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The Case Against Beta Readers

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      Beta readers are treated like a necessary step in the self-publishing process. But are they worth it? Essentially, you’re turning over the development of your story to a total stranger. That is, if you can even find a beta reader who actually finishes your work and provides useful feedback.

Here are some of the most common problems with using beta readers:

You don’t know who they are

      Anyone can claim to be an experienced editor offering beta reading for free. They’re not all lying, but they’re not all telling the truth, either. Personally, I’ve encountered several people who claimed to be professional editors in one thread, then admitted their lack of experience in another. Don’t count on the qualifications of someone hiding behind a screenname.

They don’t know what you’re capable of

      Beta readers can’t push you to be your best, because they don’t know what your best looks like. I have a small group of close writer-friends who serve as my beta readers. If they find something they don’t like, they just write “Really?” and I go back and rework it. You simply can’t have that level of familiarity and understanding with someone who’s never read your work, barely knows your name, doesn’t understand your style, and has no idea of your goals.

They’re not always reliable

      This is probably the number-one complaint about beta readers. A significant number of beta readers fail to provide feedback, make your deadlines, or even read your work. Some simply stop responding to your emails after the initial acceptance. It’s frustrating, but to be realistic, your work is never going to rank highly for an unpaid stranger who has her own life. 

The feedback you get might not be what you want (or need)

      Everyone has their own ideas about what counts as useful feedback. You might want someone to comment on the realism of your dialogue, but your beta reader is more concerned with looking at your punctuation. You can ask your beta reader to focus on specific areas of improvement, but that has a catch: if your worldbuilding is awesome and your dialogue is terrible, yet you ask your beta reader to concentrate only on the world, who’s going to help you out with the dialogue?

      So how can you find a helpful beta reader? Start by not looking for one. Going into an online forum and soliciting beta readers is like dating in middle school by asking every boy “Will you be my boyfriend? Will you be my boyfriend?” Solid writing relationships, like any others, come out of trust, familiarity, honesty, and compatibility. Get to know other writers and readers before asking for favors.

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Increase Your Writing Productivity By Breaking Down Your Day

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     “As a freelancer, do you ever have the time/energy to work on your own writing projects?”

     Joe asked this question on the blog about two weeks ago. I thought about it during vacation and decided to write a new post with my answer.

     As a full-time freelancer, it often gets difficult to slog through thousands of words every day while sitting at the dining room table. Unlike a proper office, I never get to pack up and leave. Even when I’m not working, I’m still in the same house, in the same space, and I can still see my work area.

     These are my top tricks for breaking up the day and maintaining focus while working on multiple writing projects. These tips are for all writers, not just full-time freelancers.

Time

     The easiest way to break up the day is with time. Don’t just set aside time to write: set aside a specific time. Make it a permanent part of your calendar and as non-negotiable as your job. Work from 9-5. Spin class 6-7. Write 8-9.

     If you have an unpredictable schedule, you can still use the clock to increase productivity. Set aside 15-minute chunks multiple times a day or week. Even the busiest person has at least 15 full minutes a day to devote to working on a story, whether you’re writing in a notebook during lunch, typing on your phone on the subway, or talking into a tape recorder as you drive.

    I start every morning by checking out Twitter and replying to email. Then I make my coffee and work for two hours. I take a break to play with my dog and take her outside. Then I work for another two hours, and repeat until I’ve finished my to-do list. For me, the placement of the time chunks is not as important as the number of them. I might finish my work early and have time to work on a non-writing project. I might have a morning appointment, so I simply work later into the night. My two-hour chunks allow me to focus on my work because I know I’ll have a break to take care of other stuff.

Space

     Multiple studies have shown that you get the most restful sleep when you use your bed for sleeping. Not reading, not eating, not watching TV. Use the same principle with writing.

     Set aside a space just for writing. Be serious about it. Don’t browse the web or eat lunch in your writing space.

The deadline chair

     Half of my dining room is set aside as a work station. In my living room, I have my deadline chair. I only use the chair when I need to work in a hurry.

     Separate furniture isn’t a necessity for a writing space. Turn your favorite chair sideways when it’s time to work. Choose one seat at your kitchen table for eating, but sit in a different place when it’s time to write. This small change in perspective kicks your brain into writing gear.

Entertainment

     Use multimedia to get yourself into the writing mood. Runners have a running playlist. Put together a writing playlist that suits your current project. Grooveshark lets you create playlists without purchasing each song. You can play movies or TV in the background instead if music isn’t your thing.

     I have multiple playlists on Grooveshark. Strangely, I do my best editing work to loud, fast, angry music like Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. If I’m working on dreamy poetry, I’ll play Sarah Fimm and Tori Amos. If I’m just plodding away on a general assignment, I try to pick songs and artists with upbeat, dancey music, like Beyonce, the Pussycat Dolls, Ke$sha, and Shakira.

     One caveat with using a multimedia playlist: check your final draft to make sure no lyrics or dialogue sneaked into your work.

Topics

     This one is a bit controversial and harder to pull off. If you find it difficult to balance your work with your own writing and your personal interests, you may want to pitch articles on topics separate from your favorite areas.

     As a freelancer, I write a lot about writing, editing, social media, businesses, technology, and taxes. I specialize in the intersection of these topics. 

Costume and crafts

     However, I also have personal passions for video games, arts and crafts, and making costumes. I choose not to write professionally about these topics. I don’t need to monetize everything I do or like. Everyone has multiple interests: reserve a few just for fun.

 

 

What are your tips for breaking up the work day and increasing your productivity?

Of Elves & Editors: Explaining Self-Publishing with Lord of the Rings

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     ((A quick refresher on the story: The Dark Lord Sauron is searching for the One Ring of power. It’s currently held by Frodo, who sets out to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom. He’s helped along the way by many, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and kings. Forgive us any oversimplifications: we’re trying to write an article about LotR, not rewrite LotR.)) 

Beginning the Journey 

     In this analogy, you are Frodo with one manuscript to rule them all. Your goal is to scale Mount Doom, which is the bestseller list. You aren’t going to destroy your manuscript in the end by throwing it into the fire (though we suppose if you have a best-selling book, you can celebrate however you wish).

     But Mount Doom is on the other end of Middle-Earth. How are you going to get there?

Networking (The Fellowship of the Ring)

     Frodo would have been dead before leaving the Shire if he hadn’t had help. Similarly, successfully publishing a book requires other people. Start with building a publishing team of specialists. You’ll need a trained editor, a great cover designer, maybe a marketer, and a wizard if you can find one.

     In the Fellowship, the members have diverse but complementary skill sets. Legolas has superior elven vision and proficiency with a bow. Gandalf has his magic. Frodo isn’t the best fighter, but he is fully committed to the mission. That kind of drive benefits you in any long-term project. In the same vein, your publishing team should be composed of multiple people who each have a specialty. Your editor should not also be your cover designer and publicist. That would be like Frodo setting off with only Aragorn at his side. Frodo would certainly get farther with Aragorn than he would alone, but the full Fellowship of the Ring is best equipped for the challenges that lie ahead.

Creating a Fan Base (Assembling an Army) 

     Besides the core nine members of the Fellowship, Frodo has many more allies who are not named. Theoden, King of Rohan, fights on the side of the Fellowship, but Theoden also brings the armies of Rohan, the largely nameless and faceless mass of riders. Aragorn may be the heir to the throne of Gondor, but he needs the ordinary soldiers to defend the walls of Minas Tirith against Sauron’s armies.

     These faceless fighters are like your readers. You will not get anywhere without readers. Your readers probably won’t be willing to die for you, but they should be willing to act on your behalf: buy your books, tell their friends, retweet and reblog your work, leave glowing (yet realistic and helpful!) reviews. In return, you provide engaging, immersive, enjoyable stories. It would be nice, but nearly impossible, to learn the names and stories of each reader. However, you can treat them with respect, keep them in the loop, and remain grateful for their support.

Bringing in the Big Guns (The Ents and the Eagles)

     Frodo has his Fellowship, and his Fellowship has allies, but not all allies are created equal. The Ents and the Eagles have power far beyond that of a mortal. The Ents are giant living trees that shake the earth itself during battle. The Eagles can swoop in for a rescue or survey the terrain ahead.

     In the publishing world, the Ents are the big, influential book reviewers. They’re hard to track down and they don’t particularly like outsiders. They are also slow to respond. If you manage to engage their interest, they can be an extremely powerful force. But you have to trudge through dark forests and sit around waiting for a response (which is likely not going to be the response you want).

     The Eagles are the popular writing-related blogs. They make it their business to know what’s going on in the world of publishing. Besides providing you with news, they can temporarily elevate you above the rest of the online writing world with a positive review, interview, or guest post on their sites. They have the ability to help you, but they can also peck out your eyes or drop you in the ocean, so be careful. 

A Multifaceted Approach (Strategy during the War of the Ring)

     The original Fellowship didn’t simply charge at Mount Doom. Even though that was their intent, they had to break apart in order to succeed. It is Merry and Pippin who bring the Ents to fight Saruman. Aragorn commands both the Dead Men of Dunharrow and the Rangers. Elrond, the elf-ruler of Rivendell, sends emissaries to fight with King Theoden of Rohan at Helm’s Deep, and Theoden, in return, takes his armies to the aid of Gondor.

     Luckily, you don’t need to cross any mountain ranges to enlist help from around the world. Instead, look for writing communities on various sites. Pinterest, Tumblr, Wattpad, Twitter, and Facebook all have resources for writers. Independent forums like those at Absolute Write and the Kindleboards are also good choices. You don’t have to recruit support and maintain  a presence in every online community; pick a few favorites to focus on. 

Play to your skills and interests other than writing. If you’re a good cook, invent a few recipes for food specific to your world. If you make jewelry in your spare time, create items straight from your book. Tolkien’s universe is full of these minor details (like lembas bread and the Evenstar necklace) that can become real-world objects.

Online Bullies (The Nazgul)

     Though you’ll find many good guys in the online self-publishing community, you’ll also find some bad ones (and some very bad ones). Online bullies use tactics like spamming a page with one-star reviews, leaving aggressive comments on your site, publicly calling others to destroy your reputation, and, from the particularly dumb and tasteless, sending death threats. They are like the Nazgul, invisible, lurking in the shadows and incredibly hard to eliminate.

    Run away from a Nazgul? It gets a horse. Shoot its horse? It gets a FLYING horse (well, it’s more like a dragon, but still). Similarly, if you block an online bully on one site, he can come back with a new account or on a new site. In the War of the Ring, the only way to truly get rid of the Nazgul is by destroying the One Ring. And that’s what the online bullies want, too. They want you to give up, lie down, go home, stop writing.

    Obviously, you’re not going to do that. So rally your friends, find your own Fellowship, and prepare for the adventure.

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Three Important Lessons Learned from Freelance Writing

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      When I tell people that I’m a freelance writer, they immediately have a bunch of questions for me. Where do I work? What do I write? What kind of money do I make? Can I get them a job? Everyone (from cab drivers to business owners to drunk tourists) wants to know.

      I see the light in their eyes as they imagine putting words to paper, seeing their books in stores, and receiving praise while the money rolls in. Every time, that bright light turns into careful consideration when I explain the reality of a freelance writing career.

1. It’s not you, it’s them. But it’s on you.

      This is something I didn’t figure out until I began my freelance writing career: your ideas are only half of writing. Whenever you are writing with the intent to publish, you are writing for other people. These mysterious and faceless people determine the success of your work. They must be able to understand your writing.

      Reader comprehension trumps personal expression. Do I hate it when my carefully constructed sentences are deleted or shortened or ripped apart? Of course I do. But I just shrug and move onto the next assignment. It’s nothing personal. 

 

2. Being your own boss means kicking your own ass.

      My income comes entirely from freelance writing and copy editing. I literally cannot afford to take it easy. Sure, there are mornings when I want to lie in bed and watch TV, and days when I want to ditch work and go to the zoo. That’s the worker side of me. The boss side doesn’t allow it.

My boss is like a separate character in my head who tells me what to do. If there are a ton of deadlines coming up, she tells me I need to stay in and work late. An article I really don’t want to write? The Writer can whine and cry and sulk at the keyboard, but the Boss stands over her shoulder with a grim smile and says, “Write.” She’s not mean, though. I do get vacation time and days off, but I have to earn them. Just like time off from any other job.

3. Panning for gold means throwing out a lot of dirt.

      It doesn’t matter what I write: I throw out material every time I create something. If I’m lucky, I’ll just ditch an introduction and a few sentences, then write new material. If I’m having an off day, I end up throwing out more words than I use.

      Right now, I’m writing in WordPad. I put the good material at the top. If I don’t think a paragraph fits here, but it might work somewhere else, I put it at the bottom of the document in a sort of writing graveyard. This article has 378 words in the graveyard, not counting the few paragraphs I scribbled by hand and the sentences deleted forever.

      When I’m writing for myself, I don’t mind a big graveyard: I can work the material into another post. If I’m writing for someone else, it’s time-consuming and counterproductive to have a graveyard bigger than the finished document. However, I have no hesitation about killing off paragraphs. The more you write, the less attached you are to individual sentences.

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Why You Need to Trash More Writing (and How NaNoWriMo Can Help)

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This is an opinion piece by Lila Moore, founder of PopularSoda.com


      I’ve said before that if you want to make money writing, you have to treat it like a business. Let’s add something else to that:

      If you want to perfect your writing as an art form, treat it like art.

      That looks pretty, but what does it actually mean?

      It means you need to write things and then throw them out. A lot of them. And often.

      In writing communities, I often see writers post snippets and bits of stories, wondering if it’s worth finishing or if it was even a good idea in the first place. It’s always worth finishing. It’s not always worth publishing. Voluntarily and creatively writing will strengthen your ability.

      You can learn from everything you write, even if you never show it to anyone else. I wrote a novel when I was thirteen and promptly lost it in a computer crash. But I learned. I found that I had the drive to complete a full-length manuscript, and I realized that you should never keep all your writing in one place. During a train ride from Boston to NYC, I wrote a quick (and admittedly terrible) story about vampires versus aliens. The story was a joke, but I learned that I could pump out a lot of words on a deadline. I write poems to my friend in Japan that follow the rhyme scheme of a certain pop song. The limited structure forces me to be creative in a way that free verse does not.

      I have hundreds of half-songs and paragraphs and little ideas and I learn from all of them (even if I’m learning what NOT to do).

      There seems to be such a focus on making things perfect for publication. Publication may be the goal, but you aren’t going to get there without a strong skill set. You improve your writing through practice.  Not every painting is a well-publicized masterpiece, not every song makes it onto the final album, and not every scene is saved from the cutting room floor. And like ice skaters falling on their bums and skateboarders wiping out, you’re going to make mistakes, but that’s okay.

      You’re just writing. Not publishing. 

      One of my favorite musical artists, Tori Amos, calls the process “noodling around”. She’ll sit at her piano and play without actively working on a defined song. Other musicians call it jamming. Visual artists doodle in notebooks. What’s the equivalent for writers?

      Do you noodle? Do you riff? Do you word-vomit? Do you bleed? Do you spit straight truth from the top of the dome?

      I write a lot of things just to play with words. I write a lot of things already knowing I won’t develop them further than a paragraph or a half-finished poem. If I’m writing an important scene, I write it more than once. I feel most comfortable when I write it once by hand, once on the computer, and then type up my hand-written notes, self-editing as I go, melding the versions into one, and deleting everything that doesn’t fit. Time-consuming? Most definitely, but we’re talking about writing as an art.

      Artists don’t suddenly appear. They work. The aforementioned Tori Amos started “noodling around” on piano when she was two, received a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory at five, got kicked out at 11, played bars at 13, failed with her first band at 25, and finally found commercial success at 27– 25 years after she started playing. Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel when he was only 33 years old, but his artist apprenticeship started when he was 13– twenty years before. He completed the Pietà at 24 years old, only 11 short years after he started working full-time as an artist.

      Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule: you must do something for ten thousand hours before you achieve expertise in the field. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, he presents a compelling case in his book, Outliers. In writing, some swear by a million word rule: you need to write a million words before you pen your best works.

      And that brings us back to NaNoWriMo. Fifty thousand words in a month is a great start. So write those words. Write more than the amount you need. Write everything that’s in your head. Write scenes that don’t fit and exposition that’s too long and conversations that are unrealistic. Write boring characters and major plot holes and top it off with a deus ex machina. Write  three novels’ worth of material and then gleefully turn your back on most of it.

      Because you have to. This is the practice before perfection.

How to Write a Book Review Like a Human (Cheat Sheet Included)

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      Our post on scam reviews led to some great conversations and questions. However, there was one question that stood out above the rest. Over and over, we heard, “I think I sound like a scammer! How can I write a review like a human?”

      Well, you asked and we delivered. Here are our tips to writing reputable, honest, and real reviews.

If you bought the book, show it.

      Several ebookstores will distinguish your review if you purchase and review the book on the same site. This is the first step to setting yourself apart from the scammers.  Amazon has Amazon Verified Purchase: “Customers reading an Amazon Verified Purchase review can use this information to help them decide which reviews are most helpful in their purchasing decisions.” On Amazon, the Amazon Verified Purchase tag will appear below the name of the reviewer.

      Smashwords goes even further with its review system. Besides tagging reviews by Smashwords customers, the site adds additional information. For example, you can see if the book was “reviewed day of purchase”, “reviewed within month of purchase”, or if it was reviewed before the author started charging (“review of free ebook”). Same-day reviews of extremely lengthy books can throw up red flags. However, if you buy the book, take time to read the book, and use some of our other tips, you’ll create a strong and trustworthy review.

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Terms of Service: Vanity Publishing, e-publishing, and Self-Publishing

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      Recent conversations about vanity publishing, e-publishing, and self-publishing got our heads spinning as we tried to advocate for self-publishing, only to find our points dismissed by someone who confused it with vanity publishing. So let’s go back to basics here.

None of us in the ebook sphere can have productive, progressive, and sometimes painful conversation about self-publishing if we don’t define self-publishing in the same way.

      We posted a comment on this blog about our view on the differences between the terms. Here’s the fleshed-out version of our view on self-publishing, vanity publishing, traditional publishing, and e-publishing.

Traditional Publishing

      For many years, this was the only way to be published. Stick with us for this history lesson:

      An author would write a book, polish the manuscript, and then send out query letters to agents. Any interested agents would contact the author for more information and a full manuscript. Then, it became the agent’s responsibility to send the manuscript to publishing houses and work out a deal. The publishing house took care of editing, cover design, and marketing for no money upfront: they took their cut from the sale of each book. The agent wasn’t paid upfront either, but only after the publishing deal went through.

      The process wasn’t totally transparent, and it was up to the individual author to choose a reputable agent who would best represent his interests. In addition, the process could take years and it was hit-or-miss. Some of the best-selling books of our time were repeatedly rejected for publication. It was nothing to do with the quality of the work; rather, the demands of the market, the views of the individual editor, and simple human error all contributed to this imperfect process.

e-publishing

      e-publishing is an umbrella term. It simply refers to things which were published electronically. Sometimes they have a corresponding print version. Sometimes they don’t. The New York Times has an electronic edition available for ereaders and tablets. So does The Onion, Star Trek Magazine, and Cowboys and Indians. JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy has an ebook version, and the Harry Potter ebooks are available through Pottermore.

     e-publishing is not disreputable in and of itself.

However, there is a very low barrier to entry in this marketplace. A major media corporation can spend millions of dollars on a beautiful electronic edition with corresponding app. Or someone sitting at home in front of his computer can blast his poorly written ebook across the internetscape. e-publishing is all of these things. In our eyes, e-publishing isn’t inherently bad, but there’s e-publishing done well and e-publishing that’s not.


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