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Self Editing and What are Beta Readers

I’ve mentioned this several times, but my work goes through a process before I set it up for publication.  A quick summary:

I write it.

I self edit it.

I send it to Beta Readers.

I self edit it (again).

I send it to a professional editor.

I fix it.

I have it published.

When I list it all out like this it seems very simple.  But anyone who has ever put words on paper knows it isn’t so simple.  Most writers understand the first part.  Write it.  And most writers are capable of sending it to a professional editor and changing what they mark up.  But many writers miss the middle parts.  And, like a sandwich, the meaty parts are in the middle.

Self Editing

IMG_20130406_142102_592If you’re going to send this off to professional editor, why is self editing so important?  Well, two things.  Editors are humans too, they won’t catch everything.  Especially if your manuscript is error plagued. Second, you will quickly find that you discover a lot about what doesn’t work in your story’s plot by doing a self edit.

When I self edit, I find that I still miss a lot.  So I learned a little trick, and tried it out for the first time with the Volition Agent manuscript. I printed the entire manuscript and went over it, using a red pen to mark up what changes I needed.  I use the red pen because it stands out.  So when I went back to make changes, I could find them quickly and fix them quickly.  I print it out because it gives me a chance to read my words in a different way than I did on a computer screen.  When you look at your words in a different way, things stick out that you would otherwise miss.

When I self edit, I look for the following things:

Grammar mistakes.  This is the first thing I look for, though I am also the first to admit I am very bad at catching them.  Though I did find that having the manuscript printed in front of me (versus on my computer screen) was much easier at seeing these things.  But still, I recognize that grammar is not my strong suit so I do my best with checking for this stuff.

Punctuation errors. For me, this is most often missing punctuation.  No period.  Using a period when I meant for a question mark. The other thing that I have a habit of doing is putting a quotation mark at the end of the paragraphs during multiple paragraph dialogue (by one speaker). So I have to remove those.

Typos. I type at 60 words a minute with no errors.  But when I write my stories, I typed at 80-90 words per minute with a lot of errors.  Some have told me to just slow down.  But when I type from my mind, my mind goes much faster then 60 words a minute.  Probably much faster then 90 words per minute.  So I often find a lot of typos, missing words, or added words.  Easy to fix, and really easy to spot when you read it.

Plot Errors. I’m not an outline writer, so I ofter find things in the early chapters that I missed or didn’t need to continue the story for the later chapters.  I’d say 90% of my red marks on my manuscript this time around were for plot and prose issues.  Either to remove something or to add something.  In fact, I reworked the entire ending and will be going back to add 5 new chapters throughout the book.  Some will say this is why outlines work.  But I also know many outline writers.  They too say the bulk of their self editing goes to the plot.  The most important part of your story is the plot, followed by how you tell it.  Remember this doesn’t just include missing or extra plot points.  This includes all aspects of your story not related to the above topics.

Said Tag.  English teachers love to tell you about the 1,000 different way to say ‘said’ or now I think they want to make it a million ways.  It is all a bunch of bull. It is made up by English teachers (just like the author’s message). Said is the simplest (and most over looked) word to describe dialogue.  Since I write a lot of official reports at work, I am am trained to write “stated” on most dialogue in my reports.  So I often find my stories are loaded with “stated” instead of “said”. So I have to fix those.  But the best way to break up dialogue is not with “said” but with some type of action.  For example: “I’m writing my blog,” Richard didn’t even look away from what he was doing.  His fingers still clicked on the keyboard. “I’ll take care of the garbage when I am done.”  So where applicable, I avoid using any dialogue tag and use action.

Repeated words.  My characters like to look at each other a lot.  They also love to smile.  So I often over use those two words.  Repeated words are not always bad, sometimes it is required to make a point.  But overuse of any word will be noticed by a reader and can become jarring.  So I look for those.  I also look for repeated phrases and dialogue points through out my story.

What are Beta Readers?

I’m having a heck of a time finding beta readers for Volition Agent. I think this is largely because people don’t understand what a beta reader is.  If you know video games, beta testers get their hands on an early copy (not finished) of a game.  They get to play it and in return they provide feedback to the game developer.  They let them know about glitches in the game, issues with game play, story elements that seem out of place, and an overall opinion of the game.  The developers take that information consider it all and then make changes where they think they should.

Beta readers do the same thing.  They get an early copy of the book.  They read over it, point out mistakes, things that confused them, story issues, grammar mistakes, and provide an overall opinion of the story.  The writer takes all this information and uses it to make the book better.  Just as a developer won’t change everything the testers complain about, an author won’t change everything.  But they will make the story better as a result of the Beta Readers’ input.

Authors need a cross section of beta readers.  I recommend you get a few who don’t read your genre.  I recommend a few that are writers.  Also a few that are editors.  And then a few that are just readers of your genre.  Can you have too many beta readers?  Yes.  If you get overloaded with information it won’t do you any good.  But if you have too few readers, then you won’t get a good sampling for your book.  The number is up to you.  Somewhere between not enough and too much is what I recommend.

Beta Reading shouldn’t be confused with Advanced Reader Copies (ARC).  Typically ARCs are finished.  They are handed out to reviewers in exchange to get review quotes to hopefully use on the book itself. That’s how all those review quotes wind up on the book the day it is published.  Sometimes review quotes are gathered from Beta copies, but that isn’t the purpose of a beta reader.  The beta reader is there to improve the work so the author can put out the best story possible.  Advanced Readers are there so the author can better market their work.

Why self edit again?

If you took all the information from beta readers, and did nothing with it.  Well that would be a complete waste of everyone’s time.  While you might not change everything the beta readers point out.  If the majority of them say that a certain scene doesn’t work.  It would be best if you made it work.  Once you make significant changes you need to review those changes for yourself, the same way you did the first time.  That will involve a whole rereading.  But it is worth it to put out the best book you can.

Once you’ve got the meat together in you sandwich, it’s time for the top piece of bread.  Get a professional editor and have them review it.  Then your sandwich, um I mean story, will be ready for the masses.

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Grammar Sensitivity

handle_criticismRecently I had my first three star review for Dissolution of Peace.  There are many who believe that writers should avoid reading reviews of their work.  Of course, as a new writer that can be tough.  There is a certain quest for validity when you are first starting out.  This is especially true of independent writers, those not publishing through one of the big house publishers.  But you also have to have a certain level of thick skin when it comes to reading reviews.  It is the same thick skin you have to develop when you get those first critiques back from beta readers.  I think I am fairly good at taking a bad review or critique.  I am willing to admit that my writing isn’t for everyone.  I don’t think every story is for everyone.  In fact, I don’t think there is one story that is for everyone.  Tastes vary, and I can appreciate that.

But there is one chink in my review armor, an Achilles heal of bad reviews, and that is grammar.  Nothing makes me feel more incredibly horrible as a writer, or even as a human being, then when someone points out bad grammar.  The worst part is so many people feel compelled to do so.  I have a friend who doesn’t even like to read who will point out just about every grammar mistake I make on social media.  My sister-in-law loves to do it as well.  My wife, she can do it all the time.  She especially loves to point out bad grammar in my speech.  My mom even pointed out that she thought I had a bad editor, because of the mistakes she saw in my writing.  I found this even more disheartening because I thought my Editor did a great job helping me polish this out.  So my first thought was how horrible the original could have been without his help.

Every time someone points it out, I feel like a hack.  I have an insecurity when it comes to my grammar.  This includes my spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure.  Really any of it gets me down.  So while a three star review is decent, the text of his review got me down.  Down to the point that I nearly scrapped my current novel in progress and packed up the keyboard.  Nothing makes me feel more like a want-a-be writer than when I get hit with grammar points.

But like any Achilles heal, I’ve had to learn to deal with it. There are two reasons I never pursued my original dream career, one of them was a mentor of mine who repeatedly pointed out my horrible spelling skills.  I don’t think she ever called them horrible, but that is what I heard. So when the second thing came along, I never bothered to overcome it because deep down I was self conscious of my ability to deal with spelling.  I can’t let that become the stumbling block for my dream to write.

If it wasn’t for spell check, my spelling would be worse.  But one can not rely on spell check alone.  It isn’t a perfect system.  Sure, I could resort to blaming others.  But that really isn’t fair either.  In fact, I really haven’t found a trick to dealing with this.  I try my damnedest to learn everything I can about grammar, and do my best to catch it all.  I hire an editor to make sure my grammar is on point.  And I listen to those grammar complaints from everyone who points them out, even when it gets me beyond angry.

I also try to remember that I am not the only one.  I know others that have had, or continue to have grammar difficulties.  So here are some tips I use to help me deal with my Grammar Sensitivity:

Grammar Police1. Not everyone knows what they are talking about.

Frankly, many don’t know what they are talking about.  There have been a lot of people to point out grammar mistakes for me to spend time looking up only to find they were the ones that are wrong.  But, just because they are wrong doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a little more about grammar.

2. Learn what you can about grammar.

If you are like me, you hate learning about grammar.  I don’t like it at all.  But if you have the dream of being a writer, it is something you have to deal with.  When someone points out a grammar mistake, look it up.  And when you are not sure, look it up.  There are many ways to look it up.  A fellow author shared this site with me: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/  It has helped me out a lot.  But if grammar is your stumbling block, learning it may not be so easy.  But you could also be making it harder of yourself.

3. Don’t over think grammar.

Once of the biggest draw backs to constantly studying grammar has been that I am now constantly second guessing myself.  I don’t know how many articles I have read on then versus than.  Yet, I still make the mistake.  And 95% of the time, I make the mistake because I spent so much time over thinking the way I was using it.  And spending too much time thinking over the grammar only slows down your progress on the story.

4. Grammar can be fixed

I believe I have said this before.  But grammar can be fixed while the ability to tell the story generally can not.  Story is much harder and sometimes impossible to fix, but changing a semicolon to a period is easy.  But only if you can catch your mistakes.

5. Hire someone to catch those mistakes

Hire a grammar cop to edit your stories.  If you know grammar is your weakest link, get a grammar strong editor.  Get grammar strong beta readers too.  And don’t restrict them from pointing out grammar issues, especially in later readings.  I’ve made this mistake before.  I’ve been very restrictive on grammar comments from beta readers and in the long run it only shoots me in the foot.

6. Have a safe zone.

My friends tend to make this impossible.  But I used to use social media as my reprieve from grammar.  That is why I have made it one of the rules on my blog that there be no Grammar policing on my site.  This is my break.  But, my mom still feels compelled to point it out.  While there is no real safe zone from grammar cops, you can do your best to make some sort of buffer area.  It is why I get so angry with my friends on social media when they get grammar crazy.  It just isn’t the place for it.

7. Grammar mistakes are not a stopping point.

Grammar mistakes should not be something that stops you from realizing your dreams.  I wish I understood that ten years ago.  Grammar mistakes can actually be a starting point.  They can be a spring board for you to learn from.  You can make yourself a better writer by getting these mistakes brought to light.  And then learning about them.

8. Watch out for the ones that point out grammar too much.

Yes, there can be too much grammar.  Those that expect perfect grammar in dialogue for example.  But it has also been my experience that many who are absolutely crazy about grammar are not exactly good with story.  I know some people are going to go nuts over that comment.  But it is still my firm belief that when you are writing a story, you should be obsessed with the story not the grammar.  If you have people around you that drag you down over grammar, they may not be the type you want to have around.  But that ones that want to build you up by helping you with grammar, those are the keepers.

Here is a trick to tell which type of person they are:  It is all in how they point it out.  If they point it out with a rude comment, then it is obvious they are the “drag you down” type.  But sometimes it isn’t so cut and dry.  The sarcastic joke, the laughing at you (even an LOL or a 😛 count as laughing at you) for your mistake, and the constant pestering of you for your grammar.  Those are all signs of the “drag you down” type of person.  And most of the time, the “drag you down” person is jealous of some other aspect of your writing, such as your story telling ability.

But the person who wants you to succeed will point out resources for you to learn.  They will explain the grammar error to you.  They will do their best to tell you how to fix it, how to learn more about that mistake, and how to keep from making it again.  That is a person that wants you succeed.  They are happy that you have all the talents for writing that you do have, and they want to help you make grammar another one of those talents.

I Don't Know9. Once it is published, it is published.

Don’t get me wrong.  If you don’t think a work is acceptable and you are self publishing it.  You can pull it down.  But, if you have been following some of my other tips and tricks, you likely did all you could to make it the best possible work you could put out at the time it was published.  Going back and changing something after every review that points out a mistake, will only lead to an inability to move on and progress as a writer.

10.  Push on.

I mentioned above that I was ready to give up on writing over the grammar review I got.  It hurt.  But I also had to recognize that it is also their opinion.  And, I think it is a bit exaggerated.  But even if it isn’t exaggerated, the point of Amazon reviews is for a person to give their honest opinion of the product.  Even if it gets all one star reviews, you have to move on.  You have to move on and start on that next project.  You have to keep pushing for that dream.  Giving up on it now will only cause regret later.  I still kick myself for giving up on my career goals.  Giving up on my writing dreams will not work.

 

If you are going to be a writer, you will have to deal with grammar.  Even worse, you will have to deal with grammar critics.  If you have a sensitivity to grammar correction, like I do, you will have to learn to work around it.  I hope with a few of my tips you can at least manage to keep writing.

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Curse Words in Writing

swearing_3421243I really have never addressed this topic.  It is funny that I have not talked about it since I quite simply love to curse. There is little else that makes certain type of point than a well placed “fuck” or a perfectly timed “bullshit.” And in the work I do, I am certainly well adjusted to hearing swear words, including some very nasty ones directed at me personally.

So when it came to swearing in writing, I never really gave in much thought.  I like to write stories with believable characters, and we live in a world where people curse.  But when it comes to telling a story, cursing can be off putting to some readers, and there has to be a balance. There are many things to consider when you type that first swear in your fiction.  Let’s take a look at some:

Audience

Who is this book intended for?  It might be most obvious to eliminate, or at the least tone down, cursing in a Young Adult novel.  You will likely have none in Middle Grade.  And I am certain your children’s book will be swear free.  But it is more then just the category of your novel.  Are you writing to diehard Sci-Fi readers? Grandmas? Church goers? Parents of young kids? Military readers? and on and on.  Each of these needs a consideration as well.  If this group of readers will be easily offended by the content of your novel, including swearing, you either need to change your audience or remove the words.

Is it Fitting?

Does the curse words fit the story, the world, and the context it is used in?  If you are writing a book about an alien world who have never met humans, I highly doubt they would use the word “shit” in any way.  If you are writing about a character that is getting shot at, I can almost be certain they will swear.  If you are writing a military or police novel, they swear.  Do they all swear?  No.  But I’ve been around enough of both to know that when things get ugly, a swear might slip out.  You have to find out if the swear belongs in the world, the environment, and the type of story you are telling.

Characters

I touched on this a bit above.  If you are writing about the military, there may be curse words.  But if your Main Character is a very mild mannered person who was drafted into the army, s/he might not be prone to swearing.  If you are writing about a priest who is trying to help a teenager get out of a bad situation, he is unlikely to swear.  But then again, he might slip in a minor curse word if the teenager has just pushed the priest too far.  Or the priest feels that is the only way to get through to the kid.  Think about each of your characters.  As you are developing your character, did you ever think of them as the type to swear a lot?  If not, then it might be best to leave them out.  Consider the character’s background.  Growing up rich with a lot of servants and proper etiquette might yield a different swear result than the inner-city bully.

Vulgarity

To some the word “fuck” is vulgar in itself.  I am sure if that is the case they stopped reading my blog a long time ago.  But to others, the way it is used determines the level of vulgarity.  There is a big difference between yelling out “fuck” in an adrenaline rush situation and saying you will “fuck” someone.  The vulgarity of the use of a swear ties in to the character, the suitability of the use, and your target audience.  I swear a lot, but there are certain words, when used a certain way, that even I take offense to.  In the end if you are going for shock value, it should be removed.  Shocking your audience in a vulgar way, will likely knock them right out of your story.  Sometimes to the point they won’t keep reading.

Is the word distracting/excessive?

When you read the text, is the word distracting to the action? Do you, or your beta readers, seem to notice the word more than the actions of the overall scene?  If so, it probably doesn’t belong.  Have your characters done nothing but curse the entire novel?  If so, you may be taking away from the character and that will only hurt the story.  The most obvious test is if you notice.  The second test will come from beta readers.

Excessive is hard to define.  You can’t say that a certain number of curse words is the limit in any novel.  You have to test it with a sample audience, the beta readers.  See what they say.  See what your editor says.  Consider all of it to decide if it works for your novel.  In Dissolution of Peace, we have a military setting, with aggressive and stressed out characters, in a world on the brink of war.  I can tell you that there is cursing in the novel.  My friend asked me if the novel would be appropriate for a 14 and 9 year old.  Before I could message him back and say, “Probably not.” He told me that he searched the novel.  The word “Fuck” came up fifteen times and “shit” twenty plus times.  When I first saw that, I was surprised.  I hadn’t thought it was so much.  And that really does seem like a lot.  But not one beta readers, or my editor, made a single comment on the cursing.  The fact that neither myself or my beta readers noticed proves the fact that it is not excessive.

Of course, others might consider it very excessive.  That goes back to audience.  So far, in both editorial reviews and customer reviews, there has been no mention of the cursing.  So far, it seems, that no one considers it excessive.  As I go back and read the novel, the curse words fit the situations they are used in.  You almost don’t notice them.

To curse or not to curse.  The debate.

Curse words are a big debate in the writing community.  I’ve not noticed forum discussion on the topic that did not have strong opinions on both sides of the debate.  Many have argued that if the right way to use a curse word is to leave it unnoticed, than what it the point of using it anyway?  I often argue that sometimes not using a curse word can be more distracting.  I read a detective novel, very well written, but I just couldn’t see this detective yelling out “dang!” when he got shot at.  To me that was deliberate censorship and it stood out far more than a “shit” or a “damn it” would have.  If the author was against cursing, simply leaving it off might have been better.

And that sort of sums up the use of curse words in a novel.  They will never make or break a story.  I’ve seen excellent novels based in various settings that both use and didn’t use curse words.  But even in those that used the curse words, it wasn’t the curse words you remembered.  You remembered the story.  Curse words are like many other character and story accents.  If used correctly, no one will remember them but they will love your characters and story.

Swears are a lot like sex scenes.  In many cases the story will work just fine without either.  So the choice is entirely up to the author.  But when used correctly, swears are no big deal either.  Only the writer can decide if they belong or not.

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