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Category : The Writing Craft
In last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”
Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!
Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.
Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback
I’ve gotten several versions of this question in the past couple of months. This one came from an author at a recent conference: “How long is too long to spend perfecting my novel? My first page and first three chapters, especially? It seems like every time I show them to someone new, I get more suggestions for changes and improvements. At what point should I stop asking for input?”
Great question! Several of them, in fact. Your question actually raises several different issues to consider when polishing a manuscript.
1. You’ve spent too long perfecting a manuscript when you’re not doing anything else to move your writing career forward. I’ve met many writers who have spent years working on a single manuscript, and they generally fall into one of two camps– either they’ve spent those years staring exclusively at that one project, writing and rewriting it and picking it apart and patching it back together, or they’ve spent those years revisiting their idea/novel in between improving their craft by taking classes, attending conferences, writing additional books, soliciting trustworthy feedback, and reading widely.
If you’re not doing any of these things between rewrites, you’re going to hit a plateau pretty quickly in terms of how much you can actually improve with no resources except your own judgment. So if you’ve already re-worked a manuscript a few times and aren’t currently involved in any of these methods of improving your craft, you’re probably at a stopping point in the polishing process. Go ahead and send it out or take it to some conferences and see what the response is.
2. Solicit feedback wisely. You are entirely right when you observe that “every time [you] show [your pages] to someone new, [you] get more suggestions for changes and improvements.” Every person who reads your pages is going to bring a unique combination of education, taste, and experience to the manuscript, and so
A reader sent in this question: “I’ve been told more than once that I need to be reading new releases in my genre (Young Adult), but I have a really hard time justifying spending time on something that doesn’t help my platform or my publishing efforts. Where is the value in reading books similar to mine?”
If you’re a repeat visitor to the MacGregor Literary blog, you know we’re fans of reading around here. I mean, besides the fact that our jobs ultimately depend on people buying books, we have counseled writers time and again to read as a means of learning their craft– to learn how to write dialogue, read someone who does dialogue really well, to develop an ear for voice , read authors with great voice, etc. Reading to improve in specific areas of your craft is easy in that you can pick up craft insight from any author, regardless of genre, e.g., a thriller writer can glean voice tips by reading literary fiction.
Now, leaving aside the whole “you can always learn from other writers” argument, it’s fair to say that there might be some unpublished writers out there who are writing at the same skill level as a lot of published authors in their genre– folks who don’t really stand to learn a lot about writing by reading their peers’/competitors’ works. And yes, if you don’t have a strong need to improve in a certain area, it can be hard to justify spending your limited time reading authors whose only claim to superiority is that they’ve been published. The key word here, however, is writing— it’s my guess that the people recommending you read in your genre aren’t making the recommendation because they think you need to learn about writing, but because they want you to learn about the current publishing scene for your genre.
Regardless of criticisms that can be leveled at any
Since I direct a college writing program and also travel across the country instructing at writers conferences, I encounter a lot of people who have finished writing a novel but are having no success at selling it to a publisher. After a dozen or more rejections, they’ll turn to a person like me—aka a “book doctor”—and ask, “So, what’s wrong with my book?” Often, the answer is simple. These people have not learned that “all writing is rewriting.” They’ve written a novel, but, as yet, they have not rewritten a novel.
If this is your situation, let me offer some guidance in how to turn back to your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to shine professionally.
- Get Outside Perspectives – You know what the book is supposed to say, but in order to determine if it actually is saying it, you need outside readers. Find someone in your writers’ group to read it and give you specific feedback regarding narrative drive, character development, setting, dialogue, and theme. Likewise, consider hiring a high school or college English teacher to copyedit the pages, checking grammar, syntax, punctuation, format, spelling, and transitions. This will reveal tangible aspects of the book that can be improved upon.
- Evaluate from Macro to Micro Elements – Read your entire book, but chart it as you go along. How quickly does the lead hook the reader? Does the subplot become evident no later than chapter three? Where are the arcs of conflict, the surprises, the clever plot twists? Is the ultimate climactic scene dramatic enough? Does the denouement tie up all loose ends, answer all questions, and imply what the next phase of the characters’ lives will be? By putting the whole book in your head (macro) while critiquing the individual elements (micro), you’ll be inserting correct pieces that will eventually reveal the finished puzzle.
- Examine the Pattern and Flow of the Story – Just
Welcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.
When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording bear attacks and typhoid deaths, Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*
If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc. It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.
Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.
BUT. I have another journal from high school, a
Today is the last day of my series on author voice. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks talking about what voice IS– how to define it, how to recognize it, how to develop it– but today, I want to talk about probably the most important factor in developing a strong personal voice as a writer, and that is understanding the need for great voice. I started the series by talking about some of the frustration associated with chasing strong voice, and the nebulous, elusive way we often talk about “great author voice,” and the reality is that the ability to identify or harness a strong writing voice doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers. Like whatever subject just never made sense to you in school (just the word “chemistry” still prompts a panic response), voice for a lot of people is a frustrating area. You might think you see a glimmer of light when reading a blog post or a how-to article or listening to a lecture on it, but five minutes into trying to critique/improve your own voice in a piece of writing and you’re frustrated, depressed, and ready to forget it. It’s true that voice isn’t as easy to work on as mechanics, or characters, or dialogue, both because it’s less concrete and because there are fewer resources available, but understanding why voice is so important can help keep you motivated to continue working on yours, even if it feels like an uphill battle.
Think about some of your favorite books. If you’re like me, they probably come from one or two of the same genres– maybe your favorite books tend to be romances, or historical fiction, or mysteries. Even if your top five books come from five different genres, each one (most likely) can be categorized with THOUSANDS of other titles in the same genre or sub-genre. Take an easy
So far in the series, I’ve really tried to emphasize that a lot of these examples of voice are descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that just because one author in your genre tends to use less description or more complicated syntax doesn’t mean that the way for you to have a stronger, more effective author voice is to do the exact same thing. On the contrary, the best way for you to develop a strong author voice is to be as much yourself as possible, but I’ve talked with a lot of authors who have received feedback or criticism about their voice that has caused them to second-guess their instincts or believe that they need to change their voice in order to further their writing career, and in most cases, this isn’t true. Below are several common pieces of voice-related feedback authors receive and the do’s and don’ts of responding.
- “Your voice isn’t very strong/you need to develop your voice more.” DON’T: go out and become a caricature of a voice in your genre. If you write thrillers and are advised to strengthen your voice, that shouldn’t be taken as a prescription to go back and re-write your story in over-the-top Gothic style or to add a bunch of distinctive vocabulary or syntax as a way of manufacturing a recognizable voice. DO: start a list of what elements already define your voice (ask a critique group or writing partner to help you) and then write (and read) a LOT more. Voice is largely developed through experience, but reading authors with strong voice can help you develop your ear for voice and make you more aware of the way your own voice comes through on the page.
No, you’re not hallucinating, I really have returned to my Tuesday blog space. No, I did not forget that I was in the middle of a blog series on voice; I simply chose to be in Ireland the last two Tuesdays instead of here writing blogs on voice, and of course I would have gladly devoted some of my precious vacation time to blogging instead of gazing at those boring ol’ Cliffs of Moher, but wouldn’t you know it, Ireland hasn’t installed the Internet yet, so I couldn’t. Very sad. But happily, I’m back in the USA where the Internet is alive and well and so today I’m resuming my blog series on how to define, identify, and develop your voice as a writer. And Ireland was lovely, thanks for asking.
In looking at how word choice affects/reflects an author’s voice, the biggest question you should be asking is, are your words a fit for your voice? It’s natural for a writer starting out to be a bit self-conscious of his words on the page, much like someone at a new job or on a first date is hyper-aware of how he’s coming across to others. You might tend to check and re-check your responses in order to be sure you’re making the impression you want to make, you’re probably going to dress with a little more care than you ordinarily would in the hopes of coming across the way you want to, and you might find yourself agreeing with opinions or laughing politely at jokes that you don’t actually identify with, all in the interest of being perceived as a pleasant, reasonable person, regardless of what kind of lunatic you actually are.
Around your own friends and family, however, the filters slip, and you’re much less conscious of the image you’re projecting; instead, your actions and words and demeanor reflect your actual views and personality much more faithfully. This
Other cultures fascinate me. I love traveling. But when I married a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, I knew I was signing on for an unconventional life-path. The day we learned our first overseas assignment was China, that unconventionality turned sharply real.
I braced myself for a lot of “news” — new food, new language, new security concerns…. The only thing I didn’t anticipate changing was my work situation. I’m a writer. I work from home. How far could things alter?
How naïve! For someone whose literary endeavors involve history and folklore, research is critical. My introduction to China’s expansive Internet censorship system, the Great Firewall (I wish I’d invented that clever term. Alas, that’s the official moniker.), was not a cordial one. Suddenly, it took ten minutes to load every site I tried accessing. Google—and everything to which it was a gateway—was entirely inaccessible. Progress on my 1920’s novel ground to a halt.
Those first weeks before we installed our VPN, I was not a happy camper. Or writer. Or anything else.
Until it was pointed out that as an author, I couldn’t receive a better gift. Not only was it much harder to anesthetize writer’s block (i.e., procrastinate) via YouTube, but my mind was refreshed and my imagination electrified every time I stepped beyond my Chinese-character embellished welcome mat. When everything around is unfamiliar, life becomes sharper, more vibrant. And for a writer, an energetically buzzing mind is invaluable.
And I discovered The Bookworm, a Western literature themed café that somehow exists in central China. Part restaurant/bar, part library/bookshop, it’s literally wall-to-wall and (ceiling-to-floor) with books. The drink menu is styled like a newspaper, the food menu like a book. Drink specials boast names like “Crime and Peppermint.” Walking into The Bookworm was like wandering into a breathing dream. It’s the place I’ve always dreamed existed in the States but never found. The masters of Western
If you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.
In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.
“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”
Okay, so, just by dissecting this