New Authors and Beta-Readers and Writing Critique

Hello internet,

Are you a new author? A beta-reader for one? This post might be for you.

How to learn from early drafts? The ones you think are great, but a year later you are secretly shredding all proof of their existence to make sure nobody can ever find them?

I’ve already spoken about how necessary I consider a good editor to be, you can see that post… somewhere on here. So I won’t go into that.

So this turns me to something else that I think is absolutely critical to a good book. Beta-readers.

You can get great reviews on some sites, like scribophile or youwriteon, and this is a fantastic place to start. But it can be frustrating when reviewers don’t always return good feedback (not good in the ‘good work’ sense, good in the ‘that was some helpful critique’ sense). I don’t want you to blow smoke up my arse about how great I am, I want to know where I’m bad so I can improve!

figure 1. After spending 2hrs helping someone else in-depth to earn a review credit, this is what I got back. As you can see, it helps with boosting my confidence, which is good – but I’m certain that not every word in my submission was perfect. It’s not a full review if you didn’t point out the bad bits too.4oe94v8

So you start hunting for beta-readers. Friends and what not who you might rope into giving you a hand to improve your writing. Good move, get as many tools in your critique box as possible. But just like online critique from strangers, beta-readers sometimes need a hand too.

So here is, in my half-educated opinion, the things that make an outstanding beta-reader. Rather than the vaguely worded note in Facebook messenger ‘Err, mate, you read books right? Let me know what you think?’ you should consider writing something like this to your own taste, so you can let your beta-readers know what you want from them.

Honesty

So you send your mates your book, and it always comes back with a raving review. One year later, you’re wondering why you can’t get published, or your reviews on amazon from your self-pub are all terrible.

Honesty is incredibly important. You must ask your beta readers for it, and they must give it. Otherwise it’ll just be some bastard on the internet who does it at a later date.

Descriptive, not prescriptive.

I have a great beta-reader who can pick out things that other beta-readers miss. He’s great. But the problem is, he’ll say to me ‘Right, you shouldn’t do this, how about [insert entirely re-written chapter here].’

Thing is, I need to do the fixing myself. ‘This whole bit is boring/shit/a continuity error with x/flowery/turgid’ is fine, perhaps a precise reason why. I can take it from there.

Creative differences

I send my chapters to 4-5 people consistently, and often they come back noticing similar problems. This gives excellent proof of how terrible I am, where, and how to fix it. Sometimes though, only one beta-reader will notice something, and I have to make a decision – did this reader notice a flaw, or was it not a flaw for 80% of readers?

If you give some feedback, and the author doesn’t change it – just accept it. Repeating yourself over the same thing will not change the author’s decision. I think I read somewhere that Brandon Sanderson (squeeee!) accepts and changes around 40% of suggestions from his massive pile of beta-readers.

Also try to remember that a comma instead of an ‘and’, or a past progressive tense over simple past tense, is an authorial choice. If it jarred you, then point it out, if it’s totally out of place, then point it out. But if the author consistently prefers to do one over the other, that’s just the authors voice and therefore there is no point harping on about it – the author will not change it, and nor is it a big deal.

Good feedback too

Another thing is to point out good bits. If a beta-reader is constantly telling me how terrible I am here and there, then when he does say ‘this bit was great’, I know it means something. It also helps me to work out what writing is working, and what isn’t, or what part of the story is awesome; and also what parts might need a revamp or a trip to the bin. This is just as important as bad feedback. A critique which is full of negative comments without any positive comments, is only half a critique. You could kill an author, as in, stop an author from becoming an author, just because you don’t understand this point and feel that a critique is some sort of negative-only forum. It’s not. Author needs to know what is good, so he can repeat it, and he needs to know he is doing well, so he continues.

What to feedback?

Anything that you notice. Have a document open somewhere to scribble in, but try to read as if you had just picked up the book. Don’t constantly re-read the first three lines trying to understand every nuance. Read it as if you are reading for enjoyment, because that is the feedback the author needs. There are editors to do the real in-depth stuff line-by-line (it’s also quite likely that you’re not a member of a professional body, and therefore not qualified to give prescription on English language particulars – though you can point out if something jarrs).

So,

Did you put the book down at a certain chapter because it got boring?

Did a sentence seem out of place, like it was from the wrong POV?

Did a character break what you consider to be his personal traits, breaking the realism?

Was a particular paragraph written poorly, so you didn’t actually understand what was going on?

Typo, or just a really dumb name?

Repetition of scene or word?

Damn, this part of the story is unbelievable in a bad way, I couldn’t believe it would happen because these people would never argue/this is not consistent with your laws of magic/this is too random/this is too contrived (Deathchampion McHero really needed a new spear, wow, look a cave, nice, it has a spear in it! Such luck for McHero!) – perhaps it needs something else here to link the plot.

This is too fast, it needs another chapter or something to explain the relationship better.

And,

Damn, I needed to sleep but I couldn’t put it down until I finished this chapter!

Wow, I got all sorts of feels from that scene!

This sentence is great, short and to the point, huge impact.

This word choice is excellent.

This is great description – vivid.

You get the idea.

Anyway, there’s my piece. Call me out, or let me know if you ask anything more of your own beta-readers in the comments. The more we crowd-share our best practises maybe the better we will all get at the craft.

While I’m on the subject, I’m looking for writing partners. I also find that reading other people’s stuff and critiquing them helps my own writing. If you’re a new writer like me, get in touch by the contact menu – I’d love to have a chat.

Have a nice day.

Some Writerly Resources

I think I made that word up. Is writerly a word? I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere.

[edit, I totally googled it here. Perhaps I should draft these posts first and not… well anyway.]

Ha it is! So excitement aside, these are sources for writers. I’ve been learning to write fiction with the help of various people and various books, as well as various blogs/websites and some youtube. It was actually not massively hard to find these things, but, none-the-less, I’m going to collate them here – maybe it will give another new person a hand. Pass the baton on more comfortably or some such. This is perhaps not a good analogy because well, I’m keeping the baton too because it’s a good baton and I like good stuff.

I will keep this updated and edited with anything new I find that might add to what I have here.

So in no particular order, here is the stuff that helps me.

Books

On Writing, by Stephen King.

The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker.

On Writing is absolutely hilarious and I read it in a single sitting. It’s a must read. The Sense of Style is perhaps much more in-depth, it gives excellent and very clear information while somehow not coming across as a textbook. It’s funny too. Basically go and buy both of them immediately. You can open a new tab.

Websites

https://www.facebook.com/JohnHudspithEditor/?fref=ts – give this man your money to edit your stuff, you won’t regret it.

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/ – this website has some golden posts, though it can very often be prescriptive. One rule I learned early on is that in writing, if you can break the rules to make something beautiful, do it. But, (maybe capslock BUT, it’s quite a big but) only if you are 100% certain. And by 100% certain I actually mean your editor is certain, not you. We view our writing through a fuzzy and dreamy haze.

http://www.youwriteon.com/ – get beta-readers, basically, in return for reading other people’s stuff. It’s a great trade and a great site and has taught me a lot.

https://www.goodreads.com/ – you’re a writer and you’re not on goodreads? Are you even trying? I admit that this is not a direct source of writerly resource, except that it is the biggest writerly resource. This might make little sense, but basically the more you read and the broader you read, the better you will get at writing the stuff too.

http://lithub.com/12-contemporary-writers-on-how-they-revise/#

Youtube channels

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZ_Yq-hCQ9kmCiNdDeIrbgA/playlists – Here you can watch all of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on writing. They are both educating and entertaining at the same time. He’s also great at pointing out that if something prescribed doesn’t fit you, then don’t do it – we all write differently.

And well that’s about it for now. There are lots of smaller places on facebook etc, but nothing that I visit quite so often.

If you are a new writer, or even an established one – i’d love any more suggestions in the comments.

 

 

 

 

On John Hudspith and Editors and Editing

 

So I knew Johnny was the editor for me right from the get go, when I was first deciding to write a novel. I had wanted to write this novel several times over a period spanning a decade, but the time was never quite right. So being the [occasional] optimist, even before I put pen [fingers] to paper [keyboard], I started looking into how one goes about producing a novel from start to finish.

This was when I decided that editors were a thing you needed [logic below], found out book covers can be expensive, and avoided as much as possible all the decisions to make on publishing. This was when I visited various ‘editor’ websites; and found some of them splattered with terrible grammar, syntax and even spelling mistakes! One even had an entire paragraph dedicated to how help was given in making sure prose was clear and easily understood – and I could barely understand what the hapless fellow was trying to get across.

Oh dear great and wonderful flying spaghetti monster.

cropped-ws_flying_spaghetti_monster_1920x1200

I was stepping into a minefield.

Luckily, I stumbled across both [I think] Jan Ruth’s blog and Louise Wise too, where I heard about John Hudspith.

I thought it sounded good, so I hit up my old friend oh great and mighty oracle of everything.

Now I am [on occasions] a pessimistic bastard, so of course I started to check all the testimonials. I was overcome with relief when it all rang true. Books edited by Johnny really were excellently edited and he really was everything I was looking for.It was not just a case of the internet said it, so it must be true – a trap which many a weary internet traveller falls into. There were thousands of good reviews of many, many books; reviews by unpaid, unsolicited internet people going about their business on Amazon; for books edited by Johnny. So I found the man I wanted to edit my stuff. One hurdle, jumped.

Why edit?

I’m not ashamed to admit I am new to story writing, nor ashamed to admit I need some professional help to get my [writing] shit straight. It may perhaps be a well-kept secret that the people you see and think to yourself – wow, that manager/writer/actor/athlete/whatever is literally amazing at everything he/she touches – actually… aren’t. The favourite books you read are beta-read and copy-edited and development edited and proof read and have artists crawl all over them; your favourite athlete has a nutrition expert, a cardio trainer, a lifestyle expert, your favourite…. you get the drift right? Lets not get too repetitive here.

But wait; there is actually a second thing, a second thing even more important than knowing nobody shits to the smell of roses. Maybe you are some 6.2ft tall, gleaming fiction-book super-hero who has an imagination that cannot be matched. Well, ever heard of the curse of knowledge? It applies to normal folk as much as it does to you super-hero lot.

You see when it comes to anything that involves getting your opinion, or your idea, your imagination or your whatever, out of your mind and into another – there is a battle of construction.

You see, I may be standing in the most wonderful garden of imagination, but you cannot see it. My garden. For me. In my mind. Get out it’s not finished yet. It has a big wall.

So if I want to let other people see into it, I need to construct a window; and I want this window to show you the best bits of my garden, not the weeds in the corner or my crappy old shed that I can’t be arsed to… well anyway. I need to construct a window.

And this is what the curse of knowledge is. I know what is in my garden. I intend to let you see it, so I craft a window. But the window is too small, and I’ve got it too high, because [for the sake of this analogy] I’m a tall bastard. When you look into the window, you can only see the wall on the other side, because of the angle. Because [maybe for the sake of this analogy] you are short.

But I am tall so I am looking in and nodding to myself in self-indulgent glee, yes, nailed it, look at all my fucking lovely flowers. And I am a super-hero right? So I don’t need anyone else’s opinion.

But poor shorty standing outside, later when you’ve sauntered off to start telling everyone to come look through your lovely new window?

bricks-459299_960_720

Nice garden mate.

Well this is the curse of knowledge, and this is why you need an editor. You may very well know what you want on your paper, and it may be a wonderful thing. But you cannot truly know what it looks like for someone else who does not know the whole story, the whole plot, the whole view; because you do know these things.

You may say, oh, but this is what beta-readers are for. Yes, good beta-readers are excellent to have. If you are really lucky, you might even have five authors as your beta-readers who probably understand all this rambling [yes, I’m still jealous and no, I won’t stop being jealous until I reach something similar], but, beta-readers are not editors. They are likely easier to envisage as pointer-outers of things.

Perhaps Johnny truly became the editor I had hoped for when I sent him my first draft of chapter one, and he wrote an entire page on a single word I had chosen on the very first line. Yes an essay, crammed into the side margin. In red. About a single word. In the first bloody sentence.

cnmtuwj

Or, perhaps, Johnny truly became the editor I had hoped for after poor work that had gone through beta-readers, and peer-reviews on youwriteon.com; none of them noticing the mistakes or realising where things could have been better explained. Then these same things were immediately picked up by Johnny with remarks that seemed so obvious after the fact, that I felt embarrassed to have sent anyone the work in the first place.

Mike, this is not good – in fact, I hope you will realise it’s pretty awful – it’s clunky, it’s arse about face, it takes some adding up. Boy does it. I had to read it thrice, and still I’m not sure I know what you mean.” – John Hudspith

The sentence that this was aimed at had been through 5 beta-readers, 5 peer-reviews, and several friend-readers. I thought it was fine. So did they. Then, I realised it was not. Thanks Johnny!

Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying: guys, get an editor. And I know a really good one.

 

Links to mentions in this article.

http://www.johnhudspith.co.uk/

https://louisewise.wordpress.com/

https://janruthblog.wordpress.com/

The mighty oracle of everything [Let me google that for you link]

Distractions [rambling]

 

If you are me, sometimes (most times) you send a chapter to your editor, and it comes back as a write-off. You are so terrible, there is no way to rectify the problem; you have to rip up the chapter and start again.

 

That’s fine, it was never going to be an easy road. So you’re halfway through the re-write, and you need a break, so you hit up your favourite Slack group and it so happens people are awake. Hurrah, distraction!

 

—————————————————-

mik 5:07 AM 5am what even are you awake for

luke 5:07 AM Dogs >.>

rigger-fatrick 5:08 AM #@!*%

Some of us are up for work

mik 5:08 AM what do you call  a dog with no legs

anything you like, it can’t catch you

rigger-fatrick 5:09 AM Lol

U dick

luke 5:09 AM It would still wake me up

Deciding whether to sleep or coffee up and stay up

mik 5:11 AM you should press F5

it’s so refreshing

ok i’m done

luke 5:12 AM Phone has no f5

mik 5:12 AM but that was funny, cos you wanted coffee, right

luke 5:12 AM 😦

mik 5:12 AM boo ;(

rigger-fatrick 5:12 AM Lol

Muppets

mik 5:13 AM I’m here all day

luke 5:13 AM Useless

rigger-fatrick 5:13 AM Thats because u bum

mik 5:14 AM i actually have a lot of jokes about unemployed people

but none of them work

rigger-fatrick 5:14 AM    …..

mik 5:14 AM oh god, laughing at myself now, ok, i’ll stop

rigger-fatrick 5:20 AM God i so dont want to work

I need sleep

mik 5:26 AM i’m so good at sleeping, i can do it with my eyes closed

mik 5:31 AM …and all the crowd has left the building

i’ll get my coat, show myself out

 

——————————————————————

 

Well, twenty minutes is enough of a break anyway. I am perhaps worse at being a comedian than I am at being a writer, that’s something I guess. Chasing everyone offline almost immediately is probably a good reason to stick to something else.

 

Back to writing then!