Why You Need Beta Readers

February 1st, 2019

I belong to a wonderful critique group.

We meet every other Friday in a local bookstore/coffeeshop, where we order drinks and snacks, chat for a few minutes, and then dive into critiquing each other’s work. Each writer in the group (there are six of us total) has the option to bring in up to six pages of her work for feedback. I’ve gotten incredibly valuable comments on my current work-in-progress from this group. They’ve critiqued my characters, my setting, and my word choices, among other things, and along the way they’ve asked pointed questions that have driven me to dig deeper into my story.

Why, you might ask, if I have such a great venue for getting feedback on my work, would I send my completed draft off to a group of beta readers? This photo of a flock of snow geese, taken by my husband in Washington State’s Skagit Valley, will help me answer.

This flock is made of of thousands of individual birds, each of which adds depth and complexity to the whole. My critique group, in seeing only six pages of writing at a time, is looking at the “birds” of my novel: the individual moments that, added one to another, make up the gestalt of my story. Each of these moments is important, and detailed feedback on them is necessary. But I also need feedback on how – or even whether – these “story birds” connect as a flock. Does each moment build on the one that came before? Do my characters behave consistently throughout the novel, and do they change over time? Do the promises I make at the beginning of the manuscript pay off at the end? These are some of the questions I hope my beta readers will answer.

Feedback is necessary to a writer, both on a micro and a macro level. I feel fortunate to have both levels covered, the first by my critique group and the second by my beta readers. Many thanks to both!

Manuscript Marinade

January 11th, 2018

Today I’m going to diverge from the usual and share a recipe with you. I call it Manuscript Marinade.

Ingredients: 1 completed manuscript

Directions: Allow manuscript to marinate in its file for 1 week to 1 year. After a suitable amount of time, open file and read.

I know it sounds ridiculously simple, but allowing your manuscript to sit – and your brain to rest – before reading your work and passing judgement, is an essential writing step. Time away allows you to approach your story as a reader, to see what works, and to gain new awareness of what doesn’t work. More importantly, a break from your manuscript will help you get a sense of what your book is truly about.

To mix cooking metaphors a bit here, think of your manuscript as a stew. You assemble all your ingredients (first draft) and then toss them in the slow cooker (time away). In the process of cooking, the meat becomes so tender that it falls off the bones. And it’s the “bones” of your story that will jump out at you when you come back to your manuscript for that all-important first read-through.

Sometimes those bones may surprise you. For example, my first draft of my YA novel FLYAWAY contained a lot of ingredients that didn’t end up in the completed book. I’d muddied the story by including a character with fetal alcohol syndrome who took up a lot of page space. When I read the manuscript after letting it sit, I saw that although he was an interesting character, he didn’t really belong in the story and took up too much valuable page space. Time away helped me realize that the bones of my novel were my main character, Stevie, and her relationship with her mom and her aunt. I let the unnecessary ingredients fall away to give those essential “story bones” room to grow.

Right now, I’m in the process of letting my current work-in-progress marinate – or stew, depending on which metaphor you prefer. Next week, I’ll open the lid of the pot, breathe in the steam, and then take a big spoon and plunge in, searching for the bones. I can’t wait to see what I’ll find!

 

 

 

What I did on my summer “vacation”

August 3rd, 2017

Summer is usually a productive time for me. The world slows down, giving me more hours to devote to writing. I tend to set big writing goals for my summer and then dedicate myself to reaching them.

This summer has been different. Instead of soaring, my productivity has plummeted. It all started with some health scares back in April/May. To my dismay, all of my dedicated writing time was lost to medical tests and appointments. Then, as soon as the health horizon cleared, a sudden family crisis whisked me away from my current Seattle residence to my childhood home in San Diego.

Any of you who have cared for an ailing family member know that it’s all-consuming. I barely had a moment to take care of my own needs, much less time to make progress on a novel. I had no choice but to throw up my hands, say, “I surrender,” and let the dream of a productive summer go.

Now it’s August, and soon summer will turn into fall. I’m back in beautiful Seattle, but I still have lots to take care of on the family front and, in fact, will be traveling back to San Diego again at the end of the month.

Do I spend the precious time between dealing with these big challenges starting a book? It’s tempting, but no. After this crazy, stressful summer I need to fill my well while I can. I’ve got a few weeks to work at my day job, enjoy my home life, and smell the roses.

Come Labor Day, I’ll be back at it.

Creative Conversation: Reflections on Revision

March 6th, 2017

This month, I’m honored to be the guest of esteemed author Janet Lee Carey for a Creative Conversation about revision.

Author Portrait of Janet Lee Carey

Janet is the author of numerous YA/MG novels, including The Beast of Noor, Dragon’s Keep, and her latest, In the Time of Dragon Moon.

Check out our conversation here!

Productive Waiting

February 13th, 2017

I jokingly posted on Twitter yesterday that so much of writing is waiting, so someone should teach a class on Productive Waiting. I got enough “likes” that I assume my post touched a chord, so today I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on how to be productive while waiting.

This topic is big for me right now, because I’ve got a novel out on submission. Every time the phone rings or an email pops up in my inbox, my heart goes into overdrive. It would be tempting just to sit all day, staring at my phone, waiting to hear news from my agent, but if I did that, I’d go insane.

The key to enduring an agonizing wait is to find ways to distract yourself. The stock advice once you’ve finished a writing project is to start the next book, but what if you don’t yet have a new book in the pipeline? There are other things you can do to assure that your waiting time is productive.

Here are some things I do while I’m waiting:

1. Take a break. Yes, it’s counter to the traditional wisdom of “butt in chair,” but sometimes after the completion of a major project, your mind – and body- need a rest. This is the time to fill the well: go someplace you’ve never visited, spend time with friends you’ve neglected, indulge in some much-needed self-care.

2. Connect. Write a blog post or comment on other writer’s blogs. Post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and interact with others on your social media site of choice. Participate in a writing-related online chat.

3. Write for fun. Put “product” aside and focus on process. Find a writing prompt online (I particularly enjoy the daily prompts at WritersDigest.com.) or in a craft book. Let yourself go and see what happens.

4. Brainstorm ideas. If you don’t have your next book mapped out, this is a good time to start collecting ideas. Give your imagination free reign. Use newspaper headlines, overheard conversations, or your responses to writing prompts (see above) to inspire you. Try resurrecting an old idea and combining it with a new idea to create something surprising.

5. Read. Prime your pump by reading. Read craft books, books in your genre, books outside your genre. Read poetry, read newspapers and magazines, read blogs.

6. Research. Pick a topic that interests you and research it. Start online, but move on to the library and then to hands-on experiences. You never know: your research might show up in your next book.

These are just a few of the ways that you can make your wait time productive, even if you’re not ready to start your next book. I’d love to chat longer, but I hear my phone ringing….

What do you do to distract yourself while you wait?