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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.

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.

Ready to be professional about your writing? Grab a free copy of The Weekend Book Marketing Makeover by our friends at Duolit by tweeting about it or signing up for email updates. Toni has graciously allowed PopularSoda to provide an exclusive preview of the book’s contents. Take a look!

Preview from The Weekend Book Marketing Makeover by Duolit

Superheroes and Landmines: How (Not) to Respond to Critiques

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     There are dozens of articles on finding a critique partner and loads of suggestions on how to critique, but there isn’t much information about responding to critiques of your writing. In this post, we’ll outline the most common bad behaviors and personality types of critique receivers and show you how to gracefully handle both compliments and criticism.

The Playground Superhero

     Did you ever pretend to be a superhero when you were little? There always seemed to be one kid who didn’t understand how to play the game. If he picked super strength and you hit him with lightning, he decided he was also invisible. If you tried to freeze him, then he could teleport even when frozen.
     The writing equivalent is an author who apparently already knows his own mistakes, but doesn’t bother to fix them. If you point out an inconsistency in character names, he says it’s just a typo. If you comment on a major plot hole, he says he was going to rewrite that part anyway. If you wonder when the main character got a talking dog, he says he already plans to put something about that in the beginning.
     The playground superhero usually ended up playing by himself. If you copy his bad behaviors with your critique partners, you might end up alone, too.

Avoid Being A Playground Superhero:

  • Fix all mistakes and problem areas before submitting your work for critiquing.
  • Let critiquers know about any major problems before they review (“I know I need to introduce the talking dog in the beginning. Right now, I’m looking for suggestions on making the dog a likable character.”).
  • Say “Thank you!” if someone points out an obvious typo.

The Invisible Author

     This writer is most commonly seen on forums, message boards, and anywhere online where posts can be deleted. The author doesn’t start as invisible. She posts a large text sample for critique and asks for helpful hints. All feedback is welcome! She is really looking forward to improving her writing.
     However, when she actually gets useful suggestions and reasoned criticism, she deletes her post and often vanishes from the forum. She might resurface later, claiming she was driven away by grammar nazis, elitist editors, or trolls. The real reason? She didn’t want concrete criticism, just soft-focus praise.
      Let’s be clear here: there is a difference between abusive messages (“Your writing makes me want to stab my eyes out”) and helpful– yet non-praising– messages (“The imagery in the first paragraph is contradictory and jarring”). Harassment should be reported, and legitimate help should be rewarded.

Avoid Being an Invisible Author:

  • Identify what you really want. It is absolutely okay to simply want praise, but critique circles are not the place for it.
  • Postpone posting your work in a public forum if you don’t feel comfortable opening yourself up to specific, potentially painful feedback.
  • Do not delete your post! Bookmark it and come back in a few months (or few years) to see if maybe those trolls were right.

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2012 Recap and 2013 Writing Resolutions

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      We’re a few days late with our year-end blog post (mostly because Lila has been sick since last year), but now we’re ready to share some stats, thank our supporters, and make some writing resolutions for 2013.

Where We’ve Been

      The first post on PopularSoda was March 26th, 2012. Since then, we’ve had 28 posts, 77 real comments, and 1,547 spam comments. Our most active commenter was erotica author Antoinette M. Anne R. Allen, Simon Crump, and Roxanne Crouse were also active on the site. Pete Ingham was an amazing help in launching PopularSoda and we are so grateful for his help. Thank you, and all our commenters and friends, for your feedback, experiences, and opinions.

In 2012, PopularSoda had visitors from 76 countries.

In 2012, PopularSoda had visitors from 76 countries.

      Our most popular post of 2012 was What the Guardian (and Ewan Morrison) Got Wrong About Ebooks. Fun fact: Lila wrote this post in the wee hours of morning after staying out all night at a friend’s birthday party.

      We’re most proud of the international makeup of our audience: we had visitors from 76 countries.

Where We’re Going

      We plan to be even bigger and better in 2013. Here are our writing goals and resolutions:

  • Post more frequently and on a regular schedule
  • Host guest posters (if you’d like to write a guest post for us, contact admin@popularsoda.com)
  • Continue to work with our ebook friends while getting to know new players in the ebook game
  • Foster a sense of community by highlighting independent, self-publishing ebook authors who are doing it right
  • Create free, useful, and crowd-sourced resources for independent authors
  • Improve and update our Facebook page
  • Stop editing all of our images in Paint to avoid giving heart attacks to our graphic-designer friends
  • Finally explain the deal with all those soda bottles!

      We’re grateful to all those who connected with us in 2012, and we can’t wait to see what 2013 will bring! 

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