On Being a Beta Reader

Recently, a Twitter connection was complaining about how none of the people he asked to be beta readers had time to read his new novel. Since I love to read, and especially love to read free stuff, I offered. He enthusiastically accepted. And, I realized something:

I love the idea that my comments might help make a book better.

That may seem like bragging, but isn’t that what beta readers do? Offer feedback that will help the author publish their best possible work?

As it turned out, the writer seemed to sincerely appreciate my comments. It was a good experience for both of us. I’m even going to read the book again, after revisions. And the author has asked if I would be willing to read his future work and make similar comments – for money! That’s right. He Too Dark To See Coveroffered to pay me to do something I love doing.

(It was a really good book, and since I now feel connected to it’s production in some vague way, I’m going to recommend that anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers, stream of consciousness, or books about people on the verge of psychological breakdowns look for Too Dark to See by Jay Chastain in the next couple of weeks. It’s good stuff.)

Given that reviews can sometimes hurt a book’s ratings and/or sales it’s much nicer to think that my “review” as a beta reader is solely for the author rather than for public consumption. Using Google docs makes is a super simple process, too. The author can respond to my comments or ask questions.

What about you? Have you ever been a beta reader? How did you feel about the experience? Would you do it again?

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Bad News for Everyone: A Guest Post by Charles Barouch

When my daughter, Lore, and I did our writing workshop at Otakon, we divided writers into four broad categories: Private, Protected, Public, Published. The categories are actually stolen from the Delphi programming template but they fit so well. Here are the quick definitions:

Private writing is the sort you do in a journal or diary. It is not meant for anyone but yourself.

 writing is written for your own circle. These are the people who hear you say “Aunt Jean” and they know that you are referring to that

Charles Barouch

Charles Barouch

incident with the pantsuit. These people know and like your jokes; they *get* you. You won’t be getting a lot of negative feedback with this audience.

 writing is very different. Just like the Private and Protected levels, your work is available for free. This blog post is an example of Public writing. What makes public so different from the previous two is the risk of bad reviews. You are out there — completely out there.

Published writing is one step bigger. This is when you expect people to pay for the chance to read your writing. With the first three, you can treat writing as a pure art. Once you put a price on it, you are obligated to treat writing as a craft. Craftsmen build to meet a need. Artists don’t. The best authors are able to be both things at the same time.

* * *

What does all this do with the title: Bad News Everyone? I’m a published author. That means that I get negative reviews — bad news. Who gives these people the right to have an opinion on something which took me weeks, or months, or even years to write? I did. When I put my work in the public or published levels, I gave everyone the right to have an opinion.

I got panned this one time — by the owner of this blog, as it happens — and this is what was said:

This could be a long review, but I will limit it to a list of things that annoyed the crap out of me:
1. The author’s almost fanatical avoidance of ending a sentence with a preposition. Yes, I understand it’s proper grammar, but when using proper grammar makes the language so stilted and odd that the reader loses focus on the story, it’s a bad thing.

2. There are way too many characters. New characters were still being introduced near the end of the book. It was impossible (and unnecessary) to keep up with them all.

3. There are too many plots, most of which don’t matter. 

I was aggravated the whole time I was reading, and can’t really recommend this book to anyone. The worst part? I paid for it. It wasn’t even a freebie. Grrrrr….

Here’s what most people would see:
She doesn’t like me.

Here’s what I saw:
She wrote about how I handled the later parts of the book. That  means she *read* the whole book. I did a good enough job that even a reader who felt frustrated still felt compelled to read it all. That’s huge.

Secondly, she had specific issues with the writing. Unless you are done writing, you are not done growing as a writer. Specific feedback, positive and negative, helps you grow. Does that mean we blindly accept every negative feedback? No. It should make us think but it has to be evaluated. How about positive feedback? You can’t just take that as gospel either.

What do I do with this review?
I decided that I mostly agree with her assessment of the dialogue. I was over precise. Do I think it broke the story? It seems to have for at least this one reader. Something I need to think about.

Too many characters? Too many subplots? I disagree. The scope of the topic is global. I feel that this sort of story needs a large cast with a lot of stories to tell. Having said that, she is not the only person to call me to task over cast size. Something I need to think about.

Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t debate this review with the reviewer. If the book doesn’t make my case, it doesn’t matter if I can make it separately. I did contact her to apologize for the fact that she didn’t like it. Why apologize? While she spent less time reading than I took writing, she did take time out of her life to read what I had to say. She invested in me by reading my book.

If you don’t care about what the readers think, stay in the Private or Protected levels. If you are going to go Public or Protected, then you asked for this. Embrace it.

Charles Barouch is a Publisher, Writer, Editor, and Journalist. His works in print can be found here: http://hdwp.com/r/cdb/.

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An Embarrassing Lesson About Leaving Negative Reviews

When I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt, we talked about how it’s possible for authors and readers to develop

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on flickr.com)

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on flickr.com)

relationships and the immediacy of contact. Before the internet, most people “reviewed” books with friends or in book clubs. Your thoughts about a particular story probably never reached the person who wrote that story.

Now, of course,there is a direct connection between writers and readers. And, despite the fact that there are some nasty trolls out there, I think that, overall, that connection is a good thing. It is certainly changing the way I think about stories, especially stories I don’t really like. Well, okay, itshould change the way I think about stories I don’t like.

An admission: I can be terribly harsh. It’s one of those things I don’t like about myself and have been working on changing for most of my adult life. Just as there are some lessons we must learn over and over, there are some personality flaws we must constantly fight against. Sometimes this harshness comes across in my book reviews. Harsh doesn’t equate with cruel though. I’m not one of those raving lunatics who leaves death threats or goes on one star review rampages. But, I could state why I don’t like certain books more clearly and succinctly and leave out words like “annoyed” or “grrrrr.”

The important part of this post is I left a bad review for a book. It was a two star review, and maybe I was in a bad mood that day, or maybe the story really bugged me, but either way, the review stated that I didn’t like the book, listed three specific, negative points, then groused because I paid for the book.

Clearly, I was not thinking about the human who had spent hours writing, editing, and publishing this story. If he had been a friend of mine, asking for my opinion about the book he’d worked so hard on, my thoughts would have been phrased far differently.  The  basic  criticisms would have been the same, but the delivery would have been considerably  toned down. Why shouldn’t I offer the same consideration to a stranger?

The answer is, of course, that I should.

The author contacted me. If he hadn’t, my review would have sat there in cyberspace forever, and I wouldn’t have learned this important lesson. But he did contact me. With an APOLOGY.

Here is part of the email he sent me:

I’m sorry you didn’t like the book….If you are interested, I can send you something you might like better. I just finished publishing Theme-Thology: Invasion, which contains stories by fifteen authors in a wide array of genres and styles. While you probably won’t love all of it, I suspect you’ll like a lot of it. Just let me know format (Kindle/Nook/Kobo) and which address to gift it to …I do want to thank you, by the way. Positive or negative, I appreciate any review by someone who took the time to read the entire book.

In the spaces where the ellipses are, he referenced my review. I had to go back and read my review because though I remembered not liking the story, I couldn’t remember why or what I’d said about it. It was not nice, and I felt bad about it upon reading his VERY nice email to me.

Part of being a writer today involves dealing with negative reviews, even if “dealing with” means “completely ignoring.” Since Smiling Tree Writing is running the series on independent writing, and I admired this author’s courage in contacting someone who left a negative review (he had no way of knowing I’m generally a nice person) I invited him to write a guest post for the series.

I am happy to tell you that Mr. Charles Barouch, author of Adjacent Fields, and more recently contributor and editor of Theme-Thology: Invasion, has written a guest post for the independent writing series. It will be published this Wednesday.

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Something Exciting for Me and Something Free for You

It’s no secret that I am really interested in self publication, and since I’m a writer, it’s no stretch to imagine it’s because I want to write and self publish a book someday. And that is the case. In fact, I’ve written a book. It’s not a cool, sexy book about my life or vampires or anything really interesting like that. Instead, it’s a book for people who run businesses but hate to market, and just sort of fumble along, doing a little here and a little there to market their businesses. (People who are very much like me.)

The book is set up so that you get a tip each week, that should only take an hour or two to put into place. The idea is that if you just spend one to three hours a week marketing, you will eventually develop a solid plan that generates good results for your business. It doesn’t have to be painful, and it doesn’t have to exhaust you. You don’t even have to do anything big or extravagant, as sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference to your marketing strategy. Someone I know has recently customized her own sunglasses, with the help of a place like Imprint, to help raise awareness for her business when she goes to trade shows and business events. You can learn more here – https://imprint.com/shop/outdoor-leisure/sun-glasses. She uses them as freebies, and everyone needs a pair of sunglasses, right? But that’s what I mean. Something this simple can create the same level of results.

There are lots of tips that involve testing things, because not every marketing strategy will work for every business, or every personality, or every audience. You might be delighted to find that in-person networking is not a good strategy for you, or if you hate writing, you might be happy to see that blogging generates little in the way of results for what you do. The tips guide you through figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

It’s funny that I’ve written a book detailing exactly how to do something I am not very good at doing for myself. It was almost like writing a marketing plan for Smiling Tree Writing, or like writing down everything I have learned in steps that wouldn’t be hard for someone even as lazy as me to take.

Now that the time to publish and market the book is getting so very close, I should probably start implementing the tips to sell the book. Isn’t that an odd notion? I will use the tips that are for sale in order to sell those tips. It’s like some kind of weird brain teaser.

Of course, the fact that I’ve written a book is exciting for me, but why should YOU care? Well, I came up with a few extra tips, and I’m going to be sharing them with folks who are interested in free marketing advice. If you’d like to get the freebies, just sign up for my newsletter. I promise not to spam you, or sell your email address, or send you an email a day. I’m lazy, remember? Hopefully you will smile a little and possibly learn a little, and if you find that is not the case, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Dava Is Cheap, and A New Category

I read a lot, and always have. Mostly I read lightweight stuff. Not just fiction, but entertaining fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, thrillers, mysteries, even a little romance now and then. I also like more literary fiction, but since most of my books come off the free Kindle list, they are generally the kind of stuff you think of reading on vacation.

The way that publishing is changing fascinates me. The more I learn, the more interested I become. We are witnessing a monumental change in the way an entire industry operates.
Revolutionary is a word that gets tossed around too much, but really, it applies to what is happening to the publishing industry. We are watching revolutionary changes.

When I can’t find a freebie to read, I look at the books priced under $5. Since I’m so cheap, I end up reading a ton of independently published work because authors almost always sell their books at a lower price than publishers do. (Lots of people share my purchasing habits when it comes to books, and it’s causing huge debate. Check out the comments on this article about it in TechDirt.) Over the last year, the quality of the books I read has changed pretty drastically. It could be that I’m better at choosing now, but it could also be that writers are stepping up the quality, or that readers are pushing higher quality books up on to the lists I see.

Independent authors occupy an really interesting space when it comes to business. One of the reasons that many writers still choose to work with publishing companies is that they can focus more on writing and less on business. Publishers get books edited, proofread, and offer some help when it comes to marketing. Independent authors must hire editors, find beta readers, hire artists to create their covers, and find ways to get their books in the eyes of the public. It’s a huge job, and all of that is part of what fascinates me about the way books are being created and distributed.

I’m active on Goodreads, and review just about every new book I read there. Most of my reviews are for myself, so that if someone asks if I’ve read a certain book or heard of an particular author, I can look at my book list and see, and also see what I thought. Since I read so many indie books, though, an interesting thing has happened: some authors get in touch when I write a review. The first time this happened, I was really startled, and maybe even a little embarrassed, which was odd. It may have been because the review wasn’t especially good. The author actually agreed with my review, and said something like, “Everything you said about my book is 100% correct.” I felt kind of bad.

Others have sent me emails just thanking me for taking the time to write a review, and some just “like” my review, I guess to show me they’ve seen it. Regardless of how or why they contact me, it’s something that never, ever happened with books before this disruption to the publishing industry began. Now, the act of writing and the act of reading can serve as a way to open the lines of communication. That is really amazing.

The blog portion of Smiling Tree Writing addresses the ups and downs of running a small business, marketing as it applies to small businesses, and various writing-related topics. Who better to address all of those areas than independent authors? I am adding a new category called Independent Writing. It will feature guest posts and interviews by independent authors, and possibly other experts in the field of self-publishing.

Are there writers you would like to hear from? Or questions you would like to ask an author who has chosen to self publish?

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Admission: I Am Afraid

This morning, as my oatmeal cooked, I decided what the topic of this post would be. Then I ate my oatmeal, checked my RSS feed, left comments on 5 or 10 blogs, considered setting up a new folder for local blogs I’ve started following, fed my birds, had a cup of coffee, stared at the screen a minute, recorded the oatmeal in my daily nutrition tracker…

I’ve written about procrastination before. Clearly, it is something that I deal with regularly. Sometimes, it’s okay – even helpful – to put things off. Other times, we do it out of fear, or laziness, or simply because we dread doing whatever the task is. In the case of writing this post, I was probably putting it off because the idea wasn’t a very good one, or at least it wasn’t a full idea. It was something that should go into the idea file.

Procrastination, though, is a topic I could write about for days on end due to my long experience with it. Right now, for instance, I am not only putting off writing this post, but something else as well:

Several years ago, I had a job as a telemarketer. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds – we were only calling licensed insurance agents, and we weren’t actually selling anything. We told them about products or job offers, and set up times for someone else to call and give them more details. But I made hundreds of calls a day – 300 calls a day wasn’t unusual. And mostly, people didn’t answer. Very few people returned calls when we left messages, so we rarely left them. It was mostly dialing and listening to ringing. Somedays it was a struggle to stay awake. We should have made the most of something like ringless voicemail messages which can be very successful if done right.

For a few months, I shared an office with just one other person. She tended toward depression, so sometimes I would tell her stories to distract her from sad thoughts, while we listened to the phones ring. Eventually I was moved into a room with 8 or 10 other people in it, and without the entertainment of telling stories, I had to work to stay awake again. So I started writing a story. I wrote on scraps of paper that I kept under my keyboard, in tiny handwriting. I decided I kind of liked the story, and dug all those scraps out of my bag took them home, and typed them up.

Then I got fired from the telemarketer job. (It was a crazy place. LOTS of people got fired from there.) And I stopped working on the story.

I kept thinking that I “should” work on it some more. It liked it more than any other fiction I’d ever written. I let a couple of kids read it (it is a kids’ story) and they liked it. One of them even occasionally asks me if I’ve written anymore of it yet. But it just sat there, in a file on my desktop. After a year or two, it seemed to be taunting me, so I moved it off of the desktop, where I couldn’t see it anymore. But it still crossed my mind regularly.

A few months ago, I decided to read it and see if I still liked it. I did. It’s fairly unusual for me to read something I wrote a few years earlier and still like it. So, I put the dang thing back where I see it. I even printed it out and put it in my backpack so that I can work on it when I find myself in a waiting room or at lunch alone.

Almost immediately, within a week of re-reading it, I had about 12 new ideas for other stories I wanted to write.

(My organizer friend is going to tell me I should have written them down, filed them away and come back to them when I finished the kids’ story. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what I should do.)

I did write them all down, and file them all away. Then I started writing one of them. Now, I have two unfinished projects that I really love chattering in my head, bugging me to work on them. “Write us!” they say every night while I’m trying to raise my high score on Bejeweled Blitz. So far, I have successfully ignored them.

In this case, I don’t think I can say that either of these stories just needs time to “ferment” in my head. One of them has been doing that for about five years now, and the other o

ne just pours out when I work on it. The words don’t get to the page fast enough to suit my brain. So, yeah, the need to let my unconsciousness work its creative magic cannot be my excuse.

Because I firmly believe that we all have plenty of time to do the things we want to do, I cannot say that I’m too busy to work on these projects. Because I (and you!) can find time to work on the things we love. Bejeweled Blitz, anyone? My high score is over 300,000 in one minute…

That leaves fear. What will I do with these things once I feel they are “finished”? What if they are not particularly good? What if I take all the risks to my ego and send them to agents, or publishers, orwhoever (I really don’t even know who I would send them to) and get – gasp! – rejected? Would that make me feel sad? I don’t like to feel sad. Maybe I should just go ahead and delete those stories and forget about writing them. It’s too scary.

All of those questions, all of that fear is bullshit. It’s ridiculous and silly and unworthy. If a friend told me they felt that way, I’d tell them to quit being stupid and write the stories, stop borrowing tomorrow’s troubles, and figure out what to do with them when they are finished. Start spending an afternoon a week working on them. Or a half hour a day. Whatever, just write, and stop worrying.

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?

Do you have a project you love so much you are afraid to work on it? Do you just buckle down and get it done, or do you give yourself mind-candy to numb your brain and silence your creativity?

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