Posts Tagged ‘editors’


 

Of the various steps a writer should take before handing his or her query letter or manuscript over to an agent or publishing house, probably the most important one is getting raw, honest feedback from a few trusted readers. These lucky folks are called Alpha and Beta readers.

An Alpha (Alpha meaning first) reader is the first person who gets to see your work. This person has the responsibility of stopping you from further embarrassment before anyone else gets to see it. The Alpha reader should therefore, in my opinion, be your strongest critic. This person must be wholly comfortable telling you what sucks about your manuscript and what doesn’t. An education in English and Grammar is also a plus.

In my case, my Alpha reader is Kim William-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey! Ranger series, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim acquired her MFA (Masters of Fine Arts in Writing) from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2003. Not to mention, she has been circulating throughout the literary world for a good number of years, so she kind of knows her stuff – and, as it should be, she is probably harder on me than anyone else.

Kim is really the only person who gets to see my work in its most unpolished and unrefined state. However, knowing that she will be reading it, I work hard to keep it clean and neat, and to follow the rules of writing fiction, which automatically puts me in better shape. A typical page that’s been critiqued by Kim usually comes back to me with plenty of issues. Unnecessary words are called into question, 90% of all adverbs are slashed, question marks indicate a characters inconsistent voice or behavior, and of course, misspellings, grammar issues, and improper English is marked. Not to leave out issues with paragraph breaks, timing, dialogue, too much exposition, tense shifts and logic flaws. The point is, at first sight, the returned pages are often intimidating and discouraging but this is probably the most important part of the process.

After the necessary changes are made, my wife Heather is next in line. Heather isn’t really an Alpha or a Beta reader really, but (even though I am her husband), she is honest with me. Heather has a keen eye for small details that often get overlooked by me (little things like a murder scene in which the victim falls the opposite direction he should have after having been struck by a pissed she-vampire!) This is Heather’s strength and it has come in handy many times.

After Heather, my manuscripts go to a few trusted friends. Some of them are writers and some of them are not… but all of them are avid readers who know why something does or doesn’t work. These are my Beta readers.

Beta readers are, in some ways, the most important of all, because they are not looking for grammar and spelling issues. They are literally sitting down with your book and reading it front to back, and giving an opinion of the overall feel of the story. And it’s amazing sometimes what a Beta reader might catch. For example, it was my sister who caught a major discrepancy in time while reading The White Room. Speaking of sisters, family will often want to read your work, and that is good. But keep in mind that often times, they are not going to be as forthright with you as someone who is unrelated to you. That being said, I have received quite a lot of good feedback from family and close friends. Still, for purposes of critique, I rely more heavily on people who didn’t change my diapers and see me through that nasty adolescent stage!

Having Beta readers is fun too, because you get to revisit your story with a new eyes, so to speak. Right now, my friends Tom and Sherrie are in possession of The White Room. Tom is freaking out about the spider in Gretchen’s hair (a scene I’d pretty much forgotten about) and I am cracking up because I can’t wait to see how he acts when he gets to the other spider scene (insert evil laugh here).

After a manuscript has been through several hands, professional and unprofessional alike, a writer can now submit his or her manuscript to an agent, editor, or publisher without fear of being rejected due to sloppy errors and lazy plot holes. Now, when you receive your rejection letter (and you will), you will have the confidence to continue submitting, knowing that no matter what anyone else says, your story is a good, strong one… and one day, the right person will see that.

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     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.


    

     We all choose different paths in our approach to the business of being published according to what it is we want, and these days, there are more options than traditional publishing, in which the writer seeks a publishing house to represent his or her work, usually at the cost of several years of rejection, and/or having one’s self-esteem beaten down and battered to a bloody pulp by a series of professionals who may or may not know what they’re talking about.  Now, we live in an age of indie art where writers can publish their own books.  There is conventional self-publishing in which the author fronts the money to have his or her book put into print, and is solely responsible for the sales, marketing and distribution of the book.  Also, we now have print-on-demand books in which a publisher prints whatever amount of books the audience requires and the author puts no money upfront as the cost is taken from the sales of his or her book.  There are branches of each of these methods of self-publishing (some more appealing than others) extensive enough that a writer these days has far more options than he or she once did, and personally, I think that’s pretty wonderful.   However, despite the fact that I am currently standing in that terrible position where it feels like the whole publishing world is standing in line to get a chance to tell me I’m not good enough, traditional publishing is the path I have chosen.   

     Before I began this journey, I first gave a lot of thought to what it was I wanted from this.  I knew that if I was going to pursue this path, that I was going to be in it for the long haul, and that I would need to be willing to go through whatever level of hell I had to in order to get to where I wanted to be.  I suppose this explains the several-years reluctance in which I shied away from this whole “writing thing” as if it had fangs and a thirst for blood, but nevertheless, this is the path I have chosen.      

     After fully understanding all of the various avenues of publishing, I firmly settled on traditional publishing because I knew that, although I would meet far more resistance, going the traditional route would ultimately lead me down the paths I wished to wander.  I realized that even if I failed, I’d be far happier having given it all I had than not having done everything in my power to make it happen. 

     That being said, there are several disadvantages to traditional publishing, not the least of which is the possibility that you might never see your book in print.  Agents and publishers are flooded by manuscripts on a constant basis and it’s very likely that your pride and joy will be buried, overlooked, forgotten or never even looked at.  To break into writing the traditional way, you need to have a firm faith that one day, someone will see your work and have a strong enough vision for its possibilities in the market.  You need to believe that your writing is strong enough to stand out among the abyss of other talented author’s books.  Above all, you need to be patient and you need to keep writing.  If you’re going to take this route, it’s not enough that you’ve written a book.  Now you need to write the next one.  And the next one.  Eventually, you will have a pretty vast library of material for an agent or editor to choose from, and if you can get their attention once, they’re going to want to see more of your work.

     I’m lucky.  I have that faith.  I suffer terribly from other various personal insecurities, but there is one place I have total faith and that is in my writing.  At a soul-deep and cellular level that is impossible to explain, I know I’m in the right place, doing the right thing.  I may not be published next week or next year, but it will happen.  Despite the fact that thus far, I’ve garnered six rejections from agents, and been (so far) ignored entirely by another dozen, the towel isn’t feeling anywhere near heavy enough that I think it needs to be thrown in yet.

     What someone traveling down the traditional path needs to understand is that rejections aren’t personal.  This is not an attack on the author or their work.  This is an agent giving you respect enough to admit they don’t have the vision necessary to take your work to the heights it could reach.  I have yet to meet a rude agent who tells me that I suck and I really need to just give up.  In fact, the agents I’ve corresponded with have been encouraging, pleasant and professional.  A few of them have taken a sincere interest in my book and offered some good advice.  In that way, this is nowhere nearly as brutal as I had expected… but then again, I’m pretty new still.

     I’m sure I’m headed for some far harsher dealings, but I’m tough enough to be told no.  The fact is, I don’t have to have this right now.  Whether or not I ever get published is, as far as my writing’s concerned, inconsequential.  I will continue writing, and then writing some more, whether or not it happens.  I’m okay waiting for the right agent, the right publisher.  I believe with everything I am that somewhere out there, exists someone who will have that vision for my work which will carry it to the places that I can not.  I’m not an editor.  I’m not a marketer or a publicist.  I’m not an agent or a publisher.  I’m a writer.  It’s my job to write the best novels I can, and to trust the other professionals to do their jobs the best they can.  I don’t mind being told that I need to get better at my job, so long as it’s by someone who knows what my job entails.  As far as I’m concerned, it would be arrogant of me to write a book and think it was good enough to impact the market without getting some serious professional input.  So I’m not going to go down that route.  I’m going to do my job and I’m going to do it well. I’m going to continue getting better at it until, one day, I can be where I set out to be.  But it takes time.

     And as that time goes by and my rejections pile up, I am encouraged more and more by other writers to self-publish.  But I won’t.  I know far too many people in this business who are successful to not have faith in it.  And besides, I respect the business.  Despite the neglect it’s awarded me thus far, and despite the abuse that it will surely hurl at me in the future,  I love this business too much to walk away.  I couldn’t do it anyway. I am learning good business and good ethics.  I am learning how to effectively write some truly knock-out, wicked good stuff.  And above all…  I am meeting my heroes… the ones I looked up to when I was a kid.  It’s an honor to be among them.  Who am I to turn my back on that?

 


     In the beginning, I think most writing starts out as a hobby.  Some folks are content to stay there, while others become interested in pursuing writing on a more professional level.  While both hobbyists and professionals have their places – and both are perfectly respectable, I’ve found that many writers reside somewhere in the middle.  That middle part is where I think one wants to avoid getting caught.  

     When a writer first submerges him or herself into the world of writing, the hobbyists are the first people he or she will most likely meet.  While many established writers look down on the hobbyists, it isn’t fair to dismiss them entirely.  “Laymen” and hobbyists often offer the best advice, as they represent the general audience and offer insights that editors, agents and publishers sometimes can not. 

     There is one potential danger though.  Many hobbyists are very quick to offer advice, which is fine, so long as a new writer realizes that this is coming from someone who doesn’t write professionally.  Many of these people have never dealt with agents, publishers, editors and the like.  Many of them have not acquired the education to offer sound advice.  Also, the rules of writing and the writing business itself is in a constant state of evolution, so someone who dealt with a publisher or acquired an education ten or even five years ago, isn’t really in the loop anymore.    

    If you treat your own writing like a hobby, so will everyone else.  If writing is something you want to do professionally, then you have to be a professional long before you ever make your first dollar.  For me, I have the best of both worlds.  As a hobby, I write poetry, which I post on Facebook and very much enjoy sharing.  Then there are my books, which I agonized over and am far more possessive with.  I don’t want unprofessional advice on my novels.  Of course, I have my select group of trusted readers (some writers, some not) whose advice I ask for and welcome, but I don’t share this work with just anyone.  

    Don’t get me wrong:  I love my poetry as well, and am quite serious about it.  I have written it my entire life and imagine I always will.  But the truth is, there is very little space in the writing business for poetry, so I have never treated it the same as my stories.  I’m not interested in being a professional poet, but for me, it’s wonderful to have the best of both worlds.  I need to keep writing poetry as a hobby because I tend to get very serious about my other writing, and if I get too intense about it, it just stops being fun. 

     There is an entire sea of people out there who write.  This is wonderful, but it’s important to know what kind of writer you are.   If you want to be a professional, you need to act like one.  You must do your homework and keep up on the ever-changing business of writing.  You must always present yourself as a professional, treat agents and publishers as the professionals they are, and follow each agents’ submission guidelines without deviation.  And above all, know whose footsteps you want to follow and be very careful whose advice you take.

     Write on.