Outside Looking In or The Importance of Beta-readers And Editorial Input-

In the past eight years, I’ve had nine single issue comics, five anthology shorts, a graphic novel, and three webcomics published. I currently have two one shots, a few anthology pieces, a mini-series, and two short stories in the queue at various publishers. All of these stories share one fatal flaw- minimal outside input. They came from my mind, were edited by my hand, and the only beta-reader I had on any of them was my wife, who is not the target audience for a lot of my stuff.

A hard truth of writing is the fact that we are often blind to the flaws and imperfections of our works. There are things we fail to communicate properly. There are things we over communicate. We throw in weird stylization that just doesn’t work. Our American characters turn British phrases and our historical characters use weapons that weren’t created yet.

For some of us, particularly those who are less mature or less talented, these are hard things to face. There are too many writers who respond to criticism with statements such as “They just don’t get it.” Well, it’s your job to make them get it! It’s fine if people don’t like your work. But if people don’t understand it, well that’s on you. You have three jobs, writers.

  • Tell a good story.
  • Make it enjoyable.
  • Communicate clearly.

The bad news is that, if your story is shit, your story is shit. Go back to the drawing board. Study structure and conflict. Hit the mental gym and come back when you’re ready, little Mac (note the obscure reference that leaves readers who never owned an NES out of the loop).

More bad news? If you are doing number two or three poorly and can’t own up to it, you will never get anywhere

The good news? If you can take some criticism, look at things objectively, and forget the ludicrous idea that you’re a misunderstood genius, then there are folks who can help you.

Writing groups-
So your first line of defense against shopping or self-publishing a piece of clunky writing is the writer’s group. There are plenty of groups around the world that meet up at bookstores and cafés to read and critique each other’s work, participate in workshop challenges, and escape their solitary confinement a few times a month. The big advantage of this is that you are getting feedback from your peers. Mostly you’ll end up in a group of people who are roughly as successful at slinging ink as you are. This can be a gentle way to start accepting criticism. When Joe the mechanic (who writes historical romance at night) says that you’re under-describing the the shit-monster from chapter three of your manuscript, it’s a lot easier to take than a critic on some podcast talking about how your narrative lacks voice and life.

Writing groups are also great because they afford you the opportunity to read the work of others. If they are brilliant, you can hone in on what makes their work so good. You can ask them about those things that worked well, and how they did that. On the flip side of that is the chance to read some god fucking awful writing. This is just as important. It gives you insight into what definitely does not work. If you aren’t a pompous ass, you can then ask yourself if your own writing suffers from those same defects. If you are a pompous ass, it allows you to unleash your inner-asshole and callously blast the heartfelt work of another human being with reckless abandon. So that’s like a win either way.

So maybe there are no writing groups in your area, or maybe you write scripts and they only do prose, or maybe you’re just a neurotic shut in (it worked for Lovecraft). Well if you’re reading this, you have a computer, or at least a smart phone. There are thousands of writing groups, forums, and internet communities for this express purpose. For my script work, I use Comics Experience, which is a paid forum run by Andy Schmidt. The advantage of this is that since only paid members can access the material, your unpolished junk isn’t hanging out for the world to see. Also, paid services like this offer additional perks. For instance, Comics Experience has professional creators who will critique scripts and artwork.

As great as writing groups are, beware the big mouth who has to put in his two cents, just to get in his two cents. Especially on the internet, there are a lot of folks who just want to find something wrong, and will use almost any excuse to put down your work. Don’t confuse this with genuine criticism.

Once you’ve got a few drafts completed and you think that story is so shiny you could shave by it. Guess what. You are wrong! But since you are so blind to your story’s inadequacy, you need to wrangle a posse that can actually see. This is where beta-readers come on.

The beta readers are going to be kind of like members of your writing group, but hopefully a more refined sampling. Ideally, you want people who like reading books in your genre, who will look at your manuscript with a reader’s eye, instead of a writer’s.

For The Devoured I got lucky. My friend Josh is pretty much the ideal target reader for my Western/cosmic horror story, so I had someone close that I could rely on to give me some honest feedback. I also put out a call on some horror groups on Facebook and found another excellent beta-reader who gave me detailed critiques about what he liked, what was confusing, what left him wanting more, etc…

Try and avoid friends as beta readers unless they can be objective and provide honest criticism. Keep in mind, it’s not just unwarranted ego-petting to be wary of. Plenty of people have toxic relationships, and some “friends” may tear apart your manuscript just because they want everyone around them to fail.

Also, don’t act like your beta-readers owe you anything. Sometimes people just don’t get around to reading your book. Don’t harass them or get all pissy. They are doing you a favor. If they get to it, then it’s gravy. If not, thank them for trying.

The term “editor” is kind of nebulous and can mean different things in different arms of the publishing industry. Some are gatekeepers who decide what gets published. In comics they are traffic cops, herding the creative team and managing the project. What we want to talk about for this purpose are editors who actually edit. These are the folks who look for grammar issues, language redundancies, bad dialog, anachronisms, problems with pacing and a million other things

In the world of indie comics, finding real editorial input is like stumbling upon a vein of vibranium in your backyard. Most are way more concerned with getting the artists to meet a deadline than with the quality of your script. They figure if you made it in the door, then you can be left to your own devices.

There are exceptions of course. Mike Schneider, who was the editor on Steampunk Originals, was incredibly invested in every aspect of the comics going into those anthologies. He tirelessly worked with each creator, offering input and advice on how to strengthen the art and narrative of every submission. But some other “editors” I’ve worked with are just not nearly as interested.

What difference does it make? The comics I did for Steampunk Originals, a property called B.R.A.S.S. Lions, are of a much higher quality than they would be if I had submitted them to an anthology with a less motivated and invested editor. Mike pointed out storytelling flaws,  tonality issues in the coloring, and made suggestions on ways to strengthen the brand and make the property more viable in the long term.

A good editor for prose is even more important. If you are comfortable enough with your work to ask for help, they can offer invaluable insight. In my upcoming novel, The Devoured, my editor  pointed out several things which, when fixed, leveled up my manuscript. In addition to bringing my attention to things like unneccesary POV (point of view) shifts, she also picked up on clunky sentences and a few lines that could have been construed as inadvertently offensive.

Working with a good editor won’t just make your current project better. It will make you a better writer. Editors understand story, drama, dialog, and pacing. They read a ton of writing. Learn from them!

Even if you are self-publishing, please hire an editor. Do your homework and find someone who works in the appropriate genre and comes with good references. I know a lot of writers are on a tight budget, but this is not an additional cost, it’s an investment. If you don’t have a properly edited manuscript and publish anyway, you will be seen as a joke.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the networking benefits of getting to know editors. When I hired Monique Happy to edit The Devoured, I had no idea that she was about to start a new imprint of Permuted Press. While editing my book she ended up liking it enough to offer me a publishing deal!

First off, check your ego at the door. Only a fool asks for help then ignores suggestions. Don’t blindly accept editorial changes, but give them serious consideration. In most cases, your editor is picking up on these things for a reason.

Secondly, make sure your editor is a proper fit. If you have a loose, stylized sense of language, then a grammar nazi might not be your best choice. If you are writing romance, then an editor who works almost exclusively on action and horror is unlikely to really get what you are going for.

Last words-
Seek out help. Get a second, third, and fourth set of eyes. Make changes that better your story, but be wary of changes aimed at pleasing specific demographics. If the work is good enough, you shouldn’t need to cheapen it by pandering to different sects of readers. At the end of the day, remember that your writing is a reflection of you. The most important thing is crafting something that you are happy with and proud of.

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