The Three Categories I See Often

It’s been a busy week here for me – I’ve got a Kickstarter up and running in order to produce a role-playing game that I’m ridiculously proud of (also, writers, it’s got a whole lot of writing and development advice in there, because I wrote it that way); I’ve had some “interesting” (not my word for it) spikes and drops in blood pressure; I’ve been doing a lot of reading of submissions and queries over at Parvus. This has been one of the busier stretches I’ve had in a while, and though I’m grateful for it, it means I also have to prioritize the energy I have to manage the tasks on the list.

In reading all those submissions, I split them into 3 categories.

a. Those I reject immediately because they aren’t what we produce at Parvus, or what’s submitted is inappropriately submitted (follow the submission guidelines, and don’t assume the sole exception will be made for you).

b. Those I reject due to having a query that does not encourage me to open the MS

c. Those I reject after being intrigued by the query letter, but there are enough issues with the MS (the manuscript) to make me dismiss it after reading between 1-3 pages.

Today, I thought I’d show you some of the checklist I use for each category.

The Immediately Rejected

It is always surprising to me when the submissions are missing these fundamental elements that anyone in any publisher would ask for, yet there remains that expectation those red flags are going to be overlooked, or there’s some lack of awareness that so many other submitting authors are counting on the same possibility.

No, it’s not getting overlooked. This is my job. And no, I’m not the guy to make exceptions. I’m the opposite of that guy.

The Ones Where the Query Doesn’t Help Me Get to “Yes”

I want to stress that I not only make some of my living producing books and helping authors get published, but I also genuinely enjoy seeing people succeed. I always worry this marks me as weird, but I spend a lot of time committing a lot of time and energy to helping people get better, ahead of an easier route where I could sit back and gatekeep and throw my publishing dick around. That’s not who I am and not what I do this for. I want people to be their best creative selves, I want them to reach for dreams, and I want to see them realize those dreams because they worked hard to get there.

  • Is the query too long, as in longer than 1 page?
  • Is this query when a synopsis was asked for, or vice versa? (At Parvus, we like queries. We get a lot of submissions and I think the query is a more interesting lure to the MS than a synopsis)
  • Does the query evoke any sort of interesting emotions? Do those emotions partner with plot elements to create a context?
  • Does this query use hyperbole and desperation like a barfly at last call trying to either get one more drink or a last minute hookup?
  • Does this query just sort of ramble for a few paragraphs and fail to tell me anything interesting / in an interesting way or anything that I haven’t seen in dozens of query letters today, let alone this week or month?
  • Does this query do enough provoking to make me want to find out more, and the best/only place to find out more is to get into the MS?
The MSses with Issues (“The Icebergs”)

The MSses with problems not immediately known are often called icebergs, because their greatest problems are under the surface and aren’t seen until you’re trying to bang Leo DiCaprio and the King of Rohan doesn’t move the ship … or something.

And it’s not like every MS is going to have its problems disclaimed in some italicized paragraph on the top of page 1, but the elements of development become pretty visible over the course of a manuscript’s early pages – character; world-building; little bit of plot; how the author wants the reader to visualize things; pacing; word choice. And when they’re lacking, it’s often just as visible.

  • Has there been a definitive introduction to a character I can presume to be a or the protagonist?
  • Has the author demonstrated an ability to shape language and images as their own, meaning that over the course of the MS there will be a voice and tone?
  • After a few pages, do I get a sense of the atmosphere, character starting point, and maybe plot? Does the story feel motile, or does this read like someone is pushing pudding up a hill in a rainstorm?
  • Has the author demonstrated that they can subvert or challenge cliche, rather than embrace it and re-tread the same ground as so many other MSses that will be read and rejected today or this week?
  • Does this read like the author is trying too hard, either to sound smart or hide the nervousness because sentence structure is long, word choice is stiff and things feel stuttering?
  • How’s the dialogue, does it sound like people talking? Like actual people? Even if they’re using phrasing and idioms specific to their time period or story, does it still sound like two beings communicating and not just a stack of syllables laid out in an allegedly interesting fashion?
  • Is there flagrant POV shifting for little to no substantial reason? Or is the POV change necessary to define the author’s efforts?
  • Is it boring? Do I wish I was reading or doing anything else than trying to keep my attention here?
  • Is the formatting conducive to being read? Is the font consistent? Is the spacing and capitalization appropriate and functional?

These are some, not all, of the questions I run through in my head for every query and every manuscript. I think the benefit of seeing them spelled out rather than just hearing me say, “I get an impression…” or “I poke around the manuscript’s pages” is far more helpful to the person reading this who is about to submit somewhere.

Writers, don’t let this discourage you. Let this give you a chance to use more tools. Let this be a chance to improve. Let this be one more thing you read that’s practical and applicable to your work today.

Keep your head up.

Happy creating, we’ll talk soon.

The Messy Filing Cabinet

Next to the left leg of the table that I use as an office desk, there’s a two-drawer filing cabinet. It’s littered with magnets. There’s a Thoreau quote. There’s a whole pack of that magnetic poetry and two buttons that reference clutter, genius, and being underpaid. Some of this stuff has been on these drawers so long I can’t remember where I bought them or when.

In short, it’s one more overlooked and underused part of the office.

Hold on to your seats, we’re going deep in today’s blogpost. SEO be damned, we’re on some personal tracks today. All aboard the John-train, destination: realizationville.

I have this habit, and if you’re a long time reader of the blog you can guess this, this habit where I get really great plans for stuff then barely follow through in the way I intended or hoped for. Sure, we can all write this off as the results of living with mental illness or actively sabotaging myself on a regular basis, but I’ve come to think of this as my looking for a best-fit. Best-fit is important to me: I was a kid who didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere, and I’m an adult who doesn’t think he easily fits in to categories about expertise and job description and experiences.

So back to this double drawer. It’s the best fit for the space under the table. There’s maybe a quarter inch of space between the top of the drawer and the bottom of the table. It fits, it belongs there, I don’t give it a second thought.

Again, no surprise for the long time readers, I have had a life with some twists and turns, and I’ve documented them, as both an effort to salvage-stroke my ego when appropriate, but also as a way to render toothless the venomous serpents and snarling beasts before me. In those two drawers, I dumped things. Things I fully intended to use later, things I wish I felt good enough or smart enough to say “Oh yes, I have these things here in my drawer, one moment please” but more often than not, the drawers became a graveyard for things that are best kept behind whatever metal this is.

I’ve recently come back from a trip, a week away from the house, and I spent a lot of time on this trip reading books about improving my mindset, dealing with self image, successful principles and maxims, as well as finding your purpose. Usually these books are in some way masturbatory (not like that), I mean that I read them so I can say I’m making some effort to improve myself, but it’s very detached: I read, but I don’t apply. Or more like I won’t apply until something takes me right to a precipice where my status quo is going to radically be affected … then after that I’ll change, and I’ll be all enthusiastic, but that just becomes the new status quo.

Are you seeing this? Does this sound familiar? Am I putting words to a thing in your life? Or is this a guy writing out a stream of thoughts because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself, and he’s too tired to clear off the bed?

Right, the drawers. Last night I came home from 13 hours of travel and saw the state of the room and felt like I was coming back from this great experience to a soiled oasis. This is my office, this chair and this creaky old table are where I connect to people and share work and share passion … and it seemed like this corner of this room was just the sewage treatment plant for a city best remembered in a Springsteen song.

It was more than just dusty, it was cluttered and heavy with everything. It didn’t fit me anymore. It isn’t how I wanted things to be. It had to change. No precipice. No imminent radical upheaval. I was just sick of there being two drawers of shit in the corner of a room.

Out comes the last giant trashbag in the house (something poetic about that). And I start filling. I pull open the first drawer, and sort it out. Then the second drawer. No drug paraphernalia, but here’s SOME of what I found:

  • An empty box of condoms that I neither remember buying or ever using.
  • A note inside said box of condoms about a series of blogposts about Plot (more on that in a second)
  • Three halves of three different mobile phones I’ve had
  • A bottle of long-expired horny goat weed that I remember vaguely getting as a freebie from a job I had 15 years ago
  • A small plastic box of pen caps, three WCW Nitro trading cards, and a keychain from Borders bookstores
  • Eight DVDS (and assorted notes) from seminars on building confidence that I am very deeply ashamed that I ever spent money on (more on that in a second too)
  • A broken Neti Pot
  • Two web cams, their cords and plugs removed
  • Three credit card bills for cards I no longer have, all from at least 4 years ago
  • A pile of discharge paperwork from various colleges that no longer requested my attendance (they were in a folder labelled “Fuck ’em”)
  • A half-completed application for information regarding becoming a private detective
  • A page of notes I wrote when I was high all about how I wanted to lose thirty pounds and start making YouTube videos with fancy graphics to talk about writing
  • A page of notes explaining how I should beg, borrow, and steal the equipment and software necessary to make those videos
  • A page of notes about how to quickly lose weight without tapeworms, self-harm, or crossfit (my solution was apparently saunas because women in towels … again, I was really high)
  • An aborted note to myself about how I should throw the lamp out the window because it never worked (I did get rid of the lamp when I got clean)
  • A stack of business cards in a folder labelled “Scary”, these cards are all from companies and people who I to this day am still intimidated by, even though I know them and have been paid by them to do work

Basically, it was two drawers of shit living in the corner of a room that I “filed” (can’t make the airquotes bigger) away to be forgotten, rather than acted on.

And now it’s in a bag at the top of my stairs (I’m gonna need help getting it out to the curb), and what’s in the drawers now?

  • My business card holder, all nicely filed
  • Eleven boxes of pens
  • Six packs of notecards
  • A mini 3-hole punch
  • The VIP pass I got when I saw Dave Matthews in concert
  • Three of the six portable hard drives I use to catalog my creativity

That’s it. My past sits in a bag at the top of the stairs, I can’t even see it from where I’m sitting in this chair. It’ll sit there until it goes out to the curb, and then it’ll be gone. I can’t think of a better way to signal that I changed something without having to have someone threaten to leave me or that I was ruining a life or that I was a disappointment or that I was bankrupting them emotionally and financially.

I got tired of cluttered drawers, and I did something about it. All me. By myself. Took maybe twenty minutes of effort to open drawers, make a pile, sort pile, and dispose of it.

So I’m sitting here now, writing one of the longest blogposts I have in months, and I feel better. I feel good, even. Like this is the way the books I’m reading about self image and goals and success are supposed to make you feel. Fuck you clutter, I’m succeeding!

I’m sorry if my life has derailed a lot of the ambitious plans I set out. I would hate to think that’s the definition people have of me, that I’m the guy who starts like a bat out of hell then quickly calms away to an occasional breeze. Hey look, I just cleaned these two drawers and realized that my passion and on a greater scale, who I am and how I identify as a creative was cluttered up too.

Cluttered up in expectations, in panicked “reality checks” where I talk myself out of attempting things for irrational reasons, in fear of rejection, in fear of losing control of the rudder that steers me so that I don’t go back to the paranoia and depression, in fear of losing what makes me me, even if I’m never really sure who that is unless I’m writing about being passionate and being brave and being good when it’s not easy.

I don’t know if any of this reaches you. I don’t know if this matters to you. Maybe this one’s just for me. And I’m way more okay with whatever the answer is.

I want to end with a quick note: Part of that trip that had me hours away from the house, and reading all these books was that I finally took the big professional risk of having Noir World recorded on One Shot, as well as giving a really candid and intense interview for Talking Tabletop. The game was great (it was a new experience for me, I don’t think I actually did a lot of talking, and yeah, I’m shocked too), and I think the interview was maybe me at my most honest and sincere. I’m excited for you to hear them both.  (Other note: Save some bucks for March, Noir World’s gonna go to Kickstarter then)

Thanks for reading this long blast of thoughts. I hope you found in it something to take away, even if you’re just shocked about the amount of shit a person can pack into two small drawers.

Go create, be happy, and don’t you ever give up. We’ll talk real soon, I’ve got this whole page of notes on Plot blogposts that I need to decode and write for you…so that’ll be fun.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 1

Today’s question: Why does my MS get rejected?

I get this question maybe 1 in every 7 emails, and then it usually gets followed up with a question about why I didn’t answer that rejection question.

Today I answer it.

In the past I haven’t been wholly explicit about the reasons for rejection because they aren’t codified or standardized. What might get you rejected in submission #1 might be the thing that gets accepted in submission #2.

So what I have for you today is a few reasons why your submission gets rejected. I’m splitting this into several parts – issues with the query; issues with the manuscript; issues with other author-y things – because otherwise this would easily be the longest and most rambly post I’ve ever written, and judging by my blog stats, my long posts get as much traction as a puppy on a wood floor.

Go get your query letter. I’m going to make a very large and very strong cup of tea, and together we’ll have some realtalk about how that query might be the thing getting you rejected. Meet me back here when you’re ready.

Let’s do this.

Issue 1 – The query does not make me want to read the MS.
When I read a query, I should not want to put the query down and go watch the lawn grow. A dull query, even when it’s just a few paragraphs, can feel like an abstract for a lengthy obnoxious/pretentious academic work that I can’t believe people get degrees for. (Shout-out to all the dissertations about shoes or the comparison of gender and its effects on pasta)

A query’s job is to encourage, tease, and drive the reader to manuscript to see how the promises of the of the query get paid off in the MS.

You can have all the interesting names and ideas and scenes and decisions in the universe in your book, but if your query doesn’t express them in a way that makes the reader want to check them out, then it won’t matter.

This is why queries can’t be slow burns. There’s a minimum of space, and word choice has to be at a premium. Start where the action is, don’t detour into fluffy things, and keep the focus on getting the reader into that manuscript.

Issue 2 – The query is unfocused.
The compensation for trying to keep the query exciting is that there’s so much going on in it, so much stuff described, that it’s unclear what exactly the MS is about, or what’s the more important element(s) warranting attention.

This is not about there being a lack of information, this is about an abundance of information and little (or none of it) is prioritized. And it needs to be.

As the query writer, you’ve got to help the reader get through the query, get excited, and get into the MS. To do that, build us a path we can navigate. Start somewhere exciting, somewhere intriguing, and work us forward through the ideas.

I say ideas, because you can’t keep us orbiting one idea where you just find different synonyms (the MC is brave! the MC is courageous! the MC knows no fear!). Segue us from one idea to another, so we can get a taste for the world, the character, and the plot (not necessarily in that order). Make decisions, lead us in a direction that ultimately gets us into the MS.

Issue 3 – The query is too short.
Scanning my inbox, 80% of the query letters I have rejected have been a paragraph inside an email where they’re also mentioning how they like this or how they read that.

It’s a query LETTER, not a query paragraph. Spend more than 2 sentences making the reader interested. Aim for a sweet spot between 90 and 300 words, and that count includes things like your name, info to reach you by, and the sentence ‘Thank you for your consideration.’

When the query is so short, my first thought is that the person either isn’t really interested in me reading anything they write, or they’re not actually as serious about getting published as they claimed. If they were, why wouldn’t they say more?

Issue 4 – The query is too long.
This doesn’t happen as often as Problem 3, but it does still happen. Much like Problem 2, this is a case where things aren’t prioritized and decisions aren’t made, so every possible idea gets thrown into what is often a block of text in the hope that somewhere in the word-glacier the reader can unearth the interesting bits.

They probably could, but they shouldn’t have to. Here’s another case where the decision-making process is critical, because the reader gets a selection of material that would increase the likelihood of going into the manuscript with an enthusiasm and interest.

Again, sweet spot. Make choices.

Issue 5 – The query talks about A, but the MS presents B.
We’re wrapping up with part 1 with a great bridge element to where we’re going next. The query’s promise of manuscript potential has to pay off. On the surface, this is something as obvious as saying, “don’t bait and switch”, where the query talks about the MS being a fantasy epic about chicken farmers and the MS is actually a bisexual love triangle of teenage poltergeists, to something as nuanced as the promise of an action thriller that misses core genre beats and staples like the villain’s demise or the romantic subplot.

This isn’t limited to insidious skeevy tactics. This comes up in the course of any manuscript that doesn’t deliver on its promises or premises. And when I say ‘doesn’t deliver’ I mean that the elements in the query aren’t found in the MS, not that they’re poorly developed. (Poor development goes back to Issue 1)

Inconsistency, nerves, over-ambition … there’s a number of reasons why this happens (you know how movie trailers have scenes and lines that don’t get into the film, but because they’re in there, you go see the film? This is that, but for books) It’s an entirely correctable problem that you can solve by putting only the stuff that happens in THIS ONE BOOK in THIS ONE QUERY.

You’re writing a series? Great, tell me that you are, but you only have to query this MS I’ve got in front of me, so I don’t need to know the plot of book 4 when you’re trying to get book 1 published. Tell me about book 4 AFTER we say yes to book 1. It’s the horse and cart, or eggs and basket metaphor, maybe a little of both.

This series will continue on Monday, where will look at how the MS can get you rejected. See you then. Happy writing.

 

The Ins and Outs of “Good” Fiction

I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.

Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.

When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”

If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.

But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.

Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.

Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:

Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways  I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”

It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.

Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.

I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.

Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.

One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.

*

These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.

 

Happy writing

The Beta Reader FAQ

Good morning. Welcome to the end of another week. We’ve been talking beta readers all week, and I thought it would be useful to collect some info and put together an FAQ.

When do I use beta readers?
A beta reader comes in after you’re done writing, after the editing and revision process, and before you send it off for submission or publication. Yes, their comments may lead to more revisions, but that’s part of the process. Bringing them in any earlier is like asking someone taste dinner while it’s still cooking – they won’t get the full experience you want them to have.

Is a beta reader an editor?
No. They’re a reader. Sure, you can say that editors also read, but an editor’s job is to edit (it’s in the name) and a beta reader’s job is to read (it’s also in the name). A beta reader may catch some stray proofing errors and maybe point out a janky sentence here or there, but a beta reader is best used when they read the near-done manuscript and can speak to their satisfaction and understanding of what’s on the page.

Is a beta reader supposed to read an early draft AND a later draft for comparison?
No. This isn’t comparative. The beta reader “tests” out your fiction, functioning like a proto-audience to see how it would be received assuming it was a book available for purchase. It’s not up to them to track the progress of an MS, they need to look at the most finished manuscript and draw their conclusions.

Do I pay a beta reader?
Yes. Whenever someone is doing a job for you, you pay them. And not in the quid pro quo way of “you read for me, I read for you” because I can’t put reading in an envelope and use it to pay my phone bill. It may be tempting to work out an exchange, because that’s easier (read: cheaper) than paying someone to read, as if that task isn’t important, or it’s somehow wrong to treat your work professionally and pay for services.

It comes down to a decision and statement as to how seriously you take your work. If this isn’t something you want to see published, if this is just something you’re doing for the heck of it, don’t pay the beta readers and everyone can have a good time just reading this thing you wrote as a hobby.

But if you’re going to pursue publication, if you want more than your immediate circle of people to experience your work, when you don’t pay your beta readers, you’re saying either their time and help isn’t important, or your manuscript isn’t that important. Are you sure that’s the message you want to convey?

How much do I pay a beta reader?
Enough to cover the time spent reading your work, so first determine how seriously you’re taking this publishing effort, then price accordingly. The absolute bottom amount and starting point? Don’t go any lower than $25 – enough to cover lunch with some pocket money left over. Work your way up from there.

How many beta readers do I need?
Try for an odd number of them. A pair might offer more critique, but having an uneven number of readers can function in a sort of confirmation if for example 2 out of 3 of them identify the same part of the story as confusing.

Where can I find beta readers?
Social media. While it may be tempting to wrangle friends and family into reading your work, there’s an underlying bias – your spouse can’t be objective, especially when you’re the one who does the grocery shopping and they totally love cheese. Finding people you don’t know, who aren’t going to blow smoke rectally or lob soft critique at you, will help make your MS better. If social media isn’t enough for you, try a website like this one.

Are you sure that seven beta readers aren’t better than a developmental editor?
There are many articles online that suggest a group of beta readers can be a substitute for an editor, noting that beta readers don’t get paid while doing the same critical work. If that doesn’t seem exploitative and sounding like the Huffington Post, nothing in this FAQ will likely dissuade you from parsimony. Beta readers may be able to spot a problem, but the editor will spot the problem and help you correct it (and ideally show you how to prevent it from happening in the future).

What sort of questions should I ask a beta reader while they’re reading my MS?
If there are spots in the fiction where you’re not sure if the writing is unclear or weak, where the story doesn’t feel ‘right’, or you think it may drag or have other problems, start there. Here too is a list of questions:

i) Did you find the tension of the story to develop at a reasonable pace?
ii) Were any of the action beats unclear?
iii) Did the resolution fit the climax?
iv) Were there any strands of plot left unresolved?
v) Did the main character’s [insert issue here] come across as impactful to the plot?
vi) Was the story pacing reasonable, did any sections of the book come across as rushed?
vii) In the introduction, was the world developed enough for you get a sense it was a tangible place?

Steer questions away from using words like “opinion” and “feel” as you’ll get responses too predicated on what the reader likes and who they are rather than specific-to-the-text opinions.

How long should a beta reader take to read an MS?
Many articles will tell you that turnaround should be measured in hours or less than a week. This may be possible, but given that people have jobs, kids, bills, other responsibilities, and beta readers often go unpaid (sensing a theme yet?), don’t expect people, especially ones you don’t know, to drop everything to read your MS when they may be trying to get a small child to focus on flossing or not wanting all the Lego in the universe ever. A week to 10 days is not a bad base amount of time for a reader to work through a text.

What sort of feedback can I expect from a beta reader?
Ideally, you want responses that highlight areas that need more work or story bits that didn’t make sense. Hearing that “they liked it” or “it was good” isn’t going to help you get the MS out the door to wherever you want to send it. And that’s because what’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for me or that lady over there smelling the inside of her shoes (I have a cousin who does that. I saw her do it once at an anniversary party.) “Good” is nice to hear, it’s flattering, but it’s not helpful when an MS is at the stage where beta readers are called in.

How do I communicate with beta readers?
Email. You can do it via other means, but I like email because it gives you a hard copy you can print out and refer to when you need it. If you go via Skype or GChat or smoke signals or semaphore, whatever it is people use, you may not remember all the things you need to.

Hope that FAQ helps, I’ll see you guys next week.

 

The Nine-Step Checklist

We start today with a story from my youth.

I was about ten or maybe eleven and my family was heading down to our shore house for the month of July, which meant that my dad got use “The Checklist”. As if he was prepping an Apollo moon launch, he made sure all the bags (I have a feeling we always overpacked, a trait I’ve inherited from him) were first staged in the living room the night before, and then loaded into the car just after breakfast while my mom packed the huge Igloo cooler with food  (I don’t remember if we yet realized there was a grocery store ten minutes from the house, or maybe it wasn’t built yet or something). The cooler would go in last, and we’d be all set to go. And then we’d be in the car, all buckled in, me with my books, dad behind the wheel, mom in the backseat with my brother and some cross-stitch. But we wouldn’t leave.

My dad began the next stage of his checklist. He’d check his wallet, to make sure he had money. He’d check the front door (3 stiff pulls, practically slams) to make sure it was locked. He’d look in every first-floor window to make sure the lights were out. And then he’d start the questions, aimed mostly at my mother.

“Is the oven off?” (It wouldn’t matter that this was late June/early July, and my mom hadn’t likely baked anything since mid-May.)
“Did you lock the back door?” (No matter how she answered, he’d go check, meaning he’d open the front door, check the back door and then re-check the front on his way out.)
“Is the TV unplugged?” (This later became my responsibility when I was twelve. I remember getting this job because my wrists were narrow enough to slide behind the monster set and pull the plug out.)
“Is the freezer closed?” (In filling the cooler, my mom emptied the giant basement freezer, and would go so far as to defrost it if she got up early enough. Years later she started stacking things in front of the empty freezer in case it ‘just popped open’, but I think it was more to fuck with the old man.)

The answer to all these questions was, “Yes John.” (A sentence to this day that makes my skin crawl.) And I was impatient – the beach was waiting! While this checking took maybe five minutes, it felt like it took hours, and I remember being incredibly frustrated with every slam-slam-slam of the front door and the sound of my father riffing through the stack of bills in his wallet. I don’t know what he was expecting to find or not find, but I just wanted him to get the car moving.

I asked my dad once, “What’s with all the checking?” And his answer was, “It’s just what you have to do, to make sure you get everything together before you move forward.” Now, the chances are great that I rolled my eyes while he answered my question, in fact I’m sure I even threw in a sigh for emphasis.

The sigh was my sign that I’d never be like that, that I’d be able to leave the house without the almost superstitious dance of pocket and door checks.

That sigh was way wrong. I might not check the door three times, but I’ve definitely caught myself a little freaked that maybe I didn’t put my wallet in my pocket, or maybe I didn’t put my credit card back in my wallet after dinner, or maybe I didn’t shut the freezer door all the way six hours ago when I put that bag of ice in there. There’s a little wrestling match in my head about whether or not I did or didn’t do something, and usually it’s resolved either by me going and checking or by whoever I’m with at the time reminding me I did.

Checklists are good tools, and you don’t have to take them into Super-OCD land for them to be effective. Here now is my not-so-OCD checklist for your story or script or game, so that you can make sure everything’s together before you move forward.

Act 1

Have you set the table? “Setting the table” means have you rolled out the three P’s (Protagonist(s), Place(s), Plot), so that your readers (or players, if we’re talking games) know who’s doing what where and why.

What’s the palette like? By the time we’re well invested into the first Act of your creation, we should have a pretty firm grasp on the tone, feel, vibe and scale of the story. If you’re writing about a save-the-universe sort of sci fi adventure, then I’d sort of expect the story to be a certain size and scope. Your word choice will tell me the “color” of the story: if your protagonists are fighting an uphill battle, if the world is “gritty”, if the badguys are more intense, etc.

Is it clear what the next action will be? If you can’t get an idea of what’s next based on what just happened, (it doesn’t have to be a directly linear idea, it can be somewhat inferred or logical) then what just happened wasn’t enough. Or it’s not done cooking. Or you need to spice it up a little. Insert your favorite food metaphor here.

Act 2

Are we seeing skills (gamers: the opportunity for skills)? By this point in the story, we should be seeing the protagonist doing what they do (and hopefully that means doing things different or better than how we do them) and how the results (successes AND failures) drive the plot forward (don’t confuse “forward” for “success”, failure IS an option that can transform and evolve characters).

Do the options you’ve created have purpose? “Options” is a broad term meaning the off-shoots of the main plot. This could be the suspects in a crime story, the different avenues or routes to take in a travelogue, the number of topics in your book of essays or anything that demonstrates that you just don’t have a really simple plot that can be wrapped up in like six pages and you’re just filling space and killing time.

How high is your climax? While you’re still in the bulk of the book, and while you’re still laying out the dominoes so they can topple later, it’s a good time to start seeing how high this stack builds up so you know how far (and how fast) it will come tumbling down. The climax is the highest point in a story. The greatest moment of tension, the most intense scene(s), the most knockdown fight. If your story ratchets up the tension, emotion, action or stakes AFTER that, then that new scene is the climax. Map out your scenes, climb that ladder (I guess in a future post I’ll have to talk about the climax ladder) and adjust accordingly.

Act 3

How are your loose ends? I know, a lot of writers want to be “edgy” or “creative” or “smart” and they lay out these intricate plots where you have to super-focus on some detail because it’s the lynch pin of the whole book. And there’s nothing worse than realizing that the detail that clinches the story is something you (or gamers, your players) overlooked because it didn’t seem important at the time. Likewise, those characters you drop into a scene, just for the sake of the scene, they’re only momentarily memorable. You’re not breaking new ground in having that three-line-delivering guy from Chapter Six show back up in the end and play a bigger role. You don’t need to tie EVERYTHING up in a nice (read: convenient) bow anymore than than you need to trim the number of loose ends down to the barest essentials. Just keep track of them. If you’ve got a few that don’t go anywhere and sort of disappear, maybe they don’t need to be there in the first place.

What’s the resolution look like? So the climax happened. And now the story’s emotional and action roller-coaster coasts back down to a normal range of possibilities. Here we can start to see things end both internally (the plot) and externally (the book is running out of pages), so what happens AFTER climax? You don’t need to spend an equivalent amount of time bringing us back down to earth as you spent getting us into the heavens, but you do have to spend a little time so that we can catch our breath and start to organize ourselves to end the story. Again, mapping it out is CRUCIAL.

Is the door open or closed? The “door” here is whether or not you’ve explicitly or not created the possibility to revisit this world and these characters again. NOTE – I am not saying that all stories need to be serialized, I’m just asking you if this particular one is built for it. If the door is open, then we as readers are free to continue these adventures in our imagination, essentially taking the storytelling reins from you. If the door is closed, then we better be satisfied by how things wrapped up, else we’ll just take the reins from you and pretend it didn’t go down like that (I’m looking at you Sopranos, third Hunger Games book, Lost and the Mary Russell series).

That checklist will help you take your stories wherever they are, in whatever shape they’re in, and help them go forward, so that you can too can go to your vacations (metaphoric and literal) fully confident that everything is awesome.

Happy writing. Enjoy your Cinco de Mayo.

See you Monday (now if there’s no blog post on Monday, it’s not because I partied too hard this weekend, it’s because I know Monday is PACKED with work, some of which I can’t yet talk about it.)