Monday, September 26, 2011

Doing Your Duty as a Beta Reader

Since I've only beta read one book thus far (Pursuit of a Dream the first book in the Victory Lane Chronicles by Rob Pruneda, available on Smashwords for a steal at $0.99), I can't say that I'm an expert on the matter.  However, as a writer, I do know the importance I place on what I do and I would hope that those who choose to become beta readers would understand and appreciate this importance and place the same amount of it on the books they're critiquing.  Beta reading is a very rewarding experience (no matter what side of the fence you're on.  On one hand, it gives you the opportunity to read the works of other writers, unpublished or published.  For me, reading the books of others gives me a new perspective on my own work.  It gives me ideas on how I can better my writing and, in some cases, on what I'm doing wrong.  Being the recipient of beta reading opens up your eyes (and makes your stomach turn with anticipation while you await the results).  Other people are naturally going to see things that would have otherwise completely eluded you, whereby giving you insight on what you're doing wrong--or right for that matter. No matter whether you intend on e-publishing or going the traditional route, I highly recommend the usage of beta readers to give your work that extra polishing.

As I mentioned, my experience with beta reading is limited, but I still like to think that I know what qualities to look for in a person who is going to beta read my work and what qualities I believe you, as a beta reader, should exhibit when evaluating the manuscripts of others:

Don't worry about hurt feelings:  Your most important job as a beta writer is to be honest.  It's not doing the author of the book you're reading any kind of service for you to sugarcoat any criticisms you may have.  As writers, one of the first things we have to develop is a thick skin.  Harsh words come with the territory.  The fact is, not everyone is going to LOVE your book (shocking, I know).  As a beta reader, you need to point out all the errors in the plot, the predictable dialogue, the errors in grammar, and--worst case scenario--whether a major re-write is going to be needed in order to salvage the book. You're there to give your honest opinion; that's why the author asked you to beta read for them in the first place.  If they're a reasonable person, they'll be able to take the verdict they receive and better their work.  If they're not, then they were never ready to handle their work being beta read in the first place.

Never beta read the works of your friends/family:  There is no way you can be 100% truthful and unbiased with those you care about.  Think of it as the crappy children's art syndrome. Okay, perhaps that's a little harsh, but for those of you with kids, you may know what I'm talking about.  When your child brings you that "puppy" they drew that looks more like an atomic bomb exploded in a room full of Smurfs, your reaction isn't, "What the hell is this crap?" It's more like, "Oh my gosh, sweety.  This is so beautiful!"  And you mean it, for the most part.  When you read the works of those you care about, like it or not, there are blinders that naturally appear.  What one may perceive as awful, another may perceive as needing only a slight tweaking.  Even if those blinders never show up, there is still the thought that you are going to have to see these people on a regular basis and you don't want your words to have completely shattered their dreams (making for a very awkward Thanksgiving). Read the works of close friends and family for fun, but never go beyond that.  Giving someone false feedback is never helpful.

Break out your fine-toothed comb:  Next to being honest, a beta reader needs to be thorough.  Read each page, digest every sentence.  Don't just look for those errors that stand out, look for those errors that are camouflaged in the midst of otherwise flawless, beautiful writing. Be watchful of small glitches in detail.  Did a character leave his or her coat at home and it has now magically appeared while said character is in the midst of a 600 mile road trip?  Are the characters being true to the original picture the author painted?  Is the story flowing like a babbling brook or is it slowly trudging uphill in a snowstorm? After reading their book a hundred times over, the author tends to become blind to the obvious; their minds mentally correct the mistakes.  Beta readers provide new eyes and have the capability of spotting those errors in detail missed by the authors after their 101st read-through.

When in doubt about a grammar/spelling error refer to sources:  Break out the dictionaries, thesauruses, and various other books on the proper usage of commas, semi-colons and em-dashes.  None of us are experts nor do we always avoid making grammatical errors.  If you don't know whether something is wrong, refer to the sources.  If you still don't know afterwards, then throw a suggestion in anyway.  At least this will give the author something to think about while simultaneously quieting the nagging monkey on your back.

Avoid discouragement:  As much as you need to be honest with your criticisms, you should never tell an author to give up on their dreams.  All writing is subjective.  There are published authors out there whose books I prefer not to read as their writing style doesn't do anything for me.  But, they're published authors and they have a fan base that I can only dream of.  Give the author your honest opinion, point out what doesn't work and what you didn't care for.  However, never under any circumstances tell them to quit what they love nor discourage them from writing more in the future.  Encourage re-writes and offer to read them once they've completed them.  Just because their writing doesn't work for you doesn't mean it won't for others who read it.

Your Preference v. Their Writing: Let's face it, we all have our different tastes and there are just certain books you see on the bookshelf that, although they may be well-written, simply just don't appeal to you because you're not into love triangles, ghosts, robots, cowboys or talking rodents. Hence the existence of genres.  Chances are, unless you stick to beta reading exclusively from your own genre, you're going to be asked to critique a book containing subject matter that appeals very little to you, if at all.  This is where you need to put your own preferences aside without allowing them to bias your opinion and focus on the writing itself.  Sure, you may rather endure Chinese water torture than read a shoot-em-up Western, but you can't let that stop you from focusing on sentence structure, plot lines, grammar, character development, dialogue and all the other jazz that comprises truly great writing.

Timeliness and Follow-Through:  When you agree to take on somebody else's work, you're essentially agreeing to make it a priority.  Granted, there are those unforeseen events in life that can act as a set back to your duties as a beta writer, but you should still keep on top of things by shooting the author a quick e-mail letting them know where you're at in the book, your thoughts thus far, and a reasonable time frame for completion.  Yes, being thorough takes time, but that doesn't make it acceptable to begin another writer's work when the snow is flying only to finally complete it while you're sitting on your back porch in your bikini sipping a mojito. When you agree to take on someone else's work, you agree to make it as important to you as it is to them and to honor the fact that they have their own deadlines and expectations of when they'd like to see their work completed.

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever beta read for someone else?  Ever had a bad experience with the beta reading process?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Art of Naming Your Characters

As I enter my fourth month of pregnancy (which is the good news I mentioned in a previous blog before things in my family went downhill), I'm starting to contemplate the all important conundrum that all parents face:  What in the world am I going to name this new bundle of joy?  For some couples--those super anal-way-too-organized-pairs-who-already-have-a-list-of-names-to-go-on--this essential part of child rearing was accomplished before conception even took place.  For the rest of us, there's countless hours of pouring over baby name books, looking up names on the Internet, and thinking of the names of those individuals in high school who annoyed the holy hell out of us--and avoiding the usage of their names like the plague.  There's arguing with our spouses over the aversion to some names as they sound too stripperish and beating our heads against the wall when the only names they suggest are also their favorite beverages (i.e. Bailey, Bud, Miller, Gin-ny, Jack, Daniel, Jim, Jose, etc--although we did end up naming our daughter Bailee so I guess, in a sense, he won that argument).  In the case of my husband and I, we have chosen not to find out the gender of our baby and, in essence, have thrown ourselves into the seventh circle of hell as we now have to come up with TWO names instead of one.  And so begins five months of nothing but arguments.

All joking aside, naming a child is something that a parent absolutely cannot eff up for reasons too numerous to yammer off.  The name you bestow upon your child sticks with them for the rest of their life.  It defines them, often painting a mental picture of them to those who've never personally met them.  For example, the name Bertha conjures up an image of a portly woman who could mop the floor with my ass any day of the week.  Whereas the name Fifi, on the other hand, brings to mind the image of one who is prim, proper, and dons and overabundance of pink. 

Since finding the perfect name for the real characters in our life is so important, shouldn't finding just the right name for our literary characters be equally so?  Like it or not, your readers are scrutinizing your characters and forming their own mental pictures of them based upon the names you've given them even before they get to actually "know" the characters themselves (and most of the time those mental images are completely skewed). 

As writers our goal is to write a story that resonates with our readers; one that leaves them both fulfilled and wanting for more.  We're like entertainers on paper whose duty it is to keep their eyes glued to the pages and their rears in their seats.  An essential part of this lies within the characters we create for our audience and associating names with those characters that they won't soon forget.  For instance, who doesn't know who Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, Howard Roark, and (unfortunately) Edward Cullen is?  I have to say that I will never be able to hear any of those names (either first or last) without associating them instantly with those characters. This is something we as writers need to accomplish and why finding the perfect names for our characters is so important. 

Therefore, the following is a list of questions to ponder prior to naming your literary bundles of joy:

1.  Is the name appropriate for who the character is or the image you want to convey?--Who is your character?  Are they a manly man or a string bean?  If the latter is true, then you may not want to go with Hercules, Steel, Tank, or Chuck Norris as names for this particular character (unless you're writing satire, then those will work just fine).  For a less than He-Man-like image, stick with names such as Mortimer, Leonard or Frankie--otherwise known as names that don't exactly scream sex symbol (no offense to the Mortimers, Leonards and Frankies out there). If you decide to use a more conventional first name, think of a last name that would convey the way you picture your character.  As writers, we need to get to know our characters; envision them in our minds; then put a great amount of thought in how we label them.  What names fit?  What ones miss the mark?  If there's a particular image you're trying to convey, amplify it with a name that makes your reader think, Yeah, that sounds like a Jessica.

2.  How memorable is the name?--Granted you don't want to go overboard with choosing your characters' names, but you also don't want to pick names like John Smith, Jane doe, or Mike Jones either.  Using  a combination of first names and surnames which your readers may hear on a regular basis will make your characters seem generic.  Pick an interesting yet simple combination of names that will both stand out to your readers and keep your characters from fading into the background.

3.  What's the character's ethnic background?--If you're creating a character who has a distinct ethnicity--say Irish, for example--and you name your character Vladmir Jankowski, you may find yourself creating a dark smudge on the otherwise flawless picture you're trying to paint.  Know you're character's family background.  Research common names associated with their ethnicity.  Sure it's fine to deviate every once in a while, but make sure there is a reason for this deviation that your readers will understand without leaving them puzzled and wondering how your Japanese protagonist can have Smith as their last name without having been adopted.

4.  From what era is the character from?--I sincerely hope that none of you out there are seriously considering naming a character from the 1800's Makenzie, Shaniqua, Dakota, Skyler or Hannah Montana.   If you want your stories to be believable, you need to research your characters names just as you would the events surrounding their story.  Using trendy names from 2011 is going to seem incredibly out of place on characters who lived 40, 50, 75 or 100 years earlier.  Use search engines to look up those names that were popular back in the days of yesteryear.  The Social Security Administration has an index of popular names that goes back quite a ways (how far, I'm not certain). 

But, what if you don't want a common name?  What if you still want your characters names to be somewhat original?  Just because you select a name that fits the era you're writing about doesn't mean you're going to be stuck with a Frederick or a Mabel.  Pick a name toward the bottom of the list.  You may be surprised at how "trendy" some of those names were back in the day.

Fun fact:  The present day "female" names Ashley and Madison were, at one point in history, exclusively names for males.

5.  Is there meaning behind the name?--Does your protagonist enjoy gardening, have a fondness for animals, or a love for the water.  What about names such as Violet, Faun, or Brooke?  Perhaps their name could foreshadow events in their lives.  Maybe they're named after a special relative.  You don't have to get too literal with your fictional children's names, just have fun with them.  Incorporate a special meaning behind them and the story.  Make them relate to something in your life. By doing this you'll make them seem more real and believable which will only add to their overall development.

6.  Research surnames--As I stated above, surnames are just as important as first names.  Make your surnames match up with your character's background.  Look up popular names from different countries around the world to acquaint yourself with names that would be believable to your readers and fit the person you're trying to create.

7.  Are you going overboard on the exotic?--As a writer, I love creating names that I never heard before (which is widely done in science fiction).  The name of the heroine in my first novel is a combination of two different names and one that I've not personally come across (but is one that is not too out there in the feasibility department).  Although it's fun to get creative, authors need to rein in their creative liberties to consider their readers when naming their characters.  For instance, how hard is the name to pronounce?  As a reader, there's only so many times I want to tackle Shenaboquazowalskimich in a manuscript.  Keep your names unique, but simple.  After all, we want our characters to be memorable for all the right reasons.

8.  How overused is the name?--There are certain names that are a dime a dozen (John, Jacob, Jingleheimerschmidt).  Although writers can't avoid using common names altogether, I believe that they should try to incorporate the uncommon into their story.  Take Esther or Winifred, for example.  If you're writing a novel set in the present day, these names are not exactly ones you would hear every five minutes.  Consider the untrendy and write your characters in such a way that the unpopular seems trendy.

Okay fellow writers.  What are some names that you find unforgettable?  Names you automatically turn to when writing?  Names you have vowed to stay away from?  How do you find that perfect name?


Thanks to the wonderful Rob Pruneda @Sharkbaitwrites on Twitter, I have renewed faith in the potential of my first novel Enigma Black and am going gung ho on revisions.  This means that I may not post much in the next month (though I will try to get at least one per week out).  I've decided to check into smaller publishing companies first and then Kindle and/or Smashwords if those don't pan out.  My goal is to get something accomplished in the next three months so, hopefully, you'll be seeing my first novel out very soon!