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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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Evaluating Your Editors

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All editors are not created equal.

     It is virtually impossible to find professional-level editing for bargain-basement prices. This handy checklist will help you determine if you’re looking at an experienced editor or a green freelancer. You may not have the funds, desire, or need to hire a top-notch editor, but this checklist will help you avoid untrained and unqualified individuals.

These guidelines are for editors who work on a sentence-by-sentence basis. They may call themselves line editors, copy-editors, or even proofreaders.

Experience

     Look for experience specific to editing. Degrees in English and published books are nice, but they do not constitute copy-editing training.

     Writing and editing are related skills, but not interchangeable, kind of like being good at running and being good at soccer. If you are a fast runner, that will help you in playing soccer. However, you can’t simply run around the field and expect to spontaneously learn the rules of the game. Editing is the same.

     Check to make sure that your potential editor has training or formal experience in editing and he’s not just running around the field. An English degree is not enough. Look for education directly related to editing as well as in-the-field experience, such as editing for a book publisher or newspaper.

Rates

     Editors may charge by the hour, by the page, by the word, or by the project. Low hourly rates start at $15/h. The average rate is around $45/h, while high hourly rates reach $80/h or more. The lowest per-page rates start at $1, with an average of $6 and a high of $12. Per-word rates range from half a penny per word to ten cents per word.

Here’s the basic philosophical difference:
     Inexperienced editors try to compete on price in order to gain clients, especially when their skills are lacking. Established professionals know the fair market value of their work

One more warning:
     Beware of decimal points! I’ve seen more than one editor with rates of .005 cents per word. That’s 200 words for a penny, or $3.75 for a document of 75,000 words. Fork over a few dollars for fun, but otherwise avoid editors with such egregious mistakes on their own websites.

Elasticity

     Experienced, established editors tend to stick to their rates. They may offer discounts in rare cases, like if you’re offering multiple long-term projects.

     Willingness to compromise on any assignment is a hallmark of inexperienced freelancers. They’ll offer discounts, samples, refunds, free work, and more. Beware: this new breed of editors often thinks of your document as practice, not work. They’ll exchange cheap work for the ability to count your manuscript as ‘experience’. To return to the soccer analogy, this may work for backyard soccer, but it won’t help you reach the writing big leagues.

Focus

     Publishers should make their money from the sales of books, and editors should derive their income from editing. Watch out for editors who also offer marketing services, website development, cover design, ebook formatting, and their own books for sale. Multiple services shouldn’t necessarily deter you, but it’s a warning sign of an editor spread too thin. If you want a top-notch editor, look for one who only edits.

Flash

     A business website is expected to have a certain amount of style and an intentional design. Look for personalized URLs (like popularsoda.com, not popularsoda.blogspot.com).

     With an editor’s website, the focus should be on the text, and the text should be easy to read. You should easily be able to find out the editor’s rates, experience, and contact information. Watch out for websites that are image-heavy and rely on animations, slideshows, and multimedia elements. Ask yourself if the site is selling the strength of its services or a flashy image. That’s a good rule of thumb for evaluating any company, not just editors.

So…

     Is it ever appropriate to hire a new, inexperienced, or untrained editor? Of course. If you’re having a hard time finding beta readers, need someone to commit to your full novel, or you simply don’t have the funds for professional editing, a less-experienced editor may suit your needs just fine.

     However, you should be aware that hobbyist editors do not provide the same level of service as professional editors. You are getting what you pay for. It’s your money, but you should go into negotiations with your eyes open.

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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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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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.

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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