The Two Conversations Every Beta Reader Must Have Before Saying Yes to a Manuscript

On Sunday, June 2, 2019, my Memoir in a Year students reached a major milestone: they completed the first drafts of their memoirs. Our final spring class on Thursday, May 30. 2019, included a one-hour writing marathon. Bent over notepads and laptops, tongues pressed to the sides of their mouths, these tenacious writers filled the room with a river-dance-like flurry of fingers typing on plastic keys. Two students, who had already completed their drafts, beamed as they spoke of the exhilarating moment when they held copies of their finished manuscripts.

 

 Over the summer, these students will let their manuscripts rest while they serve as beta readers for each other. We’ve spent the past month preparing for this phase of the writing process.

 

 When deciding to become a beta reader, there are two conversations you must have before taking on a manuscript. The first conversation is with yourself. While you don’t have to be a writer to serve as a beta reader, you must know what skills you bring to the table. Make a list of the genres you like to read and why you enjoy them. Make a second list of books and genres you don’t like. Steer clear of anything on the second list or be prepared to make yourself miserable.

  

Next, ask yourself what you know about the genres you love. Can you identify the two voices in memoir and tell when they’re working well together? Love horror, romance, sci-fi, or fantasy? What do you know about reader expectations in these genres? Knowledge of genre expectations can help you decide whether a manuscript is mislabeled or needs further revision.  

  

Once you’ve considered your interests, think about your strengths as a communicator. Are you good at giving praise? Do you know how to clearly and respectfully broach a problem? What do you say when your attention flags? Not sure what to do? Allegra Huston’s article The Two Basic Rules of Editing has some great suggestions.

Finally, examine what you know about storytelling. Do you know what belongs in a setup? Can you identify plot points? Are you a whiz at writing dialogue? What about structure? Are you willing to learn about these things in order to communicate more effectively with a writer? Mastery of these skills is not mandatory for beta readers; however, some writers are looking for beta readers with a writer’s eye. If that’s not you, simply pass on the project.

  

In my class, my beta reader pairs are required to do the following:

  •  Highlight the strengths in the manuscript and ask questions when they reach points of confusion
  • Mark the moments when the manuscript comes to life and points where their attention fades
  • Flag items that might be tangential or in the wrong place
  • Write a brief letter that includes a synopsis, a summary of the manuscript’s global strengths and areas of greatest concern, and responses to questions posed by the writer

 

 This is a more sophisticated form of beta reading than many writers require; however, I urge you to try some of these exercises. Writing a synopsis for someone else’s manuscript will make it easier to write one for your own. Summarizing a manuscript’s strengths and areas for revision will help you think globally about the writing process. And, who can’t get more practice with praise and asking questions?

  

 Once you’ve finished your internal conversation, it’s time to interview the writer. The initial conversation should be brief and cover a few key points: 

  • What is the writer’s timeline?
  •   What are the writer’s goals for this review?
  • Is the writer looking for a reader’s perspective or a writer’s perspective?
  • What kind of feedback would be most helpful (a conversation, an editorial letter, in-text comments, a summary of your thoughts)?
  • In the past, what feedback has not been helpful? (Some writers find editing marks made with a red pen to be punitive. Other writers hate receiving line edits during early drafts.)
  • Ask the writer to briefly describe their project. There are really only three things you need to know: the genre, the length (more than 95,000 words suggests the book might need major editing, and a comparable published manuscript.

   

After this initial conversation, decide if you’re a good match for this project. While there are many benefits to literary citizenship, it’s better to say no if the writer’s expectations or timeline don’t align with your skills or schedule. Also, if the comparable for this project is a book you hate, it’s likely this manuscript isn’t for you.

  

If the initial conversation goes well, prepare for the handoff. Set expectations regarding your preferred format and method of delivery. It’s okay to ask for a hard copy of the manuscript if that provides you with the best reading experience. If the writer wants in-text comments, MS Word is your best bet. Tell the writer to attach any specific questions or concerns about the manuscript to the last page of the book so your experience of the writing isn’t influenced by the writer’s concerns.

 

 Read the manuscript as quickly as possible. A concentrated review of the manuscript will help you understand the story’s narrative arc and your experience of it. Once you’ve finished reading, write up your notes and schedule a follow-up meeting to share your results. If you’re exchanging manuscripts, consider bringing a small thank you gift or treat for your reader as a token of appreciation.

 

Serving as a beta reader is a gift and a commitment to a writer’s work. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, but don’t confuse it with complete altruism. It’s likely your beta reader duties will teach you more about the craft of writing and your own work than any review of our own manuscript. Have any doubts? Check out this essay by Jeremiah Chamberlin.

Next month, I’ll share some strategies for managing beta reader feedback. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next month, I’ll share some tips regarding follow-up meetings and how to address feedback provided by a beta reader. I’ll also post some pictures and thoughts from my incredible Memoir in a Year students.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?

Sincerely,

There But Not There Too

 …..

 

Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

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

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

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. 
 

 

Six Ways to Access the Benefits of Doubt

Six Ways to Access the Benefits of Doubt

The air stings my cheeks as I walk the same four blocks I’ve trudged all winter, taking yet another break from my writing. “Yo, HP (this is what I call my higher power), am I crazy for doing this?” I say this into the wind and follow with my typical barrage of questions. Am I crazy for believing I have a book inside me? Am I crazy for writing all these words then cutting them only to write some more? How will I know when it’s good enough? When will I get comfortable?

After my questions, I always ask for the same thing: send me a sign.

In my mind, a sign is a book deal or someone important praising my work. But HP is stingy with messages that stroke my ego. Instead, a bluebird crosses my path signaling it will all be ok. Later, a conversation with a fellow writer settles my doubt, at least for a little while. But comfortable? I get about an hour of that per year. Always in short doses.

Discomfort is the inevitable sidekick of the writing life. Frequently appearing as doubts, discomfort motivates us to see the world from different angles. It makes us question our assumptions, review our work, and develop email refresh habits. It can make us feel anxious about possible rejections and relieved when we get them. Out of control doubt is crazy-making. But right-sized doubt can motivate us to develop humility, work a little harder, and remain lifelong learners. In fact, that tense, shaken-and-stirred place is where the creative magic happens if we can maintain a sense of balance.

There are three forms of doubt all writers face—doubts about claiming to be a writer, doubts about the writing path, and doubts about the quality of one’s work. If you let these doubts rule your life, they’ll kick your passion to the curb and leave your desk littered with paper balls. Resignation letters may follow as you accept the very lies they tell you about your inability to write anything at all. After all, doubt will have you believe every evening real writers place piles of beautifully crafted error-free pages on their oak credenzas (whatever they are) while awaiting the next award. But you? You’re a pile shuffler with more ideas than answers, and time is not always your friend.

For a long time, I wanted to knuckle punch my doubts on the way out the door. But a few years ago, a wise yoga instructor told me what we resist persists. She said I needed to discover and embrace the benefits of my doubts. So, I decided to listen. Embracing my doubts hasn’t taken away my discomfort, but it allows me to accept that doubt has a place in my writing life. Being a writer means choosing to be uncomfortable. If you think about it, how can we write about the thing that keeps us up at night if we don’t have something serving that function? Doubt makes sure you do. The key is praising doubt for its gifts without letting it run the show.

Strategies for Managing Doubt

  • Balance doubts with affirmations. Find a few you like or print your favorite ones from the list below. Tape them to your desk. Better yet, frame a few and hang them on your wall. You can also follow Brene Brown’s suggestion and create a playlist of anthems you can take into your writing arena. Anthems are songs that help you tap into your courage and strengths. My current favorites include “Ordinary Heroes” by the Foo Fighters, “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips, and “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Occasionally, I’ll add a few Sex Pistols tunes to my mix because dark and dirty also pumps me up.
  • Set an intention for every writing project. Make it something personal, meaningful, and unrelated to publishing. The best intentions involve thinking, feeling, or believing something different about yourself. For example, when I wrote In the Land of Flood and Slaughter I wanted to heal from Lyme disease and forgive my mother.  When I received rejections or feedback that required me to do something difficult, these intentions gave me the courage to keep going.
  • Build a writing community that includes mentors who can give you guidance, colleagues who can commiserate and encourage, and mentees who can benefit from your experience. This will teach you how to give and receive the encouragement and wisdom needed to tell your most important stories. While you’re at it, select one or two special writing friends to serve as writing buddies who can keep you accountable and provide feedback on your work.
  • Set simple, small goals. Writing 2 – 4 times per week for five minutes may make you more productive than telling yourself you’ll write every day for an hour. Small goals are easier to accomplish. Plus, studies have shown that short bursts of work can propel you into a state of flow, that lovely state of hyperfocus where time and space slip away. When you meet a writing goal reward yourself. This can be as simple as saying, “Good job writer,” basking in the feeling of having written, or sending an email to your writing buddy saying mission accomplished.
  • Learn to trust your gut. In his video “The Taste Gap,This American Life host Ira Glass talks about the gap we all have between our excellent taste (as in the beautiful, fully formed stories in our heads) and our talent. Sometimes the doubts tugging at your gut are simply signals that you’re approaching the gap. If you can learn to trust that feeling, you’ll be able to target areas for improvement. To use doubt wisely, print two copies of your work. On one copy, highlight the areas where you’re feeling the greatest sense of doubt. Give the other copy to a writing friend and ask for feedback. Don’t tell them about the first copy. Afer the critique compare the two copiesDoes the feedback match your doubts? If it does, then you know your gut is serving you well. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Pay attention to your affirmations and keep writing.
  • Talk back to your doubts. Get out your journal and do a little automatic writing. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write down the following question: Doubt, what do you want me to know?  Write whatever comes to mind. If you can, use your nondominant hand. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. If you run out of thoughts, write the word thinking until the next idea comes to you. You’ll be surprised to find out what’s really going on.
  • Develop a gratitude practice. Some people start and end the day by writing down three things they’re grateful for. At the end of each writing session, writer Andre Dubus used to write the words thank you. The more you pay attention to what’s working, the more you’ll be able to counter what’s not.

If none of these suggestions work, go for a walk and ask your higher power, your creative self, or a trusted friend the questions your doubts are bringing to the surface. When you’re done, ask for a sign, or better yet a happy surprise, then keep writing and be on the lookout for something good

 *This post also appeared in the April 17, 2018 edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter

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