Thanks to novelist Darlene Fredette for giving my forthcoming novel, Arborview, its first bit of early publicity. Darlene has dubbed this month February Fur-ever, and she’s featuring writers and their dogs on her cool blog, Finding the Write Words.
Hello and welcome to the newly updated Write Despite. Cathy and I have finally given our blog a facelift. Yeah, it was long overdue. Please poke around the redesigned pages, take note of our tweaked mission statement, and share your feedback.
To kick off the redesign, novelist Randy Overbeck shares his take on the care, feeding, and invaluable contributions of early-stage readers.
Take it away Randy:
I’ve spoken with a number of authors who have raised questions about beta readers. To clarify, when we say beta readers, we’re referring to readers who read an early manuscript, either in part or whole, and provide feedback. Some writers find these early readers unreliable, unhelpful, or sometimes even distracting.
For me, beta readers have been an integral part of bringing my manuscripts to fruition. Over the past several years, I’ve developed a process involving beta readers that has provided insights about my work I could never have gotten on my own. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to beta readers:
You’re going to need more than one. I’ve found it helpful to have several individuals respond to my early work. Over the years I’ve cultivated a cadre of 10-12 readers. Since I want to learn how different readers might respond, it’s helpful to solicit multiple readers. I often get different perspectives and varying insights. I’ve also learned that some beta volunteers don’t end up actually reading my manuscript; life gets in the way, and I understand that. Recruiting several betas insures I can get the feedback I’m looking for.
Beta readers don’t substitute for a writer’s critique group. My beta readers are not writers; they’re readers. I don’t ask my beta readers to check my grammar—though there is usually one grammar Nazi in the group who likes to do this—improve my style or check on my voice or tense. I ask them to respond as readers, to aspects like plot and character or setting. Did anything catch their eye or stop them in their tracks or interfere with their reading?
Beta readers need to know what you expect of them. When I share a section of my manuscript, I try to be very specific with what I want betas to respond to. Along with the pages, they receive a set five to six questions. (As a long-time educator, my habit of giving homework lives on.) Of course, one of these questions is always very open-ended, so betas can share whatever they want to say. My betas seem to appreciate the direction, and I usually get the feedback I’m looking for.
Like everything else in life, beta readers do best with a set timeline. I’ve learned that my beta readers respond better when I give them an expected date to complete their review, usually about two weeks. Some will read the manuscript in a day or two and respond immediately, while others will wait until the “deadline” to finish their reading and respond.
It’s important your readers aren’t simply “yes men.” (Please forgive the gender blunder.) When I recruit beta readers, I try to make sure I have readers who will not be afraid to give me bad news. “That scene did not work.” “That description was too much. I found myself skimming to get to the action.” I’m careful to receive their responses, especially critical ones, in a positive manner. I encourage my betas to be candid and let them know that’s why I’m giving them an advance peak at my writing.
When possible, I try to give beta readers a chance to come together and discuss their reading and responses. (This was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course.) Over the years, I’ve tried to arrange a get-together—usually after work at a quiet restaurant—for local betas. They seem to enjoy comparing responses and, once they start discussing aspects about the narrative, they often provide me more than what they’ve written down. Also, some betas simply like to tell me some things face-to-face.
I’m confident that insights from my beta readers have helped make my writing clearer, more engaging and more accurate. I acknowledged their contributions at the start of both my published novels. I wouldn’t dream of writing my next mystery without their feedback. And… I’m always looking for new beta readers, so feel free to reach out.
Is 2021 the year you’re finally going to buckle down and crank out that novel? If so, you’re in luck. Novelist and teacher Michelle Richmond has an online course designed to take you from inspiration to first draft, with help and guidance every step of the way.
Check out the details and get going! There’s a five-month and a nine-month option. Courses begin the first week of January.
Give yourself the gift of mentorship and invest in your writing this year.
I have the most wonderful news. My new novel, Arborview, will be published next year.
Yes, you heard right. The contract has been signed. Final edits are underway, and so is the cover design. The Wild Rose Press, a well established and growing publisher, has purchased the rights, and I’m working with a super supportive and generous editor.
I’m still pinching myself. It’s a magical way to kick off the holiday season, and some good news to cap off a year that’s been so difficult for all of us.
I don’t have a release date yet, but it will be in 2021, and I’ll keep you all posted. While I’m on that theme, I want to thank the friends and colleagues who’ve helped me bring this book–which has been in the works for six years–to life. They know who they are, and I’ve got a hefty “Acknowledgements” section in the novel.
It goes without saying that Cathy has been on this ride from the beginning, through multiple revisions and moments of hair-tearing doubt. She is irreplaceable, and the best editor I’ll ever have. I’m not going to say I love her, because she already knows it.
Writing a novel is like running a marathon. You dig deep and push with all you have. Now we’re crossing the finish line.
It isn’t every day dreams come true. Thanks for being part of mine.
Here’s hoping the blessings of the holiday season–large and small–bring us all comfort this year.
Summertime. The days are long and lovely, and the grill is fired up.
But what’s that? You say the time has come, at last, to write your novel. You’ve got a story. You want to tell it. You just have one question: how, in the name of all that’s sane and just, do you begin?
Good question. And you’re in luck. Best-selling novelist Michelle Richmond addresses this very thing in a recent blog post. I’m always happy to plug Michelle, because she runs the small press that published my debut a few years back, and because she’s a super helpful and compassionate human being. She’s also a true friend to writers, whatever their career stage.
A snippet from Michelle on diving into the novel waters:
“Get past thinking, ‘I’m writing a novel.’ Instead, tell yourself, ‘I’m writing a few words today’ or ‘I’m writing a piece of my novel today.’ Writing a novel is a daunting challenge and a major, time-consuming endeavor. Looking from the starting line to the finish line, miles away, can be mentally paralyzing. The only way to start your novel without psyching yourself out is to break it up into small, daily tasks. Approach each day as a mini-project, not a major project. The mini-project is your scene, your chapter, or your page for that day.” Read the rest.
Good luck, friends, and be gentle with yourself. You’re embarking on a courageous journey.
I’ve been a journalist and a fiction writer. But essays? Not since school, and that was more, well, academic in nature.
I don’t know exactly what possessed me when I learned the Collegeville Institute was looking to build up its stable of freelance essay writers. I love the Collegeville Institute and its mission, and I think my heart just leapt at the prospect of being a part of it.
I’m thrilled to have published my latest this month. Take a look. I think the photo they chose way overshadows my essay, but in a good way.
Essay writing has been such a gift. It’s an unexpected platform, one whose benefits and challenges I am just beginning to understand. I feel lucky, blessed, to have stumbled upon this opportunity to write—in a different way—about the things that move, and resonate with, me.
The “me” part is a big leap. Writing as yourself—for fiction writers—can be a bit unnerving. But it can also be liberating and empowering. One of the reasons we write in the first place, I think, is to have the sheer pleasure, to experience the power, of matching our thoughts with just the right words. The pleasure of saying what you mean.
Essays are challenging in different ways than fiction. But some of the benefits are similar. They help me think through issues and sharpen and organize my understanding. In a nutshell, they help me make sense of it all. Isn’t that what writing is for?
Anyone else out there dabbling in a new different genre? Let us know.
The first 10 pages make or break your novel manuscript. Why? Well, as we’ve all been told (and in truth have probably experienced), no one reads beyond them if they’re not great.
And that goes double for agents and editors, who are wondering how they’re going to sell the thing.
In other words, your opening has to rock. I’m overhauling mine for the umpteenth time right now, and it’s moving along. Something is happening. It’s kicking and wiggling and strutting a bit. But rocking? I dunno.
I come now seeking advice. What hooks you in a novel’s opening pages? What makes you keep reading? What turns you off? Please share in our “comments” section.
Cathy has already weighed in, of course, and her advice—as usual—was spot on. Cathy has a new publication of her own, just out this week. The opening of her novel-in-progress is featured in Embark: A Literary Journal for Novelists. This nifty journal is dedicated to novel openings, and it’s becoming a go-to for agents seeking new clients. Congrats, Cath! Check out her piece. It’s going to grow into one helluva book.
Cathy and I have had a busy fall, writing and…drumroll…publishing. Every author knows that digital self-promotion is just part of the process today, like it or not. We don’t especially like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
In that spirit, we share our latest triumphs. We love the triumphs, don’t get me wrong. We just feel a tad squirrelly, tooting our own horns. So this time, I’m tooting Cathy’s, and she’s tooting mine.
Please join us in celebrating. It’s always a gift to find your way into print!
Cathy’s had a few publishing ups and downs lately. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, went out of print when her publisher folded. But she’s had two stories published in the last couple of months, and has another coming out in the spring. Check out “The Hunt” in Appalachian Heritage magazine, and “Dreaming about the Bouviers” in Pithead Chapel’s online journal. Look for “Gently Used” to appear in Wordrunner eChapbook’s April 2020 anthology.
Cathy’s strategy these days: “I use mostly use Submittable to send in stories (don’t we all?) and currently my list includes: six stories that are “Active,” exactly two that are “Accepted,” and a whopping 50 “Declined.” I also keep a submission folder in my inbox full of emails from publications that don’t use Submittable. Nearly all are rejections, of course. Some people would find this discouraging. I don’t. I always see it like playing the lottery. There’s that initial moment of disappointment when I first find out, and then the shrug, and the self-reminder that it’s all a big crap shoot anyway, and then the self-nudge of ‘Hey, you need to get that piece out again.’ And on it goes. Bottom line: ABS: Always Be Submitting!”
Karen has been up to her eyeballs in her novel rewrite, but she is psyched to have just placed an essay with the Collegeville Institute’s awesome online magazine, Bearings Online.
Karen explains: “I’ve been a follower of the Collegeville Institute for a few years. I love the way they examine spiritual and literary issues, encouraging exploration that unites the two.
Last year, I was brainstorming ideas that I could pitch as essays for their Bearings Online magazine. The work is so eclectic and thoughtful. I love scrolling through. I had an idea about the spiritual implications of feeding wild bird that just seemed to fit.
Everyone who knows me knows I love wild birds. They seem to wing their way into all my work. But when I pushed the concept of feeding them a little deeper, asking why we do it today on such scale, I realized that scattering seed is not a small act, but a large and symbolic one that resonates deeply for the feeder, as well as for the fed.
I queried the Institute with a few essay ideas, and their lovely digital team member author Stina Kielsmeier-Cook liked this one. (It was also my favorite!) But it had to wait, while I finished a novel draft rewrite. After I delivered the rewrite to Cathy a few weeks back, I turned to the birds. The essay flowed naturally from there, with one section leading to the next, and the Bible quotes serving as lovely introductions.
I am thrilled to be published on the Collegeville Institute’s platforms. They do a terrific job sharing their authors’ works, and encouraging participation. And I am in very good (and talented) company. Every time I go to the site, I learn something new and come away just a little bit better for it. You can’t ask more than that.”
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!
I’m calling out Amy’s terrific advice on how to treat secondary characters, and why it matters. That’s how much I like it.
TWO TIPS FOR SECONDARY CHARACTERS
Your secondary characters need love too, and they need to be as carefully created as your main character — just don’t tell her.
My two biggest tips for creating engaging secondary characters are:
Each secondary character must have her own arc.
To me, this means, a little story of their own going on — a subplot if you will, a storyline. Each must have her own beginning, middle, end. That character doesn’t know she’s in someone else’s story!! But…
Each secondary character must to serve the main character’s story.
EVERYTHING in your novel helps to drive the main story forward, even a secondary character’s personal storyline. Ask yourself HOW it does this to make sure, but more importantly ask yourself WHY.
This is something hard to do but easy to check. Go back through your manuscript or outline and focus on your main secondary characters (not the townspeople, as I call them). Note what she’s doing in a scene — why is she there? How is her own story being furthered? How is it impacting the protagonist and the main storyline?