Friday, June 20, 2014

Beta Readers

Beta Readers. Some authors count them as valuable as editors. Some never use them, relying instead on the editors provided by publishers. In my opinion, having someone else take a look at your manuscript and just point out where the story ‘got confusing’ or where perhaps a bit more description is needed, is enough to get a stubborn story moving again.

If you ask authors at a panel how they make sure a world or a character is believable, the answer is usually “beta readers”. You’ll see ‘thank you’s to beta readers in acknowledgements or afterwords in books.

How do you find a beta reader?

This was one of the questions asked of me at an author question and answer panel at a recent convention. I had to stop and think about this from a new author point of view since some things have changed since I first started trying to find someone willing to read my stories and give me helpful criticism. And some things haven’t changed.

As a young writer starting off at age 14, my first beta reader was my mother. Not precisely the best choice, as she didn't read science fiction, but I didn't feel confident enough to ask my father, who was the other science fiction reader in my family. But after getting feedback of “it was so sad when she left home” when the story was supposed to be on how happy the character was to leave Earth, I moved on to other beta readers. My English teachers approved of the symbolism in my first book (which surprised me since I hadn't put any in), and that was the last time I asked them. I did find a few friends in high school that read fantasy and science fiction and who could be counted on to give good feedback. Nowadays I have friends I've met at conventions, fellow writers, and people who have read and enjoyed my work (and like getting an early look) who I can ask to beta read.

The person asking the question didn't have any local friends who read the genre he was writing. I've got one friend in my town that I can ask to beta read, but the other friends I can ask, depending on their schedules, are all at a distance. Which is not much of a problem in the days of email. The questioner, however, didn't have any writing friends or friends who read in his genre either local or online that he could ask.

So the next question to him was, was he a member of a writing group or organization? I'm a member of both Broad Universe and EPIC, and I've seen the occasional call out in the email and Facebook groups for those writing organizations for a beta reader on a particular genre or topic. There's usually someone willing to give feedback in return for critical comments on their own stories. He decided to check with some of the fan group tables at the convention.

I've even seen the call out on an author's Facebook page for an occasional beta reader or proof reader.

Of course, what do you do once you've found a potential beta reader? If all you get back is “It was good”, then you need to ask detailed questions (and maybe find another beta reader). Jodie Renner had some excellent suggestions recently in “15 Questions for Your Beta Readers”. (She also has some suggestions for finding YA beta readers.) I tend to ask more vague questions like "Did what the character do make sense?"

Take some time to absorb the comments you get back. Sometimes you can see right away how to revise the story and sometimes you’re not actually ready to accept what you hear.

It also helps to have more than one beta reader. If both readers comment on the same thing, then it definitely needs fixing. You might also have a beta reader who just focuses on the technical details or language rather than the overall story.

How have you found your beta readers? Are you a beta reader for another author?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


When you’re writing a story do you ever feel like you’re climbing a mountain and you’ll never reach the top. Maybe not, but right now that’s me. In 2009, I started a historical novel set in 1780. For months I read books about the time period. Clothing, food, housing, the Revolutionary War, the Indians, and more. I watched movies of the time, clipped pictures and made a vision board of the people and how they lived. Surrounded by months of research, I started writing the story. About halfway through I decided it wasn’t turning out the way I envisioned in my mind. So I put it aside to think about and come back to later.

Other stories took the place of my historical. I even forgot about it. Then one day in 2014, I was digging through ideas for novels I had jotted down and found the typed pages for my story that I had never even given a title. It was a shame to waste all those months and reading so many books. Could I get it right this time? Maybe. Maybe not. I’d never know unless I tried.

A change of characters, along with new names, reading through the original draft and deciding what to keep and discard, and I gave the story a second try. It was moving along slowly, so I decided to try something new to speed things up. Fast drafting. That seems to be working. The story is still a long way from being “finished” but fast drafting is letting me write ideas down. There will be revisions, of course, but this time I think I know where I’m going. My characters are cooperating better too.
Little Wolf, one of the new characters, told me she wanted to be in the story. She couldn't believe I left her out of the original. Neither could I.

Maybe five years ago was not the time for this particular story. I hope 2014 is the year I reach the top of the mountain. I'm climbing the mountain, one step at a time. The view looks promising. Oh, the story has a title now. OVER THE MOUNTAIN. It just seems right.

Have you ever put a story aside and come back to it years later? If so, did it work out better the next time?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ah the ups and downs of publishing..

Hallo my freaky darlings!

It's been a long month. Last month I spent three weekends in a row on the road, doing promotional stuff. It was all fun, but tiring when you have to return to a five-day-a-week full time job too. Especially when you just started said job. It was a rough start, but now we're almost to summer and things are quieting down. I love being a school librarian, but yanno, if I had the means to just write and promote all the time, and travel all over to do it, I'd be there.

So now I'm turning toward the next things on the agenda. I have the NJSCBWI conference coming up on the 27th, and then CONvergence over Independence Day. I'm starting to really work on promoting A CURSE OF ASH AND IRON. The manuscript has been edited, and copyedited, and turned over for proofreading. July will bring ARCs and the book being sent out on NetGalley for pre-publication reviews. I am setting up my fall appearance schedule a little bit.

I have a place in mind for the launch, which will be a Victorian tea party of sorts, and I think it will be at a local tea house. Super fun!

But, as with every endeavor, nothing goes perfectly. We make plans, God laughs, or whatever. Whether it's Mercury in retrograde, or Murphy's law, or just my luck, I don't know. But I'm still waiting for the cover. I have the cover reveal scheduled for June 19th, but I will have to push it back unless I get the cover today or at the latest tomorrow. The publisher is upset at the delay as well. I don't know the reason, but these things happen. I trust the artist, the awesome Steven Meyer-Rassow, will make it everything I want and it will be awesome.

And as much as I want the cover reveal to happen, more pressing is getting promotional swag made up for those above-mentioned upcoming appearances. I NEED to have something for CONvergence. I'm sure I'll have the cover before then *crosses fingers* and if needs be I can get Staples to print them same day. It'll be tight, but totally not a major crisis. Do you hear me? NOT. A. CRISIS.

Maybe you can all light a candle that the cover comes in time for the scheduled reveal? Pretty Please?

Just another day in the exciting world of publishing! LOL.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Writing a Series

When I was in high school I started writing a story about a girl named Casey. The story didn't have a particular beginning or end, it just sort of meandered from episode to episode through Casey's four years of high school. I still have those notebooks and the comments my friends made in the margins (my first critique group). And while a lot happened and technically I had it broken down into four books, it wasn't really a true series.

Fast forward many years and the story of Casey has morphed into Reality Ali. It's no longer simply a series of events but a story with a plot and a beginning and a middle and an end.

I'm done. I'm happy.

But then I realize that maybe, I can write more stories about Ali - after all, I had all those notebooks of Casey stories, certainly I can write more about Ali. So I present my idea to the publisher and she agrees. Three more books are contracted for.

This is different than simply writing what happens next in Ali's story, like I used to do for Casey. Each book needs a plot. A beginning, a middle and an end (this is more complicated than it might seem at first glance). And the books have to fit into the whole.

Lights, Camera, Ali came out last year and the third book, Honestly, Ali will be out later this year.

So now I'm on the fourth book, tentatively titled Always, Ali.

There are challenges to writing a series that I didn't anticipate when I started. Things that I want to do now, but can't, because they weren't done that way in the first book. Everything has to fit into the world I've already created. It's a fascinating restriction, because I love the world I've created, it's just hard to remember that even though I created it, I can't simply alter the rules, at least without some explanation.

The great part about writing a series, though, is being able to spend more time with characters I love. The characters of Ali and her brother Mark are two of my favorites and it always feels so comfortable and easy to write scenes for them because I know the characters so well.

Working on this as a series, has been a wonderful experience. I learn more with each book. And am so glad I get to spend more time with these characters.

What challenges and adventures have you faced while writing?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Dallas ComicCon 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the daughter and I had tables at the Dallas Comic Con.

Daughter's first attempt at a chain mail dragon. Isn't she cute?

Muscular, no?

Booth mate next to us. 

She is a dead ringer for the girl in How To Train Your Dragon, no? So cute!

Very creepy.

Old style Mystique! Yeah!

Dragons came to Dallas Comic Con!

Taylor Lymberry gave us - Lilu Dalekpass!

Aren't his wings awesome?

Other nearby authors. Love their cover art and how merged it into the banner like that. 

Artists, artists, everywhere!

Our super scrunched display. We're going to have to go to two tables.

More art!


I loved her Sherlock and Dean Winchester at off angles. 

Ninja Turtles made an appearance. :)

Sherlock and Irene Addler. So cute!

Adventure Time TV

Luke's Speeder from Episode 4


Jeep from Jurassic Park

And Baby - the Winchester's Sweet ride.

Baby's truck, which I still somehow managed to put in here upside down. DOH!

This weekend is A-kon! Hope to have some great pics to share from that next time. :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Writing Structure Upside Down

Normally, I try to address supernatural things in this blog: ghosts, cryptids/cryptozoology, ghosts, unexplained events, ghosts, and ghosts. But as I work on book 3 of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery series, I started thinking about opening lines for books. This is a common topic among writers and is featured (or should be) in writing classes because a story opening, which may be one line or an entire paragraph, is what is used to grab your reader by the throat so that they keep on reading. It is also to grab editors and agents by the throat for those working authors who submit their manuscripts traditionally. 
Naturally, I started thinking about my own story openings. Here they are, along with the title of the work they open:
Mary Beth is dead. There won't be any more dreams. (Dead of Summer)
The madness started in September, and to tell you truth, I hope it hasn't ended yet.  (Saving Jake)
"Okay, then," I said. "First question. Can a ghost follow you home?"  (Hunting Spirits)
The four-year old girl looked up and saw Uncle Tee stepping through the front door and coming toward her, her mother a little behind him - AND - No one knew exactly who started the Thursday night ghost stories, or when.  (Haunted)
Michael Penfield awoke to a presence in his room.  (Dead Voices)
The first two openings, for Dead of Summer and Saving Jake, were enough to get my foot in the door with an editor. Teresa Basile, who edited Saving Jake, is an unusually generous editor in that if she likes an opening line, she'll read the entire first page of a manuscript. I hear most editors will read the first paragraph. If the opening line doesn't cut it, well, so long, Charlie. Getting published can be brutal!
But I digress. Opening lines set the tone of the book and sometimes can encapsulate a large part, if not all, of the story. Next time you read a book, go back and reread the opening and see what you think of it, now that you know where the writer went. I'm partial to Stephen King when it comes to this: "Once upon a time, a monster came to Castle Rock" or "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick" or even "Here is what happened." 
When I teach writing classes, I always spend some time having students come up with opening lines, and then we share them. Invariably, we always hear at least three or four of them where we wish we knew the rest of the story. It's a good exercise but a cruel one, if you want to know what happens next. In situations like that, even the author can't usually answer that.
On the other hand, endings are a completely different animal. I'm beginning to think that a line that is good for starting a story might be good for ending it, as well. When you take an opening and end the book with it, you leave the reader wanting more. Sometimes you might be writing a series, but maybe not. There are good and satisfactory endings like "They lived happily ever after" or Dumas" "...the count just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words: Wait and hope" from the Count of Monte Cristo, or Gaiman's "But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open"  from The Graveyard Book. Great endings, all of them, that put a final cap on the story and leave the reader with a contented sigh.
Still, there is a part of me that enjoys endings that read like openings. I tried that with Haunted and for my trouble was told in no uncertain terms that my ending was really the start of the next book. I never saw it that way, but hey, if intelligent readers did, then who am I to argue? I'll write another book. Just to clarify things for myself, though, I put an ending on Dead Voices that made it stunningly obvious that there was another book on the way. I want my readers to come back!
But indulge me for just a second and go back up to the list of my openings. Reread them and pretend they are each the last lines of a novel. It's probably just me, but I think all of them would make really stellar endings. Really. It would invite the reader to keep going with the story in his or her own mind. I'm a writer. I like the idea of my characters taking on a life in someone else's thoughts. And I can't help thinking that ending with a beginning is a hell of a way to do exactly that.
(Originally published on the author's Ubiquitous Ghosts blog)