Beta Readers Assemble: Pulling together the ultimate review team

I’m trying something new with Lucky Ellis and sending out the first half of the draft to my beta reading team before I even get my head wrapped around the second half. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that I’m hoping that once the first half is finalized — which I won’t feel it is until my trusted cabal gives input — it’ll provide an unalterable basis for the second half.

The other reason is I just need a bit of a spiritual uplift to get my energy up for writing Part Two. Hey, we’re all human. We all need our ego boost sometimes.

I don’t usually post “how to” articles on here, but this morning I found myself thinking about my beta reader team for this project and how it’s different from the project before it, which was different from the project before that, etc. So here are my tips for finding your A-team for beta reading:

1. Think about the project, not the people.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “she’s my best friend” or “he read the last one” or “my boss found out I write and really wants to read it now” when drafting your team. Don’t. (Unless your job might be in jeopardy if you leave your boss out, in which case maybe start looking for a different gig?)

Let the nature of the project be your guide. Did it require a lot of world-building and lore creation? Find your Game of Thrones fans and Dungeons & Dragons DMs. Is it a romance? Call on your friend who eats Harlequin paperbacks for breakfast. Did you risk getting put on a watchlist for all the dark, murdery Google searches you did? If you have any friends in the medical industry, consider asking them to take a look.

In practice, here’s what that looks like: My first book, Omaha, included a lot of neuroscientific and anatomical details, so my friend Noah, who had just concluded his neurology rotation at med school, was the first one I called upon to read it. He gave me some pointers but seemed rather disturbed at how spot-on I was in creating my speculative brain-chip-driven dystopia.

Noah didn’t read Nobody’s Hero, though. For that one, I called on Cody, who once led the Loyola University Comic Book Club and has an encyclopedic knowledge of heroes and villains across big-name and indie series. He was able to give me some pointers on how to structure Nightfire’s team and create a stronger “big bad” for the ending.

But there are a few constant draftees in my beta reading team, which brings me to no. 2:

2. Find your expert readers, and make sure they don’t all look like you.

Almost all my close friends are readers, but there are some that are simply voracious: They read entire books in a weekend and know all the Book World Drama that goes on. These are my Expert Readers and have an automatic place on the board.

The team is also as diverse as possible. I make a conscious effort to ensure my books have characters of various races, sexualities, genders, cultures, ages, etc., which means that I’m not always writing from my own personal experience: As a single, childless white woman of considerable privilege, I’m only have one kind of perspective. That’s why my beta teams are filled with people unlike me — women of color, non-straight friends, parents, older, younger.

Note, however, that having a diverse beta reading team is not a substitute for hiring a professional sensitivity reader. You should still pay someone with that expertise to read your work before publishing.

3. Convey the importance of the job but don’t take it personally when half your team fails on their mission.

They say when throwing a party to only expect half the guest list. The same goes for beta reading. I usually get 2/3 of my readers to give me feedback, and only 1/3 of them do it in the timeframe I ask. Why? Well, we’re all busy adults with lives and day jobs and better things to do than read my newest book. So give your beta team a flexible deadline and lots of gratitude up-front so they know you understand what an undertaking this is — and to drive home to them, too, how much their feedback means to you.

Because the truth is, without beta readers, a lot of our work wouldn’t make it off our laptops and Google drives and into the hands of agents, editors and publishers. So choose wisely!

I killed another darling this week

Before I end up on any watchlists, remember that “kill your darlings” is a term used by writers to discuss cutting out a part of a project that they love. No actual murders were committed.

In fact, I don’t even know if I could call what I did this week to a part of Lucky Ellis (continued working title) as “killing.” Rather, I think I “human-centipeded” a darling, in that I took a large piece that I loved when I wrote it over National Novel Writing Month — you know, the slow-paced writing time where we’re all of sound mind and judgment — and edited it beyond recognition, sandwiching it with two other darlings from other parts of the book until it became an atrocity of genius.

*For the record I have never seen Human Centipede.

Anyway, I learned from another writer to always save renditions, so I’m preserving the original darling here on the blog in case I ever want to return to it. Any beta readers who see it won’t recognize it in the book, and the rest of you can just silently pass judgment on whether it deserved to be called a darling at all:

The aforementioned “darling:”

Lucky didn’t wear a corset as a matter of practicality: It was hard to tend to the barn or put up reserves for winter while being cinched inside a casket of whalebone and cloth. As a farmer’s daughter already promised to the undertaker’s son, even on special occasions she had little need to spruce up in the way the high-fashion magazines recommended. Just as it had no brothel, her town had no ladies’ shops, apart from the small corner of the haberdashery that Mrs. Yarbourg used to sell her millinery creations. The only Crocus Falls woman to own a corset — Darcy Templeton — had worn it exactly once, felt a fool, and was never seen in it again.  

So it was quite the surprise when Corinne was able to pull all the oxygen out of Lucky’s lungs with just a tug on two delicate ribbons.

“Breathe out and suck in,” she directed.

“Is this some sort of sick initiation?” Lucky wheezed, the corset tightening another quarter inch.

“You need to look right,” Corinne groaned, pulling the ribbons again, almost maliciously. 

“Maybe Wade yelled your name when he was fucking Corinne,” Marigold said with a giggle. Lucky wasn’t sure what had just made her stomach plummet: The way Marigold had caressed her cheek, albeit jokingly? The thought of Wade not just having sex with this woman, but thinking of Lucky while doing it? Or maybe Corinne had pulled the corset so tightly that it had finally squeezed her organs out of her body and onto the floor.

Corinne tied the corset’s strings at the bottom. Lucky inhaled cautiously and was surprised to find that it wasn’t impossible to breathe. Corinne victoriously patted her on the left buttock and sat down, a sheen of sweat covering her face.

Lucky looked in the mirror above the vanity and didn’t recognize the woman staring back. After months of living with and acting like men, she had resigned herself to looking like them as well, even when wearing women’s clothing. But the woman standing in the mirror before her had long, dark hair plaited attractively over a shoulder. Her face was clean and highlighted with rouge, the eyes defined with a line of kohl along each lid. The figure she had grown accustomed to binding and hiding beneath linen and wool work clothes was now accentuated into an hourglass by a cream-colored corset and gossamer chemise that puffed out at the top and bottom. 

Marigold’s arms encircled her waist from behind, her chin landing on her shoulder.

“The marshal’s not the only one you need to look out for down there. If she sees you, Miss Mimi will want you to stay here with us,” she said, giving Lucky a peck on the cheek.

Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 7: Better ideas persist

As I work on Nobody’s Hero this National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been pulling from material I have already written. (Don’t worry, I’m not counting any of it in my 50,000 goal.) It’s funny how some darlings you love become obsolete when a better idea comes along. Take this piece I discovered — and essentially rewrote — on Monday:

“The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others — Dior had won her business for this year’s gala. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once almost caused a cracked collarbone. But Lilah contended the twice-weekly pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

“Meanwhile, Pru fidgeted in an emerald satin dress with an attached translucent cape. It was overly dramatic and not at all her style, but it was the only gown Dior had in their Centropolis storefront that would hide the bruises from her last night out fighting crime. Her mother had raised an eyebrow, made a politically insensitive allusion to the Muslim community’s dress code, and eventually thrown her hands up with an admission that ‘It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.'”

Since deciding that Pru’s gala ensemble would be a high-tech hostess coat developed by Foster, the Q to Pru’s James Bond, the final paragraph not only describes the wrong clothing but also robs me of being able to paint a maddening but funny scene of when Pru’s Dior-draped mother sees her daughter role up in pants to an old-school charity gala. And let’s face it — it’s always better to show, not tell. 

Better ideas persist!

This is…NaNoWriMo 2018

Happy Nov. 1, everyone! While Americans binge on turkey, us writers purge on paper in an effort to compose 50,000 words’ worth of a single project in the 30-day period known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Many of us will make it, but we’ll sacrifice sleep, socializing and sometimes sanity to do it.

Last year I worked on my now-represented novel, Omaha, in an effort to get it ready for my agent. This year, I’m settling into a different kind of story — a Chuck Palahniuk-style satire called Nobody’s Hero that examines identity through the lens of an accidental vigilante — and I can’t wait to see what my uninhibited fingers type out.

Like most years, I’m not alone in my struggle. Tim Harnett, author of Reve and my writing buddy of the last three NaNoWriMos, plans to work on the second book in the series he began writing last November. I’ve hopefully convinced Cody Bridges to devote some energy this month to either Gin or The Phrenologist, two books he’s talked about writing for a while now. Partnerships during the month are almost requirements for success: No one quite gets the fervor of the month like someone in there with you. Plus, I’m competitive.

Luckily, those in my life who aren’t NaNoWriMoers also understand how much energy 30 days of creative outpour takes. Last year my friend Ally let me work for eight hours straight at her office in Seattle on Omaha (you could say it was partly born in the same place as Jeff Bezos’ rockets). I have a long list of people who wait to read the final product — though after edits, that means it’s April by the time I’m comfortable with them taking a peek. The Man with Time on His Arm has already offered to spend a quiet “creative day” with me and asks routinely if I’ve been writing. After all, he’s inadvertently helped me figure out a few plot points. Mom and Dad are used to my phone going straight to voicemail some November nights.

This year I plan to post every day on Convincing the Muse. They might be excerpts of what I’m working on or something completely separate that came to me. Maybe it’ll just be a song I’m using to set a mood when writing or a vignette based on a photo I took while daring to take my hands off the keyboard. All I’m saying is, stay tuned.

And let the writing begin!

Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

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This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?