On authors beta reading/giving critique

Beta reading in an insightful way can be very hard for authors. It was very hard for me, for a long time (though I didn’t realize it then) because I just twitched to go through and make tons of corrections that were all to stylistic things and ended up strangling the voice of the author I was reading for.

I think it was a pretty sucky time to be my beta partner, and I look back and am not surprised that the people I was reading for then don’t have me read for them anymore. But I got older and wiser, and learned how to beta in the way most useful to my partner.

It can be hard for an author to look at something and divorce themselves from the way they would have written it. But it’s totally necessary, if you are going to be an effective beta reader/crit partner: you cannot focus on things that are stylistic issues. I am not saying that you should never mention these things–if there is something that really bothers you and you believe would trip up readers, go right ahead–but don’t put tons of focus on it.

Because the things that are really important to focus on, the things it will help your beta partner the most if you focus on, are the parts that don’t work for you because you are having trouble following the plot logic/characterization/whatnot.

So look at the comments you are making. Do these comments boil down to “I would have written it X way”? If so, nix them and make comments that are universal, comments that point to problems or good parts that most everyone can agree exist to one extent or another.

Some good questions to consider when beta reading:

  • Does the plot follow logically from one event to the next?
  • Is there enough conflict to carry the plot/keep the story interesting?
  • Is the characterization consistent?
  • Do the characters have clear goals/motivations?
  • Is the language/syntax appropriate to the point-of-view character? This means: is the sailor swearing? is the bride blushing? and if not, is it clear why they aren’t?
  • Does the point of view character have a strong voice?
  • Is the sex too technical? Too… anything? Not enough anything? In other words, is the sex appropriate to the characters having it?
  • Is there a fair amount of narrative traction?
  • Do the subplots make sense? Do they have a purpose/feed into the main plot?
  • Does it feel like there are any missing scenes? This would fall under the ‘plot logic’ heading–are all the paths that the plot takes clear? Do you feel at any point like you missed something plot-wise?
  • Are there any plot points which were unresolved?
  • Do any scenes feel like they drag along at a snail’s pace?
  • Does the tone that the scenes are written in fit well with the story?
  • Is the pacing even throughout the book?
  • What is the characteristic of the writing: dry? purple? somewhere in the middle? How does this line up with your preferences as a reader? (Keep in mind that the way something is written can have a big effect on your enjoyment of it.)

Of course there are instances where any of these things might not happen and the story not suffer for it–there are exceptions to every rule–but generally when you are beta reading, you want to focus on the elements of the story/storytelling than on line-editing. (Unless that is what your beta partner asked for, in which case, have at it.)

And always, always, if the answers to these questions are yes, then tell your beta partner that they did a good job on these things! It can be a huge blow sometimes to hear that you did this, this, and that wrong and nothing right. So if they are doing any of the above things (or some things I didn’t manage to think of) correctly, tell them, and they will love you for it.

For the record… these are also things I consider when reading submissions and editing. So beta reading effectively can extend to more parts of your life than reading your friends’ work.

Thus, it is important to learn to beta in a relevant way.

Some useful links:
Examples of beta reading – Very helpful if you are unsure exactly what format you are supposed to use when beta reading for someone.
How to Beta Read – Exactly what it says on the tin: an in-depth look at the way you should beta read.
Results of a Beta Reading survey – This is a very, very comprehensive survey of 54 beta readers from 2008, and the results of it. Helpful for the Do’s and Don’ts and also for going into depth about the ways that beta readers mark things, the resources they use. Like I said, very comprehensive.
Absolute Write’s Beta Readers Forum –  One of the many spots to find readers, and they have some useful information in their sticky topics, too.
An Experimental Psychologist’s Take on Beta Reading – Very interesting and an excellent resource for those of us who are science-minded. It is broken into four sections: Part 1 – Subject Pool; Part 2 – Recruiting/getting them to read; Part 3 – Data collection; Part 4 – Results and conclusions.

Any links I missed that aren’t just reiterations of the above? Toss ’em up in the comments and I’ll edit the entry :)

Why should authors write short stories?

A recent post on one author’s experience with short stories inspired this post, though I am not writing (mostly) from a personal point of view; I am writing from an editor/beta/publisher point of view. And I am defining short story as anything under 20k words. (Over 20k is novella, over 50k is novel. These are the definitions I generally go by.)

Short stories are invaluable. They are worth their weight in something more valuable than gold: experience.

Of the two new beta-partners I have acquired lately, one of them is a new(er) author and has no love for short story format. She asked me why she should be writing short stories, when all of her ideas were novel-length, and I told her: because it takes a hell of a lot longer to finish a novel.

You can write 100 short stories in two years, but 100 novels?

Let’s do a numeric breakdown, since numbers are pretty hard to argue with. Even if you only counted a novel as 20k words, that would mean writing 2,000,000 words in that two year period. One. Million. Words. Two years in a row. That’s just under 2.75k words a day, 19.2k words a week, 82k words each and every month. Forget NaNoWriMo’s 50k–you will be going for the long haul. For two years.

Even if you did manage to write that much, the novels would probably be worse for having been rushed. When you are writing that much you have no time to stop, to plan, to let ideas ferment in your mind. Never mind any kind of editing experience; the only experience you will be getting here is novel-writing experience.

We’ll go back to the numbers, now. 100 short stories. I will use 5k as my number, here. That is 685 words a day, 4.8k words a week, 20.6k words a month. This is much more manageable!

Not to mention that you would have plenty of time to plan out short stories, edit them, submit them to publishers (if you are that brave), and hone your craft. You will have enough time to join a critique group and have your stories critiqued by others, or to do something with the crit that your personal beta has given you.

So, yes, short stories are experience because you can churn them out and edit them much faster. They are also experience because you really have to make every word, every scene, count.

You will learn pretty fast (Or I know I learned pretty fast) that when you try and make your writing conform to certain word counts that you will have to sacrifice some element, or elements, of the story in order to have a narrower focus. Part of the joy (and the pain) of short stories is that they are snap-shots, and while they can be very complete and finished, they can also be a glimpse at a much larger world.

Both of these things are okay in my book, as long as the author learns the art of writing a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t leave readers going “That’s it? But what about this? And what about that? And this other thing!” You really don’t want this, even if you are intending your short stories to be some kind of single-author anthology. It is fine for readers to want more of a character, but if they want more of the story you were trying to tell, you were trying to tell too much story for a short story.

That’s what writing short stories is really good at: making you figure out what the fuck you are doing. It becomes harder to get two characters and throw them in a room; there has to be some conflict in order to make the story interesting. Oh, yeah, you know me: it all goes back to conflict. Short stories are not, contrary to what I have heard some people say, too short of a medium for real conflict.

They are too short of a medium to tell all sides conflict, but they are just the right length for other, shorter conflicts, or for specific parts of a larger conflict, especially one where the beginning and middle of it are boring. Just show us the end, if all else fails. I have seen authors do this to great effect!

So, short stories: good for experience with finishing and editing, for learning how to focus a narrative, and one last thing: mistakes tend to show in stark contrast in short stories.

If the author is inexperienced, it will show. If the author isn’t used to finishing things, it will show. If the author rushes the ending, if the conflict is unclear, if there is no conflict, if the narrative is disjointed, if… any mistake, you name it, it will probably show more in a short story than in a novel-length. The only two things I can think of right now that you can tell more with novels than with short stories are pacing and keeping characterization consistent.

Consistent characterization throughout a story is a post in and of itself, I think, but I also think that writing short stories can help you a lot with your pacing, especially stories in the 10-20k range.

One last thing that short stories are good for is giving out presses a test-drive. Submitting a short or submitting to anthologies is a good way of seeing what their contracts are like, seeing what their editing is like, seeing what their general feel is. You don’t want to sign your novel over to a press and find out that their editing is horrible after the fact. You don’t want to find out that they withhold royalties after you have already sold your book. You don’t want to find out that they are uncommunicative only after months of spotty e-mail exchanges.

These are things you want to know before committing a piece that you have poured months of hard work into, and there is no better way to do that than with a short story. Not to mention that anthology deadlines give you goals for when you will be finishing things–I know this is something that helps me a lot!

Why should you be writing short stories? The important question, to me, is why aren’t you writing short stories already? There’s not a singe author who can’t stand to improve their writing, and short stories are an easier way to go about that than novels.

Plot/porn balance! Or, How to get your story accepted

An author asked me this in an e-mail exchange recently: [H]ow much erotic content are you looking for? Obviously at least one sex scene […] but what are you picturing for the overall plot/porn balance?

This was a subject that I had never thought about in depth before. I tend to write and read very instinctively, which is one reason why I love to talk about writing: because I’m not going to think about if I don’t have anyone to talk to! But this was a good question, and the author needed an answer; the gears in my head started turning.

My first answer was that I was looking for as much erotic content as the story demanded, whether it meant that there was only one sex scene or that it was full of erotic scenes. Both of these were okay, i said, as long as there’s purpose for both the reader and the characters in the erotic content; as long as the sex wasn’t gratuitous.

(I tangented a little, at this point. Because I do like gratuitous sex, but if you don’t know the characters it’s a bit like watching someone you’ve never met before have sex–there’s no emotion/meaning attached to the characters, so it’s just bodies. Not something many authors can get away with outside of established universes.)

I want the sex to mean something, I said, once I wandered back on topic. It doesn’t matter how much or little sex there is as long as the sex is as important to me, the reader, as it is to the characters. There’s not a straight answer to this question, because it varies story-to-story. As long as there’s at least one romantic scene, it’s gravy.

So how does this translate to you? How does this translate to your story?

At Storm Moon Press, we publish erotic romance. Sometimes it seems like people put more emphasis on the first word than the second, and it ends up meaning that they write a story that’s centered around the sex that the characters have–or don’t have.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes this works. Sometimes an author can put enough conflict and emotion and importance into the sex that it carries the story without any need for an over-arching plot. Strong romantic conflict can be very enthralling.

But. And this is a big but.

Storm Moon also loves non-romantic plots. I love non-romantic plots. It creates even more conflict, which means more is going on, which means there are more things that are making the reader ask the question every author wants to hear: what happens next? (Thank you, Neil Gaiman.)

If your story has me asking this question, chances are that you’re going to get a contract.

Conflict not caused by the relationship (most especially if this conflict still has an effect on the relationship) is a big, easy way to do this. Sexual tension/friction–otherwise known as unresolved sexual tension, or UST–is another. I want something that will draw me in and make me care, and both starting with conflicts/problems and make bad choices that create problems are a good way to do this.

Just make sure you resolve it. I don’t want that UST to stay unresolved. I don’t want the biggest conflict to not have some kind of resolution–even if it’s obviously temporary. I want the story to end in a way that solves the conflicts that we’ve spent the entire story caring about, spent the entire story investing ourselves in what the outcome will be for these characters.

Bullet points, if that was tl;dr:

  1. Include as much or as little erotica as the story demands.
  2. Plot is never a bad thing.
  3. A strong conflict is the key to pulling the reader in.
  4. Make sure the conflict is resolved.

Sounds easy, right? I’m still working on it, myself.

Calls for submissions: Tentacles and Protect Me

The past two days have been very exciting for me! I’ve seen the advanced reader copy (ARC) for Weight of a Gun and squeed mightily over it, written 20k words, and conceived two ideas for anthologies. They’re both somewhat darker themed, but require happy endings, because I learned my lesson with Weight of a Gun. There’s a story in WoaG that doesn’t end so happily, but it’s a damn good story–it pulled me in, made me care, and broke my heart–so I really fought to include it, while taking note of the lesson I learned.

Both of the anthology titles are a “does what it says on the tin” type of thing: Tentacles and Protect Me. Both can be found at Storm Moon Press’s site, under their anthology calls, and I’m going to paste the meat of the calls here at the blog too. (But if you want to submit, the particulars are there.)

Tentacles, ’cause I l0ve tentacle fic and want to see more of it. What better way than to pay people to write it? And I have some authors lined up who say they’re going to submit, too, so this is very exciting and looking like yes, we will have enough submissions to make an actual anthology. The call goes like this:

Tentacles are a taboo subject for most, something most people look at from between their fingers as they hide. But for a growing number of people, it’s a subject that is fascinating and sexy! Tentacle erotica has been around for ages, from The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife to Demon Beast Invasion—it’s a genre that is here to stay.

We want to see romantic and/or erotic stories about tentacles of all kinds. Cephalopods, an experimental form in a lab, energy temporarily made into matter, a cursed seaman, an alien species where they occur naturally… any and all of these are okay.

Or even things we haven’t listed, if your imagination comes up with something new and different! We’re open-minded, as long as the tentacles have at least temporary physical form and are a sexual focus in at least one erotic scene. This means that without the tentacles, the sex scene would not be happening.

Due to the need to build a world where sex with tentacles happens—whether consensual or not—in a believable manner, the stories for this anthology will need to be longer than our standard anthology calls: 20,000-25,000 words.

Submission Deadline: March 25, 2012
Expected Release: July 20, 2012
Pairings: Gay
Genre: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required? Yes

Pretty cool, right? I’m hoping to include four stories, maybe five, depending on what kind of turnout we have for submissions. If there’s not enough submissions, there’s just not enough submissions! That being said, I’d like to push the word count up over 100k if I can (easier with the longer word count!) so readers get more bang for their buck, but we’ll see how it goes.

We might have a super-secret surprise to go with this one, too, but I’m not holding my breath on this part… it’s just an extra. A mighty nice extra that I think would put a wonderful finishing touch on this anthology, but not something that’s required if negotiations don’t work out.

The other anthology is called Protect Me, and came about because I realized that I found it undeniably sexy when a protector-type figure was willing to kill to keep their loved one safe. S.L. said, we can’t sell an anthology about murder! But, no, that wasn’t what it was about, I said. So she replied: write a call and I’ll tell you whether we can sell that idea or not.

Long has there been an allure for the protector-type character in fiction. There are examples across the board, from real life to fantasy and sci-fi: A bodyguard, police or military personnel, a monarch who leads battles from the front, a ship captain, even an older brother who is always on the look out for trouble.

There’s just something undeniably sexy about a protective man. But how far will he go? He says he’ll do anything, but would he break the law? Put his life on the line?

Would he kill?

That’s the question we’re asking in Protect Me: how far will love, romanticism, or a sense of duty push the protector in order to ensure the safety of his charge? And what kind of effect does it have on both him and the one he protects when he does these things?

Please note that we are not looking for stories with gratuitous violence or snuff scenes, and we will reject any stories that contain these things. What we are looking for is a story that revolves around the protector’s relationship with his charge or charges. We want to know all about the lengths he will go to so that the one he protects is safe and, by the end of the story, some value of happy.

Submission Deadline: October 26, 2012
Expected Release: January 11, 2013
Pairings: Gay
Genres: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required?

Murder is not required, of course! Just anything that shows the whole, above and beyond thing. Stuff that most people would balk at doing. Because sacrifice in romantic fiction is sexy, when it’s being done for the sake of someone the character loves!

I’m really excited about both of these anthologies! Oh, and there’s one more thing, while I’m talking about WoaG: there’s a sequel anthology going to be coming out. We really loved all the stories the first go-round and there was an incredible number of submissions, so we decided to do a second one. The call:

The taboo surrounding guns is unmistakable. They are dangerous, the very symbol of power and control. Their very presence can threaten, coerce, inspire fear, and spark controversy. Mix guns with sex, and you have a rather explosive combination. As an extension to our first gun-focused anthology, Weight of a Gun II is another opportunity to relate everything about guns that makes them sexy.

We are looking for M/M short stories revolving around sexual play with guns. As long as the gun remains the erotic focus of the story, we’re open to it being used in any way from frottage to insertion to simple intimidation. Feel free to play around with what qualifies as a gun as well. Since we’re happy to cover all different genres, you can use laser, magic, paintball, steampunk, or even toy guns. So long as one partner gets a thrill from the danger associated with the gun, you’re good to go!

As in the first Weight of a Gun anthology, the definition of gun-play is up to interpretation, but the gun itself may not go off during the sexual interaction. This isn’t to say that there can’t be situations that involve dubious consent, but we would prefer not to have accidental discharges. Dark endings are all right, but keep in mind that readers will want a satisfying ending, even if that doesn’t mean HEA or HFN, so no main character deaths, please.

Submission Deadline: August 31, 2012
Expected Release: December 14, 2012
Pairings: Gay
Genres: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required? No

Editing all these means my calendar for next year is going to be pretty full with stuff I HAVE to do, but I’m determined to relish and weather the challenge. If I can write 150k words in a month, I can edit three anthologies in nine months! It doesn’t even sound like that much when I put it that way, either. This is a very reasonable and sane objective; I can do it! /full of vim. :D