How can I tell the writer…

If you’re a beta reader, one issue that you will come across sooner or later is a project that you just can’t get on with. So how do you break the news to the writer?

 

First, you need to decide whether the problem is yours or theirs. Could it be that you just don’t like the theme of the writing, or that something about it is hitting a sensitive spot? If so, then you could mention that and then either decline and return the project, or be as objective as you can despite your misgivings. It’s possible to write about the way a story is presented while at the same time cringing internally at the storyline.

 

If the problem is that you feel the writing is weak, or the storyline is too implausible, or something else related to the writing itself, then it’s important that you think carefully about the issues you find. Feedback in this case is even more important than if you enjoy every aspect of the story, but it needs to be specific. “I hated this story” is unhelpful. “I found this story totally implausible” helps a little. “I found it very unlikely that he would want to kiss her two minutes after finding her standing over his beloved mother’s body with a gun in her hand” is something that can be dealt with much more effectively. If you really have to return a piece of work unread, or only partly read, explain as sensitively as you can why you had such a problem with it. This might be as simple as “I’m sorry, but the number of spelling and grammar errors in this text make it very hard to read, as I’m having to constantly stop and work out what you’re trying to say. I suggest that you at least run spell check before submitting a piece of work to a reader.”

 

It’s natural to worry when you feel you have lots of negative feedback for a writer. Try to praise the aspects of the writing that you find do work – even if you have to look really hard. They’ve put a lot of work into the writing, and it’s disheartening to be given just a list of errors. Remember the phrase “even better if…”. Try to raise questions rather than making criticisms. “Did you mean…”, “I’m not quite sure what you mean when…”, “Have you considered…” Explain the effect their writing has: “The way you jump from one person’s thoughts to the next means there’s no chance for tension to build up, because I know what they’re both feeling all the time. Have you thought about sticking to her point of view for the scene, so that we only know his reaction and not the reason for it?”

 

Remember that you’re not their cheerleader. Too much focus on the positive and too little on the negative could give them a mistaken idea of their own capabilities and will not help them develop their writing. Any writer who publishes work will be in for criticism via reviews, and some of it will probably be harsh. You can help to prepare their work by raising the issues that you see. After all, they’ve asked for feedback on their work, and that means they should be expecting to receive information to help them.

 

Adapt your feedback to the writer’s background and experience. If you’re reading for someone who’s already published several pieces of work, then they should be used to receiving feedback, and should readily understand terms such as foreshadowing, POV, third person. If they’re showing their writing to someone for the first time, then you need to recognise that and encourage them forward. This might involve explaining the terms you use, recommending they find a writing group, or pointing them towards resources, but shouldn’t be praising them to the point where they feel they’re ready to hit the publish button right now.

 

Above all, don’t worry too much: some writers do find it very difficult to take any sort of criticism. That doesn’t mean that you should become upset over their response. As long as you’ve been careful and sensitive over your feedback, then their reaction is not your problem. Just mark it down to experience, consider briefly if you could have handled it any differently, and move on. There are plenty of writers out there who would value your feedback.

 

Nanowrimo survival guide

Four days to go until people all round the world hit the keyboard or notebook for (inter)NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. But what’s the best way to achieve that?

  1. Aim to write every day. The target is an average of 1667 words per day, but it’s better to aim higher than that in the beginning if possible, as it can be very hard to catch up if you fall behind right at the start. Your enthusiasm may wane later in the month anyway, so bank extra words whenever you can.
  2. Use all your available time – not just that time when you can sit and physically put words down, but the time when you’re cleaning your teeth, or waiting for a bus, or sitting in traffic. Time spent planning means that when you reach the page you’re ready to start the words flowing. The best part of nano is getting totally involved with your story.
  3. Even if you are so hard-pressed for time that you can’t fit in your normal writing session, at least aim to open the file and look at it. That’s easier than ever this year, with Scrivener available on iOS. Letting the story drift from your thoughts, even for one day, can be hard to recover from.
  4. Don’t worry about the quality of what you write. You’re working out the story. There’s plenty of time to polish later. Sometimes you need to push through to figure out what your story is about.
  5. Don’t be afraid to change things as you go along – but don’t go back to fix earlier things. Just make a note to yourself for later and plough onwards. If you must rewrite a section, then leave the original there too for now – they still count as words written during November.
  6. Remember that everyone goes through a stage of hating and doubting their writing. Acknowledge that you’ve reached that stage and work through it. You only have 30 days maximum on the one project. After that, you can re-evaluate and do something else instead, but this project deserves its 30-day 50k-words of attention.
  7. Other ideas will rear their heads once you open yourself up to creativity. Thank them, note them down and promise them attention in December.
  8. If you have the chance, local write-ins can be great for motivation and companionship. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a table with other writers and just hammering out the words.
  9. Accept that whatever work you do will probably need to be redone or at least edited thoroughly, but remember that you’ll be that much better as a writer for the regular practice.
  10. Most of all, when you hit 1st December, don’t stop writing!

Opinions vary on the usefulness of nanowrimo as a writing tool. My opinion is that as long as you don’t expect to write in November, publish in December and then do nothing until the following October, then nano can be a fantastic tool.

 

Powerful dialogue – add subtext

There are many aspects of dialogue to manage, and different ways of tackling it. The aspect that interests me most is the subtext: not just what the characters are saying but what they mean.

 

Think of any family rows you might have. What are they really about? What on the surface is about what’s on TV might be about control. Argument about who you’re going to for Christmas dinner is really about relationships between in-laws. Someone reassuring a member of the family might be seeking to reassure themselves just as much – or even more.

 

When your characters are talking, think about what they’re actually saying, and then think about what they are revealing about themselves as a character. If the conversation isn’t working on both levels, then reconsider if it’s really pulling its weight.

 

Listen to conversations about you, or on TV programmes, and hear the subtext in them if you can. Here’s one quick example I overheard in the summer, by a stall that sold signs for gardens.

“Oh look, ‘Grandma’s herb garden’. Your mother would like that.”

“Yeah.” Pause. “But she’s not a Grandma.”

“No, but she’d like to be.”

Now didn’t that just tell you so much about the dynamics of that particular family?

 

Preparing for nanowrimo

It’s halfway through October, and all round the world, writers are preparing for the massive writing festival that is NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month, the challenge that sees them aiming for a grand total of 50,000 words on a new project within the 30 days of November.

 

I have to confess that I’m one of them – each year for the past few years, I’ve bashed out a first draft of a novel during November, and then spent the rest of the year working on it. Each year, the draft I finish is a little more polished than the previous year, and I get a little further through editing. Eventually, my aim is to have several novels all nearing the finished product at around the same time, and then start publishing.

 

But how do you prepare for such a project? And should you be starting before 1st November anyway?

 

There are two types of writers, when it comes to nano – known as the planners and the pantsers. In fact, these are just two ends of the spectrum, and most people sit some way along the route between. Planners will plan out their story in great detail, world building, character building, plotting out their story. J.K. Rowling has released sheets showing how she planned out the Harry Potter stories in detail. Pantsers will fly by the seat of their pants, starting with a basic idea (or even less than that), and just seeing how it develops. Stephen King is a great proponent of that approach.

 

This is where I find Scrivener comes in handy: I’ll work out the rough outline of my story, often dividing it into three parts, corresponding to the three act structure. I’ll budget out the words for each part, and create sections for each scene I think needs to happen. The index cards hold a rough summary of the action for that scene, and I plan on between 1000 and 2000 words per scene.

 

Then when I get to November, I aim to fill in at least one scene each day, providing a structured journey from beginning to end but with flexibility should the story develop in an unexpected way – if your characters don’t rebel at some point in your story and do something you hadn’t planned, then maybe they’re not real enough!

 

The important thing when tackling nanowrimo is to remember that the aim is to create a first draft of a novel. It is not to create a polished, well-written manuscript that’s ready to send off to agents and publishers. There’s lots of work still to do once that first draft is finished.

 

Nor should you be worried if the story doesn’t achieve all you hoped for it. That’s what the rest of the year is for. The aim is to bash through your story, become completely involved in it and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve finished, you might be able to work with what you have, or it might mean pulling it apart completely and restructuring. Whichever level it’s at, you’ll have had 50k words’ worth of work put into it, and you’ll have a much better idea of what the story needs.

 

So enjoy your nano prep and enjoy your writing – just be prepared to keep working on it for the rest of the year!

 

My beta reader has gone silent!

One issue that crops up a lot with beta reading is the silence that can ensue once a manuscript has been sent out. When you’re sitting waiting for that message that tells you what they think, and nothing happens, what is the problem and what can be done?

 

There can be many reasons why you don’t hear back from them, and it’s not always because they hate your writing: it might be that their personal life has just hit problems, and they just don’t have time or energy to deal with your book. It might be that they’ve been inundated with books to beta read and they don’t have the time for them all. Or maybe they’ve realised that whatever the quality of your writing, the story itself just isn’t for them. They should be letting you know, if any of that is the case, but sometimes people panic, feel guilty, or just don’t find the time and motivation to let you know.

 

Or maybe they are one of those who are just seeking free books to read, and can’t be bothered to reply. It’s true, that can happen.

 

So what can be done to avoid or mitigate these problems?

 

First of all, try to agree with your reader a timescale. When do they expect to have finished? Some readers offer turnaround within a day, while others prefer closer to a month. Time itself isn’t the issue; what is important is to agree. If you need a fast turnaround, find a reader who offers that. If you are more relaxed (after all, how long did it take you to write the novel?), then that will give you more scope.

 

Some readers are happy to give progress reports, while others prefer to read the whole thing before giving any kind of feedback. It’s unfair to your reader to expect constant feedback, unless that’s what you’ve agreed in advance. It’s also unfair to constantly nag them about how they’re doing. They have better things to do than to reply to regular messages asking them how they’re getting on.

 

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to send a message if it’s after the deadline and you’ve heard nothing. This should be a polite “I wondered how you were getting on” message, not an “I assume as I haven’t heard that you hate my book” sort of message! If you still don’t hear anything after a couple of nudges (leaving reasonable time to respond, of course), then put it down to experience and move on.

 

Remember also that messages can and do go missing, on both sides. I’ve sent off reports and heard nothing back, and then had a query a week or so later, asking how I’m getting on. Eventually the message was tracked down: it had just been overlooked. I’ve also had clients send chase-up messages, only to find that their original message had ended up in my spam folder and so the file was never received. It’s for this reason that I will always acknowledge safe receipt of a file within 24 hours.

 

Finding a reliable team of beta readers can be tough, and this is why there’s a growing market for paid beta reads: if a reader is receiving payment for their report, that gives them incentive to read and give thorough feedback. However, be cautious with paid beta reads, and make sure your reader has a good reputation.

 

Finally, if you find a good beta reader, or even better, a few beta readers, treat them carefully and look after them – they are a valuable resource! Always respond to their reports, even if it’s just “Thank you for your time and your feedback. Is it okay to contact you again if I have any questions once I’ve read the report properly?” You don’t have to give them a blow-by-blow account of what you think of each comment, but acknowledgement is vital. And respond quickly, even if your time is tight and you don’t have time to consider the feedback immediately. Just as you’ve been impatiently waiting to know what they think of your work, so they are waiting to know their report has been received safely and appreciated.

 

 

Reading as a writer

Stephen King, along with many other writers, is firm in saying that if you want to write, you also have to read a lot. So what can you learn as a writer who reads?

 

There are many books around that teach you who to write better, but one of the best ways to learn is to see the advice in action. You want to master Point of View? Study books to see how they handle it. I have a list of books that I turn to when I want to see how to handle First Person, for example, to see how they deal with transitions between the present tense and the past, or to see how they make dialogue sound like fiction and not memoir, or avoid telling instead of showing. You want to see how books handle description? You want to see how they handle pace? How long a chapter usually is in that genre? How long the book is? Find a book and read it as a writer.

 

There are different levels of reading. Firstly, you learn to read for information and entertainment. Then you start to notice the little tricks that the writer uses to create an effect, or to make a point. Then you reach the point where you can start to use those tricks yourself. How can you expect to use those tricks if you’ve never seen them in use?

 

It’s also useful to make a note of books that use specific techniques – for example, The Martian is a great book to study. It makes use of first person via logs. It makes use of third person when it needs to. And, of course, it was a self-published book that then attracted a contract and a huge movie.

 

Beta reading can work too; sometimes it’s even more informative to see a less polished piece of work, and try to figure out what the issue is. But don’t assume that beta reading is enough. The wider you read, the better, and enjoy what you read. Just keep at least half an eye on the tricks the author uses, and think about whether you can adapt them for your own use.

 

How do I write…?

The question I see asked most often in writing groups is a variation on “How do I write this?”, “How do I start my story?”, “Will writing it this way work?”, “What’s the best Point of View to use?”

 

It’s as though writers have a limited stock of words and have to get them right first time.

 

If you’re stuck on how to start your story, or a specific scene, then write your way into it. Start with “It was a dark and stormy night”, or “Once upon a time”, or “When he got home”. Then write the rest of the scene. Once it’s all down, go back to that opening that caused so much trouble. Chances are, you’ll find your opening, and just have to delete the waffle in front of it.

 

If you’re not sure how to tackle a particular scene, maybe because you’re uncertain whose POV to use, or what tense to use, or whether to write in 1st person or 3rd, then write it one way and then the other. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the scene, and a better idea of which works better.

 

And above all, when you reach that point in your story where you feel everything is rubbish and not worth continuing, remember: that’s the point where you prove yourself a true writer. That’s the point when you plough on anyway, remind yourself why you wanted to write that idea in the first place, and just see where you end up.

 

When do I need a bleed?

One issue I’m sometimes asked to sort out is a bleed. So what is a bleed and when is it needed?

 

bleed illustration 2As part of the printing process, pages are trimmed. This is not normally an issue on print books, because any text would be well away from the edge,  but if you have illustrations or photos in the book that need to go right to the edge, then it’s important to create the image slightly larger than needed. This way, when the page is trimmed, the image will bleed off it. This avoids an unsightly white line showing, should the trimming be a fraction off (which is very possible).

 

This is usually done in publishing software, which has a bleed feature built in to it. The software will add trim marks to the file, so that the printer can trim to the right size.

 

A bleed is always needed in a cover design.

 

 

Producing a book

Beyond the Beach HutsA writing group I’m part of is currently celebrating the release of its first book – Writers of Whitstable has produced a collection of short stories all set in the town. The collection includes a variety of genres, from around a dozen different writers.

 

The project started around September last year, when it was suggested we produce a book to release in conjunction with Whitlit, a local writing festival. We came up with a theme – all stories were to be set in the town of Whitstable or have some connection to it – and the title – Beyond the Beach Huts, suggesting an insider’s view of the town – and writers each came up with their own ideas.

 

Stories were brought to writing group for critique (we send stories around a week before the meeting, so on the evening we can discuss them) and then the writers continued to work on them privately, returning them for further critique if they felt they needed it. We had a few months for this process, with final copy being in by the middle of February.

 

My role in all this, apart from writing my own stories to contribute, was to accept final versions, give them a proofread/very light edit, send them back for approval, and then assemble them into a book. An editorial meeting between the leaders of the project led to a running order for the stories, and final proofs were sent out for everyone to check their own pieces and also glance over the rest of the book. I was also responsible for obtaining an ISBN and dealing with the publishing side.

 

Meanwhile, one of our members worked on the cover art, coming up with an eye-catching cover that we’re all very pleased with.

 

Once cover and interior PDFs were approved, we sent them off to a printer who specialises in books, and three weeks later we were proudly opening three boxes of books.

 

Minor adjustments to the files made them suitable for Createspace, Amazon’s Print On Demand service, and for ebook, so now as well as copies to sell at local events, we have the book available on Amazon in both paperback and kindle versions.

 

It’s been a really fun project to work on, and the big debate now is whether to do a similar project next year, and if so, what the theme should be.

 

Formatting for ebook

The process of formatting for ebook starts in the same way as formatting for print; in fact, ideally I’d be working from the same Word file, and preparing it for both types of formatting by first ensuring all the formatting is done through styles, and not just ad-hoc. Once the Word file has styles applied throughout, importing it into Jutoh, the program I use for ebook formatting, is straightforward.

 

Within Jutoh, I’m prompted to fill out a form containing the metadata for the book, including author and publisher details, genre and information, and then choose which files to import for the main text and the cover. With styles applied, I can set the document to split at the chapter heading style, and then complete the import.

 

Now I need to go through the document, checking the formatting has imported properly, making sure the splits are at the right places – while the chapters should split automatically, the front matter and back matter often need attention – and ensuring that any blank lines at the end of chapters have been removed. While these can easily go unnoticed within a print book, there’s a risk that a single blank line at the end of a chapter, falling at the wrong place, will appear as a complete blank page in an ebook.

 

The options for variation of text in an ebook are very limited. While in a print version almost anything can be achieved (and one of my projects is exploring the possibilities in a fun way!), in an ebook there is only really relative font size as an option, as the reader can (and should be able to) override font and font size choices for their own reading comfort. Another trick that I’ve used to make text stand out is to block-indent rather than just indent the first line of the paragraph, but ebook readers vary in how they handle indents, so varying indent size or adding a right indent isn’t a viable option.

 

With most fiction ebooks, the table of contents can be handled automatically, while for others or for non-fiction, I often have to handle the table of contents separately, ensuring that links are provided for the parts that need links, that they are displayed consistently and that all links point to the right place.

 

Images need checking to ensure they are the right size. While Jutoh offers a facility for resizing images, this can be inconsistently handled across readers, and it is far better to ensure the images are correct before importing.

 

Once I’m happy with everything, it’s time to hit the export button. I can choose the export type (epub or mobi, usually) with the click of a button, and the file is created.

 

That’s not the end, of course! There’s still viewing on different screens, checking the front matter and back matter are displayed correctly, making sure the table of contents works if I’ve had to handle it separately, and skimming through to see whether any special formatting is handled right. I have a few different devices available, from ipad and iphone to kindle touch and kindle keyboard, and so I’m able to check how they each deal with any issues.