Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.

Start Over

Was it possible that I had found my calling only to discover that I really sucked at it? Could the world be that cruel? I was certain it could. But somehow, whether from sheer stubbornness or a refusal to accept what I believed to be the truth, I stuck with it. It was not until years later that I would understand that doubt is oftentimes a good signifier of talent, that it actually is talent.

Eugene Cross, “A Powerful Sort of Doubt”

Image found here

How many times when I’ve graded student essays or edited friends’ stories do I cover their pages with my ink, tracking heavy with my changes? All those notes, edits, deletions, additions–they are my well-intentioned help. Right?

Many times, without saying it directly, I’ve basically shouted to apprentice writers, Start over. This sucks. 

Now it’s my turn, and I mean, really my turn.

My agent has asked me to start over.

I’ve wrestled with every kind of reaction, ranging from

  • Oh he-e-e-e-ell no. I’ve done three major revisions this past year–and several before that!
  • Start over? Sure. I’ll leave traditional publishing and start over with self-publishing!
  • But so-and-so on such-and-such bestseller list commits worse literary sins than I! 
  • But-but-but I won that award for the first 100 pages!
  • Maybe 16 year-olds I know won’t read this.
  • Maybe I really do need to rip this thing up.
This is a crossroads moment where I’ve had to consult spirit and soul (they’re very helpful if I would shut up once in a while) and where I’ve leaned on every patient family member and friend. My husband gets the medal alongside my parents, sister, and several pals who’ve heard the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement of my literary crisis.
Crisis! That’s what HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is lacking. It’s a post-po-mo sort of meandering trek through a lot of cool scenes with sharp dialogue. And these scenes lead nowhere for the modern YA reader–the 16 year-old girl who might willingly gobble up my book, writ right. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that however interesting my current draft might be to me, I have the opportunity to attempt what Sarah, my agent, asks and do what I’ve coached other writers of all ages: Come on, give it the old college try.
So what if you started this story in 2009. So what if it’s 2012. So what if people’s interest in Michael Jackson, Tim Tebow, Millennials, and various cultural phenomena might be waning–elements your book echoes–because remember–REMEMBER!–your book was not written to showcase these folks or hop aboard a pop culture train. Will this book sustain interest? Will it sell? These are the questions my agent is asking, and she’s asking me to forget the prior drafts, forget the sweat and enslavement, to see the work anew and ask myself, What’s the story? What is the story.

Serious writers walk hand in hand with doubt. Author Eugene Cross reminds us in “A Powerful Sort of Doubt” to stay doubtful. Serious writers know when to listen to a range of voices and when to cover their ears and yell la-la-la-la-la. Serious writers can be coached and still not compromise.

That’s right, coached. The image of the author in the garret struggling to write alone is no more for me. In fact, I abandoned that pose back in 2003 when I applied for an intensive week-long workshop with author Doris Betts. There I met lifelong writer pals Nancy, Bob, Susan, and David–all with fascinating writing projects and blogs. The moment you give your baby up to the group for commentary, and they dig in with knives, cheers, and questions, you’ve sent the world a message that you care what it thinks.

To brainstorm through your outline with someone else–to trust that someone else might know audience and story development better–to gamble away scenes, characters, and assumptions–that’s a tall order for me. But these last two weeks, I’ve been doing it. I’ve sent off a two new synopses with the faith that around this blind curve is a new story line, like a freshly-paved road.

What do I want to be doing 20 years from now? What will get me published without losing my artistic integrity? Those two questions juggle career, audience, publishing, muse, and soul for me. I will try to keep Wendy who she is while taking her on a new journey in her present. Starting over could mean scrap Wendy’s past history of abuse and make her live it in real time–a tall order for sure. How I will keep her unique faith in Michael Jackson’s sainthood is another challenge. All of this overhaul is in the quest to get Wendy to actively pursue something very focused in the present, react to real conflict and change with simplified action, and to then resolve the crisis that forced her out of her cave.

I may also try this and find none of it works. I have to live today in that not knowing of the restart.

In all the one-on-one tutorials and thousands of coaching words I provided students, I never directly said, Start over, but perhaps I said, Good start, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Or maybe I said, Let’s go back to your outline. I know teachers who write alongside their students, crafting the same academic papers, and if time permits (which it does not), it certainly is an ideal exercise. For all those years I didn’t start over with my kids, well, rest assured I am doing it now.

What goes around, comes around, kiddos. In the end, we all have to sweat after our grades and our dreams. And what I’m asking today is how I will get an A in this market and whether it will be worth the sacrifice. I must live in the gray, that hybrid space of not knowing my next steps, and see if my head, heart, and soul can hang with the twists and turns.

Writing Prompts:

  • There’s a hand out called “20 Ways to Say ‘You’re Wrong,'” meant for teachers to use while steering kids toward better answers in discussion. What are some ways you tell people No, start over, but nicely? How has one of those situations led to a difficult but meaningful encounter? Is there a story there?
  • Is your writing market-driven or muse-driven or both? How do you know? Write a love letter to your manuscript and tell it what it needs to hear about its integrity and purpose.
  • Write a poem called “To Market, To Market.”
  • How badly do you want to be published? What are you willing to do–and not do–to see your name in official print from a traditional publisher?
  • How does your coaching of other writers (whether young students or professional colleagues) reflect honesty and kindness? How can we be better critics of one another’s work? 
  • Go find a piece that’s not working and start over. 

Juicy Revision

Image found here

When my husband and I tried our new juicer this past weekend, we had some adventures. Pulp started spraying everywhere–on us, the counter, the floor. Turns out the pulp container wasn’t secured properly. It is truly a pulp catcher, therefore be advised not to leave even the smallest of gaps between it and the machine or the vegetables will turn violent. Once that got fixed, our juice emerged without further incident.

Juicing is all the rage now because it gives us quick access to micronutrients. I’m turning to it because I recently saw the documentary FAT, SICK, AND NEARLY DEAD and felt compelled to improve my diet. My excuse for eating too much processed food is that I have a busy job, almost 90 minutes of commuting per day, and a writer’s life stuffed into every nook and cranny. I’ve eaten more turkey sandwiches than I can count.
I’ve only so far tried one of the Mean Green recipes that Joe Cross recommends from his documentary, but I love it. I love the fresh sting of ginger, the sweetness of apple, and the bite of lemon. I love knowing I’m getting kale and carrot straight into my system. Last night we tried lime, lemon, celery, kale,  parsley, and green apple. Excellent.

Writers are forever cursed with seeing symbol, and pathetic fallacy or not, we get ideas from life and its objects constantly. That ol’ living-to-write curse: our dramas and struggles grip the juicer, too, and get mirrored in the fruits and veggies. So of course you know where this is headed: how juicing = writing and pulp catcher = revision in that classic metaphor equation.

The pulp is that frothy, fuzzy, even fluffy mix of rind and pith and whatever the juicer sees fit to reject (who am I to question the wisdom of the Breville). It’s no doubt healthy and even edible. But it must go. To get a consumable juice for our best drinking pleasure and dietary benefit, you need to let go of the pulp. My husband tried some last night, because it is kind of pretty, and he said, “You know what? It’s bitter.”

Obvious connection, right? Discard pulp just like you rid your draft of excess weight? But when that pulp started spraying and we feared for seconds we had a bum juicer, I was reminded how revision scares and singes like the devil. I was also reminded that we writers can step up with a clinical, mechanical eye and crush what’s needed to squeeze out the essence. And that what glitters ain’t always worth keeping in the manuscript.

Take my most recent revision of my novel. When I opened the manuscript sent back to me by my agent, Sarah Heller, with line edits, it looked like half of it was gone. Red lines through close to 80 pages told me that no matter how delicious or pretty, what I deemed sophisticated turns of phrase, incandescent imagery, and character-rich spates of dialogue did not advance the story.  “Nothing has happened by page 150,” Sarah told me. “Young adults don’t give a s*** about this scene, that bit, this part..”

I’m an abuser of the editorial comment. I must be contained, if not squeezed into silence. What was it I was preaching in 2008 about my art of editorializing?

So I opened a new Word doc titled “Excess” (I have one for every manuscript of a short story and as many of these as there are drafts of a novel) and dumped about 75 pages of pulp there.

Pulp includes those “telling” words and phrases–lines I deemed witty that only emphasized a point already made. Sarah showed me how I’d already shown things, that the reader gets it, and momentum slows when the supposed darlings stay. My eyes began to see where whole pages were fluff in the way of people getting the story.

Because this was round three for me with agent edits and draft 20-something since I began the novel in December 2009, I felt confident–more like machine than weak, defensive, and emotional writer. In this equation I have become the juicer and though I’m not as sleek or efficient as a Breville, I could juice out a draft worthy of a next read.

Some passages I couldn’t part with and my head found a way to make them advance the story (we hope). If Sarah needs to cross through them a second time, then so be it. What is nutritious is in the eye of the agent and the market. YA wants under 75,000 words; YA wants page-turner; YA wants youth focus, not adult focus. My agent pared away the rind and leaves and stalks that I think make fruit oh so pretty.  Because of teen taste. Because we want to sell this thing.

I also find it interesting that the pulp container sometimes catches whole pieces of apple. Maybe because we didn’t buy the Cadillac version out there; maybe because the juicer saw a bad part of apple. Who knows. The point is, I’m not going to be digesting that bit; the wilderness that is our yard will. And that’s okay. My stomach is only so big; my eyes might want it all, but reality says, all things in moderation.

After each juicing, the pulp container is FULL. The juice emerges bright green, bright orange. Beautiful.  I drink it, and my evening cravings have disappeared. I’m eating less, yet, eating more.

Writing Prompts

  • Are you a writing machine or hopelessly human? Do you cling to your words or do you know how to toss them? Why do you think you cling so hard?
  • Find a juicy piece of writing. (Do not go to a first draft.) Recall how you juiced it. What was your secret?
  • Research your favorite writer and find out his or her secret for juicing.
  • If you struggle desperately with revision, try one or more of these exercises with a draft already in existence. 1) Write a paragraph of 100 words and then insist on it being 50. 2) Leave a draft for three days and return to it with a new name and hat on (for example, if you are a romance writer, you are now Romance Reader Rita who has ‘tude and little time; you are Mystery Mike, or Young Adult Yancey, and you have no patience for excess. Read with an evil eye aiming to laser away excess and pitch the story at the first distraction. 3) Meet with an English teacher or a writer you respect, buy them a latte, and ask them to bring a red pen. Suck it up when they cross through more than half your draft.
  • Ask yourself these questions to see if you have the support (machine) you need to juice a revision out of your writing: Do you have a log line, a 25-word sentence to sum up your story, one that will highlight which parts of the story are excess? Do you have trustworthy readers who will draw lines through your work? Do you make time to read your work aloud? Do you have files labeled Excess or Beloved Darlings I’ll Be With You Again Someday so you can relinquish lines? Do you set word limits that are market standard? Do you try to enter works in contests with word limits? 

What I Know Right Now

…that if you read enough books and blogs on querying, platforms, and publishing, you do get wiser.

…that certain types of advice on querying, platforms, and publishing can sound like truth but ultimately be subjective. At this interview you might hear you shouldn’t tout your experience teaching high school students because just like parenting, teaching doesn’t make for YA expertise. Then elsewhere on a reputable blog, you’ll read that you ought to promote your teaching background, as it does show you’ve met at least 1,000 teens and might know something about their literary tastes.

…that whatever you read as an absolute “no-no” or “don’t do” in queries, heed it. If it’s a “hem-haw, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t try this,” trust yourself that if you do try it, you’ll find a clever and professional way to do so. Example: comparing your manuscript to best-sellers or beginning your query with the cliched “What if?”

…that you should listen to your Late-Night Heart. For some it might be the Early Morning Muse. Whenever it strikes, obey. The notion may reek of craziness or desperation, but just do it. Listening to both has led me to a complete manuscript and positive query responses.

…that you should never go anywhere without a way to write it down.

…that if you tend to be particularly inspired while driving, get yourself a digital recorder, learn to talk to it like the griots of old, and save your fellow commuters a heart attack.

…that I don’t do this for the money alone, but I do deserve to get paid.

…that there are many, many fabulous writers out there, and not all may get their chance.

…that you should write angry and revise kind. Write for revenge and justice. Then in a cooler moment, write out of compassion and hope for your fellow man.

That’s what I know, right this minute.

The Hero’s Journey, Part 3: Sloggin’ Through the Slush

“…Genre problems–more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency–weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately–and that it’s an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control.”

“Life of Pie,” Getting Past the Gatekeeper

One of the agents I queried reported in his blog he received 298 queries the week I queried him.
He shares that over 20% of those queries had generic salutations, ranging from “To Whom it May Concern” to “Dear Agent.”

Another agent blogs about the fact 33% of the queries submitted are the wrong genre for the agency. That means she must slog through not just my query but ones pushing, I assume, romance? chick lit? sci fi? she did not request.

I figured when I started this journey there could be such spam in the mix of slush wherein my queries land. Query wisdom teaches me to think about my audience, and these reports from agents confirm that and it also doesn’t hurt to think about the competition auditioning alongside me. These agents have a ton of client advocacy and manuscript reading to do besides man the inbox, and yet they must still wade through this type of dross o’mornings. So what does that mean for my letter?

a) my query must pop — caffeinate the overworked eyeballs;

b) my query could be A+, but just like those A+ writers I once graded, if you appear at the bottom of the pile, there ain’t nothing that looks good to a reader too exhausted to care. There was a reason I didn’t grade more than 15 papers in a sitting; it wasn’t fair to number 16, 17, and 18, what my mood might do to that poor child’s grade. English teachers, like agents, grade in between negotiating, teaching, planning, advocating, disciplining, and coaching.

It’s useless to rail against competitors. It doesn’t matter what they write; just write yours better, no matter where it hides in the slush. So I’ve made a note to self, and here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve revised my queries.

1) Don’t sound cocky. You may THINK you don’t, but revisit every line asking if you’re making some kind of claim that could be construed as brash if not ridonkulous.

2) Don’t try to be clever if you’re not naturally a comedian. I am not.

3) Know thy conflict. Beware the dangers of grocery listing the “cool happenings” in your story. Tell the story in terms of goals and obstacles. Write that back-cover blurb that makes you fork the money over.

I’m also not going to rail against agents for being horribly unfair gatekeepers. (By the way, you know I love the hero’s journey image at this agent’s blog.) The right fit with the right advocate is down that yellow brick road, but who knows how many twists, turns, and gnarly flora and fauna one must dodge, only to find that at the end, the answer was within. Remember, the Fab Four obsessed with seeing the Wizard only had to look within to find what they were lacking. It wasn’t up to the Wizard at all.

Back to that query.

Filed Under: query letters, rejection, revising