A Sojourn in Captivity Update: How I Use Beta Reader Feedback

A Sojourn in Captivity Update: How I Use Beta Reader Feedback
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As always, all stock images are from Pixabay.

Last weekend I received the feedback from my wonderful beta readers.  Before I do anything else, I’d like to thank them.  My deepest gratitude goes to:

Elizabeth Drake, Jenn Moss, C.L. Schneider, (The rest I’ll use first names only as they’re private citizens.) Ashley,  and Alora. You all are amazing people and very busy, and it means so much to me that you took time out of your schedules and lives to provide this humble indie author some insight into the book.  I didn’t imagine we’d have room for any sort of “acknowledgements” page, but eventually, I’ll be giving shoutouts to you and the alphas and editors.  But today is for you wonderful betas because it gave me the idea for this blog.

The story writing and editing process is as unique as the author creating the story. I thought it’d be interesting for me to share with you what I look for from and in a beta reader.

What I ask of them:
I’ll do another post at some point on what I look for in an alpha reader, but the short version is I’m more demanding of them because I need my alphas to make sure I don’t look like a moron. My betas are there for me to be test readers. So what I did is send them my character analysis sheets and ask a few questions.

mixing-1584267_960_720The character analysis sheet is just a term I made up to sound smart.  All I do is ask the readers to rank the character, description, dialogue, world building, and exposition for me on a scale of 1 to then.  I expand the “character” sliders to include sympathy, proactivity, competence, and power. This is how I review books; this is how I evaluate books, so this is how I like to receive feedback.

Then I ask what I feel the most important questions any author can ask the reader:
What do you think of the story as a whole?
What do you think about the main character (in this case Elele) at the beginning of the story?
What do you think of the main character at the end?
Would you want to read another story in which this character (and others) appear?

Then I invite the reader to add any thoughts they find relevant.

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One of these days I’m going to have a more accurate rendering of Elele, but until then, you’ll keep seeing this very rough concept sketch. 

So I sent the book out to betas and gave them a few weeks (I try to let them have two days to read a single chapter or segment) to read the story. When I got the feedback, the first thing I did was thank them for their time.  This is critical authors. These folks are reading your work, the least you can do is let them know what it means to have them offer their time.

Then I opened up a document and typed whatever comments they gave me. For those who quite frankly went the extra mile and sent back the document with notes in the copy, I saved those files to a folder.

I’d be very interested to see what others do via the comments below, but here’s what I do:

Respect everything they say. You’re going to hear feedback. You won’t like all of it. Heck, you might not like any of it. I turn my ego in before I open a document.

While everything each beta says is valuable, what I look for is overlap.  What do they all love? What do they all hate? What do they all think? What trends do I see.  This is why I tend to want between 10 and 20 betas. The bigger the sample size, the more likely you’ll have enough opinions to really help you sort things out.

I’ll peel back the onion a bit here. The number one bit of feedback I got from every single beta is, “The story starts too slowly. There’s too much information to swallow.” Or something to that effect.  Here’s how feedback works in the photojournalism field. One person’s opinion is just one persons opinion, but if everybody who says anything says the same thing, that’s truth.  They all wanted to start closer to the action. (And when I review Conflict and Suspense, I’ll talk about that a lot more).

So when the majority of the betas say the same thing, I trust that majority. But what do you do when there isn’t one?

horizontal-2071304_960_720Well, I sort of take the liberty to trust my own feelings. If it’s a mixed bag, I understand that people are going to like some things and hate others.

I put the bigger weight on the betas who fall within my target audience. They’re the ones who I care most about because they’re the ones I want to buy this story. Some of the beta readers I have here provided critical information, but they’re more secondary alphas than actual betas. I trust their options more in matters of style and craft.

So an example might be if one of my style and craft beta readers thinks the dialogue isn’t working, I trust that, because they’re experts. I do this even if my “main audience” betas gave my dialogue 10s. This works because if I improve the writing of the dialogue, the “main audience” betas are only going to like it more.  I give those main audience more weight in terms of how they feel about the character and the plot.

An example might be YA themes. I’m not actually a fan of teen or YA books.  I can appreciate them and respect them, but I don’t like some of the storytelling elements in those genres. So if one of my friends asks me to read a YA book, I read it, but I’m not going to tell them I don’t like this character of that character if I can tell it’s a genre bias. But if I sent a YA book to a 19-year-old, and she hates the character, then I’m real scared.

So that’s it.  I look for overlap (what are they all saying or agreeing on). Then I give tie breakers depending on why I asked that person to beta read.

Armed with my feedback, I create a “revision plan” document in which I plan on going over each segment several times (one time per issue I annotate in my plan). Then I go over it again (another several times) for each document the betas sent me via the actual copy of the story.

Once I finish this draft, it’s off to my editor for a copy-edit, and then I send it out.  How do you use beta feedback?

I want to say one more time how grateful I am to those beta readers who helped me out. I may not apply all of your changes, but everything you said was heard and noted. You’ve made me a better writer, and I can’t thank you enough for that.

Thank you for reading,

Matt

April BCOTM Finals!

April BCOTM Finals!

The Closest Contest:

The closest match was (yet again) Michael J. Sullivan’s.  I feel the need to give this cover special recognition. No book cover has had a run like this. We’ve seen Age of Myth in every round for the past two months. Since Feb. 1, Sulivan’s book has fought to stay in the hunt, but each time it came just a few votes away. At last, another novel has been able to knock Sullivan both out of this bracket and out of the next. I personally think that sort of staying power is a testament to how great the cover is.  However, Singular by Zack Hubert managed to best Myth by a mere eight votes. This match was also the most voted on contest.

Head over here and vote!

Thanks for reading,

Matt

A 4-Star review for Bob!

A 4-Star review for Bob!

2017-02-23-bob-drifter-coverI just wanted to share a new review for The Journals of Bob Drifter that just posted. I don’t care how many reviews, good or bad, I get; I’m always happy to see them. I’m honored when someone takes the time to read and review my book. If you’re curious about what was said, head on over here and have a  look!

Thanks for reading,

Matt

April Final 4!

April Final 4!

This round had 960 votes, which murdered the old record for the elite 8 (formerly 457). Our total for the month so far is 4,006, which already makes this the second-most voted on bracket so far! Thank you all for your participation and support. With that said, someone had to leave, and someone had to move on.

Let’s look at how this round broke down:

The Closest Contest:
Gods and Monsters by Janie Marie vs Flash Tales by Chess DeSalls was a nail biter. While not one match this round was decided by more than a 4% swing, Flash Tales only managed to take the win by two votes (50.EEP% of the total votes). You’ll see why that’s even more impressive in a minute.

The Largest Victor:
51EUUVAiTXLI don’t really know if this momentum is going to continue, but I do think each match is going to remain ultimately close. So no one here really pulled away. The largest winning cover was Singular by Zack Hubert, and he only won by 14 votes. That’s not normally what a “largest victor” entry looks like, but it speaks to how close this round was.

Most Voted On Contest:
Remember how I said that two-vote victory for DeSalls was impressive? Well the reason why is she won the most voted on match by two votes. Every single one of the match’s 262 total votes was critical.

Least Voted On Contest:
The other reason I’m stoked is that every match received more than 220 votes. That’s just amazing. So far, this bracket has been one of the most voted on. It was also one of the most evenly voted on brackets I can remember. I feel I owe the authors and readers a debt for this. It’s great to see more than 220 people showed up to support not just their favorite covers, but all the covers on the bracket. Thank you!The least voted on contest was Fate of the Big Bad Wolf by Neo Edmund vs A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab. That contest received 221 votes (see, I told you, everyone got a TON of votes).

The Final 4 ends at Midnight, May 12. That’s only 2 days, so call your friends, share my posts, get your readers engaged!

It’s more important this month to get the victory because only the runner up for this month gets free admission into next month’s bracket if they can’t take the victory this month.

Get out there and vote!

Thanks for reading,

Matt

April Elite 8!

April Elite 8!

Let’s go over some numbers:

The Closest Contest:

Michael J. Sullivan just won’t go down. His cover for Age of Myth is the only book to have to rematches. It seems like every match he’s in is a close one. This match with The First City by Joe Hart was no different.  Sullivan edged out Hart by 1 vote (51 percent of the 97 votes the match received). The Day the Sky Fell by Adam Dreece also narrowly beat Brimstone by Cherie Priest. (I mean the last vote tipped the tie at 11:54 p.m.).

The Largest Victor:
Neo Edmund’s readers helped the cover for Fate of the Big Bad Wolf earn a decisive 28-vote victory (66 percent of 86 votes) over J.N. Chaney’s Hope Everlasting.

Least Voted On Contest:

We didn’t have quite the same max participation as we did in the last round, but everyone still got plenty of votes.  Chaney and Edmund’s match was the low-vote earner this round.

 

Most Voted On Contest:
The most voted on contest was Gods and Monsters by Janie Marie vs The Bone Tree by T.A. Miles. They both received more than 50 votes, but Marie took the round with 72 out of a total of 123 votes.

51b5obvd2WLMost Votes:
Gods and Monsters has surged to the front of this bracket. Marie’s received the most votes of the round as well as the most votes so far (164). It’s going to take at least 75 votes to beat her.

The Elite Eight lasts until May 10, which is another three days to show your support for the cover you like best!

Head over here and vote!

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Growth of a Character: The Plot isn’t the Only Thing That Moves

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I’ve been starting the habit of reading more books on writing. It’s something I’ve always believed in, but didn’t really practice as much as I should. I read plenty, and I listen to video blogs and podcasts when I’m not furiously doing the other things that life has me doing.  The thing is, we have to take the time to hone our craft, and it’s not enough to simply write. Writing without learning about the craft or trying new things won’t lead to growth.

 

I’d mentioned a few times how Caught was a bit delayed because my editor didn’t think Sal’s arc was clear enough. As is always the case when I hear feedback, even if I disagree with it, I started doing some research, and the book I’m currently listening to, Creating Character Arcs  by K.M. Weiland, has at least got me thinking. See, my struggle is some characters don’t change. I like some of those characters. So I had to figure out a way of thinking that allowed me to distinguish between one arc and another.

Here’s one choice that’s important: The events your characters experience should change them, or the situation or people should change as a result of your characters.

That, to me, is the distinction that matters. I’ll post a “review” of the above book once I finish it, but I’m far enough along in that book to know I’ve pinpointed that choice as one every writer should make.

Case study:
15326549_1179426122094499_6318367043184922848_nTyrion from Betrayer’s Bane: This was the December Book Cover of the Month. I finished this book last week, and I’ll post a review on it in a few weeks, but Tyrion is a good figure to study. You have a character who’s come to believe a simple truth: Nothing is more important that the elimination of the enemy.

Without giving you too many spoilers, I will tell you what matters is he has a fundamental belief.  Each plot point serves to in one way or another test that belief. As the story progresses, he’s even tempted by other things. Then his moment of decision comes when he has to choose to let go of that belief completely or hold to it. That moment of choice must feel realistic. The temptation to change coarse must feel tempting to the reader, and the moment of decision must come at the character’s most delicate frame of mind. Michael G. Manning does an amazing job of following those threads to a satisfying conclusion.

Iron Man:
This story I feel less likely to have spoilers, so I feel a bit more ready to point out some of the specifics.  Tony Stark has a fundamental belief in the beginning of the movie. Nothing matters as long as you have wit and money. There may be other (and even better) ways to say it, but this is him in a nutshell. Sure, when he’s captured he learns the pain of irresponsibility, but he still counters this with his mind and financial power, but he’s fighting the symptoms of the problem. He’s still pretty caviler about things until the his newest weapon nearly falls into the wrong hands. Here he has the chance to let let the responsibility go, or accept it and do something. That moment of choice is when we see Stark’s growth.

But what about those other arcs I like so much? I’ve been open that I like a character who  doesn’t change. When a character doesn’t change, the world around him has to. This is the nature of a story. Something must change.

Captain America: From beginning to end, our hero is who he is. Yes, he gains power. Yes, his looks change. But those are superficial. He starts the movie a young man believing that truth and justice are worth fighting for, and ends his battle paying (or seeming to pay) the ultimate sacrifice for his belief. He doesn’t change. But every other character around him does. His belief becomes  a beacon of light for others to look upon. Characters look to him and decide to follow his example, or reject him and become his opposition.

overcoming-2127669_960_720A great plot is an equally great place to start, but events (especially those as traumatic as the ones we see in literature) test people. If those people hold tight to their beliefs (regardless of their truth or falsehoods), the characters around him should be inspired by those actions (or they should try to kill him).  If the people don’t change, the characters should. People crave companionship. If the world around us doesn’t change we’ll eventually change ourselves to fit in. Peer Pressure and Social Norming are examples of this truth.

How do you do that?  Well, part of it is to consider how your character will react to the events you’re about to put him through? Who is your character at the beginning of the story?  Who will he be at the end? Who were the other characters when they meet your main character? Who will they be at the end?

Plot shows a progression of events, but that’s just part of it. Characters should grow or help those around them grow.  I thought I’d spend a bit of time offering my thoughts and seeing what everyone else thinks.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

 

 

 

 

April’s Sweet 16!

April’s Sweet 16!

Let’s go over some numbers:

51h86X6LycLThe Closest Contest:

The above shoutout should have been the hint. Michael J. Sullivan had a late (like 11:30 p.m. late) surge and took the match by three votes (just 51% of the total votes).  That makes Age of Myth vs To Brave the End the closest contest no matter how you slice it. Sullivan just won’t go away. He consistently finds a way to win (except for that pesky final match).

The Largest Victor:
World, meet Neo Edmund and his outstanding cover Fate of the Big Bad Wolf. He beat Malevolent Mind by Misty Harvey by 64 total votes, which is 74 percent of the matches’ 132 total votes (No, it’s not the most voted on contest. Like I said, you all had a TON of support!)

Most Voted On Contest:
For my money, the most voted on match was the most fun match to watch. It had a lot of lead changes and was always close.  Waters of Salt and Sin by Alisha Klapheke managed to beat Restitution by Kristen Martin by just 8 votes (one of the three closest matches). This match dominated in terms of total votes with 188. I saw both authors tweeting and sharing away.  It was great to see their participation and touching to see how many readers showed up to vote for them.

Least Voted On Contest:
For the first time since I started this, I really think we had max participation in that every match had a significant number of votes.  Yes, the above match had some 20 votes more than the others, but everyone got some love.  However, someone usually gets the fewest.  This round, the match between by Darkborn by Carrie Summers  vs The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski received the fewest votes (120).  Summers took the match pretty handedly though (by 46 votes).

Head over here and vote!

Thanks for reading,

Matt