Revise It! Recruiting and Using Reader Feedback

Beta Readers

Reader response can be one of your most important resources in the revision process–or it can derail everything and leave you confused and insecure in a corner, wondering why you even bother writing. Here are several steps to making your reader recruitment process smooth, easy, and effective.

Notice I didn’t say painless.  You’re asking for reader response, after all. You want to know what’s working and what isn’t now so you can process and fix it before you go onto the editor step. So a little(ish) pain is part of the deal.  😉

Before you go into the reader feedback stage, go back and make sure you’ve evaluated your reasons for revision. Get solid on your vision so that you know what questions to ask your readers, and you can evaluate their input effectively.

Readers can come a couple of flavors:

  • Cheerleaders – These are readers who read along as you’re drafting your manuscript. Their main job is to keep you accountable to goals and encourage you to keep going. Some writers don’t use cheerleaders, preferring to create free and solo, away from anyone else’s critique. Others (like me) swear by them. While I’ll do short works without cheerleaders, for me writing is an inherently social endeavor, so I need the constant feedback of my circle of readers to keep going.
  • Alpha Readers – Also called first readers. One or two people who read your manuscript just for the joy of it. Alpha readers only comment when they’re really jarred of the narrative or confused by something. I don’t necessarily use these because my cheerleaders tend to give me quick readers summaries after I finish a manuscript.
  • Beta Readers – After the alpha reader(s), the beta readers are your major source of reader feedback. Whereas alpha readers give unprompted reader-response, beta readers often get a list of questions or concepts to skim for and check. They’ll give your manuscript a more detailed look-over according to your specifications, often in exchange for an advance look at your epic story or as part of a beta read swap.
  • Gamma Readers – Readers who go over the manuscript in later stages and offer specific feedback. Can also be brought in at the end for endorsement purposes and final feedback about genre/audience for your work.
  • Specialty Readers – these can come along anywhere in the process, but they’re singled out for specific purposes. They might include sensitivity readers if you’re dealing with a particular area that you aren’t familiar with in terms of life experience, race, sexuality, disability, culture, religion, etc. They might also include readers with specific technical knowledge or expertise who can give feedback on whether or not your content sounds plausible.

Guidelines for Using Reader Feedback

  • Evaluate your reasons for revision. Again. Evaluate your reasons for revision. Clarity of purpose is one of the most valuable tools you have as a writer.
  • Decide what kind of readers you want to use. You don’t have to use all of the ones listed, and you may have some super-specific extra-special top-secret psi readers that you use for the ultimate in feedback.
  • Choose readers who actually enjoy your genre. They will inherently understand the tropes and expectations. Plus, if they like the story, they might sign up for ARCs and be able to give endorsements or reviews!
  • Use multiple readers. I would recommend three beta readers at minimum to give yourself a good variety of feedback. Using more than three is fine, but it can be overwhelming to process. Using less means you won’t have the varied perspectives. Also, if you can, try to have readers from different backgrounds or skill sets.
  • Compose a list of questions. Give them to beta readers so they have specific areas to look for. This can ensure higher quality feedback and be really helpful for your readers.
  • Compare feedback to your purposes. Make sure you hold strong in your vision, but also be open to getting new perspectives on your writing. That is the purpose of feedback, after all!
  • Be gracious to your readers. These are individuals who have given their time and energy to read your work and help you out. Gratitude is a great and classy response. Some authors list significant readers in their acknowledgements, while others offer free ARCs or do beta read swaps.

Note: at this point I’d love to make a huge shout-out to my awesome cheerleader readers and beta readers, who are incredibly supportive and picky at the same time. Y’all are amazing!

Greetings Authors! What kinds of readers do you use? Got any other tips for using reader feedback? Wanna acknowledge some awesome readers in your life? Give a shout-out in the comments!

Why You Should Write Unrealistic Fiction

One of the perennial questions on the internet is “how do I write for the opposite gender?” After that, you usually get the whole argument about who can (and can’t) capture the true essence and mystique of a specific gender. Then, the whole argument of “realism” is brought up.

Therein lies the core issue. Realism.

Writing fiction has nothing to do with being realistic. Authors are creators carefully crafting characters and scenes and stories to reach their readership. You don’t have to justify or impress anyone else other than yourself and your target audience.

why you should write unrealistic fiction

Realism doesn’t matter in writing – but here’s what does: author convictions, story plausibility, reader expectations, and genre conventions.

Author Convictions

You are writing this story. It is your story. You gotta live with it and at the end of the day, you’re selling it, either to an agent, a publishing company, or directly to readers. Ultimately, you have to be satisfied with how it turns out. Know your Push, your essential motivation, and use it to keep going.

Story Plausibility

This is where story structure and writing craft come in. Get your problem and solution sorted out, make sure your story follows an outline (either by plotting, or by self-editing after you finish pantsing), strengthen your characterization, and go over your whole manuscript multiple times. Bring in beta readers (preferably at least three for varied opinions), use a critique group, hire an editor, and try to fill in every plot hole and issue you can. Master those fundamentals of fiction as much as you can.

Genre Conventions

Now the concepts of realism and ‘proper story technique’ are turned upside down. You see, genre conventions are the general structures and expectations of specific genres. Is it realistic for people in novels to be incredibly attractive? Nope, but in certain kinds of genre romance, they both better be knockouts. Is it realistic for all of those urban fantasy men to be devil-may-care, gritty masters of snark or all of those urban fantasy females to wear tight leather and love swords? Nope, but it often goes with the territory.

You can of course thwart genre conventions, but depending on which ones you choose to overturn, beware that it could turn off readers, no matter how good your writing craft. Also, ‘telling’? That’s a bonus in some genres (and some authors are really good at it). What about the dreaded ‘purple prose’? Well, some high fantasy goes over the moon for all the lush over-descriptions, whereas some fast-paced adventure novels drop bits of description as if they are precious, rare diamonds. The key is to know the conventions of your genre and have confidence in how to keep them (or break them smartly).

Reader Expectations

Reader expectations are often tied into genre conventions. This is a good thing, because you’ll know how to deliver what your readers want, be it thrilling cliffhanger endings for suspense or happy ever afters for romance. To know reader expectations, haunt book reviews, book blogs, and book club discussion areas. Also, grab a second round of beta readers to give purely reader-response.

The good thing is that readers often expect different things than authors. They want to be entertained, pleased, surprised, comforted, thrilled, mesmerized, shocked, and/or anything else that is considered part of the deal. Depending on the market area, they may overlook typos, spelling, or grammar errors, but they can be far less forgiving if you fail one of the expectations (couple doesn’t get together, plot twists don’t twist, etc).

Marketing tip – make sure your book cover, blurb, and overall presentation hit the targets for your genre and reader expectations. Otherwise, you could be attracting the wrong kinds of readers and that does not lead to good reviews (consider how frustrated suspense readers would be to get a sappy romance, or how annoyed high fantasy fans would be to get a stripped-down action-suspense plot). Granted, you could still get negative reviews for other reasons, but don’t let off-target marketing be one of them!

So go ahead–write unrealistic fiction! Make your characters strong, potent, memorable. Make your stories incredible. Improbably probable. Weave your plots well and reach into the hearts of your readers. Revise, tweak, resubmit, refresh to get things just right.

And enjoy every minute of it.

What are your favorite genres? What are some genre conventions? Do you keep them or turn them upside down?

Free Content Outline/Revision Worksheet!

Free ContentRevisionWorksheetThere are a lot of revision checklists and guides out there. Just typing the words into a search engine will yield plenty of people with opinions about what you should and shouldn’t cut–and there are a ton of variables. Genre conventions, audience expectations, and use of voice are just a few items that can alter how you revise a story. Therefore, I don’t generally adhere to a certain revision checklist.

What I do adhere to is a content check. Out of everything you do for a manuscript, getting content locked down is the one area where your unique ability to tell a story shines through. A good proofreader can catch your typos. A good line editor can shred your grammar and sentence structure. A good content editor can pinpoint story issues.

But ultimately, you are the one who can best tell your own story. Your mind, your ideas, and your vision all matter and being able to sort out and fix content issues yourself (with the input of a crit group or beta readers) is a great way to ensure that your own voice comes through in the revision process.

Now, if you’re a plotter, you might have an intricate plotting chart that tells you exactly where you need to go. After you write, you’ll need to go back and see if that plotting actually did the job.

If you’re a pantser and have just free-formed a story, then doing a content check to make sure you have all the parts in working order is a smart move. What those parts constitute is again a bit fluid (since there are different story structure methods), but as part of the process, you need to find something that works for you and stick to it.

Naturally, as a writer, editor, and author coach, I do have my own methods of organization that I modify to suit the needs of a client or a story. And since I enjoy sharing and giving away freebies, I’ve attached one of my basic outlining worksheets at the bottom of this blog post and added it to my resources page. It’s in Word form, so feel free to use it, change it up, copy and paste it, or otherwise alter it to suit your needs. I certainly do!

And if you’re looking for someone to provide feedback, thoughts, or a solid sounding board on your work, whether it be motivation, drafting, world-building, or marketing, feel free to sign up for one of my author coaching consultations! They come with notes, customized content, lots of enthusiasm, and the first one is free with absolutely no strings attached.

Content Structure and Purpose Worksheet

FOCUS Your Writing in 2017

My word of the year: FOCUS.

Focusing is a funny thing for me. As someone who has sensory processing issues and who was once diagnosed with A.D.D., I’ve found that I actually focus better when I’m working on more than one project. The high pressure and constant stimulation of different activities keep me from losing interest.

At the end of last year, I decided to turn my multi-focused brain in my favor by splitting off into two brands: janeenippolito.com (fiction and book reviews) and writeinsideout.com (nonfiction writing help).

writeinsideout.com is now exclusively a place of writing and world-building help (and sometimes guest features) from someone who was extensively educated in ALL THE WRITING RULES and through years of experience as a writer and a teacher, knows which ones to break (which is most of them if you do it at the right time and in the right place).

As a part of that, my first series is

foundations-tofiction-writing-3

In other news, apparently voters are a fan of both bunnies AND camels, because “put a bunny or camel in every blog post” came in second place on my reader poll. I am a woman of my word, and so here folks, is your first Bunny of the New Year! 😀

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Meet Edgar the Plot Bunny! This wise lagomorph was rescued from a friend’s basement and he is eager to see the world and share all of the exciting plots he’s come up with over his years of solitude! Follow the exploits of Edgar at #EdgarthePlotBunny and #plothop for plot prompts, thoughts, ideas, and random!

What about you? Do you have a word for the year? What’s your current writing project? Please share in the comments!

Writing Better … by Not Writing

In case you haven’t realized, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started yesterday! Wo0t!

NaNoWriMo has a special place in my fiction writing career, because winning it in 2009 was what restarted my creative writing brain.

I had just graduated college, just gotten married, and just gotten my first post-college job at a Kmart for the holiday season. Not super-impressive for a Summa Cum Laude graduate, but it helped pay the bills on our tiny apartment with an overabundance of mice tenants from the nearby dumpsters.

I had taken a hiatus from creative writing due to a mild addiction to daydreaming, and the demands of my senior year of college. But in November 2009, stretched out on a secondhand couch, I prayed and decided that if God wanted me to write fiction, then I’d manage to hack out 50,000 words.

The rest, as they say, is history. Since then I’ve pursued quite a few creative endeavors, endured more than a few failures, and made many friends along the way. I’ve never seriously attempted NaNoWriMo again, because I’ve really never stopped writing.

As my husband mentioned last week, “how is NaNoWriMo going to be any different?” and also, the entirely legitimate, “how are you going to make this commitment when you’re teaching?”

Here’s my secret: I’m not writing all the time.

I’ve set aside a certain word count for every day and a certain amount of time to complete it. And once I’ve achieved the word count? Done. Stop mid sentence. No matter if I could write more, or want to write more. Hands off the plate, just like in cooking competitions, and I’m onto grading or lesson planning or even washing dishes. Things that need to be done, because they are part of Life and Responsibilities and Joys. While I’m working on these other tasks, my brain is percolating and turning the ideas over in my head, so that when I sit down the next time? I’m ready to go.

Sometimes the secret to writing better is not writing. (Click to Tweet)

Live your life. Even though it’s fun to joke, please don’t neglect important stuff just to hit your word count. But do be sensitive to every moment for ideas. Think things and feel things and let your every experience sink deep into your soul. And then put your fingers to keyboard, your pen to paper, or your spoken words to your preferred voice recorder.

And go for it. If you don’t finish? You tried your best and were faithful to all parts of your life. Besides, there’s always December. 😉

write better

  • Consider whatever you’re doing. Whether it’s making supper, running an errand, reading a book, cleaning up after the dog, etc, try to imagine how your characters would each approach the same task. Would they do it slower? Quicker? Use a superpower or magic? Make their servant do it?
  • Keep sharp for ordinary humor. As I mentioned in my humor-writing article, sometimes the best inspiration can come from awkward, odd, or downright disastrous moments in your life. After you deal with the embarrassment, shame, or emotional turmoil, think how you can mine that sucker for plot interest.
  • Test out dialogue by talking to yourself. Now, I only do this when I’m alone, because my students think I’m crazy enough as it is. 😉 However, if you want to go around muttering to yourself in public? I’m not there. I won’t stop you.
  • Get ideas from unlikely sources. TV commercials. Billboard ads. Children’s books–yes, even the ones you’ve read a hundred times over. The reasons those commercials are being aired and those books are well-read are that they are apparently reaching some kind of audience. Think about who they are reaching, and how they do it.

How about you? Any other tips out there?

Are Your Characters Too Nice?

I want nicer character faults. Y’know, the kind that actually help people? Solid, pretty faults that sound great at job interviews.

Like “I can’t help but tip the waitress 30%.” 

Or maybe “I really love grading. I just can’t help going over every test three times.”

Or how about, “I am so excited about cleaning the narsty scum beneath cabinets. It’s a terrible fault, I know…”

Are you feeling it? Me either. Unfortunately, my faults fall along the lines of impatient. Unfeeling Closed off. Things that definitely slant negative, and definitely don’t flatter me.

It’s easy to want to make ourselves look good. We like to keep our pride intact. It’s even part of some marketing advice: get personal, but never too personal. Never ugly. Because then things get real, and when things get real, they get messy. And to be honest? There are plenty of tell-alls out there already. The abbreviation TMI exists for a reason.

Messy isn’t always great for real life. But messy is fantastic for characters. (Tweet This)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of making characters too likable. Call it the Cinderella Complex.

She’s too docile. She’s too kind. She cleans too much and saves too many animals. These flaws make it hard to relate to a character and also make them less realistic. No matter how kind or gentle, we all go through bad days and it’s important to show that by making the character really lose it once in a while. These character flaws  are also passive; they make a character less likely to act. And protagonists need to act to push the story forward.

What about the opposite? The Hercules Complex.

Yes, the Disney Hercules. He is too brave. Too heroic. He just can’t stop himself from saving the day and protecting everyone. This is also unrealistic. No matter how self-sacrificing, no one can keep up with that. Eventually, like Mr. Incredible says, the hero is just going to want the world to stay saved.  Also, like a Cinderella, a Hercules is too impossibly good for us ordinary humans to click with. The good news is a Hercules will push the plot forward; the bad news is that, unless they fail, they won’t learn anything along the way, and this makes for a flat character arc. Flat character arcs can work, but showing struggle can’t hurt. Even Jesus cried blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Solutions? Well, you could just rethink the whole character. However, that’s not always convenient and takes time away from writing. For a too-perfect character, try to flip their strengths into flaws. (Tweet This)

Docile and kind? Becomes a pushover who won’t stand up for herself or others when bad things happen.

Brave and self-sacrificing? Turns into a mountain of pride and a secret ambition to never need saving and never let anyone rescue him.

Sometimes, there is too much of a good thing. Sometimes, you really can’t afford to tip the waitress 30% (although as a former waitress, I still promote 20% if the service was decent). Sometimes looking over those tests three times or cleaning that scum takes away from time with your family or doing other tasks. Or sleeping.

Are there any other too-perfect character stereotypes? Please feel free to share!

Creating Dynamic Characters With Contrasts – Guest Post!

Today I’m honored to be featured on Author Culture with some helpful insight into character creation: Creating Dynamic Characters with Contrasts! It’s a sneak peek into my next reference eBook, Character-Building From the Inside Out.

Please click on the picture to hop on over!