Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they’re already published, and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Distinguishable Characters

My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.

via GP: Distinguishable characters by Andrew McDowell

Moving on to the Next Step

Writing an entire book is a challenge, but one I have overcome with Mystical Greenwood. It isn’t finished yet technically as it’s still in the editing phase. But with Mockingbird Lane Press publishing it, it’s more apparent to me than ever that the day will come where I’ll have officially moved on from this one book I’ve worked on for so long. But that means I’m going face a new challenge, which may prove even greater: writing another book. Knowing I’ll have to move on to this next step, I’m already feeling the pressure.

It almost feels as if I’ve never written a novel before. I’ve noticed a similar situation in college: whenever a new semester starts, it feels like I’m back to square one. But in truth, I realize it’s only natural to feel this way, because every semester, like every book to come, will be different. Each new novel will be its own unique experience and journey, but I’ll have to remember the experiences  and challenges will be, to a certain degree, similar to those I’ve endured before. I have to tell myself I did it before, and can do it again. On the other hand, it may be necessary as well as only natural to feel nervous. I cannot become overconfident or complacent with myself. That fear of failure is what enables me to keep striving try hard, and be conscientious.

However, I find Mystical Greenwood as it is now – almost complete – in the back of my mind. As a result, I keep thinking about it, which isn’t a fair comparison because newer projects will be in their earliest, rough drafts. Sometimes I feel people, when reading a novel, don’t consider the earlier drafts it must’ve gone through. Speaking for myself as a writer, I see a similar problem when starting a new novel after finishing the last one. It’s easy to look at a book complete or nearly complete, and fear your next one won’t be as good or well-written. On the other hand, that last book was rough once. What I mean to say is, Mystical Greenwood‘s near-publication should motivate me to write more, but I can’t compare it to other novels as I begin writing them. The books to come will also take more than a few drafts. A well-polished book doesn’t come instantly.

As I have said before, Mystical Greenwood is intended to be the first book in a trilogy. The next book certainly is one of those up front I need to work on. I have some ideas already forming of what I want to include in the second book, including how I want to end it, but it won’t conclude the story, thereby giving me an early purpose for the third book. At the same time, I want to expand beyond this fantasy realm into other genres.

As a matter of fact, I wrote a manuscript for a high-level creative writing class during my last semester at St. Mary’s College. The class was a “novella” class, but others felt the story I came up was more novel-length, which I felt too. Unlike Mystical Greenwood, it was set in the real world, and was about pets that are neglected and abused. It was definitely a first draft that needs rewriting and I want to work on it. We’ll see what happens. I don’t want to overstretch myself by working on way too many projects at the same time, but there are several other ideas I could expand on eventually. I won’t reveal too much just yet, except there is hope. The day will come soon where I’ll be moving on to the next step. I cannot stop at only a single novel. I must write more, again and again.

Writer’s Block: A New Perspective

I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.

Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?

Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.

Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.

So what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.

Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials, and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.

I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.