Julie Musil with text: 3 Tips for Publishing Success with Julie Musil

It’s no secret in the industry that many authors are considering self-publishing on some level. Some authors are starting off as indie publishers, some are switching from traditional publishing to self-publishing, and others are releasing books under both methods and becoming hybrid authors.

So I was happy to host my friend Julie Musil earlier this year, when she shared her “Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing.” Now Julie’s back today to discuss some pitfalls of self-publishing and provide tips for avoiding those issues.

Honestly though, I think her advice is applicable to every author, no matter our publishing path. I’ll share my thoughts on that below, but first, please welcome Julie Musil! *smile*

*****

3 Pitfalls of Indie Publishing
(and How to Avoid Them)

I’ve become a huge fan of indie publishing. When I first decided to publish my debut YA novel, The Boy Who Loved Fire, I was nervous. I studied and analyzed everything I could about the process, and the more I read, the more I liked. As I prepared to publish my second novel, The Summer of Crossing Lines, I’ve had even more fun than the first time around.

But indie publishing is not all sunshine and daffodils. There are some gaping pitfalls that remain, and it’s up to professional, career-minded authors to avoid them.

Pitfall #1—Poor Quality

Indie publishing has come a long way since the early days of cheesy covers and wonky formatting. Still, we should strive to create a quality product—one that can compete with, and even surpass, that of traditional publishers. Indie authors have raised the bar and are now creating work that is difficult to distinguish as self-published.

Avoid the Poor Quality Pitfall by…

  1. Hire a professional editor. Bethany from A Little Red, Inc. edited both of my books. More resources can be found at the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog. For tips on hiring a professional editor, click here. Make sure your manuscript has been through the ringer before you pay someone for edits, otherwise it’s a waste of time and money.
  2. Hire a cover designer. Covers are the first impression a reader has of your work. Don’t waste that first impression on a poor cover. I’ve worked with Jeff Fielder on both of my covers. Whoever you work with, make sure your cover is a simple, clean design that captures attention in a thumbnail. Click here for more information about working with a cover designer.
  3. Format ebooks and print versions properly. I formatted both of my books myself, and if I can learn how to do it, anyone can. Seriously. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I took the time to do it. Now it’s easy for me to make changes to the book and upload new versions. Other authors hire formatters and swear by them. Susan Kaye Quinn has a comprehensive list of freelancers on her blog.

Pitfall #2—One Egg in a Basket

Authors who have only written one book are likely driving themselves crazy. They’ll doggedly check emails as they’re waiting to hear from agents or editors. The same can be said about indies with only one book out. Perhaps they’ll watch their sales graph all day long and obsessively check their rank. Why add that much stress to our lives?

Avoid the One Egg in a Basket Pitfall by…

Working on the next book. As I mentioned in my guest post at Fiction University, Marketing Strategy: The Next Book, it’s important for authors to move on to the next project. Nothing helps an obsessive writer more than obsessing about the next project. Indies must steadily work to create their own back lists.

Pitfall #3—Giving Up

Too many indie authors rush to put out a book and then obsess over sales. They then throw their hands in the air and think, “Why bother? I tried and failed.” Their high expectations were not met.

Avoid the Giving Up Pitfall by…

Having realistic expectations. You’re a small business now, so treat it as such. Make goals, work hard, and put out quality products you can be proud of. Connect with people on a personal level. Know before you leap into indie publishing that this will take time. Think of yourself as a wannabe Steve Jobs, tinkering in the garage, working on big ideas that you’ll passionately share with others.

Indie publishing has a lot to offer authors, mainly control. If we avoid the pitfalls, we can remain nimble, enjoy the now, and look forward to what’s next.

*****

Book Cover of The Summer of Crossing LinesJulie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her Young Adult novels, The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire, are available now. For more information, or to stop by an say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

The Summer of Crossing Lines

When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody infiltrates a theft ring, gathers clues about his secret life, and falls for a handsome pickpocket. At what point does truth justify the crime?

*****

Thank you, Julie! And as I mentioned at the top, I think every one of those pitfalls and tips can apply to any author, regardless of our publishing path.

Why Every Author Should Watch Out for These Pitfalls

#1: Poor Quality

If we take the traditional publishing path, we still need to ensure that our work is as good as we can make it before we start querying. But even beyond the query stage, we can use these same tips for judging a potential publisher.

Purchase a couple of their stories (if you know the name of the editor you’d work with, target stories they worked on) and check:

  • Is the editing good quality?
  • Are the covers attractive?
  • Are the books free of wonky formatting?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” we can ask ourselves what value the publisher adds to justify their royalty cut. We might be better off rejecting a contract than getting involved with an unprofessional publisher.

#2: One Egg in a Basket

Obviously, traditionally published authors should work on their next book too, but they can also think about diversifying their baskets. Maybe they’d start another series with a second publisher, maybe they’d write in a new genre, or maybe they’d become a hybrid author. The point is that no one will ever care about our success as much as we will, so we should never make ourselves too dependent on one publisher or company.

#3: Giving Up

Going along with Pitfall #2, success will take time with traditionally published authors too. We don’t want to give up—or be forced out by cancelled contracts, etc.—and feel helpless. There’s almost always another thing we can do or try. As Dory says in Nemo, “Just keep swimming.”

The fact that these same pitfalls can apply to self-published and traditionally published authors alike reinforces the idea that there’s no “perfect” approach. There are pros and cons to either path.

The important point is to recognize which path will work best for us (and that might be different from story to story). No matter how we decide, we can educate ourselves on how to avoid any pitfalls we might encounter. *smile*

Julie wants to know, have you indie published? Can you think of any pitfalls she missed?  Do you agree that these pitfalls and tips can apply to authors regardless of their publishing path? How else might they apply? Do you have any advice to add, or questions for Julie to answer?

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Fingers on a piano with text: What Makes an Expert?

An interesting article recently discussed research on the brains of writers. Specifically, the research studied what sections of the brain “lit up” in an fMRI (functional MRI) scan during various phases of writing, like brainstorming and drafting.

One important finding seemed to match research in other areas, namely that experienced people think differently from those just learning the ropes. Being an expert isn’t just about knowing more.

What Is an Expert?

An expert knows more than novices obviously, but they do more than simply apply the information they know. They also change their thought processes. They’re able to skip whole steps of thinking about their task (on a conscious level) so they work more efficiently.

This lack of conscious effort makes their process look so natural that we might think they have a special talent. However, study after study has revealed that these experts have no greater speed, intelligence, memory, etc. Instead, they’d gained their efficiency through extensive practice.

The doctor behind the research on writers’ brains had previously studied other creative types, like musicians and singers, and I’ve heard of similar studies involving chess players and scientists. In other words, those willing to put in the practice time can become an expert. *smile*

What Efficiency Looks Like: Chess Masters

In the studies of chess masters, the differences between experts and novices came down to their experiences—but not experiences regarding potential moves. Rather, the experts’ experiences helped them recognize complex patterns.

These patterns allow chess masters to “simply know” that certain board configurations should be played a certain way. Without that recognition, a chess novice has to take the time to think through potential moves on each turn. Furthermore, those patterns make it easier for chess masters to learn new information, as they’re not starting from scratch each time.

Our brains love to be efficient (some might say lazy), and pattern recognition is a huge part of most tasks. Memorizing 50 random numbers is near impossible. Memorizing a 50-number pattern (2, 4, 6, 8…) is easy. One takes up 50 “bits” of our memory while the other takes up one “bit”—that’s efficiency.

With practice, typing progresses from hunt-and-peck methods to automatic “muscle memory” movements. The same conscious-concentration-to-automatic-processes happens for mental tasks as well.

One Way Writers’ Brains Change with Practice

In the study from the article, the brains of novice writers focused on “visual processing” during a brainstorming session—such as what we might expect if we were visualizing a scene. In contrast, the brains of experienced writers also activated speech centers during brainstorming—as though they were not only picturing a scene but also internally narrating, or starting the process of putting the scene into words.

I suspect this change occurs as more of the writing process moves to the automatic or subconscious level. Experienced writers who have developed their voice have patterns of sentence construction, vocabulary choices, or voice-specific concepts to draw from when translating ideas into words. Thus, the words bubble up without effort as our brain supplies the internal narration to go with the scene.

(Note: That doesn’t mean the automatic words will be great. We might, in fact, use too many pet phrases during drafting, but no one ever said our rough draft would be our best draft. *smile*)

Brainstorming and Drafting as a Layered Process

On Facebook, Jennifer Holm started a conversation about the article, and several of us shared our experiences:

Jennifer Holm: “I still see the scene in my head as well, but there’s a layer of the written word, and I hear the words as well. It’s kind of a funky, weird experience, but I like it.”

Sheabody Butter: “I let my subconscious mind do all the thinking, so that when I write, I’m just going through the motion of typing.”

Jami Gold (me): “I used to just see the movie in my head, but now I think of the words themselves too.”

April Bradley: “It’s a layered thing for me. The voice and words are definitely there but so are the scenes. Visually, it’s like building and tearing down the world as you inhabit it. It’s fluid and non-intrusive to an on-going narrative.”

Those all sound fairly alike. Experienced writers think in layers of scenes and words. I sometimes joke that I know when I’m ready to start writing a new story because I can’t hold all the half-drafted scenes in my head anymore. *smile*

The experiences of those who fast draft (including me) usually point to fast drafting as a good way to force our subconscious to take over. We can get into a writing zone where we’re listening only to that internal narration and not to our conscious thoughts of what we think should go on the page. Once we reach this stage, it’s easy to understand why the ancients believed in the voice of a muse, as for some writers, it can literally feel like taking dictation.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed one style of typo increasing with my internal narration method. Now that I draft by listening to an internal voice (rather than just looking around a scene in my head), I’m more often mis-typing “sound-alike” words: shoe, threw, etc. I usually realize the mistake right away, but apparently I don’t listen to myself very well. *snicker*

Other Patterns Writers Might Recognize

In a way, the struggles we sometimes face when starting a new story might come down to needing to wait for patterns to develop. If we don’t know our characters very well, we might have to figure out what they’d do rather than just know based on their previous behavior.

Some of us might experiment with different drafting techniques until one feels like it could become automatic. For me, I can write by the seat of my pants because I’ve internalized patterns of story structure. I recognize what should happen in a story and when, and I know the elements that create an arc.

Our knowledge and experience might combine to form patterns of reasoning, allowing us to see ways of twisting a story to force a plot event, methods of showing characters’ vulnerabilities, or approaches for adding layers. We might evaluate patterns for knowing how to tie subplots to our main plot or identifying the best scene for kicking off our story. Or maybe we analyze patterns during editing for tightening our writing, eliminating passive phrases, or reducing word count.

Will we be perfect and never stumble over these elements again? Of course not. But the more practice we have with writing, the more likely our brain will recognize those patterns. At that point, our instincts or subconscious will often take over, handling the details behind the curtain.

For example, my brain recognizes patterns of dangling modifiers and other grammar no-no’s, so I tend not to write them, even in a rough draft. Others might automatically avoid “telling” sentences or pointless scenes. Any amount of writing craft our brain can handle without conscious attention leaves more brainpower to focus on what really matters: telling good stories. *smile*

Have you heard of any of these “expert studies” before? Has your focus or methods for writing changed with experience? What elements of writing have become automatic for you? Does that cause any problems (more pet phrases, typos, etc.)? What patterns do you think writers can recognize with practice?

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The Character Debate: Strong and Vulnerable?

by Jami Gold on August 14, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Movie promo image of Gamora with text: Can a Character Be Strong and Vulnerable?

Writing is often about finding a balance. Too much left in subtext can lead to confusion. Too much explanation can feel like an info dump or be too “on the nose.” Etc., etc.

With our characters, if we want our protagonists to seem heroic, they need to have strong traits. Yet at the same time, if we want our protagonists to be relatable, they need to have vulnerabilities. This is never an easy balance, especially when clichés fill our heads about what a “strong character” means.

Stereotypes of Strong Characters Don’t Allow for Diversity

On the heroine side, Ripley from Alien is often brought up as a “strong female character.” The stereotype, which I’ve written about before, refers mostly to physically violent, butt-kicking women. Furthermore, it assumes women who need rescuing—ever—can’t possibly be strong.

On the hero side, the stereotype is all-alpha-male-all-the-time. And not just a normal level of alpha male, oh no… In some genres, the expectation is for an amount of alpha-ness that reaches *sshole level—leading to the label “alpha-hole.” Again, the assumption is that heroes who are caring or sensitive—ever—couldn’t possibly be strong.

With all those clichés and stereotypes swirling about, it’s no wonder that we might struggle with making likable characters. There’s no room in those clichés for vulnerabilities that will make them relatable to the reader.

Whatever happened to “strong” meaning the ability to handle that which the character thinks they can’t? Whether they’re handling a situation, an emotion, a conflict, a weapon, a threat, or a relationship, there should be multiple ways of showing strength, or else we’ve lost a different kind of diversity among our characters.

Stereotypes Don’t Allow for Three-Dimensional Characters

Those expectations also prevent us from making three-dimensional characters. How can a character who has to conform to such narrow expectations ever seem unique and real? How can they ever make decisions that follow who they are rather than who the clichés expect them to be?

I prefer writing organic characters, those who become fully realized through drafting, as I let them make choices and statements that follow what they believe—even if I don’t have a clue what they believe until later in the process. (Yes, I write by the seat of my pants. *smile*)

If I had to tell my characters what they were allowed to say or how they were allowed to react to prevent them from “breaking the rules,” my muse would go on strike. (And my muse is an alpha male just this side of jerk.)

A Disclaimer—Characters Who Conform Aren’t “Bad”

All that said, I don’t think it’s bad if some of the characters we write follow the stereotypes. As with other kinds of diversity, the problem is when that’s the only depiction or considered the norm.

Many readers like heroines who literally kick butts, and many readers don’t. Many readers adore alpha-hole heroes who are jerks to the nth degree, and many readers don’t. As authors, some of us naturally write those types of characters, and some of us don’t.

None of that is wrong. If we tried to eliminate those characters, we’d once again be limiting the options for our characters, which is the opposite of my point.

Rather, my concern is with the preponderance of these characters, to the point that they’ve become the expectation. And worse, that any characteristics that deviate from the narrow expectation result in the character losing the “strong” label regardless of their other qualifications.

A Closer Look at Strong Heroines

I originally started thinking about this topic after Sara Letourneau discussed how we can make strong-yet-believable heroines. At the bottom of her post, Sara shared five tips for making strong heroines believable. In my own words, my favorites were:

  • Give her an opportunity to evolve—hello, character arc! This should be a “duh.”
  • Balance any literal butt-kicking ability with other admirable qualities (not just weaknesses). Don’t allow the butt-kicking alone to define who she is on the positive side of the equation.
  • Make her afraid of something that nearly paralyzes her. The key I’ve found for making my heroines at least somewhat likable has been allowing them to show their vulnerability.

Case Study: Gamora of the Guardians of the Galaxy Movie

Sara’s post brought to my mind the character of Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana) in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. I consider Gamora a strong character despite the fact that she “breaks the rules” of those stereotypes. (And I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here.)

She’s an assassin (and possibly the best fighter among the Guardians), but that aspect doesn’t define her, in part because she’s not single-minded about that identity. There are hints of a love interest between her and Peter Quill, but it never interferes with her goals. And those goals—her goals—drive the movie, as she’s the one who insists to the rest of the team what they need to do and why.

Yet she also shows vulnerability. She reveals her secret to Peter in their second scene together because she does want to be seen as more than just an assassin and because she’s not above accepting help. She understands the stakes, the consequences of failure, better than anyone, so her voice breaks and she shows real fear at the thought of that failure. She does need rescuing—twice.

But make no mistake, she’d cut your heart out if you called her “weak.” And that’s my point.

Is Gamora a “Strong” Character?

Despite her many strong, admirable traits, some have focused on the love interest aspect, or the damsel in distress aspect, or whatever, and opined that those make her ineligible for being a strong character. That’s narrow-minded. Again, she’s the driver of the whole plot, has the most personally at stake, and is the moral center of the team’s choices.

In many ways, victory means more to her, is more important to her, and centers more on her, than on any of the other characters. Now that’s overcoming a situation, and that’s why characters like her deserve to be considered strong no matter the “rules” they break.

A Closer Look a Strong Heroes

I write paranormal romance, and for better or worse, the norm for that subgenre is extreme alpha male/alpha-hole heroes. But I’ve mentioned before that I don’t write alpha-holes, and some of my heroes have some downright beta traits (along with their alpha traits). In fact, some of my stories feature a paranormal heroine and a “mere human” hero.

I don’t want to write jerks. I don’t want to read jerks. I want romances where the characters grow in a partnership based on respect that I can believe will last for the “ever after” part of the happy ending. That’s just my preference.

Alpha Males vs. Alpha-Holes

To me, a hero can be dominant without being domineering. They can be protective without being controlling. And they can be confident without being overly arrogant.

To me, those positive traits, along with others like leadership, focus, decision making, and problem solving, are an alpha male. The term came from wolf packs, where the alpha male was simply the leader, not a jerk.

On the other hand, when I look at a domineering, controlling, arrogant male, I don’t see a leader. I don’t see an alpha male. I don’t see a hero.

I see a poseur, a male who’s so insecure that they put on an act to hide who they really are and who’s so afraid that they need to control everything. Their jerky behavior is all about posturing and overcompensating for their weaknesses.

To me, the real strong heroes are the ones so confident they’re not afraid of revealing their vulnerabilities. The ones so confident they can be nice and not fear that will erase their assertiveness or power. In other words, the ones we might actually like if we met them in real life.

Expectations of Alpha Males in Fiction

But the stereotype of the alpha male in many genres doesn’t recognize that nuance. One of the workshops I went to at the RWA Annual Conference was Deconstructing the Alpha Male.

At first I was heartened by the discussion because the panel made fun of the stereotype of the alpha-hole, But then they listed the characteristics they felt embodied alpha heroes, such as:

  • ruthless with everyone (i.e. not nice or kind to anyone)
  • “bro” culture (only bond to other males)
  • expressionless and implacable (no showing of emotions)

Uh oh, that’s getting close to a jerk in my book. In the business world, a guy like that wouldn’t make a very good leader. Leaders have to respect others enough to listen so they can govern well, not just conquer.

Then the panel gave opinions about the kind of heroes who couldn’t be alpha males:

  • rejected by a woman during the story
  • a virgin
  • physically damaged (beyond just a “cool” scar)

Hmm, their description was getting narrower, and essentially marked as off-limits many potential vulnerabilities. Why, it’s almost as though they thought alpha males weren’t allowed to be vulnerable in any way.

Case Study: A Hypothetical Workshop Hero

Then an attendee asked the question:

“What if you have a military hero, firefighter, or police officer who is not an *sshole—ever? They love their mother, they’re a hero, and they dominate their world. To be an alpha, do they have to be a jerk?”

The answer from the editor on the panel:

“I think that’s just a hero.”

Gah! In other words, yes, their view was that alphas have to be jerks. Not being an *sshole (and horror of horrors, having a healthy relationship with his mother) was important enough to disqualify a dominant military hero (i.e., the prototypical alpha male) from being considered an alpha male hero. Only the alpha-holes counted as alpha heroes. *head desk*

Again, I’m not saying that no heroes should ever be arrogant, controlling, domineering playboys. But for them to state, in answer to my follow-up question, that paranormal romance heroes are required to be these jerky alpha-hole style of alpha males doesn’t match with the goal of diverse three-dimensional characters.

I reject the idea that characters must conform to narrow stereotypes to be considered “strong.” I want to read stories with more diverse characters than that. That’s why I’m not going to change the kinds of characters I write. I’ll continue writing both heroes and heroines who are strong and vulnerable. And I’ll just hope that others are looking for the same. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing characters who are strong yet likable? Have you ever experienced pushback for making your characters vulnerable? Do you think characters can be strong and vulnerable? How do you think genre affects that possibility? How would you define a strong character? What heroes or heroines have you liked that follow or break the stereotypes?

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Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!

by Jami Gold on August 12, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Question mark surrounded by text: The Beta Reading Worksheet -- What to Ask & What to Answer

This past weekend, I guest blogged at Anne R. Allen’s site with a post about beta readers: where to find them and how to keep them. The guest post built off several articles I’ve shared here on my blog, such as my suggestions of how to find beta readers and my advice about being a good beta reader ourselves.

As I mentioned in the guest post, many of us find beta readers by offering to exchange our work with other writers in a “I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback” arrangement. That structure means we have to do a good job with our feedback if we want to continue our beta buddy exchange program.

A Bad Beta Reader…

One commenter on my guest post at Anne’s blog wondered if much of the advice is just common sense. Well…yeah. *smile*

Giving the type of feedback we’d like to receive is like a writers’ version of the Golden Rule. Unfortunately, common sense isn’t as common as it should be.

Virtually every writer who’s received critique partner or beta reader feedback (and sometimes this includes feedback from supposedly professional editors) has horror stories. Most of us have come across critiquers who insult us and/or our writing. Or those who try to steamroll our voice or rewrite the story to match their vision.

Those horror stories are shockingly common. So “common” sense? Nope.

And then there are the flat-out unethical critiquers Jordan McCollum posted about last week. I’m appalled at the behavior Jordan pointed out as happening to her or those she knows.

I hope we’re all in agreement that it would be unethical to:

  • withhold feedback from the author and then trash it in an online review after it’s released, or
  • negatively review a book we’ve beta read without reading the final version to see if the issues were resolved, or
  • engage in any of the other points she makes in her post.

Agreed? Good.

A Good Beta Reader…

Yet, just as harsh criticism isn’t helpful because it discourages and causes defensiveness, false compliments aren’t helpful either. So how can we be honest about things we don’t like without being mean?

Author Connie Flynn advises that we should avoid “Why did you…?” feedback comments. Why questions along those lines tend to put people on the defensive. She instead shares these excellent suggested critique phrases:

  • I don’t understand…(whatever it is).
  • The detail seems…(to slow the pace, insufficient, whatever).
  • The…(character, setting, etc.) is coming across…(feisty, depressing, important, etc.). Is that what you intended?
  • Did you want to convey (irritation, happiness, whatever)?
  • How did…(Sally get to the store, John saw down the tree, etc.)? (Use to point out missing information.)
  • Wouldn’t a character…(who has such and such a trait) do or not do…(such and such)? (Use to point out inconsistent behavior.)
  • Wasn’t…(John a blue-eyed man, Sally submissive, etc.) in Chapter (xxx)? (Use to point out inconsistent information.)
  • Carol’s (goal) seems to be… . Is that correct?
  • Your story question seems to be… .
  • I’m confused about John’s motivation.
  • And most important . . . I really liked… . (end on a strength)

These phrases echo many I’ve used over the years, and I haven’t had anyone tell me yet that I’m too harsh, so… *smile* They seem like good suggestions to me.

What If We Don’t Know What to Look For or Ask About?

When we first start beta reading, we might not know what kind of feedback is possible or appropriate, and I wondered if a cheat sheet of what to look for might be helpful. Enter my friend Shelly Chalmers, who sent me a “beta reading worksheet” she’d downloaded from an RWA forum, which I recognized as the judging scoresheet from RWA’s Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter’s On the Far Side contest (one I’ve judged several times).

I’ve mentioned before that RWA members have the benefit of a large variety of writing contests, especially compared to other genres. These contests are generally well run and use scoresheets to assist judges with objective scoring and feedback.

In other words, these scoresheets contain a couple dozen questions probing the writing quality and storytelling craft of a contest entry. Sounds like a good start for analyzing stories of a beta read, doesn’t it?

Maybe when we beta read, we’re not sure what to look for or comment on. Or maybe when we request a beta read, we’re not sure what questions to ask our beta readers. To that end, I took the idea borne from Shelly’s email and the RWA forums and put it on steroids. *grin*

I’ve entered and judged a lot of contests, so I had over a dozen scoresheets from which to grab ideas. With profound thanks to RWA and its chapters for the original scoresheets, I took pieces and parts and merged them into a new creation, a single Frankenstein listing of points to consider for a beta read.

Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!

First, a note that this worksheet should not feel like an obligation, nor is it meant as an all-inclusive list of every question possible. Instead, these questions are meant merely to trigger thoughts of what worked and what didn’t. Depending on our process, we might even be able to use this worksheet for self-editing by gaining insights into the areas to study and improve.

For more of that “common” sense…

  • If this doesn’t work for you, don’t use it.
  • If you instinctively know how to approach all but one area of analysis, it’s okay to look at just that one section for ideas.
  • In short, as with all things related to feedback, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

Screen shot of the two-page Beta Reading Worksheet

(click on the image to zoom)

Click to download the Beta Reading Worksheet — MS Word ’07 version (.docx)

Click to download the Beta Reading Worksheet — MS Word earlier version (.doc)

On contest scoresheets, questions like these are typically answered with a score of 1 to 5 to come up with an entry’s ranking:

  1. Needs Extensive Work
  2. Fair
  3. Good
  4. Very Good
  5. Excellent

Of course, we can use these questions however we want, as a checklist of things to think about, a master list of questions we could ask, or any other of a dozen uses. Remember, this is a tool, not necessarily a to-do list.

Personally, I wouldn’t send this whole list to a beta reader because it could be overwhelming and distract their big-picture reading. Instead, I’d ask a few overview questions (like from the last section about marking issues). Then if the beta reader requested more direction after they were done reading, I might send this sheet or a good portion of it. For me, I want my beta readers to use these questions only to organize their thoughts, not to direct their reading—but my goals are not necessarily your goals.

Hopefully, Connie’s suggestions above and this worksheet will help those of us who struggle with knowing what to say and how to say it. And don’t forget to check out my guest post at Anne R. Allen’s blog with more beta-reading tips. With any luck, we’ll be able to keep the writing and beta-reading communities helpful and encouraging. *smile*

Do you have horror stories of bad or unethical beta readers? Or have you heard from others with those stories? What do you think of Connie’s comment wording suggestions? Do you struggle with knowing what to ask your beta readers or knowing what to comment on when you beta read? Will this worksheet be helpful?

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my other helpful writing worksheets.

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Lessons from RWA14: Help for Slow Writers

by Jami Gold on August 7, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Snail crawling against black background with text: Help for Slow Writers

I want to continue sharing some of the tips and advice I picked up from the RWA Annual Conference (partially because it helps me remember them too *grin*). So far I’ve covered Sylvia Day’s insights on failure, RWA’s new stance on self-publishing, and Liliana Hart’s publishing technique.

I’ve been a fangirl of Courtney Milan since before her debut, so one of the workshops I most looked forward to was her “Slow Writer’s Guide to Making a Living” presentation. The workshop was in one of the biggest session breakout rooms in the hotel (maybe the biggest), and it was packed.

I’ve often called myself a slow writer, and I know I’m not alone. Judging by the crowd, a lot of writers struggle with the pressure to write faster and worry that our slowness will prevent us from reaching our goals.

What Is a “Fast Writer”?

Courtney defined a “fast writer” as an author with a new release every 90 days (or less). Those new releases don’t have to be full novels (novellas sometimes count too), but authors who release something new at least every 90 days tend to find success more easily.

Obviously by extension, a “slow writer” would be anyone with a slower-than-90-day release schedule (i.e., us mere mortals). She then discussed two approaches for dealing with that situation. We could tackle one, the other, or both approaches to improve our chances for success.

Approach A: Take Advantage of the Elements that Make Fast Writers Successful—Any Way We Can

She identified three main reasons fast writers succeed more easily:

  1. Amazon’s 30-day and 90-day algorithms for its New Releases pages offer high visibility.
  2. Fast writers build backlist more quickly (and as we discussed last time, backlist is hugely important for reaching a tipping point of sales), which allows for more income streams.
  3. The frequency of exposure keeps authors at “top of mind” and prevents readers from forgetting about the author or the story.

By being aware of those elements, we can try to incorporate them into our situation, no matter how fast or slow we write. Courtney’s suggestions included:

  • High Visibility: Do something every 90 days to increase visibility, such as putting a story on sale or making one free.
  • More Income Streams: Maximize the income for our completed stories by releasing onto more platforms (Kobo, Apple, etc.) or by adding more versions (print, audio, etc.).
  • Top of Mind: Use author newsletters to make readers remember us and why they enjoyed our stories, as well as to promote our upcoming stories.

Approach B: Make the Most of Our Writing Time

Many of us struggle with limited writing time. We might have day jobs or family obligations that prevent us from writing as much as we want. But we also might not use the time we do have as efficiently as possible. *raises hand*

How many of us spend too much of our writing time catching up with social media or blogs? Or maybe we start researching and get distracted by interesting tangents. Or maybe we spend far too much time reinventing the wheel on a writing problem instead of asking for help.

Courtney confessed that, like many writers, she didn’t always use the writing time she had very efficiently. So she shared a few tips for writing faster—which sometimes simply comes down to using our writing time to get words on the page instead of filling it with non-writing activities:

  • She recommended the book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron for helping her increase her word count. I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my list.
  • Track time spent on non-writing activities, such as accounting or ebook formatting, and ask ourselves if it would be better (more economical in the long run) to outsource those activities—especially if we’re not good at or hate the activities.
  • Pay attention to habits that trigger non-work (distraction) activities, and change the habits.

Our Habits Can Help Us or Hurt Us

I want to focus on that last bullet point because this one spoke to me the loudest. Courtney went so far as to hire a Productivity Consultant to help her identify her habits and triggers, and she shared the gist of what she learned so we all can benefit.

When we find ourselves distracted,
figure out what habit “triggered” the distraction
and avoid that habit in the future.

For example, Courtney found that much of her writing time was taken up by research tangents (she writes historical romance and needs to look up historical details). Once she interrupted her writing to go online, she’d often get distracted by non-relevant historical tidbits or by checking social media, etc.

Now, Courtney makes of a note of any historical research she needs to do and saves that for the last half hour of her writing session. Ta-da! She enjoys solid writing time and still completes her research, but at a time when accidental tangents and distractions will interrupt less.

She also blocks access to the internet during her writing sessions, the better to avoid the temptation of distractions. Popular programs include Freedom, Cold Turkey, Focus Me, Anti-Social, Self-Control, LeechBlock, and StayFocused. Some are free, some aren’t, some are for Mac only, and some are for specific internet browsers—this post compares most of those productivity programs.

Do Your Habits Help or Hurt Your Writing?

For me, I have a hard time writing first thing in the morning. I live in the western end of the U.S., and I’m not a morning person, so everyone is awake before I am. Because of that, I first want to check my email in case of issues. But once I start down the path of email, replying to comments, checking Twitter and Facebook, etc., it’s hard to know when (or how) to stop.

In other words, that’s a horrible habit for my productivity. Luckily, once I’m serious about writing, I know how to reduce distractions (I minimize non-writing windows and start my “writing music”), but I need to learn how to get into serious mode without arm-wrestling myself. (I’m open to suggestions for that trick. *grin*)

My point is that just as Courtney said, if we notice we’re getting distracted, we can stop and mentally rewind our actions until we figure out what the trigger was. If we then change our habits to avoid that trigger, we’ll automatically (and relatively painlessly) prevent many of our distractions from ever occurring.

Hopefully something in Courtney’s advice can help us. I’m not in the position to worry about sales yet, but if others are anything like me, there’s always something we can do to maximize using our writing time to actually, you know, write. *smile*

Are you a fast writer or slow writer by Courtney’s definition? Do you worry that being a slow writer might affect your career? Could any of her Approach A tips for adapting “success elements” apply to your situation? What about her Approach B tips for making our writing time more efficient? Do you have bad habits that sabotage your writing time? Do you use internet-blocking programs or have other tips to share?

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Lessons from RWA14: Techniques for Sales Success

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This past weekend, author Hugh Howey shared Liliana Hart’s self-publishing method, which she calls “5 down and 1 in the hole.” It’s easy to look at her self-publishing success (over 2 million ebooks sold) and chalk it up to luck. However, I heard advice that complemented her technique throughout the RWA Annual Conference.

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When changes happen gradually, we’re not always aware of them. My every-other year schedule for attending the RWA Annual Conference allows me to see the changes in the organization like a distant relative. I hadn’t attended the National Conference since 2012 and the differences from then to now were profound.

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Writing Active Settings, Part 1 — Guest: Mary Buckham

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The trick to sharing setting information (which our readers do need) without dragging down the pace is to write active descriptions. Active descriptions let the reader imagine the setting in their mind, keep them anchored in the story, and slip in information so seamlessly that they never realize they’re reading descriptions.

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