• Writing

    Who Is the Second Most Valuable Beta Reader?

    Maddie the Cat, Who Is The Second Most Valuable Beta Reader? https://karenhugg.com/2015/12/19/writer-friends #writing #betareader #writing #feedback

    In early November, I sent my novel to three trusted friends for feedback. One is a freelance editor and writer. Another is a memoirist. And the third is a fantasy writer. They were all happy to take on the favor of reading my manuscript and agreed to an early December deadline to return feedback.

    How Interpreting Silence Can Be Dangerous

    While awaiting their feedback, I set the novel aside and caught up on non-writing tasks. I cleaned the house for the first time in weeks. I did gardening jobs for clients. I hosted my mother for Thanksgiving. I didn’t worry about their opinions of the book. But when early December came around, I was still without comments. Each day would pass without an email. Soon I worried that they thought the book was a mess. That it needed a mountain of work and were reluctant to tell me. “Rewrite the entire last third,” I predicted they’d say. “These characters are flat. The plot’s confusing. Why did you set in Paris? Why not Seattle? Where you live? Where more gardening things actually happen?”

    My husband told me they were just busy. He wasn’t worried. So I distracted myself with more chores. I cleaned our office, raked leaves in the backyard, read the books on my “to read” pile. Drank tea. Just about anything I could do to avoid prodding them about the missed deadline. Still, at night, as I fell asleep, I’d imagine them reading it and cringing. Thinking it was so terrible they couldn’t bring themselves to approach me.

    A Writer Friend as a Beta Reader, Like Gold

    I wrote about how valuable it is to have a significant other be one’s first reader a few months ago. Having a writer friend read your work is as valuable in a different way. Yes, they too are invested in your feelings, but they have an artist’s perspective. They look at story logic, character motivation, plot points, imagery, sentence structure, and on and on. They’re not just sitting back and enjoying the story for what it is. They’re assessing it as a crafted work. So if you get a lot of criticism from writer friends, it holds more weight than criticism from a spouse or your mom. If a writer friend says the book is a mess, they’re probably right. They know firsthand what a mess of a book looks like. And that could be a hard pill to swallow.

    It wasn’t long before I received my first feedback in email. “The story totally worked for me,” it said. My heart deflated with relief. And soon, there were more compliments, as well as criticism. Mostly in areas I had doubts about in the first place. But the problems were fixable.

    Then I met with my memoirist friend, Ann. She’d marked up the manuscript, wrote comments at the end, and spent an hour and a half talking about it over lunch. She praised the characters and setting, liked the plot, didn’t think it was too horticultural, and offered thoughtful fixes on confusing parts. Wow. At the end she said she was confident it would be published. She hugged me and said, “I can’t believe you actually did this!” Tears filled my eyes. I didn’t want her to see me cry. “Yeah, I guess,” I said.

    Writer Friends Can Be the Best Support

    Now, weeks later, I smile at how silly I was to make up the worse-case scenario. But I also remember how stressed I was about other things in my life. We were selling a rental home, my developmentally delayed daughter was going through an anxiety phase at school, my husband had been working late for several nights, and I’d been preparing to host Thanksgiving. When I thought about that, I realized that Ann was right. Instead of being self-critical, I should have given myself a break. I did accomplish a writing feat — and they were just busy after all.

  • Writing

    Back to School Means Back to Manuscript

    IMG_0189Labor Day marks not only a day for those who toil to make this industrious earth go ’round, but a time when I can get back to work. Either gardening or writing. In these last weeks, I’ve managed both, mostly small jobs in the mornings, writing in the afternoon. Of course, by writing I mean “revising.” I’m back to my novel, the one about the botanist who discovers a rare medicinal apple. He’s hired to propagate it but mysterious forces want to stop his project. I still like the premise. I still like the characters. And now, without little voices saying “Mommy, what fun thing are we doing today?” or “Watch!” or “I need a Band-aid,” I can slip back into the silence of my imagination.

    It’s amazing how this time revives my spirit. I was feeling worn out in August. When I wasn’t working, I was hosting guests. Thankfully not high maintenance ones. Still, I was wandering through museums and parks and the hollering Pike Place Market. I was mapping destinations, hanging up swimsuits, walking long distances in uncomfortable sandals. Figuring out which restaurants could seat seven people. I was vacuuming every other day so my cat-allergic relatives would breathe easier. I was finding spots for the extra knick knacks I was given. Breaking down boxes and throwing away wrapping paper. Rearranging furniture. Cooking like crazy. Barbecuing, playing badminton, setting up tents, fixing sprinklers, folding laundry, weeding, sitting in traffic, hurrying to feed the parking meter. Stress, stress, stress.

    Now the true vacation is living inside my story. Visualizing the world, hearing my characters speak. Making it all better. Realizing a character needs to go here before they can do this. Rewriting a section so that an incident happens in Chapter 3 instead of Chapter 8. I write notes to myself in the margins. And carry out my earlier margin commands. This is a time when I praise the public school system. It’s educating my children for me. They’re gone. Engaged and on course to learn math and writing and science. I’m on course to pursue my bliss again. I have no other responsibilities in these stretches of time than to open the door for the dogs. And as I read and type and erase and type again, time disappears until I hear my son outside, the slow roll of the gate opening, the gentle click of the kitchen door. It’s then that I realize I’m ready to take a break.

  • Writing

    Being Married to a Beta Reader Can Be the Best Blessing

    Being Married to a Beta Reader Can Be the Best Blessing, https://karenhugg.com/2015/06/26/beta-reader #writing #tips #betareader #fiction #feedback #editing #criticism #books

    Last month I finished my to-do list of edits on my novel. The next step? It’s what it always is: ask my husband to read it. He’s my most trusted beta reader and best editor. I’ve come to realize how precious getting his feedback is.

    So we do what we always do. I send the chapters in email. He reads them on screen. Then we sit together and go through them one by one. “These paragraphs on page one need to be longer. It’s difficult to picture what the protagonist is seeing exactly. So there are mountains on the left, a field in front of them, and a lake? Lay it all out for me.”

    Oh wow, I think. He’s got stuff to say right off the bat. Ugh. I take notes. We move on.

    A few chapters later: “Would [character] really get that upset about it? He seems to be picking at his son for no reason.” I debate him on that point. He makes his argument. I debate a bit more. He shrugs but I know I haven’t changed his opinion. Occasionally I can change his opinion if I can locate another sentence or section of text to back up my point. But this time I haven’t so I take more notes. This goes on for almost two hours.

    An Objective Logical eye

    My husband is an engineer and he thinks like one. How do the various parts fit into the whole? How to build this? What is logical? He gives me feedback with a polite cool eye. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I’ve missed or a weak link. I hadn’t been thinking about that aspect at all. Now I am. And more importantly I’m getting a feel for where I am on the “How much work does this manuscript still need?” spectrum.

    A Tender Approach

    This time he gives me is precious. I wonder why it’s more special that he read it rather than a friend. It’s because the work is in its infancy and needs tender care. That tender care is most likely to come from him. Working with him makes me feel safe. He won’t be mean because he can or because of a power trip. (Any writer who’s been in a workshop knows about that.) He criticizes early unpolished work in such a way that I don’t think I stink as a writer and should give it all up tomorrow.

    Like Minds…

    I believe anyone in a happy relationship can benefit in this way. Usually your life partner is a person who thinks a lot like you do. Maybe the most of anyone. They will bring a similar but different perspective. They need not be an expert writer or artist, they just need to be delicate and want to help you. If it happens, I urge you to be gracious. Probe. Get details about what they think. Prepare a list of your own questions based on your doubts and get their thoughts. If you do, your work will be ready for the even more objective, scarier feedback from secondary readers of friends or colleagues.

    In the meantime, I make it as easy as possible for my husband to read my work. If he wants to go over the manuscript later, we go over it later. If he wants to read it then and there, we do that. His opinion is one I trust and having someone’s opinion you trust may be the most valuable thing to have as a writer.

    Do you have someone you trust above anyone else with your work? Let me know in the comments below.


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  • Writing

    My Meltdown While Revising

    Madeleine, My Cat and Co-editor of Revision
    Madeleine, My Cat and Co-editor of Revision

    I’m in the thick of revision now. I’m living inside the world I’ve created in my manuscript. I sit for hours on my comfy, corner chair with the blanket on my lap and Madeleine or “Maddie,” my cat, on my legs while I edit, hitting the delete button and inserting new words and phrases here and there. I mull over logic. Worry about melodrama. Make sure everyone has a motive, or a wound that propels their behavior. I read big chunks of text and realize, with a fallen heart, that they need to fit better into the overall plan of the story. Sometimes those big chunks get highlighted and moved to the Leftovers file. It’s harsh, and sometimes painful, but the result is much better for the story. I go on to other chapters that need my attention.

    After doing these sedentary but mind-sucking tasks, I read the rest of the novel. Two-thirds of it is still a mess. I go to my 25 Questions sheet, a handout I received in graduate school, that forces you to answer vital questions to your plot, setting, characters, emotional arc, etc. Some of the answers I gave in October when I was prepping to write the first draft make me wince. Then I put my face in both hands and rub it hard. I have to reset my clock, forgive myself and rewrite with those answers in mind — as best as I can. Will it ever be in presentable shape?

    I run my hands through my hair again and again, I take a deep breath. Sometimes two, or many during an entire half-hour. I meditate. I come to terms with the draft being a mess. After several deep breaths, I’m surfacing into logical thought again. I have ideas. Get to work, I think. I open my eyes. I set the computer on my lap. I type, I think, I’ve released it all. I’m on my way.