Why Nobody Cares About Your Plot

Why Nobody Cares About Your Plot

Why Nobody Cares About Your Plot

A harsh truth today from fiction-land:

Readers don’t care about your plot. They care about how your plot affects your characters.

You can have as many betrayals, breakups, fights, CIA conspiracies, evil war lords, double-crossings, sudden bouts of amnesia, comas, and flaming meteors racing directly toward Manhattan as you want.

But if readers don’t understand how those events are going to affect (1) a character they care about who (2) is trying to achieve a particular goal which (3) will be impacted, either positively or negatively, by the consequences of said event… then you may as well be shooting off firecrackers in an empty gymnasium.

Here’s an example of a meaningless plot point:

A school burns down. Oh my god, the flames! The carnage! The dead and injured children! There are police everywhere–total chaos! And your main character is standing on the sidewalk, watching the event, and crying.

Here’s an example of a plot point that impacts your character and her goal, and thus your reader:

Mary Ann has been a middle school teacher for 25 years.

One year, she gets a new student–an unusual girl named Indigo who is obviously having troubles at home, and has a penchant for burning anything she can get her hands on.

Mary Ann becomes increasingly fond of Indigo, defending her to the administration who wants to kick the girl out of school, citing her potential to endanger the other students.

Over the course of the first quarter of the story, Mary Ann gets into a personal battle with herself over how to handle the situation–she truly feels a connection with Indigo, who reminds her of her own sister who was institutionalized for similar behavior when they were kids.

One day, Indigo gets into an altercation with another girl at school, screaming absolute insanity about how she plans to kill everyone. Burn it down! she bellows, I’ll burn this whole place down!

In the wake of this most disturbing turn, Mary Ann comes very close to siding with the administration, but ultimately–remembering her inability to save her sister from social ostracization under similar circumstances–she comes to Indigo’s defense and convinces the principal to give her one more chance. Indigo will receive weekly counseling, do community service hours, and they will re-evaluate her in two months time.

Mary Ann goes home that night feeling a tentative sense of relief. She did the right thing–didn’t she? Surely the other children weren’t in any real danger, and poor, tender, special Indigo deserved the second chance that Mary Ann’s sister never got. If Mary Ann didn’t come to her defense, who would? She dozes off to sleep and, although she is troubled by strange dreams, wakes up feeling even more confident about her decision.

Half way through her drive to school the next morning, she hears an announcement on the radio. There is a fire at the school. She rushes there, speeding wildly and running through red lights. But when she arrives, it’s too late.

Oh my god, the flames! The carnage! The dead and injured children! There are police everywhere–total chaos! And your main character, Mary Ann, is standing on the sidewalk, watching the event, and crying.

Remember: Plot without character development is melodrama.

It’s not about the events themselves, it’s about how the events impact your characters.

Before you set something on fire, make sure your character–and thus your reader–has some stake in the outcome. The result will be higher engagement from your reader, more empathy for the main character, and an absolutely gripping plot.

Note: I’ve used a fire in this example, but as long as your character development is on point, readers can get excited about anything, no matter how small or subtle.

Happy writing!

How to Use Adverbs Like a Pro

How to Use Adverbs Like a Pro

How to Use Adverbs Like a Pro

Contrary to popular fiction writing wisdom, adverbs are not always the devil. Like anything, they quickly become problematic when poorly used or overused. However when used well and sparingly, they can be a great asset to your writing.

Case in point:

Here are some examples of well-chosen, well-used adverbs penned by published fiction writers…

“They were all day on the long black road, stopping in the afternoon to eat sparingly from their meager supplies.”
-Cormac McCarthy, The Road

“In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you.… ‘The pillow will comfort you in the long unbroken hours. If you sleep you will unconsciously benefit from its presence.’”
-Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

“We have a connecting bathroom,” Eleanor said absurdly. “The rooms are exactly alike.”
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

“Not only will I face death, it’s sure to be a long and painful one at Cato’s hand. The thought of Prim having to watch keeps me doggedly inching my way toward the hideout.”
-Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

“I wanted the girls to pull their shoulders back and walk fearlessly into darkness.”
-Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You

“Why does the way she walks—a child, mind you, a mere child!—excite me so abominably?”
-Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

So, what makes these adverbs work?

How are these writers getting away with using them, when the rest of us are sternly warned to excise every word that ends in -ly from our drafts?

#1 They aren’t lazy. These adverbs modify already-strong verbs in order to make them even stronger, instead of propping up weak verbs.

Beginning writers often use adverbs to prop up weak verbs (e.g. “walk angrily” instead of “stomp”). Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, modifies the already strong verb “inching” with “doggedly,” which legitimately adds something to our understanding of Katniss’s experience. In all of these examples, the adverbs actually *add* something.

#2 They are necessary (or, rather, they aren’t unnecessary).

None of these adverb-verb phrases could be reduced to just one word. The adverb is necessary to our understanding of the sentence. Take McCarthy’s “eat sparingly” or July’s “walk fearlessly.” If you remove the adverb, the meaning of those sentences would be completely changed. Those are also great examples of how to properly modify a “weak” verb. There is no word (that I can think of) that means “walk fearlessly” or “eat sparingly.”

#3 They are economical.

Jeanette Winterson could have written, “If you sleep you will benefit without realizing it.” But “unconsciously benefit” is much shorter and cleaner.

#4 They contribute to the style and voice of the author or narrator.

Nabakov’s writing, in particular, wouldn’t be the same without his adverbs. But more to the point his character Humbert Humbert would not come across so sharply. Humbert Humbert says “excite me abominably” because he is dramatic and wordy, and at the same time the word expresses the conflict inherent in the situation. He combines the word excite – usually a positive thing – with the word abominably – which denotes something abhorrent, wrong, or evil. This is right on point, since the whole book is about the inherently contradictory and morally repugnant issue of having a sexual attraction to a child. So Nabakov is getting double duty here – he is showing us Humbert Humbert’s character while at the same time showing the reader how conflicted, weird, and morally wrong the whole thing is. There is the tiniest bit of dramatic irony in the word, because Humbert Humbert doesn’t see the situation the same way as the reader – he throws around the word abominably with almost a sense of humor, whereas we are cringing and judging him.

What do you think? Do you see anything that I missed? Can you think of other writers who use adverbs well? Or maybe you have an example of an awesome adverb from your own writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How to Activate Your Passive Characters, One Verb at a Time

How to Activate Your Passive Characters

How to Activate Your Passive Characters
Here’s a quick tip: Active, dynamic verbs make for active, dynamic characters. (And conversely, weak, passive verbs make for weak, passive characters!)

Instead of writing characters who have strong motivations, and who actively go out and try to get what they want, beginning fiction writers often create characters who are passive. In other words, the story isn’t a result of the character’s actions—the story unfolds around the character who reacts to the events but does nothing to try to change their course.

Stories like this can get boring very quickly. It’s difficult to identify with a character who doesn’t want anything badly enough to take action, and when your character doesn’t have a hand in the events that take place, the continuity of your plot quickly suffers.

The first way to tackle this problem, of course, is to look toward your character’s motivations, conflicts, and actions. What do they want? What is in their way? What will they do about it?

But another way fiction writers can tackle a passive character is to weed out passivity and flatness on the sentence level.

I came to this conclusion recently while reading a client’s manuscript. He was aware that his main character was too passive and asked me to help him make his character more active. I immediately started looking at the aforementioned “big picture” solutions. Where could his character be more active in individual scenes and chapters?

But as I kept reading, I realized how much of his character’s passivity was bleeding into each and every sentence. Take, for example, these sentences. (These are my own examples, not actual quotes from the manuscript):

Sam felt something shift inside him.
Sam watched as Lisa struggled out of bed.
Sam turned his attention toward the door.
Sam was still collecting himself.
Sam felt a vague discomfort.
Sam managed to get down the stairs to the front entrance.

Boring! How are we supposed to want to spend 200 pages with that guy?

More importantly, though, notice the weak verbs in these sentences: felt, watched, turned, was, felt, managed to. I think we’re all guilty of using weak verbs from time to time, especially on a first draft. And some of these sentences simply can’t be saved—they are passive by their nature. But notice how quickly some of the sentences change by making adjustments to the verbs:

Sam marched toward the door.
Sam collected himself.
Sam ran down the stairs to the front entrance.

Yeah! Marched, collected, ran. Not perfect, but it’s a start. Now Sam is in motion. He’s doing something. Notice how much more active, dynamic, and interesting he seems, just by changing a few verbs?

In addition to weak verbs, many of the sentences are passively constructed. In these sentences, Sam is not an actor or an agent, but a recipient. For example:

Sam felt something shift inside him.

Now, sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to be reactive, to be a recipient instead of an instigator. But too much of this language and your character will start to feel like a blank slate–someone to whom things happen, rather than someone who makes things happen.

If possible, simply cut out sentences like these. If you can’t cut them (because they’re absolutely necessary), try to at least use these passively constructed sentences sparingly, or see how you can make them more interesting. For example, instead of the vague, passive sentence “Sam felt something shift inside him,” you could write:

Sam’s stomach flip-flopped. Nothing would ever be the same.

Here, we’ve removed the unnecessary filter “Sam felt,” added the more active verb “flip-flop,” and given a more specific description of “something shifted.” Or–hey–we can remove the reference to “something shifting” altogether, creating the sense of a shift for the reader without filtering it through Sam.

Sam paused at the door. He hadn’t thought of that.

Now, we as the readers feel that something has “shifted,” without the writer actually having to say it.

In summary, if you’re having difficulty with passive characters, look at the big picture, but check out your sentence construction, too! You’d be surprised how much more active your characters can be, simply by rewriting their actions on the sentence level.

Your thoughts?

3 Easy Ways to Transform Boring Descriptions

3 Easy Ways to Transform Boring Descriptions

3 Easy Ways to Transform Boring Descriptions

We’ve all been warned about the dangers of using too much description. Readers don’t want to read three paragraphs about a sunset, we’re told. Description slows down a story; it’s boring and self-indulgent. You should keep your description as short and simple as possible. For those who take a more scientific approach to writing fiction, arbitrary rules abound:  One sentence per paragraph. One paragraph per page. And, for god’s sake, “Never open a book with weather” (Elmore Leonard).

But what this conventional wedding wisdom fails to take into account is the difference between static and dynamic description. Static description is usually boring. It exists almost like a painted backdrop to a play. As the name suggests, it doesn’t move, doesn’t interact or get interacted with.

There were clouds in the sky.
Her hair was red with hints of orange.
The house had brown carpeting and yellow countertops.

In moderation, there’s nothing wrong with static description. Sometimes, facts are facts, and you need to communicate them to the reader in a straightforward manner.

But too much static description, and readers will start to skim forward. They don’t want to read about what the house looks like or the stormy weather or the hair color of each of your protagonist’s seventeen cousins.

Why? Because they can tell it’s not important. They can afford to skip all of your description because their understanding of the story will not be impacted.

That’s where dynamic description comes in.

Dynamic description is a living entity. It’s interactive, it’s relevant. It takes on the voices of your narrators and characters. In short, it gives us important information about the story, and it can’t be skimmed over.

So how do you make your description more dynamic so that it engages your readers and adds color and excitement to your story? Here are a few tips.

#1 Make sure your characters are actually engaging with the descriptive elements of your story.

Static description just sits there, like the backdrop of the play. It’s mentioned but never engaged with by the characters. In a scene of static description, you might write:

The grass was green. The house was painted blue. James walked up the sidewalk and knocked on the front door.

In this passage, your complaining reader would be right: it absolutely doesn’t matter that the grass was green. But in a dynamic description, characters notice their surroundings. Here’s the same passage, rewritten with a bit more engagement from the character:

James walked up the sidewalk. The grass outside of the house was so green he couldn’t believe it – it almost looked fake. After looking around to make sure no one was watching, he squatted down and ran his hands through it. It was real, all right. Who did these people think they were?

Ah ha. Not only is this a lot more interesting, but suddenly the green grass becomes important to the story. Why? Because it’s important to the character. I talked about this in my post Why Nobody Cares About Your Plot. You can’t very well ask your readers to care about something that the characters themselves don’t care about.

Tip: See if you can find places in your writing where your characters can interact more with the descriptive elements of your story.

#2 If you are writing in first person or a close third, make sure that you are filtering your description through your point of view character.

This means writing the description in their voice. Here’s a static description of a birthday party as told by a first-person narrator:

There were streamers hanging from the ceiling and a rainbow cake on the table. I ate a slice even though I hated it.

Now, in the narrator’s voice. Let’s make our narrator super cynical and bitter:

“They had one of those cakes you can buy from the bakery Albertson’s for $12.99. It was covered in rainbow frosting that was disgustingly sweet. I tried to choke down a slice, but it made me want to gag. Finally, when the host wasn’t looking, I fed it to the dog under the table.”

And a sweet, mid-western narrator:

“There was a rainbow cake on the table—rainbow! I used to love rainbows when I was that age. But once I got my nose closer to the frosting I realized something was horribly wrong. I took a nibble, even though my stomach was turning, because I didn’t want to be rude. But by the time I finished my slice, I had to excuse myself and run to the bathroom.”

Tip: If you are writing in first person or a close third, try rewriting your static description with the voice of your point of view character. You can also filter description through non-point of view characters by letting us hear them talk about their surroundings. If we can’t be inside the mind of the character, you can still use dialogue, action, and interaction with other characters to show us how they are interacting with their surroundings, making those descriptions more dynamic and relevant.

#3 Use your descriptions to show your character’s state of mind at different points in the story.

This relates closely to #1 and #2. Take the cynical narrator from the birthday party. How would that character describe the birthday party differently if, for example, her aunt had just died? Or she just got a job promotion? Or yesterday was her birthday, but nobody came to her birthday party? Would she describe the birthday party differently at the beginning of the story versus at the end? How might the events of your story cause your character to have a different perspective on the same surroundings that she experienced earlier in the story, or even earlier in her life?

Here’s a quick example:

The morning after Mary broke up with him, John woke up alone in their bed, pulled open the curtains, and immediately winced. The sun was too bright. The sky was too blue. Even the birds sounded awful – their chirping was agonizingly sharp. He had planned to get up on time and go for run, but instead he closed the curtains and crawled back into his bed. Sure, the soft floral quilt he slept under still smelled like her, but at least it was warm and dark, and he didn’t have to see the empty spot on the wall where her picture used to hang.

Tip: See if you can find any static descriptions that could be made more dynamic by considering your character’s past (whether recent or distant), their state of mind, their desires and fears, their attitudes, etc. The more you can make a connection between the descriptive elements in your story and the story itself, the more engaged your readers will be with the details you provide.

What do you all think? Any other ideas? I’m a huge setting and description nerd, so I could go on and on about this forever, but I just wanted to put together a few thoughts about how to transform static descriptions into more dynamic, engaging descriptions that readers won’t be likely to skim over.

Your thoughts?

3 Ways to Increase Conflict in Your Dialogue

3 Ways to Increase Conflict in Your Dialogue

3 Ways to Increase Conflict in Your Dialogue

One of the biggest problems I see in fiction writers’ dialogue is a lack of conflict. (Come to think of it, one of the biggest problems I see in general is a lack of conflict, but that’s another blog post.)

Good dialogue, like a good story, should be rich with conflict. There are exceptions – most notably in a story’s ending or in brief, interspersed moments when you want to slow down the pace. But as a general guideline, dialogue without conflict gets boring very quickly. Here’s a classic example:

“Hi,” Lisa said.
“Hey,” José said.
“How are you?”
“Fine. You?”
“Doing all right.”
Lisa handed José a turkey sandwich. “Would you like a sandwich? I made two.”
“Sure, thanks.”

Okay, that’s enough. I won’t continue to torture you. Not only is there no conflict between the two characters who are speaking, but there’s no conflict anywhere to be seen.

The bad news is that if you write something like this you will bore your reader to tears.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to add conflict to dialogue and once you know how to do it you can make just about any scene pop with tension.

Of course, you don’t want to add conflict just for the sake of conflict. Whatever conflict you choose should be relevant to the story as a whole, to the scene, and to the characters.

#1 Have your characters say “No” to each other

One of the easiest ways to give conflict to a scene like this is to have your characters say No to each other, metaphorically speaking. In other words, to push back against the first character instead of just agreeing with them and refuse to have the conversation on the terms that the other character is proposing.

This is sometimes called giving characters different scripts.

Doing this creates an immediate power struggle that not only creates a more interesting story but can be really fun to play with. Here’s an example of how this idea could improve the scene between Lisa, Jose, and the sandwich:

“Hi,” Lisa said.
“You forgot the mustard,” José said.
Lisa thrust the turkey sandwich across the counter. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
“I don’t want it.”
“I already made two. You should’ve said something earlier.”

Did you catch all the “No”s in that dialogue? Here it is again with my notes:

“Hi,” Lisa said. [Lisa is offering a friendly exchange.]
“You forgot the mustard,” José said. [José refuses the offer and changes the subject.]
Lisa thrust the turkey sandwich across the counter. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” [Lisa refuses to change the subject to the mustard, offers the sandwich as-is, and – bonus points – answers a question that hasn’t been asked.]
“I don’t want it.” [José refuses to take the sandwich that’s been offered. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t try to take the power back in the situation by offering a new proposal, so he opens himself to a power grab from Lisa.]
“I already made two. You should’ve said something earlier.” [Lisa acknowledges what José has said, but refuses to give into him by, for example, offering to make him another sandwich, add the mustard, etc.]

A big improvement, right? Dialogue like this makes us lean in and ask: What’s happening? Why are Lisa and José so testy with each other? What’s going to happen next? Will they make up? Will they come to blows?

If a scene like this comes midway through a story, we might already know that José is mad at Lisa because she didn’t come to the opening of his play last Saturday, and that Lisa, let’s say, has a bad temper and a history of throwing punches at José, in which case the dialogue becomes a great example of subtext.

Instead of having Lisa and José talk directly about the issue at hand (also called on-the-nose dialogue), we watch how the tension surfaces in their everyday interactions.

We get to become observers – flies on the wall – to their dramatic experience. In classic terminology, we are shown and not told the story.

Another thing to notice about this example is the use of gesture to enhance the dialogue’s conflict. Notice how when Lisa thrusts the turkey sandwich across the counter, it gives us information about her emotional state and implies a tone for the rest of her lines that we can hear without having to resort to clunky devices like “Lisa said sarcastically,” “Lisa said bitterly,” etc.

# 2 Use gesture, action, thought, and setting to add conflict to your dialogue

Gesture, action, thought, and setting can all be great ways to give conflict to a scene. Used well, they can create context for the dialogue that makes the actual words carry a lot more weight than they would if all we had were two talking heads.

Here’s the same example with a little bit more context:

When José came back into the kitchen, Lisa was busy making them sandwiches as though nothing had happened.
“Hi,” she said. Her smile seemed fake to him, too sugary. He glared across the counter, where she was adding a pickle to each of their plates.
“You forgot the mustard,” he said.
Lisa stopped what she was doing and stared at him for a moment. I should’ve just let it go, José thought.
But it was too late. Lisa thrust the plate across the counter. It would have flew clean off the edge and smashed on the floor if José hadn’t caught it.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said. “How are you?”

The best scenes of dialogue, in my opinion, accomplish more than one thing. Obviously there’s a lot more conflict here than in the original example. But we also get characterization (we know a little more about Lisa and José’s personalities based on how they talk and interact with each other), setting (the kitchen, the sandwich), and a sense of Lisa and José’s past (in other words, their back story – something happened prior to this interaction that’s influencing the scene).

It’s still primarily a scene of dialogue, but the actions, gestures, thoughts, perceptions, details, and setting enhance and add layers of complexity to the scene.

#3 Work conflict into the story surrounding your dialogue

One last example. I want to show you how you can use the context of the story to create conflict that’s coming from somewhere else besides the characters. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not necessary to have characters in conflict with each other every single moment.

Not only can it create an exhausting pace (readers need a break sometimes – a lull in the conflict to get their bearings and reorient), but sometimes you might have two characters that are essentially allies to one another.

Of course, you will want them to butt heads at some point so that their relationship doesn’t become flat and predictable (even Harry, Hermione, and Ron from the Harry Potter series get in fights sometimes), but it’s totally fine to have characters that are essentially friends.

In that case, though, you will want to look elsewhere for conflict. In the case of Harry Potter and many other stories, this is the classic two-against-one or three-against-one scenario.

In this example, let’s pit Lisa and José against… Oh, I don’t know. Vampires.

When José came back into the kitchen, Lisa was busy making them sandwiches as though nothing had happened.
“Hi,” she said. Her smile seemed fake to him. There’s no way she could be happy right now. He glanced across the counter, where she was daintily arranging a pickle on each of their plates. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe the blood off her hands.
“I think they’re gone,” he said.
Lisa stopped what she was doing and stared at him for a moment. “They’re never gone, not really.”
“Well, sleeping at least.” He looked out the kitchen window, where the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. It was so peaceful out there. It was hard to imagine that just an hour ago… he didn’t want to think about it.
Lisa gingerly pushed the plate across the counter, like it was the very last sandwich she might ever make for him. “This is insane,” she whispered.
“It’s just until Tuesday. We can make it. We’ve managed this long.”

Alright, so there’s still a little tension between Lisa and José in this scene. I can’t help it. But most of the conflict is coming from outside the dialogue – the blood on the counter, the suggestion of danger lurking outside the kitchen, the way Lisa gingerly gives José the sandwich like it’s the very last one he might ever eat.

As scenes go, this one is pretty subdued, but that’s just my style. You could easily intersperse the scene of dialogue with angry vampires that are trying to smash in the windows while somewhere, in the distance, children scream as their throats are ripped out.

Everyone has own their own style.

I just wanted to show you how to bring conflict into a scene where the characters are more or less allied with one another, and show that it’s not necessary for two people to get into a screaming match in order for there to be conflict.

Due to the influence of modern American cinema, we often think of drama or conflict in terms of car explosions, alien attacks, and shoot outs. While those are totally fine events to include in your novel or short story, if that’s the direction you want to go, they aren’t necessary in order to have suspense and engage readers. In fact, if you go too big too soon you risk tiring out your readers and ending up with a story with lopsided pacing.

But that’s a topic for another blog post.

In summary:

  • Dialogue is more interesting and relevant when it has conflict
  • One way to add conflict is to have your characters say “No” to each other and talk from “different scripts”
  • Use gesture, action, thought, setting and detail to enhance your dialogue and show conflict without having to “tell” the reader what’s going on
  • When your characters are allies, have conflict that comes from outside their relationship

I hope this has been helpful. Dialogue is one of my favorite aspects of fiction writing, and I plan to write more blog posts on the topic in the future, so stay tuned!

A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Killer Feedback from Beta Readers

A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Killer Feedback from Beta Readers

A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Killer Feedback from Beta Readers

Introduction: What is a beta reader?

A beta reader is a non-professional reader who reads a manuscript before the story is released to the public. I think of beta readers as “screen testers” for your novel or short story. Your story is done—or nearly done. But before you release it to the general public, you want to get an idea of how a potential reader might react. Will they like it? Does it have any major problems that need to be addressed? A beta reader can help you find any glaring issues with the story, improve your plot and characters, and even point out obvious grammar or spelling mistakes.

How is a beta reader is different from an editor, mentor, or coach?

Generally, beta readers are non-professionals. That means they aren’t trained editors or writing teachers, and they aren’t getting paid for their work. The upside to using beta readers is that they can help you make improvements in your writing before you spend your dollars hiring an editor. That way you’ll get your story as refined as you can before working with a professional. The downside is that, since beta readers aren’t trained, their feedback can be somewhat random, uneven, and even confusing. Of course, this depends on the reader. Over time, if you’re lucky, you can find beta readers that give you exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.

How can I find beta readers for my novel or short story?

You can ask your friends or family, although be cautioned that you may not get the most honest feedback from the people who love you most. You can also ask fellow writers who you may know through writing workshops, conferences, or Facebook groups. You can join an online writing workshop such as Critters Workshop or Zoetrope. You can also do what I did and put out a general call on social media and see who bites.

Your choice of beta readers will depend on who you want reading your story and what kind of feedback you want. If you want to find out if your story is a crowd-pleaser, by all means give out your story to whoever will read it. But if you are looking for specific feedback from your target audience, you may want to be a bit more selective.

Getting killer feedback from beta readers: A step-by-step guide

1. Put out an open call for interested beta readers on social media

Include information about the story (to attract people who might actually be interested in reading it), what kind of feedback you’re looking for, the deadline, and what you’re offering in exchange for feedback (see below). Included an estimated time commitment, and a cover image (if you have one).

2. Personally ask a few friends and writers whose opinions you trust

You’ll get much better responses if you personalize the emails instead of sending a mass request. People are more likely to give feedback if they know you’re asking them specifically because you value their input.

3. Create a feedback form in Google Forms

This makes giving feedback less intimidating, because all your beta readers have to do is answer questions. It also ensures that you get your specific questions answered. You can even ask multiple choice questions and Googleforms will make a cool pie chart!

4. Offer gifts in exchange for feedback.

A thoughtful beta read can take anywhere from 1-12 hours depending on the length of your story. People are busy! Recognize that they’re doing you a huge favor. At the very least, offer yourself as a beta reader for any of their future projects. If they aren’t fellow writers, offer a free copy of your book, or at the very least send a thank-you card.

5. Set a deadline, and made sure all the readers know when it’s was and can meet it

‘Nuff said.

6. Send friendly reminders that the deadline is approaching

Do this about one week before the deadline and again three days before the deadline. A few days after the deadline, email the stragglers to ask if they need an extension or if you should scratch them off the list. Be nice! Remember, these people are doing you a favor.

7. Don’t take it personally when people flake out

You may only end up getting feedback from half of the beta readers who initially signed up. People are generally well meaning and have crazy, busy lives. Make a mental note of who came through and who didn’t so that you don’t ask the flakers to weigh in on my next project. But otherwise, refrain from getting snippy or getting your feelings hurt.

8. Send personalized thank-you emails to everyone who does submit feedback

Tell them what observations were helpful, ask clarifying questions, and let them know how and when they can expect to get the swag you offered in exchange for their help.

9. When you finish the story, give a shout out to your beta readers again

You can do this in an email, social media post, or by putting their names in the acknowledgements.

Yes, this process is methodical, thoughtful, and time-consuming. But the more thought you put into your relationship with your beta readers, the higher quality feedback you will get.

If you have any other ideas about working with beta readers, share them in the comments!

How to Know What Kind of Editing You Need

How to Know What Kind of Editing You Need

How to Know What Kind of Editing You Need

Looking to get your novel or short story edited? If you’re a fiction writer on the hunt for an editor, you’ve probably realized that there are tons of different kinds of editing out there. A quick Google search will unearth all manner of available services:

Editorial reviews, manuscript critiques, copyediting, developmental editing, content editing, line editing, proofreading, structural editing… The list goes on.

Even when you think you’ve nailed down the definitions for all of these terms, you might find out that not everyone is using them the same way – one person’s copyedit is another person’s line edit, and so on. To add to the confusion, editors sometimes come up with their own unique names to describe their services (for example, I once came across an eccentric fiction editor who described one of his services as “the green pen of helpfulness”).

So how do you figure out what the different kinds of editing are, and what the right choice is for you?

I’m hoping this blog post series will shed some light on all the different kinds of editing services out there and help you figure out which one is right for you. But the bottom line is:

If you’re not sure what exactly an editor is offering, ask.

Even if you think you understand the terms they’re using, it never hurts to clarify. “What exactly do you mean when you say ‘line editing’? Do you have a sample I could look at?”

Getting your manuscript edited can be a big commitment of time and money, so you want to make sure that you and your editor are on the same page.

If you’re worried about being a nuisance, don’t. Any editor worth working with will be happy to clarify the services they’re offering, and in the end you’ll be glad you didn’t make assumptions.

So let’s get started. I could go into an insane amount of detail describing all of the different kinds of editing services out there – and I will, later – but first:

The Basics: Story-level vs. sentence-level editing

In a nutshell, there are two categories of editing available for fiction writers: story-level editing, and sentence-level editing.

There’s a ton of variation within those categories, of course. On the story level, you can find everything from a super wide overview – I’ve seen editors, for example, that focus on critiquing nothing but your premise – to a brief letter that points out the strengths and weaknesses of your story and suggestions for revision (editorial review), to a scene-level dissection of your plot and character development (developmental editing). On the sentence level, you can find editors that will suggest major overhauls of your paragraph and sentence structure (line editing), point out subject-verb disagreements and incorrect comma placement (copy editing), and be the last pair of eyes to find any typos on your manuscript before it hits the printers (proofreading).

I’ll go into more detail about each of the types of editing in another blog post, but for now here is a quick cheat sheet:

Examples of story-level editing:
Developmental, structural, or content editing
Manuscript Critiques
Editorial Reviews

Examples of sentence-level editing:
Line editing

Remember that individual editors may have their own names for their services (for example, I offer a combination developmental editing and manuscript critique service that I call “Manuscript Review”), so when in doubt ask for clarification. If an editor offers more than one of these services, most of the time they will break up their service packages so that your manuscript gets either a story-level edit or a sentence-level edit, but not both at the same time. This is because, first of all,

It doesn’t usually make sense to get a story-level edit and a sentence-level edit at the same time.

Here’s why: If your story needs major editing on plot, point of view, and character development, you’re going to have to do so much revision after you get your manuscript back from the editor that it would be premature for them to line edit your work on the sentence level. Secondly, story-level editing and sentence-level are both very time-consuming and it would be pretty expensive to do both simultaneously

So… How do you know if you need story-level editing or sentence-level editing?

To decide if you need story-level editing or sentence-level editing, ask yourself these 4 questions:

Question #1: Are you happy with your story?

Do you like your main character? Your plot? Your ending? Do you feel like your story is coming together the way you want to? If the answer is no, and if you’re finding yourself frustrated, annoyed, and hitting a wall, then by all means seek out an editor who can help you.

Sometimes fiction writers make the mistake of assuming that their perception skewed. “I’m unhappy with my story – but maybe it’s just me! Maybe a reader will love it! It’s just my imagination!” While there is some truth in this – often times as writers we are way too close to the work to be able to see clearly, which is why we need to hire editors in the first place. But, on the other hand…

Trust your intuition. If you feel like your story is problematic, it probably is.

And, more to the point, if you are truly unhappy with your story, who cares if a reader likes it? The goal should be writing a story that you love as much as your readers do. If it’s gotten to the point that looking at your manuscript is enough to make you grimace, pout, or want to pull your hair out, look for an editor who can help you address your story-level issues. Developmental editors are great for this. Ideally, look for someone who has experience in your genre. There are also editors who, like me, offer story consultations or manuscript critiques, which can be a quicker and more affordable way of getting story-level help on your novel or short story.

Question #2: Are you a story-focused writer, or a language-focused writer?

Some writers have no problem penning clear, economical, agile, and stylistically interesting sentences, but when it comes to plot and character development they are seriously challenged. Other writers tend to be clunkier on the sentence level but can produce original characters and airtight plots out of thin air.

If you have a hard time with your writing on the sentence or word level, look for a sentence-level editor (line editors are great for this). On the other hand, if you struggle with story, plot, and character, you will be better off investing in a story-level editor (like a developmental editor).

Of course, most of us need help with both of these things from time to time, but knowing yourself as a writer and your own strengths and weaknesses can go a long way toward helping you decide what kind of help to get.

Question #3: Is this your first draft? Your fourth? Your tenth?

Generally speaking, first, second, and even third drafts are not ready for sentence-level editing.

Even if you are a meticulous plotter who is working from an airtight outline, inevitably the early stages of drafting are a discovery phase – in your first and second draft, you are still figuring out your story, developing your characters and plot, and in the process finding big problems and loopholes and undertaking serious revisions. If you are getting stuck and need help at this stage, hire a story-level editor.

On the other hand, if this is your fourth, fifth, or more draft, you might be ready for a sentence-level edit. But before you run off to your nearest line or copyeditor, ask yourself one last question:

Question #4: Has anyone else read your manuscript?

Just because you have read and revised your manuscript a dozen times and feel like it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t mean that your story is going to come across to a reader. If you have an advanced draft of a novel or short story and feel like it’s ready for a sentence-level edit, it’s a good idea to get a few people to read your manuscript before you send it off to an editor. Try to find people whose judgment you trust – fellow writers and astute readers – rather than giving it to a family member or friend who might be worried about hurting your feelings and not be entirely honest with you.

If four or five people read it and your story seems to be coming across clearly, then proceed with a sentence-level edit.

I hope this has helped you understand more about the different kinds of editing available for fiction writers. If you are still not sure what kind of editing you need, or you have any questions or need clarification about anything I’ve said here, feel free to drop me a line and ask! I’ll be writing more blog posts going into greater detail about this topic in the future, so stay tuned!

10 Best Books About Fiction Writing

10 Best Books About Writing Fiction

10 Best Books About Writing Fiction

Some fiction writing teachers try to steer their students clear of books about writing. While it’s true that there’s a lot of bad or dubious writing advice out there, my philosophy is that more information is always better. Over the years, I’ve read voraciously about fiction writing–upwards of 50 books about the writing life, plot, fiction craft, dialogue, character development, you name it. While I got a little something from each one, here are the 5 star gems that are worth sharing. Enjoy!

Best Books About the Writing Life

Bird by Bird, Anne LamottBird by Bird

It’s a classic for a reason. Lamott’s trademark humor makes for an effortless read as she shares her wisdom into the process of writing. Equal parts technical help, encouragement, and brutal honesty balance throughout the book, keeping the reader engaged and in good spirits from start to finish.

From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler

Butler’s ideas about the process of writing fiction are not necessarily unique, but I’ve found no other book that discusses the writing “trance” as thoroughly as this one. The exercises in this book teach how you to access the writing “dream state” that good stories often come from. The book can be a little esoteric at times, but it’s worth the patience it takes to understand what Butler is getting at here. Especially recommended for writers who have intrusive inner critics, and those who have strong ideas but find that their writing feels lackluster and flat.

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

This is a short read, so I’ll just provide a titillating quote and you can go pick it up for yourself: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” -Annie Dillard


Best Books About Fiction Craft

Self Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King

Hands down, this is the best craft book on the market. It’s written for beginning writers, but is layered and subtle enough to be useful for advanced writers as well. I’ve read and re-read this book at many different stages of my learning process and taken away something new each time. Unlike the cover suggests, this is not a book about grammar. It shows you how to edit for flow and syntax, to properly tag your dialogue, the basics of show-don’t-tell, as well as providing helpful exercises where you get to try your hand at editing once you’ve learned the techniques.


Stein on Writing, Sol Stein

Make no mistake: Sol Stein is a pompous asshole. But he’s also super, duper smart. I consider this to be an advanced craft book, just because of the level of detail he goes into, but I think a beginner would get a lot out of it as well. Another classic, which means it’s almost always at the library.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

Yes, this is a text book. Thick. Heavy. Teeny tiny print. But it’s good. And because it has a million editions, you can get an old version used on the internet for like $.04. Especially nice are the full-length short stories that are supplied as examples in the back of every chapter.


Best Book About Dialogue

Writing Dialogue, Tom Chiarella

Chiarella doesn’t bog the reader down with his own set of hard rules about dialogue, instead he skillfully and humorously persuades the reader about what works and what doesn’t. Busting such myths as “dialogue sounds like real speech,” he gives dozens of creepy-writer-stalker tips like “crowding” and “jotting,” which is basically where you eavesdrop on people and write down what they’re saying. I now carry a notebook on my person at all times specifically for this purpose. I think this book might be out of print (yet 50 Shades of Gray makes millions… is there no justice in this world?), but you can still get it on the internet for a decent price. Do it now before it’s too late!


Best Books About Plot

Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson

Stupid title, great book. Alderson talks about the idea of the “Universal Story,” which is the process of struggle (conflict) and transformation (climax and resolution) present in most stories. These “energy markers,” she says, are so inherent in our lives, and in the very idea of story itself, that they can be found in almost every plotted novel. She then proceeds to go into insane detail describing these markers and how to incorporate them into your own writing in order to make a plot that resonates with readers. From time to time she also drops some wisdom a la The Artist’s Way (which she calls, I believe, “The Writer’s Way”), helping writers to overcome the hurdles of writing a book. While Alderson is not a writer herself, she has been studying plot and assisting writers with plot struggles for over a decade, and her knowledge and credibility shine in this book. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the purpose of plot and how to wield it, and highly recommend this book.

Wired for Story, Lisa Cron

Wired for StoryThe sensational subtitle (“The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence”) makes it sound like one of those smarmy write-a-novel-in-30-days books, but don’t be fooled. This the best book on plot I’ve read. It’s devoted to the idea of ‘story’–what makes a story, what people are ‘wired’ to look for and want in a story, and how to satisfy those cravings in your fiction. The ‘brain science’ part is presented in a very accessible way, and Cron only gives us enough information to make her point, never overloading the reader with jargon. She talks a lot about the brain’s unconscious impulse to track patterns, make connections, and look for cause-and-effect, and how to translate that into good storytelling. Her definition of ‘story’ alone is more valuable than 200 pages of most fiction craft books. There are endless gems in this book, and now my copy (that I purchased! with money! that’s saying a lot already) is completely marked up with pencil and sticky notes. I know this is a book I will refer to time and time again. Highly recommended.

Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson

If you’re looking for advice about craft, the finer points of good prose, or syntax, look elsewhere. But if you want help with your plot and structure, how to organize scenes, when to cut a scene, how to analyze your characters, keeping your story focused, and what order to do it all in, Ingermanson might just blow your mind. His “Snowflake Method” of plotting is loved by thousands, and is discussed in length all over the internet for free. If it resonates with you, you might want to do what I did and buy the book.

What are your favorite fiction craft books?

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