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…

How to Stay Sane on Deadline

Here’s a fun fact most of you probably already know about me–I’m a champion procrastinator. I developed a knack for procrastination in high school, then majored in it in college, pulling papers and midterms and finals out of my you-know-what like it was my job. Sure, cramming sucks, but doing things ahead of time like a responsible human means you have to give up essential pastimes like reading, watching TV, spending hours on YouTube, going down Wikipedia research holes, and googling infinity Nic Cage gifs.

Procrastinators, you know what I’m talking about.

But here’s another fun fact: you can’t write and edit an entire book in one night. As a writer, I’ve had to learn to actually manage my time to some degree. But no matter how good I am with my time, it never seems like enough, and when deadlines come knocking, it always feels like a mad rush to get things done. As I fight through that latest push, here are my tips on surviving any deadline with sanity intact.

Don’t stop moving! It can be really tempting to plunk your butt in your chair and glue your face to the screen and stay that way until…whenever your thing is due. But try sticking to whatever your normal workout routine may be–exercise has been proven to raise endorphins, lower stress, and improve sleep (even if that doesn’t happen until 3 am). If a sweat sesh isn’t in the cards, taking a break for a five minute walk, a quick stretch, or a few jumping jacks will bring blood flow to your brain and improve concentration.

Put things in perspective. I have a pretty vivid imagination, which means when my anxiety gets out of control I start picturing really extreme worst-case-scenarios that are totally unrealistic. Sometimes, thinking through the real-world consequences can be calming. If I don’t turn in my manuscript on time, will I die? Nope. Will a surprise meteor destroy life on Earth? Doubtful. If you can’t talk yourself down from a cliff, try to figure out who will. My husband and my literary agent are both pretty practical people. Now, whenever I start to spiral I’ve learned to reach out to them for realistic advice and feet-on-the ground guidance.

Separately yourself from distractions…by force if necessary. So y’all know about my smartphone addiction. Add to that a seasoned procrastinator’s ability to turn anything into a distraction, including but not limited to Netflix, Hulu, Wikipedia, Buzzfeed, E! News, etc. I’ve now downloaded apps to my phone, my laptop, and my desktop computer that separate me from my addictions. Figure out what your fix is, and nix it.

Stay fueled, but be smart about it. Snacks and beverages and regular meals are a must. But as someone who has done their fair share of bingeing on coffee and Trader Joe’s Key Lime Tea Cookies while on deadline, I cannot recommend it. Sugary drinks, treats, and caffeine might feel like boosts in the moment, but once the roller coaster goes the other way you’ll inevitably start to feel worse. Healthier fuel, like fruit, popcorn, sparkling water, and the occasional square of dark chocolate will serve you better in the end!

Take breaks. This one is really hard for me. When I’m on deadline I tend to feel a lot of guilt for “neglecting” my work. But I’ve learned that taking genuine breaks (not #3 breaks) does wonders for my productivity. Just make sure it’s relaxing, reviving, or reinvigorating. My favorites are a brisk walk with the dog, a bubble bath, or a few chapters of a book outside my genre (I’m partial to Regency romance!)

Give yourself a break. You’re doing something impressive and amazing and hard! Don’t forget everything you’ve accomplished, are accomplishing, and will accomplish. Be kind to yourself–you deserve it.

You can do this! I promise.

Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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Surviving the Revision Gauntlet

It’s no secret: revisions are extremely difficult for me. One of the things I dread most about finishing a project is the prospect of then having to begin revising it. It’s hard for me to identify precisely what it is about revisions that bothers me so much; sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of imperfect material that I have to slog through, while other times it’s a question of beating down my ego in order to recognize what is wheat and what is chaff, and how to separate the two.

Point is, revisions are not my favorite thing.

More often than not during the revisions process, I find myself staring at my manuscript until the black words marching across the page begin to swirl like ants being flushed down the toilet. I’ll force myself to tinker with a few sentences here and there, rearranging words without much confidence that any one phrase is better than another. And then I’ll give up, shuffling off to stab pencils into my eyes out of pure frustration.

But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? So in an effort to get over this revisions mental block, I’m setting off to identify where my issues lie, and how to start overcoming those obstacles.

Switch from writer mode to reader mode. When you spend months pouring words out onto a page and living a story even as you weave it from nothing but pure imagination, it can be difficult to step away from the perspective of omniscient creator. I have to forget that I am the god of these characters, and this world, and begin to inhabit the perspective of a reader. Someone for whom a plot hole is extremely confusing, for whom pacing is the difference between finishing and quitting, for whom character incontinuities are annoying and off-putting. I have to learn how to be my own best critic.

Start small and move to the bigger picture slowly. It can be difficult to feel like you’re getting anywhere when all you’re doing is nitpicking over awkward sentences and improper grammar, especially when you know in the back of your head that there are plot holes waiting to be filled and characters waiting to be fleshed out. But if the language is clean and tight, free of grammar or spelling mistakes, it is so much easier to see macro-level problems. I have to learn to accept that correcting and polishing small mistakes is still productive, and will make it easier for me to see bigger problems in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to affect change, and don’t be afraid of its effect. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange,’ meaning that just because the substance of something is transformed, the form can be retained. Often we instinctively want to protect the things we create, but that is a selfish and egotistic attitude. Mindful and conscientious change is nearly always a good thing. I have to remember that just because I’m altering something that I’ve previously created doesn’t mean that I’m not being true to the thing itself. Chances are, whatever I change will be just as good, if not better, than the original, and will still be my work.

It’s okay to love the bad parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep them. There are going to be times when a scene or a conversation personally speaks to you as a writer, but that you know doesn’t work in the story or slows the action. Cut it out, but keep it. I’ve started keeping a word documents with paragraph fragments or descriptions that I loved writing but that didn’t work in whatever project I was working on. You never know–you might find a perfect place for that sentence or description somewhere down the line, but it doesn’t have to be today.

Revisions will never be my favorite thing, and I still have a lot of work to do before I become more effective in the revision stage of a manuscript. But recognizing where my difficulties lie is the first step in learning how to streamline my process.