NaNoWriMo – Find Your Reason

In a couple of weeks, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off. Thousands of writers from around the globe will attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.

Perhaps you’ve been among the thousands who’ve attempted to complete this insane challenge? Perhaps you’ve never considered it until this year? Perhaps you’re reading this blog and thinking, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll give it a try?” Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or new to the game, you should ask yourself an important question before NaNo starts on November 1st:

“Why am I doing this?”

The obvious answer is, “Because I want to, duh!” But, let’s take a step back and think beyond the obvious. We each need a specific reason for taking on such a massive task. Without one, we’re far more likely to fail. At some point during the process, we’ll smack into a wall and think, “Ugh, why am I doing this?”

Here are just a few reasons for participating in NaNoWriMo:

Start a Novel

Probably the most popular reason people decide to participate in NaNoWriMo is to start a new novel. And, why not? There’s no better way to dive into a first draft than word vomiting 50,000 words.

Write, write, write, write, write…

That’s what we’re supposed to do with a first draft: WRITE! Open the creative floodgates and go for it. But, often times, we act like perfectionists during a first draft. Many of us refuse to move on from chapter one because “It’s just not right.” Or we’ll find the strength to push on, and we’ll make it to chapter twenty before we suddenly realize we made a mistake in chapter one. Then we’ll go allllll the way back to fix it–which, inevitably, leads to starting over. Ahhhh!

NaNoWriMo prevents perfectionism. It forces us to suck it up and push through the horridness of a first draft. Because, yes, first drafts are horrible. They’re suppose to be! They should be heaping, steaming piles of plots, characters, typos, and loopholes that reek of general awfulness. Trying to make them perfect is…pointless. It’s like trying to mop the floors while your children or pets stomp around with muddy feet. Just let the mess happen and then clean it up.

If anything, think about this quote by Shannon Hale said:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Finish a Novel

Perhaps you started writing a novel last NaNo, but stopped the moment you hit 50K words. Perhaps you started writing a few months ago, but you’ve gotten stuck in the Perfectionist Zone and can’t bring yourself to move past the first 30K words. Or, perhaps, you’ve picked up your novel and written a few pages, put it down, worked on another project, picked it up again and wrote another few pages, set it down, walked off and neglected it for a month, picked it up and tried again…

Whatever the case, NaNo is a great way to finish a novel already in progress. Is this cheating? Um, no. Remember, NaNo is about writing 50K words in one month. That doesn’t mean those words have to be for a brand new novel. They can be for the second half of a novel, which is just as important as the first half.

Many writers don’t even make it to the second half of their story. They reach the middle and slam into a brick wall; and rather than kicking the wall down and trudging forward, they limp off to write another story instead. It’s just easier that way. Don’t take the easy way out. Try using NaNoWriMo to charge through the muck and mire of a story’s middle to reach the end. You might not love what you write, and you’ll likely change it in the next draft, but at least you’ll have a complete first draft. Which means you’ll have a story you can mold and shape into something fit for readers.

Get Motivated

Let’s say you’ve been out of the writing game for a while. Or maybe you’ve been battling writer’s block and just can’t find your footing. If you’ve lost your mojo, then it’s time to NaNo.

NaNoWriMo is one of the best kicks in the butt a writer can get. It’s our very own Loretta Castorini, who slaps us in the face and shouts, “Snap out of it!” (Yes, that was a “Moonstruck” reference.) When we NaNo, we don’t have time to think or question what we’re writing. We just write. Write, write, write, as fast as we can. Again, it’s all about word vomiting. We could start out writing a YA fantasy, and 10K words in realize we’re actually writing a contemporary drama. Great! Who cares? Run with it! And if the genre, plot, and/or characters change again, so be it. There are no boundaries with NaNo. We write what we want, however we want.

All that matters is we find inspiration to write and keep writing past November 30th.

Prove You Can

Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Or maybe you’re super competitive and want to win just to win?

Many people take on ridiculous challenges just to prove they can. I know I do. For example, this past summer I ran my second half marathon after I swore I’d never, EVER run one again. I was convinced my body could not handle the miles and miles and miles of asphalt, dirt paths, hills, and mountains. So, what did I do? I signed up for a race just to prove I could do it. I wanted to silence the negative voice within me that said I was too weak, too busy, too out of shape, too whatever. And silence it I did. Not only did I complete the half marathon, but I had a blast doing it (much more fun than my first half marathon ten years ago).

Writing can be like running a race. It’s hard work, it’s emotionally draining, and it can be overwhelming. We often question ourselves and everything we put on paper. We doubt our talent, our imagination, and our goals. NaNoWriMo helps silence these doubts and prove we can write. It might not be pretty, and it might be exhausting, but we can do it. And once we gain confidence, we can tackle even bigger challenges (yes, even bigger than NaNo).

Create a New Routine

Life gets busy. Chores, family, school, work, bills, meetings, special events, exercising, etc. Sometimes life gets so busy, writing plummets to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s sort of like the gym. We miss going one day and tell ourselves we’ll make it up the next. But then the next day arrives and we just can’t find the time for it, so we delay another day. Then another and another until suddenly working out is no longer part of our regular routine. It’s only something we do when the mood strikes–and it probably doesn’t strike often because we’re out of shape and–ugh! It’s gonna hurt.

Writing is the same way.

If we’ve fallen off the wagon, one of the best ways to get back on track is NaNoWriMo. Think of it like bootcamp. The first week is going to be painful, and we might not even meet our daily word count. But, as we stick to it, we’ll start to get our rhythm and flow back. Not only that, we’ll start to make time for it again. We’ll squeeze in a writing sprint while we’re waiting to pick up our kids from school. Or we’ll wake up a half hour earlier–or stay up a half hour later. Or we’ll choose to skip Netflix after dinner and escape somewhere quiet to write instead.

NaNoWriMo forces us to adjust our schedules, reset our priorities, and make time to write. Better yet, we’ll be able to carry our new routines past November 30th.

There are many reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo (far more than I’ve listed). Whatever your reason is, make sure you have one. And don’t just say, “I want to start a novel.” Be specific. “I’m going to start a novel, and I’m not going to revise as I go.” Or “I want to finish my novel, and then revise it starting December 1st so it’s ready for literary agents by May 1st.”

Find your purpose with NaNoWriMo, and you’re sure to win it. Good luck!

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Protected: Zili – 2nd Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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Monster Mash – Round 2 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

This past weekend marked my 11th round of the NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic to compete. I’m currently immersed in the latest draft of my novel, and shifting gears pained me. It pained me even more when I received my score for the first round of this year’s contest.

Two points!

Okay, okay. That’s not horrible considering I’ve never attempted to write pure comedy, and comedy is one of the most subjective genres out there.

Low score aside, I still had fun this weekend. Well, mostly…

As a quick reminder, NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. All competitors get to compete in two of the four rounds. This past weekend was the second round, which kicked off at 10 p.m. (MST) Friday when prompts were released.

First impressions of my group’s prompts:

Genre: Fantasy

Location: Waterfront esplanade

Object: Animal horn

When I saw my prompts, I went through a myriad of emotions all at once: horror, amusement, irritation, confusion. I mean, seriously, what the heck is an esplanade? I had to google it before I could do anything else. (FYI, an esplanade is “a long, open, level area, usually next to a river or large body of water, where people may walk.”)

Once I had my location prompt figured out, I turned to the main matter at hand: brainstorming a plot.

Per usual, I talked things out with my favorite writing critic: my mom. For the first time ever, we didn’t banter back and forth on how to approach the prompts. I already knew the general direction I wanted to take.

Goblins!

Yeah, yeah fantasy lovers. I know Gollum isn’t a goblin. However, I decided a long time ago that if I ever received fantasy in this contest, I’d write about a Gollum-goblin-like character. So, I did!

Next, I had to figure out the “animal horn” prompt. Obviously, my first thought was, “Unicorn!” I’m sure it was everyone else’s too, so I stayed far away from that and brainstormed other possibilities. As I did, my seven-year-old nephew curled up next to me with his tablet and watched one of his favorite videos: “Giant God Warrior” (a Japanese short fantasy monster action film). I stared at the creepy creature on screen, studied its horned back, and voila! I had an idea!

Well, sort of.

I packed up my computer and went home. By this point, it was approaching 1 a.m. and I’d been up since 4 a.m. So…yeah. The second I got home, I collapsed in bed and stayed there much longer than I usually do during these contests.

Once I found the motivation to get up on Saturday and start writing, my internet crashed. GAHHH! That threw me for a loop since I needed to do some much needed research on goblins.

[Cue twiddling thumbs, cleaning house, texting friends…]

An hour later, the internet returned, along with my focus. I sat down and spent the rest of the day hammering out a first draft. Mid-afternoon, my mom showed up to read what I’d come up with and help me chop over 600 words (doh!).

My favorite part of the contest occurred when my mom and I tried to think of names for my characters and the fantastical world they lived in: Letchmo. Catastrafo. Fodhopper. Evilgore. Mcnasty!

After we pulled ourselves together (and found a few serious names), my mom left and I sent a draft off to my beta readers. On Sunday morning, I awoke to their feedback. To my surprise, they liked it–much more than I thought they would.

Hallelujah!

I fixed the big problems, chopped the remaining 200 words I needed to chop in order to meet the word count limit, and submitted my story.

Was fantasy my favorite genre? No. Did I like the story I came up with? Yes. It’s not my favorite NYCM entry, but I’m proud to present it to the judges, my competitors, and, maybe someday, a publisher.

For those interested, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Zili”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Zili, a gentle goblin, wishes to walk in the light as a man. A horned creature grants his wish . . . and more.

If you’d like to read my entire entry, let me know and I’ll send you the password.

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!

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I Will Never Forget – My September 11th Story

Today, people throughout the world are remembering what happened 16-years ago. It’s difficult not to. All of us can go back and recall where we were and what we were doing, most of us in vivid detail. Even if we weren’t directly involved or impacted by the events that occurred, everyone has a story about September 11th. We all experienced it. We all felt it.

This is my story of September 11th, 2001.

My alarm goes off. I begrudgingly get out of bed and get ready for school. I’m a senior at ThunderRidge High School with nothing on my mind but homework, college applications, and homecoming a couple of weeks away.

unnamedMy freshman brother is already at school for weight training for football, so I don’t have to worry about herding him into the car. I heft my two-ton backpack onto my shoulders, shout a goodbye to my dad upstairs, and walk outside to my tin can of a car. It’s a windy, but warm and clear day. Normal for this time of year in Colorado.

During the ten minute drive to school, I listen to my favorite morning radio program with Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce. As usual, they’re making wise cracks about meaningless topics and keeping things light and fun for morning commuters. I chuckle at the comedic duo and pull into the school parking lot. Before I yank the keys out of the ignition, Jamie suddenly interrupts Danny:

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York.

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah. [Nervous laughter] I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [Cuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I’d assume so. Probably one of those farm planes. [More nervous laughter]

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those thingamajigs. This is dumb. [A piece of paper ruffles and she yells at the producer] This isn’t funny! There has to be a better news story out there.

I half smile/half frown, unsure what to make of the bizarre report. All I can visualize is a sputtering aircraft manned by an old, drunk pilot who nicked the side of an abandoned warehouse. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

I shake my head and glance through the front windshield. I see my mom of all people walking up from the school’s track where she does her morning workouts. I completely forget about Jamie and Danny’s random news announcement and step out of the car to say hi to her before I go into the building. The wind is blowing so hard, the door hits me on the side of the head. I swear, shove it away, and pray to God nobody–including my mom–saw the humiliating incident.

My mom doesn’t mention it as she reaches me and does her mom thing (Have a good day at school…You’ll be home by 3:30, right?…I’m subbing at the elementary school, so I won’t be home all day...). I nod and tell her I need to go or I’m going to be late. I don’t even think to mention Jamie and Danny’s report. I’m still too worried someone saw me get thwacked by the car door.

We say goodbye, mutter our habitual, “Love ya”, and part ways.

My first class of the day is astronomy. At my assigned table, I sit with my friend, Ashley, and two boys, Josh and Kenny. As always, we talk and joke around and don’t pay much attention to the lecture. Nobody mentions anything about a crop duster hitting a building in New York. I don’t even remember hearing about it myself.

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Ground Zero, 2006

The dismissal bell rings. I leave class with Ashley.

We walk to the main hall to meet up with our other friend, Sarah. She’s standing in her normal rendezvous spot, but she’s not smiling. She’s crying. I’m stunned. Sarah isn’t a crier. Ashley and I rush over to her and ask what’s wrong.

“Th–the Pentagon blew up,” she sputters. “A girl in my last class has a grandma who works there. She’s probably d–dead.”

Ashley and I gape at Sarah, too dumbfounded to say more than, “Oh my God.” Sarah then mentions something about the World Trade Center. I’m too embarrassed to admit I don’t know what that is, so I lamely pat her on the arm and tell her everything is going to be okay.

As we walk to the locker rooms for P.E., I look around and see other people whispering of gloom and doom. I don’t understand any of it, and honestly, I don’t believe any of it. It’s probably some stupid prank or vicious rumor.

My P.E. class trickles by. All around me, people whisper about bombs and attacks and terrorists. I cringe at the word “terrorists.” It’s not a real word. It’s fiction, used only in movies like Die Hard and Air Force One.

Thankfully, we’re dismissed early to change in the locker rooms. I rush inside, eager to get to my Home Room to ask my teacher if he knows what’s happening. While I change into my regular clothes, the girls around me get louder and louder, their high-pitched voices bouncing off the walls and echoing around the locker room. I can tell they’re unnerved like me, and they’re hiding their fear by being obnoxious. But, still, I want to slap them and tell them to grow up.

Suddenly, the intercom system buzzes. The voice of our principal, Mr. Lynch, booms over the speakers. The girls get louder. I hit my limit and scream at them to shut up so I can hear what the heck is going on. But Mr. Lynch’s deep voice echoes around the vast room and I’m only able to pick up a few phrases: “Possible terrorism,” “New York,” “No need to panic.”

The announcement ends and the dismissal bell rings. I ignore the fresh shouting and cursing by the girls around me and practically sprint to my Home Room. I’m confident my teacher, Mr. Johnson–history buff and current events guru–will be on top of things.

I yank open the door and bolt inside.

All of the lights are off and the TV is on. Nobody’s talking. Everyone is riveted by what they see on the screen. I take my seat in the front row and look up at it.

Smoke.

Lots and lots of smoke.

So much, in fact, that I tell myself it must be storm clouds. But then I see the crisp blue sky filtering through the belches of black, gray, and white, and know it is, indeed, smoke. But from what?

As if to answer my unspoken question, the camera shifts to two tall buildings with fire billowing out of them and paper fluttering in the air. The anchorman refers to them as the “World Trade Center.” I immediately feel stupid for never knowing the name of the iconic skyscrapers. My secret embarrassment, however, is swiftly overtaken by horror as the news station cuts to video of a commercial jet flying into the building.

The class gasps.

I gape up at the screen, confused and scared. And in complete denial. I can’t believe what I just witnessed was real. I assume it’s fake–a fancy computer mock up of what had happened to the buildings.

The dismissal bell rings.

The class is reluctant to leave, including myself. At our teacher’s urging, we all stand and head for the door. As I reach it, I hear Mr. Johnson say to a boy behind me, “From that footage, I’d definitely say the plane meant to hit the building. It wasn’t an accident.”

I freeze and look at him. “You mean that footage was real?”

Mr. Johnson looks at me sadly and nods.

I leave the class feeling sick to my stomach. I still don’t get it. Nothing–nothing–like this has ever happened in the U.S. It can’t happen.

The rest of the day passes in a dazed blur. Despite finally seeing what was happening on the east coast, nobody really knows what’s happening. Some say it’s terrorism. Some say it’s an accident. Some say we should go to war. Some say we should stay out of it. Some say they know people in New York. Some say they know people on the east coast. Some say the buildings collapsed. Some say they didn’t. Some say another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Some say Denver International Airport was shut down. Some say all airports were shut down. Some say Colorado is a target because of Norad. Some say we’re at war…

It’s a constant rumor mill, filled with anxiety, tears, and nervous laughter that disguise people’s true terror. Personally, all I want to do is find my brother and cousin and go home. I don’t want to stay in the building another second. Although I know all of these events are happening over 2,000 miles away, I can’t help but imagine a plane swooping over our suburban high school and dropping a bomb on us. It’s rash, ridiculous, and unrealistic, but the fear is there.

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Ground Zero, 2006

Throughout the day, I pull out my Nokia phone with its bright sunflower cover and stare at it. I want to call my mom or dad, but I know they’re at work and won’t answer. (Back then, we didn’t rely on phones like we do nowadays. We didn’t even have text messaging).

At lunch, an announcement is made. The school’s in lockdown and all after-school activities have been canceled. The administrators tell us to go straight home after our last class and stay home. I’m on board with that. I find my brother and cousin during lunch, and tell them where to meet me after school so I can drive us home.

Finally, the end of the day arrives. I flee the school and race home. I sprint into my house and turn on the TV. My brother and cousin are less interested and go play N64. I berate them as I throw a tape into the VCR and press record. I know this day will go down as one of the most significant days in our nation’s history and I want to remember it.

unnamedOnce it’s recording, I get my phone and call my mom. To my surprise, she answers.

“Are you home?” she demands.

“Yeah, so are Max and Will,” I assure her. “We’re all here.”

“Good, stay there. I’ll get home as soon as I can.”

“Okay, I love you.” I say the words with much more feeling than I did that morning, before tragedy struck.

After I hang up, I feel safer and more grounded. I grab my usual after school snack–a handful of goldfish crackers and a Hi-C juice box–and focus on the news. It’s the first time all day I’m able to sit and listen without interruption–no shouting, no bells, no tears, no jokes, no muffled announcements.

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Steel beams from the World Trade Center. Ground Zero, 2006

While I listen to a recap of the horrors of the day, I suddenly remember the radio show I’d heard that morning:

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York.

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah. [Nervous laughter]. I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [Chuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I’d assume so. Probably one of those farm planes. [More nervous laughter]

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those thingamajigs. This is dumb. [A piece of paper ruffles and she yells at the producer] This isn’t funny! There has to be a better news story out there.

I know I’ll never be able to listen to that radio show again.

And I know I’ll never forget this day.


What’s your story? Share it and never forget.

God bless America and all those who lost their lives 15-years ago today.

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Protected: Bottoms Up – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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Cheers – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Greetings, blog followers! Yes, it’s me. And, yes, I’m still alive.

As you’ve may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been absent from the blog world the past few months (er, maybe longer). I made a New Year’s resolution to put all of my attention and free time into finishing my novel, which I almost have! By the end of summer/early fall, I should have my manuscript and query letter ready to go for literary agents (eeks!).

This past weekend, I decided to reward my good, focused behavior by participating in my 5th NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I signed up for this writing contest a couple of months ago hoping my novel would be in my betas’ hands when the challenge kicked off…Wrong! My betas returned their notes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been revising ever since. So, it was really hard to shift gears on Friday night.

But, I did. And I had so much fun!

As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It never fails to stress me out, but it’s always worth it.

Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST). I prayed and prayed the prompt gods would give me comedy. Why? Because 1) it’s the complete opposite of what I usually write, and 2) it’s one of the few NYCM genres I’ve never been assigned.

Well, guess what? The prompt gods finally answered my prayers! I was put in group 40, which had to write a comedy that took place in a bartending school and incorporated sandpaper.

 

First impressions: 

Comedy

Bartending school

Sandpaper

I literally squealed when I saw comedy as my assigned genre. It’s taken five years and 17 rounds of NYC Midnight contests for me to get this genre (I don’t count rom-com or political satire, because those are very specific comedies that push you into a smaller realm of the comedy world). As for my other prompts…ugh. The location threw me. I’ve never been a bar-kinda girl, and I don’t drink much, so finding inspiration was tough. The sandpaper prompt didn’t faze me. I’ve had much, MUCH weirder objects to incorporate, so I pushed it to the back of my mind.

My process with these contests has become fairly streamlined: Friday night, brainstorm/plan general gist of story. Saturday, write. Sunday, edit/beta read.

So, as usual, I brainstormed on Friday night and went to bed with a solid idea. I planned to sleep in on Saturday because I had a really rough week at work and needed the rest, but my body refused to listen. It’s been hardwired for pre-dawn workouts in preparation for a half marathon I’m running in August, so I ended up waking up, bright and early, at 4 a.m. Which meant I only got about four hours of sleep. Which meant I was exhausted all. Day. Long.

Somehow I managed to find my groove and dig into my story by noon. As I wrote, my original concept changed quite a bit. I discovered comedy is different from other genres because you have to let the humor evolve organically. If you find something funny, then you have to keep going with it and play up the joke. My joke ended up revolving around millennials.

*cue millennial eye rolls across the world*

Sorry not sorry, millennials. But, hey, I’m partly millennial too, so I was the butt of my own jokes.

By 3 p.m., I had a rough first draft that was 500 words OVER the limit. Blerg! I decided to let it rest while I attended my brother’s 30th birthday bash (yes, I was a fantastic social butterfly at that event.) When I got home later that evening, I rolled up my sleeves and began revising–er, chopping. I successfully hacked about 200 words before crashing for the night.

The next morning, I had to get up early for my pre-dawn workout. Thankfully, I felt pretty calm about my story. Still, I was eager to get home and back to writing. I only had until 4 p.m. that day to finish and submit my story before I had to leave for yet another event. (Yeah, it wasn’t the best weekend to participate in a writing competition.)

As always, my wonderful, patient mother came over to my house and helped me edit. I was more nervous than usual to get her opinion on the story because it was so far out of my comfort zone. And because I had NO idea if it was actually funny. But, thank the Lord, she laughed a lot. So did the six other beta readers who helped me chop my comedy down from 1,200 to 996 words. Phew! I whipped together a synopsis and submitted my story eight hours ahead of the official deadline.

Yeah, despite the lack of tears and heart palpitations this round, I was exhausted. But, I genuinely like what I came up with, and I’m really proud of myself for tackling a genre so completely out of my comfort zone.

In the past, I shared my story publicly. However, I’ve begun sending my work to publishers, so I’m no longer posting them here for any and all to read. Sorry! If you are interested in reading it, please send me a message and I’ll provide you with the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Bottoms Up”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!

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Photo Credits: giphy

 

Jen’s Editing Tips – Beta Reader Etiquette 201

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post regarding beta reader etiquette, all from the perspective of the writer. Today, I’d like to turn the tables and discuss beta reader etiquette from the perspective of the beta.

Jen's Editing Tips

Yes, believe it or not, there are basic etiquette rules to follow when you volunteer to read another writer’s work. You don’t get a free pass to act however you please because you kindly offered to help out. Certain guidelines should be followed to not only ensure your feedback gets taken to heart, but also to maintain healthy, productive relationships.

Be Tactful

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Every beta reader is different. Some are brutally honest, others are overly sweet. Most try to land in the middle. Whichever direction you lean, you should be as tactful with your words as possible. No, this doesn’t mean those of you who like to cut straight to the chase have to sugarcoat everything. It simply means you need to choose your words wisely.

For example, do you hate a character? Well, don’t tell the writer, “I hate Character A.” Or, worse, call them a crass name (yes, I’ve had a beta call one of my protagonists the “C” word.) When you take this blunt, zero-filter approach, you risk losing the respect of the writer (no matter how thick their skin might be). They won’t care why you hate the protagonist. They’ll be too offended to take anything you say seriously.

Instead, consider voicing your dislike in a direct, but helpful way. For example, “I admit, I wasn’t a fan of Character A. They lacked emotional depth…” and so on.  You can still be honest (to the point of giving the writer a little slap in the face), but you won’t knock the writer out. They’ll shake off the sting and read the rest of your feedback.

Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule.” Some writers beg their betas to be as blunt and cruel as possible. (I’ve had writers ask me to say exactly what was on my mind, however horrible it might be.) However, the majority of writers react better to negative news when it’s presented in a tactful manner.

Listen

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When a writer asks you to beta for them, they might request a certain type of feedback: Big picture, character arcs, pacing, grammar, etc.  If this happens, listen to them. Don’t nitpick grammatical mistakes when all they want is a general first impression; and don’t nitpick the plot when all they want is a proofread. Focus on what they ask for. Give them the answers they seek.

If a writer doesn’t give you specific instructions, then I suggest you ask them. Many will respond, “Any and all feedback would be appreciated.” But others might clarify. If they do, follow their directions. Listen!

Give REAL Feedback

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Beta reading is a tough job, especially for those who are sensitive and don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. But, when you volunteer to beta, you volunteer to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are no rewards for being Miss/Mr. Congeniality. If you tell a writer you absolutely LOVED their AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, AWARD-WINNING MASTERPIECE, then you aren’t doing them any favors. You need to help them find their story’s flaws, however big or small, before the rest of the world does.

Does this mean you should only look for flaws? Absolutely not. Telling a writer what you enjoyed about the story is just as important as telling them what you disliked about it. It’s all about balance. You need to be honest, but constructive. Encouraging, but realistic. Explain to a writer why you loved their concept, but disliked their characters. Explain how the beginning and ending worked, but the middle grew murky and slow.

Remember, even the strongest stories have flaws that need to be addressed. Don’t be afraid to address them.

Think Before You Commit

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Everyone is busy nowadays. We all have jobs, families, chores, writing projects, etc. Therefore, before you volunteer to beta for someone, find out what you’re committing to. How long is the story? 1K words? 10K? 100K? How quickly does the writer need your feedback? A couple hours? A couple weeks? A couple of months? How much feedback is the writer looking for? A few sentences? A handful of paragraphs? In-depth notes in the margins?

These are important questions to ask. Why? Because you don’t know what the writer expects from you. You don’t know if they’re on a deadline, taking a long break between drafts, or staring at their computer every second of every day, anxiously awaiting your judgment.

Although you’re doing the writer a favor, you’re still working on their watch. This is a fact. Every project has a timeline. You must stick to theirs, not yours. So, before you volunteer, make sure you can deliver. If you can’t, that’s okay. Be honest with the writer. Tell them why you can’t help out (“I have too many projects on my plate at the moment.” Or “I could get my notes back to you in a month, not a week.” Etc.). They should be understanding. Or, if they really, really want your opinion, they’ll adjust their timeline to fit yours.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

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If you critique another writer’s story, then etiquette dictates that writer offers you one in return. Beta reading is and should be a two-way street. You give, you get. You get, you give. Easy-peasy.

However, not every writer follows this rule. In fact, I’d say at least a third of the writers I work with don’t return the favor. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating, but…what can I do about it? Beg? Bribe? Guilt-trip? That’s not how things work. When you offer to beta, you can’t expect to be rewarded for it. You just can’t. You have to enter the process with the intention to help someone else (not yourself).

With that said, I urge you to resist getting used, again and again. Apply a Three Strikes policy to every writer. If you do not receive a return critique from them after reading three of their stories, then stop offering to help. I know it can be hard to do that, but there are plenty of writers out there willing to give back. Don’t choose the ones who only worry about themselves. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it most definitely isn’t proper.

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Beta reading is a hefty, responsible task. But, if you do it right, and do it well, you should come away from the experience satisfied. Not only have you helped a fellow writer improve their story, but you’ve likely made connections that will help you improve your own work in the future!

How about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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