Thursday, June 24, 2010

Upon Why You Should Have Beta Readers Who Are Not Writers

Full disclosure: I am not published. I have worked in publishing, but on the textbook end and in sales. The closest I came to any sort of editing was working with acquisitions. So, I don't really know any secret insider information.

But I have a theory about beta readers.

Should your betas be writers? Uh, yeah. Writers are more plugged in to trends in the industry, what's getting picked up right now and what's getting passed over. They are more likely than your sister's best friend from college to catch hackneyed phrases, mistakes, repeats in your MS, etc. They also have an ability to zero in on what isn't working and why.

But in all the time we spend learning about what agents and editors are looking for we get caught up in minutae. We put so much blood, sweat, and tears into trying not to be just another vampire book or cozy mystery or whatever that it screams at us when we see it in an MS. Basically, we fall into the trap of writing for agents.

It makes sense, since most of us won't get published until after we cross that first hurdle. But agents are not your actual market. People who will buy your book for any other reason than they know you, like you, or feel sorry for you want to read a good story. If you are a genre writer, you'd best know what expectations those people have. Odds are good that they do not look for massive doses of originality. Sci Fi readers who like space stories want some cool gadgets. Romance readers want an HEA. (Heck, some of them want as many HEAs set in nineteenth century France as they can get their hands on.) YA readers want to know who to cheer for. Mystery readers want to know who pulled the trigger.

So your authorial beta readers, who are looking for fresh, cool ideas and solid writing, sometimes pay more attention to those things than the story. They get so turned off by something that seems like a cliche that it might kill the whole MS for them. Readers, plain old garden variety, don't care so much. Otherwise, how do you explain John Grisham?

If all your writer friends think you are amazing but nobody normal gets carried away with your MS, then you have an elite but unprofitable target market. Get a couple of people who don't know anything about anything to read your MS and tell you if they like it or hate it. You might have to fish for info, ask specific questions about things you aren't sure work, but their opinion should count because at the end of the day, those are the people who will pay real money for your book.

My personal theory is start with a couple of non-writers you trust to be honest. If they like the story, get some writer betas to help you sand down the rough edges and make it pretty. Then run it by another non-writer (or even one who's already seen it) and see how it plays. That way, you get input on craft and the impact of the story.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Which the Importance of Gal's Father is Explored

A grown woman finds herself in the surprising position of being the mother of two young children. By its very nature this circumstance provides explosive episodes of self-realization, sometimes multiples in one day.

The youngest, not yet three, yells at the top of her lungs: "Don't talk to me like that!"

Huh. Little whippersnapper's pretty sassy. And with a strong sense of what's acceptable. Perhaps misplaced, given her tender years and status on the totem pole, but hey, it's nice to note the healthy expectations of how she should be spoken to.

And thus, the self-realization takes on its inevitable layers and the thickness of generations.

How do my kids know how they should be spoken to? Treated? Regarded? How do I know how to teach them?

I remember.

I remember learning to put a worm on a hook and being told, gently, that yes, my father feels a little sorry for the worm, too. But worms don't have the same kind of nervous system we do and while the worm surely isn't happy about his/her predicament, it isn't the same as what I might feel under the circumstances. I was tender-hearted, not a fishing failure.

I remember being taught chess and nascent algebra during the summer break after third grade. In the middle of the night. It was a magical moment where all the world hid in sleep but us, just me and my dad. I was important.

I remember being told after my one and only straight A report card fell to all A's and one B that it isn't really the best thing in the world to be a bookworm. That was second grade and my B was in handwriting. It was the first time I heard the expression "bookworm" and my dad had to explain it to me. Unlike a classic bookworm, I was well-rounded.

I remember doing jigsaw puzzles and playing games of Old Maid around the game table. I was fun to spend time with.

I remember a counselor during a trying period in my college years observing that the reason I had not dated much in high school was that my father had set the standard very, very high. I was shocked. I didn't enjoy a robust dating life in high school, but until that moment I hadn't given much thought to how many boys I turned down or discouraged. Even in that insecure time I was not willing to settle. I wasn't a dateless wonder, I was discriminating.

I struggle with the standard. I've done things in my life I didn't think I could do because I didn't want to not meet the measure of the man that raised me. I was glad I did them. I've things yet to do, some that seem near impossible, but I remember the confidence of the man I think the most of and it becomes sacrilegious not to try. I think of his older children, not blessed with the same mother as I, so damaged and still shaped by the standard. They know the benchmark and rebel because they haven't met it, whatever it is.

If I had to define the mysterious standard, this would be my best effort:

Professional: Whatever you choose to do, be good at it. Use your intellect. If you are a server, shoot for head waiter. If you work in Corporate America, shoot for the highest position that will make you happy. If that is CEO, you can be that. If you don't want to engage in office politics and general B.S., dominate the division where you enjoy working. But paramount is that your professional success should not be dishonorable or predatory. It should be a manifestation of your God given ability and hard work.

Personal: Don't let people take advantage of you. Expect what you deserve. If you don't get what you deserve, cut bait- whether it's business or personal or a blend of the two. Be compassionate. You will know other people who do not have the resources you do. When you find them, help them in a way that protects their dignity.

Family: The greatest charge you are given as a human is responsibility to your family. Honor it. The faith you give to your family honors the people who raised you and teaches the children you are raising.

As fathers go, one could do worse than a father who teaches these things. But one could not do much better.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

People Who Are NOT Cool

I love blogworld. I've met some of the most fascinating people and been privileged with exposure to much better writers. But there are always those people. The ones who point out your typos in the comment thread. COME ON. That is grade. It reeks of "I'm smarter than you are and I just wanted to make sure everybody knows it." It's like online heckling.

Unsolicited critique in a public forum is even worse. Somebody posts a poem or flash fiction and does not finish with a request for your thoughts? Don't put your negative thoughts in the comment thread. If they want a beta reader they will let you know. A contest setting or a submission for critique is totally different. Then you can let it rip.

Every blog I follow has an email address linked to it. Use it. Most people are open to improvement and appreciate a chance to fix a mistake they didn't catch but it's nice to have a chance to do it on the down low.

This situation came up on a friend's blog last week. It was low profile, everyone was cool about it, but I felt my latent defensive streak flex. If I knew where to find the commenter, I'd fill her Splenda packets with salt.

Anyway, in a private conversation with the lucky person who gracefully accepted the public illumination of each possible flaw in her research I came up with the following:

I wouldn't use a microphone to tell you that there is toilet paper on your shoe.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

People Who Are Cool

Elton John played Rush Limbaugh's wedding.

He was totally cool about it, too. I love this attitude from him. While Mr. Limbaugh has never come out anti-gay, as in gay people should not exist or be free to be gay, he is anti-gay marriage. Elton John is most definitely pro gay marriage and for obvious reasons affected by the issue.

I know he got paid to perform but he could have booked another gig.

To play music at someone's wedding when that someone doesn't think you have the right to a legal marriage is extremely generous.

*I got to stand next to Elton John at the bar of a restaurant in Atlanta once. I was too chicken to say anything so I just pretended I didn't notice him. Standing one foot away. I'm such a dork.

** This post is an observation on one person's character, not a launchpad for political discussion on this issue. Whatever you think, half the country is firmly in the trenches with you. Half the country is adamantly opposed to you. Nobody's making a move to change anyone else's mind. Except maybe Sir Elton and he did it with a soft blow. SOOOoooo, if this triggers a need for venting personal feelings of the "gay marriage attacks the institution of marriage" variety send me an email personally or find a politics blog to yell on. If you post it here, I'll delete it in the interest of keeping things relatively warm and fuzzy. Same applies if you want to bash on Mr. Limbaugh.