Not Just Critical, But Helpful

Personally, the only thing I dislike more than critical feedback is unhelpful critical feedback.

-Lyra Selene

No one writes a book on their own. I think where a lot of fledgling writers fail is they try to write a book without any outside help or support. Yes, the actual writing down of words is all on you, the writer, but getting to that stage, what happens after the first draft is done, how to get from rough draft to finished draft, shouldn’t be all on your own.

New writers are often terrified to let other people read their work. Whether it be insecurity about their talent or fear that someone might steal their work (electronic copyrights are an amazing thing in this day and age so if you’re part of the latter, let me put your mind at ease). And many new writers don’t realize, or maybe don’t want to admit, that even if you’re born with the gift of writing, no one writes well without at lease some practice if not some actual education in the craft. I, myself, have a BA in Creative Writing. And let me tell you: as a freshman in college I was CONVINCED I was an amazing writer and would coast through said major.

Yeah. No.

I needed that education. I needed those professors telling me that, while good, they could tell I was turning in first drafts of essays and stories. What’s the big deal about that? Well, good is not great and if they could tell something was a first draft, then that meant they saw room for improvement. Your first draft may be good, but it’s probably not yet great and it probably needs more than just your eyes to see where it can be improved.

I try to make sure I have at least two beta readers for a book, but if I can get three or four, that’s amazing. And, I think, it’s good to have readers at different life-stages and backgrounds so I can find out what resonated with who and what falls flat and if I get the same/similar notes from multiple readers, I know it’s something to pay attention to for good or bad.

Now, maybe you want to be a beta reader for someone, or you want to develop a critique partner relationship with another writer–if you can, do, it will make you a better writer–and you want to know how to be a good reader. Critical, helpful feedback.

Obviously all writers live for the good feedback. I look for the lols, the yeessssss!, the swoons, the love this!, the good image notes throughout a manuscript when I get it back from my readers. I love those comments. When I read the critique letters I first revel in the parts where they sing my praises and tell me what they loved about the book. We are needy things, we writers, and our sunshine are those compliments and reassurances. But we want the book to be great, not just good, so we need the meat, the real feedback.

If you’re going to help a writer with feedback you need to tell them what didn’t work for you while also explaining why. Did you find your attention waning during a particularly long chapter? Did you find yourself hoping an annoying character died even though they are supposed to be a hero? Did the dialogue fall flat for you because people don’t actually talk like that, or maybe because it was a little too realistic? Were there dropped plot threads because you picked up on something that seemed important in the beginning but then it never came back around? Did you get lost in the magic system because there are no rules?

These are all things that can help a writer who’s been staring at these pages and those tens of thousands of words for the past year and can’t see these issues. Want to know why you can’t see the issues in your book? Because you know the answers to these questions/holes/problems so your mind fills in those gaps when you reread. Just like you can’t see the typos or homonyms but they’re glaring to new eyes.

Now if you’re the one with the book getting the feedback, you need to be open to said feedback. Of course the notes are just the opinion of one person and you’re welcome to take or leave every note, but you cannot, under any circumstances be offended by the constructive criticism they offer. Hopefully they’re actually helpful and constructive and unless they just say your book sucked, you need to remember that, no matter how harsh, they’re trying to help you and they took time out just to read your work and give you feedback.

I offer professional manuscript critique services for people who don’t have a writer group and there are a lot of people who think they’re ready for the critical feedback only to realize they weren’t and they crumble a little bit when the critique letter isn’t just compliments and praise. Remember, the book is personal to you and only you at this stage.

So if you’re looking to write a book, be ready to start forming your own little writing village to help get it from opening sentence, to first draft, to final draft, to publication. Writing is a solitary craft but you don’t have to do it all alone.

The Benefit of Critiques and Betas

When you first start writing, it is not uncommon to be the only person in your social sphere to be a writer. When you first start out, you often don’t have a writing community yet. Maybe you’ve joined Twitter and started following other writers and maybe you’ve even been brave enough to start joining in on some conversations, but you’re not quite ready to ask people to read your work. Starting out, especially alone, in this world is difficult and scary.

When I wrote my first book, I was the only person I knew writing a book. I wasn’t familiar with the writing community on Twitter–I didn’t even *have* a Twitter account when I started. I went to B&N and bought a copy of Writer’s Market and started following some of my favorite authors’ Facebook pages so I could jump in on Q&A’s and ask them how they got their starts.

But I had no one to read my manuscript–no beta readers or critique partners yet. I asked a couple of friends who liked to read to have a look at it and tell me their thoughts, but totally unsurprisingly they all said they “liked it!” And that was it. One friend was helpful enough to write out a list of typos, which, you know, was helpful but did nothing for the story.

Reader, trust me, that first draft was damn trash. No one should have liked it. And they probably didn’t actually like it, but being my friends and people who’ve never attempted to write a book themselves, they weren’t going to tell me anything was wrong with it.

It took eight drafts to fix that book and sheer luck that my BFF’s new husband’s cousin had a degree in literature and came into my new circle and was willing to try her hand at editing. Which, amazingly, led to her starting Joy Editing and has been my long-time editor ever since.

So, I know what it’s like to need help and not have it. I know what it’s like to try to figure out what is wrong with your masterpiece but not being able or ready to step back from it and look at it with a critical eye. Sure people saying they like your book or think it’s so cool you did that is nice, but you know, deep in you heart that’s not actually helpful.

You need someone else who knows what they’re doing to read your stories before you shop or publish them. You need someone else to say, “yes, I understood the story, it made sense, I followed along, the characters were fully formed, motivations made sense, etc. etc. etc.” Or, “I didn’t really understand the point of the book, the antagonist wasn’t believable as a bad guy, the dialogue felt unrealistic, you mentioned this thing but then never came back to it, that’s not how police procedures work, that one thing you did would actually kill a person but the character didn’t die, how did they just magic their way out of that dangerous situation, why did he fall in love with her she seems terrible, etc. etc. etc.” But we don’t always have the support system we need.

So, I started offering content editing and manuscript critique services. I’ve written my fair share of books and read my fair share of other writers’ WIPs that I have managed to hone my skills enough that I have become pretty good at this, IMHO.

Dropped plot threads, two dimensional characters, lack of motivation, flat dialogue, confusing plot lines, unbelievable magic, you name it and I will hunt it down for you.

And right now, I’m offering a ten percent discount on my services. If you’d like to find out why I’m offering that right now, feel free to bounce on over to my personal blog and have a read.

All you have to do to secure this deal is email me at shaunagranger82 @ gmail . com and mention this blog post. If you’re not ready to have your book read right this minute, you can still get the deal, just reserve your spot and pay a small deposit.

You dream of being a published writer but first, you need to make that manuscript shine…

Beta Readers Are Your Alpha Support System

Pretty much all my posts on the ol’ Spellbound Scribes have been about my writing journey or about what it means (for me at least) to be a writer. I’ve talked in the past about the importance of a good support group to help you along in the hard times (because good lord will there be a whole bunch of hard times)

Hard Times Gif

Today I want to talk about one particular support group, probably the most important of all – Beta Readers and Critique Partners.

I’m at the point in my current manuscript – THE MANY FOES OF AURORA OVERDARK – where I’ve sent it out to beta readers and am eagerly (fearfully?) awaiting their feedback. A few have given me some initial thoughts (which have been very positive and very affirming) and one has returned a full edit back to me (also super amazing – thanks Shauna!)

I’ve seen websites or Twitter mentions about matching up complete strangers as CPs and BRs and that idea has always made me kinda nervous. A stranger reading any early draft of my manuscript? How about no? I would have a hard time sending my work to someone I don’t know – mostly out of fear they would just hammer the hell out it, because I’m a stranger to them too, so why should they care? I’d generally prefer to send it to someone I already have a relationship with – that I trust – but also know will be honest with me. Trust and honesty are the most important part of the CP/BR relationship. 

Sometimes your stuff sucks.

You need to know if your stuff sucks.

CM Punk Gif

A good CP/BR will tell you if your stuff sucks and how to make it better, not just trash it without reason. Constructive criticism is the greatest gift your read can provide. When I was still trying to find readers, I thought I could trust and build a relationship with, I sent my first manuscript to someone I was somewhat friendly with on Twitter. About a month later she sent it back. She only read the first couple pages and tore them apart, littering them with pedantic and nitpick comments. Nothing constructive. Nothing of value.

That experience put me off to sending my work to a relative stranger. That hurt. I didn’t want to experience something like that again. Putting your stuff out there is terrifying, even to people you know and trust. But you have to. You have to be ready for them to tell you it’s not great. The first time I got beta feedback I was upset with a lot of the comments. I loved my book and thought it was perfect. I was wrong and after that initial sting of criticism, I realized that I was wrong and there was a lot I needed to fix. You can’t take negative feedback personally. Which is hard, because there is so much of YOU in that manuscript. But if you trust your CP/BR, you’ll know that pain is ultimately for your and your story’s betterment.

Over the years, I realized I needed to get over my fear of having strangers read my work. Sending my second manuscript in for Pitch Wars was a big step. The biggest. Getting into the contest was basically having your manuscript sent to CP who was a complete stranger (CS?). It was a pretty terrifying proposition, but it was probably the best chance I’ve taken with my writing. Now I have another amazing beta reader in my PW (lot of acronyms in this post, huh?) mentor Hayley! She gave some of the best feedback I’ve every received and completely changed the way I approach writing novels. It would have never happened if I held onto that fear.

Macho Nod Gif

This post has been kinda all over the place (as I feel like mine sometimes can be) but I guess the summation is you need people you trust and know will be honest with your work. That person might be someone you’ve known for years, but it also doesn’t hurt to try out your stuff on a complete stranger – who knows, maybe that person will be someone you can always trust in the future to give you the feedback you need.

As an aside, I feel weird sometimes deciding whether I should call the folks I send my work to “beat readers” or “critique partners”. CPs have a more serious feeling, like there’s some kind of reciprocal blood bond or something between you and the reader. BR feels more casual, but I’ve read the works of some of my beta readers and some not. What do you all think? 

What your experience with BRs/CPs, friends? How did you meet them? Nightmare experiences? Let me know!