What I learned from the #MNINB Platform Challenge

So today is the last day of Robert Lee Brewer's April Platform Challenge. If you haven't heard of it, every day Robert posted a challenge action item to help us writerly folks improve our platforms. While there have been days I fantasized about killing Brewer in his sleep, the challenge has been extremely helpful. For those of you playing along at home, here are my top five take-aways from the month.

I stole/borrowed this from Robert's website

1. Social Media will eat you alive...
 If you let it. Between blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads, Pinterest, etc. you could spend all day updating posts, pinning articles and tweeting. You've got to set limits. Everyone will be different. For me, I check all my social media in the morning and then again at lunch. If I've been good (i.e. I wrote something that wasn't garbage) I check it again in the evening. Without these rules I would spend all day reading blogs, updating Twitter and stalking the gossip pages to see if Jessica Simpson has had that baby yet.

2. Social Media is hard.
 If you want a quality product (blog post, twitter following, Pinterest board) you have to be willing to put in the time. No one wants to read a blog about all the places you find cat hair every morning. Well, someone might, but it won't be me. If you want people to read your stuff, it needs to be interesting, informative, and/or entertaining. If it's all three you get a gold star for the day.

3. Social Media is not that hard.
 Sure, you have to do the leg work, but there are a million people willing to help you. Do you need guest bloggers to help cover a two-week visit from your in-laws? There are tons of people willing to write guest posts and who might also send you copious amounts of liquor. Are you looking for interesting people to interview? Just ask those interesting people. You'll be surprise by how many will say yes and be honored that you asked. Do you need a flying unicorn? OK, you could be out of luck on that one.

4. There is no magic wand.
 Having a successful social media platform is a combination of hard work, a bit of luck, and that special sauce that makes you uniquely you. While there are plenty of things you can do to improve your platform, you will not find an easy button that instantly turns all your Tweets to solid gold and causes followers to fall from the sky like manna.

5. There is a magic wand.
 Well, no, not really. But if there was, it wouldn't shoot sparkly fairy dust out the end. Instead it would spout words of wisdom from the rest of the writing community. This place is filled to the brim with crazy geniuses. So if you don't know something, just ask. Because no matter how awesome you are at blogging, or twitter, or whatever, there is someone else who has been awesome for longer, and that person has something to teach you.

So there you have it. Five wonderful lessons and a month worth of insight. If you aren't familiar with Robert Lee Brewer, I would encourage you to go check out his website right now. My Name Is Not Bob is chock full of sage advice and savvy wisdom.

Now what do I write?

First off, I have to apologize. I had a really fun blog planned for today, but I am computer challenged and technology was working against me. I have enlisted the help of my savvy husband and hope to have said fun post  up next week.

Instead, today I am asking for your help.

The novel is done(ish) and I am twiddling fingers waiting for feedback from my beta readers. I have some other, smaller projects to work on in my downtime, but that is not going to be enough. I can't just write nothing so my biggest question is: What do I write next?

A gals gotta write something
The good news is I have a ton of potential ideas floating around in my head. The bad news is I have a ton of potential ideas floating around in my head. Since current novel is the first book in a proposed trilogy, my gut reaction was to get started on book two. I even have some plot outline started. Go me!

But then I got to thinking. What if this book never sells? I'm not sure I'm up for self-publishing it. So if I write the second book, but the first one isn't published then...yeah, you see where I'm going with this.

I was just going to bite the bullet and write it anyway since it was the most intriguing idea in my list. But then...I took a shower. And we all know that's where the muse lives.

The shower muse gifted me a truly awesome idea for a YA Distopian. I'm not even a huge distopian fan, but this idea kicks so much tushy I'm having a hard time saying no.

Now I'm torn. Do I keep with my current momentum and write book two, keeping the faith alive that everyone will want to publish this masterpiece? OR Do I go with something completely different and potentially awesome?

Help! Anyone else wondering about writing book two? Advice from those who have been there? What's the word?

Getting the Most from your Betas

I'm on a bit of a beta reader kick right now. Must be because my precious darling is in the hands of betas and so (unfortunately for you) this is all I can think about. I've decided to go with it and offer a little bit more advice on betas.

So now that you have the right readers for your story, it's important that you help guide them so you can get the right kind of feedback. While we'd all love to hear "It's perfect, don't change a thing" that is unlikely to be true or helpful.

Are you asking the right Beta questions?

I suggest giving your readers a list of questions to get the ball rolling. Below is the list I use. These questions are fairly general and are just a starting place to let your beta know the kind of feedback you are interested in.

1.      Did the beginning (first few paragraphs and pages) capture your interest and pull you into the story? If not, what was missing?
2.      Were you able to get into the story quickly?
3.      Were there any parts you wanted to stop reading or where you found yourself skimming or skipping over?
4.      Can you relate to the characters? Do their emotions and reactions feel real?
5.      Does the dialogue sound natural?
6.      Were you able to picture all the characters and scenes? Do any of them need more description? Do any of them have too much description?
7.      Were there any parts you found confusing?
8.      Are there any questions that aren’t answered by the end?
9.      Did the stakes/risks feel real?
10.  Was the ending satisfying?
11.  Was there any scene or character you just didn’t like?

I also use a cover letter for my questions. Some beta readers are going to be old hands or even writers themselves, so they know the drill. However, some of your readers might be unsure how this all works. I use the letter below to fill them in on the importance of their role.

Dear Reader,
            Thank you for agreeing to be a beta reader for my novel. I appreciate the time you are willing to give to read my book and provide feedback. This is an important step on the road to publication which makes you important to the success of my work. So thanks again.
            I have provided a short list of questions to get you started thinking about the book. Please read through them before you start reading so you can have them in the back of your head while you read. Feel free to provide additional comments on any other topic you feel is relevant. All of your feedback is valuable. Also, feel free to make comments directly on the manuscript.
            Please know that I do not consider this a finished work and I anticipate you will have lots of suggestions to make it better. I understand fully that my novel has flaws, and I am grateful that you are willing to help me find them. There is no comment or observation you can make that will hurt my feelings. I am genuinely looking for your honest feedback. If you hate it, I still want to know.
            Last, I ask only that you do not share this work with anyone unless you have first checked with me. It is my intent to publish this novel, and any public distribution of this work prior to that time could jeopardize my chances of publication. If you have a friend who you think would enjoy the book and could provide helpful feedback, I am open to additional readers. I only ask that you check with me first.
            So, again, thank you for your help. I look forward to getting your feedback and making a better novel.

The last full paragraph may seem like a bit of overkill, but since I use teen betas I thought this was important.

What questions do you ask your readers? Have you found a method for getting the best feedback? Share your tips below so we can all learn from our collective greatness!

3 Beta Readers you Must Have

There are tons of articles out there about the benefits of using Beta readers. This is another one. Honestly, I can't imagine sending my work to anyone in any kind of professional manner without letting a few good betas look at it first. So you know you need them, and I've mentioned previously how great they are. But now I want to talk about what to look for in a beta reader.

In general, you need to find someone who can communicate well and who isn't afraid to give you their honest opinion. You also want to find a beta who is willing to open up a conversation with you. I've found that sometimes a beta reader needs to be prompted into giving critical feedback. You should also look for someone who likes to read. That ones a bit of a deal breaker.

Those are general guidelines, but here are three specific folks you'll want to find right away when you start your beta reader search.

1. The Genre Fan
This beta reader is a huge fan of the genre you write (romance, YA, SciFi, etc.). They know all the latest trends and are familiar with the big names of your genre.

Why do you want them?
They've read so much fantasy they can spot a weak magic system from 50 yards away. They know all the overused euphemisms found in romance sex scenes. In short, they know what works and what doesn't when it comes to your genre.

What to watch out for?
This beta has read moreNora Roberts novels than Nora Roberts. As a genre lover, your beta is bound to have favorites and will find it hard to avoid comparing you to them. Watch out for comments that suggest your writing should sound more like (fill in the blank author).

2. The Genre Doubter
This person never reads your genre. They don't know the rules and have no idea what's the 'right' way to do it.

Why do you want them?
This beta doesn't know what a Horcrux is and doesn't want to know what BDSM stands for. This beta is unlikely to get caught up in the story when they read your work. Because of this they'll be able to focus more on the style of your writing. Plus, a positive comment from someone not in your target audience feels extra sweet.

What to watch out for?
This beta is not going to flip for your work so be prepared for a less glowing review than you'll probably get from your Genre fan. That doesn't mean their comments aren't valid. But as the author you need to remember you're starting at a disadvantage.

3. The Character Twin
Unless you wrote a book about a group of characters who are all exactly like you, you used a bit of creative license when you developed them. Now's the time to find someone who can relate to your characters on a closer level. Sometimes this will be obvious. YA writers should find a teen beta reader. But I don't know any wizards! you say. Look beyond the initial description of your characters to pinpoint your beta reader. What else is your wizard? A servant to the king, a mentor for the next generation. Did he go through a long apprenticeship? These are the folks you're looking for.

Why do you want them?
This should be a no-brainer. This is the beta who will tell you if your characters are realistic. Would a farmer really leave the ranch in the hands of his young son? If you aren't a farmer, the only way to know is to ask one.

What to watch out for?
It's important to remember that while this beta is representative of your character, they are not The representative. Their opinion is only their own and could be vastly different of someone else with the same background. Be cautious of taking their advice as the gospel.

In general, it's important to remember that all Beta readers are only individual people, with individual goals, opinions and backgrounds. They are there to help us make our work spectacular, not to re-write it for us. At the end of the day, your work is still your own and needs to be a reflection of you.

When Bad Reviews aren't Bad

A few weeks ago I talked about the difference between critiques and reviews. The main point was that a critique is trying to help a writer improve a work in progress while a review is simply honest thoughts about what the author has asserted to be a finished work (assumed by the fact it's published, publishing before you're ready is a whole different topic).

The topic came up because I am known to write harsh reviews. I got a lot of interesting feedback on this from my writer peeps. I was surprised by the number of people who won't say anything negative on a review. I'm all for the loving, supportive community writers have created. But I think we might be hurting ourselves in an attempt to not hurt each other.

This was really brought to the spotlight by a recent article from Kim Strickland. In her article, Kim bashes Publishers Weekly for writing negative reviews. Her main complaint is that the authors of the books reviewed won't be able to salvage a single half-line to use for promotional purposes. This absolutely blew my mind.

Despite the review picking holes in most of the major components of these books, Strickland wants to be able to pull out five or six words to stick on a back cover so it appears that PW gave the book a good review. False advertising at its finest.

I just don't get this. Honestly, I really gave it some serious thought. If I bought a toaster oven that broke after three uses, I would write a bad review for the product on the company website. Hopefully this would do two things. First, it would disuade another consumer from paying good money for a product that didn't live up to expectations. Second, I would hope the company, upon seeing this review, would go back to the drawing board in an attempt to make a better toaster oven.

And some authors are doing this. I'll point to Emlyn Chand. I picked up her book Farsighted a few months ago. It was pretty good although not something I'll put on my favorites list. Ms. Chand received several excellent reviews for her novel although some reviewers poked some big holes in it (In case you're curious, I gave her three stars). So Ms. Chand went back to work. Despite getting ready to put out the next book in the series in May, Emlyn took the time to offer a free update to her book. She stated the update was based on feedback she received in reviews. To that I say "Kudos, Ms. Chand".

Getting bad reviews didn't slow her down or make her think the series was doomed. Instead she took the opportunity readers gave her to make the book better. I'll be honest. I originally had no intention of reading the next book in the Farsighted series. But now I have a feeling that this book could be even better than the first. Why? Because Ms. Chand is the kind of writer who strives to be better. In fact, I think you should believe that to. If you haven't checked out Farsighted yet, you can get it here. And be on the lookout for the next book, Open Heart.

Our Secret Desire to be the Characters we Hate

If you read YA (and really, why wouldn't you) you know that lots of folks are concerned about the lack of strong female characters in many of the chart-toppers. They point to characters like Bella Swan from Twilight and Luce from Fallen. These ladies lack any identity outside the men in the lives.

Readers, librarians, and fellow authors are concerned about the messages this type of character is sending to the impressionable teens who read about them. This is such a hot topic that it made me wonder why an author would create a character like this in the first place.

And then it hit me. Because secretly, deep down inside, we all want to be like Bella Swan. Now, I'm not suggesting that we all want to suddenly develop self-esteem issues and sacrifice our personalities for the sake of true love. So let me explain.

Characters like Bella are all written the same. Beautiful girl doesn't realize how pretty she is and is clueless to the male student body ready to sacrifice appendages for a date to Homecoming. We assume that this character is either a) dumber than a box of rocks to not see all of this or b) has one of those so far over-the-top humility acts that it has to be fake.

But this is where the secret, deep down part comes in. Don't we all wish this was how things really were in high school. It sure would be nice to convince myself that the reason my sophomore year was dateless was simply because my overwhelming beauty made all the boys too nervous to ask me out.

I'm not suggesting this is a green light to write a dozen novels with sappy, unaware teenagers. But it does explain why seventeen year old girls and forty year old women stand in line at midnight to see their movies. Because, secretly, we all want to be Bella Swan.

Why Write with yWriter

A few posts back I mentioned my intent to start plotting my next novel. Being the non-plotter than I am, I devised a somewhat complicated albeit colorful method for figuring out all the 'what happens next' of my manuscript.

Then I got some wonderful comments from all of you. You people are fabulous!

I was reminded to check into Scrivener (something I had looked at previously but dismissed in a wash of pantsing). So I decided to check it out again. One thing can be said for Scrivener...it's pretty. All the fancy buttons and note cards that look like real note cards on the screen. The geek in my cheered. But I couldn't pull the trigger.

Forty dollars is not a crazy price to pay for some software that has the potential to make my writing life vastly improved. I don't have anything against paying for software either. Just like writers, programmers gotta pay the bills, too. But here's my thing. If I buy the software and then don't use it, it will haunt me. Spending money. Fine. Wasting money. The epicest* of all fails.

So then I found this fancy website. www.alternativeto.net.  It's amaze-balls. You can type in any program you're interested in and it tells you where to find free-ware versions. Please note that freeware doesn't mean someone copied the software and is now pirating it. Freeware is legitimate software created by folks who just like to share stuff with people. Think of it as a free ebook. Happy dance!

On this fabulous new website I found yWriter**. This little gem was created by a programmer who is also a novelist. So he gets what is really needed and what's just something flashy that will become a distraction.

I started outlining my next book and so far I love it. I can input scenes with as much or little detail as I want. Then put them into chapters and move them around as I like. I can type the scene right into the software and then easily save to my computer or a thumb drive.

My favorite feature so far is the timeline. I can tell the program how many words the whole project should be and then input the date I expect to complete the first draft (or second, or third, your choice). The system then tells me how many words I need to write every day. If I don't hit that goal, the timeline automatically adjust to spread the extra words across my remaining days.

It also has some other cool features. One I'll need to play with is the synopsis feature. Using the general notes you enter for each scene, the program compiles them into a single document. Obviously, you'd never send this off to an agent as it is. But for those of us who hate writing these, it's a great place to start.

I'll let you know if I continue to use the software as the project continues. For now I'm continuing to plod through the plotting process.

*epicest is not a real word. However, it should be.
**yWriter is only for PCs operating on a Windows or Linux system. The programmer actually recommends you use Scrivener if you have a Mac.

Writerly Love

A recent post about giving bad reviews sparked a lot of conversation both on and off line among my writer friends. I'm going to talk about that some more next week. Today I want to talk about the other side of the coin: showing writerly love.

A blog I often read has the phrase 'sharing is caring' by the comments section. This is so true. Commenting on a blog, retweeting someone's post, sharing an article that helped you. These are all easy ways that we can show appreciation for the wonderful writer folks we get to interact with every day.

Here's a timely example. Today, someone I follow tweeted the blog link for someone they follow (who I didn't know). The blog was hilarious! So I retweeted it. The author of the blog liked my tweet so she: favorited my tweet, retweeted it, followed me, and commented on my blog! So now I'm following her and have her blog linked here which hopefully many of you will read. It's the social media equivalent of the circle of life.

And here's the beauty of it all. My followers are introduced to something that may be new to them. Her followers are introduced to me. And the whole thing took less than fifteen minutes.

My new goal is to make sure I am showing writerly love to someone new every day. It can be a tweet of an interesting article, a thoughtful comment on a new blog or a shout out to someone I haven't met. So what are you doing to show writerly love to others? Out of ideas, feel free to tweet this blog post. :)

The downfall of Ctrl+F

Editing this novel has become a bit of a writerly journey for me. Since this is the first time I've considered something I wrote good enough to bother editing, each step has been a new journey. I've worked through lots of steps and re-written the first chapter dozens of times.

This week will be my last week of editing for this piece which is way ahead of schedule for my May 15th deadline to start querying. I've done all the structural changes that I think need to be made and now I'm just down to fixing words.

I recently wrote about the joys of Ctrl+F to seek and destroy words that bogged down my writing. However, I think I may have taken my joy too far. As I slash words with glee, I'm noticing a trend. Sure, my writing is getting tighter (read better) in a lot of places, but in some spots the change in wording is altering my voice.

Gasp in horror! The voice is often considered a crucially important consideration for a potential agent/editor. Dozens of agent wishlists specify things like 'an adult romance with a cynical voice' or 'a fantasy with a strong female driven voice'. Voice is something that is unique to each writer and can't be duplicated.

So if the changes I'm making distort my voice, is it ok to leave 163 instances of the word 'like' in my manuscript?

For now, I'm going to say 'yes'. I could be wrong and my betas might rip this thing to shreds. But right now, every word I change feels like I'm tearing the soul out of my story. Maybe this is what it feels like when a writer reaches the end of editing.

So that's it. No more. I offer up my work to the betas and then I'll make one more sweep to fix anything they find that needs fixing.

I guess it's time to get serious about that agent list cause this ship is about to sail.

Managing Social Media

If you haven't heard about the My Name is Not Bob April platform challenge yet, please stop right now and go check it out. Robert Lee Brewer is dishing out sage advice on a daily basis to help us writerly folks improve and grow our platforms.  In a previous post, I mentioned my dismay with my blog's poor showing on a recent Google search. I retract any previous grumblings.

Not Bob is a genius and my cup now overfloweth. So now I have a new problem. How do I keep up with the social media of it all and still be a productive writer? We all know how addictive these sites can be. By the time I check Twitter, FB, post to my blog, and check out my favorite blogs/websites half the day is gone. Plus, with new content going up all the time, it's hard not to double or triple check some of these sites.

Now add in to that being courteous to my fellow writers. Now that I am getting new followers daily, lots of blog comments and RTs I need to thank folks. And not just in a hey-thanks kind of way, but in a meaningful way that opens a dialogue for growth.

I think I need to set up a schedule. And not just a vague 'in the morning' schedule, but a real honest stick to it schedule. I don't have one and it shows in my productivity this last week. So here's where you come in. What schedule do you use to keep from spending all day on the internet? How do you keep things running and still find time to write (and shower, cook, clean, watch kids and all the other stuff we have to do)? Let me know. Please!

My Plotting Conversion

If you read my last blog you know why I've decided to plot my next book. Hot, scary mess are the words that come to mind. But even scarier is the thought of doing a complete 180 to become one of those writers with wonderful notebooks filled with detailed outlines.

Not to say anything bad about those writers. Secretely I wish I could be one of them. But whenever I try to plot that way I end up about three chapters in before losing steam. So I started to wonder if there's a happy mid-point where I can live.

I need a bit more structure to my plot but without all the hoops.
So here's my plan:
First I need to make a list of all the things I want to happen. This is going to be really rough. Things like Character A meets Character B at track meet. These will be the clear action points of the story. All of these go on a sticky note in a single color.

Once that is done, I'll determine what new information will be revealed during this action. Sticking with our example, Character B is really a talking pig in disguise.* All these new pieces of information go on a new color of sticky note.

Next, I want to plot out my character's emotional states because my particular story is very driven by the extreme emotions of being a teen. So in this case I would write Character A is dissapointed and disgusted. And, you guessed it, these go on a new sticky note.

I'll have other colors to represent the goal of the scene, the tension/conflict, any foreshadowing, etc. You get the idea.

Now that I have all my pretty notes I will commandeer a blank wall somewhere in my house and get to sticking.

The nice thing about sticky notes is that you can move the order around however you want. For example, let's say I don't want the reader to know Character B is a pig until later in the story. Easy! I just move the sticky note to the new action. Plus, now I know I need to cut the track scene or I need to add something to it. 

So the real question is: will this work? Unfortunately the answer is: I don't know...maybe. I'm going to give it a try and I'll let you know. I'll try to take some pictures as I go so you can see my madness in all its glory.

If you're looking for a new plotting technique, why not give this a try and then let me know how it works for you. Do you have another technique for the outline weary? I'd love to hear about it. Now I'm off to the office supply store.

* I want to be clear that this is not my story. Although teenage boys are often confused for talking pigs, so maybe it is my story.

A Pantster's Tale

So now that I am nearing the end of revisions (quietly doing the happy dance) it's time to start really thinking about book 2. I know what the book is about and I have tons of scribbled notes, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's time to decide how I'm going to write this book.

With my current MS I wrote with wild abandon, never knowing what scene was coming next or what crazy capers my characters would get into. Seriously, I didn't even know how I wanted the thing to end. Unfortunately, I got about halfway through and ran into a serious block.

I didn't know what to write next!

I wrote a lovely start to a book that didn't seem to be going anywhere. After that I did a very (very) rough sketch for the rest of the book and that helped to guide me home. By rough sketch I mean I wrote one line for every scene with random extra details peppered in for fun. I ended up only using about half of those scenes.

The result was a rough draft I wouldn't show my dog (If I had a dog). I had way too many characters and plot holes you could drive a semi through. Let me be perfectly clear: it was a hot mess.

This has led to a lot of revisions on my part. I slashed around 20,000 words and had to re-write entire chapters. I guess this was about half revision, half scrap and start over.

I should have known better than to write this way, but when the idea hit I didn't stop to think about it. I just wrote. Which is fine. However, I should have used a break somewhere to map some things out.

In my 'this is how I pay the bills' world I'm forced to be analytical. While marketing sounds like a very dreamy, creative type job it's really only about 10% creative with the rest of the time spent pouring over numbers of all kinds to see if your creative works. If it works in marketing it just might work in writing, right?

So for book number dos I plan to do things a little different. I'm going to road map my book and we'll see how it goes. It could be an absolute failure. It could be the key to writing a book without the need to write half of it over again. Just like when reading my favorite books, the mystery of what will come is the best part.

Next time I'll talk about how I intend to make the switch to plotting.

So what about you? Are you a plotter? Do you write as you go? Are you somewhere inbetween? Have you ever switched styles and how did it go? I'd love to hear your tales.

A dissapointing google search

So this month I am participating in Robert Lee Brewer's April Platform Challenge. Every day Robert will post a challenge on his blog and...ok you get the idea of a challenge.

As I am nearing the end of my editing process, the awarness of my own platform (or lack thereof) is becoming more top of mind. Just for fun I did a Google search of my name to see what would pop up. I've heard that agents may do this to see what kind of online presence a potential client has.

Let me preface this by pointing out that my name is not so common. That being said, I can expect to get pretty clean results from this search.

So in goes my name, and my first results are what I expected: Facebook, Twitter and my YALITCHAT page. Ok, that makes sense. I spend every morning on those pages and my name is all over the place. Then I see my LinkedIn page. I don't go there often, but I'll take it. Then comes my MySpace page?

First, I thought I deactivated that thing years ago, but apparently not. Second, MySpace, really? Um, where's my blog. You know the one I post to several times a week that has part of my name in the URL?

Hopefully, I pick up a lot of great tips during the platform challenge, because apparently I need it.  If you're interested in the challenge please check out Robert's Blog My Name Is Not Bob. I'll be periodically posting tips that I pick up, and you may see some changes on the blog as a result of what I'm learning. Whatever happens, it should be an interesting exercise.