Author Archives: Gregory D. Little

December is The Greatest Gift I’ve Received as a Writer Month

Happy December to old and new readers alike!

Recovering from November can be a challenge.  If you’re still recovering from National Novel Writing Month you might be wondering if you can ever bring yourself to write again. If you’re American, you’re likely piling Thanksgiving and Black Friday on top of that (and to those who managed all three, I salute you). The Fictorians were busy as well, as we introduced two new members to our ranks.  You’ve no doubt read their guest posts already over the past few months, but please join me in welcoming Tristan Brand and Jace Sanders to Fictorians!

With all that, and with the holiday season looming for many, this time of year can be a stressful one.  Luckily, we’re here to help with a fresh batch of posts to keep you inspired. In keeping with the holiday spirit, we’ll be bringing you our stories of the greatest gifts we’ve received as writers, and I’m confident we can melt even the most Scrooge-like of hearts. We’ll have posts about Kickstarter, fan clubs, mentors, the perfect thing said at the perfect moment, good old-fashioned solitude and many more.  And keep an eye out because later in the month we may dust off a few of our classic posts as well!

So as we ring out the old year and prepare for the new, please add your thoughts in the comments and share with your friends!



Beta Reading: The Book Report You Trick Your Friends and Family Into

BETA_(capital_and_small)“Oh, you’re writing a book?  You have to let me read it when you’re done!”  If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ll probably have heard this a time or two.  Little do they know that a book needs beta readers.  But what is a beta reader and how can you shamelessly leverage their time and good will into making your manuscript the best it can be?

Because I am an engineer as well as a writer, I’m going to use the laziest possible analog for the technological age.  A beta reader is exactly like a video game beta tester.  They are the people that take your playable (readable) video game (manuscript) and play (read) through it, looking for bugs (terrible parts) so that you can fix them before they get seen by the general public/publishing industry.  Now, one quick point of clarification:  when I say “readable” I mean that the draft of your manuscript is complete with no missing parts that you haven’t gotten around to writing yet.  A beta reader should be reading your best attempt at a complete story draft.  Someone who is only reading incomplete chunks of your story is called an alpha reader, which is a subject for another post.

So who should you select for your beta readers?

1.  Above all, you need people who are willing to (very generously) grant you their valuable time to both read and provide feedback on your manuscript.  Because they are willing to do that, these people probably like you, which can actually be a problem. People that like you might not want to be brutally honest with you, so…

2.  You want beta readers who are willing to be honest with you (brutally or not).  If there’s a problem with your story, they are doing you no favors by holding back on it to spare your feelings.  And even if they believe they are being honest with you, they are probably still holding back subconsciously.   It’s understandable.  They’re excited for you!  You wrote a book, and they want to like it!  It’s just a general hazard with any beta reader that you need to keep in mind.

3.  You want beta readers to cover a wide spectrum of, well, everything.  As writers, it is tempting to wrangle only our writer friends to beta read.  Other writers are usually willing to “trade” beta reads of each other’s work, so convincing them can be easier.  Writers also understand what another writer needs in terms of feedback, so their feedback can be more constructive, incisive, and to the point.  But writers also love to over-analyze writing, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up with a story that only other writers will love.  So have writers beta read for you, but also pick beta readers who have nothing to do with writing, and even ones who don’t normally read the genre your story is in.  Non-fans of the genre will be the toughest sell, so you’ll get the harshest criticism, and if your writing can overcome that initial handicap, you’ll know you have something special on your hands.

So, now you’ve gotten your beta readers your manuscript and they are busily reading away.  What do you tell them regarding feedback?  Obviously everyone has a different style, but I always try to follow the following guidelines:

I DON’T: require my beta readers to give me feedback in a specific format or in a specific level of detail.  Rather, I ask them to provide feedback at whatever level they are comfortable based on their schedule and their preferred style of reading.  Some of them like to go so far as to line-edit your work (more so in short stories than in novels given the time commitment).  Some prefer simply to give general impressions (“I liked this part but didn’t understand when the character did this.  This detail confused me.  What was even happening here?”).  For me, the important part is that they don’t worry so much about the level of feedback that their experience of reading the story gets impacted.  Ideally you want them reading your story like anyone else would.

I DO: ask my readers to have the reading and feedback done by a certain (reasonable) date.  In my opinion it’s perfectly fair to do this as long as you explain it up front so that everyone’s on the same page (pun intended) and as long as you are willing to be flexible because obviously we all get busy.  But if you don’t assign some (again, reasonable) date you’ll find yourself waiting for months, unwilling/unable to do major edits until all your beta readers are finished.

I DON’T: let my beta readers talk to each other until they’ve talked to me.  I don’t want them to start cross-contaminating opinions.  Treat them like suspects in a crime (but much more politely) and request feedback separately from each.

So now you’ve got your feedback.  What do you do about it?

– Look for trends.  Does everybody think the main character is a big jerk?  Maybe that’s okay if that’s what you’re going for.  But does everybody think the main character is such a huge jerk that they would have stopped reading if not for the fact that they promised you they’d read your story?  That’s a problem.  Conversely, if everyone has a different problem with the same aspect of the story, but they all agree it’s a problem, you need to look at it again.  Don’t be afraid to follow up and ask for further clarification.  I’ve had instances where every reader but one  mentioned an aspect of the story that bothered them, and I specifically went back and asked that one person if plot point X bothered them at any point.

– Conversely, take complaints that only one person raises with a grain of salt.  I’ve heard it said that if nobody can agree on the issues your manuscript has, you’re doing all right because you’ve gotten it down to the realm of personal taste.  Everyone does have different tastes, after all, and they won’t all like every aspect of something you write, no matter how well it’s written.

– Lastly, remember that you, the author, have the final say.  Beta readers are offering recommendations, not ironclad must-haves.  The buck, or in this case the word, ultimately stops with you.


Five Hundred of One, Half a Thousand of the Other

I’m one of the newest members here at Fictorians, so it seemed fitting that after David’s “Back to Basics” 500th post, I should be the one to kick off our next 500.  But how does one do a second “first” post for a blog like this?  As it happens, our very first post ever covers the exact topic that I think makes this blog special. On March 30th, 2011, Nancy DiMauro published the inaugural Fictorians post entitled “The Benefits of Holding Hands.” It’s not a long post, just 376 words, but I think it perfectly encapsulates the core of what we’re about here at Fictorians. Go check it out for yourself. Nancy knocked it out of the park on the first try. Fictorians was founded on the premise of writers helping other writers. We have to; it’s how we were taught. We support one another, challenge one another, inspire one another. And that’s how it should be. To every writer out there: we’re all in this together and we’ll continue to grow the most as writers together.

It’s a neat group of people that make up the Fictorians.  We met one another at various installments of Superstars Writing Seminar. But as David touched on yesterday, in lots of ways we couldn’t be more different. In fact, if there’s one thing that surprised me when I attended Superstars, it’s that there’s no one “type” when it comes to a writer. We have different backgrounds, different beliefs, different interests. We come from different countries, we have different skills and we bring different things to the table. But there’s one thing that binds us together not just as writers but as Fictorians: we are bound and determined to succeed in writing and we are both eager and excited to share the things we learn, either on our own or from one another, with anyone who will listen. We plan to grow our ranks further in the coming months and bring even more content to our readers.  It means a lot to us to be able to share what we’ve learned, and we hope it helps other writers overcome the hurdles we all face from time to time.

I’d like to close this post by extending our thanks. Each month we are assisted by a group of very talented guest bloggers, from fellow aspiring writers all the way up to big names in the writing world. These guest posts provide us with a valuable injection of fresh ideas and perspectives as well as new areas of expertise. They make sure we don’t become too insular or set in our ways (and the fact that they shoulder some of the load of generating content is nice too). The bottom line is they are a tremendous boon to the site and we are very thankful for their time and their enthusiasm. Take a bow, guest bloggers! And finally, like the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest, this blog could not exist without its readers, the people who check in with us day after day and hopefully take something valuable away when they go. A great big thank you goes out to everyone who reads this blog! You are ultimately what makes this all possible, and if you keep reading, we’ll keep writing! Here’s to another 500 posts and beyond! Come, hear us roar!

Sweating the Small Stuff

I was twenty-one when I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  At the time, I thought it was embarrassingly obvious advice for such a supposedly renowned military mastermind.   “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

“Oh please,” twenty-one year old me thought, rolling his all-knowing eyes.  I was set to label Sun Tzu “Captain Obvious” and never look back.  But I’m older now (just a teensy bit), and I’ve learned that when the pressure is on, we often forget the most obvious, self-evident courses of action entirely.  So it goes with war and with things closer to home for the Fictorians, like networking.

When I was younger my dad gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten.  We’ve all heard the old axiom “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but my dad put it in more numerical terms.  He told me about the three twelves.  When meeting you for the first time, a person will be able to form an impression based on your first twelve inches (your face), the first twelve words out of your mouth, and the first twelve seconds of the exchange.  Now my dad has spent his career in the business world, and his advice was meant primarily for job interviews.  But in the writing world, when we are meeting agents and editors at conventions, what we are really doing is kicking off a sort of protracted job interview.  And first impressions can make or break you.

Writing is like any other field of human interaction.  It’s often not what you know, but who you know that’s important.  Every time you smile, introduce yourself and shake a hand at some event that brings the people of our field together, you are hopefully sowing the seeds for a friendship, but you are also adding another potential link to your growing chain of contacts.  It may sound clinical, but it’s important you keep both aspects of any relationship in mind in the early stages.

Now, my dad’s advice may need to be tweaked a little for our industry.  In the business world, personal appearance is very important and deviating too far from the standard suit and tie is frowned upon.  Writers are a little more relaxed in this regard, I think, owing to the more eccentric personalities that permeate the writing world.  Mary wrote an excellent piece detailing branding earlier this very week, in fact, so check it out if you haven’t already.   This advice applies more to those who have yet to establish themselves and who are simply trying to meet agents, editors and fellow writers.  It’s important to dress as if you are a professional who is ready, if needed, to discuss professional matters.  What that means in context is that if you are going to a convention that has a sizable fan contingent (say, Worldcon) and you want to indulge in some cosplay, you may want to set aside a day where you walk around in your Iron Man costume and another day where you dress, if not necessarily formally, at least nicely, looking like a professional, not a fan.  If you are attending a convention that is almost exclusively business-oriented (World Fantasy Convention) then it’s best to leave the Spock ears at home entirely.

You’ve heard all the stuff I’m going to say before, believe me.  Nothing I’m about to tell you is going to widen your eyes with sudden awe and understanding.  But if you clam up like I do when trying to impress someone, it helps to remember the small things.  Things like:

-Don’t dominating the conversation with talk of yourself.

-Avoid invading someone’s personal space.

-Take cues from the other person’s body language.  If you go up to introduce yourself and catch them at an obviously bad time (this happened to me at last year’s World Fantasy Convention) politely extricate yourself as quickly as possible and be on your way.

-Practice basic hygiene.

There are many others, but they all lead to the same general result.  What you want is to leave a positive impression of yourself on everyone you meet, something that says either “should the opportunity arise, that person would be pleasant to work with,” or in the case of a possible fan “wow, that person is really nice.  I should check out their work/continue reading their work.”  I hate to make it sound so clinical.  It almost comes off as mercenary.  But remember, this isn’t just a fun gathering of like minds you are attending, it’s a business trip.

And advice extends beyond the world of meeting people in person.  When you submit stories or novels to agents or editors, be unfailingly polite.  If they send you a rejection, do not respond at how only stupid people would fail to understand your genius, no matter how much your raging id may think so.  The world of publishing is a small one, and the last thing you want to do is end up on someone’s black list.

There’s another quote I’d like to leave you with, one I’ve heard attributed to many successful coaches.  “If you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.”  So devote a little time to sweating the small stuff.  You might be surprised at what comes of it.  That Sun Tzu guy may have known his stuff after all.