The Willow Wren

I decided to try a writing challenge from the Terrible Minds blog. This one was to rewrite a fairytale in a different genre as flash fiction piece (1,000 words, maximum). The story I picked is The Willow Wren. I wrote it as young adult contemporary. Let me know what you think.

Willow Warbler also called Willow Wren, from Aviceda wiki commons
Willow Warbler also called Willow Wren, from Aviceda wiki commons

The Willow Wren

By Betsy Miller

I used to hear everything, and everything I heard had meaning. The sound of a jackhammer outside, its machine gun staccato said, “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, no puddles, no potholes, ah-ah-ah-ah, you lumps and bumps, I will tear you to pieces.” The tamper said, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I will press you smooth, press you smooth.” And the quiet stride of the worker holding the stop sign said, “All I have to do is hold this sign, hold this sign. No heavy work for me, overtime or double-time, it’s all good.”
Back then, the birds spoke too, saying things like, “Get out of here, you stupid cat.” But all of that is gone now and their language has no meaning. Back when the birds still spoke, they didn’t mind if I was around. I never chased them or threw stones, so they’d forget I was there and talk about bird-things. Like on this one day, they decided that they needed a leader.
Plover hated the idea. Plovers don’t like structure, you see. They can’t stand constraints. “What’s the point? Can’t we just do what we’ve been doing?” she said. But the rest of the birds shouted her down. Plover’s face disappeared into her green hoodie and she shoved her hands into the pocket. “Where the hell am I supposed to go now?” she asked, but no one was listening—no one but me. I shrugged and watched her flip her skateboard down and head to the rail yards where the damp settles in deep. “Sorry, goodbye, sorry, goodbye,” the wheels told the concrete.
The next time I saw the birds, it was May Day, contest day, and everyone was by the fountain at the empty office park where we skate—everyone except Plover. I hardly saw her anymore, but the rest of the birds didn’t seem to miss her. Eagle stood tall and proud, confident as always next to a little bird I didn’t know. The finches hopped from one foot to the other next to the goth-crows all in black. The owl said, “Who, who, who?” and beautiful Lark sang in the day. “It’s May, it’s May,” sang Lark. Mother hen was blown away by the size of the thing, saying, “What? What? What? No one tells me anything!” So her cocky boyfriend said “calm down,” and filled her in.
The birds decided that whoever could fly the highest would rule the roost. Tree frog said, “No, no, no.”
But a crow told him, “Back off, it’s good because there’s no fighting this way.”
So they had me count one, two, three, and the whole flock lifted off, flying crazy high, whirling and turning. The finches didn’t have a chance, they couldn’t get enough air. Before long, Eagle was sure of the win and said, “It’s me, it’s me!”
“Ea-gle, Ea-gle,” chanted the birds, but the little bird was drafting right behind Eagle. He grabbed Eagle’s shoulder and pushed off, sailing over Eagle’s head and touching the sky. “I’m king! I’m king!” screamed the little bird.
“No fair!” shouted Eagle, and the crowd of birds said, “Cheater, doesn’t count, no fair, no fair!” So they decided to have another contest—whoever could go the lowest would win.
I didn’t want to count again, but Eagle stared at me, and then I did it. “One, two, three,” I said, but quieter this time.
The birds took off, sliding under pipes, a lightning fast game of limbo, going lower and lower. The finches did better this time, being small. Duck took a fall and limped away crying. In the end, the little bird went down a manhole and shouted from down below, “I’m king, I’m king!”
“King of the manhole,” shouted Eagle with a lethal look in his eye. “You, owl,” he said. “Keep an eye on him. If he comes out, we’ll get him.” Owl settled himself down with an energy drink and watched while everyone else left to get some sleep.
I kept watch on Owl, but he didn’t see me because he kept looking at the hole. The little bird peeked out, saw Owl, and went back inside. Cold crept around us, and Owl put on his parka. After a time, he must have fallen asleep because the little bird slipped out without a sound and disappeared into the shadows. I could have stopped him I guess, but I didn’t.
Owl stays away from Eagle. He hates manholes and spray paints skulls on the covers when no one is looking. The little bird never did shut up, but he stays away from the rest of the birds. When they aren’t around he calls himself king, but the other birds call him King of the Manhole. I call him Willow Wren because he’s bright and quick and hangs out at Willow Park.
The birds never did choose a leader, and Lark was the happiest of all. She flies in the sunny blue sky and cries, “Ah, how beautiful that is, beautiful that is, beautiful, beautiful, ah how beautiful that is.” And all I hear is music without words.

Bookshop Santa Cruz Annual Short Story Contest

writing_bookshop_santacruz

From Bookshop Santa Cruz:
Bookshop Santa Cruz is sponsoring a short story contest to showcase our local talent. We are not looking for any particular theme or style — just great writing. The winning story will be published in our summer 2014 newsletter, with a circulation of more than 12,000 readers, and on our website, www.bookshopsantacruz.com. The second and third place stories will be posted in the store. In addition, the top three winning authors will be invited to read their stories on Bruce Bratton’s Universal Grapevineradio program (Tuesdays 7:00–8:00pm, KZSC 88.1 FM.) First prize will be awarded the SuRaa Fiction Award: $250. in cash, and a Gift Certificate in the amount of $100. Second- and third-place Gift Certificates will also be awarded.

Please see http://www.bookshopsantacruz.com/short-story-contest for full details and to submit online or download an entry form for paper submissions.

Moon Shot: Murder and Mayhem on the Edge of Space Anthology Call for Submissions

Untreed Reads is pleased to announce a call for submissions.

Moon Shot: Murder and Mayhem on the Edge of Space will be a short story anthology showcasing mystery and crime stories that combine the genres of science fiction and mystery/crime/suspense. We’re looking for great stories that take these genres into new territory, whether on our planet or another.

Please note that we have already accepted a story that takes place on the International Space Station, therefore we are not looking for any other stories that do (it was the inspiration for this call).

This is an open call and may be reposted anywhere and everywhere. This anthology is expected to be published in August of 2013.

This anthology will be edited by J. Alan Hartman, Editor-in-Chief of Untreed Reads and the editor of the bestselling anthologies The Killer Wore Cranberry, The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping, and Year’s End.

1. All stories must be between 1500-5000 words.
2. Deadline for submission for consideration is May 30, 2012. This is a firm date; no submissions after this date will be considered.
3. All submissions should be sent to Jay Hartman at jhartman@untreedreads.com with the words MOON SHOT in the subject line.
4. Stories may take place in the past, present or future of our galaxy, but may not introduce aliens or undiscovered planets. Stories may take place on Earth, but must be somehow related to the space program if they are.
5. Stories should lean more towards mystery/suspense/thriller than the science fiction side.
6. Submissions must be in DOC, RTF or ODT format.
7. We will not be publishing the stories individually. Only the anthology will be available.
8. Authors will receive royalty, but not upfront payment. Authors will each receive a share of royalties of 50% of net (net = cover price – vendor commission) based on the number of authors in the final anthology.
9. Characters appearing in other Untreed Reads series or other series not published by us are strongly encouraged. Please check your contract with your publisher to make sure you may legally do so.
10. Stories not used for the anthology may be resubmitted for future calls.
11. Previously published works are fine providing that electronic rights have reverted to the author.
12. Stories currently published through a self-publishing venue (i.e.: Smashwords, Amazon KDP, etc.). will not be accepted.
13. There are no restrictions whatsoever on age, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc in the work.. Just tell us a great story!

What Are You Working On?

Paper cutter with toolsTell us about your current writing projects!

Note: Please don’t post more than a few sentences of any given piece (or paragraphs if it’s book-length) because that could cause your piece to be considered “published.” (Many publishers only want new content and will not consider something that has already been made available to the public. Since this site can be viewed by anyone, it counts. For a more detailed discussion, see this Writer’s Relief article. For bunches of links to even more articles about this topic, see this Write It Sideways post.)

Also, please remember that this site is not meant as a place to get or give critique.

Doing Medical Research as an Author

I’m a technical writer, but I also write books for families who are coping with children’s medical issues (The Parents’ Guide to Clubfoot  and The Parents’ Guide to Hip Dysplasia).

If you’re a writer who is researching a medical topic, it’s important to find accurate, reliable sources of information. I often start with the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, which has very good health information for consumers. If I want more depth, I go to Pubmed.  Pubmed is the online U.S. Library of Medicine, which is geared toward medical professionals. Medline  is another good online resource associated with the NIH.

Anyone can visit websites like Pubmed and Medline to search the medical databases and read abstracts of medical journal articles. When I’m doing research, I cut and paste each abstract for the articles that I want to read into a Word document so that I have a list.

The problem that arises is that unless you subscribe to the medical journals, in many cases there’s a fee to get each complete article. This can get expensive pretty fast. When I was working on my first book, a friend in the medical field told me about community health libraries, and a whole new world opened up to me.

Community health libraries are wonderful resources. They have health and medical books and brochures about many health topics. The staff can help you find information that you might not discover on your own, and show you how to use medical databases. Even if the library is small, the staff typically has access to health resources at other locations

On top of all that, researching at community health libraries can save you money. Typically, they can get you full medical articles without charging you for access. If you want a printout to take home with you, there’s usually a small fee to cover the cost of making copies.

I recently visited the PlaneTree Health Information Center located inside the Cupertino Library, which is new to this location. I was doing research for a nonfiction book I’m going to be working on this summer. The staff was friendly and helpful. If you don’t live near the Cupertino Library and want to visit a community health library at a different location, ask your doctor’s office to recommend one.

Learning from Publication

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

Don’t Overload Your Sentences

I am verbose by nature, and my stories are ornate by design. Because I was trying to pack a lot into 10,000 words, I tried to pack a lot into each sentence of “Steampunk Fairy Chick.” Sometimes, the sentences simply couldn’t carry the load. For example, on the first page of the story this sentence appears:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner”—or was the word on this world “alien”—and bring the whole restaurant down upon her.

Here I’m trying to do a whole raft of things all at the same time:

  • Set the scene: Jeremiah is in a packed restaurant near a “food court,” which helps set the story in the present day.
  • Show character: Jeremiah is active, quick thinking, prepared to bolt at a moment’s notice—and she’s hiding something.
  • Provide backstory: Jeremiah is hiding the fact that she’s part alien, and she’s concerned that admitting it can get her in trouble.

That’s a lot for one sentence to do, but I didn’t choke on any of that: I choked on the phrase “or was the word on this world ‘alien?’” which made me lose my place. Why is that aside even in there? It’s because in this sentence I’m also trying to:

  • Raise a question: Jeremiah is not clear that the rules or language are the same in “this world”—implying she’s from another.

That’s great, but it’s a separate idea. So perhaps, even though it costs more words, it would have been better to separate these ideas into two sentences:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner” and bring the whole restaurant down upon her. Or wait—wasn’t the word for “Foreigner” on this world “alien?”

This rewrite is clearer … and by removing the interjection, it serves another hidden purpose of this sentence:

  • Clarifying ambiguity: “Jeremiah” is a male name for a female character … so “Jeremiah” needs to appear with a female pronoun.

Even though that creates yet another job for this sentence, it’s important. This is a very early sentence, so it’s critical real estate for establishing her gender clearly. Removing the aside brings “Jeremiah” and “her” eight words closer together.

As a side remark, Jeremiah’s male name illustrates the gender-neutral world of Victoriana from which she came, but otherwise isn’t material to this story—and some authors question whether a story should contain anything in it that doesn’t serve that specific story. For standalone stories, this might be the case, but for series fiction I respectfully disagree. In series fiction you must respect the rules of your series even if they aren’t convenient for a specific story. A series creates its own reality, and one could no more change Jeremiah’s name to Jeri for convenience than one could change Sherlock to Sherman—or move Atlanta to Albania.

“Spoilers!” she said with a smirk.

WARNING: the next two sections contain very mild spoilers for the story. If you’re a savvy scifi reader you probably can read the following section without being spoiled because what IS being spoiled is only a minor surprise. However, if you are one of the people who HATE spoilers, skip to “Make Learning Explicit” … or run out and buy a copy of the UnCONventional anthology and read the last story in it. (Yes, that was a subtle—but entirely shameless—plug).

Pay Attention to Rhythm

Back with us? OK. Another sentence that leapt out at me was:

“You really think,” the sharply dressed man said, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

There’s nothing too bad with this sentence, but it still jarred me—because “the sharply dressed man” is a complex noun. I’m referring to this character with this mouthful of a name for several reasons:

  • Limited third person point of view: Jeremiah, our point-of-view character, doesn’t know his name—and therefore, the narrator, who doesn’t know any more than the POV character in limited 3rd person POV, doesn’t either.
  • Limited oxygen for limited screen time: The sharply dressed steampunk is a key but minor character, appearing in two and a half brief scenes with only a few lines. Naming him in this already complex story could distract the reader.

Major surgery could fix the problem: make the character more prominent and introduce him formally; cut the character out; give the line to someone else; come up with a shorter epithet. But there’s an easier trick to solve the problem:

“You really think,” said the sharply dressed man, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

The point of the dialogue tag in this sentence isn’t just to identify who’s speaking. It’s to break up the rhythm of the sentence so it reads the way it ought to be heard. The sentence is a secret in-joke, a riff off this line in Mortal Kombat:

“A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?”

Interjecting the dialogue tag into the sentence breaks up the reading, makes the reader pause in hearing at the right moment to make the quotable quote stand out. But the action that’s happening is speaking, and throwing a four word noun into the sentence completely derails the rhythm.  Why? A clue can be found from an earlier sentence with a very similar structure which did NOT disrupt my reading:

“This is a trick,” the sharply dressed man said. “Some kind of neon—”

The initial scrap of dialogue here—“This is a trick”—is a complete sentence. A reader knows it is speech from the quote marks, and expects to find a noun describing a speaker. But in the offending sentence, the initial scrap of dialogue—“You really think”—is NOT complete, forcing the reader to keep what the character said AND the character’s name in their mental buffer until the dialogue tag appears.

A better solution is to make the ‘said’ come first, easing the reader down off “You really think” by confirming that the reader has just read speech. Putting the verb first in this case reinforces the already existing expectation that the reader will encounter the name of a character, followed by a resumption of the dialogue which will complete the spoken sentence started with “You really think.”

Grammatically, switching the verb and the noun in a dialogue tag is almost always allowed, but it is not always recommended aesthetically. Consider:

“Give me a break,” he said.

versus

“Give me a break,” said he.

Ouch! If you don’t have a rhythmic (or other) reason to change the order of the dialogue tags … just stick to “he said.”

Stick to your guns

In several places in the story, the editors suggested I could get rid of dialogue tags to make the text shorter, smoother, and punchier. Here’s an example:

She brought this down on us.” Jeremiah stared into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

That paragraph works well, delivers its punch … but doesn’t sound like me. I want sentences to draw pictures with words. And for a sequence of actions, a sequence of short sentences without connectors can do that well:

Jeremiah darted forward. The nearest zombies stirred. Jeremiah shoved them aside. The remainder started to turn. Wayfarer sprayed them. Zombie eyes began to glow. Jeremiah reached Jackson and fumbled at her corset. The zombies raised their hands, crackling with power.

But when someone is speaking, action and speech are happening at the same time. The montage effect above works less well, perhaps because the dialogue lives in quotation space and the action lives in normal narrative space. That’s why I’d strongly consider changing the first paragraph above back to:

She brought this down on us,” Jeremiah said, staring into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

This weaves the action and the speech together so it’s clear they’re taking place at the same time. Your mileage may vary; there is nothing wrong with the version the editors recommended, and you could delete dialogue tags more extensively through the entire story without a fault. (Anthony waves to his editors, who did a great job!) But when I reread my own story, these dropped dialogue tags didn’t sound like ‘me.’

I find the very best edits are the ones that seem perfectly natural: the editor suggests it, and it goes so well with the story the words feel like your own. Sometimes this happens because the editor has nailed your voice; sometimes it happens because you have internalized the editor’s lesson. BUT, if a change doesn’t work for you, I think the right thing to do is say “stet” (Latin for “let it stand” and writer-editor jargon for “revert to original”). Trust me, editors are big boys and girls. They WANT authors to push back as much as they push authors, because the end result is a story that benefits from both the editor and the author’s best ideas.

Make Learning Explicit

You may agree or disagree with the recommendations I’ve made above. “Switching ‘said’ and ‘he’ for effect?” you might say. “Adding extra dialogue tags where none are needed? Adding extraneous material to a story at all? Heresy!” In fact, a few years from now, when I’ve grown more as a writer, I might say the same thing. But there’s a more general principle here which you can take advantage of even if our aesthetics don’t agree: use publication as an opportunity to make learning explicit.

People learn when they get feedback on their actions and try to improve based on it. If the feedback is timely and you don’t actively try to reject it, learning can be almost automatic. But you can’t always guarantee getting timely feedback—so sometimes you need to deliberately create a strategy that helps you improve.

So what I recommend is: when your work hits print, get a copy of it. Read it, marking anything you want to change. And then try to generalize what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to new stories in the future.

-the Centaur

Catching the Horse, or How I Wrote a NaNo Thing

“If you fall off the horse, get back on.”

It’s an old saying, tried and true, that failure does not mean to stop trying.  Fall off the horse, jump back on quickly.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to work up the courage to try again.

But what if you wait so long that the horse wanders off?

This last year, my writing life has mainly been devoted to revising my novel manuscript.  Writing and rewriting, incorporating comments from beta readers, changing the order of scenes, ripping out characters, you name it.  At this point, the “horse” of my manuscript isn’t ready for show-jumping for an agent, but it’s getting close.

While I threw all my efforts into polishing this manuscript, something else was happening so slowly, so quietly, that it took me a long time to notice.  The “horses” of all my other stories were wandering off into the sunset, reins trailing behind them.  I was so focused on what I’d already written that I wasn’t producing anything new.

Then November arrived, and with it, National Novel Writing Month.  For the last six years, NaNoWriMo has provided a springboard for my creativity.  Something about knowing thousands of other people are also crazy enough to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days alongside me is remarkably freeing.  At midnight on October 31, metaphorical trumpets blare, and I’m once again spurring a novel down the track hurtling toward the finish line of “THE END.”  In all of my attempts, I’ve hit the 50,000 word NaNo goal, though “THE END” has eluded me.  That’s all right.  Each of those novels gained enough momentum during the NaNo race that hitting an ending is inevitable.

NaNo 2011 rolled around after I had spent most of the year polishing the hooves of my thoroughbred.  I looked around to find another story to ride for NaNo and discovered all of my horses had wandered off, and what was worse, I was not certain I could entice any to come back to me.  When I first started writing, I never imagined I could come up with any story ideas that could hold my attention for long enough to produce even one novel, much less several set in the same story universe.  This year I had the opposite problem.  I wasn’t sure I could do it again.

In the weeks before NaNo, I fretted about what to write.  Should I play it safe and write the next adventure in my usual characters’ lives?  Should I use the time to finish one of my other drafts?  Or should I, could I, use the momentum and joy of NaNo to try something new?

My “stable” of stories has room for many novels.  So far, the stalls are filled with a thoroughbred of an almost submission-ready manuscript, another thoroughbred waiting its turn for grooming, and a few work horses that need a lot of training before they’ll be ready for the submissions race.  I knew I could easily use NaNo to entice another work horse into the stable.  That’d be the safe course.  Write another adventure for my characters, give them another mystery to solve.  Plod forward.

Something within me rebelled at the thought.  I’d played it safe by spending all year in revision and never poking my head outside the stable door.  Something within me wanted to soar.

So how does one entice one’s creativity to return from the green pastures where it’s wandered off?  Soft words and treats?  Threats of spur and whip?  That’s a good way to scare creativity off into the hills never to be seen again.

Getting creative about being creative works.  So does sneaking up on the problem.  Novels can be skittish.  Too much pressure, too many expectations, and the enthusiasm to work on so large a project can wither.

This year, I snuck up on NaNo.  I decided not to write a novel.  I wrote a Thing.  Every time I put hands to keyboard or opened my notebook, I fed words to the Thing.  It sat in a corner of the stable yards gobbling down word after word while the horses looked at it askance and stayed out of the way of its voracious appetite.

And a funny thing happened to the Thing.  The more I worked on it, the more coherent it became.  The style is different than anything I’ve attempted before, the ideas are new, and its place in my story universe opened up so many ideas that I’m still reeling from all the tantalizing possibilities.  By allowing my Thing its thingness, by not forcing myself to conform to my own expectations, something wonderful was born.

Now after NaNo is over, I have a 50,000 word Thing still hungry for more words.  It’s looking more like a novel than when it started, but I’m not sure whether the Thing is going to hatch into a horse like my other novels.

Right now, it’s looking a lot more like a pegasus.

Keiko Called Time

So there I was at the Write to the End group scribbling away in my notebook. Just before this round of writing, Anthony had announced his Doorways to Time Anthology call for entries. I was working on story idea I got from that. The way it was turning out, this story wouldn’t work for the anthology, but I’d write another one for him later. Even the sound of the words Antony’s Anthology made it seem like they belonged together.

“Two minutes left,” said Keiko. “Finish up, or look for a good place to stop.”

There wasn’t a good place, but that was okay. Enough was on paper that I would be able to figure out what I meant later if I wanted to go back to this story.

Keiko called time, and just that one night, Time decided to stop by, you know, to chat and see what she needed. It was Pacific Time specifically who came over to our table. She had long, flowing tropical hair and looked very relaxed as if she had all the time in the world, which I suppose was not far from the truth.

I was sitting near Keiko, so I heard Pacific Time introduce herself in a low voice, but I think most people in the group figured she was one of the many people who stop in once in awhile, and then don’t come back for a long time.

“I don’t get out to Silicon Valley that often,” said Pacific Time. “For the most part, Internet Time resides here, and he zips all over the place so we don’t connect that well. I was coasting on a weather front when you called, and thought, hey, why not?”

“Oooh,” said Keiko with a smile. “I’m so glad you came. Pull up a chair and sit down. We’ve just finished one of our 20 minute writing sessions and we’re going to read. Did you bring anything?”

Pacific Time shook her head.

“That’s okay, said Keiko. “You can listen in for this round, and then we can talk during the break.”

Nothing fazes Keiko.

How to Run Beta Reading Cycles

So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.

Beta Readers
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.

Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.

Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.

Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.

Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.

If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu (www.lulu.com) and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.

It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.

Review Comments
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.

If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.

Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.