5 Ways to Help your Beta Readers

Once written, words live forever…or do they?

I’m an Indie mystery series writer.

I find my Beta readers get very cranky when I ask them to read for content and development, and they spend most of their time catching typos and missing words.

So I’ve developed the following protocol, which helps me help them:

I am aware of the quirks of the programs I’m using:

Scrivener is a dynamite writing tool for a modest price. In fact they have a free month’s demo. But the default (for PCs) is that old-fashioned Courier font, which means dumb quotes and em dashes written as “- -“. Both can easily be changed using a global replace in Word, which is where my manuscript usually resides, once I’ve done the initial organizational work in Scrivener. 

BUT, Word is not perfect, either. It has the annoying habit of auto-fill and auto-correcting the wrong words. It will subscript fractions, which leads to some interesting results. I’ve got to be alert to all of these and more as I read through the manuscript.

I recognize my OWN quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Mine include the following:

My brain gets lazy and echoes the same words and phrases…on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence, even.

Worse, I find myself using the same trope I’ve used in a previous novel. The poor heroine gets trapped on the same elevator, on the same floor…or the hero in two subsequent novels shrugs that same left shoulder…or the chase car squeals around the corner into that dark alley…

And there are those slightly unusual words that my subconscious likes to use again, and again, and again.

I foil my right-side brain by sticking all of these idiosyncrasies on a 5 x 8 card that I keep close by as I eagle-eye the manuscript.

Speed Reading

In addition to fingertip goofs, such as “think” for “thing” and “fine” for “find,” I find that the speed reading I do every day on the Internet allows me to blank on missed words in my writing, too.

If I proofread on-screen, I zip right over skipped words, seeing “in hospital,” rather than “in the hospital” as perfectly okay, even though I’m not from Yorkshire, England. Of particular distress are pronouns and prepositions: I can blindly ignore all sorts of two letter words: In, of, by, and on’s get lost by the hundreds!

“A” and “an” provide a particular field day. If you are like me, in the process of revision, I’ll often substitute one word–a much better word, of course–for the one in my original draft. If the second word starts with a vowel versus the first word choice starting with a consonant, I’m in a heap of trouble.

Names

I wish I could use “placeholder” names, but all of my characters begin their life in my novels with a carefully chosen first and last name.

This works, until one of the ensemble characters arrives on the scene with a similar moniker. I can’t change their name, which has been graved into the stone of Amazon’s Kindle system. So “John,” my series character stays, and “Johnny,” the new person, has to leave.

And if I change that name, it may mean changing yet another character’s as well. It’s a cascading effect that I try to minimize through the use of a naming data base.

But when a change must occur, I then have to go through the entire manuscript with Word’s find-and-replace to do just that. And a global replace with a space before and after doesn’t always work either. That procedure will not catch names followed by a period or a hyphen or in the possessive.

Punctuation

I’m pretty good with capitalizing sentences and making sure series are separated by commas and periods occur at the end of sentences.

But problems will crop up in the revision stage, when my computer curser will move to a weird spot and I’ll end up with an extraneous word like “and” in the middle of a word: strandaight.

Or I’ll move bits of a sentence around, and then there’s an orphan period at the beginning of a paragraph, or worse, a sentence that is missing one.

Having written a half a million words now, give or take a few hundred, I know all of the above will happen, on a regular basis, in each and every manuscript that I write.

I could hire a line editor for this phase, but I’d rather save their good efforts for my final draft after I get the rough back from my beta readers and follow their great suggestions for revision.

So here is my protocol for minimizing errors:

  1. I run my pre-Beta copy through Grammerly. They have a pro version, which costs $, but also a free version that incorporates right into the Word task bar. Very handy!
  2. I next put this Grammerly revised copy through an editing program that checks for echoes and repeats, since that is a standard bug-a-boo for me. The one I favor is a new one on the market, Editomatic which has some other handy editing features as well. They also have a demo version.
  3. At this point, I print off a hard copy, using a different font. If my original manuscript is a serif font such as Times New Roman, I’ll do a control-A and change the font to a sans serif such as Arial. And before I print the copy, I’ll change the line spacing to something different, for example, double space if I’ve been using line-and-a-half.
  4. I read this hard copy line by line, using a ruler, and silently mouthing the words. I  revise my online manuscript with the changes I make.
  5. Finally, I use that text-to-voice feature of Word to re-read the entire manuscript, dictated in a very nice male voice, as I follow along, my finger to the hard-copy page. You’d be surprised what he and I catch on this final read-through!

I’ve found that if I follow this protocol, my Beta readers are willing to give me another shot on my next book, and I am able to produce a clean copy for my line editor to fine-tune.

What works for you?
What errors are your nemesis?
How do you catch them?

 

 

Finding Water: The Fine Art of Persistance

Finding Water Art of Persistence Julia Cameron

 

My sister’s book club is reading one of Julia Cameron’s books, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond. I promised her I’d take a look at it. I did, and it is delightful. I recommend it highly!

In the process, though, I came across another book by Ms. Cameron, entitled Finding Water: The Art of PerseveranceI was delighted, because I’d read the first two of this trilogy when I was in art school: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and the Artist’s Way. Also highly recommended, by the way.

Julia is no novice to the challenging world of being creative. She’s been at it for 30 years and during that time has written–and had published–over 30 books! Would that I were that successful.

In many of this author’s books, she recommends a practice of three simple acts: 1) morning pages, a type of handwritten journaling, undertaken first thing in the morning; 2) making an “artist’s date” with yourself to explore some new facet of your environment; and 3) a long walk, at least once a week, to connect with nature. I’ve found all three to be richly rewarding.

In Finding Water, Julia encounters writer’s block, rejection, and discouragement as she readies a play for the New York stage. She speaks of the paralyzing effects of perfection. I can relate.

Julia’s inner critic is named Nigel, and Nigel has rules. “A critic such as Nigel has doubts, second thoughts, third thoughts. The critic analyzes everything to the point of extinction. Everything must always be groomed and manicured. Everything must measure up.”

“…an original thought may be disturbing, even dangerous. It wants to see what it has seen before. It has seen a cow, but it has never seen a zebra. Don’t try to tell it that a zebra might be interesting. Those stripes don’t look like such a good idea. Get those zebras out of here!”

I gave Julia a high five for that one. My critic and Nigel are old war buddies. Brothers-in-arms, soldiering on, unappreciated, firmly declaring that black is black, white is white, and forget about all those colors in between.

Right now I am struggling through the simultaneous editing of two works. In my writing critique group we are examining, for the umpteenth time, the first chapter of my next book in the Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series, Fire in Broken Water. 

I’ve read the last chapter of this same book so many times it is almost memorized, and yet my critic–let’s call him Clarkson–is still finding egregious errors any sixth-grader could correct in their sleep.

And when we take a break from that one, the two of us, Clarkson and I, are weaving together a new, very rough draft of the fourth novel in the series called Peril in Silver Nightshade.

Clarkson is having a field day. “You wrote what?” “Don’t you know you can never mix first and third person narratives?” “Info dump. Info dump. Info dump,” he chants.

I want to shout Shut up! in his overly large, cauliflower-shaped ears (the better to hear you with, my dear) and consign him to the upstairs, unheated garret. It is near winter here in Michigan, and that would be a fitting place for him. Although he has this loud screeching voice that would undoubtedly echo through the register.

But to be honest, I need his help. The fairy child has created these lovely works of art, and now it is time for her evil cousin to have his way. And perhaps he isn’t so evil, after all. He is persistent and perfectionistic. I must learn to accept that he is also a part of me, and appreciate what he brings to the table.

I am not sure if I believe in the left brain/right brain dichotomy. It seems much too simple an explanation of the complex workings of our mind. Yet there is a push/pull, an internal dialogue always at work. And that, too, is part of the creative process. I need both the fairy child and Clarkson, just not at the same time, in the same room, talking over each other.

What about you? What do you call your inner critic?
How does it muck about in your creative life?

 

Why setting is so important in a mystery series

Blood in Tavasci MarshWhen I began planning the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, my prime impetus was to share the beautiful Verde Valley with the world. The area is a paradox, a small valley with one major river and five named creeks in the middle of a state, Arizona, renown for its deserts.

The first novel, Death in Copper Town, introduced the fictional small town of Mingus, located in the mountains that were made famous during their copper mining heydays. The second, Blood in Tavasci Marsh, continues exploration of this setting by moving down the hill to the Native American Indian Ruins at Tuzigoot and the marsh below it.

Setting can involve time, as well. What better time of year to visit a ghost town than at Halloween? In this second novel, Mingus prepares for the holiday in typical small town fashion: Pegasus visits the old mining cemetery, Isabel prepares for the Day of the Dead ceremonies, and the entire town, shops and all, decorate for the holiday with skeletons and pumpkins.

Setting involves not only plants, but animal life. Blood in Tavasci Marsh concerns a young man in love with the beauty of indigenous butterflies, his brother who is breeding redbone coonhounds, and Shepherd’s cat, who becomes more than a match for Pegasus.

Weather is another ingredient of setting. The second novel in the series takes place in the volatile autumn season in Mingus, where one day is sweltering hot, and the next brings an ice storm that paralyzes the Valley. Both will influence how the story develops and resolves.

Characters in a novel, no matter what the genre, must be developed three-dimensionally in order for the story to work. But setting is no less an integral part of story development.

Join me as Pegasus Quincy continues to grow as a person and as a law officer in the novel Blood in Tavasci Marsh!