On Beta Reading

I have finished the second draft of my middle grade fantasy, PRINCE OF CATS. To make sure I'm reaching my target readership appropriately, I have enlisted many of my nieces and nephews (and a few friends who are of the appropriate age) to read the draft and give me feedback. Now, since most of them have never beta read for me (or anyone) before, I decided to write up some instructions and an explanation of what kind of feedback I really needed. While a few points are specific to what I tried to accomplish with the manuscript (specifically any words they might not have understood), I think this advice is good for beta readers of any genre, not just mg. So I thought I'd share it. I've seen some people on twitter going through their first beta and all they post about is "so and so liked it!" While yes, that's exciting, that's not what a beta is for. We always want people to like what we write. Beta review is to take what we've created and make it better. Focus less on what they like and focus more on what they don't like. You'l end up with a better novel in the end.

Begin letter

I want to thank you for being a beta reader for my latest novel, PRINCE OF CATS. This is my first middle grade story (middle grade meaning written specifically for someone of your age). The feedback you give me will go a long way in helping me make this the best story it can be.

So let’s start with, what is a beta reader? You are! :) A beta reader is someone who reads a novel manuscript before it is published. I have written the first draft then edited that into the second draft, the version you are reading now. With your (and others’) feedback, I will revise to a third draft. That is what I’ll use to send to agents and publishers and so on. You get to read this before everyone else! When it’s as famous as Harry Potter, you can say, “Hey, I read that before it was even published. It’s totally awesome because of me.” And you’d be right.

Now, what is not beta reading? Beta reading is reading this story and telling me it was good or that you liked it. Every author wants people to write what he/she writes, but from beta readers, the most important thing is good feedback. Good feedback points out specific things you like. Good feedback points out specific things you DON’T like. It’s okay not to like something. It’s okay not to like any of it. As long as you communicate that in a constructive way, I promise I won’t be upset with you. We’re working together on this now, and partners don’t get mad with each other.

So what makes good feedback? Point out any and all of the following:

• People/events you like
• People/events you don’t like
• Where the story feels like it’s dragging (Are you getting bored? Skipping ahead?)
• Where you stopped reading because you thought something else would be more fun to do
• Where something happens you don’t believe would/should happen
• Where something happens that you don’t understand

You can give me this feedback in one of two ways. You can write it up in a separate document, just like this one here (or even in a spreadsheet if you’re a child prodigy with Microsoft Excel) or you can write it into the document itself using Track Changes (if you don’t know how to turn Track Changes on, ping me on Facebook and I’ll show you how).

If you could do one other thing for me, I’m doing something special with this story. Some of the vocabulary is intentionally difficult in a few places. If you could write down any words you don’t understand, that would help me hyperlink them to the dictionary so if you read the story on an ereader, you can click to look up what the word means. (If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. But if you want to, it is very much appreciated.)

So with that, accompanying this Word file is a zip file with a few different formats of the story (Word, PDF, epub for your Nook, and mobi for your Kindle). Please keep in mind that this story is only meant for beta readers. This isn’t something to share with your friends. Hopefully they’ll be buying themselves a copy next year. :) While you, of course, will get a free and signed copy because you helped me and were awesome. ...assuming this is published. There’s a chance it may not be, but that’s the life of a writer.

If you have any questions, you are of course always welcome to email me or ping me on Facebook. If you need anything else, just let me know. Thank you again for helping me with my story.


Oh, Hubris, you so crazy

So 85% of my site migration is complete. I finally visualized how I want to display my writing. I've arranged the menu. Now I just need to handle the code and create the necessary files for that code to work. Bouncing back and forth between JavaScript and an iframe. I had been leaning to the latter, but it doesn't look the best in Blogger.

ANYWAY, that's not really what this post is about. This post is about the 15% of my site that's still missing. Why is it still missing? Answer: because I don't know if it belongs.

Now, context: When I first built my site in 2008, I was wrapping up a very successful run as a contributor to the RPGA's Living Greyhawk campaign (and before that, Living Kalamar). Some people thought listing instructions for convention requests sounded cocky of an unpublished author, but that wasn't there for my novels. That was there for D&D. I got invited to a lot of conventions. Free passes, shared rooms, etc. I toured the convention circuit hard for a few years and had a great time doing it. Let me tell you that I couldn't keep that pace today. I'm too old and busted.

So when I built my website, I was beginning the road toward professional writing. I would begin my first manuscript, BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE, a few months later and would start querying in just over a year. So, I put everything up. All the writing I had done from my last college-era play to samples of my D&D adventures to a couple of short stories, and some Living Greyhawk-themed flash fiction.

Three years later, and a lot of that feels like clutter. I haven't written a short story since I finished "Galileo Rocks the Baby" (a story I like but that needs revision to reach its full potential). LG is long gone and I don't get invited to conventions any more. I did not follow the transition to D&D 4e and have left the RPGA (and WotC's freelance staff) all together.

What's important now is my novels. But that's the rub. I don't have novels. I have manuscripts. I was okay putting up a faux cover fro BM&BBQ. I made a few of my own (crap) designs for the mss that followed. I put up blurbs from query letters. Yes, they were that crappy. None of this seemed like a bad thing because, somewhere in that arrogant little brain of mine, I figured that this next ms was the one to get me published.

You see, once I had a book to sell, all that would come down. I'd have the professionally designed cover, the back cover copy, links to Amazon, BN, and that awesome local place in Portsmouth. I'd make it super-awesome-professional. And so what if it had a few other manuscripts. I would revise them and make them super awesome ready to publish and they'd all end up there in an official capacity eventually. (And to be honest, I never thought there would be more than three up there before I had an agent. I know you shouldn't think that way, but it was a secret pride of mine that I thought I'd be different. Fool I!)

Ah naive youth. I am now working on my fifth manuscript (the sequel to my third manuscript--which means I can't even query it when I'm finished). The next ms I can query will be my sixth manuscript and by that point the page starts to look like that kid that kept trying out for sports even though he wasn't good enough to make the team.

So the missing 15% of my website is my writing. I don't know what I should and should not post. What looks like an aspiring author ready for success and what looks like an amateur author not capable of reaching a professional level?

For the moment, I'm just leaving it empty. It's a little disconcerting, but no more so than a bunch of covers and blurbs for novels that don't exist beyond my own computer.

Oh, you're a writer?

I stopped telling people I write fantasy unless they directly ask what I write. Even then, they get that masked look on their face like they're trying their damndest to hide their disdain. That or they had a sudden bout of diarrhea they were fending off.

Any more, really, I don't like telling people I'm a writer at all. Unless I'm around other writers (and even then the dick measuring can be tiresome). The first thing people ask is whether you've written something they've read. No, because it hasn't been published yet. Then how are you a writer? Well, sir, that is an oft discussed topic and one I do not care to repeat with someone who doesn't really care but is only making small talk.

What I don't mind telling them is that I work for a publisher. I do and have been in the industry for 8+ years now. I know my craft well. BUT the first thing I have to stipulate is that I'm not in acquisitions because the first thing people say when you tell them you work for a publisher is that they have a book idea.

It's always an idea too, never a book. "I have this book I've been trying to get published." If only. "I have this idea. Maybe I could give it to you and someone could write it." Yeah, you've read plenty of other posts that properly enumerates our disdain for such comments. I won't repeat them here.

BUT, last week, I got the comments to beat all comments. There is a crazy guy that comes into Jackie's that they've dubbed El Grosso. Once he leaves, they put on rubber gloves and clean his spot at the counter, his chair, and everything near where he sat. He doesn't look crazy when he first comes in, but once he sits for a bit, he starts...leaking. Dirty tissues every, a pool of syrup on the plate the ducks could swim on, and so many other nasties that I won't bother telling you about because really, his name tells you all you need to know.

Well he asks me a question the other day. It's a closed question. Question. Answer. I know it. I tell it to him. I don't extrapolate but return to my book. Speaking to him, however, turns out to be the only invitation he needed. And now we're off to the races! Oh I work in publishing? Yes but not in acquisitions. I have a book idea. Of course you do. I work in educational publishing. We do textbooks. Oh, it could be a textbook. You'll certainly learn something if you read it. You'll learn about life!

They have that class in college? I don't think it was offered at my school.

So I have this book idea, but I'm just too lazy to write it. (At least he's honest.) You could publish it (the idea or the book? I don't think anyone will buy a printed idea). You work in Boston. I'd like to go to Boston. It would be a lot better than here. I thought about going to Oxford and giving them my book. They're smart over there. But you're here, so I'll let you publish it if you want.

I don't publish. I build the media that goes along with the textbooks. Websites, ebooks, that kind of thing.

But you know someone. Not really. You gotta know someone. I should just go over to Oxford. I could study there. Learn a lot of stuff.

Listen. You're a writer. Do you know any good universities in Las Vegas?

And I swear, not a thing of that is made up.

Being Factual in an Alt History Story

I've been doing a lot of research for PATAPAN. I've nailed down most of what I needed (or what I didn't already have). I am taken aback by how many people are shocked that I would do research for an alternate history story. I'm changing the history as it's been taught to us. It's important that I get as many details as I can accurately so that readers can understand the points I'm changing are intentional changes and not just errors on the author's part.

Sure not everyone who reads it will be so into history that they know more about Benedict Arnold than he was a traitor and possibly at West Point. But it seems lazy to just write about history without keeping factual when I don't intentionally change things. A few train rides digging through Wikipedia refreshing what I already knew is enough to keep a novel set in the Missouri Territory ringing with honesty.

The story is set in the town of Arnold, Missouri just southwest of Saint Louis. The town is real (an exurb of the city) but was not founded at the time the story is set. I am writing a scene right now and the main character and his friends are crossing the river to Saint Louis. I'm curious how many people will think I've made a mistake or believe it's a change I've made for the story. Saint Louis at the time of the Louisiana Purchase was actually part of the Illinois Territory and not part of the Missouri Territory.

Here's a bit of history trivia for you. The Mississippi River didn't always flow the way you see it on a map today. The Army Corps of Engineers actually moved it, turning it from the west side of Saint Louis to the east side. If you ever go to Saint Louis and you hear about an area called Westport, you might be confused because there isn't any water nearby for a port. Well now you know. Saint Louis was the gateway to the west because leaving it crossed the Mississippi into the wild frontier (rather than being the first city you come to in the frontier as would be the case if it had been on the west side of the river).

Arbitrary Milestones

I passed 10,000 words on THE 7TH SACRIFICE this morning. This pleases me. I don't know why it pleases me more than passing 9,000 words or 11,000 words. 11,000 is more than 10,000 so why doesn't that please me more?

And it can't be some ridiculous "if I pass 10,000 then I know I'll finish it" because this very novel was abandoned at 27,000 words when last I attempted it (though this time around it's a bajillion times better--I have yet to describe the main character climbing down off his wagon and then climbing back up again).

For all that, I like passing 10,000 words. Perhaps it was all those times in my youth that I said, "I'm going to write a novel" only to fizzle out at 2500 words or some pathetic total that barely qualifies as a short story. 10,000 is progress. It says, you're working toward your goal.

I also like 50,000 words. 50,000 is the big number for me. I've never written a manuscript pass 50,000 words and not finished it. 50k, 100k, 150k are all obvious yet arbitrary milestones we assign because of our decimal-based learning structure. You can rope 10k in there too, as it is the essence of decimal.

It feels good, though. Especially to have done so so quickly. I had a lonely little intro chapter. Then I brainstormed with Liz. Now I have 10,000 words and a week hasn't even passed yet. That's pleasing. That's invigorating. This baby is on its way.

Writing is good.

(I'm coming down with something, though. You should see the stuff coming out of my nose. Not sure how much progress I'll make on the way home.)

Keeping Up Appearances

Having moved around a lot, I have a lot of friends online. And really, I was a quick adopter of the internet back in the '90s and have a tendency to express myself online much the same as I do in real life. Especially when it comes to blowing off steam. Since I work with computers all day, a quick tweet or status update resolves the need to rant without requiring that I leave my desk to go find someone to talk to (especially since the people that know me best live half-way across the country).

This has led to a number of awkward situations in the past, as you can imagine.

It's even more difficult now while I pursue publication. The people I have to blow off steam about the most are at work and I work in publishing! I can rant about how dumb editors are, and those who aren't paying attention might think I'm speaking as an author rather than a production worker at a publishing company. In order, the three most frustrating people to deal with are editors, marketers, and salespeople. Each comes chock full of excuses to get their way instead, all of which I have become quite versed in over the years. Knowing they're using a drab and overdone excuse not because it has any bearing on the product your making but only because they don't know what they're doing and they need things to go their way to maintain an appearance of competence can be--as you would imagine--extremely frustrating.

Now all these people actually do know things. ...well, most of them do. But publishing doesn't offer a lot of interdepartmental training and the production-side of publishing is generally ignored both internally and externally by any that don't have to deal with it directly. You'll never see an author acknowledge the hard work of his book's project manager even though it was that person who had the thing typeset and sent to press in 1/4 the time (s)he should have received after everyone else missed their deadlines.

You know how they say shit rolls downhill? Yeah, our cubes are at the bottom of the hill.

This time of year is busiest for the department I'm in right now and tensions are running high. While it might be best if I said nothing at all, if I did that, I'd hurt myself from hitting my head against my desk so hard. So, anything you see me saying, please keep in mind it's not reflective of any editors I might be working with as an author--and in fact, has nothing to do with trade publishing at all since I work on the education side.

Just tooting my whistle before the built up steam causes it to burst.