Beta Readers: A Writer’s Best Friends

I have to admit, when I first came across this term, I had no idea what a beta reader actually was. I assumed most writers went the route of traditional publishing and hired an editor to make sure their manuscript was squeaky clean. In fact, it wasn’t until I started reading YA fiction and participated in my first NaNoWriMo that I discovered the invaluable jewels that are beta readers. These are people who are so in love with reading they are willing to sludge through your draft. Not sludge. Meticulously read through your draft and make careful notes to help you improve your story. They should all receive medals. Seriously. If you have a story/novel/poem/comic book that you have revised a few times and want to get some feedback on before sending it out, get yourself a beta reader.

Beta readers, for the most part, don’t read to correct grammar and punctuation (though I am sure they would if you asked them to). They are looking for continuity, plot holes, believability. If they sign on to read your manuscript, know they are mad about your genre. They know what works, what doesn’t, and how they want to feel when the story is over. They read more than you (no, seriously, they do) and they are well versed in the ins and outs of sci-fi/romance/horror/literary or historical fiction, whatever you’ve decided to dabble in.

Never worked with a beta before? Here’s what I have found. Because they are well read, because they have an extensive background in your genre, always, ALWAYS give your beta a polished copy of your work. Sure they are getting a draft, just make sure it isn’t the first one. When you send your book/story/etc. give it to them in the format they prefer. Some readers will want a printable file, some will read on a Kindle. Whatever makes it easier for your reader to finish your work. If you are after specific feedback, a list of questions can accompany your file. You can turn to Google for pages and pages of questions to ask your beta but the one I think is most important is “was there a point where you lost interest?” If someone is suddenly moved to check Facebook or Instagram while in the middle of a chapter, some serious revisions are necessary. Not all feedback will be useable (let the words of Neil Gaiman guide your revisions) but often, the good stuff stings a little. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t defend your position. Be polite, thank them. These are people who talk about the books they read and they could become advocates for your story, if they like it.

Once you’ve tweaked your story, you are ready to find a new group of readers or send out your work for publication. Just don’t forget your betas. Mention them in your thanks. Send them a fruit basket. Read their manuscripts and offer feedback. Keep the betas happy!

The Things I Carry

I wrote this reflection my first semester in college in response to a story from ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien. The stories in this collection, blurring the lines between truth and fiction, revealed the weights that men carry, physically, emotionally, and mentally, during times of conflict and how those weights impact their actions. I wanted to explore the concept of this dichotomy in my own life and scribbled this down in an old journal.

I carry the ache of love that has been taken away with no apology. I carry the fear of others pushing me away, keeping me down and isolated. I carry a secret smile for when I am alone and sad, to cheer me up. I carry a scar to show that I am brave. I carry anger to keep me strong, but it also eats holes in my soul. I carry the memories of friends who have loved me with their whole being. I carry the weight of always needing to be right, to prove myself. I carry a rage toward those who take advantage of others. I carry the hurts of those around me, for they are heavy burdens to carry alone. I carry my books, Monday, Wednesday, & Friday, to school and home again; their weight validating my life, their words changing my views. I carry Chapstick so I feel moist and soft. I carry a cell phone, I don’t know why. I hate that everyone can get a hold of me whenever they want because I feel guilty when I press ignore. I carry jealousy towards those who “have” what I never got: beauty, popularity, wealth. I carry uncertainty about my body. I am smart, I am funny, I am fat. I carry heavy weights that I have chosen for myself, placed myself under. To take them off or let them go would mean that I am not strong enough to handle them. And this cannot be.

 

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.

Book Review: Tenth of December

Tenth of December

I stumbled upon this book by chance. One of the stories from this collection was featured in a list of 18 Perfect Short Stories and everyone I talked to said they’d only heard good things. I made it a goal to read all the collections on the list and let me say, as far as this book is concerned, I was not disappointed. There wasn’t a story in here that I didn’t love, or that I’ll ever be able to forget. Saunders dives straight into the darkest places of the human heart and brings them to light with grace, wit, and humor. He is, without a doubt, one of the best short story writers I have had the pleasure to read and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his stuff.

There are stories here about everything, love, loss, anger, war, science, relationships, the things that make us human, but there is one common thread that runs through the middle of all of them; the idea of right and wrong and how it relates to humanity. And while you may be shaking your head and saying, every book/story/song is, at its core, about this idea of right and wrong I would encourage you to take a look at morality through Saunder’s eyes. It’s a look at morality as I’ve never seen it before. He tackles the big questions and turns the answers on their heads. Lies become good, when the untruths we tell ourselves keep us from acting upon the deep darkness inside. When one acts out of love, harm becomes a kind of protection. Death is a weapon we use as a reminder of individuality, of choice, of control, of freedom. How hard, how very hard it is to do the right thing. And why it’s so important that we do.

And while you might be thinking, wow, this sounds like a dark read (it is), let me assure you that there is a beauty there as well. Saunders reminds us of the fact that each of us, down underneath all the surface grime, is a beautiful, albeit flawed, soul. A soul who is loved, a soul who feels, a soul who needs, in a world that would stunt all those things. His characters are transparent and honest and tragic, mirrors of our own failings and misconceptions. We have to hope for better for them because, in a way, we are the same. He tells the story of the truths that exist in all of us and, by giving them names, by bringing them to light, he sets us free from them.

This is a book that will make its mark on you. It will change the way you think, the way you look at the world, and maybe even the way you look at yourself. It’s a book we need to read because it’s about being human, in all its triumphant glory and all its sorrowful insignificance and sometimes, we need a reminder about what it truly means to be human.

Retrospective: April

Looking back over April I’ve come to realize it was a pretty sparse month. I had big plans for the month (can anyone say a poem a day for National Poetry Month?) but I didn’t achieve many of them, just for lack of time. There was lots of visiting and travel this past month and I didn’t write every day or even blog every week. But I’ve come to realize that I need to allow myself the space to relax and enjoy the moment, rather than focus on what’s not getting done. I don’t want to look back and realize I missed out on some meaningful memories because I was so consumed with sticking to a schedule. I’ve mapped out the upcoming months a little bit better so that I can continue to be flexible while still completing the goals I set for myself back in January.

In April, despite a full schedule, I wrote 1,765 words, read This Is How You Lose Her, outlined three short story ideas, and started editing an abandoned NaNo novel which was in desperate need of an overhaul. Not a stellar month, but there was still a lot accomplished and I’m feeling pretty good about heading into the summer. It will be full of weddings and parties and late night fires; I just need to make sure it’s full of sentences too.

How do you balance a busy life with a creative life? What things have you given up to make space for your art form?

Introductions: Abandoned Words

This week, like last week, is brought to you courtesy of my old writing journals. A little back story may be necessary so let me start by telling you about one of my all-time favorite short story writers, William Sydney Porter, otherwise known as O. Henry. I haven’t read a single story I didn’t love! Henry has a way of fleshing out characters in just a few short sentences that makes them almost immediately relatable. He is a master of wit and wordplay, and he almost always surprises you with a twist, just at the end of the story. Basically, he’s everything I want to be when I grow up! And he actually used words that I’d never heard of in his stories. I would sit on the couch (next to my goldfish, Norman) and read collections of O. Henry’s short stories with a dictionary close at hand.

It was during one of these reading times that I decided to try to revive some of these old words, to give them life again. I began collecting them and attempting to use them in my daily conversations or papers for school. A few months after I began my collection, a website popped up where you could actually adopt a word and I really enjoyed browsing there (until it closed down). It’s been a while since I made a list of abandoned words but here are a few of my favorites from O. Henry’s collected works:

Prospicient – having foresight

Chapfallen (or chopfallen) – dejected or dispirited

Recusant – refusing to submit to authority; dissenting

Insouciant – happily unconcerned; carefree; nonchalant

Inveterate – firmly established; habitual

Do you look up words while reading? What are a few of your favorite words people seem to have forgotten?

Untitled Circa 2005

I was browsing through some old notebooks this week and found this short-short story that I’d written back in 2005. It seems like maybe it needs some tweaking and it could stand to be a little longer, but I like the idea. This concept came from a conversation I had with my roommate Laura in which she basically told me the same thing that Jackson tells the main character. And I felt much the same way about it. Enjoy!

Norman and I have loved each other since the day we met. He believes that he fell into my life entirely by chance, but I know it was a gift of fate. I had just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood and, although the apartment was everything I had hoped for, it was a lonely place in the summer. My new neighbors, Russell and Lillian, were an older couple who had three cats and no children. Russell liked to wear corduroy trousers and I could always hear him coming down the hall, swish-swish, swish-swish. The dim, overhead lights in the corridor shone off of his bald, shiny head as he held the door open for Lillian. Lillian in her voluminous, brightly-colored house dress and plastic shoes clumping into my foyer with a huge grin on her wrinkly face.

“Emma, this is Norman.”

I felt my breath catch in my throat at the sight of him and my cheeks turned the same delicate shade as my pale sweater. I smiled, he stayed and here we are; happy and content. He is simple, so much less complicated than I. His big, gentle eyes melt my heart and we spend the evenings together, side by side; I read or write poetry and he contemplates the existence of a bigger reality. I have never felt so fulfilled.

Today though, Jackson brought to light certain behavior patterns in the life of my love that have me worried. Jackson lives in an apartment complex on the other side of town. I met him at work and we took turns making dinner once a week. Tonight was my night and we were chopping peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes for the salad. I refused to believe that Norman cares as little for me as Jackson tells me he does. I tried to convince both Jackson and myself that Norman and I had something special, something that brought us together and would keep us together.

“He gets excited when I come home and I know he is happy to see me,” I informed Jackson while he diced the tomatoes. “I can tell by the look on his face that he loves me.” I tossed a handful of lettuce into the wooden bowl on the counter defiantly.

Jackson looked at me out of the corner of his eye, “Emma, goldfish have, like, a three-second memory. Not only is he not happy to see you, he doesn’t even remember who you are. Maybe you should get a dog.”

Copyright 2005 – Katharine A. Newell

Magic Words

Long time friend and flash fiction writing buddy, Jamie Henshaw is on the blog today to tell you all about the pursuit of the “right” words and his fresh take on them. Enjoy!

Sometimes I feel like I’m chasing after magic words, the right words, THE words.  It’s not just me, I should think.  After all, doesn’t a painter aim for the perfect blend of purple, indigo, red, and yellow to capture the beauty of a lilac as the sun sets?  Doesn’t a musician tinker over the same bars for hours until it sounds like the trill in their soul?  I mean, maybe it’s the old part of me – the one that used to write poems with a Petrarchan rhyme scheme, with Shakespeare’s well-known Iambic Pentameter, or with the recycling of words in a Sestina.  Or even free verse where all bets are off… but it still needs to be just so.

I’ve smiled at the wit of a sentence, hit Ctrl+S after a tremendous idea, and whooped out loud after a great twist.  I’ve also gone and deleted the whole lot because it didn’t help the story.  I’ve  Googled words that seem in my head to be the right one to write, a subtle unconscious voice whispering things buried deep in my memory, but worry that it’s not right word to read.  I’m the guy that sits there with a massive road block in my brain trying to figure out a character’s name.  Nothing can move forward without finding the name.  The perfect name.  The magic name.

I try to chase words.  Sometimes it’s successful.  But that’s not how it works.  The color is in the artist’s eye.  The notes are in the musician’s ear.  The words are in the writer’s fingertips.  Our mission is to unearth the thoughts and feelings that dance within, or plague, us.  After all is said and done, our minds resemble an excavation site; sometimes unearthing ancient ruins, sometimes hitting a water main.

And so here’s what works for me.  Sitting with my eyes closed, people watching the characters I’ve created, eavesdropping on their secrets, setting up obstacles and watching them wend their way through the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.   (Really, I did that once.)  Because the truth is, they know better than I do.  They’ve taught me things I haven’t experienced myself.  They’ve given me advice that I needed to hear.  They’ve gone through the challenges in life that I’m not strong enough for.  When all is said and done, it’s my privilege to share all of these things with others.

It’s not a search for “Magic Words.”  I don’t think there is such a thing; no, not really.  The words find us.  They find us when we write and read,  fail and thrive, love and lose – everything in between and without a moment’s notice.

The truth is, it’s not the power of magic words.

The truth is, it’s the power of words that is magic.

Book Review: This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her

I was going to tell you that I didn’t like this book that much. I finished it but I didn’t truly enjoy it. I was going to tell you that it was probably because I don’t know Spanish and Diaz uses a lot, spattering it through the story on almost every page. I love dark, depressing, unresolved stories but this one didn’t do it for me; I wanted Yunior to win at something, anything and the ending left me feeling…unsettled. I was going to tell you that there were moments I loved but overall, I wasn’t that impressed. Except that I can’t stop thinking about this story. It’s been two days and it’s still almost all I can think about. He got me.

I fell in love with Latino lit when I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. The short sentences, bright and colorful, danced in a rhythm I’d never heard, rising and falling like a funny story on a quick tongue. I came to the realization that while other literatures can be picked apart and quoted line by line without missing any of the meaning, when you read a sentence that grips you in Latino lit, it’s because of the way the author set you up. You can’t quote a line to show the meaning, you have to quote a paragraph. Everything is connected deeper, further, tighter. Words, like culture, knit together.

So I don’t know Spanish. I read it anyway. Some of it I could figure out, in context, but overall I was left with this feeling that I only kind of knew what was going on. The story was rolling along and, for all the words I was digesting, I still felt like I was an outsider to something. That’s an unsettling feeling. And it made me think about language and relationships and how you can be participating in life with someone but still not be sure what is happening. I wonder if he wrote it this way intentionally, to show the reader what it’s like to live between two worlds, two languages.

The ambiguity that I love in other stories, the harshness and beauty of reality, the ending that solves nothing, all my favorite things, didn’t satisfy me in this story.  I desperately wanted Yunior to catch a break, to get ahead, even a little. But he just couldn’t. Not even once. This language of hardship, this acceptance of suffering as part of life was hard for me to handle. I expect a rise and fall pattern in life and a life of all fall defies my understanding of reality. I was thrown by the sadness.

This book violated all of my expectations. It made me look at myself and my experiences in a new way. It asked me to try to understand something that I have never and will never experience. It was uncomfortable and unforgettable. I loved this book.

What about you? Have you read it? Did you like it? Is there another book you’ve read that violated your expectations and made its mark on you?

The Blog Parade

As you know, I’m trying to get more reading into my busy life right now. I’ve been having some pretty good success since subscribing to a handful of blogs. I downloaded Bloglovin’ and, while it’s a great concept and super easy to use when I do log in, I have way more success getting the posts delivered directly to my email. Then, if I can grab a few minutes in the park while pushing the girls on the swings, I can actually read a bit straight from there. Pretty convenient. Just like with books, I’m an eclectic blog reader so maybe you’ll find something you like on this list too. You’re welcome 😉

My first two favorites are written by fellow writers. My friend Jim has recently published a memoir and has a book of poetry coming out this month. His blog is an honest, funny look at just about everything that comes down the pike in this crazy life. He has a great way of cutting straight to the heart of an issue and addressing it with grace. He publishes twice a week which is perfect because if I can’t read the post right away, I know I have some time to catch up. If you appreciate honesty and like to laugh, head over to his blog and take a read. You will enjoy yourself!

My friend, Mary, is also a poet/writer/storyteller with work recently published online. She has recently decided to plunge into the blogosphere and write about the creative process and words and perfectionism and…just a lot of really great stuff. She asks a lot of questions, which really allow you to engage with her thought process, but also encourage you to think about your art form and how her insights apply to that as well. Extremely informational and always well written, she also publishes twice weekly (barring kids or life interfering, mom’s of littles in solidarity) and I really look forward to seeing her name in my inbox. If you appreciate a blog where no topic is taboo, hers is the blog you want to subscribe to.

I adore Chuck Wendig’s blog, which I have mentioned before, and while many of his posts are way too long for me to read in one sitting, he does a great job of breaking up the posts with heading and such so I can easily pick back up where I left off. If you don’t like profanity, I’d avoid the subscription button, but if you like weirdos who use profanity and create awesome and hilarious phrases and can talk about the creative process like this

The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.

Get thee to his blog, immediately!

I follow World Literature Today, which has a ton of great bookish info, reviews, articles, etc. but I rarely read the entire post because only half of it comes in through email. There are a bunch of links you can click to follow and read the rest of the articles but I pretty much only read the ones that I am super interested in. Like this one about women who have won Nobel prizes. Pretty good stuff there. If you don’t mind clicking over to finish reading, you might like WLT. The Write Place is pretty much the same. I subscribe to a blog so I can get the email and not have to follow the link. So emailing me a link is pretty pointless. But I keep them in the old inbox because sometimes there is a little gem that is totally worth following up on. Like a few weeks ago when they did a post about why fairy tales still sell. Since I’m working on my own collection of re-told tales, I found it very interesting and “click-worthy” if you will. Again, you may find something you like so you should check it out.

That’s about it for writing blogs. Let me know if you stop by and what you think about them. I always like to hear another perspective.

 

Short and Sweet

I’ve been avoiding the blog again, as I am sure you can tell. The thing of it is, I have nothing to say. I have no words. They are used up, gone, poof! All day long, I talk and engage and parent and when it comes time to sit down and write something I find my word supply wanting. It’s sad and depressing and just the season I’m in right now. But before that gets you all bummed out I should tell you that I have the solution. It came to me last week when I was thinking about that library post. The thing that can fix all of this is … reading. Yep, I don’t read anymore. I can’t. I think we’ve talked about that before. But I’ve realized that I HAVE to read because I need those words flowing in so words can flow out. And since I like to devour a book all at once but can no longer do so, I’ve settled on collections of short stories to get the ball rolling.

I’m starting out with Tenth of December by George Saunders and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. They came highly recommended by the Scottish Book Trust (for the record, I am planning on reading all 25 books on that list) and just came into the library. I am really looking forward to getting back in the habit of reading and I know it will help me develop this habit of writing. I’ve also been reminded of the necessity of putting in the time to “just write” because that’s what will get me where I want to be. If you are having a hard time staying motivated, I strongly recommend getting some Chuck Wendig in your life. Irreverent and inappropriate, his hilarious, madcap rantversations (rants + conversations) give you the push you need to get back to the drawing board.

That’s where I’m headed, back to the page. How about you? What unfinished business are you tackling this week?