Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

In April, I attended a three-hour glassblowing class in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband. Outside the studio, the temperature was a balmy sixty-eight. Inside the fire room, it was close to one hundred. To make our glass art, we first dipped long metal rods into a vat of molten glass (think honey on a spoon) then worked to keep the glass on center using a series of rocking motions. To apply color, we pressed the hot glass into discreet piles of colored glass shards then returned it to the furnace. Glassblowing is fast-paced, high-intensity work. Sweat drizzled down my back as  I watched the colors fuse with the glass. Eventually, I couldn’t tell them apart.  

 

 Our instructor told us glass behaves with a certain logic.  Her trained eye was able to see that logic and find the colors even when we couldn’t. Stories also behave according to a certain logic. But like students learning to blow glass, sometimes writers lose sight of their stories’ purpose.

 

There are many ways to gain insight into your works-in-progress. Put them away and pick them up later. Join a writing group. Take a class. Hire an editor. Today, I want to talk about the angels of the writing world: beta readers.

 

Frequently mentioned but often misunderstood, beta readers donate their keen eyes to works-in-progress so writers can improve their drafts. Their invaluable feedback can green light a submission process, help writers revise, or signal the need for professional help.

 

But what about my critique partners?

 

 Workshop partners and writing buddies are invaluable members of your writing community. They read multiple drafts of your work, talk you through plot points, and cheer you on during writing slumps. But their support comes with limitations. It’s likely you’ve had long conversations with them about your project or given them so many iterations of your work they unconsciously fill in gaps readers won’t. 

 

 To advance your project, you need fresh eyes. Enter the beta reader. Ideally, beta readers should have minimal information about your story (more on that next month). Some of the best ones will be strangers. Unlike critique partners, they should only read your work once. This makes them precious and their judicious use crucial.

 

There are two times to consider beta reader engagement: post draft and pre-agent submission. After you’ve created a strong working draft, engaging beta readers can help you course-correct or decide whether to seek professional help. At this stage, choose writerly beta readers who can give you honest feedback about plot holes, points of confusion, pacing, and your narrative arc. Keep in mind, a beta reader’s job is to highlight areas of concern, not fix them. While some beta readers might give you detailed feedback, don’t expect a comprehensive editorial review. If hiring an editor is suggested, revise as much as you can based on beta reader feedback before contacting someone. This will ensure your money is well spent.

 

 Once your manuscript is submission worthy, enlist a second round of beta readers before soliciting agents or publishers. These beta readers don’t necessarily need a writer’s eye, but they should love and understand your genre. The main feedback they need to offer is yes, I would read this book, or no, I wouldn’t, along with a few notes to support their answer.  

  

How many beta readers do I need? 

 

Each book requires a different number of beta readers. Early in the drafting process, I suggest no more than three. If it’s a very early draft, one highly competent reader might be enough. Personally, three is my magic number. Three readers can help you see trends and build consensus around areas of concern without information overload, or worse, creating a split decision over an important point in your work.

 

Before contacting beta readers, identify your manuscript’s needs. All books require general fans of every age. Some books, especially science fiction novels and nonfiction books dealing with highly specialized fields, may require subject matter-experts. Books about minority populations may benefit from sensitivity readers. These considerations could bump up your beta reader numbers, but don’t engage more than five at a time, lest you experience information overload  

How do I find them?

 

There are several excellent ways to find beta readers for your book: attend writing conferences, make connections through local writing centers, or join online writing communities. When selecting beta readers, pay attention to writers and readers who understand your genre, communicate effectively, and treat others with respect.

 

While many beta readers don’t charge for their services, find a way to compensate them. It’s good karma and good literary citizenship. At the very least, offer an in-kind review of their work. If your book is already under contract or very close to receiving one, offer them a free, autographed copy of your book that includes your heartfelt gratitude. If neither of these options is feasible, ask your beta reader to name a meaningful contribution you can make to them or their writing community. Perhaps you could amplify their voice during a social media campaign by sharing their posts or serve as a fact checker.  While this may seem like extra work, it’s really a win-win. Offering some form of compensation can ensure beta readers actually read your book and adhere to deadlines.

 

 When working with beta readers who charge for their services, remember you are entering a business agreement. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly state what kind of feedback you need, to ensure the beta reader understands your genre, and to develop a thick skin. All beta readers, but especially paid beta readers, have zero emotional investment in your work or your success. While this may seem harsh, their honest feedback can be invaluable. There’s nothing worse than believing your manuscript is perfect then sending it out to agents who never respond or send generic rejections.

 

 As you mull over your beta reader needs, consider becoming one. Serving as a beta reader is a lot like learning glassblowing. Each time you provide a critical eye toward a writer’s work, you’ll sharpen your understanding of story logic. With trained eyes, you’ll have a better sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and learn the skills needed to revise like a pro.

 

Next month, I’ll write about the conversation you should have with beta readers before you get started and the skills needed to become one. 

Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts

Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts

This post was originally published on the Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog on March 21, 2019

In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.

It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.

Photo credit: icmaonline on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

Six weeks ago, I submitted my latest manuscript to The Writer’s Hotel Conference for review. The project is a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. Always a last-minute waffler, I let my mouse arrow hover over the send button as I simultaneously experienced the delight of finishing my manuscript and the terror of actually sending it out.  When I finally clicked the send button, the knotted muscles in my neck relaxed. I had a good cry. I spent the weekend on an “I did it!” high, aware that the next phase would be even more difficult.

I was entering the fallow field.

Originally a farming term, writers sometimes use the fallow field metaphor to describe the period between drafts when projects are laid to rest. In the idealized version, this fallow period is a time when eyes clear, the mind recalibrates, and ideas marinate largely at an unconscious level. Some see it as a welcome respite. Others go into panic mode as they wonder how to cope with the discomfort that can accompany downtime.

I could write a post about how to capitalize on your fallow period and offer helpful tips about starting new projects, resuming morning pages, or going on vacation. Instead, I want to talk about the Big D that often accompanies any fallow period: Depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10.4% of US women and 5.5% of US men experienced depression between 2013 – 2016. Many research studies point to correlations between creativity and mood disorders, suggesting depression rates in the writing community are even higher, especially for men. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that depression is “a normal phase of any writer’s life.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has experienced depression your experience may be more common than you think.

Symptoms of depression can range from mild sadness, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities to suicidal ideation and death. Famous examples of authors who lost battles with depression abound. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. But many writers silently suffer with what can be a debilitating illness.

There are many reasons why creative people might be more susceptible to depression. In general, we are deeply sensitive. That sensitivity feeds our creativity and allows us to transform ideas and experiences into art. But sometimes that gift is a burden. We feel too much—something a concentrated slog through weighty material can intensify, no matter the genre. Our work requires us to spend lots of time alone. Then there’s the grief writers may feel once a project is shelved and they’re no longer spending time with the characters they dearly love. Self-doubts can surface as you anticipate feedback on vulnerable work. And, then there’s the exhaustion that comes from setting aside big swathes of time to meet deadlines. Add to that the ambiguities we’re forced to sit with (Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does anyone care?), and the silences as we waitwaitwait for what could possibly be rejection.  No wonder we struggle. 

Depression has been a lifelong companion I’ve learned to live with—one that used to visit often. Past major depressive episodes were so severe I experienced physical pain. Every day felt like I was operating in a world where the air had been replaced by mud. My brain transformed into a bad neighborhood with street names like Piece of Shit Avenue and Who Do You Think You Are Boulevard. Eating ice cream was so joyless it might as well have been creamed fish. I’ve spent many years studying the art of self-care and the causes and treatments of depression. This has lessened the severity of my symptoms, but they still crop up. So, when I submitted my manuscript in February—one of depression’s prime times—I anticipated my old friend’s arrival.

We frequently see depression as the enemy and want to kick its ass as we send it to the curb. But depression isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it signals your body’s need for self-care. It slows you down so you can rest. It isolates so you can reflect and address feelings that require attention. It makes you vividly aware of the world (even if it only shows you the bleakest picture) and reminds you of the sensitivities you need to nourish.

In short doses and at a mild level, these experiences can be adaptive. In these cases, focusing on self-care and journaling about depressive thoughts or what depression wants you to know can give you insights into your symptoms. But if the duration is long (more than three weeks) or severe (leading to thoughts of self-harm, feelings that you are a burden, or beliefs that others would be better off without you), it’s time to get help. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. Contact a mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to go, or if your symptoms require immediate attention call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline(1-800-273-TALK). Operators are available twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. You don’t have to be in a crisis to call them.

My fallow period included a couple of weeks of mild depression. The big push to finish had exhausted me. My body said slow down, and I did (though I wasn’t always a willing patient). I journaled about writing fears, reached out to friends, and wrote a few funny pieces that didn’t require much vulnerability. When my energy returned, I resumed my exercise routine, spent time in the sun, and enjoyed the cherry blossoms outside my house in preparation for the next phase of revision.

Mental health issues frequently get a bad rap. Some view these experiences as a sign of weakness, which makes it more difficult to talk about. In her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Susan Klebold refers to depression as a brain illness because the brain is what’s sick in depressed people, just like the pancreas is sick in someone with diabetes. We wouldn’t tell a diabetic to ignore their symptoms or suggest a better attitude would lower their blood sugar levels. We would tell them to seek treatment. The same holds true for our mental health.

Over the weekend I attended a spiritual talk given by Don Chudd, a former Lutheran priest. He said, “It’s not our output but our wellbeing that is our greatest contribution to the world.” Wellbeing is an inside job that requires us to nurture our gifts so we can share our best with others.

Wellbeing doesn’t require us to produce anything.

It only requires us to be ourselves.

The real me is very curious, highly energetic, and sometimes depressed. I accept this without shame or self-pity. I share it with you, because I truly believe our stories—both big and small—matter. In saying, “Yes, me too,” we normalize each other’s experiences and help one another care for our precious gifts during both productive and fallow periods in our writing lives. In doing so, we make the experience between the click of the send or save button and the moment we resume our work is a little more pleasurable.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schmoozing for Introverts: How to Network Like a Pro

Schmoozing for Introverts: How to Network Like a Pro

This post was originally published on the Jane Friedman Blog on March 19, 2019

I’d like to thank writer Sharon Harrigan for her excellent mentorship, and Leigh Camacho Rourks for sharing her fabulous story about her whale-blubber-related happenstance moment at an AWP conference. Without them, this post might not have been written. 

 

Maybe you’re like me, someone with a mile-wide idea shelf but a short, stubby one for people. Perhaps you like your fellow humans generally, but your introvert soul prefers small-group interactions to huge crowds and forced small talk. Or maybe, like me, you grew up in a place where networking was either mentioned with disdain or not at all.

A writing conference may be your first professional networking opportunity. During my first few conferences, my angst could’ve lit entire cities. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Sensing my discomfort, a gracious mentor debunked the mysteries of networking for me. Studying her at future conferences revealed several tricks I could use to schmooze like a pro, or at least operate like a less awkward version of myself. This gift is one I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying and one I’d like to share with you.

Photo credit: icmaonline on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Three years ago, I saw my literary hero Nick Flynn speak about the challenges of writing memoir at the University of Virginia. Playwright, poet, and serial memoirist, Flynn discussed the differences between writing a poem and a book. With a poem, he said, you think and wrestle and cajole your words into some kind of meaning over the course of a morning then you go to lunch. But with a book, you spend years walking around with all of these pages in your head. You fear that moving too quickly or paying too much attention to the outside world will send those pages tumbling to the ground. Sometimes it takes so much energy and headspace to manage those pages you become an asshole. 
 
Sound familiar? 
 
I’ve spent years balancing the stories inside my head, hoping to form them into something coherent and maybe beautiful. But in June of 2018, I signed up for the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference and was forced to reconsider how I tackle book-length projects. As a conference attendee, I was given the following submission deadline for my yet-to-be-written manuscript: February 15, 2019. To be ready, I needed to knock out the entire draft over the next seven months. Then life took over, as it always does, and frankly, I got stuck regarding where to begin. With four months left to my deadline, I had no choice but to fast draft and find an efficient way to tame my pages into some semblance of order. 
 
Let me introduce you to my new BFF: the chapter summary project. 
 
Chapter summaries are exactly what they sound like: three-to-five sentence summaries of the major events in each chapter. They should include what’s happening, any major conflicts, plot points, and revelations that move the story forward. When part of a book proposal, they have one main goal: make the reader want to know more. As the writer, they can give you a birds-eye view of your narrative arc. 
 
Rules to follow when writing chapter summaries are listed below. For the purposes of this post, I also suggest some additional items that can help you tame an unruly project. 

 

  • Write your chapter summaries in the first person, present tense.
  • Spill the beans. While your story may contain cliff hangers and surprises, chapter summaries let it all hang out. Reveal the major conflicts, revelations, and decisions made by your protagonist so you can see what kind of story you’ve written and how it’s resolved. 
  • Be succinct. If you’re having trouble doing this, it’s likely your chapter is unfocused or too ambitious. For now, record everything that occurs. We’ll return to these chapters later on. 
  • Label each chapter summary with the following itemstime markers (such as month/year when things occur or the age of the protagonist), locations (if there’s more than one), a list of characters who appear in the chapter, and the chapter’s function in the overall narrative arc. Chapter functions may include introducing certain characters, heightening the dramatic need, or serving as major plot points. While this information is inappropriate for a book proposal, it’s a must for your chapter summary project.  

 

 
Once you’ve created your chapter summary project, take a one- or two-week break from your work. Bake yourself a cake. Do your favorite dance. Throw yourself a party. You’ve just completed an extremely difficult exercise. Celebrate this milestone! 
 
After your break, here’s what’s next. 

 

  1. Identify the narrator’s/protagonist’s dramatic need. What does he or she really want? If this is a memoir, what broad theme are you trying to illustrate through your life story? For example, are you trying to illustrate how to find your voice, make peace with the past, or regain a sense of wholeness? Whatever it is, write this down.
  2. Interrogate your story to ensure all events drive toward the resolution of your dramatic need. In memoir, this can be challenging because life is filled with funny, powerful, and poignant experiences. But in story world, only the events that serve the protagonist’s dramatic need belong. Each one should serve a purpose and carry the appropriate weight for the story. For example, if your story is about finding your voice in a troubled mother/daughter relationship, wild childhood adventures with siblings or friends only belong if they helped you find your voice or impacted the mother/daughter dynamic. If they don’t, cut them. Losses can happen at pivotal points in our lives. If you introduce a major loss in the final third of the book, there are two questions you must ask yourself: Does the loss fit with this narrative arc? Can I write about it in a way that drives toward the resolution of the main story? If it creates a gaping wound for the narrator that overshadows the original dramatic need, requires the introduction of many new characters, or cannot easily tie back into the main narrative arc, perhaps this loss belongs in its own book. 
  3. Identify your main characters. Make sure they appear early and return often. Weed out secondary characters who aren’t serving specific purposes and slim down character lists in overpopulated chapters. 
  4. Determine how you will use time. Ask yourself whether you’re creating a linear story, a frame narrative, braid or patchwork quilt. If this your first book, or you’re early in the drafting process, keep it simple. A linear structure is always a good starting place. Once structure has been addressed, look at your time markers to see if the amount of time addressed by each chapter feels reasonable or whether leaping through time would be more effective. Create some rules around how to navigate time and memories then use these rules consistently. Here are a couple of examples. In Sharon Harrigan’s memoir Playing with Dynamite, she tells her story in the simple past tense, however, imagined scenes are written in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy. Rob Spillman’s memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties is a braided memoir that simultaneously tells of his coming of age in Berlin and his return to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The child’s story is told in the past tense while the adult story is told in the present tense. 
  5. Examine your unwieldy chapter summaries. Ask yourself the following questions. How do these events move the story forward? Are they necessary? Are they in the right spot and of the right length? Justify everything then bend your chapter summaries to the will of your book’s narrative arc. Give each chapter a focus and a purpose. Delete tangents. Separate events that don’t go together. Make sure everything is in the right place. Modify the connective tissue between chapters so that it includes enough “therefores” and “buts” to create a compelling, inevitable end. (Check out this essay on story structure.)
  6. Print your completed chapter summary project. Paste each chapter summary onto an index card so the project is easy to manipulate. Lay it out and see if anything needs to be added, rearranged, or revised to create a seamless flow. Get it as right as you can before you revise your draft. 
  7. Return to your manuscript knowing you have a handle on your work. As things change or new revelations occur, revise your chapter summary project so you don’t have to keep all those pages in your head. 

 

 
In August of 2019, I’ll have a chance to see Nick Flynn again at the HippoCamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers. I can’t wait to see what other gems he’ll offer. If I’m feeling brave, maybe I’ll thank him for validating the struggle I’ve felt around the pages in my head and share how that struggle led to a major change in my drafting process. 
 

 

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Co-authoring a book under optimal circumstances can be a trying experience, but add intermittent cognitive impairment or cognitive decline to the mix, and the challenges are monumental. Learn how to move past heartbreak and outmaneuver the challenges dementia adds to the writing process as I respond to our latest letter writer in Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir. Like to post your own question? Learn about our submission process

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