…Aaaaand ACTION!

I get messages once in a while from soon-to-be self-published authors soliciting advice about writing and publishing.  I recently answered a question of one of these folks and thought I'd share my answer with anyone reading my blog.  I should be writing a book right now, but I often indulge in other activities to avoid my work so that I can make my life more stressful and therefore interesting.

The issue this person wrote me about centered around feedback from early readers.  When you write a book, you get people to read it first before you release it to the general public and make it for sale.  Usually first-time writers look to friends and family for that service.  I'm here to tell you why that's a mistake.  I'm also here to tell you how to avoid what I think is one of the most common mistakes first-time writers make.  There's actually a list of those most-common mistakes, and I'm going to do some other blog posts on each one in turn.  For now, here's the first one on my list:

The importance of ACTION in a story…

I think one of the biggest complaints people have about first-time writers is that the story drags, that there are unnecessary scenes in the book that do nothing to drive the story forward.  If you ever read a book and get to a part that you just skim, take a moment to see exactly what it is you're doing.  From my examination, and from the feedback I see in reader reviews (not of my books of course, ha ha), readers start skimming when the action stops and stop skimming when they see action starting again.

Authors, every single chapter, every single scene you have, should be moving the story strongly forward and should have a purpose leading to the final resolution of the story.  That's what I call action. If you could cut a particular scene out and the story would still make complete sense, it doesn't belong in there at all. Even in a romance novel, every single scene should have action compelling the story and characters forward. In a simple sense, we can say that something important should always be happening in the story, even if it's just a character finally becoming self-aware through introspection.

Would-be authors, keep in mind that you will improve as a writer with every book. Like anything worth doing, practice makes perfect.  Your first book will not be awesome.  Mine sure wasn't. (Some would argue that none of mine are, the bastards.)  I had to go back to my first book and make some big changes after getting reader feedback about POV issues, telling not showing, etc. It's all a part of the process of becoming a better writer, something that should never stop happening for any of us.

Beta readers who make sense…

The most important thing when you've finished your manuscript (the first draft) is to have readers who do not know you, who don't care about you as a person, and who read in the genre you're writing in be your beta readers. They are the only ones who will and can give you the feedback you need to improve the story and make it the best it can be.  How many do you need?  I'd say no more than three really good ones.  Too many opinions just makes it harder to decide what to do.  With three, you can have a simple majority.

Friends and family are the worst people to get technical feedback from. That's not to say that you shouldn't do it if it makes you happy.  My husband and mother are my first readers of every book I write, because I know they'll be positive, kind, and motivating.  I'm very sensitive about my writing, and I need that support.  But for the real scoop on how ugly my baby is?  I need a “real reader” or two or three.

Family members are too connected to you, so they hold back, and if they do have negative feedback, their words hurt more than those of a stranger would.  And even more importantly, they are likely not your market, so the feedback they give you might not even be valid.  Someone who reads literary fiction all day long is not going to be able to tell you if you've gotten the story right for a zombie romance.  They won't connect with the themes like a true zombie romance junkie would.  You are a dealer.  Readers are junkies.  Give the junkies the drugs they want and need. (Wow, that was a kind of horrible analogy, but I'm keeping it anyway because it totally fits.)

I have about fifty or so friends and family who are close to me.  I can count on one hand those who have voluntarily purchased and read one of my 20+ novels, and most of them only did it after I hit the New York Times bestseller list.  It's not that they don't love me; it's just that they're too close to me personally (and probably worry that the books will suck and then they'll have to tell me or hide from me for the rest of our lives) and I don't write books they'd normally read.  It was hurtful to me at first until I figured out what was going on.

I have a bunch of writer friends and I have only read a few of their books.  Why? I don't have time to read, for one, and I'm also too close.  I don't like giving feedback to friends, because anything negative can hurt the friendship and not giving all the feedback makes me feel like I'm not doing them any good or actually hurting them in another way.  So it's better to just avoid it altogether, at least in my world.

I have a whole other blog post set for the future about beta reading and how to take the comments given and use them in a constructive way, and another about how to be a good beta reader.  But those are for another day when I need to procrastinate on my work in progress.  For now, I think I've done enough of that for one day.  🙂

25 comments on “…Aaaaand ACTION!

  1. I disagree on your statement of who is the ONLY valuable beta reader.

    My beta reader is an online friend. We both read and write fanfic and overlapping genres (meaning I don’t send her poetry and she doesn’t send me mysteries; the rest goes). We’re both grammar whores and prolific readers and writers and we both know almost everything there is to know about how to use and bend the English language stylistically without breaking it. We also are squarely in each other’s target audience where we overlap and feel extremely free to nitpick and tell the other start over from scratch if necessary.

    My beta knows my weaknesses as a writer perfectly (primarily an overdose of knowledge about my world that I have a hard time conveying to the reader, the occasional too poeticness, and the dreadful proclivity toward sentence fragments). I need her to tell me what comes across to her as a reader because it’s a little thin sliver of ice sticking up from Antarctica beneath.

    In short, my beta knows me, cares about me personally, reads tons of fiction in the genres I write, and doesn’t have a problem sending me back to the drawing board OR cheering me on when I think I wrote dreck and didn’t. More importantly, she always seems to know what I’m actually trying to achieve with a story and helps me achieve it. She’s a rare diamond, but that doesn’t mean betas like her don’t exist or aren’t valuable.

    • Disagree all you like, but in my experience, friends hold back. I hold back with friends. It’s human nature to do that, even with online friends.

      • I don’t beta for someone who can’t take honesty. I do not hold back.

        I don’t have a problem with your general statements. I disagree with your saying that your experience is the only valid one at all and that there isn’t any person who knows a writer who can offer valuable feedback. There is absolutely no rule of human behavior in the world that is without exception. People are people. They vary.

        • You have your experience, and I don’t know you so I have no idea what that is, and I have mine, which is about 20 months of self-publishing, 20+ books in print and on Kindle and Nook, and a few bestseller weeks under my belt. When people ask me for advice, I dispense the stuff I know. What I have experienced does not jive with what you have experienced.

          Here’s what I know: There is no one who can be coldly honest with a friend when discussing something creative like a book that’s been written by her and not hurt that person deeply. If you read the blog post carefully, you’ll see that I did mention that I find my family’s beta reading feedback valuable for different reasons. For technical writing feedback, I stand by my statement that you won’t get the best stuff from friends or family. You’ll get it from people who can be brutally honest with you and who are not involved in your life to the point that they would allow their knowledge of you to sway their feedback in any direction. If you have a “friend” who can do this, they probably are not a close friend or you are a much different kind of person than I am and also quite different than all the writers I hang out with, which is perfectly okay.

          On a side note, that’s why reader reviews are very important to read. Sometimes, they provide valuable feedback that helps an author improve her skills.

          • “For technical writing feedback, I stand by my statement that you won’t get the best stuff from friends or family.”

            If you had said that, I would have agreed with you. What you did say was:

            “…readers who do not know you, who don’t care about you as a person, and who read in the genre you’re writing in be your beta readers. They are the ONLY ones who will and can give you the feedback you need to improve the story and make it the best it can be.” (emphasis mine)

            It’s a sweeping statement that essentially invalidates any experience different from your own.

            I AGREE with everything in this post except that nasty ONLY.

          • To me, making your story the best it can be and improving it is technical writing feedback. That’s the stuff you get that tell you whether the mechanics of the story are off. ETA: If you skip down to the next paragraph after the one you cited, you’ll see “Friends and family are the worst people to get technical feedback from…”

            I get feedback from family and friends, but it’s not the same stuff I get from my non-family beta readers. For the technical mechanics of the story, I need readers, not family.

          • Feel free to not approve this comment if you weren’t implying you wanted to know, but since I just caught that you might on reread, my experience is about 15 years of writing: several nonfiction, poetry, and fiction pieces published in various periodicals under multiple pen names when I was young (so not sharing because I cringe when I read them now); 3 intense years of building an extremely active readership/network in fandom before I moved to original fiction and freelance nonfiction in multiple pen names (fiction) and at multiple vendors (nonfiction) and still fanficcing on occasion and not half as much as my readership likes. I am now doing for original fiction what I did for myself with fanfic, which is writing up a slew, building a readership, and publishing it mostly indie but occasionally submitting short work. My other pen names have more work out and earn me nice royalties, but I have more emotional investment in Liana Mir and the two audiences are EXTREMELY different, so again, can’t share that beyond saying I’ve been doing it for 2 and a half years now.

          • Well share those pen names! Let’s take a look at what you’ve been doing. 🙂

            I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. You don’t have to agree with me. Anyone who wants to know what I think and what I’ve found to be true knows the scoop now.

          • Replying here because the threading…

            My fanfic pen name is scribblemyname and one other pen name is Pearl Wise (I don’t care about the sales rank just that it’s paid some bills) and easily reached from the links on my website or LJ account (http://scribble_myname.livejournal.com). My most successful pen name I really cannot share because I absolutely do my utter best to not have it linked to Liana or fanfic.

      • I’ll put it another way: it’s selfish and self-serving to hold back. It’s a defensive position. I put my friends first, as some people do, which means HELPING them.

        And my beta does the same for me. I have had her nicely say this isn’t a story, I think you should try writing this over again, figure out what you’re trying to say then do it again, and worse. She’s a reader and a writer and an editor and holding back is something neither of us want her to do.

        • I do not agree. It’s neither selfish or self-serving to not hurt someone’s feelings and not insult something they’ve poured their heart and soul into. It is not true to say that in all cases, you need to be cruel to be kind.

          The simple fact is that if I want to maintain a friendship with someone as a friend and not just a professional colleague, I keep the critiques to a bare minimum, and I never give more than they have asked for or can take. That’s what beta readers are for, and like I said, the best beta readers are not friends.

          • Well, there explains a lot. I don’t find the idea that my story needs a lot of work to be insulting and I don’t keep friends who define “insult” as brutal honesty and since when does honesty = cruel?

            “This doesn’t work,” “The reader here feels like the author has no handle on the rules of the world,” “What in the world does that mean?” etc. are not insulting, cruel, or personal.

            It IS selfish if they ask me to tell them what needs work and I DON’T DO IT because I want them to like me. If I think they won’t like the answer, the proper response is, “You may not like this and read at your own risk…” and tell them the good stuff too so they don’t take it out trying to fix what’s bad. It sounds as if you think an honest beta is necessarily harsh.

            The only difference between you and me seems to be that you cannot separate the person from the work. If you can’t, then you’re taking the right tack. But it’s still wrong to say no one in the world can.

  2. I found this SOO amazing and SOOO helpful, thank you soo much! I am in the process of writing and some days I have no motivation to finish, but I read this and you have given me motivation to continue. Thank you for your honesty and amazing words.

  3. Seems to me that, like Mexican food, everyone prefers their own level of “hot.”

    Personally, I prefer to be ripped a new ***hole, but I readily admit I’m not the norm.

    In this endeavor, it has been harder for me to find strangers who take me at my word than old friends who know me well enough to be confident I’m totally serious. I have some brutal friends.

    To the “action!” point, one of them puts ZZZZzzzzzZZZZzzzz in the margin, when appropriate.

  4. It’s blogs like this one that I subscribe to. You don’t post a whole lot, but when you do, the quality is worth the wait. This post is about fundamentals of the craft. Coming from one who has reached the Purple Toilet Paper level of success as you have emphasizes it.

    The coolest thing about your blog Elle is that when you do post, it’s always good stuff. This post, including the debate between you and Liana is a solid look at aspects of Beta reading—its benefits and risks. Well, risks to a newish author in terms of how criticism can sting. My personal experience has shown that the stinginess is inversely proportional to the experience level of the writer. The less experience, the greater the sting. And the only way to get through the stinginess to objectivity is by increasing experience.

    And after you get through that, wait for your first rash of poor reviews! LOL (Kinda). But I think it’s just a dues paying process to get to the exalted Purple Toilet Paper level of success.

    I totally get Liana’s perspective; but for my own writing, I use Beta’s I’ve found online. When I put my first book in front of loved ones and got blank stares (oh God… the book was so bad…) that settled that question right then and there.

    I find it serendipitous as anything that the post’s topic is about the need for action and propelling the story. It’s so critical, and I think it’s a hallmark of new writers to get caught in the weeds. I’m proofing some titles right now and time after time my comments have been ‘How is this scene moving the story?’.

  5. Excellent post and extremely well timed as in helping my friend trying to market his indie book, I’ve finally decided to write a novel that’s been sitting in my brain for days. Too bad I didn’t read this post about a half of an hour earlier. I just sent a copy to my sister to read! LOL I totally get what you mean that you’re sensitive about your writing. I’m thinking that I may be too because now that I’ve sent it to her, I’m terrified that she’s going to say that she hates it!

    I wonder though, how do you go about finding these beta readers that you don’t know? Who are YOUR first readers? And how would I find MY first readers?

    • I always let supportive family read my manuscripts. My husband and mom are my first readers, but that’s only because I know they will be very positive and motivating. My mother is my proofreader too, so she’s got that extra helpful red pen in hand. The uninterested beta readers are for making sure the book works technically, like all the parts are there and working properly together, not for the grammar or that kind of thing. Once in a while you get a true beta reader who is also a grammar fiend, but that’s rare. But that’s okay because that’s what editors are for. 🙂

      What’s almost as bad as a family member saying they hated your book is when they’re just vague. “Oh, yeah, it was good …” and that’s it as their eyes wander or glaze over. Then you dream up all kinds of things they aren’t saying but are probably thinking. You’ll find out who your supporters are, and for me, it’s always important to send the draft to these people just so I have the motivation to keep going through the editing process.

      My first beta readers were a couple people I used to know in high school who I’d reconnected with on Facebook. I know people who’ve put out a call on Facebook and had the same results. For the two I found, we had been friends of friends back in the day, so were never close, and after 25 years had become not close at all, so it fit the stranger profile. Now I find them on my Facebook fan page if I need them, but most of the time I pretty much stick to the same people. For other authors I have put posts on my Facebook finding them beta readers if I think by looking at a sample of the work that the author is writing what my fans usually read. It doesn’t do you any good to have a reader who isn’t familiar with the genre read it. You want a future fan to read the manuscript, not a future “I would never buy that book” person to read it.

      • First off, THANK YOU for replying. You are SO good to your fans! I’m enjoying your books and your blog immensely. Second, in my original post I said I’d had a story stuck in my head for “days”.. typo! I meant “years”. LOL

        Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head for me with your reply! I received a text message from my sister this morning that said “Your book is good”. That’s it. Ummmm… SERIOUSLY? I needed more. I’m going to have to find some beta readers. LOL

        At this point, I’ve only let 2 people read it. I wanted to see if “in their opinion” if I was onto something and whether or not I should continue. I’d hate to devout months or more to something that turns out to be a crappy story. LOL

        • It’s my pleasure to interact with my fans. A privilege, in fact! I know what you mean about those replies. You should feel free to nudge her into gushing her praise. That’s what I do. 🙂

      • P.S. My sister’s response of “Your book is good” also made me think (this was supposed to be after “Ummmm”), “I’ve written and let you read more than 10,000 words and all you’ve got for me is a 4 word response?” LOL

      • Pardon my asking, but if you stick to your original beta readers, how can they possibly still be strangers rather than online “friends”? Not trying to be difficult, but since that was my very first comment and you said that human nature didn’t work that way, I am completely and utterly bewildered.

        I met my beta online by reader and writing in her drabble community then reading and commenting on a few posts before asking her to beta a piece for me. The rest is history. After working with each other this long, we can’t NOT be friends.

        • Bewildered? That’s such a great word.

          I have online “friends”, like Mimi Strong, for example. She and I discuss writing books, the market, graphics, sales data, plotting, everything you probably discuss with your writer friends.

          My beta readers are readers in my genre. They don’t write books, we don’t hang out online, we don’t discuss anything but my books. It’s a completely different relationship. When they’re not reading my books, they’re reading other writer’s books. They aren’t working on a book they’re writing.

          Does that make sense?

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