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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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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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Editing, Explained

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      Everyone needs an editor. But what kind of editor? Many first-time or self-published authors acknowledge the value of editing, but remain confused about the nature of editing. Online, it’s an unorganized world. Posters mix up proofreading, editing, and copy editing with abandon. This post will outline the most popular forms of editing to help you choose the right type of editor for your work.

Proofreading

     Proofreading is the most basic form of editing. It’s debatable that proofreading even is a form of editing.

     Proofreading comes from the term “galley proof” (sometimes just called “proof”). Proofreaders read proofs. Easy enough.

      Historically, galley proofs have been one of the last steps in the publishing process. Proofreaders would check galley proofs against the previous version of the text in order to catch any errors introduced in the publishing process. Proofreaders concerned themselves solely with basic errors such as incorrect punctuation, misspellings, random capitalization, and, more recently, blocks of garbled text introduced by computer error (“</P > < P>&nbsp;< /P> <P >”, anyone?).

     With the dawn of word processors, self-publishing, ebooks, and independent authors, proofreading has come to take on a different meaning. For self-publishers, it’s uncommon to perform traditional proofreading with multiple copies of the same document. Now, when people talk informally about proofreading, they usually mean the process of checking a single text file for basic technical errors. A proofreader will change “suPine” to “supine”, but a proofreader will not replace “supine” if you really mean “prone”. That falls under the category of…

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Five Ways to Recognize Bad Editors

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      With the recent ebook explosion, dozens of freelance editors have popped up, self-promoting, taking payment, and supposedly editing ebooks. How can you tell if you’re getting a good deal from a reputable freelancer or about to be screwed over by a misguided (potentially malicious) hack? Here are our five signs of bad editors.

1. They accept anything.

      On the surface, this seems fine. Why wouldn’t an editor accept anything that comes his way? Well, much like a chef might specialize in French cuisine, an editor might specialize in romance. Or sci-fi. Or YA. It doesn’t mean the editor can’t edit another genre, and it doesn’t mean the chef can’t cook something else. It’s just not going to be their best work. If you’re a serious mystery writer gunning for high sales and book prizes, doesn’t it make sense to find an experienced mystery editor instead of a chick lit editor who wants to try something new?

      There’s another question which springs to mind when editors accept anything: why do they have so much free time? Editing is a long, involved process. Are these misguided editors really devoting their full focus to the work, or are they cranking out submissions to make some extra money on the side? Groucho Marx didn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member; self-publishing writers should be wary of enthusiastic editors who seem too eager to take submissions and payment.

Good Editors Will…

  • Explain to you if they’re not the right person to edit your work.
  • Have a clear work schedule and know when (or if) they can fit you in.
  • Articulate their strengths (and more importantly, their limitations).

2. They quote a price without seeing the work.

      Out of context, this makes no sense. No contractor would give an estimate on construction work without seeing the blueprints and all relevant information. It’s equally important for an editor to see the document before deciding on his approach.

      Now, we’re not advocating for baseless and confusing pricing, either. But between the flat per-page fees of misguided wannabes and the pulled-from-thin-air numbers of the intentionally malicious are clear, public, and comprehensive pricing structures.

      Pricing should take into account the experience of the editor, the length of the work, the author’s deadline, and the amount of editing required. Many editors will charge extra for a quick turnaround time or discount their services for long-term clients. There’s nothing wrong with charging extra money for extra work (or less money for steady work). But that’s the point: pricing shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

Good Editors Will…

  • Give you an estimated cost and timeframe for editing your work.
  • Provide a schedule of fees or pricing structure which allow for shades of gray.
  • Advise you in advance of any additional fees or potential discounts.

3. They’re going it alone.

      Any reputable freelance editor should have some industry ties. Whether it’s editing-focused education, relevant job experience, or membership in professional societies, freelancers should have friends. A so-called editor who refuses to provide his legal name, background, or contact information should send you scrambling for the back button.

Good Editors Will…

  • Offer a detailed resume with current contact information.
  • Supply references from both clients and colleagues.
  • Provide proof of current membership status in professional societies.

4. They can’t explain their changes.

      It’s easy to say that a sentence doesn’t flow. It’s harder to explain the grammatical reasoning behind the problem. Be wary of any editor who tells you that you need changes without explaining why the sentence needs to change. Freelance editors work with words all day long. Experienced editors should be able to identify, explain, and fix grammatical errors without looking up every single mistake. You should feel comfortable to question your editor’s comments; however, questioning each individual remark will slow down the editing process, contribute to higher pricing fees, and potentially alienate your editor.

Good Editors Will…

  • Note your most common mistakes and explain how to avoid them in the future.
  • Provide answers with sources for your grammatical questions (within reason).

5. They seem too good to be true.

      So you have a first draft of half a million words and you need it professionally edited by the end of the week for less than $100? No problem! says the misguided editor. He doesn’t realize what he’s gotten himself into. He’s just happy to have a client! When the end of the week rolls around, you might find yourself out the $100 with nothing to show for it.

      Every author wants more readers, increased sales, better reviews, publishing contracts, and prize-winning stories. Unfortunately, no one can guarantee these things, even editors. This goes back to the first point: good editors know their limitations. Save yourself money, time, and headaches by choosing an editor with realistic goals for your story.

Good Editors Will…

  • Acknowledge their limitations.
  • Explain what is realistic and possible for your project.
  • Behave professionally.

Write with your heart. Publish with your head.

Got an ebook or self-publishing question? Ask us on Twitter @popular_soda or email admin@popularsoda.com

Money Flows Toward the Writer? Not in Ebook Territory

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     If you’ve participated in any writing communities in the past decade, you’ve probably heard this saying: Money flows toward the writer. Once upon a time, this was nearly undeniably true. But in the ebook and self-publishing landscape, writers often have to spend money to make books.

      In traditional publishing, the saying still holds some merit. No writer should pay a publishing company upfront for basic publisher duties like editing, evaluating, reviewing, or reading the manuscript. And no writer should ever pay an agent upfront. Beyond that, though, things get murky. Certain publishers will want you to pay in order to have your book printed. This is called vanity publishing, and in some cases, it’s perfectly fine. If you need souvenirs for a family reunion, frat or sorority handbooks, or a few dozen books for a family business, vanity publishing might be your best bet. However, alarm bells should go offin your head if a vanity publisher promises to get your book in major stores for a fee of a few thousand dollars. It might be technically true, but it’s not going to happen the way you envision.  In the ebook world, most writers have to spend something in order to get a quality product. Whether it’s spending time learning to use Photoshop or a few hundred dollars for a freelance editor, these independent ebook services can be totally legit– and incredibly helpful. 

   If you already have some Photoshop experience, you may be able to make your own cover. If you don’t have the experience, and you’re not able to learn, paying for a cover will be your best option. Some ebook cover artists charge hundreds of dollars for a single cover. Others will charge rock-bottom prices and hope to make a profit through volume of sales. Many artists can make great covers. The trick is finding a skilled, dependable designer who is willing to work with you to make your vision a reality.

      Editing is the necessary evil of writing. Friends and family are often too forgiving or too inexperienced to point out the mistakes of a loved one’s draft. More and more writers are turning to freelance editors, both copy and developmental.

      Freelance editing is a business. It’s a profession. It’s not personal. Your feelings will probably get hurt. But with great editing, that short-term pain will lead to long-term gain in the form of more engaging storytelling. With mediocre editing, the process will lead to a bunch of headaches when astute readers point out basic or not-so-basic flaws in your ebook. And with terrible editing, the misguided editor might introduce errors, fail to correct major errors, forget to edit the story at all, or attempt to take control as if she were now the legal guardian of the ebook and not just a babysitter.

   In any case, vetting freelance designers, editors, and marketers is absolutely crucial. All freelance professionals should be able to offer you a personal history, references, examples of previous work, current contact information, pricing information and a clear timeline of the process.

      If any freelancer refuses to give a straight answer or can’t substantiate previous work claims, move on. Though it’s typical to get an estimate for a project and not an exact dollar figure, be extremely wary of any “professionals” who cannot give an hourly rate, a per-page rate, or a per-project rate. Also, be cautious of freelancers who oversell their services. No one can guarantee sales or fans.

      There are tons of amazing and experienced freelancers ready and willing to work with you on your ebook. Using the services of an outside professional can help you get a polished product ready for selling and downloading.

      ((One caveat: if you’re soliciting the expertise of a freelance editor, designer, or marketer, don’t offer to pay with the royalties from the future ebook or the opportunity to “get your name out there”. It’s simply unprofessional. In the same way that actors, camera operators, and prop directors get paid even if a movie tanks at the box office, your support team should be paid whether or not your book is a success. You’re the publisher now. And you can’t get all the reward if you don’t take some of the risks.))

Want to recommend your editor, designer, or marketer? Leave a comment with a link!