books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, August 24, 2014

10 Obsolete Beliefs that Can Block Self-Publishing Success

by Anne R. Allen


New writers contact us every day, asking questions about everything from how to start their first short story (answer: butt in chair; hands on keyboard) to how to deal with trolls and bullies (don't respond; walk away; report abuse.)

We answer them allas time permits—but there's one kind of writer we can't help much: self-published writers who ask us to help them become best-sellers.

It's not that we don't empathize. We'd all love to be rocking the bestseller charts.

But unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to make a book a bestseller, whether it's self-published or trad-published.

At least for those of us who left our magic wands at Hogwarts.

The closest thing I know to a magic wand for marketing self-published books is David Gaughran's LET'S GET VISIBLE. And no, I don't know Mr. Gaughran and he's not paying us any kickbacks. He's simply got sensible, up-to-date, no-BS advice for self-publishers.

If you want an overview of publishing in the digital age so you can decide what publishing route is best for you, you'll find it in a book I wrote with #1 Amazon bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

It can help you navigate today's publishing business whether you self-publish, go with a small press as I have, or are holding out for the agent and the Big Five contract.

You can also find a wealth of information on marketing in a post Ruth Harris wrote for this blog in her Writer's Toolkit series: How to Move the Merch.

David's book costs $4.99. Ours costs $3.99. Ruth's post is free. That's under ten bucks for all the information you'll need.

But an amazing number of people say they would rather spend thousands on a professional publicist than spring for that $10.00 or even read a blogpost. 

Needless to say, Harry Potter himself could not help those folks. They are ripe for scammers, and getting ripped off may be the only way they're going to allow themselves to learn what they need to know.

I was once told by a wise friend that "we are all prisoners of our unexamined beliefs."

A lot of writers have fenced in their own careers by hanging onto beliefs about this business that are no longer true.

They are trying to make it as self-publishers while still thinking in terms of traditional publishing routes: bookstores, speaking engagements, and paper books. Some even pay for pricey hardback copies.

If seeing your own hardback books in a store window is the most important thing to you, then you probably shouldn't self-publish. Keep querying agents. Use AgentQuery and QueryTracker and make querying a priority. Authors usually have to send out hundreds these days before they find the right agent. But with persistence, you may become one of the handful of authors who get to debut between those dust-jacketed covers.

If you want to be traditionally published, don't give up on your dream because self-publishing is all the rage. The dream came true for my friend Mary Webber.  (Congrats on the August 19 launch of your YA novel Storm Siren, Mary!) It's the first of a trilogy coming out in hardcover with Thomas Nelson (with great reviews from Kirkus and PW.) Here she talks to Writer's Digest about how she got her book deal.

But if you've decided on self-publishing (or want to go with a small digital press), here are ten pieces of old information you need to erase from your brain's hard-drive if you want a successful career.

1) You're not really published unless you have paper books.


I'm going to write this in the simplest way I can, hoping you guys will spread the word to self-published friends who obsess about selling paper books.

EVERY SUCCESSFUL INDIE AUTHOR YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS HAS MADE THE BULK OF THEIR INCOME SELLING E-BOOKS.

Full stop.

E-Books. Not paper books. Especially not hardback paper books.

The e-book is the new mass market paperback. Even though sales are leveling off in the US, the market is expanding worldwide. Here's a recent Yahoo Finance article, complete with graphs and statistics on how genre writers are getting rich with e-books,

If you don't have an e-reader or tablet, and you're planning to self-publish, get one. You're not going to succeed in e-publishing if you don't read e-books and understand how people use them.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have paper books. Most readers still prefer them. But if you're self-publishing, paper will only represent a fraction of your sales. So you want to concentrate your marketing efforts on selling e-books, which is mostly done online.

I'm also not saying print is irrelevant. I'm totally jazzed to be featured in a print magazine this month. I'm interviewed in the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness that plagues even successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME.

But guess how Laura Sinberg, the features editor of MORE found me? Google Plus. It was a link to a guest blogpost I wrote on "bag lady fears" to promote NO PLACE LIKE HOME that came up when she Googled the phrase. The book only exists as an e-book. (Although it will come out in paper in September: YAY!) But my point is that I made a big national print magazine with an e-book (and a little help from Google Plus.) It can happen.

2) You need books in brick and mortar stores to be successful. 


Paper books cost a lot to produce. And ship. Even when you use CreateSpace, the cheapest, most popular digital printer, and order 25 books at a time, the book's cost to you won't be much less than $7. When a bookstore adds its 40% mark-up, the book will cost the consumer at least $12.

Your profit on that sale? 20c.

But an e-book priced at $2.99 gets a royalty from Amazon of 70%, which comes to $2.09. Other retailers pay a little more or less, but it's safe to say you'll average around two bucks.

Two bucks  vs. twenty cents. You don't need an MBA...

Of course what that means is you should probably charge more than $12 for the paper. Especially if you factor in all the time, money and energy you spend promoting bookselling events.

So you will probably want to price the book at about $15. But that makes it hard to compete with mass market paperbacks, which still sell substantially lower than that.

Then remember that without a Big Five publisher buying the expensive "co-op" real estate at the front of the store for you, your pricey book is probably going to be spine-out on a bottom shelf in the back of the store unless you have a personal friend working there.

That's assuming you can get into bookstores at all: most indie shops will only take self-published books on consignment, and big chain stores won't stock them, period.

See why successful self-publishers focus on online sales?

I know it's sad not to see your book on a shelf in a real store. As readers, we love bookstores. But there's change afoot in retail shopping that is way bigger than the book business. The Wall Street Journal reports shoppers are fleeing the malls and even WalMart is in decline.

So it doesn't make sense for indies to put much energy into in-store book sales. Leave that to the Big Five, who have to take the books back after they don't sell, and pay to ship and pulp them.

3) Personal appearances and book-signings are required of the successful writer.


Book events cost money. Usually quite a lot. Especially if you have to pay for the venue. You're also going to have the cost of your transportation, the de rigeur refreshments, the new outfit, the time spent preparing (and cooking, if you do the refreshments yourself) and all that time taken away from working on your WIP.

The average book signing done on the cheap might cost about $500. Say you sell 50 books (which would be way more than I've ever sold at a book event.) If you're charging $15 a book and you've got cheap CreateSpace books (which many bookstores won't carry, alas) at $8 profit per book, you've made $400.

That's a best-case scenario, and you've lost $100 bucks plus all that time and energy.

I'm not saying you should never have a book party. As I have written before, they can be a fabulous ego boost and a lot of fun. Plus if you're media savvy, you can send out press releases and maybe get it covered by local radio and newspapers, so they're good publicity.

But that's publicity in your hometown only. Great if you live in a large metropolitan area, if you're in little rural town like mine, not so much.

What if you put that $500 into a Bookbub ad instead? If you advertise a 99c sale on your thriller in the Bookbub newsletter, it will reach 1,250,000 targeted readers all over North America. (And other less expensive newsletters like EBookBargainsUK can reach the growing international markets.)

If that 99c sale is on an Amazon countdown, you get to keep most of that 99c on every book sale. And I have yet to hear from an author who didn't make back the cost of a Bookbub ad as well as getting a huge bounce.

This is why most successful self-publishers skip the personal appearances unless they're at the huge national conventions like RWA that raise their profile in the entire industry.

4) Book swag sells books.


I see so many self-publishers begging to give away stuff on their blogs. They've got pens, post-it notes, hats, tote bags, tee-shirts, and even jewelry with their book covers on them.

I know. They're shiny and fun and they're…TOYS!!

But they cost money. And their influence on book sales is minimal. Even if you're at a convention and hand out a ton of them. Thing is, everybody else is doing the same thing.

A cheap, simple bookmark or business card will remind people of your title just as well. (And yes, you need those: take them with you everywhere!)

I got some really cool business cards that advertise my books and this blog for $10 for a hundred from Vistaprint. And I understand some printers are even cheaper. They're all you need.

Toys don't sell books. Word of mouth from readers sells books. Especially word of mouth online, where people can simply click through to a buy page.

5) If you price your books high, you'll show you're the equal of Big Five writers.


I see many self-publishers pricing themselves right out of the market. I was asked to review a book some time ago that I really liked, but I haven't been able to bring myself to recommend it because the author is charging $9.99 for the e-book. I consider that high, even when it's a must-read brand new Big 5 bestseller. For a self-publisher, it's the kiss of death.

The average price for an ebook on Amazon is between $2.99 and $6.99. That's for self-published, small press, and much of the Big 5's backlist. Nearly every day the Bookbub newsletter has a Big 5 classic bestseller for $1.99.

Successful indies usually offer the first book in a series for 99c or even free. The later books are usually priced from $2.99-$4.99. Some price their newest release a little higher, but if you price over $9.99, your Amazon royalty goes down.

The Fussy Librarian provides a  page on his site detailing how to price your ebook for optimum success.

I have heard so many self-publishers claim they "have" to charge top dollar for their book because "I spent years writing it."

We all spent years on our first novels. It's called "learning to write."

Besides, it's better to sell lots of books at a lower price than a few at a higher price. Many indies give away tons of books. That's because they want tons of readers who will come back for more.

Charging over $5 for a self-published e-book  by an unknown shows nothing except the author has no knowledge of the market.

6) Paying a publicist guarantees more income.


Unfortunately, the old ways of selling books don't work very well any more, so even the efforts of the hardest working publicists can be hit or miss.
  • The old book tour/personal appearance route is not cost effective, as I have blogged about before. 
  • Neither is a print ad. Nearly four years ago, Alan Rinzler talked about how a full page ad in the New York Times mostly impresses the author's mother. They're even less effective now.
  • Press releases? Unless you've got a spectacular hook, like you're dating a guy on Duck Dynasty or your baby fell down a well, your press releases are not going to be picked up outside of your hometown.
  • Endless automated Tweets, paying for ads for Facebook "parties" and most of the social media gimmicks don't work either, unless the author is personally engaging with readers. 

As Mary W. Walters said on her blog last month, "…we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful."

And the Book Marketing Buzz blog predicts that book promoters will soon become extinct.

I'm not saying all publicists are a waste of time and money. A top-notch publicist can get you interviews and appearances that would be closed to you otherwise, and they can plan a campaign around an issue or something in your bio that you might not be able to think up by yourself.

But most of the successful indies you read about did NOT use publicists.

7) You can start a career with one book


The most effective method successful self-publishers have used to sell their books in the digital age is the liberal use of free and discounted books.

They give away the first book in a series to get people to buy the others. If you don't have any others…um, you can figure it out.

Amazon algorithms also favor authors with more than one title.

In fact, indie superstar Liliana Harte suggests you hold back launching your book until you have five in the hopper, so you can launch one a month. Apparently that's the best way to get noticed by the "also bought" algos.

That's precisely what my publishers did with me in 2011. I won't pretend it wasn't exhausting, but after I re-launched my backlist books with Popcorn Press, MWiDP took on three more books I had in rough draft. Yes, we did some marathon editing, but I launched five books in four months. Plus two anthologies. It worked pretty well.

If I had only launched one a year, I'd probably still be taking on editing work to make ends meet.

8) Self-publishers need to attend lots of book fairs and industry events.


The reason to attend trade fairs is to sell to vendors. But as an indie author, you want to sell direct to customers. Of course readers as well as vendors do attend some of the big book festivals, but they generally don't buy a bunch of books to lug around all day. 

If they're interested, they're more likely to pick up a card or bookmark and order your book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble when they get home. But during the ordering process, they might forget and order something else Amazon suggests to them. And it could very well be a book from an author who didn't just spend thousands of dollars to attend a convention.

Somebody who's at home in her sweats, pounding out that next book.

It's important to remember that a booth at a festival is so expensive you can't get back your investment unless you get a huge contract or sell in tremendous volume. Add to that the price of transportation and a hotel room, and you're spending a large chunk of change you will not be seeing again. 

So only go to a book fair because you want a fun, fabulous vacation, meeting big name authors and schmoozing with industry movers and shakers. If that's why you're going, then by all means book that ticket. Networking in person is always exciting and it can build lasting relationships.

But you can also network and become visible online at no cost.

Book fairs are also used by shady vanity presses to scam newbies. David Gaughran has some hair-raising stories of wildly-overpriced booths and worthless promotion packages sold to newbie authors who are still trapped in this old-publishing-world mindset.

Note: I'm not talking about writers' conferences here. A writer's conference isn't a trade fair. It's a place to get a mini-course in writing craft and marketing as well as network with other writers, agents and editors. They can be a valuable experience, especially for new and pre-published writers. I have the details about our local Central Coast Writers Conference in the "Opportunity Alerts" below. 

9) You need to pay for a lot of advertising to be successful.


I have mentioned BookBub ads, which get results but are pricey. However there are lots of bargain-book newsletters that cost less and are effective. Ruth Harris's post I mentioned earlier has a great run-down of the bargain newsletters and other online ads. We recently had success with The Fussy Librarian.

Set a budget and keep to it. Slpurging doesn't always pay off. When Catherine Ryan Hyde and I put our book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE on an Amazon countdown a couple of weeks ago, we did no paid advertising at all. For most of the week we were on three Amazon bestseller lists. We often were just behind another writing book. When we were #4, it was #2, and we stayed in the same ratio most of the week.

The difference? The #2 book had an expensive BookBub ad. We spent nothing. So I'm willing to bet our bottom line was higher.

How did that happen? Catherine and I both have a strong social media presence. We spend a little time every day building relationships with our readers. Slow and steady. That's how writers build their audiences these days. Catherine gives away tons of books on her blog and Facebook. And she almost always has a book in the top 20.

We both think the Amazon countdown sale is a good promotion tool, whether or not you pay to promote it. If you're in KDP Select, you get one every 90 days. (See my current countdown sale below.)

Keep in mind the most successful self-publishers, like Hugh Howey, did not make their phenomenal sales by using pricey advertising. They did it by making lots of friends on social media and hand-selling those units one at a time.

10) E-books need to be launched like rockets.


Before the age of the e-book, launches were all-important because print books are given only a few months on valuable book store shelves before they are sent back to the publisher to be remaindered and/or pulped.

All print books are in stores "on consignment" and can be returned at any time for lack of sales. So with the old print/warehouse/bookstore paradigm, you have a very small window in which to get your book noticed. (Even smaller if it isn't one of the lucky few who get "co-op" space at the front of the store purchased by your publisher.)

But e-books are forever. An e-book is just as valuable five years down the road as it is the day you launch it. Retailers don't have to return it in order to make room for new merchandise.

Most Amazon bestsellers I know launched their first e-books quietly (what's called a "soft launch"), then waited for buzz to build. Many bestselling indies didn't sell at all for the first few months—or even years. Here's Dean Wesley Smith on why you don't have to sell a lot of books quickly to be a success.

So what's the best way to launch a book in this new publishing world? Nobody really knows. Sometimes books take off and the author doesn't have a clue why, as Sean Cummings blogged this week.

But there is one thing that will not cost you a penny and is pretty much guaranteed to help sales. Get to work on the next book.

Scriveners, do you think you might have an unexamined belief that's holding you back? Do you still have to see your book in the window of Barnes and Noble to feel successful? What advice do you have for the newly self-published author? 

NEWS: Check out the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk to Laura Sinberg about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness in successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME. It's on newstands now: the issue with the amazing Viola Davis on the cover. 


BOOK OF THE WEEK


The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is on a 99c countdown 
from August 24-August 31




 Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job.

Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. September 19th-20th

Xchyler Anthologies. Currently taking submissions of FANTASY stories of 5000-1500 words. Royalty-paying. No entry fee. Deadline August 31st. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

5 Protagonists Readers Hate: Why Writers Shouldn't Identify too Closely with a Main Character

by Anne R. Allen

You can learn all you want about writing powerful prose, well-planned story arcs, lyrical descriptions—or any other aspect of fiction—but if you don't have a protagonist your readers care about, none of the rest matters.

I don't think it's terribly relevant to talk about character "likability" in the sense of "niceness." The most memorable characters in fiction are not people most of us would choose as our friends.

Certainly the most enduring literary detectives are not sweet and cuddly. Hercule Poirot was comically vain, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were drunks, Lord Peter Wimsey was a dreadful snob, Jane Marple was a pushy, nosy old fussbudget, and Sherlock Holmes bordered on psychopathic.

You'd find even worse candidates for your BFF in classic literary fiction:  Scarlett O'Hara, Becky Sharpe, Jay Gatsby, Heathcliff, and Emma Woodhouse were pretty awful human beings. Pip in Great Expectations was selfish and ungrateful, and even Jo March could be embarrassingly strident for her era (and she wasn't very nice to Laurie.) And well, Mr. Darcy was proud and Elizabeth Bennet was prejudiced.

Would you trust any of the great epic heroes with your car keys? Not "wily" Odysseus (10 years, dude? It took you 10 years to get home to the wife?) Or Aeneas (who wasn't much better, taking 6 years to get as far as Carthage, where he was such a bad boyfriend to Dido, he caused centuries of war between Rome and Carthage.) And Beowulf? He'd get monster blood all over the upholstery.

I'll bet even Atticus Fitch wasn't much fun at a dinner party.

These are not exactly "likeable" folks.

But we LOVE to read about them.

Here's the thing: "heroic" and "admirable" aren't the same thing.

Memorable fictional characters are larger than life and severely flawed. In fact Aristotle said all heroes must have a "tragic flaw". The fictional hero needs to learn something or change during the process of the story, or there's no character arc.

This is why you want to avoid characters who are too much like yourself—or the idealized person you would like to think you are. Nice guys are boring on the page. And nobody can grow and change when they're already perfect.

Note: An exception to the "grow and change" thing is the comic hero, who needs to maintain his comic flaws. Lucy Ricardo seemed to have learned her lesson at the end of each episode of I Love Lucy, but the next week, she'd be back getting into the same kind of trouble. And wouldn't we have been disappointed if she hadn't?

Unfortunately, when writers are starting out, we tend to write about ourselves and our own experiences. After all, we are always told to "write what you know."

But putting too much of yourself into your protagonist can result in a character the reader may find annoying or just plain boring.

The classic author stand-in character is called a "Mary Sue," but there are many contradictory theories about what constitutes a true "Sue/Stu", so I have invented my own names for some of the other types of author stand-ins who don't endear themselves to readers.

I call them Special Victims, Perfect Pats, Looky-Loos and Literal Larrys.

Mary Sue


If you didn't come to writing via the path of fan fiction, you may not have heard of Mary Sue. I hadn't until a couple of years ago.

But all writers need to be aware of her...and know she is not your friend.

The term “Mary Sue” originally comes from a 1973 parody of Star Trek fanfic by Paula Smith, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” in which the teen heroine, “the youngest lieutenant in the fleet,” shows up on the Enterprise and immediately wins the heart of Captain Kirk and takes over the helm of the starship to save the day.

If you've read a lot of newbie fiction (or you've been in many workshops and or critique groups) you probably know Mary Sue well, if not by name.

She's the author's fantasy self, living the author's fantasy life.

She kicks ass like Bruce Lee, solves every case, and saves every day. No problem is too tough for her to solve and no dragon too powerful for her to slay. And absolutely no hero is too hot or high up in the hierarchy to fall in love with her. 

Mary Sue can be either gender—the male version is sometimes called "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu".

A Gary Stu is the middle-aged guy who has hot, quirky young art students throwing themselves into his formerly unappreciated arms for no discernable reason.

Or he can be the young teen who has no knowledge of astrophysics, but somehow manages to figure out how to save the world from the asteroid when nobody else has a clue.

Garys and Marys are always adored by everybody.

Except readers, who absolutely loathe them.

As Laura Miller said in a 2010 article in Salon: "What irks readers about Mary Sues is that telltale whiff of an ulterior motive." To them, Mary Sue is "a daydream the author is having about herself. It’s an imposition, being unwittingly enlisted in somebody else’s narcissistic fantasy life, like getting flashed in the park. And just about as much fun."

There's nothing wrong with fantasies. We all have them. But we need to be aware they make lousy fiction.

The Special Victim


Special victims endure unspeakable horrors in stoic silence. Nothing is ever their fault. Their stories are plotted so they can never act to save themselves. This means the reader is put through a litany of horrors before the victim is finally rescued or dies.

We run into this kind of protagonist when the story is a fictionalized memoir where the author wants to "set the story straight," or rewrite a story of victimization with a different ending to wreak fictional revenge on a creepy ex-spouse, parent, or boss.

Unfortunately, whether it's a "misery memoir" or "revenge fiction" the reader will not be engaged unless the writer works very hard to cast a clear, unbiased eye on the story.

That's because in a story that's all about "how I suffered," villains will be unbelievable and the hero will come across as a wimp.

There's nothing wrong with using anger as a motivation for a story. I think a lot of us are inspired by the idea that "writing well is the best revenge". (I even used that as a title of my first Camilla novel.)

The problem comes when we fail to detach enough to process our anger into fiction. Then what you're writing is therapy, not entertainment.

It's like trying to fertilize your garden with actual garbage without going through the composting process first.

A hero must behave like one and act. If your protagonist is so victimized he is incapable of acting, you may have to tell the story from the point of view of a more active character.

Perfect Pat


Perfect Pat is a paragon of serenity, goodness, and gratitude who might do a bit of gardening, take long walks on the beach, or travel to scenic spots. Pats of either gender may scuba dive, sail, kayak, or hike alone in pristine wilderness. We hear about every magnificent rock, bird, tree and vista and how each one makes Pat feel. Which is serene, good and grateful.

And a little smug.

In spite of annoyingly judgmental opinions, Pat is, like Mary Sue, adored by all.

Nothing much happens in these stories because Pat spends most of the time thinking. She also never makes the mistakes that could set off conflict. Pats are not wildly brave like Mary Sues (they are always prudent) and never make the kind of misstep that would allow them to be victimized.

Like misery/revenge fiction, Perfect Pat tales are often thinly disguised memoirs or travel diaries.

I once attended a critique group whose members referred to each author's protagonists as "you." As in "you shouldn't buy those shoes; you'll go into debt." And "you shouldn't believe that man's lies. It's obvious he's an abuser," or "you shouldn't plant dahlias at that time of year."

It was a bizarre experience, since I had read them a chapter of the Camilla book I was working on. Well-mannered, conservative fashionista Camilla Randall could not be farther from my own pushy, Croc-wearing, old-hippie self.

But when I look back, I realize that nearly everybody in that group was writing a Perfect Pat book. Which is why I tended to fall asleep at meetings. And they must have thought Camilla was who I imagined myself to be. *cringe*

If you want to avoid a snoozerific Perfect Pat, try giving your character at least three traits you loathe. Make her a member of the opposite political party who is chronically late and hums while she works. Give him a fondness for heavy metal 1980s hair rock, substance abuse issues, and a houseful of paintings of dogs playing poker.

Then let Pat make a bunch of lousy decisions: voilà! Plot happens!

Looky-Loo


The Looky-Loo protagonist stands on the outside of the story, observing, but never affecting the action. She may wax poetic or philosophical, drop charming bon mots, or offer snarky, sarcastic commentary.

Readers are often drawn in by the engaging voice.

But they will eventually cool as they realize this character simply isn't the hero of the story. He's never going to do anything. And even though he's witness to one event after another, he never tries to help a victim or stand up to a bully or even save himself.

He never acts. He only reacts.

He is the same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. He has no character arc because this isn't really his story.

Much of our real lives are spent looking on helplessly as awful events unfold, but one of the reasons we read fiction is to escape from that feeling of helplessness.

We read fiction because we want heroes. And resolution.

We want a character who will say, "here I am to save the day" not "darn, I guess the bad guy killed another puppy. Life sucks, doesn't it?"

It's easy to slip into "looky-loo" mode when you're writing a mystery. That's why it's best not to focus entirely on the whodunit puzzle and give your detective some compelling personal problems. (Although if it's a battle with the bottle, you'd better give it a fresh spin. That's been kind of done to death.)

There are, of course, precedents in literature where the narrator is not the main character. Nick Caraway is not the focal character in The Great Gatsby and Nelly Dean isn't a big part of the story in Wuthering Heights (although some argue she's really the villain) and Mr. Lockwood only steps in at the end. But If you use the bit-part narrator technique (a tough one for a newbie to pull off) make sure you're clear—to your reader, as well as yourself—about who the real hero is.

Sometimes we start telling a story from the wrong point of view. To fix the "looky-loo" problem, try rewriting a couple of chapters from the point of view of another character who is more active in the story.

Literal Larry


Literal Larrys (or Lauries) are usually writing their own life stories, changing the names to protect themselves from imagined lawsuits, but they are not actually writing fiction.

Which means they are setting themselves up to fail.

That's because writing "what happened" and simply changing the names (and maybe making yourself a little hotter and smarter) is a recipe for an unreadable mess. Even memoirs have to be crafted into a story with an inciting incident, conflict and resolution. (For more on that, here's my post on how to write a publishable memoir.)

Literal Larrys feel compelled to tell each event exactly as it happened. No matter how pointless and boring or irrelevant to the story.

Real life is chaotic. It's an artist's job to make sense of it.

But Literal Larry refuses to do that. All his characters must have the same likes and dislikes and quirks of real people in his life. Even if those traits are contradictory and confusing.

In real life, human beings have many facets and often many different personalities, depending on who they are interacting with. In fact, all of us contain many characters.

But in art, a character needs to have only one personality (unless you're writing about somebody with dissociative identity disorder) because too many personalities will confuse your reader.

Literal Larry has also never heard of Chekhov's gun. He doesn’t realize that in art, if you put a gun on the table in act one, somebody has to shoot it by the end of the play.

He puts the gun on the table because that guy really had a gun on his table. Even if it has no meaning in the story.

This can result in muddled and pointless rambling. And an unreadable book. (And every editor's nightmare.)

A writer needs to learn to mold his own experience into a story with well-defined characters and a structured story arc.

Otherwise it's going to come out like one of those long stories drunks tell at parties that make you go hide in the bathroom or invent a pressing previous engagement rather than endure another moment of pointless blather.

The Solution is Empathy


I think almost all writers have written one or more of these characters. I have drawers full of early short stories with Mary Sue and Looky-Loo protagonists.

A few of my teachers clued me in, writing devastating comments like "this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy" or "why doesn't she DO anything?" in the margins of my fledgling fiction.

After that, was so afraid of being accused of writing about myself, I started writing about people as unlike me as possible. I even wrote about people I disliked. But I learned to like them. So much that their stories grew into novels.

Camilla in The Best Revenge was based on a real "Debutante of the Year" who came across as a selfish nitwit in an obviously biased interview in the New York Times. Congresswoman Cady Stanton in Food of Love was based on a conservative African American preacher who annoyed me on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect".  Her foster sister Regina was a composite of the impossibly perfect supermodels we love to hate.

I tried to get into their heads, and pretty soon, I found I liked them much better than my Mary Sues and Looky-Loos. And readers do too.

I'm not telling anybody not to write from experience. All writers put personal experience into their work. But we need to remember experience is simply raw clay we need to mold with our art.

Ruth Harris wrote a great post about how to transform real-life experience into good fiction.

The problems come when you ONLY write your own experience. When you do that, you're not writing for publication: you're navel-gazing. As Nikki Giovanni said, "If you wrote [only] from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

Empathy. It's the key to writing a compelling protagonist. Get into the heads of people who are not you. Feel what they feel. See things as they see them. You probably don't know your own motivations for half the things you do, because you're too close to them. We all have unexamined beliefs that motivate us without our conscious consent. (More on this in a future post.)

But as an author, you need to know every motivation of every character you create.

Otherwise, you're not writing fiction. You're writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a therapy session, a lecture, a diary, or a police report.

And none of those offer much enjoyment to a reader.

If you need to put yourself in your fiction, be like Alfred Hitchcock. Be a walk-on character. I love to do that in my books. Only people who know me personally will recognize my "Hitchcock moment" but it lets me act out that "autobiographer" we all have in us.

For more on how to create great characters, check out MJ Bush's list of 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation. (It has a quote from me and one from Ruth Harris; it's like a whole course in creative writing distilled into 99 sentences.)

What about you, Scriveners? Which one of these characters are you mostly likely to write? Have you ever felt you had to write something "the way it really happened"? What kind of protagonist turns you off the most? 


BOOK OF THE WEEK

Food of Love: a Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb.


Food of Love is on sale for 99c! in ebook on Amazon US or Amazon UK, Amazon CA , Smashwords, iTunes, and at Barnes and Noble . It's available in paper in the UK and in the US. It's also available at 
Scribd and

 Page Foundry (Inktera).







"I loved everything about this novel, the quirky humor and larger than life characters above all. The plot took me in unexpected directions and I could not guess what would happen next. This is a delightful surprise package skillfully bound by the author's immaculate writing. And like all stories involving a princess, it has a happy ending. HIGHLY recommended!"...The Bookkeeper

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What is a Beta Reader? Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Getting and Giving Feedback on your WIP


This week we're proud to host author and editor Jami Gold, fresh from her role as a presenter at the RWA conference in San Antonio.

If you missed the conference, Jami's posts on the highlights of the annual Romance Writers Association event are fascinating. You'll find them on her blog at JamiGold, Paranormal Author.

Jami's blog is a must-read for new authors. She's formed a great community there. Comments are long and informative. Not only does she know more tech than my poor aging brain will ever comprehend, but her "beat sheets" for outlining and structuring your fiction are a fantastic resource.

Check out her Writing Resources page. It's a goldmine.

I discovered her blog a couple of years ago when I was looking for information on how to find beta readers, so when readers asked me for a post on the subject, Jami was my go-to expert. 

So What are "Beta Readers"?


...and how do they differ from editors or critique groups?

The term first came from fan fiction, and it means a person who reads your work-in-progress (or "WIP") when you, the writer or "alpha," are ready for feedbackbefore it goes into final draft to be sent to your fanfic page, editor, or agent. 

Lots of writers may have betas without knowing the term. Betas don't need professional-level editing skills and don't have to be members of a group. They only need to be willing to read your manuscript and give helpful feedback about what works and what doesn't.

They differ from editors since they usually comment as readers, not industry professionals. It's not necessary they have perfect grammar skills or knowledge of the genre (although they need to be aware of the conventions, so they don't try to turn your sweet romance into a gritty thriller, or vice versa.)

They differ from a critique group because they usually read a whole manuscript in a few sittings rather than hearing it over a period of months or years. This means a beta can offer better feedback on big-picture aspects: story arc, character development, pacing, etc.

Beta readers can be fellow writers who will exchange reads, or they can be friends or family who can read with a critical eye. They may become your moral support system and cheerleaders as well.

Like critiquers and editors, beta readers have to be able to leave their own egos out of their feedback and not try to change your story into their own.

When you've found someone who can do that, and still give honest, constructive, useful advice, you've struck gold...Anne


This is #3 in a series on GETTING FEEDBACK 

#1 Ruth Harris on EDITING 
#2 Anne R. Allen on  CRITIQUE GROUPS

UPDATE: I have just heard that some vicious bullies are posing as beta readers so they can play sadistic tricks on fledgling authors, putting the unpublished books on Goodreads so they can say cruel things about them. It sounds like the old Goodreads bullies gang or their meaner-girl little sisters. So be very, very careful about who you ask to beta-read. I suggest you always exchange a few chapters first, and only give the full manuscript to people you have carefully vetted. Jordan McCollum has a must-read post on her blog on The Ethics of Beta Reading.

And Jami is following up with some worksheets for beta readers you can offer your prospective betas.


Beta Reading: How to Find Readers and Become a Better Reader for Others

by Jami Gold


Ever struggle to make readers’ interpretations of your writing match your intentions? We probably all have.

Maybe readers come away with the wrong impression of a character. Maybe a plot twist is too obvious or from too far out of left field. Or maybe our subtext is too subtle or too “on the nose.”

As writers, we’re so close to our stories it’s impossible for us to know how readers will interpret our words. A good beta reader will go through our “the best we can make it by ourselves” draft and give feedback about what we can’t see. And that’s just one reason why we all need beta readers.
Sounds Great!

How Do We Get Beta Readers?


Once we have fans and readers of our published work, we might be able to find volunteers who would love a sneak peek at our stories in exchange for feedback of issues they discover. Until we reach that point, however, volunteers might not be as abundant.

Most writers in that position exchange work with other authors in an “I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback” beta-reading arrangement. I wrote a blog post earlier this year with a massive list of ideas for where and how to find beta readers.

Here are some samples:

  • Post a request for beta readers on Twitter, Facebook, WANATribe, your blog, etc.
  • Offer to beta read for someone else.
  • Post a request in writer groups on Google+, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Facebook, NaNoWriMo, etc.
  • Ask around in local writing organizations.
  • Ask at book clubs interested in your genre.
  • Ask at the library if they know of any local resources or clubs.
  • For younger readers, ask teachers, friends’ kids, or at school libraries.
  • Join critique-oriented writing organizations like Critique Circle, FictionPress, Scribophile, YouWriteOn, Authonomy, Ladies Who Critique CPseek, and Critters.org

Do Beta Readers Need to Be Familiar with Our Genre?


We probably want most of our beta readers to be familiar with our genre, but it’s possible for beta readers outside our genre to be valuable too. No matter what genre they read, good beta readers can provide valuable feedback like:

  • identifying confusing sections
  • evaluating the pacing from a big picture perspective
  • looking for too much telling versus showing
  • finding weak/missing character motivations, etc.

More importantly, beta readers who don’t love our genre can tell us what we don’t need to worry about:

  • Did they hate the main character, but love the voice? 
  • Did the pacing and story keep them reading despite their “meh” feeling toward the genre?
  • Did they connect to the main character so much they plowed through a plot they didn’t like?

Sometimes our harshest (i.e., best) critics are those who aren’t predisposed to love our story. They won’t gloss over issues just because “that’s how it’s always done.” We’re always trying to get distance from our work for editing purposes. What better way to gain that distance than by finding a reader who won’t have any predisposition to like what we write? 


How to Establish a Beta Reading Exchange


Step 1: Offer to Beta Read for Someone Else


Almost anyone can be a beta reader. The most important qualification is having a critical-enough eye to point out issues like:

  • confusing sentences or plot events,
  • where their attention wavers, and
  • whether they find our characters likable or sympathetic, etc. (Or if the characters are compelling. A character can be pleasant and sympathetic, but not interesting enough to the reader, I'll be talking about this subject next week...Anne)

For example, when I send out a manuscript for beta reading, I ask people to mark:

  • Anything that takes them out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, no conflict/tension, etc.)
  • Pacing issues (too slow, feels too “one note,” not enough of an arc, scene goes on too long, etc.)
  • Emotional feedback (stream-of-consciousness emotional reactions)

That’s it. Beta reading isn’t about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.

Step 2: Provide Good Feedback


Not all feedback is created equal, and we know we’re not likely to reuse a beta reader whose suggestions are 90% useless for our goals. The same applies in the opposite direction. For great beta reading relationships, we have to find a good match and we have to be the best beta reader we can be.

Here are three tips for how to increase the helpfulness of our feedback and become a better beta reader:

Tip #1: Focus on Making Their Story Better


We must work toward making their story better. We shouldn’t focus our comments on how we’d do it.

How we’d do it is irrelevant. Our voice is not their voice, our goals are not their goals, our themes and worldviews are not their themes and worldviews.

The only exception to this rule is when something about their writing doesn’t work for us. Maybe the writing is passive or the characters lack motivations, etc. Then—and only then—can we provide an example and say, “This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”

Tip #2: Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way


Just because the writing is different from how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For all we know, the impression we’re left with is the impression they wanted.

If the writing works, suggested changes like word choice or sentence structure aren’t helpful. At most, we should share one comment along the lines of, “Words like a, b, and c create an impression of z, and I’m not sure that’s what you want.” Unless the writer asked us for line-by-line, copy-editing-level feedback, nitpicky suggestions are more likely to mess with their voice than provide useful information.

If the writing doesn’t work, we should focus on why it doesn’t work for us. Separating our thoughts on whether a section doesn’t work or if it’s just not how we’d word it can be tricky sometimes. So we should ask ourselves why we want to change the writing:


  • Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, etc.)?
  • Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
  • Do we not like or care about the characters?


If we can’t come up with a reason, we should leave it alone.

Tip #3: Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes


The only time I make a change and don’t give a reason is when I find a missing word. Those are fairly self-explanatory. *smile*

Every other suggested change has my explanation of why. With that reason, the author can judge whether my suggestion comes from me not getting their voice, misinterpreting something, being confused, etc.

If we don’t give a reason, crossing out their writing and replacing it with our own is disrespectful. On the other hand, if we have a real reason, even nitpicky things like suggestions about word choices and sentence structures are helpful.

Leaving a comment like “I’d use x word instead of y word” isn’t a reason because it doesn’t respect their voice. In contrast, “I don’t think the character would use x word (would they even know that word?). Y seems more like their voice” is a real reason. The author now has enough information to decide whether or not to make the change.

Step 3: Be Gracious with the Feedback We Receive


First, no matter how much we disagree with (or are hurt by) the feedback from a beta reader, we should say thank you. They did spend time on our work, and for that, they deserve our thanks. If their feedback doesn’t work for us, consider it a lesson learned to not exchange work with them again.

Second, we need to evaluate our writing based on that feedback. Maybe we’ll slap our forehead and say “duh” to their comments. Maybe we’ll ignore their suggestion and instead just tweak our writing to fix a confusing plot point or character motivation. Maybe we’ll decide their misunderstanding is exactly what we wanted and not change a thing.

We don’t want to blindly implement changes until we decide what kind of story we want to tell. If a suggestion will help us tell that story better, we should make the change. If a suggestion would take us further from that story, we shouldn’t implement it.

Regardless, feedback is almost always a pointer that something is less than ideal for that reader. 99% of the time there’s a kernel of truth in a beta reader’s criticism, so our default should be to try to discover that truth and make the feedback work for us.

If we’re willing to provide good-quality feedback for others, we’ll usually be able to find other writers with whom we can exchange work. There are thousands of writers in the world, and we need to find just a handful to be beta buddies. Hopefully this post gives you some ideas on how to make that happen. *smile*

NOTE: Next Tuesday, August 12th, Jami will have some more info on beta readers on her blog. She's going to provide a worksheet with sample questions for beta readers.

What about you, scriveners? Do you use beta readers? Do you beta read for anybody else? Or do you prefer to send your stuff directly to professional editors? What advice would you give to authors looking for/working with betas? 


***

After genetically modifying sharks with lasers—er, after a decade of writing boring technical manuals and project plans—Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, so she could put her talent for making stuff up to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Goodreads.



BOOK OF THE WEEK


99c Special! That's less than 50c a book!

The Chanel Caper by Ruth Harris and The Gatsby Game by Anne R. Allen

It's CHANEL AND GATSBY, a comedy two-fer



Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy! Perfect for summer beach reading
99c at  NOOKKobo, and Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CA

The Chanel Caper
Nora Ephron meets James Bond. Or is it the other way around? 

The Gatsby Game 
A Hollywood mystery with celebrities, murder and a smart-mouthed nanny.


OPPORTUNITY ALERTS



GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Eve 2015, Deadline: August 15th

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why You Should Ignore Most of the Advice from your Critique Group…but They Can Help You Anyway


by Anne R. Allen

I generally advise new writers to join a critique group or participate in writing workshops. Getting feedback on your own writing and discovering what works—and what doesn't—in other writers' WIPs provides an education you can't get from simply reading craft books, blogs, or listening to lectures.

And I'm not the only fan of critique groups. Here's a post from Ian Martyn on Why You Should Join A Critique Group that was picked up by Joel Friedlander's Carnival of the Indies Round-up last week.

Joining a writing group is one of the easiest ways to learn your craft. And it's way cheaper than hiring an editor as soon as you write "the end" on that first draft. Editors are very expensive (for good reason, as Belinda Pollard tells us.)

The best use of an editor is to polish a book that's already been workshopped in a group or critiqued by several beta readers.

So how do you find a critique group and/or beta readers? Here's a fantastic post from author Jami Gold to help in your search. She'll be bringing us more information on the subject when she guest posts for us right here next week.

However, critique groups pose a unique set of problems. They're usually made up of other newbie writers. Who often give terrible advice.

So why am I telling you to join one?

Because writing in a vacuum is worse. Writing without feedback can waste tons of time. And critique groups are made up of other writers, so they understand the process. They know about s***y first drafts and the need to improve them.

You can effectively use groups to improve your writing skills and polish your book if you:

  • Learn to read between the lines.
  • Always consider the source.
  • Wear your psychic armor and ignore everything that's irrelevant. 

When there's a problem with your opener, the thriller writer will say you need more violence and the poet will say you need more description. The budding romance writer may suggest you show the heroine looking in the mirror describing her appearance, and the scifi author wants to land a spaceship on the roof.

They're very likely all wrong.

But now you know you need to rework the opener. Go read some articles on how to start a novel or how not to start a novel, rewrite and take it back to the group. If you've learned from what you've read, they probably won't feel the need for spaceships and mirrors anymore.

If there's a problem with clarity, you'll get suggestions to slow it down, speed it up, add a prologue and/or a flashback, or have the characters explain what's going on in dialogue.

Those are probably all bad ideas, too.

But now you know you've got confused readers. What you've learned is you need to spell things out more clearly.

In other words, critique groups draw your attention to places where you have problems. The members may not know how to fix those problems, but what they choose to talk about can help you focus on what needs work.

Groups that meet in person offer the benefit of actual human contact, but online groups are helpful too.

Either type works better if it has a strong moderator who enforces the rules and keeps the conversation focused on improving the work...not furthering the critiquers' personal agendas.

As bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde says, "nobody does anything without an agenda, conscious or not." She has a great piece on "The Care and Feeding of your Critiquers' Agendas" our book How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.  

Which is, ahem, only 99c this week on an Amazon countdown special. See details below.

BTW, Catherine's new novel Take me With You hit #3 on Amazon this week and it made #1 in about six categories. I'm in awe of this woman.

Good moderators keep the feedback from being one-sided: either all negative or all positive. The best critique is a sandwich: two bits of praise surrounding one piece of criticism.

For an excellent, comprehensive set of guidelines read Sharyl Heber's Critique Group Guidelines written for the SLO Nightwriters.

Unfortunately, even with good moderation, groups can lose sight of their purpose and end up fulfilling the needs of the most dominant members of the group rather than helping ALL members produce their best work.

So it's good to be aware of what type of group you're dealing with so you can get the most out of their feedback and ignore the stuff that's not relevant to your own writing goals.

Groups of any kind can fall into bad habits. I've been in dozens of writing groups over the years, and I've seen how one or two members can often change the nature of a group entirely. Here are a few common deviations from the solid critique group we're all looking for. Some can be repaired, but sometimes you just have to move on.


1) The Literary Salon


This kind of group is usually dominated by readers and writers of literary fiction. There will probably be a couple of poets and a memoirist or two. They may write brilliantly and have a vast knowledge of literature, but their critiques can be less than helpful. They often veer off topic to discuss a recent article in the New York Review of Books or the Paris Review.

They tend to be old school, so won't consider self-publishing. They may send out a few half-hearted queries comparing their work to Kerouac, Joyce, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but probably don't attempt to get published outside of small literary journals.

They can have very useful things to say about character and setting, and are probably fantastic at helping you weed out clichés. But on plot and structure, they can be pretty useless.

What to ignore: 


These people will tell you (with great authority) that you must describe each tree and rock your heroine passes while running from the Orc army into the Forest of Doom. They want every nuance of emotion recorded while your starfighter hero is battling the droid hordes from Betelgeuse. They abhor cliff-hangers and want "closure" for every scene. Ignore this stuff if you are writing to sell.

The fix: 


Ask that every writer state their genres and the kind of feedback they're looking for before they read. A logline can be very helpful too.

If you remind people you're asking for feedback on a political thriller, they may have more helpful suggestions than "add more description of the landscape" and if you know you're critiquing a metaphysical meditation on the oneness of the universe, you won't be as likely to say "where are the zombies?"

2) The Enforcers


These people never met a writing rule they didn't love. They want to enforce each one with a "zero tolerance" policy. At least one member is convinced the Harlequin submission guidelines were etched on stone tablets by the Almighty.

For them it's all about finding and shaming the rule-breakers, not improving their fellow writers' work.

They tell you the word "was" is taboo. (For more on this see my post on the "was" police) They insist on no prologues, EVER. They tell you a book can't (or must) be written in the first person or present tense. They have a search-and-destroy policy concerning adverbs. 

What to ignore: 


The dogma. Always ask yourself, "would this change strengthen or weaken my story?" and "who invented this rule?" Do their suggestions give you an "ah-ha" moment, or make you want to toss the baked brie in the critiquer's face? 

The fix:


Pay attention but keep your shaker of salt handy. Sometimes the "rules" can hold a key to a big improvement in your writing. I once went to a workshop where an enforcer hated the word "just". I went through my work when I got home and discovered my overuse of the word was almost comical. 90% of the time, I could just eliminate the word and my sentence was stronger.

On the other hand, these people can drive you nuts. Humor sometimes helps, and using some in your own critiques may help. But mostly you have to put up your personal deflector shields and let a lot of it bounce off.

3) Group Therapy


One of the most common pitfalls for writing groups is the tendency to slip into psychotherapy. This happens most often if there are several memoirists in the group who are working on their break-up, wartime, or health issues through writing.

The line between creating and confessing gets very thin. (And some people use their writing to dump their troubles on the group.)

Critiquers often feel they should give supportive, "attaboy" feedback, no matter what the quality of the writing.

There can also be an element of the "suffering contest," if two or more memoirists are using the group to detail the horrors that tragified their lives.    

When you're hoping to get a little help with the plotting of your chick lit novel or breezy romance, you can feel like you're crashing the pity party.

You're also going to get terrible advice from the tender-hearted members who have fits whenever your protagonist makes bad choices. They want you to stop every character from dancing with the judgemental aristocrat, fighting the fascists in Spain, or accepting the owl's invitation to wizard school (who would be dumb enough to do that?) Plotting is not their strong point.

What to ignore: 


Almost all of it. You joined the group to polish your writing, not practice medicine without a license. There's a reason shrinks get paid the big bucks to listen to this stuff.

The fix: 


Give professional, balanced critiques when it's your turn. Groups like this can be kind of toxic, so unless there are enough members who can rein in the psychotherapy drama you may have to move on. Especially if you write comedy or light fiction. (And remember laughter really is the best medicine.)

4) The Golden Girls


A group that consists mostly of an older demographic can sometimes be dominated by people with memory issues. (Hey, age happens to all of us, with any luck!) But this means critiques of longer works like memoir and novels can be difficult because people don't remember what they heard in the last installment.

What to ignore: 


They'll insist that you remind the reader of plot points and character relationships in every chapter. Don't do it! This can result in repetition that can turn your book into a repetitive mess. They also may want to go off on tangents about how this story reminds them of the time back in '65…

The fix: 


Try giving a short "in our last episode" recap before each reading. A logline helps too, as a reminder to people that this is a chapter in a mystery or a romance or a thriller and the action is moving toward a certain goal. If reminiscences start to take over, you may need a stronger moderator who will time the critiques.


5) The Punctuation Police


Some groups ask that members bring printed copies of their work to hand out to everybody in the group. This can be super-useful if you need help with proofreading, but meetings that use printed pages can often devolve into drawn-out arguments over use of the Oxford comma.

Groups that focus on grammar will do very little to help with your overall storytelling skills, but if you want to brush up on basic skills or need a proofreader, they're great.

What to ignore: 


This isn't so much a case of ignoring something as going elsewhere for useful feedback on character, setting, story arc, plotting etc. These people can be golden for proofreading, so the group can be very valuable.

The fix: 


Try not printing out the pages for several meetings. Just read aloud and give feedback on the characters and story instead of the punctuation.

6) The Coffee Klatch


This is the group that never quite gets around to more than a couple of critiques per meeting because so much of the time is spent catching up on personal news and enjoying elaborate refreshments.

Providing the refreshments can become a competitive sport. If the group meets in the evening there may be some lovely wine.

Groups like this can be a godsend to a writer who's been holed up in a writing cave for years and needs some human contact, but their feedback is usually skimpy. Groups like this can be made up mostly of hobbyist writers who only want to share a few written reminiscences or verses with the group, but aren't on a path to publication.

What to ignore: 


Don't get sucked by the illusion you're doing anything to improve your craft at these meetings. Treat it as a social event where you'll get much needed moral support. But if you're on a career track, don't let them hold you back.

The fix: 


If you find that giving an honest critique gets cold stares, look for people in the group who are hoping to be career writers and suggest you meet separately for a small no-nonsense workshop. Serve only water. (In my experience, alcohol—or other mind-altering substances—and critiques do not mix.)

7) The Reality Checkers


There are groups where the fact-checkers hold sway. These are super detail-oriented people who want a novel to be as close to real life as possible.

They want everything to be "realistic" down to knowing when and where your heroine goes to the bathroom when she's running from the mutant raccoons on Mars. Their most scathing criticism is that your scene is "like something out of a (insert your the latest blockbuster) movie."

They will be sure to point out that your Regency duke will have terrible B.O. after fighting off those ruffians, so the kiss the heroine has been anticipating for 30 pages would not be the glorious experience you describe.

They will never let you use the word "gun": you must give the make and caliber every time anybody gets off a shot during the battle between the sentient sea lions and the Norwegian mafia Lutefisk-smuggling ring.

What to ignore: 


Anything that gets you bogged down in detail or defies accepted genre conventions in order to be more "realistic." A novelist is not a news reporter. As James Patterson says, "I don't write realism. I write larger than life. It's what I do." What Patterson also does is sell more books than any other writer in the world.

The fix: 


If only one or two people in the group are hung up on tedious details, give them a nice smile and ignore them. If the whole group stresses mundane details at the expense of story, you probably need a new group.

8) The Poetry Slam


Whether or not the members are actual poets, some groups turn out to be less like critique groups and more like competitive poetry readings. These groups can be full of people who want to perform, but tune out when anybody else is reading.

Their critiques may careen from lavish praise to savage criticism, or they may order you to write an entirely new plot, which they will outline for you in detail. That's because they will say anything that allows them to hold the floor as long as possible.

These people can build you up one week and say devastating things the next—anything that comes into their heads—entirely without empathy. You are not real to them: you are just a bit of warm protoplasm that makes up their "audience."

What to ignore: 


Most of what the prima donnas say. They probably didn't listen to more than a few sentences of your piece anyway, so their comments are irrelevant.

The fix: 


If there are enough people in the group who do listen, and their feedback is useful, you might suggest timed critiques.

9) The Mutual Admiration Society


Like the Coffee Klatch, this group is all about schmoozing and bolstering flagging egos. To give them credit, these people are not focused on the ginger-pear Linzer torte and imported Gewürztraminer. They are actually interested in the work.

Unfortunately, everything brought for critique is always wonderful! marvelous!! and worthy of publication in The New Yorker and YOU MUST SEND IT OFF RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! They don't want you to change a thing.

What to ignore: 


The illusion your work can't be improved. Groups like this can send clueless newbies out into the mean streets of publishing where they'll be devastated by real-world feedback.

The fix: 


You might start by asking for specifics on your own work. If you are having trouble choosing whether to go on with the book in first person or switch to third, or add a prologue, or delete a character or whatever, ask each member to to state an opinion.

Or join a second group, maybe online. Don't leave this group—praise is hard to come by in this business, but look for some balance

10) The Vicious Circle


This group is dominated by a handful of Dorothy Parker-wannabes who are waiting for the right moment to slip a verbal dagger into your heart.

They may have published a few things—which they feel makes them "experts"—but it was probably some time ago.

Like in college. When they got some harsh feedback from the writer-in-residence, who may have used words like "puerile", "self-indulgent", and "derivative."

Since then, they've been honing their bitterness till it cuts like a samurai sword.

They have a way of sighing before they deliver their scathing critiques that shows how much pain your very existence is causing them.

It only takes one or two of these—plus their devoted (and fearful) minions—to turn a critique group into one of the darker circles of hell.

A workshop like this at a well-known writers' conference was the inspiration for my comic mystery, Ghostwriters in the Sky. I got to kill off the workshop leader who created this Vicious Circle. Very satisfying.

What to ignore. 


Every. Single. Word. People like this are operating from a place of envy and fear. Nothing they say can help you, because they're only half-listening to your piece. They're too busy rehearsing their bitter bon mots.

The fix: 


Run! Get out while you still have the will to live. 

Know your Goals


The main thing a writer should consider when joining a critique group is the group's goals. The level of skill of the participants isn't as important as knowing whether the members are working toward publication or if attending the group is an end in itself: either for therapy, company, or an audience.

As Jeannie Miernik said in a comment on Ruth's great post on editing last week, "love of rewriting and editing is what separates serious writers from people who just have an emotional need for an audience."

If you're on a career track and want to polish a WIP for publication, you'll get little help from a hobbyist writing group who enjoy "in class" writing exercises and book club-type general discussion.

There's nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. As I've written before, it's a great hobby. There's only a problem when career-track and hobby writers mix without being clear on their needs.

And the most important thing to remember when joining a critique group, as Sharyl Heber says in her critique group guidelines:

"Leave your egos at the door: You are not present to show how brilliant you are or how stupid others are. It is not about you. It is all about the work, and making it the best it can be, for ALL members. It is also about supporting ALL members to enhance their skills. You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others. No need to ‘defend’ your work. If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group."

So put on your armor, learn to consider the source, and jump in. These people may turn out to be your best friends and support as you fight the perils of today's publishing world.

And if you haven't seen it, check out David Congalton's wonderful film, Authors Anonymous, a gentle satire of a critique group where some members are on a career track and the others…not so much.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever been in any of these groups? How did you deal with it? Do you prefer online or in-person groups? Do you have any other "rogue critique group" types to add? Have I scared you off critique groups forever? 


BOOK OF THE WEEK


It's here! The second edition of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE is finally available in paper at Amazon US, Amazon UK! It's on sale right now for $11.69 and £10.00

PLUS the ebook is now on an Amazon Countdown: only 99c on Amazon US (99P in the UK) for the next week. The price will return to $3.99 on August 10th. 



As some of you know, Catherine and I have had one disaster after another with this book. The worst blow came a month ago when our agent left her agency and the agency unpublished the Kindle book and stopped publication of the paper book with no warning. We have now published it ourselves. With a lot of help from Jason at Polgarus Studios and the blokes at EBookBargainsUK. (I love it that we can get help from Australia and England in a matter of minutes. There are lots of things to love about the E-Age.)

You'll see a lot of books out there about how to write, and a whole lot more that promise Kindle millions. But this book is different. It helps you establish a professional writing career in this time of rapid change—and answers the questions so many writers are asking:


  • Does an author still need an agent? Can new writers still get published by Big Five publishers?
  • What about digital-only imprints, mid-sized publishers, small presses—or should everybody self-publish? How can you tell if you've found a good self-publishing partner, or a scammy vanity press?
  • Do fiction writers need a platform? What's the difference between a hook, logline and a pitch? And how are they different from the dreaded synopsis? Does an author need to worry about all that if planning to self-publish?
  • Do you need to spend endless hours on social media? Should all authors blog? What are the secrets of a successful blog? How do you cope with rejection, depression, bad reviews and other downsides of the writing profession? 

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Want to Appear in Writer's Digest? Here's how. Have you ever tried to write a book in a month-as part of NaNoWriMo, with a writing group, or just on your own? What was your experience? WD wants to hear from you. Tell them about your write-a-thon! Send your story-along with your full name, city and state to writersdigest@fwmedia.com with "BIAM" in the subject line. Responses may appear in Writer's Digest publications and/or on WritersDigest.com.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Eve 2015, Deadline: August 15th