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Beta readers are people who read a manuscript and give critique. Ten wonderful friends commented on various versions of book 2, The Start of Everything, and they have helped me immeasureably.

I find beta readers to be a good complement to my agent’s and editor’s comments, because they come to the story fresh. They can tell me where they’re surprised or where they’re confused, in a way that those of us who have been working on the story since outline can’t.

I had specific concerns:
1) What do you like? (This always comes first because it softens me up to better hear criticism 😉
2) Do I get any British English wrong?
3) Do I get anything about Cambridge city or Cambridge University wrong?
4) I have reorganized the order of narrators. Is there anywhere I assume information not yet given, or repeat information as if for the first time?
5) I jump around in time a lot. At any point are you unsure of when a scene takes place?
6) At any point do you just stop for a moment out of confusion or ambiguity?
7) What does the title mean to you?
8 ) Who is your favorite of the five narrators?

I aggregated their comments and all together got more than thirty single-spaced pages of comments. Fantastic. Most of the comments were repeats, as one would expect. The agreement of so many different points of view was reassuring. Overall, they enjoyed the manuscript, many of them more than The Whole World, which makes me very, very happy.

These were the characters of their critiques:

Derek
Derek is a Cambridge stay-at-home dad, married to one of my husband’s university friends. He worked from a printed ms marking Americanisms and typos directly on the page. He is especially valuable because he has never been outside the UK and so is ultra-sensitive to American-origin words that some Brits are starting to use, but which aren’t strictly “British.” (Unlike my husband, who is a Cambridge local but lived in the States for eight years, is a US citizen, and currently works with Americans. His sense of the “British way to say something” has become as compromised as my own.)

Simon
Simon is a Cambridge mathematician I know from church. He created two perfectly ordered lists: one of typos and word choice comments, one of university/mathematical comments. Each one referenced page number and line number. Do I need to repeat that he’s a mathematician? His precision delights me.

Rachel
Rachel works at our church and is Simon’s wife. Like Derek, she worked off a printed ms marking Americanisms and typos on the page.

Amy
Amy is a Cambridge maths alumna and old friend of my husband’s. She’s also an experienced beta reader, having read for a friend who went on to win the Orange Prize! She had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Renee
Renee is a midwest college prof (or, as they would say here, “University lecturer”) and non-fiction author. Years ago she married a college friend of mine, and we started emailing each other because she liked the extremely personal poetry I wrote back in the day. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person exactly once, but it was enough to know how much we like each other. She had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Eva
Eva is a Rhode Island “pizza mogul” and architecture student. Our older brothers were best friends, which put us in each other’s lives since we were very small. She was the only one to catch a certain small but profound error in The Whole World before it was printed, for which I’m mightily grateful. For The Start of Everything, she had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Mimi
Mimi is a New Jersey singer/songwriter now venturing into YA fiction, and has the fabulous sense of rhythm and poetic word choice you would expect. She produced a wondeful stream-of-consciousness commentary as she read, referencing page numbers and quotes. She has a gift for noticing repeat usage of standout words, and where reordering a sentence or adding a beat would improve clarity and impact.

Margaret
Margaret is my cousin, has a degree in English and used to work at Little/Brown. She read the ms while snowed in in her sixteenth-century New England farmhouse.

Two more weighed in later, on my revisions:

Susan is a fellow American here in Cambridge, and did a “Brit-pick” for me (that’s a “nitpick” for Britishness). It may seem counterintuitive to have an American do it, but that can actually make the differences stand out more, because it’s something she is very aware of.

Sophie is a fellow psychological suspense author, and we’ve started to critique one another’s drafts. We met in the Botanic Garden on one of the best days of spring so far this year, and had a lovely time.

Just reading a 90k word ms is no small commitment. Putting your reaction into helpful words on top of that takes significant effort. I’m lucky to have such insightful, talented people in my life, and grateful for their contribution to the telling of this story.

Thanks, friends!

If your story isn’t strictly chronological, you need two timelines:

The timeline of everything that happens,
and the timeline of the order in which the story is told.

This can be more widely applicable that you think. Even if you don’t narratively jump around in time as much as I do, you might have backstory revelations that warrant a second timeline to highlight what the reader learns when.

Outlines:
Some people love ’em, some people hate ’em. BUT, even if you would never outline at the outset, have you considered outlining after the fact? That’s when they’ve been most useful for me. Then I see what I actually have.

My fantastic agent Cameron McClure stopped by after the London Book Fair to spend the day with me in Cambridge, wandering college gardens and floating on the river.

Happy days 🙂
(Also: good Thai food. What more could one want out of an afternoon?)

The wonderful Sarah Pekkanen blogged about our booksigning together in DC last summer. Enjoy!

(And check out her new novel, Skipping a Beat. Sarah writes women’s fiction that is both light enough for the beach but emotional enough to remember when you’re done. Good stuff.)

I despise these pens:

Papermate KV2

Instead of clicking the top to both extend and retract the writing nib, you have to click the top to extend, and click the clip to retract. Why? Why why why? There’s no advantage; it’s just confusing.

Worse, though, is that the retraction mechanism in the clip makes it impossible to slip the clip over a piece of paper, which is the clip’s entire point. Any attempt the slide the pen into place over a piece of paper, notebook cover or magazine page will tear the page.

In sum: they tear my papers, swim around unfindably in the bottom of my bag because I can’t clip them to anything, and took me literally weeks to figure out how to operate (at first we thought they were broken and just had to stay open: so add to my grievances that they wrote all over the inside of my bag).

Boo, hiss! Papermate, what were you thinking??

From “Envoy” by Billy Collins, a message to his just-published book:

"stay out as late as you like,
don't bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can."