If I were to make signed bookplates available, how many people would be interested in getting one? (No charge; you’d just tell me who to make it out to and where to send it, and then put up with my procrastination)
Category Archives: Writing
I’m in the process of beta-reading an enjoyable book, and it has reminded me that every now and then I use the phrase “beta reading” and people don’t really know what I mean by it, and that when I describe the way I like to beta read, occasionally it becomes clear that I do it a little differently than other people. So, I figured I would write up a quick post about what I do when I beta read a book and why I do it that way. If you find yourself asked to do a beta read and you haven’t done one before, I think this is a darned good way to go about it. But then, I would, wouldn’t I?
First, that term “beta read.” It is often referred to as “critiquing,” but I prefer “beta read” because I think it is a little more accurate: my first job as a beta reader is not to critique the manuscript (though that is important) but to pay very strict attention to my own reaction to it. Just like beta testing a program, I need to go through the process of operating a story in order to see where it doesn’t work. The only way to do that is to be a very attentive reader, not only to the work but also to my own reactions. This is something that the writer cannot easily do for themselves, except at great remove in time, so the beta reading process is invaluable to them in determining whether they have done what they set out to do.
That’s not always easy to do for other people either, especially when you’re engrossed in a story. What I try to do is always beta read with a pen in hand or with Word comments open, so that at the very least it’s easy to indulge in the urge to mark something. There are a number of things I find useful to mark:
- Where I was surprised
- Where I was confused
- Where I laughed or was delighted
- Where I was dismayed
- Where I didn’t buy what I just read (both, “no way she would say that!” and, “um, computers don’t work that way”)
- Where I lost interest
- Where I got jolted out of the reading experience
(I’ll also put in little jokes or asides, which aren’t actually useful usually) There are two key pieces to this: I’m focusing on my reaction, and I’m non-judgmental about that reaction. I don’t know what the author wants me to feel right then, I’m just faithfully reporting. These little comments, when done right, are like tracer rounds. If the story is working as intended, then those surprises, laughs, “huh?”s and so on are confirmations that everything is landing right. If not, then they can help figure out what’s going wrong.
I’ve also started stepping back periodically to summarize my thinking. Most readers, whether they notice or not, are filling in bits of information on the story as they read, keeping track of who the protagonists are, who the antagonists are, what they think the main conflict is, and how they think that conflict will resolve (plus how they WANT that conflict to resolve). Think about reading a mystery: even when you’re not actively tracking the clues, you usually have some sense of who you find suspicious, and how lost you think the detective is. What I’ve been doing lately is stopping at every chapter and before I move on, thinking over what I just read in some of those terms, and just making higher-level notes. The best thing to do, if possible, is to provide a kind of core dump: “This is what I think is happening, this is what I want to happen, but this is what I think will happen instead. You bastard.”
You have to trust the writer when giving this kind of feedback. First, because you’re going to look dumb. You’ll make wild guesses (like all readers do) and you’ll miss important things (like all readers do) and get off in the weeds (like all readers do) but unlike all readers, your predictions will be down on paper. It’s OK to look dumb as long as it’s an honest dumb. Second, and more seriously, because very often the last thing a reader really wants out of the ending of a book is to get what they wanted on page 10. You’ve got to trust the writer you’re beta-reading for to not give in (or at least, to only give in when presented with a genuinely better idea) before you really let them have it. It’s like, if you’ve quit smoking, you don’t confess your cigarette cravings to someone who might offer you one. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t tell the writer of this gothic horror story that halfway through you desperately hope everyone comes out unscathed… just that you should maybe remind them that what you want for Mr. X on page 150 isn’t what will actually satisfy you at the end of his character arc.
Lately, I’ve been sending my feedback a few chapters at a time rather than all at once. I started doing that when reading a long book in which I doubted I could finish critiquing in time, but found that it had some useful side effects. For one thing, it lets the writer dig into feedback early, instead of getting it all in one enormous chunk, and guide my attention where needed. For another thing, it keeps me honest: if I guessed something embarrassingly wrong, well, I’m already on the record, so there’s no temptation to go back and revise. If I have a later thought about something I read earlier, I can just say so later. It also gives me a convenient opportunity to sit back and discuss some of the really high-level stuff like theme and characterization, and whether the story was working for me or not.
My job as beta reader is also to act as a kind of Comic Book Guy for the world of the book; you know, the whole,”you say in issue #95 that it is impossible for Spider-Man to shoot green webbing, sir, but that directly contradicts issue #36, page 8, where Spider-Man did not only exactly that but…” thing. That is, less obnoxiously, to become immersed in the book’s rules and get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not possible within them. This is especially true when beta-reading mysteries, because very often that “impossible”/”possible” distinction is what the case hinges on. I’ve got to know the world well enough to be confident in saying “what you just described seems impossible given what you’ve told me.” Also, sometimes, in this role I can offer advice along the lines of, “That doesn’t seem to be working for me, but have you considered this?”
This Comic Book Guy role sounds like it’s separate from my previous role as super-self-attentive reader, but it’s not. We as readers develop mental models of the worlds we read about. We learn through a story what’s possible and what isn’t… but our mental model may not actually fit what the writer has in mind. This is a much harder thing to get across in a beta read than instantaneous reaction, except in the case of “this right here surprised me”. Offering suggestions is a way of opening a window onto that mental model, and in that way isn’t just offering suggestions, but offering a hypothesis. (I’m still trying to find a better way to get that mental model across in a beta read, by the way, and am open to suggestions.)
The last part is hardest: don’t read the same piece twice, or at least not until it’s published. It’s really easy to get proprietary about one’s suggestions, and that doesn’t serve anybody well. The point is to help a friend improve their story, not to try to become a collaborator. Not reading the same piece twice removes entirely the temptation to notice that someone did or didn’t follow your advice, and the temptation to say, “this draft is better/worse than that one” which is rarely helpful advice. And anyway, it’s just too hard to read what’s on the page the second time around, versus what you remember from the previous draft. All in all, I think it’s best to read and comment on one draft, then wait to see it in print.
So, that’s my current approach to beta reading. And of course, there’s always room for other comments and suggestions alongside what I describe above. Essentially what I’m describing here isn’t so much the act of critiquing a book as of examining my own reactions to a book, and examining my understanding of it. It’s not a process that requires super-sharp insight into literary theory, or the skills of a brilliant writer; it requires only honesty and self-awareness.
Since I’ve got the contract in my hands, it is my great pleasure to announce that my novella “The Liar” will appear in the pages of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
This sale is especially sweet to me. Not only am I excited to work with F&SF’s editor CC Finlay, but F&SF was the very first market I submitted to back in 2009 — I still have the rejection slip — which makes this magazine the one I’ve been trying the longest to crack.
It’s an odd little story and I’m rather proud of it. Novellas are hard to fit into print magazines, so it may be a while before it comes out, but I’ll be sure to let you all know when it does.
So, there are a number of readers who object to profanity or obscenity or other “bad words”. Can’t say I’m one of them. And while I do sometimes think that popular culture has gotten a bit coarse, I don’t hold the position that I ought to have a personally-sanitized version of it. I do have private opinions on that position, in fact, and have expressed those opinions privately. But suffice it to say here, people do want those things and nobody in the history of the world has been persuaded to enjoy art differently because they were called a prude. Anyway, for pete’s sake, this is the internet: people want weirder crap than that, and usually get it.
There is now an app. (Isn’t there always?) It is tied to a particular vendor’s ebook store, and for any title purchased in that store, the app will go through and mechanically change ‘objectionable’ words to other words. The list and transformation rules are created by the app writers. The transformation rules are not terribly good. The resulting text is, from all I have seen, clunky and imperfect, sometimes risibly so.
Now, I use profanity in my work, albeit sparingly. I like to think I use it carefully, to achieve exactly the impact I need (though I acknowledge that the impact might be larger on some who aren’t as accustomed to it). I don’t have an enormous stake in this fight, except on principle. But I do have a small stake and that principle, and I consider them important.
There is much to criticize about the Clean Reader app, and a lot of folks are piling on. But I feel that most of them are aiming a little too widely in their criticism. I’m not interested in blaming the people who want this app. (Again: Internet. Weirder) By criticizing both the app and the people who want the app together, Clean Reader gets to cloak themselves in the mantle of “we’re in this together! we’re protecting this vital segment of the readership!” Aside from it being distasteful to attack readers (a decidedly endangered population it seems sometimes), attacking readers just gives the app makers cover to do some problematic things.
And boy howdy is what they’re doing problematic. The big issue with Clean Reader is simply this:
1. They are offering a service to their paying customers to perform that clunky mechanical alteration
2. They are only performing this service for books purchased through their platform — that is, money is changing hands as a required component of this service
3. They are not seeking or receiving permission from the author to perform this service using the author’s work as a basis
What it comes down to is that they have an ebook market, and they are seeking to distinguish that market (get people to buy from them instead of from Amazon) because the ebooks you buy from them can be “cleaned up”. Their version of my text is more palatable to a certain readership.
Here’s the thing, though: their is no “their version” of my text. They can use nicer fonts, a better store experience, intelligent bookmarks and dictionary services. But there is only one text. They don’t get to differentiate it by doing a copyedit/spellcheck pass, they don’t get to differentiate it by adding illustrations, they don’t get to differentiate it by giving it a happy ending. We went through this in the 19th Century, people: They don’t get to differentiate the text at all. It doesn’t matter whether they’re directly altering the file or altering on demand in the reader: they’re offering to present a different text to the reader as a way to persuade that reader to buy from them instead of from someone else. That is simply not acceptable. Only I have the right to do that with my work, or to contract someone else to do it.
Knock out any of these three legs, though, and we have an acceptable situation:
1. They don’t do it at all? That works.
2. They offer an app that does this for any ebook or text file regardless of provenance, and do not profit in any way? Well, I’ll definitely grumble, but the degree to which that empowers readers is probably ultimately on the side of fair use.
3. They make this opt-in for authors on a work-by-work basis? Awesome.
Of those options, the third is the best. It leaves everyone as happy as possible. Some are arguing that the first is the best, but it leaves wide swathes of readers unhappy, which means that (all else aside — endangered species, remember?) there will be another Clean Reader popping up sooner or later. And we’ll keep having this argument until either one side gets tired, or someone finds an unassailable legal loophole and gives authors the [digit].
I’m not thrilled with #2 as an app, even in the case where they make no profit and where readers aren’t tied to their ebooks. That’s because there’s plainly a market for this type of work. I could choose to put in the effort to produce a profanity-free version, or someone like Reader’s Digest could offer me $100 to do it so that they could sell it. We’d be competing against free, but we’d also be competing against stupid — which we more or less decided was a fair trade back with the Kindle read-aloud thing.
So, number three. Like any good compromise, #3 leaves everyone mad. It’s more work for Clean Reader. It puts authors on the spot. Readers don’t get all the works they might like. But it embodies the most good for the most people while also respecting creators’ rights (which is good for society). Plus, it’s mostly self-correcting: if there are too few authors opting in, then there’s more financial incentive for any one of them to break ranks and enjoy an untapped market. On top of that, it gives authors the opportunity to say “No to the app, but I’ll make a profanity-free version that you can sell”.
Anyway, yeah: Lots to criticize as it is. Can we lay off the readers now?
A friend of mine in college used to refer to the Discovery Channel as the “What’s Eating the Gazelle Today” station. If you paid attention to the proud majestic carnivores, you got a wonderful and varied show. If you paid attention to what they ate, you saw the same thing over and over.
New writers are a prey species. There are many practices, ranging from outright scams to mere obtuseness, that work because new writers are proud and insecure and mostly ignorant of how things usually go. But just like the gazelle, it mostly boils down to: paying too little money (or paying negative money), grabbing too many rights, and providing too little in return.
The recent one to hit was over the OMNI reboot. The fine folks at Writer Beware were given a copy of a contract that a writer had received, and pointed out that it is deeply crappy. Essentially, the contract says this: “This contract grants us the copyright of the story, meaning all of the rights for this piece forever, and once you’ve signed this contract, we will negotiate another contract for payment.”
First: it is not normal to sell all of the rights to a story. The author does not sell the copyright, usually ever, and only sells exclusive right to print for a limited time. It is normal for a contract to strictly describe the limits of what a publisher plans to do with a story.
Second: it is not normal for a contract to not detail compensation. Compensation includes what money is paid now, whether the author gets free or reduced-priced copies of the magazine/book, what money might be paid if the publisher wants to make further use of the story, how the story is to be credited, etc.
I feel pretty comfortable calling that a bad fiction contract. It is how new writers get eaten by hyenas.
Now, the OMNI folks responded on Twitter, saying:
The contract terms given are slightly less terrible for work-for-hire, it’s true. If someone hires you to write something ahead of time, they may very well buy copyright. But the contract should still include compensation and not kick it to a subsequent contract. That is how new writers get eaten by lions.
As you know, I think more highly of ‘malicious’ than I do of ‘incompetent’. And sending the wrong contract is definitely a claim of incompetence. But I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt that this really is malicious behavior, for a couple reasons.
First, the Writer Beware folks have been around the block a few times, and have seen a number of contracts. If presented with a normal work-for-hire contract (which would typically contain a subtle phrase like “work-for-hire”) I am confident they would recognize it.
Second, this sounds a LOT like a very common situation. Publishers, bless their hearts, will sometimes offer new writers a rather terrible contract with big rights grabs and not much money. Some of these new writers will squawk, and the publisher will go “Oh! I’m sorry, that’s the wrong contract!” or “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s an old contract!” or just “OK, how about this” and then offer a more reasonable one that just happens to already be drafted. This is how some new writers get eaten by crocodiles — for every writer that squawks, another is too starstruck at getting a contract to read it carefully, and yet another is worried that complaining will mean the acceptance is retracted.
(Fun fact: Legitimate publishers do not retract an acceptance just because you want to negotiate terms. They might say “We have no room to negotiate” or just “No”, but people who are not out to screw you do not respond to “Can we talk about this contract term?” with “No contract for you!”)
Third, look downstream in that conversation to where a couple smart folks make a couple smart points:
Well, let’s have a look at their submissions guidelines as they stand today (quoted to give them room to make changes for the better):
OMNI Reboot accepts fiction submissions. OMNI Reboot is interested in experimental, innovative, and compelling fiction from both emerging and established writers. Please keep in mind that OMNI Reboot is a webzine about the future, and thus not interested in nostalgia, sexism or racism unless it is relevant and informative about it’s relationship to the future. Stories must be well-written and easy to read on a screen—please consider the medium.
Please do not send us reprints. Attach your story, formatted in a clear and reasonable manner, as either an .RTF of .DOC file.
Word Count: 1,500 word minimum to a 4,000 word maximum
If you haven’t looked at a lot of fiction submissions guidelines, this might not look all that weird. If you want to look at better guidelines, have a look at those of the online magazine Strange Horizons. Notice the difference? The OMNI guidelines are all about what they want from you, and say nothing about what you can expect in return. This is how new writers get eaten by, um, boa constrictors. Anyway, let’s break down that nothing:
- Nothing about payment
- Nothing about when you can expect to hear back
- Nothing about what rights they’re buying
There is never nothing being offered, though. Even when it’s not stated, there is at least some implied reason someone would send a story to them for publication. As near as I can tell, the reason they’re offering is… “You get to see your story in our shiny cool magazine!” It’s not quite what folks might call a dog whistle in other contexts, but the new writer hears that message loud and clear, and it’s how they get eaten by… Christ, do elephants eat gazelles? Probably.
When Matt Wallace said, “nobody should ever have to ask”, he was getting at this point: it should be completely freaking obvious when you have gotten the wrong contract, because you should have been told the basic contract terms before you ever had the opportunity to submit the story. You should already know pay rate and what rights are bought and what they’re going to do with it, and so it should be clear when you were given the wrong contract.
Let me repeat that. If a new writer is given the wrong contract, they should be able to easily deduce the fact from information readily available to them. If you have to explain it on Twitter, you have screwed up very badly.
For the vanity googlers at OMNI, I recommend the following course of action:
- Put a sample contract online
- Clearly post pay rates, rights purchased (do not ask for copyright), and other items of interest on the submissions page
- Check your records to see who else got the wrong, or “wrong”, contract, and offer them a better one
Having done this, feel free to get your kicks in at other magazines who don’t measure up! Wear steel-toed shoes. Get a “Save the Gazelles” bumper sticker. Half the fun of learning a lesson is teaching it to others! “Go forth and sin no more” is low expectations-ville. Go do what’s right so that you get pointed to as a good example next time someone else pulls crap like this.
For everyone else, if you know any writers (and like them), make sure they know about Writer Beware. They’re good people and smart people who look out for gazelles.
I got back from Arisia last night, and I just wanted to say that I had a great time. I was initially disappointed to only get two panels, but those two were a lot of fun, and it gave me a lot of time and flexibility to hang out with some folks I haven’t seen in ages and to be properly introduced to a few new friends.
I had a good time from start to finish, but the highlight was definitely the gender-swapped performance of the Star Trek TOS episode Space Seed by the Post-Meridian Radio Players. It was superbly done and my hat is off to these performers.
My panels themselves went well, thanks to the excellent moderation by Shira Lipkin and James Cambias. Not an easy task, but they made their respective panels a delight.
My one major lesson, though, at least for me: make sure to register and set aside the time far enough ahead to get a room in the conference hotel. Boston in January can be a tad cold, and even though the overflow hotel wasn’t even a ten minute walk it was still on the miserable side. (Second note: Yes, Boston is warmer than New Hampshire, but I should still bring a hat and scarf.)
So, thanks everyone who came to my panels or took the time to say hi! All told, I had a great weekend, and I’m already looking forward to next year!
Arisia is just next weekend! I’m really looking forward to it, since I had a ton of fun last year. I’ve got a lighter schedule this year, and will be around from Friday to Sunday afternoon.
Here are my panels if you’re thinking of coming to say hi:
Saturday at 4:00pm:
True Detective — Media, Panel — 1hr 15min — Marina 2 (2E)
The first season of HBO’s True Detective grafted a tinge of the supernatural onto its hardboiled story structure, and managed to create a nationwide frenzy over the works of Robert Chambers. We’ll talk about the way the show played with genre tropes, and talk more generally about the show’s structure, characters, and fascinating visual elements.
Morgan Crooks, Shira Lipkin (m), Megan S. Markland, John P. Murphy, Steve Sawicki
Sunday at 2:30pm:
Story Autopsy — Writing, Panel — 1hr 15min — Alcott (3W)
Our group of panelists takes a few well-known works of genre fiction and picks them apart to show you how they work, why they work, and in some cases point out the parts that don’t work at all. If you don’t like spoilers this is probably not the panel for you.
M. L. Brennan, James L. Cambias (m), Thom Dunn, John P. Murphy, Ian Randal Strock
If you have something you’d like me to sign, it’s probably easiest to catch me after my panels — Arisia is a big, busy con and it’s hard to find people in the crowd.