Writing Tip of the Week: Finding a Beta Reader

Writing can be a very personal and intimate experience.  Your internal thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions leave your brain and settle onto the page.  If you’re writing in a private journal or diary, these thoughts and feelings can remain secret, with no possibility of them being displayed publicly.

But if you’re writing for people to eventually read or see your work in the public sphere, it’s essential to have people around you to read and critique your work before it is out for the world to see.  Consider these people a buffer, a set of eyes that can see your work from a different perspective, and someone who isn’t afraid to give you feedback that will make them work better.

A Beta Reader is an excellent resource for anyone to have in their writing toolbox.

What Exactly Is a Beta Reader?

A Beta Reader is the first fresh set of eyes to read your work and offer constructive feedback.  Once you are confident that you have a completed novel, non-fiction book, short story, play, or screenplay, a Beta Reader is an independent third party that can help you make the work better. 

This person can help point out story problems, plot holes, continuity problems, or other aspects that don’t work.  At the same time, they are an ideal audience to see if what you wished to convey on the page was successful.

A Beta Reader’s feedback should be helpful, pointed, specific, and detailed.  If what they tell you is too vague or generalized (“I don’t like your hero, Mark, but I don’t know why”), then the information isn’t helpful.

Beta Reader vs. Editor

A Beta Reader is for the creative side of writing (story, plot, continuity), while an Editor looks for technical issues (spelling, grammar, syntax, word choice).  Both are essential to the writing process, but each has their own skills to contribute.

Obviously, a Beta Reader can find spelling or grammar errors and an Editor can give you feedback about story or character issues, but each does serve a different purpose in the grand scheme of things.

So, how can you find a Beta Reader that fits your needs?

Who Do You Know?

Is there someone in your circle of friends that likes your writing?  Someone supportive that takes an interest in what you’re working on but offers constructive advice if asked?  Do you have a friend with opinions about films and TV shows that you respect?  This might be the person to ask.

You want someone open-minded, who likes the genres you write in, and can focus on the specific areas you want them to provide feedback on and give comments and suggestions that strengthen the work.

Obviously, being a Beta Reader is a time commitment on the person’s part.  After all, you’re asking them to read a 500-page manuscript or a 110-page screenplay, so there are hours of work ahead of them.  If you have someone in mind, ask them if they would be interested in reading your work and giving you feedback.  

If they say yes, that’s great.  If not, and you’re out of people you can trust and rely on, there are Beta Reader services you can pay to help you out.

So, what about my mom or my brother-in-law?  Could I use them as a Beta Reader?  

Well, I suggest that you…

Look Outside Your Family

Unless you can compartmentalize and keep your writer life and personal life separate, I recommend finding a Beta Reader outside your family circle.  I feel this is a wise move since you don’t want to get false praise that negatively impacts the work, and you also don’t want to get criticism that leads to a rift in the relationship.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use a family member, but I’d like to think that keeping the Beta Reader outside the family is a good way to stave off future trips to a family therapist or a segment on Dr. Phil.

Start With A Sample

But let’s say you have a friend or former coworker who is on board and wants to help.  Great.  If they haven’t read anything of yours for a while, give them a sample of your work.  As them to focus on one or two things (i.e., description and pacing), and see what they come back with.

Don’t just toss the pages out there and say good luck; give them specifics about what you want them to look for.  Based on their feedback, you’ll be able to tell if they are a good fit.  If you have to pump the information out of them or they are afraid to be critical, this isn’t a good match.  At the same time, if their feedback is too harsh, it won’t work, either.  

The key is to find a healthy balance where the feedback you receive strengthens the weaknesses, and the positive comments keep you motivated to get onto the next draft.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

I pay my Beta Reader for his time.  It’s the right thing to do, and it also makes him take the job seriously.  He’s been hired to do a job, deliver what is asked of him, and I give him a logical deadline to read the manuscript (a couple weeks at least), take notes, and have a meeting with me to discuss his feedback.  

If you take it professionally, your Beta Reader will, too.  

Patience is a Virtue

It may take time to find someone who has the time to assist you during this process.  As I said above, it’s a time commitment on their part, and you are entrusting them with your manuscript with the hope that their feedback will make it better.  If you’re not happy with the feedback you get from someone or feel it’s lacking, you can always look for someone else.

A Beta Reader is a part of your team.  Just like with dating, sometimes it takes a while to find the right person.  But once you do, you know you’ve found your ideal match. 

All writers need feedback.  All writers need a trusted source of constructive criticism and positivity.  Finding a Beta Reader that meets these criteria can be a great motivator to keep the words flowing since you have a trusted person available that can help make you a better writer.

Do you have a Beta Reader?  What have been your experiences?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Book Review Tuesday: The Great Mortality by John Kelly

Last year, as COVID-19 swept around the world causing lockdowns, quarantines, and closures, I was intrigued by pandemics and epidemics of the past.  This led me to looking for a book about the Black Plague aka The Black Death, which swept through Europe in the 14th century.

Below is my review of The Great Mortality by John Kelly:

A compelling read about what was the worst pandemic in recorded human history, I felt that The Great Mortality put our current situation into a greater perspective; one that makes me appreciate the advancements in sanitation and medicine that have happened since 1347. 

What I found most fascinating is that despite humanity’s technological advancements, people responded to the Black Death in parallel ways that people are responding to COVID-19. From protests and scapegoats; to those who felt they wouldn’t be affected; to those who were scared out of their minds, it’s pretty amazing to consider that human behavior hasn’t evolved one bit, even if we think we are more evolved in 2020. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for an insightful read about the Black Plague and its many aspects.

Have you read The Great Mortality or another book about the Black Plague?  What are your thoughts?

Back next week with another book review!

Writer’s Workshop Wednesday: Grady Hendrix

While I was on vacation this summer, I bought The Final Girl Support Group by horror author Grady Hendrix, intrigued by its cover and premise.  I had never read anything by Hendrix before, but I was immediately drawn into the story and the myriad twists that came along the way.

While Final Girl is his latest novel, Hendrix has also written many other novels, including My Best Friend’s ExorcismWe Sold Our Souls, and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires; and the non-fiction books Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, and Dirt Candy: A Cookbook(which he co-authored with his wife).

Hendrix was born in Charleston, South Carolina and worked in a library before becoming a professional writer.  He has written articles for PlayboyThe New York Post, and The New York Sun.  He’s also a screenwriter, a playwright, and writes short stories.

Check out his official website HERE.  

Below are some interviews with Grady Hendrix where he talks about his works and his process.  

Enjoy!

Back in two weeks with another great author!

Book Review Tuesday: Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading! Over the past few years I’ve been a member of Goodreads.com where you are able to write mini reviews of books you’ve read. Starting today, I’d like to share my reviews with you and see what your thoughts are on these books if you’ve read them as well.

Today’s book review is Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard:

Abraham Lincoln is known for many things: 16th President of the United States; masterful orator; emancipator of slaves; vampire hunter. In Courting Mr. Lincoln, we get to see a different side of Lincoln in the context of a historical romance inspired by the real-life correspondence between Lincoln and his life-long friend, Joshua Speed. 

I had heard about this novel’s premise and was intrigued. I was not disappointed. This is an exquisitely written story, and a masterful piece of historical fiction that revolves around the love life of one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history. 

Courting Mr. Lincoln was an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it.

What did you think of Courting Mr. Lincoln?

Back next Tuesday with another book review! Happy reading!

Writing Tip of the Week: Writing a Fearless First Draft

The ominous blank page.  Whether it’s a blank page flashing a taunting cursor from a screen, or a lined notebook daring you to fill its pages with ink, it can sometimes be challenging to get your brain and body moving in the same creative direction.

Every day, we see films, novels, and TV shows that move and amaze us.  But what we don’t see are the hundreds of hours of hard work, gallons of coffee or energy drinks, and the multitude of drafts that went into making what you’re watching or reading available for mass consumption.

The drive for perfection of the first try can be a detriment to creativity.  We demand perfection from ourselves, it doesn’t happen off the bat, so we beat ourselves up and walk away.  But nothing we see or read is the first draft.  Nothing we see or read didn’t start as something worthy of the recycle bin.  

Everyone’s first draft sucks.

And that’s okay.  If we were given insight into the early drafts of any best-seller or Oscar-winning film, we would be surprised to see that what is considered the standard of great writing starts off as mediocre at best…and unsalvageable at the very least.

I say this to tell you that writing the first draft of anything need not be a perilous and disastrous endeavor.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  First drafts are supposed to be bad. That’s why they’re called first/rough drafts.

So, let’s talk about them.

For Your Eyes Only

First a foremost, this draft is for you.  No one else.  Not your significant other.  Not your Beta reader.  Not your favorite child or pet.  You are the sole audience for this version of your story, and that’s that.

This is a place where you can openly write ideas, dialogue, description, and more that might be pushing limits or boundaries.  This is the place to test out ideas and story threads to see where they go.  This is the place to have fun with what you’re writing.  You are the Creator in this world; what you decide to do is what happens.

This draft should be unfiltered, unedited, and uninhibited.  While you’ll want to have a basic road map guiding where the story is headed, don’t let that stop you from shifting your imagination and creativity into overdrive in this draft.

You can always change it later.  The important thing here is to get everything down and out of your head so it can be fixed in subsequent drafts, because whatever you do…

Don’t Look Back!

You finished a chapter last night and woke up this morning with a new idea to change what you wrote.  Great.  That means your creativity is doing its job, but don’t return to that chapter and attempt to edit it.  Why not write a new version of the chapter with the new material instead?  

Writing a first draft is about momentum, the momentum to get from the beginning to the end without the pitfalls and hazards or going back and editing and revising. You’ll have plenty of time for that later.  Plus, what if you erase what you had and then realize later there was some dialogue you deleted that would’ve worked great in the revised version?  Now it’s gone.  

Keep it all in the first version and do that heavy lifting later.

Write the Fun Stuff First

We all have our favorite things to write.  It could be action sequences, romantic scenes, or comedy moments that really help drive the story and are fun for you to write.  These moments are likely the big payoff to a long buildup, so writing them can be an enjoyable experience.

However, we shouldn’t deny ourselves the opportunity to write these when we want to.  Write them when you feel like writing them.  When it comes to drafting, you always have the power to rearrange and change where chapters or scenes are located in the story’s world.  If you want to write the big finale first, do it.  Have a romantic scene that you’re itching to write?  Write it.  

While there may be traditional story structures needed when you put the story out there for the world, in the drafting phase, you can write what you want, when you want.  And no one can stop you.

The Creative Brain on Auto-Pilot

Sometimes your characters will begin to dictate what they want to do, what they want to say, and where they want to go. Don’t fight this feeling; let them take you there.  Often your subconscious knows what’s best for your story and can take you places you didn’t initially think of.  

This isn’t some weird phenomenon; it does happen.  And if it does, let your characters take the wheel.  Remember, if they steer the story down a wrong path, you can fix it later.  If they show you something fresh and new about your story or characters, it can be a great win for you and your story. 

Getting here requires you to tell that evil, no good, despicable part of your brain to shut up and go on vacation.  And that part is…

The Evil Voice of Doubt and Negativity

This horrible creature likes to loom around your creativity, giving making you unsure of what you’re writing, how you’re writing it, and if you should even be writing.

I sure hate this creature!

There are 24 hours in a day.  Give this monster a few hours off as your write and keep them locked out as you work on your draft.  This is all for you, not anyone else, so this evil creature is wasting your time by creeping into your head as you charge forward.  Even if the monster makes a good point about a scene or chapter, make a note or rewrite the chapter, but keep going.

Creativity is a big enough challenge at times without this specter of negativity floating about.

When You Feel Blocked…

Writer’s block does happen, but it’s how you handle it that makes the difference.  I would suggest when you do hit a wall moving on to another part of the story or work on another project to keep the creativity flowing.

It’s very tempting – and I’ve done this – to close the laptop, lay on the couch, and watch TV instead of writing.  While this is a quick fix, it doesn’t get you to your goal of finishing your draft and moving on to the next project.  

Do your best to stay focused and stay on track.  You may falter, but don’t let the block prevent you from writing for too long.

Have Fun!

As I said before, this draft is your time to play. It’s your time to test out ideas, see how they work or don’t work, and see if your characters take you anywhere new.

If you are bored with your story, have lost interest, or are dreading writing this draft, then there may be something wrong with your story, not you.  What is the reason you aren’t excited to write?  What aspect of the story is holding you back?

Unless you are writing this draft as part of an assignment, reevaluate your story and see where the issues are.  Maybe you are challenging yourself to write in an unfamiliar genre, or you don’t like the main character.  Whatever it is, make the changes you need to make the process enjoyable.

Writing is a journey. It’s a process. It’s a challenge.  And it’s something that can become addictive in a positive way.  As you begin to write your first/rough draft, remember that Stephen King, Jordan Peele, Grady Hendrix, and Maya Angelou all had to start with an idea, a blank page, and a first draft.

You can only get better once you have the first version out of your head and out on the page.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Check out My Interview with Mindy McGinnis of Writer Writer Pants on Fire!

Last week, I had the exciting opportunity to be interviewed by author/blogger Mindy McGinnis, host of the Writer Writer Pants on Fire podcast!

Check out the link below for the podcast and transcript. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts!

Enjoy!

https://www.mindymcginnis.com/podcast/ian-dawson

Writer’s Workshop Wednesday: Jack Ketchum

An author whose novels are not for the faint-of-heart or the squeamish, writer Jack Ketchum has been described by Stephen King as “the scariest man in America.”  There’s no doubt in my mind that there is something to King’s view of Ketchum’s work.  I have read many of his novels (The Girl Next Door, Off Season, Off Spring, Red, and many others) and the images that he paints with words stick with you long after you’ve finished the book and moved on to other, less disturbing, fare. 

And yet, his writing style makes you return for another graphic and horror-filled tale from this master of his craft.

From 1981 to 2017, Ketchum authored 27 works that range from short fiction to novels.  His unique voice and his ability to ignore critical views of his work – the Village Voice has referred to his writing as ‘violent pornography’ – have made him an iconic voice in horror fiction.  

Sadly, Ketchum passed away in 2018, but his works live on through print and film and TV adaptations.

Check out his official site HERE.  

Below are some interviews where Ketchum speaks about his works and his craft.

Enjoy!

Back in two weeks with another great author!

Sunday Edition of Writer’s Workshop Wednesday: New Stephen King Interviews & A Conversation with Stephen King and George R.R. Martin

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors of all time.  In honor of his newest novel, Billy Summers, here are some new interviews about the book, and a Q&A with King and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.  

Enjoy!

Below is the King/Martin interview, which I was unable to embed, so please click the link below to access the video (there is profanity, just to let you know):

Back in two weeks with another writing series!

Happy writing!

Buy The Field and Midnight House by Ian Dawson Using the Links and Promo Codes Below!

ORDER THE PAPERBACK OF THE FIELD FROM BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE BIKE15 TO SAVE 15% AT CHECKOUT. CLICK HERE TO ORDER.

GET YOUR PAPERBACK COPY OF MIDNIGHT HOUSE ON BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE HOUSE20 TO SAVE 20% OFF THE PAPERBACK AT CHECKOUT.  CLICK HERE TO ORDER

Check Out My Interview and my Twitter Takeover for Midnight House with Young Entertainment Magazine!

I had the fun opportunity to be interviewed and do a Twitter Takeover with Young Entertainment Magazine! Check out the links to the articles below!

Thanks again, Young Entertainment Magazine for your support!

GET YOUR PAPERBACK COPY OF MIDNIGHT HOUSE ON BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE HOUSE20 TO SAVE 20% OFF THE PAPERBACK AT CHECKOUT.  

CLICK HERE TO ORDER