Guest Post: How Writers Can Get Started Getting Started

Photo by Brad Calkins

Photo by Brad Calkins

Sometimes after finishing a manuscript I seize up during the waiting period while it’s being shopped. I’m not proud of it. It feels a whole lot like the memory of me standing on the dock at the edge of a freezing cold lake in Maine in my summer camp days. I dreaded that first icy plunge even though I knew I’d be fine once I was in.

I’m excellent at finding ways to NOT get started on something new. There’s the 19 weekly trips to the grocery store; taking the dog for his walk three times a day; scrolling the newsfeed on Facebook every 15 minutes; and of course there’s all those backlogged DVR-ed episodes of Housewives of Wherever to watch.

All that said, my top three things to get me started on getting started really help the process. And eventually I do get around to listening to the chiding voice inside my head. Here’s what that voice sounds like:

  1. PULL OUT AN OLD MANUSCRIPT! Get to work re-revising! An old story often turns into something fresh and new.
  1. GO TO THE LIBRARY! Read a lot. After months and months of writing, reading the types of books I like to write helps me recharge my creative juices. I study the ones I like and the ones I don’t. How can I apply these elements or NOT apply them to my next WIP?
  1. START WITH AN ENDING! Yup. Really. I write a “final” scene and then take it from the top! Chances are it won’t stay as the ending but in some shape or form it may end up in my story.

Bottom line? Take the plunge! Dive right in. It doesn’t need to look pretty. Eventually, the proverbial water will be just fine.

By second grade, Susan Lubner had penned her first picture book, Fredfoot the Frog. Although it was not published, she did receive a ‘great job!’ sticker. Eventually Susan became the author of three picture books all published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, and a middle grade novel THE UPSIDE OF ORDINARY published by Holiday House. Her stories have also been published by Spider Magazine and Highlights. Susan lives with her husband, dog, and two cats in Massachusetts. They have two grown daughters, Hannah and Julia. www.susanlubner.com

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Guest Post: How to be a Beta Reader

beta pic - magnifying glass (ME)If you’re a writer working seriously on a manuscript, chances are you found out pretty early on about the whole beta-reading phase of the process. Not only will we each have to go through the pain of finding good beta readers for our work, but we’re sure to be reciprocating the favor several times. People approach the beta process differently, leading to all kinds of methods and all kinds of results—some not very pretty or useful. The thing is, by the time each of us gets to the beta-reading phase, we’ve likely burned through most of our pairs of fresh eyes. There might only be one person left to give a true, unbiased test read, so why would we want that chance messed up by the process of it all?

I have thoughts about what the whole beta process should entail and these days, I’m not afraid to let my beta readers know what I expect from them. I’m going to share the M-E Beta Method with you now.

1)    Be clear on the time frame. Tell the writer when you’ll have time to read the manuscript. Don’t accept, only to have the manuscript sitting there for 6 months while you occasionally read a chapter here and there. If you said you’d beta, then beta. If you can’t follow through, tell the writer that. If the manuscript is meh and you dread picking it up, well then consider that you’re not the right person to beta, or maybe you are, and the writer needs to know your reading experience isn’t a good one.

2)    Read once, and only once. Pretend you’re a real reader. This manuscript is supposed to be ready to be tested, so test it. Don’t get wrapped up in the fear of missing things, or trying to dissect every scene. Just read, once. The writer will only have one chance with her readers, and you’re testing to see if it’s ready for that—or close to ready anyway.

3)    Read fast, or at least, read consistently. Does reading one chapter a month really make up a true reading experience? Refer to #1, and agree to beta during a set time frame, where you know you can take it on and get it done. You’re not copy-editing, so don’t sit there and strain to find those typos. If you see the missed words and bad grammar and want to point them out, then fine, but a beta is not a copy-edit and a writer shouldn’t expect you to do both.

4)    Jot everything down in the moment. This is the most important step. Every little thought is important because you’re giving the writer the one thing they don’t have: perspective. Let’s say for two paragraphs, something in the writing gave you this feeling, in other words, grabbed your attention. For example: I don’t know why, but I feel like something bad is gonna happen to the TV. It’s being mentioned so much, and the guy loves it. I don’t know. Feels like it’s setting up for something. Let’s say you don’t write this down as you’re waiting to see what happens, then six chapters later, nothing’s happened to the TV; your present self, the one who now has the insight of knowing where the story went, will rationalize that you saw something that wasn’t there. You might think it’s insignificant now that the plot progressed and a character died. Who cares about the TV, right? Except that TV thing might actually have been distracting to readers, and it served no purpose. The writer probably had no idea it had that effect, holding your attention for no reason at all. Jot everything down as you go—Ha! I laughed here, or Didn’t you say that already in the last chapter? I can’t remember… or I really don’t like the mom right now but I don’t know why. She says “honey” too much—and don’t worry about what’s important or not.

5)    Think about larger themes, and the story as a whole. When you’re done, mull the whole experience over. What are you left with? How was it? What if you were going to write a book review about it? Was the beginning sort of sluggish and made it hard for you to pick the manuscript up to continue? If you have suggestions for ways to fix issues you picked up on, mention them. Sometimes a problem might seem so huge to the writer—I gotta replot the whole thing!—when to the reader, a small change would fix all. Comment a little on voice, characterization, plot, and pacing if you can. If it’s in dire need of a copy-edit, make sure to let the writer know! If the writer is all set to start querying agents with this manuscript and you don’t think it’s ready for that, mention it. They asked for your opinion, so give it.

Just read the thing, and use your writerly insight to articulate your reading experience with a little more focus. You’re supposed to be test reading a manuscript that’s as polished and revised as the writer could manage on her own (along with the insight of critiques along the way).  Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be ready to be shelved at the book store, but it should at least be pretty enough to warrant being looked at by professionals. It should feel like a real book. Lots of writers start looking for betas just because they hit The End. That’s a waste of time for everybody, and in those cases, what I’ve done is read the first few chapters and sent notes back on the foundation, detailing the major concerns and letting the writer know why I believe there’s more revising to be done and why it’s not worth continuing on with the beta.

The beta-reading stage is about pretending this is a real book you’ve got in your hands, so be a reader and make sure your process leaves the writer with as much insight into the experience as possible, that way they can feel confident about taking their manuscript to the next level—whether that’s an agent, a traditional publisher editor, or to a professional freelance editor in preparation for self-publishing.

Headshot MEM-E Girard is a writer of contemporary fiction—mostly young adult fiction, usually queer fiction, and always about girls. She is working on her first young adult novel, whose title keeps changing. M-E was a fellow of the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in 2013. She is all over social media, and always trying to make blogging a more regular thing. She lives not too far outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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Guest Post: When is the Best Time to Write a Query Letter?

by W. E. Larson

clock (Erik)Writing a query letter is hard. I did a lot of research when I made one for my first novel. I visited many a website that provided examples, and dug deep into Query Shark. Then I got to work writing and re-writing that query. In the end, I didn’t end up querying the manuscript because it wasn’t really what I wanted it to be yet. Writing the query and synopsis helped me to decide that.

During that research, I came across a query critique on Query Shark that haunted me. The query wasn’t criticized only for its content, but the underlying manuscript was criticized as well. Now that would be tough. It’s one thing to change the query, but another to need to change the manuscript significantly.

That got me thinking that maybe the best time to write a query letter isn’t after writing the manuscript, but before. I’m not talking about writing the whole query, just the most important part, i.e., the pitch that tells the agent about the manuscript.

So I got to work, taking the manuscript idea in my head and trying to write a pitch. It was still hard, but I had the luxury of not having the manuscript set in stone. I took the pitch to a few people to read over, and it didn’t go over great. The pitch didn’t pop. I went back to the drawing board, made some significant changes to the story idea, and made a new pitch that did much better.

Armed with my query pitch and the story idea, I went on to write the manuscript. In my case, that means synopsis, outline, and then the writing. When I finally finished the writing and revising, I already had most of the query letter done. A few tweaks and I was good to go. The resulting query did a great job for me, getting requests and an offer of representation.

Like almost anything in writing, there’s no right way to do things, but writing the query first sure worked great for my second novel.

Erik LarsonW.E. Larson is a life-time midwesterner living in the Kansas City area with his wife, daughter, son, and two dogs.  He earned a degree in physics from Trinity University along with minors in computer science and mathematics.  He went on to pursue a career in software engineering.  He always enjoyed telling stories and decided to finally put some to paper—especially stories that his kids might like.

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