Beta-Readers

What’s Your Biggest Writing Fear?

As a kid, who wrote a lot in her free time, my biggest writing fear was anybody reading what I wrote but it seems I wasn’t too good at hiding. I have an elder sister, 9 years older, which meant that when I was in lower primary, she was already in high school and had exercise books she had finished using, which still had some extra pages inside to write on.

These books of hers happened to be my preferred writing material. I used to think I was very clever then and she would probably never find what I wrote if I stashed it amongst other books. To my horror, when I eventually left for boarding school and she was now home awaiting to join college, she kept stumbling on what I had been writing at 7, 8,9, 10. I began writing really young. Come to think of it, I wonder what really was that scary about your sister reading something you had written. Nonetheless, back then, it happened to be my greatest fear.

As I have began putting my writing out there, getting into writing competitions and the likes, my biggest fear is for a beta reader to give bad feedback or for a publisher to reject my manuscript. I remember sending a collection of 10 short stories early last year to a certain African publisher and slightly over 3 months later, I received rejection mail. It wasn’t exactly my first rejection mail.

Back in 2014, a Kenyan publisher had equally rejected a manuscript I had sent. But you see, that time, I feared sharing my written work with beta readers. I figured that it was better for a publishing editor to be the first to read anything I had labored on. How wrong I was. Without sharing, I had no idea where my writing weaknesses were and if I had any for that matter.

When those short stories were rejected last year, I later sent them to a friend who is in the Journalism field and had previously interned/worked as an Editor in a media house not very sure which of the two positions. He took his time to read the manuscript and all that time I worried myself sick with what the final feedback would be. After he eventually finished, he sure did have feedback and it was not positive. It was constructive.

As he broke down to me what he had found problematic with the stories, it suddenly dawned on me why the manuscript had been rejected at the publishers. I know many times as upcoming writers, we tend to come to the conclusion that editors have something against us, being still relatively unknown and it ends up discouraging us greatly. Far from it!

They simply have no time to break down to you exactly, why they rejected whatever you had sent given the high number of manuscripts they might be receiving. So most probably, you get a polite rejection mail with maybe a sentence long reason why; it did not meet what we are looking for/our standards. At a point in time, I was one such upcoming writer who felt so discouraged and you can just tell from the length of time it took me from 2014 to 2017, to gather enough courage again to send something to a publisher.

Image courtesy of christopherfowler.co.uk

In as much as many writers may have a fear of sharing their work with friends/acquaintances once completed, we have to realize that their feedback matters a lot. Imagine them as readers who do not know you personally, but will one day purchase a book you have written, read it and most definitely form opinions over what they have just read. Their opinions in this case vary. Some may like the book, others not so much.

The best thing about sharing something with others, before it ends up at the publisher’s is that they can point out anything you need to change and you actually, have an opportunity to rectify it. Consider them more like a second eye. As a writer, I have had some trouble trusting people with my completed manuscripts so when choosing beta readers, make sure that they are people you can trust with your work, will actually read it in good time and are known to give unbiased feedback. Also be willing to listen and learn.

There’s usually that temptation to argue and defend something you have spent hours, days or months working on, especially when you feel like someone is attacking it. Try as much as possible to be reasonable and open minded when recieving feedback. Afterall, just because someone said something you disagree with, doesn’t mean that the manuscript now ceases to be yours. It’s still largely your effort and they are simply giving their honest, hopefully, opinion about it.

Of course your closest friends and family might always give you positive feedback, but you need someone who is never afraid to point out the negatives too. Sometimes, I count myself lucky that I have close friends who easily say what is wrong with my writing should I share it with them. I equally count myself lucky that so far, all those beta readers are people I can trust. And while in the past my biggest fear was giving people my work to read and critic, once you do it a couple of times, the fear kind of fades. Not completely, but to a large extent.

It may surprise you to learn that after I got feedback on the collection of short stories from my friend, the next short story I did and submitted to a writing competition, got shortlisted! My fear in this case, was conquered to a large extent. To be a writer, is to be courageous enough to face anything and everything this writing journey will throw at you. It is to be determined enough to keep writing in the face of frequent/once in a while rejections. To succeed, we need to start conquering our writing fears one by one.

 

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7 Things Every Upcoming Writer Should Know

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So you have been writing for God knows, how long. You are hoping and wishing for that big literary break someday. It’s normal. Every upcoming Writer hopes and wishes to one day have his/her books lining the bookshelves or a bestseller(s) or to win a writing award or simply to get their name out there, but for some reason, it’s always a (lengthy or not) process not entirely devoid of challenges.

What therefore should an upcoming writer know?

1.Writing is not easy

There is the all too famous writer’s block or those days, when you don’t really feel like writing anything and can’t quite put a finger to the cause. Do not be fooled that it doesn’t happen to the established writers. I bet it does but over time, they have learnt effective ways to overcome it. A common advice that has equally worked for me, is to develop a culture of writing frequently or every single day.

Personally, I do not write on a daily basis but I do write frequently in a week. I have also began ensuring that for every single piece I embark on, I have to bring it to completion. Unfinished stories or manuscripts have a way of deceiving a writer, that they just haven’t got it in them, to come up with something worth reading. A finished story or manuscript has a way of boosting a writer’s confidence that they can do it.

Writers like Gregg Savage over at http://www.greggsavage.net have since mastered the art of daily writing with great results.

2.Rejections will be many

I remember meeting up with a magazine editor in late 2015 and feeling like the biggest fool on earth after the meeting. I had been blogging on other non-fiction related topics, for over 2 years then and I really believed that it would not be that hard, contributing for a fashion magazine. The look on the editor’s face when I met her and had not even perused the said magazine, prior to our meeting made me conclude that I’m better of ditching writing altogether. It did not help matters that she gave me like 5 minutes of her time before I got dismissed.

Had I dwelt on that particular rejection or others I have encountered in my writing journey, longer than I should, I probably would not have been here, offering tips on what upcoming writers should know.

Once you begin to put your work out there for people to read, sending in manuscripts or whatever fiction or poetry, you are bound to encounter a few rejections. It’s never personal. Use every rejection as an opportunity to improve on your writing.

3.Beta-Readers are equally important

You need to have those people you give your finished pieces to read and they give you constructive feedback in return. Constructive feedback includes the positive and the negative stuff you need to change. As a writer, I know how scary it gets sharing your work with others. You are never too sure what they are going to say, if they will even read it or whether they will even like it. Of course there is bound to be those dismissive types, who scan through your work and quickly point out a list of negatives about it. Crushing, right?

However, there is that reader, with a writing background or who has a passion for reading or has studied something literature related who will sit down, read your work then break down to you a couple of things, you need to change or improve on and equally point out the positives. These types, I have come to realize, are the best beta-readers to have.

4.Books are expensive

Sometimes, I like to walk into bookshops especially in Nairobi. There’s one at Yaya Center and another at Sarit and many other places I may or may not have been to, but find the one at Yaya personally, being well stocked. My mission is usually to scan the latest books by African writers available on the shelves and I’m never dissapointed. Of course the prices range from 1,500kshs to around 2,500kshs. For an upcoming writer, who may equally be financially challenged or working on a tight budget, this can be expensive and can even put you off the whole idea of shopping for relevant books.

However, do not let that deter you from reading. One question you will always encounter when you begin identifying yourself as a writer is “What are you reading?” It always gets embarrassing when you have nothing you are reading at the moment. It sounds absurd trying to explain to people that you might not be reading, though you would really want to because you find books expensive.

To avoid this, make friends with ardent readers whom you can frequently borrow books from and please ensure you always return the books you borrow or alternatively, join a book club. You are bound to meet with persons who might be in a position to also lend you some of the books they have read. Hopefully, with time you can afford these books and begin purchasing them for yourself.

You can only improve as a writer through reading.

5.There’s lots of fiction online

In relation to the above still, nowadays you can find lots of fiction online in the form of short stories or excerpts. Online literary magazines/websites such as http://www.afreada.com, http://www.brittlepaper.com, http://www.addastories.org among many others, have taken the initiative to feature amazing stories from both upcoming and established writers, which you can read and learn from. Good news is, you don’t have to spend money to access these stories.

6.Learn your style

No writer is the same. After reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The thing around your neck” and “Americanah” and a certain short story of hers which appeared on Harper’s Bazaar, I found myself getting surprisingly, used to her specific writing style. I’m sure if I were to continuosly sample a particular writer’s work in succession like I especially did hers with those three, I’m bound to discover yet another writing style exclusive to that writer. As you embark on your writing journey, always keep it in mind that you are uniquely you and work on perfecting that you.

7. Comparisons will kill your writing career

As an upcoming writer, the temptation to compare yourself to other established writers or writers you think write better than you, can sometimes be too much. However, the surest way to demoralize yourself is to constantly look over the fence and begin coveting what that other writer supposedly has. In our writing journey, our paces are different. Never forget that.

 

 

A Request To Beta-Readers

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Firstly, let me state that we value your honest feedback as published and unpublished writers.

Beta-readers according to the definition on Wikipedia, are non-professional readers who read written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters or its setting.

One of my good friends happens to also be my beta-reader. As a book enthusiast who reads a lot and specifically enjoys African fiction, she has gladly read each one of my manuscripts this year, that I have requested her to read and offered her feedback at the end.

As an unpublished writer, I sometimes cannot help second guessing myself. I also must admit that negative feedback concerning my written work is usually the hardest to take. And yet I’m the kind of writer who has on certain occasions, requested someone I was not well acquainted with, to read my work. There is always that hope that they may like what they read and offer tons of praise and encouragement, right? Wrong.

On most occasions, when I have asked this particular category of people to read my work, their feedback has been_Um_ not necessarily positive or just a tad bit positive. I am human and to hear someone I have requested to read my written work, who seems conversant with literary stuff, tear down my writing, only serves to heighten my insecurities. I find myself wondering whether the feedback would have been different, had they known me better, perhaps as a friend or a published writer. But then it is not always a guarantee for people who know you very well, to always have positive things to say about you.

My mum used to be one of my initial beta-readers. Mum does not have a background in writing but since at the time, I was just starting to come out of my shell as a writer, she was generally the closest person I could somehow trust with my work. Mum has witnessed some of my moments of disappointment in writing. She has seen me being taken round by Editors when I was trying, albeit unsuccessfully to get into Print Media as a columnist. She has offered her advice, her encouragement and blessing concerning my writing.

Funnily enough, every time I shared my manuscripts with mum, she would always have an issue with the names of my characters. It would start from sentence one. That was basically her only critique which I rarely agreed with simply because, it never made sense why she wanted me to change the names I had chosen carefully, for my characters. And in as much as mothers mean well, I realized soon enough that I needed a beta-reader, who would delve deeper into my written work and offer more solid feedback, rather than quickly pointing out that they did not like majority of the characters’ names. I ceased sharing my manuscripts with her, although I would gladly share my published books with her someday.

The title of my post happens to be a request to beta-readers and with good reason. I understand that many times you have our best interests at heart. You would really like us to improve our writing and plots. But as a writer who has experienced beta-readers bashing her work in the past, I would suggest that you purpose to always start with the positive feedback, before you get to the negative feedback. Also, drop the comparisons. The worst thing you can ever do to an upcoming writer requesting your feedback, is to compare him or her with an established writer. I personally believe that every single writer has a different writing style. We can never be the same in our prose delivery.

The common mistake that some (or many, depending on individual experience) beta-readers make is the constant desire to quickly point out the mistakes. Not only does this crush the writer, but equally makes him or her believe that all their efforts have amounted to nothing, if the number of mistakes in their work are that glaring to readers. So much that when the positive feedback follows, it hardly sounds genuine enough. More like a consolation for the otherwise crappy piece of work, they have slaved away to come up with. Writing is not easy, I kid you not.

And I’m sorry to say this, but I bet there are many aspiring writers who have given up, after receiving feedback from a beta-reader delivered in this manner. Understand that it takes a lot of courage for any writer to share their work with someone else. Our writings happen to be some of our deepest thought processes. Therefore, the best way would be to first mention the positives, no matter how little before you proceed to what you think needs to be changed. The message it passes to the writer is that, you appreciated their efforts in seeking opinion from you in the first place and are well meaning, on the aspects you would like them to change or improve on. Remember, even the writers with the most mistakes in their work, have a potential to improve their written work.

What have your personal experiences been with beta-readers? Did you consider their feedback constructive? Has a beta-reader ever crushed your spirit and how did you get back up? I would love to hear all about your experiences in the comment section 🙂