Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems

by Jami Gold on September 11, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Framed paper scrap with text: Tell YOUR Story

If we’ve ever let beta readers or critique groups give feedback on our stories, we’ve probably run into the issue of receiving conflicting advice. In fact, if we’ve ever let more than one person read our work, we’ve probably received conflicting advice. *smile*

One reader may love a character someone else hates. One person may think a subplot is cool while another one complains of a “boring” subplot. And one agent or editor may love our work, no matter the numerous rejection letters from all the others.

We know that writing is subjective and that not every reader will love our stories, but this subjectivity can make revisions and editing difficult. Whose feedback should we listen to? Whose suggestions for how to fix the problems should we take?

The Many Reasons for Conflicting Feedback

There are many reasons we don’t receive identical feedback from every reader. Some readers are grammar nerds, and others don’t care about a punctuation issue here or there. Our beta readers and critique groups will give us feedback about different story elements, depending on their strengths or pet peeves.

But when we find conflicting advice about the same part of our story, the reasons often fall into one of these categories:

The Reader Isn’t a Fan

I don’t mean they’re not a fan of us or our writing, but of the elements in our story. This category is purely subjective.

A reader who’s not a fan of romances would probably pick on the longer character descriptions often used in the genre. A reader who’s not a fan of crime procedurals would probably complain about the detailed search for clues and crime scene analysis. A reader who’s not a fan of hard science fiction would doze off through the technical specifications and exploration of scientific theories.

If we have some of these non-fan readers, we might be able to count on them for finding potential problems, but we probably wouldn’t want to take their advice on how to fix the problem. For example, we might listen to their feedback about a section being “boring,” yet that doesn’t mean we should follow their advice to cut it from our story. Instead, we might check to make sure we’ve made that section as tight or as voicey or as tension-filled as possible.

The Reader Isn’t a Fan…of Us

Some readers simply won’t be a fan of our voice. To them, our voice might be too chatty or too dry humored. They might not like that we use big words or that we include profanity or sentence fragments.

Obviously, this is completely subjective. Unless we want to change our voice (or need to change our voice, such as for making the transition from adult to Middle Grades stories), most advice from these readers can be ignored.

One of the most destructive things we can do is allow our voice to be “workshopped” out of us. Remember that we can’t make everyone happy, and if we try, our work will turn out bland and lacking voice at all.

That said, if they offer specific suggestions about cutting unnecessary words, fragments, etc., and we agree they’re not necessary for the story or our voice, by all means, we can tighten our work. But we should never make changes that break our voice.

The Reader Has Different Goals

Sometimes we’ll get advice that would completely change our story. Honestly, in my experience this is the most common reason for conflicting advice.

I’ve seen editors who want to change the premise(!). I’ve seen editors who want to change the tone (from dark to slapstick!). I’ve seen beta readers who want to change the whole plot(!). *sigh*

In all cases, if those changes would make the story closer to the story we intended to write, great! But we shouldn’t change just for the sake of change. The suggestions are entirely subjective.

(Notice a running theme yet? Subjective, subjective, subjective…)

Many times this type of conflicting advice wouldn’t make the book better. It would just make the book different.

These readers are simply telling us how they’d write the book, and that’s not going to help us. There’s a reason various memes point out that we’re the only one who can tell our story.

Quote: "The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can." -- Neil Gaiman(Like this quote? )

Again, we can look at the underlying reason for their comments. Were they bored? Did they dislike the character? Did the plot point not make sense? etc.

If there’s something we can do to improve that issue and stay true to our story, wonderful. Anything we can do that brings us closer to the story we want to tell is valuable. But we’ll often find others’ suggestions for how to fix issues aren’t going to help.

Finding Problems Is a Different Skill than Fixing Problems

One thing all those categories have in common is that others aren’t likely to know the best way to fix a problem they find in our story. That’s the important point we need to remember when it comes to revisions and editing.

For every problem, there are multiple ways of fixing it. Our family, friends, beta readers, critique partners, or editors are simply sharing the way they would approach fixing the problem.

But they don’t know what that story looked like and felt like in our head before we ever wrote a word. They don’t know what story we were trying to write.

So when we encounter conflicting advice, the best thing we can do is identify the underlying reasons for their comments. Then we’ll be able to judge for ourselves the best way to fix it.

(This is why when I beta read or freelance edit, I always give a reason for every suggested change. That way the author knows the issue and can understand my suggestions better. In many cases with beta readers or critique groups, we can ask the reader why they gave a certain suggestion and uncover that underlying reason.)

Trust Ourselves to Know the Best Way to Fix Our Stories

Let’s take an example: What might the feedback look like if multiple readers are bored during a section of our story?

  • One reader blames the character and says they’re unlikable.
  • Another reader suggests cutting the scene.
  • Yet another reader says to punch up the humor.

If we just looked at the surface, those pieces of advice would conflict: unlikable character issue, scene issue, and mood issue. But they’re really all caused by the same underlying problem, and it’s just that everyone’s advice focuses on a different way of “fixing” the issue.

Once we understand the reasons behind conflicting advice, we’ll likely have a better idea of how to fix the problem in a way that matches our vision for the story. Maybe we’ll realize the scene is boring because we didn’t give the protagonist a goal.

Two sentences later, we can have the problem fixed. All with no changing of the character, cutting of scenes, or messing with the scene’s mood.

Feedback is great for helping us find issues. But we often should ignore the suggestions how to fix issues. My attitude is to be wide-open to all thoughts of what might be wrong with my work and to be somewhat closed when it comes to the how.

We need to keep our focus on the story we want to tell. Only then can we judge whether suggestions from feedback will help our story or not. Our story deserves to be told the way we intended for it to be told. Others can go write their own damn story. *smile*

What kinds of conflicting advice have you received? How did you decide which advice to follow? Have you received feedback suggestions that would change the essence of your story? How did you handle that situation? Do you have other tips for how we can stay true to our story?

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Movie clapboard with text: Be a Director: Create a Book Trailer

We’re all familiar with the concept of movie trailers, but book trailers are becoming more common too. Like a movie trailer, a book trailer is meant to increase interest in a story. Where queries and back-cover blurbs pitch a story in writing, book trailers pitch a story by showing. Literally.

Some publishers of big name authors will spring for production of a book trailer, but the rest of us—traditionally published or self-published—have to create one on our own. Yikes! Now writers have to be mini-movie directors too?

To help us, I brought in Angela Quarles, who recently had her book trailer featured on USA Today’s Happily Ever After column. Angela just released her debut novel (a story I gushed about years ago, when I discussed why I love beta reading) and is going to walk us through how she created the trailer for Must Love Breeches.

Today’s post is long but filled with fantastic information. This one is definitely a “keeper.” *smile* Please welcome my beta buddy, Angela Quarles!

*****

Creating a Do-It-Yourself Book Trailer

Thank you for having me on your site, Jami! I know Jami likes to have practical writing posts that give you real tips that you can use, and I hope I can deliver that to you today as well.

You’ve seen book trailers—when done right, they make you more intrigued about the book. But you’ve also seen the ones that look amateurish. I first did one a couple of years ago for the release of my novelette, but with the release of my first full-length novel, the stakes felt higher to me, and I was intimidated to try it again.

But, like last time, I told myself that if I couldn’t pull it off, no one had to see it. So, what follows are my steps to making a quality book trailer.

Step 1: Determine the Tone

Jot down words that convey the tone the book trailer should have. It needs to match the tone of your book, of course. Brainstorm ways that you can visually achieve this. Look at other book trailers to see what they do and write down techniques and other aspects that you liked.

Step 2: Storyboard

Armed with your brainstorming notes and a pen and paper, draw rectangles and jot inside some images you could see using in each spot, along with any captions. I just did a quick and dirty one, it won’t win any art prizes, but it helped me see this as a series of ‘scenes’. I crossed things out, drew rectangles on the sides with arrows where they should be inserted, etc.

Not all of the ‘scenes’ I ended up using, but it helped me visualize it. You don’t want any more than about 18-20 of these because you want to keep it under 2 minutes, but the shorter the better. The best is if you can encapsulate it in one minute. Attention spans are short, so get in, get your story and tone across, and get out.

For your captions, think short and simple here. Like a log line, or your query letter. Just try and think what you want to convey, and how, and come up with the wording. Viewers will lose patience if they have to read a lot of words in a trailer.

In fact, the same principles used for creating an effective logline apply here. It needs to convey genre, tone, who, where, what they want, what/who opposes them, etc. And just like your query, start with your hook!

Step 3: Analyze Your Text

Both times I’ve done this, I didn’t do this until the end when I already had my slides made in my software and so it meant remaking parts of it, so I think it would be good to do this step here. Even though I had my captions written in my storyboard, something about it prevented me from seeing it as a whole.

So I pulled out just the words, each caption on a separate line, and pasted it into a text editor like Word. This allowed me to see any gaps in logic, or ways to tighten the prose. I didn’t have time this go around, but last time I sent just the text to two friends who also took a look at it and gave helpful suggestions.

Do you have repeat words? Are you saying the same thing several different ways? Trim, trim, trim! Use the same word-craft skills you apply to your WIP for here as well.

Step 4: Load Up Your Software

I used Windows Live Movie Maker, which in other tutorials online said that it comes with Windows, but it didn’t come with mine. But it’s a free program, so you can download it here if your computer doesn’t have it either. If you’re not on Windows, I’m sure the Mac comes with a good program too.

This won’t be a tutorial about the specifics involved with this software, but rather the principles involved with making one. So if you have to download, go ahead and get that ball rolling while you then browse for images… Other authors have told me they’ve used Nero in conjunction with Windows Live Movie Maker.

Step 5: Pick Your Images

Next you want to look for images that will work with your scenes. Be very careful here, as you don’t want to use copyrighted images. I opted to spend some money and purchase high quality photos where usage would not be a problem. Be very aware of what the license allows you to do.

I found one that would’ve been perfect for showing the British Museum and was poised to buy it when I noticed it was for Editorial use only. In the end, I spent less than $50 total for all the photos and one video clip I used by going to Dreamstime.

But before I purchased them, I browsed for ones I thought would work and put them in my lightbox for the project. I then downloaded samples and used those samples in my trailer until I knew for sure those were the images I wanted.

And pick images that are sharp and get across what you want to convey in a nice, tight shot. Don’t get something so ‘busy’ that it’s ambiguous.

You can even purchase short video clips if you want to get really fancy. There are many on iStock Photo and Dreamstime as well, like this one that shows a little sensual snippet that might work for a romance trailer. I used a clip of the inner workings of a clock to get across the time travel part and to add visual interest.

Here’s a list of stock photo sites to peruse:

Depending on how many photos you intend to use, each have different advantages with regard to pricing. I was able to find what I wanted and buy just the right amount of credits to cover my cost.

Step 6: Create a Rough Draft of Your Trailer

Now go ahead and open your software and set up your project file. Make sure to choose your aspect ratio, and I recommend using “Widescreen 16:9″ as that will look the most professional. 16:9 refers to the aspect ratio, meaning the width will be 16 units across for every 9 units down.

Start making each ‘scene’ by inserting your captions and images. I didn’t do music until near the end, so that I wouldn’t keep hearing it over and over while editing (though I guess I could’ve hit mute). But the idea here is to lay down your scenes, just like you would in a rough draft of your story. You want to get them down to see what you’ve got.

If you’re using still images like me, don’t let them just appear and stay there for a bit until they get replaced. Try to create interest and movement by utilizing the in-built transitions and movements that come with your software.

I made sure that every time a photo appeared, I used transitions that seemed appropriate. But be careful here, there are some pretty cheesy transitions available to use, so try to keep it simple and fitting for the tone you’re aiming for. You don’t want it to look like someone who just started playing with all the cool transition tools in their new video creation software (*wink*). My advice would be to find one transition that works, and stick to that one for the whole trailer.

For movement, I used some of the inbuilt panning so that the photo moved around a little. Again, don’t go crazy.

Same with your captions, try to choose one of the inbuilt fade in/out movements that come with it. Stick to one font, two at the most. Like the transitions, don’t go crazy here. Make sure that the font is a professional-looking, clean, readable font, and if possible, matches the tone you’re going for. Often the wrong font can cross the trailer over into Amateur Land.

I used the ones I bought that were used in my cover, but you can find fonts at places like dafont.com, Font SquirrelMy Fonts, or 1001 Fonts and download one. Like music and images, be careful that you choose one that grants you commercial license to use it; some are only for personal use.

My first trailer, I put the release date in one of the frames, but this time, I opted not to, so that it didn’t get quickly dated.

Step 7: Prep Your Images

Images won’t be sized at the same aspect ratio as your movie (16:9), which can present a challenge. You can do one of several things:

  • Insert them as is and live with whatever background color shows on either side (if it’s a vertical) or above and below (if it’s a horizontal). This has the potential of looking amateurish though.
  • Recommended: Open up your image editing software (like PhotoShop) and if you want the whole image visible, create a file with the right aspect ratio and background color you want and place your photo centered. Or if you’re okay with parts of the photo missing, cut off part of it so it matches the aspect ratio. I prefer to do the latter so that the photo takes up the whole screen.
    (Note from Jami: You can add background or crop in free picture editing sites like PicMonkey too)

But how do I figure out the aspect ratio?—I’m so confused! you’re probably screaming right about now. Fear not, luckily someone else has made a calculator available online.

In the space that has 4 and 3 prefilled in the width and height, change that to 16 and 9. Then use the area near the bottom of the calculator to input one of the photos dimensions in pixels, hit calculate, and it tells you what the other should be. For instance, one of my photos was 849 pixels by 565 pixels.

I knew I wanted to keep the width of the photo, so I input 849 in the width box at the bottom, hit calculate, and boom, it told me I needed to make the height 478. So I trimmed my photo, lopping off top and bottom, so that it had this height and RESAVED it under a new file name (that way the original photo stays intact).

Step 8: Add Credits

Don’t forget to credit those you need to at the end, like the cover artist, photos, and music. Dreamstime has specific language for photo credits.

Step 9: Find Music

Again, don’t put copyrighted music in your trailer! So that fave tune of yours by the artist you love? Ah, no. Unless you only want your video playable from YouTube (more below).

There are sites that have royalty free music you can buy, like the images, (Google ‘royalty free music’) but I was on a tight budget, so I went with the same musician I use last time: Josh Woodward. He has oodles of music on there that you can use for free, and you can filter by mood, or instrumental only, etc. If you don’t like his, you can Google “free download,” “royalty free,” “contemporary sensual music,” or whatever you’re looking for.

However you find your music, be sure to follow their instructions on usage and how they should be credited. You do not want to get in trouble later. I know Kevin MacLeod is another musician who has free instrumental music you can use.

Whatever it is, again it needs to match the tone of your story/trailer.

Now, if you do want to use a song from a popular artist, I’m told that YouTube has agreements with some corporations like Sony, but the catch is, it can only be played on YouTube using their embed links (and you have to be sure that song is part of YouTube’s licensing agreement). This would prevent you from uploading your book trailer to Facebook, or uploading it to your Amazon Author Central page, which I think is a severe limitation. I’d rather have it accessible in several places.

Places to purchase music:

Places with free music:

Step 10: Beta Round

Just like with your WIP, get some folks you trust to look at your rough trailer. I posted it to my facebook profile (but kept the visibility restricted to Friends Only) and got feedback and also posted it to my street team for feedback.

And like Beta readers with your book, they will find inconsistencies, typos, and suggestions for improvement.

Step 11: Purchase Your Images and Finalize

Now purchase your images and get them sized and imported. Don’t opt for the smallest size. Get one that is at least 640×480 and at 300 DPI. You don’t want it looking grainy if it’s blown up full screen.

Step 12: Tighten

Again, like your WIP, do that final tighten and polish. I cut down precious seconds by just making sure the delays between scenes were exactly paced the way I wanted.

Step 13: Secure Final Permissions

If your book is being published by a publisher, make sure you follow their rules and get whatever approvals you need before you make this live. YouTube allows you to upload videos and keep them private so you can send links to those you want to see it.

Step 14: Release that Puppy!

Release it into the wild! I uploaded mine to YouTube, but I also arranged to have it premiere on a fellow blogger’s website.

If your book is a romance, the absolute best place to have your trailer seen is on USA Today’s Happy Ever After column. My trailer was featured right before Labor Day weekend and generated a lot of hits to my site. To submit your book trailer for consideration, email Robin Covington at robin@robincovingtonromance.com.

Another place to submit is to Jessica Aspen for her Whimsical Wednesday feature. If your book is Fantasy, Futuristic, Time Travel, or Paranormal Romance, then she might feature it. Submit your YouTube link on her website. If you’ve been putting chapters up on WattPad.com, they now allow you to embed video with your story.

Also, be sure to upload it to your Goodreads book page, and also to your Amazon Author Central Profile. I also uploaded it to my Videos tab on my Facebook page.

Annnnd, don’t be an idiot like me and not put your buy links in the YouTube description (the text part below your video)! Honest to Pete, I totally forgot to until like 4 days AFTER my book trailer was on USAToday.

Star Trek facepalm meme photo

And here’s my trailer. My novel is light-hearted and so I wanted the trailer to convey that:

Trailer for Must Love Breeches on YouTube

Final Thoughts

There’s an endless debate about whether or not a book trailer is effective, but for me, I find it so, since in our genre we have such a readily accessible and high profile venue to share it on–USAToday. For this debut author, it was the only way my book would get featured there! Keep the costs low, and what do you have to lose?

Other Helpful Sites

*****

Angela QuarlesAngela Quarles is a geek girl romance writer whose works includes Must Love Breeches, a time travel romance, and Beer & Groping in Las Vegas, a geek romantic comedy in novelette form. She has a B.A. in Anthropology and International Studies with a minor in German from Emory University, and a Masters in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University. She currently resides in a historic house in the beautiful and quirky town of Mobile, AL.

Sign up for Angela’s mailing list, or find her on her website/blog, Paranormal Unbound group blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

*****

About Must Love Breeches:

She’s finally met the man of her dreams. There’s only one problem: he lives in a different century.

HOW FAR WOULD YOU TRAVEL FOR LOVE?

Book cover for Must Love BreechesA mysterious artifact zaps Isabelle Rochon to pre-Victorian England, but before she understands the card case’s significance a thief steals it. Now she must find the artifact, navigate the pitfalls of a stiffly polite London, keep her time-traveling origins a secret, and resist her growing attraction to Lord Montagu, the Vicious Viscount so hot, he curls her toes.

To Lord Montagu nothing makes more sense than keeping his distance from the strange but lovely Colonial. However, when his scheme for revenge reaches a stalemate, he convinces Isabelle to masquerade as his fiancée. What he did not bargain on is being drawn to her intellectually as well as physically.

Lord Montagu’s now constant presence overthrows her equilibrium and her common sense. Isabelle thought all she wanted was to return home, but as passion flares between them, she must decide when her true home—as well as her heart—lies.

*****

Holy Wow! Thank you so much for that fantastic post, Angela!  I also like how we can compare the back-cover blurb above with your trailer to see what elements and tone you duplicated for your trailer.

As Angela said, there’s debate about how helpful book trailers are for sales. But if we think of a book trailer as another way for potential readers to form an impression, the more impressions we can create on their memory, the better our chances they’ll go through with a purchase. I just hope I’m better at pitching my story through a book trailer than through a query. *smile*

Do you enjoy watching book trailers? Have you tried making your own? Do you have any advice to add to Angela’s tips? Do you have any questions for her about her book trailer or how she did any of the steps?

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How to Make Sure Readers Don’t Close the Book

by Jami Gold on September 4, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Woman reading a book with text: Keep the Readers Reading

Many articles and infographics have tried to answer the question of what makes readers stop reading. They usually include a list of offenses like typos, too boring, confusing, etc. And those are all true. But a recent post took a more analytical approach to measuring problem areas.

Jefferson Smith started a reading program called “Immerse or Die.” Every day he chooses a self-published book to read while exercising on his treadmill. Each time a book forces him out of the story, that’s a strike. He gives each book three strikes—additional chances to not lose his attention again. At three strikes, the book is closed.

That “three strikes” rule probably matches how I approach new books as well. I can forgive one, maybe two strikes, as typos and mistakes do happen. But three strikes, especially in the first couple of chapters, adds up to a bad impression.

More importantly, I liked his approach because the number one piece of advice for story quality is:

Keep readers in the story.

Why do we stay up late, turning pages? Why do we read stories outside our normal genres? Why do we read stories about unlikable characters? Because we’re sucked into the story.

Good Storytelling Can Overcome Many Sins

Authors who keep readers immersed in the story can get away with so-so writing, and sometimes they can even get away with unlikable characters, characters who make stupid choices, lame subplots, sections with slow pacing, etc. We’ve probably all seen reviews of stories where the reader says “the writing was laughably bad, but I couldn’t stop reading.”

On some level, keeping readers immersed in the story should be our number one writing goal. Each time the reader is reminded that they’re reading a book—for whatever reason—we’re reminding them they have a choice to close the book.

Readers who are deep into the story don’t consciously think about the words on the page, much less the pages in the book. They’re right alongside our characters. Therefore, they forget they can walk away.

The Ever-Important Opening Pages

Jefferson recently reported on the 50 books he’s put through the program so far. His report contains several insights that I want to highlight here.

He found that two-thirds of the stories that struck out did so within 12 minutes of reading, about 4000 words. This is why sample chapters and Amazon’s Look Inside feature are so important for sales.

As readers, we know that for most books, either it will appeal to us right away or it won’t. If I make it to the end of the Look Inside excerpt, I almost always buy the book. But I don’t make it to the end for most books.

Since I’ve started checking the Look Inside excerpt before I buy, my book purchases have decreased. That’s bad for the authors who don’t make the cut, but good for those who do, as my Kindle is less over-stuffed and I’m more likely to read the rest of their story.

What Breaks Reader Immersion?

So what pulls readers out of the story and causes a strike against it? Jefferson came up with 27 categories, from weak mechanics (misspelled or missing words, etc.) to too-coincidental plot events, and I recommended checking out his chart (under “The Taxonomy of WTFs” sub-heading) for the full list.

But what he—and I—found most interesting was that five of those 27 categories accounted for half of the strikes. The top five problem areas he identified are:

  1. weak mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.)
  2. implausible character behaviors (out-of-character actions)
  3. echoing (words, sentence styles, or imagery that calls attention to itself)
  4. illogical world building (elements don’t hold up or make sense)
  5. conspicuous exposition (backstory and info dumping)

Then he went on to analyze those issues deeper:

“I often think of the process of fiction writing as being arranged into 3 fundamentally distinct skill sets: story building, story telling, and text editing. And it takes mastery of all three of these areas to produce an engaging story that fans will love. …

    • Story Building Problems: These are weaknesses in the story design itself. Examples include tired old cliche plots, illogical economic systems, illogical or impossible physics, inconsistent or unbelievable characters, etc.
    • Story Telling Problems: Here we find the problems related to how the conceived story is translated and organized into text. This accounts for things like bad pacing, clichéd scenes, bad dialogue, show vs. tell, and so on.
    • Editorial Problems: These are the problems that could have been avoided with better copy editing. Spelling, verb tenses, missing words, words used incorrectly, etc.”

When he regrouped the 27 strike categories into these three major skill areas, he found that only 25% of strikes fell into the Editorial group. Story Telling accounted for 44%, and Story Building accounted for 31%.

What Does That Mean for Our Stories?

Those results tell me that too many authors aren’t benefiting from a full editing cycle. Years ago, when editors at traditional publishers actually edited, and not just “acquired” stories, books would go through several editing passes:

  • developmental editing
  • line/copy editing
  • proofreading

Now, I’ve heard authors from many publishers (traditional, small, and digital-first) say the only editing  they received was one of the latter two, copyediting or proofreading. For many authors, that’s what they think “being edited” means.

That impression leads to self-published authors taking the same shortcut. Not surprisingly, I’ve heard self-published authors claim their work was edited because they had a copyeditor.

Great! But that’s missing 75% of the potential problems in our stories.

Only developmental editing will catch Story Building problems, and most Story Telling problems as well. (Many line editors and some copy editors will also point out Story Telling issues like bad dialogue or show vs. tell problems.)

For the most part, copyediting and proofreading are about making what’s already on the page the best it can be. Whereas, in addition to looking for weak, illogical, or inconsistent elements, developmental editing also looks for what’s missing—what’s not on the page.

Only development editing will catch whether the story is the best it can be. Without that editing step, we’re potentially leaving weaknesses on the page in the plot arc, character arc, emotions, turning points, tension, conflict, stakes, themes, etc.

(And I swear I’m not just saying all this because I do developmental editing on the side. I’m not even linking to my editing page. *smile*)

But Editing Is Expensive!

Yes, editing is expensive. I fully understand why some publishers and self-published authors want to skip editing steps. But I also want us all to have the best stories we can. So how can we save money?

Option 1: Beta Readers

Many authors use beta readers instead of developmental editors. If we have great beta readers, I think this can work fine.

If we’ve received comments on the following elements from our beta readers, they’re probably thorough enough:

  • Story and Character Arcs (and if applicable, the Romance Arc): Do they have suggestions for how to make these stronger? Show more contrast from the beginning to the end of the story? Make a smoother flow?
  • Plot Events and Turning Points: Do they have suggestions for making the plot stronger? Less confusing, illogical, or coincidental? More emotional for readers?
  • Conflicts, Stakes, and Tension: Do they point out where these aspects seem weak? Or suggest how to make them more personal to the characters? Or how to make the antagonistic forces more difficult to overcome?
  • Pacing and Information Dumps: Do they point out slow sections? Or where we’re boring the reader?
  • Characterization and Likeability: Do they point out ways we could show more about the character through characterization? Or how to eliminate character problems such as unlikeability or “too stupid to live”?
  • Goals and Motivations: Do they point out where character actions don’t make sense? Or characters don’t seem to have a purpose? Or where characters seem to be puppets to the plot?
  • Story and Character Themes: Do they notice themes at all? Or have suggestions for how to strengthen them?
  • Other Writing Issues: Do they identify point of view issues? Or where we’re telling instead of showing?

*psst* We can use this list to evaluate developmental editors (or the editing quality of publishers) too. *smile*

Option 2: Manuscript Analysis

Some developmental editors will read through the whole manuscript and give an overview of the above issues. These analyses (sometimes called Manuscript Critiques) are usually cheaper than a full developmental edit because the editor isn’t making comments within the manuscript itself to point out specifics.

These overviews are very similar to the “revision letter” some publishers’ editors provide. As long as we’re able to take overall suggestions and apply the feedback to our specific scenes, this option works well and would cost hundreds of dollars, rather than over a thousand dollars for a full novel edit.

Option 3: Partial Edit

Some developmental editors will give feedback on a partial of a story. This can be a good option if we want to make sure those opening 3-5 chapters are as strong as they can be. Obviously, this would be cheaper than a full developmental edit as well.

I’ve recommended this option for those who think their self-editing and/or beta readers have caught all the big issues but want to make sure. Call it a “sanity check” that might relieve our worries or point out how we’re not quite there yet.

Option 4: Alpha Readers

As Jefferson pointed out in his post, when it comes to illogical plots or story worlds, we can also use alpha readers, those willing to help us brainstorm the development of our story. I think of alpha readers as “brainstorm buddies,” and I’m lucky enough to have a great reader in my family for this.

Others might have a close beta reader or critique group buddy willing to brainstorm with us. A few developmental editors offer story development service as well, but I’m not sure how that’s priced. Regardless of where we find the help, the point of brainstorming with alpha readers is to prevent story logic problems that will require huge revisions later.

Option 5: Self-Editing

Jefferson also noted that simply by being aware of these issues to avoid, we can potentially self-edit ourselves to better stories. Janice Hardy has a great post about being our own book doctor, filled with questions to ensure our story is as strong as it can be.

With this option, I’d recommend using a backup method for our first story or two, until we’ve verified that we’re able to find and fix these errors ourselves. Most of us aren’t able to see big-picture issues because in our head, the story is logical and the characters’ actions do make sense. So Option 5 shouldn’t be relied on unless another source has confirmed our ability to self-edit to the necessary level.

However we approach story-level editing, the important thing is that we need to make sure those big-picture problems are analyzed and addressed somehow. If not, we’re likely leaving 75% of our writing issues in place. And that’s definitely not going to keep readers turning pages. *smile*

How many strikes do you give a book before you stop reading? When you close a book, do the reasons tend to be story problems or writing problems? What story problems have made you close a book? If you’re traditionally published, did your publisher provide all the editing phases? If you’re self-published, do you have a method for addressing each editing step?

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When Do Writers Need a Business Plan?

by Jami Gold on September 2, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Fortune cookie message with text: Do Writers Need a Business Plan?

Last week, I shared a Business Plan for Writers Worksheet. Yet when we’re first starting out as writers, creating a business plan might be the last thing we feel like doing. We probably first want to immerse ourselves in the art and craft of writing and prove that we can do this writing thing before coming up with difficult business-related answers about production schedules and budgets.

There’s nothing wrong with that attitude. We do need to focus on the writing first. However, a business plan can be anything we want it to be. It does not have to be about number-crunching business elements.

I mentioned last week that we could set goals for craft and writer-development tasks too, such as reading craft books or attending workshops to work on our writing weaknesses. In truth, there are far more non-business things we could include in a “business” plan than we might assume.

When Is a Business Plan Not about the Business Plan?

As I mentioned in the last post, I came up with the worksheet as a way to capture everything I wanted to include in a business plan for myself. Appropriately, after finishing that post I spent the next two days working on my business plan, and I can now testify that the template works. *smile*

I used the descriptions on the worksheet itself, along with the questions and bullet points in my last post to come up what to include. Then I copied some of the verbiage from Denise Grover Swank’s fantastic example here, here, and here for the blah-blah-blah business-y stuff.

Ta-da! Twenty pages later, I was done.

But during that process, I realized the real value of completing a business plan. I found so much value from forcing myself to think through my goals and priorities that I’d now say it’s a good idea for writers at any stage to go through this process earlier rather than later.

Think Flexibility—In Every Aspect of Planning

I’ve spoken a lot here on my blog about how we need to know our goals. So I thought I was well-versed in my priorities and how those combined with my values to create goals for myself. Eh, as I discovered when trying to come up with my business plan, not so much.

If we don’t write things down, it’s easy to think about an issue on a superficial level. The process of putting our goals or priorities to paper is different, especially if we then translate those ideas into strategies. Writing down our goals can force us to think through an issue, to think deeper and see the “end game.”

In other words, the real benefit to writing up a business plan can be in translating those “what” goals into “how” strategies. And that benefit isn’t limited to only those authors with “X” experience or on the “Y” publishing path.

I fully expect my plan to be blown to smithereens at first contact with the “enemy”—reality. But the fact that I did all that thinking as part of my planning means I’ll be better prepared for whatever chaos I encounter.

Whether the plan actually works or not is somewhat irrelevant, as Robert Doucette commented on my last post:

“The benefits of a well thought out business plan are psychological as well as strategic. It helps to focus efforts.”

Circumstances and situations will always change, but knowing our priorities, goals, and values means that we might just need to tweak our strategies to adapt to the new details:

  • Low sales? Let’s figure out what promotion strategies are in line with our values.
  • Hot new genre? Let’s decide if our goals support a strategy of chasing genre trends.
  • Kindle Unlimited? Let’s analyze whether this affects our strategy for our distribution goals.

Questions like those—and thousands more we could never anticipate—can be answered when we know our beliefs, values, priorities, etc. We don’t need to think of every question, every possibility, every industry upheaval we might encounter. Instead, if we know what drives us, we’ll be able to apply that knowledge to any situation.

So… Should New Writers Create a Business Plan Too?

Because of the value in actually thinking things through, I’d say writers at any stage could benefit from completing a business plan. Of course, a newbie writer’s business plan would look very different from a plan of a multi-published author. That’s okay and to be expected.

I tried keeping the worksheet I created flexible enough to apply to traditionally published and self-published authors. That flexibility means parts of it still apply to those authors climbing the new-writer learning curve as well.

If we’re first starting out, we could still use the worksheet to think about our goals and priorities:

  • Description of Author Business: This section can be a summary of our author and career development goals, anything from learning the craft to entering contests or querying agents. The point is figuring out why we’re doing what we’re doing and identifying—in the big picture—what actions we have to take to get there. A newbie author’s goals might be to finish their first story by x date and find beta readers. That’s their purpose at that point in time.
  • Operation of Author Business: This section can simply state our preferred publication path. Will we pursue traditional publishing, and if so, are we looking for an agent or submitting directly to smaller publishers? Or do we plan to self-publish? Again this point is about defining what we want and how we currently plan on getting there.
  • Product Plan: The section can be a statement of the types of stories we plan on writing, length, genre, etc. What do we want our author career to look like?
  • Marketing Plan: This section can delve into our thoughts of social media, blogging, and promotion. How do we want to connect with others? Do we want to blog? What do we want our brand—the impression others have of us—to be? What topics might we chat about on our blog or social media?
  • Competitive Analysis: This section can identify authors in our genre we look up to. Those authors can become our “virtual mentors.” Even if we’re not able to form relationships with them to create a real mentorship, we can still watch and learn from them. How do they reach out to their readers, how do they relate to others, and what contacts have they formed within the industry? What do readers love about their stories? Do the authors talk about how they reached their level of success?
  • Development Plan: This section can lay out how we plan to reach our goals. Will we save up for a craft workshop or a writing conference? Will we send out x number of queries a month? Will we aim for y number of words in our draft each day?

A business plan for a newbie writer might be only a page or two long. Again, that’s okay. No one has to match my twenty-page, very intimidating (to me!) plan. If we’ve thought through the questions and issues, that’s good enough.

Once we have a business plan, we should review it occasionally to see where our goals or plans might have changed. Personally, I plan on revisiting my business plan every quarter. That will be a good opportunity for me to gauge my progress and make sure I’m still on the right path for me.

I have a Fortune Cookie “fortune” tacked above my desk:

A dream is just a dream.
A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.

That’s why business plans are important to our success, no matter our experience level. A business plan is the literal embodiment of “a plan and a deadline.” Without those elements, it’s harder for us to reach our definition of success.

However, we also don’t need to stress about our plan and “failing” ourselves. Whether we’re a newbie writer or an experienced author, our plan is just that—a plan.

It’s okay if nothing goes to plan. The real value is in the thinking we did to come up with the plan. That thinking about our goals, values, and priorities can be applied to whatever reality looks like, no matter how different that is from our plan. *smile*

If you’ve written a business plan, did your experience of the value of thinking through your goals match mine? Do you disagree about when writers should write a business plan? Can you think of other reasons newer writers should work on a business plan? What reasons should a newer writer not worry about creating one? How else could a newer writer approach a business plan?

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Arrow zooming up on a graph with text: Introducing the Business Plan Worksheet!

No one will ever care about our success as much as we do. That’s why—even though we’re writers—we should think of ourselves, at least on some level, as business people.

Not all of us have a business mindset, however. We might wish to be author-artists rather than author-business-professionals. There’s nothing wrong with that attitude.

But even as artists, we still need to be clear about our goals so we know whether to choose option A or option B. For example, some artist-authors might price their books for increased readership instead of income. Guess what? Choices like that are business decisions.

Ditto for traditionally published authors who want their publisher or agent to handle business-related issues. If those authors have clear goals, they’ll be better able to judge whether to use the same publisher for their new series, or if they want to diversify with a new genre, or whether their agent is steering them in a different direction from what they want.

No matter what kind of writer we are, we will need to make business decisions, and that’s where having a business plan can help. A business plan, even just a basic one, can help us recognize what’s important to us, brainstorm our goals, and design a plan to get from Point A to Point B while avoiding distractions.

What Can a Business Plan Do for Us?

Business plans don’t have to be about numbers or sales projections. (I don’t do math. *smile*) They can also be about defining who we are as an author and what we want for our dreams.

  • What kind of author do we want to be? What kind of stories do we want to write? What’s our message?
  • Who do we think is the target audience for our stories?
  • What makes our stories unique? Why would our target audience want to read them?
  • How do we define success? How will we know when we get there?
  • Are we ready to reach for success? What skills or knowledge do we still need to acquire to be successful?
  • What path will take us toward our success goal? Are we on that path already? If not, what do we need to do to get on that path?
  • Are we spending time on activities that impede our goals? Are adjustments needed to refocus on activities that match our goals?

Once we’re comfortable with knowing what we want, where we stand, and where we want to go, we’ll be better able to adjust to the fluid publishing environment.

We’ve all seen how the rules of “the game” change from month to month, and sometimes from week to week. Knowing what our goals are can help us keep an eye on the big picture and not be randomized with every change.

When we know what we want and where we want to go, it’s easier to look at changes and say, “How can I best take advantage of these new circumstances to reach my goals?” Quickly adapting is a far more productive response than flailing over the never-ending shifting sands under our feet.

In addition, simply having a business plan might help us present ourselves more professionally. Our family and friends might see that we’re serious about our writing and better understand or respect our choices. Or at the very least, we’d know how serious we are.

What Should We Include in Our Business Plan?

There are as many different ways to approach business plans as there are authors. Some of us might want something very specific and formal (like Denise Grover Swank’s fantastic example here, here, and here), and others of us might want more of a casual overview.

Whatever format we take, we need to allow for flexibility in our plan and the ability to revise as we go. The publishing landscape is changing constantly and life happens unexpectedly. But we’ll never get to where we want to go unless we have a basic direction in mind.

After looking at several author-focused business plans, I found these topics the most insightful. Some of these sections focus on the big picture, others force us to dig into difficult topics, and still others help us keep our eye on the prize.

Read through these bullet points to get an overview, or just scroll down to see the real thing:

Description of Author Business:

Operation of Author Business:

  • This section summarizes the business aspect—traditionally published vs. self-published—and touches on how the business would be structured and run.
  • This is the place for decisions like sole proprietorship vs. LLC or starting our own imprint vs. publishing under our author name.

Product Plan:

  • This section defines all products, current and planned, and specifies the target audience for each (including how we might reach them).
  • We should be specific here about ebook, print, or audiobooks, etc. so we know to include those production costs in our Development Plan.
  • If we include information about the actual or expected income from each product, we can track whether we’re prioritizing the best projects for our income goals.

Marketing Plan:

  • This section lists our strategies for everything from release schedules to writing series vs. standalone books.
  • This is where we get to brag about all the time we waste, er, spend on social media as we’re building our platform.
  • Do we have a newsletter or a blog? Are we active on Wattpad or Goodreads? Will we offer a freebie or use Kindle Select? Mention it here.

Competitive Analysis:

  • This section asks us to research and analyze other authors in our genre, specifically those who are successful.
  • What makes them successful? What strategies work for them?
  • How can we adapt their strategies to our strengths and stories? What can we learn about how to overcome or minimize our weaknesses?
  • Think about why readers might want our book in addition to (or instead of) the books released by these authors. What makes ours unique? Why might readers choose not to read ours over the other comparable books?

Development Plan:

  • This section defines a schedule for our goals and outlines the steps we need to take to reach each one.
  • This is the nitty-gritty for how we’re going to reach our definition of success. Everything from daily word counts to financial income vs. expense plans would go here.
  • We might want to use subsections for different schedules, such as one for our professional development goals, one for drafting and revising, another for publishing (however that looks for our chosen path, whether querying and submission or editing and cover art), and yet another for marketing.
  • Be as specific as possible with these steps (“I’m going to read two craft books to fix my x weakness by y date.”) so we can better track our progress.
  • Depending on how much we want to push and stretch ourselves, the schedule might be a bit uncomfortable, but it should always be achievable.

Introducing the Business Plan for Writers Worksheet!

I tried to make this worksheet flexible enough to help both those who want a formal plan and those who want just a casual overview. Use this worksheet however it works for you.

We might not want to specify details on every item listed, so think of the points under each section more as “thought triggers.” Or we could focus only on the areas we know we have weaknesses. Whatever works, works. *smile*

Screen shot of both pages of the Business Plan for Writers Worksheet

(click on the image to zoom in)

Click to download the Business Plan for Writers Worksheet — MS Word ’07 version (.docx)

Click to download the Business Plan for Writers Worksheet — MS Word earlier version (.doc)

As with many things on my blog, I’m sharing what I’ve learned. I’ve never had a business plan before. It seemed too intimidating or overwhelming (or maybe that was just the math), and quite frankly, I didn’t have the time (or was unwilling to make the time).

But now I’ve reached the point that I need a business plan if I don’t want to make mistakes with my choices. So I put this worksheet together for myself and decided to share in case others might find it helpful as well. Wish me luck in getting this completed. *grin*

Okay, I Have a Business Plan, Now What?

Once we have a business plan, we should probably revisit it once a quarter or so. Checking in on a regular basis gives us the opportunity to see what’s working and what isn’t, recognize where the publishing landscape has changed, and maybe even remind us of a strategy we meant to implement but haven’t yet.

Again, the point isn’t to make more work for ourselves. Rather, a business plan is all about putting to paper what we want and figuring out where we have holes so we can be smarter about our time and energy.

Whether we’re a newbie writer pursuing traditional publishing or a deep-in-the-trenches self-published author, we are small business entrepreneurs. We need to balance our creative, artistic side with our product-sales side. Hopefully, a plan that matches our business choices to our creative goals will keep both sides happy. *smile*

Do you have a business plan, and if not, why not? Do you find business plans intimidating? Do you agree that they can be useful no matter our publishing path? Do you have any questions about this worksheet? Will it help you tackle writing a business plan?

P.S. Don’t forget to check out all my beat sheets and worksheets for writers!

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How Do You Get Motivated?

August 26, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Many times, motivation can be hard to find. Sometimes we need to sleep, relax, or play. Sometimes we’re stuck because the story is going in the wrong direction. And sometimes… What we really need is a kick in the pants.

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3 Tips for Self-Publishing Success — Guest: Julie Musil

August 21, 2014 Writing Stuff
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It’s no secret that many authors are considering self-publishing on some level. So I’m happy to host my friend Julie Musil, who’s sharing some of the pitfalls of self-publishing and providing tips for avoiding those issues. Honestly though, I think her advice is applicable to every author, no matter our publishing path.

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Are You an Expert? How Writing Changes Our Brain

August 19, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Recently, an interesting article discussed research on the brains of writers. 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.

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The Character Debate: Strong and Vulnerable?

August 14, 2014 Writing Stuff
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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 have vulnerabilities. This is never an easy balance, especially when clichés fill our heads about what a “strong character” means.

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Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!

August 12, 2014 Writing Stuff
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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 the beta buddy exchange program.

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