Tag Archives: Orson Scott Card

Critique groups vs beta reading groups

Book- onstruction-sign copyEvery writer needs honest, constructive feedback in order to grow in their craft. Many will join critique or beta reading groups. These groups come in all sorts and sizes, some specializing in general fiction and some in genres like mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance.

Most communities have clusters of authors—after all, nowadays everyone either is an author or has a couple in the family . In your community you will find groups for beginners, or some that cater to more advanced crowds. I guarantee there will be one to fit your needs.

We’ve all heard the horror stories regarding critique groups, and perhaps even experienced one. Making a poor choice in writing groups can be devastating—it can undermine a budding author’s confidence and destroy a person’s joy in the craft. The seas are rough out there but many writing groups are really good, supportive gatherings of authors who stay for years and welcome new authors into their group with open arms.

Other groups can be cliquish, unwelcoming, and daunting to new arrivals. Authors just beginning to explore this necessary part of the craft will not come back to one of these groups if they were given the cold-shoulder the first time.

There is a difference in types of writing groups, too. Some are traditional critique groups, people who usually read a few pages aloud at their sessions and discuss it in detail in a round-table fashion. This sort of focus can be just right for some authors.

Because traditional critique groups focus only on 3 or 4 pages at a time, they lack the context to be able to discern if your protagonist has developed sufficiently along his character arc by the first 1/4 of the tale. However, they can tell you if you have made editing errors, and discuss small points of technique within those few pages.

Frankly, I am not interested in this kind of group.

These sorts of groups don’t have the ability to properly critique the larger picture—pacing, overall story arc, worldbuilding, character development, and on, and on–because these things can only be judged in larger context. So if, like me, that is the sort of input you are looking for, my advice is to find a beta reading group.

Critique groups cannot do what beta readers can.

But how do you select a group? Before you join a beta reading group, you have the right to know what that group focuses on. Ask yourself these questions:

beta read memeWhat do I want from this group? Orson Scott Card says the answers should be:

  1. Where did my chapter bog down?
  2. What did they think about my characters?
  3. Where did they get confused and what did they have to read twice?
  4. Did it become unbelievable or too convenient at any point?
  5. What do they think will happen to the characters now?

Then after you have sat in on one of their sessions and observed how they treat each others’ work, ask yourself, “What kind of vibes did I get from this group of people? Will I benefit from sharing my work with this group? Did the comments they made to each other sound helpful?” Hopefully, the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”

If not, run now. Run far, far away.

There are common negatives to watch out for in all writing groups: If you have stumbled into a group where the most visible member is a self-important, read-all-the-books-on-writing-so-I-know-it-all kind of a person, don’t bother joining or you’ll be subjected to many accounts of how their writing group in Minnesota was so much better than this pathetic group.

Another author you might watch out for is the ubiquitous Famous-Author-Name-Dropper, a person who must be important because she has been to a great many seminars and conventions with these famous people, and hung out in the bar with one of them once. If it turns out she is in your prospective group, it may not be the group you are looking for. Sometimes they are the same person, sometime not, but either one of these wannabe-famous authors are poison—in their eyes the group only exists to admire them, and they will causally cut your work to shreds, dismissing it as merely amateur in the face of their “professional” experience.

When you are considering joining a group, ask the leader/chairperson these questions:

  1. If the group is a beta reading group focused on first drafts, what do they consider a first draft? Do you have to hire an editor and have it thoroughly edited before you submit it to this group? Because that is not a first draft, and that group would be a waste of your time.
  2. Will you receive insights into your manuscript on points you hadn’t considered, or will the focus of the discussion centered on minor editing issues that you are already aware of?
  3. Ask the leader to define for you the specific areas that readers will be looking at: Character development, pacing the arc of the scene, pacing the arc of the conversation, worldbuilding.

So let’s say you have found a group who seems to a good bunch of people, and yes, they read and write in your genre. You trust them enough to submit your first piece to the group. After the session is over, ask yourself:

  1. Do I feel positive about my work or do I feel like my work was treated as being less than important?
  2. Did I gain anything from the experience that would advance the plot or did I just hear a rehash of arm-chair editing from a wannabe guru?

The answers to these questions have to be that you feel good about your work, that you saw through their eyes the weaknesses, and that they can be fixed.

beta read meme 2If the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and the overall arc of the chapter were overlooked in the face of fixable editing errors then you did not get the insight into the particular trouble-spot that you were looking for.

Ask yourself this: “When I was discussing the direction I wanted to take the tale in, did I sense that they were interested in my story?” If the answer is anything other than a resounding “yes” you have the right to leave the group.

New authors join writing groups feeling a great deal of trepidation, filled with uncertainty and fear. They fear being belittled and told their work is crap, and sometimes that happens. At the end of the day, you have to feel as if you have gained something from the experience.

Hopefully you will be as fortunate as I have been, and find a group of beta readers you can mesh with, people who will support and nurture you in the same way that you will them.

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First we need a reader

Printer_in_1568-ceThanks to ease with which one can now publish a book, indie publishing  is really taking off. Many people don’t even bother submitting  manuscripts to the big publishers or courting agents. I think this is, in part, due to a perception in many writing groups that “my work will just be rejected, so why bother?”

Personally, I think this is wrong. People should continue submit good work to agents and publishers, because a big publisher can do great things for their authors.

I understand both sides of this argument, and I have received my share of rejections. I am an indie, and for me, this is the best way to go. But when I look back on my earlier work, I can clearly see why it was not accepted.  I had no idea what a finished manuscript should look like, nor did I understand how to get it to look that way. I didn’t understand a story arc.

I didn’t understand how important it is to allow trusted readers to read your work while you are writing it, to insure it flows and sustains the interest.

Some authors call these intrepid heroes “first readers,” and others in the industry are now referring to them as “beta readers.” Many editing firms offer this service as a part of their package. I can hear you now–“My Cousin Earl looked at my story and he said, ‘That’s nice.’ So I sent it  to Mud Runner Magazine and they rejected it and didn’t tell me why.”

800px-Franklin_the_printerI am sorry to tell you, but Cousin Earl may not be a good choice for this task, as he is not a true beta reader. Even though you wrote an article just jam-packed with a ton of information on the advantages of using various different types of knobby tires for off-roading, Cousin Earl will not tell you anything that may hurt your feelings. He will, however, tell his wife that their kid could write a better article on four-wheeling than you did, but he’s not going to tell you. (Unless you get too drunk on Cousin Grace’s eggnog at the family Christmas party, and accidentally knock over their Christmas tree.)

I wish I had a good response for people who say things like, “But I don’t need an editor! I just need someone to tell me if it’s good or not!”  Unfortunately, my responses to such declarations are not polite, so I keep them to myself, smile and say, “That’s nice.”

You DO need to hire an editor. You need one, even if you are submitting your ms to a publisher or agent, because editors proofread, correct grammar, guide you to a good story arc. I ALSO recommend you find someone who enjoys reading the genre you are writing in to read your manuscript first before you submit it.

I have a form I send along with my manuscript. I got the questions from Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game).  Orson has also written several wonderful books on the craft of writing.  The form I now use is as follows:

Thank you for consenting to Beta read: _______________________. I am not asking for an edit, I am asking your opinion of the story, the characters and the action. This is a critical stage in the process as, once I have your feedback, I will make revisions to address issues of flow and send it to an editor for the final line-editing. These questions are from the article in ‘Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy’ by Orson Scott Card, a brilliant author in his own right.

Please make a note of the page number and the line number where you encountered a problem with the flow of the story.

1. Were you ever bored? Tell me where it got slow.

2. What did you think of the main character(s,) _______________________________?  Of the others?

3. Was there any section where you became confused? What did you have to read twice?

4. Was there any place where the story became unbelievable?

5.  What do you think will happen to the characters now?

The way you answer these questions determines the way I continue with my story.  After all, I am writing for others’ pleasure, not just for my own gratification. Even if your responses tell me things that I don’t want to hear, I heed them because I want to turn out a good story and your input is my best tool for that. So in this case, bad news is good news, because I can still rectify the problem.

Don’t ask a friend who is an editor or another author to do a casual read because they are unable to resist dicing it into small shreds and making helpful suggestions as they go, even though that is not what you are looking for with a casual read. Authors and editors are passionate about the craft and have strong opinions. Don’t ask them to read casually, because they can’t do it.

KelseyStarAdvert Now, I admit I do have many friends who are authors and who have done some beta reading for me, and while a few tend to go into great detail about things they don’t like in areas where our personal styles and tastes differ, I still get feedback that I can use to help make a better story. This is also a service many editing firms will offer, and is a “deep beta read.”

But for simple, honest opinions as to whether you have written a good story or not, I ask a non-writer who just enjoys reading for the fun of it. For me, that person is my sister, Sherrie. She is an amazing artist, and an avid reader, who understands what she likes in book and isn’t afraid to point out where she didn’t like it.

If you have a friend who fits that bill, feel free to copy the above questionnaire to a WORD document and send it as an extra attachment along with with the PDF of your manuscript. (Of course, your ms has already been formatted with line numbers, and page numbers before you send that questionnaire, right?) See The Shape of the Beast.

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Gurus, St. George and Uncle Orson

200px-Saint_George_-_Carlo_CrivelliI write stories.  I tell people what may have happened had St George not slain the last dragon and taken the fun out of life.  Obviously I am telling the tale from the position of a storyteller.

This works well in the first draft, where I can “he did” “they went” to my heart’s content, but during the second draft I must take these “telling” places and expand on them, making them more active.

Many people ask me what I think about ‘critique’ groups.

I don’t.

I don’t think about critique groups at all, as critiquing is only a small sliver of what an author needs to hear in order to get his or her work ready for submission. Any wannabe can trash another person’s work.

I have found that for every serious author, there are five posers who think they are Jane Austen and that gives them the right to “just tell the truth.”

My ears are bloody with the sounds of unpublished and unpublishable authors piously ranting about the rules and quoting self-help writing gurus as they shred a fellow author’s work in the guise of critiquing it. This is why I don’t go to the groups whose main focus is destroying the dreams of others.

I have found a group of writers who share an understanding of all the phases that a manuscript goes through before it reaches the final draft.  Comments, when solicited, are encouraging. Flaws are noted, yes, but more importantly the places where the story shines are also noted. The writer is a fragile creature–it takes very little abuse to make them bleed.

enders game orson scott cardThe award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card is one of the guru’s whose books on writing have shaped my approach to not only my own work, but how I look at the works of others.  Uncle Orson, as he refers to himself, has a fabulous website with many links to writing seminars, Hatrack River. Orson puts himself out there with his political and religious views, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he KNOWS about writing and how to write a good, readable book.

Orson’s wife is his first-reader. He has a list of questions that he asks his wife to answer in regard to his work, and the way those questions are phrased is interesting. I now use those same questions and so do my two writing groups when we are PRIVILEGED to be first readers of an author’s cherished manuscript.  This is the list as I have it in my own files, tailored to my own work:

Five Questions for The Wise Reader who is evaluating my tale:

1. Were you ever bored? Please tell me where it became slow and hard to stay with it.

2. What did you think of the main character _______________________? Of ____________________? Of _________________________?

3. Was there anything you didn’t understand? Is there any section you had to read twice? Is there any section you became confused?

4. Was there anything you did not believe? Any time you said ‘Oh come on!”

5. What do you think will happen to the characters now I am done telling their tale. What are you still wondering about? 

My goal is to eliminate any areas of boredom, implausibility and cliché and I need your help to do so!

I think that writers grow when another eye is on their work. Of course it is an uncomfortable thing to have a whole section pointed out as being repetitive and possibly irrelevant, but it’s better to hear it from trusted friends before you publish than to never know why you keep getting rejections. Agents and editors rarely have time to tell hopeful authors why their work isn’t acceptable. This is why they use the dreaded form-letter-of-rejection.

outhouse at lake bernardHaving received enough of these to wallpaper an outhouse, I can tell you honestly that we aspiring authors are left to struggle on our own and learn the craft of writing as well as we can. This means we take courses if we can afford them or we avail ourselves of the very good education we can receive via the internet.

It also means we must ask others to look at our work. Local writing groups are the best places to meet people you can trust. Perhaps you’re not a member of a writing group and you want to become involved in one, but you are afraid of having your work torn to shreds. This is a real possibility, but there are MANY groups in every community, and quite a few will have the same rules as my group does. Attend several meetings as an observer before you commit to bringing any of your work. Once you see how they treat each other’s work you will know what you can expect from them.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, regardless. Don’t let the occasional bully stop you from growing and achieving your dream.

And this brings me back to where I started–trying to take an idea as it was laid down in the first draft, tell the story and yet show the action without going off the rails in either direction–showing OR telling.  As a reader I cut my teeth on Louisa May Alcott and J.R.R.Tolkien. They were authors who knew how to TELL a story and I lived it as they told it. Nowadays it takes a special sort of reader to enjoy classics as they were originally written, because they were rife with telling and not showing.

The second draft is much easier when it comes to laying out the action.  In the first draft I know what is supposed to happen at a given point, but I don’t always know how to show it, so I have a conversation that tells what happened. In the second draft I take those conversations out and replace them with the event.

Now I must have my characters go forth with their swords and kill me a dragon. We’re done talking about it boys! Show mama what ya got!

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