you with the writers conference?”

He smiled. “Yes, we are.”

“I have a workshop and I thought it was here, but it’s not and I have no way to get there. Are you guys going there and could I maybe have a ride?” (Later, when I had a moment to reflect, I decided I really could have been a little more eloquent here. Desperation does that to people, I guess.)

The driver overheard this pitiable plea and shouted out the window, “We’ve got one more seat belt! Hop in!”

So I hopped in the back seat with Ms. Cron, who I have been internet stalking for months because I pretty much want her to literarily adopt me. The guy in the front seat asked, “So what’s your name?”

“Jill Marcotte. Thank you so much.”

The rest of them introduced themselves and I realized I’m in the car with the two keynote speakers and the founder of the Alaska Writer’s Guild. A few more drips of adrenaline squirted into my bloodstream and we were off! Ms. Cron smiled at me and said, “I reviewed your manuscript, didn’t I?”

Merciful heavens, she remembered me. That was either really good or really bad. “Yes.”

“Which one was it again? Remind me.”

Oh, no. Bad sign. Bad bad bad sign. Play it cool, Jill, just be cool. “It’s a YA epic fantasy titled City of the Dead.”

“Yeah.” She nodded, still smiling benignly. “It’s really good. You write beautifully.”

I started breathing again. “Really?”

“I liked it. Best of the batch by far.”

Now I was grinning like she’d just proposed to me. My insides were melting. “Really?” And my voice kept rising in pitch. I realized I was sounding like an idiot again before the very people I least wanted to sound like an idiot to.

Then she asked me about the premise for the book, the world I’ve built, the methods I used, and I magically transformed into a smooth-talking professional. She told me about some of her theories, about her clients, about her thoughts on world building, which I love to no end.

Lisa Cron is so wonderfully disarming, so perfectly accessible, and I couldn’t help but feel comfortable with her. Next thing I knew, we were talking about crazy adventures from my childhood, about being the only girl growing up with four brothers, about my military father and our constant moves around the country. She was just so fun, so human. It was wonderful to talk to her. She and Jim Misko (the founder) and Robert Masello (the other author and keynote speaker, who is, by the way, absolutely hilarious) were all so nice to me, that day and the entire conference. They’re all fantastic people and they saved me from suicide by serial killer.

That had to be the most serendipitous day of my life. Really, how did I get so stupid lucky? And furthermore, this was only the first day of the conference. Things stayed awesome.