How much honesty can you take before you break?

I love my beta readers. Every last one. And I love their honest reactions. You’ll never get me to say anything else. At least not on the record.

My WWI-era novel has had the benefit of two rounds of beta readers. And it’s infinitely better because my readers were honest and I was willing to act on their comments.

But when I read this post by Logan Keys, I couldn’t stop laughing. Logan makes the point perfectly. We authors think we’re done. We think we’ve written our story perfectly. Then we find get feedback from those who are reading it fresh and we are hauled up short. We may not be wise to act on our initial reactions.

Read on:

How to kill a Beta…

Drew Barrymore in Wes Craven's "Scream"


Seems as though you and I need to have a little talk. This likely will be an uncomfortable conversation— well mostly for you, but listen to what I say very closely… And please don’t interrupt.

What’s that? I can’t hear you? You want me to remove the tape from your mouth?

All in good time, my sweet, all in good time.

You remember not too long ago when I was all about the finishing of my book? Oh how I toiled. And then one day! Start. Middle. Ending. It was finished! Done. Finito. Termine. Getan. Acabado. Fin. I typed the end…

Trusting my “baby” to beta readers

The Prose Crows book club knows how to make an author feel welcome!

The Prose Crows book club knows how to make an author feel welcome!

Sound the trumpets! Strike up the band! Last month I reached a milestone in writing my novel. I had a draft that was as good as I could make it. The story was complete. The characters were developed. There was lots of conflict. The historical setting and facts were in place. It felt good.

But not so fast. What do I know? Just because I like the story doesn’t mean anyone else will. The real test is in what readers think.

So I took the next step and put my manuscript in the hands of two groups of beta readers – people I’d gauged to be thoughtful readers, representative of my target audience. One group includes members of my own book club. I looked to balance the fact that these women know me really well with other readers who were not so familiar. The second group was the Prose Crows, a lively book club that had invited me to join them last February when they discussed my memoir Growing Up Country.

Along with the manuscript, I gave these volunteer readers a list of questions for reaction. Questions that ranged from overall reaction to the story, to story structure, and character development. Because I’m writing historical fiction, I also probed whether there was too much historical detail or too little and if they spotted anachronisms. I encouraged candor, assuring them I could take it. Whatever “it” was.

Letting go of the manuscripts made me anxious. My stomach roiled. My blood pressure rose. The feelings were akin to watching my five-year-old walk off to school alone for the first time. For the past month, my heart has been pushing out of my chest and into my throat. Anticipation – eager or anxious – can be uncomfortable!

Over these five weeks, I’ve lived with my vow not to revisit, revise, or rewrite even one word of the manuscript. Instead, I’ve focused on marketing, gardening, the incessant rain, pretty much anything to keep from thinking about reader reactions. By next Monday night, I’ll have received all the feedback. Then my baby will be back in my hands again. Then I’ll know what has to happen next. I am excited!

I know many authors use beta readers for that first level of market reaction. How have you chosen them? What guidelines have you given? What has been your experience?

How to spend waiting time? A Robin & Writing Update

Robin incubating a clutch of eggs.

Robin incubating a clutch of eggs.

Waiting can be so difficult. That whole “watched pot” thing. Whether it’s 30 seconds to heat up the coffee in the microwave or 2 weeks for eggs to hatch – time just passes so slowly when you must wait for an outcome. I’m in that waiting phase in two ways now – with the robin nesting on my windowsill and with the novel I’m writing. 

Mrs. Red Breast moved from laying to incubating her clutch of four eggs. Though I left the shade up while she laid the eggs, now that she’s nesting, I’ve pulled it down to keep from startling her off the nest. An expectant mama just does not need to be startled or to worry about being startled.

Whether she worries or not, I don’t know. I’m likely ascribing my own emotions to her.  When she’s not on the nest, I worry if she’s abandoned it. Now that we’re experiencing an unseasonal and heavy snow, I worry the eggs will get too cold. I worry whether Mama can find enough food in the brief moments she flies away from her post.

To distract myself from my role as Chief Robin Worrier – I’ve been fortunate to have found the support of several readers who informed me a nest of eggs is called a clutch, and who shared links as well as their own knowledge of robin behavior. I thank all of you for your comments!  A few interesting things I’ve learned:

  • The American Robin is actually in the thrush family. Though immigrants to America named it after the European Robin, they’re not the same. The European Robin is similar in size and shape to some of our bluebirds.
  • Robins don’t listen for worms, though the way the cock their heads makes it appear that they do. Rather, one eye is trained on the ground watching for worms while the other eye is scanning the sky for predators. Here’s a link to more surprising robin facts.
  • American Robins can become trusting of humans; European Robins are not.
  • Even though robin nests look trashy, they are quite clean. Robins keep their nesting area and the nest itself cleared of insects.
  • The jury is out on when and how much the male robin is involved in caring for the young. Apparently it depends on how many babies hatch. Stay tuned. I’ll report on what I see.

I just love learning little things like this. Like Mrs. Red Breast, I am in the stage of anxiously/eagerly awaiting news of my novel, tentatively titled All She Ever Wanted.  This week, I gave draft copies to beta readers. This is the first time I’ve put my novel in front of readers who know nothing of the story and who I trust will give honest feedback on how or if the story works, whether the characters have depth and are believable, how well I’ve established the setting of rural Iowa during WWI. 

While I wait the next month for my readers to read, I’m figuring out ways I can distract myself from my Chief Novel Worrier role and do something productive. One thing I’ll be doing is working on a one-page synopsis of the novel as well as the critical cover blurb. Both of these tasks will require research and study and no doubt the help of others who’ve walk this path.

Writing novels and nesting birds. There are just so many similarities to these experiences. Don’t you think?

Other Robin posts: A Bird’s Eye ViewAnd Then There Were Four

The value of a fresh look at writing? Priceless

Bryce Canyon, Utah - Arch

Bryce Canyon, Utah

A fresh read of a manuscript points out all kinds of problems: flat characters, scenes that though beautifully written go nowhere, leaps in logic that were clear to me in the writing but not to a reader. A fresh location can also inspire a fresh look.

A few weeks ago, I met my writing partner Mary Gottschalk in Moab, Utah, for what has become an annual tradition – a week devoted to our writing. 

I’ve written about retreats before, but I was particularly excited about this one. Having given the full manuscript for my work in progress, All She Ever Wanted, to Mary for a complete, start-to-finish read, my goal for the week was to fill in the holes and trim the fat she saw on this read through. She didn’t disappoint. Her critique offered both big picture and fine-tuning feedback.

Reading with clear eyes, she found sections that could be eliminated entirely or reduced to a line or two of backstory. With her comments in hand, I set about hacking entire scenes. Once I embraced the idea of eliminating anything that didn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, I found other scenes that were surprisingly easy to send to the cutting room floor.

But it wasn’t all about cutting. In the course of the week, a character who started off as a minor player at a holiday party took on a major role. By the end of the week, Harley was challenging my heroine Liddie to grow up, speak up, and face the reality of how quickly gossip can travel. To accommodate this troublemaker, I wrote new scenes and changed the tone of others.

In addition, I fleshed out the historical setting, adding richness of detail to the story skeleton, based on research I’d been doing. The war in Europe (WWI) had a broader impact on the U.S. than I’d realized it did, years before the U.S. sent troops into battle in 1917. Every American was being taught economy. Women were called to eschew foreign labels in their clothes and buy American. Clothing designs took on military influences.

At the beginning of the week, I hoped to be able to respond to Mary’s comments on the first half of my manuscript. What an adrenaline rush to find that I could tackle the entire manuscript. By the time we were driving back home, I could visualize having my manuscript ready to put in the hands of beta readers by the end of April.

A fresh look and a week with focus let me take some very big steps in that direction.