Beta Readers

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Eventually we finish an improved, edited version of the first draft of our novels. We’ve run every chapter past our critique groups. We’ve read and applied editing tips. We’ve sweated over and changed our openings a dozen (or more) times. We’ve spell checked, grammar checked and read it over and over until we know it by heart. But is it really done? Now what?

Beta readers, that’s what.

I don’t know why we call them beta readers. Beta is the name of the second letter in the Greek alphabet. It’s the second of a group or series and the second brightest star in the night sky. So beta is second. Wouldn’t it be alpha readers? Alpha, the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning of everything, seems like it would be more apropos. I suppose, though, that we, the writers, could be considered the first readers.

Now we need second readers, but the first to read what we hope is the finished manuscript. Or close to finished. You would think family and friends would be lining up. Not so much. And really, are those the folks we want to read this first finished draft? An instructor in a writing class I took early on told us that when you have a very early draft, it’s good to give it to someone who is not going to be too critical and will probably tell you how wonderful you are. That’s when we want those loved ones to read it. It encourages up to soldier on with the project. eventually, though, we’re going to need people who can give us constructive criticism so that our manuscripts can get better. Mom or Sister may love our words, but they are not agents or publishers.

The beta reader thing is tricky.

The beta read is not an editor. He may find and mark mistakes and this is good but mainly you want your reader to answer questions. Did the beginning grab you? Did it bog down anywhere? Did the characters, the dialogue seem real? Was any of it confusing?

One downside of beta readers is that they can take their own sweet time getting around to reading our manuscripts. This waiting, on our part, can be agonizing. Did our first pages bore? Is the manuscript so bad that they’re afraid to tell us? We swallow our pride and call, only to find out that they haven’t even picked it up yet.

My friend Jack is the perfect beta reader. He sits down immediately and reads through the entire thing. Jack is smart, well read, and a writer himself. This is the reader we want. His critique is valuable. These people are harder to find than you might imagine. But keep looking because getting that informed overview of you story is not just helpful but necessary.

Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” But I wonder if the scariest moment isn’t the one just before you hand over your manuscript to someone to read. And judge.

Critique Groups

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Critique groups are like sardines — you either love them or hate them. Me, I love critique groups. Sardines, not so much. I think the love/hate issue with the former depends on whether you’ve ever been in a good one. I don’t know if there is a good sardine.

I’ve been in a few groups. The best have strong leaders with some knowledge of what constitutes good writing and how to go about improving. I’ve gone — one meeting is all it takes — to classes or groups with egocentric asses or clueless idiots as leaders. This doesn’t work for me. Getting together once or twice a month doesn’t work for me, exchanging pages beforehand doesn’t work for me — feels too much like homework. What I do like are read-and-critique groups that meet once a week, with members I can respect. The writer brings pages, usually not more than eight, and five or six are best. A chapter, basically. She may or may not pass out copies.Then she reads and everyone reads along or listens and gives their knee-jerk critiques.

This is amazingly helpful. Some have mocked the critique group, calling it “writing by committee.” It is not that. Be assured, it is always your story and you can tell it in any way you want. However, if you want your writing to improve, to maybe get to that level of traditional publishing, you may want feedback.

The writers who do not want to be critiqued generally believe they are already way too good to allow people to tell them what doesn’t work. This is a big mistake. It stops the progress of their writing. You have to be open to change. You have to be open to getting your butt kicked. It’s for your own good, believe me. Anyway, if you’re going to be any kind of artist, you’d better develop a thick skin. A critique group is a good place to start doing that.

Another great thing about committing to a weekly critique group is that, at least in ours, everyone is required to WRITE. Members can only go a couple of weeks before they are prodded to bring something: a new chapter, a revised chapter, an old or new short story. Knowing that I will have to read a new chapter every week makes me write a new chapter every week. And I get my first feedback on it immediately. I’ve written three complete novels since joining this group. I’ve seen other members finish novels and memoirs. We help each other with queries and synopses. I’ll be reading this blog entry to them. By the time  you read it, it will have been improved.

Often when  you read articles or blogs by agents and editors, they will tell you that if you’re going to spend any money on your manuscript, use it on a freelance editor. That’s good advice. But a professional editor can be expensive. My critique group serves this purpose nicely. They can weed out the offending grammar and unnecessary adjectives, tell me when my POV or tense changes and notice if the plot is going off the rails. Better still, they know my voice and the way I tell a story.

I still think we should all use an editor, if possible. We want to give that person the best we’ve been able to do with our book, so that hopefully she will not have all that much work to do on it, making it less expensive for us. Having run our manuscript through our critique group helps with that.

If you do get a group together, its a good idea to establish some ground rules. For our group, which we named The North County Writers Bloc, we have guidelines which set up how the meeting will be run. New members are given a copy. None of the rules are carved in stone but it helps to have some order.

You’ll find some critiquers will specialize. In our group we had the man who encouraged starting a chapter with dialogue, someone else who looks to shorten sentences, others specialize in opening up the plot, or finding those pesky passive verbs or pointing out problems with tense or point of view. And often, when others are being critiqued you’ll find you learn something, too.

Here’s what a few members of the North County Writers Bloc had to say about this blog entry:

“Yes, I agree. I’ve completed four novels. For a guy who doesn’t type, that’s pretty good. My stress is my business and it is forgotten when I’m writing. So is this extending my life.”

“I learn from others’ writing styles, vocabularies. It’s great entertainment, having all these stories. Orin ( a recently deceased member, sadly) always changes my beginnings.”

“If I hadn’t found NCWB, I would never have written anything. Let alone anything halfway decent.”

That All Important First Sentence

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I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – San Diego chapter. Award winning author of forty-one (and counting) children’s books, Richard Peck, spoke at a recent meeting. His topic was First Lines and he gave examples of great ones. Would the opening to my Alex Bullied be one of them? I thought not. It’s certainly no Charlotte’s Web, which begins “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Back to the drawing board. How do I make that first sentence sparkle? Sometimes a writer works and reworks a first sentence. I did that with my first book, Riding On The Wind.When I finally wrote–  “Carrie could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years had a trip into town taken so long.” I knew I had my opening.

When I first thought of writing Morning of the Mermaid, I was inspired by a line I thought would be the first sentence — “When Calista’s parents died, an hour apart, she thought, now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation.” I thought that had punch. But it just didn’t work and ended up somewhere in the middle of the book.

Anything else in the whole two or three hundred pages can be changed. We all know the quote — credited to everyone from Hemingway to King — “kill your darlings.” We know we cannot become attached to our words. But we fall a little too much in love with our first words. They’re our first-born. The words that make up our first line are the favorites of our darlings. But sometimes, woe is us, they have to go.

Here’s the thing about that first line, that first page. When we write the original, it feels fresh and right and pulls us in to keep writing all of those 200-300 pages. When we have to go back and start the book again, it can feel forced. Not like the first time when we were so inspired. We are all too aware, this second or third go-around, of how important our first lines are.

After listening to Richard Peck speak, I knew I would have to rethink the opening to Alex Bullied. I kept staring at it, hoping, I suppose, that it shone with such brilliance that it jumped off the page, snaring the reader. It didn’t. It began — “Geeks and losers streamed int Gureville Math and Sciences Charter Middle School.” Not exactly Richard Peck-worthy. I continued with — “September sunlight blinked off eyeglasses and mouths full of braces. I’d never seen so many buttoned up, tucked in, wrinkle-free shirts or high-waisted khakis in one place in my life. Where were the jocks? Oh yeah, no sports, unless you count chess or glee club.”

Don’t judge.

My first attempt was even worse. I had the kid imagining himself in an old black and white Twilight Zone. That really didn’t work, for so many reasons. Three pages in and I knew if I didn’t change it, the entire book would fall flat.

I kept thinking how important that first impression is, to the agent’s assistant, the agent, the publisher, the reader. And that’s when I came up with this, the final first sentence and opening to Alex Bullied — “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” my mom said.

Seems to me that says it all.