Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Cheat Sheet for Beta Readers

In May, I discussed critique etiquette on behalf of both the critiquer and the critiquee.

Since then, I've been privileged to have several people beta read two manuscripts of mine. I've also beta read a handful of manuscripts for others.

(When I say "beta," I mean "The reader who has the manuscript I think is ready for querying & sending out to industry pros." I consider a manuscript ready for a beta reader when I've been over it with a fine-toothed comb, love it in its current condition, and am too close to the forest of its words to see the trees that may need trimming.)

Some beta readers are airy-fairy, pat-you-on-the-back types. They're great for the writer's ego, but do little to improve the work. Others are overly critical. Their comments make both writer and work feel like this phone book:

I asked writers on Twitter what they found most useful in a beta reader.

@BJMuntain summed it up best: I'd want to know if they enjoyed it, if they felt bored or 'taken out' of the story anywhere. [I'd also want to know] If anything didn't seem to fit properly or if a plot question was not resolved in a satisfactory manner, [and] how they felt when they finished.

That's it in a nutshell. I agree 100%. For instance, I ask my beta readers such questions as:

* Did you like the book? If so, what worked for you? If not, at what point did the story lose you & never regain your interest?

* Was there anything you expected that was missing?

* Was there anything included that you thought was out of place?

* What could be done to make each of the main characters more interesting / compelling / memorable?

* In your opinion, is the story worth rewriting, editing & pursuing, or does it need more work than it's worth?

* What was your favorite scene or scenes?

* What was your least favorite scene or scenes?

* If you had bought the book or e-book, would you feel cheated? Would you loan / recommend it to a friend? Why or why not?

Many of my cherished betas have actually responded and provided insightful answers to these and other questions.

I realize, however, that answering questions with regards to what they've read resembles an essay test too much for some people's comfort. Which is why without further ado, I present the Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet.

Simply print out and circle the most appropriate response the next time a writer pursuing publication asks for your opinion:

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------

Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet

* The author this book most reminds me of is:
A. John Grisham
B. Stephen King
C. Beverly Cleary
D. Jodi Picoult
E. Dr. Seuss
F. Stephanie Meyer

* This book would be better if it had more: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Talking Dust Bunnies

* This book would be better if it had less: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Sandwiches

* The primary male character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Harry Potter
B. Sherlock Holmes
C. Frodo Baggins
D. Darth Vader
E. Edward Cullen
F. Huck Finn
G. Jay Gatsby

* The primary female character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Lady Chatterley
B. Fanny Price
C. Junie B. Jones
D. Hermione Granger
E. Mrs. Tiggywinkle
F. Eliza Doolittle
G. Cruella DeVille

* Reading this was the entertainment equivalent of:
A. Winning the lottery
B. Oral surgery
C. A hands-on TSA search
D. Recreationally ingesting prescription pharmaceuticals
E. Eating dust-bunny sandwiches
F. Defending myself in traffic court
G. Listening to paint dry

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------

Monday, December 27, 2010

Heifer Update: 2010

A big, hearty hug & tons of heartfelt holiday thanks to everyone who participated in this year's fundraising drive for Heifer, International.

Thanks to all new followers and to those who commented on last week's Christmas Angel post, we were able to donate a whole hive of honeybees!

It's a gift that will keep on giving.

Earlier this month, I helped my friend Randy Sue Collins, beekeeper extraordinaire, launch her new Organic Beekeeping 101 DVD. I learned so much about bees while working with Randy Sue (she's very passionate about her bees).

Thanks to Randy Sue, I might be brave enough to try raising bees myself this next year. Randy Sue has driven home how critical bees are to the success of our crops and our gardens. What better gift to share with Heifer recipients?


Your words have made a difference. A tangible, noticeable difference that will make someone else's life better.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to say a few words or to follow along. Together, we've done a good thing. Here's hoping that you enjoy a busy, buzzing, honey-sweet new year. I see many more good things in your future!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

4 Free Ways to Be a Christmas Angel

Times are tight for all of us. You may not have any extra cash this holiday season, but that doesn't mean you can't give worthwhile gifts that will make a difference in someone's life.

Here are 4 ways to be a Christmas angel, even if you have less money to spend than Bob Cratchit. They won't cost you a dime, but all will provide rich rewards that last far into the new year...

1. Let Your Words Put Food on Someone's Table

Follow this blog or leave a comment below. I'll donate $1 to Heifer International for every new follower and every commenter between now and 12:00 midnight EST December 24.

I wish I could take credit for this fantastic idea, but it originated last year with then-uberagent Nathan Bransford, who kicked off his "Making Spirits Bright With Heifer" campaign, in which he pledged to donate $1 to Heifer International.

Last year my fabulous commenters made a gift of bees possible. All told, Mr. Bransford's idea raised over $2000 for Heifer. Just from people like you typing a few words in the comments sections of blogs like this.

When you've joined this blog or left a comment below, be the gift that keeps on giving!

Visit Nathan Bransford's blog (he did it again this year, too: donating $1 to Heifer International for every comment through 6 PM Wed., Dec. 22, PST). Comment on all the blogs listed on his post that are still open. (This will be one of them. As of this writing, there are 14 listed.) Then, click on any blogs linked below and comment there, too! If you join or comment on 20 blogs, that's $20 you've contributed to help someone -- just from typing in a few words of commentary!

If you'd like to contribute in a tangible way to Heifer International and make a positive difference in another person's 2010 holiday season, write a dedicated blog post about it and add your blog to the Linky list below:

2. Follow the Leaders

Bestselling author & agent Jason Pinter (@jasonpinter) launched the #donaterif Twitter campaign yesterday to raise money for Reading Is Fundamental.

Lots of your favorite writers, publishers, editors, and agents -- as well as "regular readers" have jumped on board. Most have pledged $1 for every new Twitter follower they get between now and December 31.

Shelf Media Group has a list of all #donaterif participants. As I write, there are 42 names on the list.

If you are on Twitter, just adding these people to those you follow will give the gift of reading to someone else who needs it. If you're not on Twitter, there is no better time to sign up. You'll never find a better list of recommended folks to follow!

If you do nothing more than comment on the blogs listed in #1 and follow those on #2, your actions will raise over $50 for two very worthy charities! Even if you can't afford to donate a cent yourself.

If, however, you want to be personally involved in gift-giving this year, here are a few more suggestions that are within the means of everyone:

3. Pass the Book

If you're a writer or a reader, chances are you have shelves full of books. And some of those books probably haven't been opened in over a year.

Why not free up some of that shelf space and donate the books you haven't read in the past 12 months to people who will read them now? Many homeless shelters, Goodwill industries, soup kitchens, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, school districts, and church groups will jump at the chance to take your books to new readers. Often, your donation will also qualify for a tax receipt, which is a "win" for all concerned!

4. Tell a Story

Contact your local hospital, hospice at home, homeless shelter, or preschool and volunteer to read to those who can't.

Take your favorite book or ask if they have a preference, then spend an hour or two of your time sharing your love of the written word with others. Imagine: if you were too sick, blind, harried, or humbled to be able to relax with a book -- wouldn't you appreciate someone taking the time to transport you to a lovely literary world for a few moments? Pick up the phone and make a few calls. I predict your gift will be greatly welcomed.

I don't know who to attribute the sentiment to, but it's true:

"Measure your wealth not in what you have, but in what you have for which you would accept no money."

Have a blessed holiday!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rudolph's Rejection

(Humble apologies to Robert L. May and Johnny Marks.)

Dear Writer,

-- We have read and evaluated your work. Unfortunately, at this time, it does not fit our publishing needs. More detailed comments are annotated below:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

You know Dasher and Dancer,
And Prancer and Vixen,  
Comet and Cupid,
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

 -- "Prancer" is obviously a reference to a reindeer with homosexual tendencies, whereas "Vixen"is an overly suggestive name. I question whether either are appropriate in a story for small children.

-- You begin with a list of eight characters, all of which sound enough alike to be easily confused.  Furthermore, none of the characters are ever mentioned by name again.  If you must throw all of these names at the reader, do so in a way that piques the reader's interest instead of wasting the reader's time.

-- Do NOT begin your work with a rhetorical question. Few things scream "weak writing" more loudly.

-- In any case, the rhetorical question is patently ludicrous. If he's "the most famous reindeer of all" (line 6), why would you have to ask whether or not someone recalled him?

-- Eliminate the backstory and get to the point. I'm not hooked.  Furthermore, why begin with something the reader knows? Tell me something I don't know.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.

-- Both "shiny nose" (line 2), and "it glows" (line 4) are redundant repetitions of the "red nose" introduced in line 1. Don't waste the reader's good will rehashing a simple fact that has already been established. Move the story along.

-- What drives the protagonist?  What does he want?  Acceptance?  A normal nose? A good night's sleep in a dark room? Without knowing what he wants, the reader cannot empathize with him.

-- The concept  in the final 2 lines is awkwardly expressed. These lines also suffer from tense issues. The shift in tense from simple past in the first two lines to the amalgamation of conditional ("if you ever saw it you would say") and present tense ("it glows") raises larger concerns with regards to your overall writing ability.

-- The glowing nose could be an intriguing paranormal element. Yet you have done nothing to develop the plot possibilities that present themselves.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

-- The protagonist's socio-economic condition has not previously been addressed. Is he ostracized because of his physical differences or because of his financial shortcomings? Be clear about what barriers stand in the way of him achieving his goal (though at this point, I remain uncertain what that goal is). Avoid the temptation of piling hardships upon him.

-- Who are these "other reindeer?" Are they the 8 introduced at the beginning?  What names did they call him?  What games did they play?  Specifics are necessary in order to connect with the reader and make your words memorable.  As it is, these words are so vague as to be instantly forgotten.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

-- I am extremely uncomfortable with the premise that Santa Claus, a sympathetic adult in a position of authority, would be so heartless as to call attention to the protagonist's deformity and would seek to profit from it. 

Then all the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history!"

-- At no time during the story was it established that the protagonist's driving desire was fame or leaving a historical legacy.   

--Three of the 22 lines submitted end with the word "reindeer." A hallmark of a successful writer is a sizeable vocabulary.
-- The pop-culture reference is a nice touch. Unfortunately, I suspect you do not have Fox's permission to use it, and their legal department has more clout than yours.  It has to go, unless you're considering this a piece of fan-fic, which is a dead end for anyone wishing to be taken seriously as a writer.

-- Speaking of dead-ends for a writer's career, few publishers are willing to tackle the white elephant of rhymed verse. Dr. Seuss got away with it. But he's dead.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. However, as we are only interested in "evergreen" projects with long-term sales potential from writers who have committed to mastering their craft, we'll have to pass on it. We wish you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inspiration in Crisis?

Today's post comes courtesy of guest blogger & Twitter tweeter extraordinaire Patty Blount (@PattyBlount). Check out her blog "To tell a compelling story..." when you get a chance. And tell her I said "hi!" -- A. H.

Twitter pals Ami (@museinks), Jeannie (@jeannie_moon) and I were chatting about writerly mental illness last weekend… you know, are we crazy because we write or do we write because we’re crazy? As conversations often do, this one took a turn toward the topic of real-life crises and how we frequently use them in our WIPs. Here we are, a bunch of authors writing fiction, excited by the prospect of injecting more realism into our work. Ironic, no? Wait, it gets better.

Write what you know, the experts always say. Easier said than done, particularly if you don’t know that one thing that would really nail a pivotal scene. For example, I used to study self-defense. One thing I’ve learned is that TV fights aren’t nearly as painful and bloody as they should be.

In one of my classes, we learned how to make a weapon from the contents of our purses. Things like keys, tweezers, even a credit card.

To demonstrate, the instructor ran the edge of a credit card under my nose. The pain took me to my knees. I couldn’t see from the all-faucets-on reaction that pain induced. There was no blood in this demonstration because this was a light movement. With a bit of pressure and speed however, I’m convinced a credit card could slice a jugular. I never forgot that lesson or the pain. I now make sure I over-write fight scenes (it’s a lot easier to delete extra information than to add it in later).

But how do you craft the scenes that involve, oh, say a groin kick when you lack a penis and therefore, have absolutely no frame of reference?

Research, baby. I managed this by turning to the Internet for help. Several men rose (ha!) to the occasion and described, in excrutiating detail, how it feels to be kicked in the nuts, which injected just the right amount of realism into my YA manuscript, SEND. Such valuable second-hand research must be preserved in case it’s needed in the future, so I now keep a file of details, like what it looks like every time my husband falls down the stairs.

He does this a lot.

Ami noted that head wounds bleed. A lot. Actually, most wounds do. Even the ones that aren’t that serious.

Take last summer, for example. We were doing some work on the house and had a strip of drywall corner bead in the garage. My son walked into the garage, turned, and the tip of the strip tore a four-inch-long gash in his calf. He left a trail of blood from the garage into the downstairs bathroom.

By the time I got down the stairs to that room, he was standing in a bloody puddle. When I moved his hands away, my heart damn near stopped when I saw a gaping wound in his leg, revealing white pulp. I was certain he’d need immediate vascular surgery to repair this wound. We packed him into the car, two people keeping pressure on his leg and drove through red lights to the emergency room.

The Leg of Inspiration.
Thirteen stitches. Yep. That’s it. Just thirteen stitches and he was fine. According to my son, the initial wound didn’t hurt very much. It felt like a little scratch. When he looked down and saw the blood, he was more panicked than anything else.

The pain was immense when the doctor injected the local anesthetic over and over again. We had to hold him down for fear he’d kick the doctor, instinctively. And it itched as he healed.

I’ve committed all this to my file.

A writer never knows when a dose of realism is going to be needed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"What Would You Rather Write?"

or, Answering the Impossible Question

Earlier this week, literary agent & author @WeronikaJanczuk asked writers on Twitter about the diversity of their craft.

For those of you novelists, is the novel your primary writing medium or do you pen short stories, poetry, etc., in addition to books?

Most of the respondents said they stayed mostly in the realm of the novelist, though some dabbled in short stories. I read their comments, sighed, and felt alone.

The same day, Lonny Dunn (@ProNetworkBuild) asked me the same question.
@MuseInks do you like novel writing more than screenwriting?

To which I replied, “Depends on what I'm working on at the time.”

He said he thought my answer vague and gave me an easy out: “mustabeenbusy.”

Which got me thinking.

Yes, I am busy. (Praises be!) But I wasn’t trying to be vague or elusive.

To me, asking whether I’d rather write a screenplay or a novel is like asking whether I’d prefer to watch a movie or read a book. Or whether I prefer sunsets or conversation. My answer would be the same:

It depends.

My main source of income is writing non-fiction. I also write novels, screenplays & songs. I can't imagine choosing only 1 medium (novels, scripts, poetry) & eschewing the others. Each has its own magic.

Screenplays are the creative equivalent of sunsets. They follow a pre-ordained, immutable structure. They hold little interest to those with limited vision. They color the world for a finite period of time. They can be experienced either alone or with a group. And they all end with “fade out.”

Screenwriting requires me to indulge the visual.

Since film is the medium of sight, the stories that work best on film are those that must be seen to be experienced.

Battles take place in all their blood, grit, and gory glory.

Lovers demonstrate their passion.

Heroes save the day in irrefutable Technicolor.

Everyone who sees a film enjoys the same shared vision. Actors, actions, sounds, and sequences; all exist as a visual constant to every person who watches the movie.

Where screenplays are concerned, the story lives because we see it happen.

If screenplays are sunsets, then novels are conversations.

A conversation requires commitment and involvement from more than one person. Conversations are not passive experiences. They must be entered into in order to be enjoyed. A conversation may happen between two people who afterward remember it differently or reach different conclusions.

The experience of reading means that I must engage the brain, willingly put another’s ideas into my mind, and use my imagination to breathe life into the words on the page.

When I write a book, only words will connect me to my readers. Five people could read the same book and each have a different idea of what the characters look like, act like, and sound like.

As a novelist, I can enter a character’s head and expose that character’s thoughts, but it’s up to the reader to sift through, analyze, and evaluate them.

In novel writing, the only color I have at my disposal is black ink on white paper. With this monochromatic palette, I must paint scenes of vivid word pictures that color my readers’ fantasies and spark memories they never knew they had.

I know that hearing a novel writer say he or she also writes screenplays is anathema to many agents. (Don’t believe me? See what the Estimable Query Shark has to say on writers who also want to work in film.) But I don’t understand this. To me, it’s like saying a dressage horse should never learn to jump. Or that you can learn downhill skiing OR Thai cooking, but not both.

I’ve spoken to screenwriters who shy away from writing a novel. I know novelists who are cowed by the rules of screenwriting. Members of both camps bemoan the fact that screenwriting and book writing each exercise different writing muscles and require different skills.

Well, duh.

Writers write. Why wouldn’t a writer want to develop new skills?

One can learn to play the piano AND the guitar. They’re not mutually exclusive. Each discipline simply has its own fundamentals that must be mastered before the experience is as enjoyable to the audience as to the artist.

In life, as in art, I have many interests. I adore sunsets and conversation, movies and books, screenwriting and novel writing.

So you see, it’s impossible for me to answer whether I’d rather write novels or scripts. It’s equally impossible to say whether I like writing non-fiction books more or less than writing songs. That’s akin to asking whether I prefer sunsets to conversation, or riding over eating. Each fills a different niche in my life better than anything else could.

I write many different things in many different genres, mediums, and styles. Some things I write for money – to feed my family. Some I write for myself – to feed my soul.

And I cling stubbornly to the belief that I am not alone.

What’s your preference? Sunsets or conversation? Or both? Or neither? Comment below and let me know.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Art of Christmas Wishes

A picture paints a thousand words...and several thousand words can paint a picture. I love the wall hangings from Postertext. Tops on my Christmas list are The Great Gatsby and Through The Looking Glass.

The creators used the text from the books and arranged it to depict a scene from the story. Cool, huh? Art that crosses mediums to be -- more art.

It inspires me that books written decades, centuries, lifetimes ago can continue to speak to readers today. That notion is what compels those of us who write to press onward.

It tempers the criticism our work inevitably receives.

It encourages us to persevere in the face of rejection.

It motivates us to complete what we start -- even though we may be the only ones currently clamoring to know What Happens Next.

It's the green light at the end of a dock, winking across the waters, teasing us with the possibilities.

It's the feeling of disappearing entirely into the world we create in the hopes of making that world real for someone else.

One of my Christmas wishes is for every writer struggling to break into print to experience the thrill of acceptance. But remember -- whether that particular wish comes true for you this year, I still believe that the thrill of creation far outweighs the joy of publication... At least in this writer's book.

And so my larger wish is for every writer to discover anew the passion that fuels the art -- and find the time to indulge it!

Editor and literary agent's intern Cassandra Marshall wants to know: What do you want for Christmas? Telling her (and providing a link to the object of your desire) could win you a nifty stocking stuffer: a FREE EDIT of a FULL MANUSCRIPT!  How's that for a wish come true!

Grab My Button!
What's your wish? Comment below, and we'll dream together!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Big BEE Event

Last week, Conan O'Brien imagined Oprah "gifting" her audience with angry bees.

Conan's point, I suppose, is that the audience's reaction would be the same whether they were just presented with new cars or an irate swarm.

This is the sort of CGI stunt that makes my 7 y.o. inclined to disbelieve everything she sees.

As I watched the footage, however, I was reminded of what Simon Buxton, author of The Shamanic Way of the Bee says in the film "Vanishing of the Bees":

"The future of beekeeping is not in one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, but rather 60,000 people with one hive."

...and I think if Oprah had given her audience members bees, she could have done worse. In fact, if she ever DOES decide to give the gift of bees, she should get in touch with my friend, beekeeper extraordinaire, Randy Sue Collins. Randy Sue could set both Oprah AND Conan straight on how great such a gift would be.

It's no secret that bees are in danger. Colony Collapse Disorder - when entire hives of healthy, honey-making bees simply leave, never to return - poses real concerns not only for these beneficial insects, but also for humanity. We depend on bees to pollinate roughly 1/3 of our food crops. Albert Einstein's (probably apocryphal) observation that if all the bees of the world were to die, mankind would follow in less than 4 years rings frighteningly true.

One of the things I love about what I do is the fact that I get to meet fascinating, knowledgeable people who are tops in their field. Randy Sue is no exception. She spends much of her time educating schools and other organizations about the importance of bees and the joys of beekeeping.

Randy Sue's brand new video on Organic Beekeeping is the definitive work on understanding, cultivating, and living in harmony with honeybees. I'm honored to be involved in its launch. It speaks to those who are interested in learning about the nature of these insects, to avid gardeners, to people wanting to harvest their own honey, and to all who are interested in keeping honeybees happy and healthy for generations to come.

A one-day "Organic Beekeeping 101" DVD Launch Event happens on Friday, December 3. On that day, everyone who orders Randy Sue's delightful DVD receives a slew of cool, added bonuses to sweeten the deal.

It may not be the equivalent of giving audience members new cars. But for those who get the DVD and put what they learn from it to use, it could open their eyes to the wonderful world of honeybees.

Who knows? Maybe they'll start a write-in campaign for Oprah to give away bees next time.