Beta Readers Managed with BetaBooks

Beta Readers Managed with BetaBooks

One of the biggest challenges authors face is getting early feedback. Many of us belong to critique groups, writer groups, or even have a trusty developmental editor that help us navigate plot pitfalls. I personally find the most important feedback comes not from professionals, but from the readers themselves. Beta readers, with their perspective being that of the consumer is absolutely critical. Editors and critique groups may love your book, but will readers? At the end of the day, the consumer’s opinion is most important.

However, the world of beta readers is a difficult to navigate. Where do you find these betas and once you find them, how do you manage their interactions with your work? Authors have struggled with finding betas who quickly consume and respond versus those who say they’ll partake but never produce notes. It gets even more confusing when you find that a pivotal plot point is loved by some, hated by others and you are required to go back and ask a thousand questions to discover the underlying reasons.

For my latest book, Night Legions, I needed a new method to work with my beta readers. I contemplated creating a GoogleDoc where they could mark up, correct, and comment, while at the same time, seeing the notes made by other readers. While this solved one of my issues, the second issue of managing the readers themselves would not be solved. I hate sending the frequent, “So, how’s it going?” emails. I wanted an easier method that required less effort from myself while I started in on other projects.

Enter BetaBooks.co.

I’m not going to gush, despite its gush worthiness. BetaBooks was singlehandedly the answer to all my beta reader needs. The website, is fairly straight forward. It allowed me to upload my novel chapter by chapter, and lets me keep track of reader feedback, reader progress, and interact with readers as they respond to the chapters. It’s reduced the hours necessary chasing feedback or the need to harp on beta readers to keep moving forward. It will be my go-to for all my beta reader needs from this point forward.

Product Highlights

Easy Beta Signups. For the few readers, you can easily input their email addresses and have them added. For those with a large number of beta readers, you can input their addresses in bulk or even provide a link where they can sign up themselves. Easy peasy.

Chapter Notes. When I beta read for authors, I always want to know ahead, what should I be looking for in each chapter. Betabooks allows you to give “pre-chapter notes” and then ask questions at the end of the chapter. This preps the reader and reminds them what they should be looking for. I think this helps align the reader to each chapter.

Chapter Feedback. At the end of the chapter, the reader can leave notes. You can respond as necessary and follow-up with more questions. This forum style setting also allows your members to see fellow beta readers’ comments and respond. Conversation between beta readers will help prevent redundant comments.

Track Reader Progress. Some beta readers keep notes on their own computer until they’re done. While it’s appreciated that they keep notes, I find it more helpful to see the comments as they come in. With Betabooks, I can tell when they last logged in, how far they’ve read, and what chapters they’ve left comments on. What used to take me hours to track is summed up in a single page and can be seen in just a few seconds.

Automated Follow-ups. Ultimately, I hate harping on somebody for not working at the pace I need them to. Betareaders are a gift, gems even, and pushing them is a delicate balance of need versus scaring them off. You can set Betabooks to auto send every few days after readers have been inactive. This is great as it appears the service is reminding them, not you. It helps take a bit of the heat off.

Great Customer Service. The service is relatively new, and early on, I had questions about the product and how to get the best out of it. Not only did I receive help, it came straight from the creators themselves. They’ve been thorough, helpful, and more than willing to answer a gauntlet of questions ranging from current usage to future plans. I wish every product had this level of customer service.

When starting out, you can test Betabooks for free. However, to get some of the more intense features such as the automated responses, you’ll go up to the 34.99 per month level. For the month or two I will need it at the end of each book, the money is well spent. At this point, I’m willing to pay to increase my production and help manage some of my administrative duties. I highly recommend check it out to see how it can speed up your workflow.

Check out BetaBooks and get started.

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Five Mystical Myths of Amazon Reviews Revealed

Five Mystical Myths of Amazon Reviews Revealed

I see this graphic posted quite frequently, or at least some variation. The image changes, as do the numbers that unlock the hidden wonders of Amazon. At least this one has a coherent theme and a sense of pizzazz. Unfortunately, it’s also hogwash.

Now, the importance of reviews can not be expressed or emphasized enough. Think to how you interact with products you’re about to buy on Amazon. Me personally, I read the 1 Star reviews instantly (even before the product description.) I want to know the worst of the product so I can do a personal risk assessment. Without reviews, we’d be buying blind. Let me repeat this: Reviews ARE important, but let’s dispel some common misconceptions.

Myth: After X number of reviews, Amazon includes your book in “also boughts”…

Reality: No. Wrong. Want proof? I have had books with zero reviews appear on multiple also boughts. The Also bought category is not influenced by reviews (or at least nothing I’ve seen quantified.) It is literally based on people’s purchasing decisions and common themes. Buy my book, then buy Twilight, if this happens enough times, I’ll show up in the also bought for Twilight. Reviews be damned. This is about purchasing history. The proof comes from how we can influence these. My fans buy books in both my series, so I see both series in my also boughts. Now that I’ve started using AMS ads targeting people like Robert Kirkman and Max Brooks with my zombie novels, I see them show up in mine and I even showed up in a Walking Dead also bought (short-lived victory, but I got there!)

Myth: After X number of reviews, Amazon highlights the book for spotlight positions…

Reality: No. Wrong. Amazon is not making marketing decisions based on the quantity of reviews. The almighty algorithm is looking at quantity of books being sold. Perhaps the review rating influences this, but it’s not the sole (or even key) decision. This is a case of fame begets fame. You sell 20,000 copies, Amazon will promote you. You have to sell to sell. Frustrating, I know. Amazon does however alert your followers on Amazon or purchasers of your previous books that you’ve released a new book. It’s erratic, not guaranteed, can be months after the release, so do not depend on this. It is nice however when my mom shoots me an email with a screen shot of my book being listed because she buys everything I write. She thinks I’m famous. I perpetuate this lie.

Myth: Reviews can be short, just say, “I liked it.”

Reality: Eh. Kinda false. When was the last time you bought a book because your friend said, “I liked this book.” If you’re going to be short, at least use better descriptors. “I absolutely loved this book.” Okay, now maybe I’ll look at it and leave it in my Amazon cart for three months. Think back to when you went to Amazon and read dozens of reviews with comments under ten words. I’ll give you a moment. You can’t, can you? Because nobody reads these types of reviews. They’re wasted space. Sure, it might lure somebody in to click on your book, “Wow, 200 reviews, this must be amazing.” You get there only to find dozens of one liners. This is starting to look like owed favors and family members trying to do you a solid. In the wake of numerous scams happening on Amazon with reviews, purchased ranks and even authors buying their way onto the USA Today Best Seller chart, appearances matter. Be persistent, but push readers to leave reactions, feedback, hell, I even promote leaving non-5 star reviews (once in a while) to keep things authentic and truthful. It pays off. Watching you what you pay attention to on products, the same goes for your books.

Myth: You don’t need to buy the book to leave a review…

Reality: True, but similar to short reviews. Yes, you can review anything on Amazon regardless of your purchasing. However, unverified reviews (reviews left by people who have not bought your product) are hidden. Their review shows in the total number of reviews, but the actual verbage is hidden unless the customer goes down, clicks on reviews, and then clicks on unverified. That’s a lot of work. To me, the customer, they didn’t buy the book and left a review. Why would I believe a review of a person who didn’t buy the product? I wouldn’t. Yes, again, it helps snag the attention of the customer, “Ohhh, look at all those reviews!” But when you get onto the product page to find almost no reviews are visible (cause how many people truthfully read unverified reviews?) it’s going to start looking shady.

This happens often at the start of a release. You have given out a thousand ARCs and one hundred people have reviewed it. Many have not bought it (some ARC readers are awesome and will also buy your book) so their reviews are not verified. There is a certain forgiveness during launch time that fades quickly. So make sure you continue to promote leaving reviews, but be honest about why they are needed.

Myth: You need X number of reviews for promotions…

Reality: There are many promotional tools out there and many authors utilize “Author Email Promotions.” These are services that will send out your book to their mailing lists. Bookbub is probably the most well-known and coveted. Some are very specific, you need 10 reviews to be eligible. Others are rather ambiguous at best. I only received my Bookbub after I received 40 reviews. Does that mean it’s the magic number? No, but well reviewed books stand a higher chance. Each promotion will state what their needs are. I believe the most I’ve seen is 10 required to promote your book. Of course, more is always better.

There you have it. The floating images with misinformation have been debunked. I think reviews are extremely important (even bad ones.) They are the digital equivalent of your friend recommending a device you need and they have tested. However, we need to have realistic expectations and not imagine that a magical number will open the doors to Nirvana.

Codeswitching for Queries

Codeswitching for Queries

This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.

I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.

The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.

The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.

The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.

Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.

What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.

The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.

We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.

Tips for Submitting to an Anthology

Tips for Submitting to an Anthology

For the curators of, The Final Summons we encountered a lot of firsts. While none of us are slouches when it comes to publishing and the written word, taking on a leadership role provided a unique insight into the world of submissions. We received more submissions than we originally anticipated and the caliber of writing ranged from poetically perfect to rough draft at best. However, we poured through them, discussing the merits of each story and how it would combine into a cohesive anthology. We fought passionately for the stories we loved and had to make tough decisions. There were victories, many of them, but there were also a series of eye rolls that had us asking, “What were they thinking?” We wanted to provide some insight into this newly discovered world that we think will help authors in submitting short stories for anthologies.

Follow the Guidelines.

It sounds simple, but we were shocked by how many people didn’t follow the guidelines. We clearly stated you must be a member of the New England Speculative Writers and located in New England, yet we received submissions from across the United States. We asked authors to include some basic information such as word counts and a tag line. While we were able to fill in the gaps as necessary, the extra work made us move these titles to the bottom of the slush pile. Imagine a publisher receiving hundreds of entries? The fastest way to get rid of the muck (even the best written muck in existence) is to see if an author did these basic steps. If they haven’t, it’s a way to be stricken before you’re even read.

It gets trickier when it comes to “theme” or the anthology “vision.” We left our topic extremely broad to give writers the most latitude possible. However, some of the stories were so off topic it was obvious they were written for another anthology. Some of the stories never even came close to reaching the theme. We got aggravated when an author wasted our time with a story that had no business being submitted. Now unfortunately, those authors’ names are associated with that aggravation. It means the next time they submit, they walk in with a strike against them. So when submitting, make sure it hits the theme squarely enough that you leave a good impression. Previously submitted stories are welcome, even encouraged, but they need to be on “brand.” This might require a little bit of rewriting or tidying up a plot. The extra effort shows.

Short vs. Epic.

The most common thing we said while reading the submissions was, “This isn’t a short story, it’s a condensed novel.” There were some great stories to be had, but some of them weren’t short stories, not even by a long shot. Epic tales are amazing, but they need the room to breathe, develop, and flush out an intense plot. We sent several stories back with notes suggesting that the author take the story and use it as a building block for a lengthy epic tale. The stories were good, some even compelling and wonderful, but they need more than 7,000 words.

With such a tiny word allotment (and let’s be honest, some of us write 100,000 novels that only touch the tip of the iceberg) these epic tales won’t work. In a short story, the world building has to be done in a manner that works alongside the story and not a heap of information at the start. Submissions that started with an uncanny amount of “info dumping” put us on alert. We didn’t need to know the background of the world, how it came to be, or why magic/technology was at its current incarnation. Sometimes the mystery of not knowing is even more alluring. We need a single character (or perhaps two) to exist in a world that we experienced through them. If they don’t meet elves along their journey, there’s almost no point in mentioning them (even if you know they exist in this world.)

Listen & Digest.

We decided at the start that no matter what we read, we’d provide positive feedback to the author. We believed this to be an essential part of the process with New England Speculative Writers. Sometimes we focused on mechanics, sometimes it was centered around plot, it all depended on the author and what their work needed. Never once did we feel that a story was unsalvageable.

We understand that veteran authors have resources, such as beta readers, critique groups, even editors working with them when they prepare to submit short stories. We are not them. We are a set of virgin eyes, exploring your world (and often your writing) for the first time. We come in without bias wanting the very best of your characters and your plot. We aren’t on the hunt for perfection (not a single story was accepted without feedback) we are on the hunt for potential. With work, passion, and an open mind, even the flattest characters can be rounded and rocky stories can be smoothed. When an author criticizes our feedback, it says two things instantly: 1) I’m difficult to work with or 2) I’m incapable of being a team player.

Having submitted to dozens of anthologies, we know that most often, you receive a form letter. This goes for agents and publishers as well. So when an agent/editor/publisher gives you advice, you don’t have to take it, but you do have to stop and consider it. Are they speaking accurately? Truthfully? Are they offering words to uplift your story? Many people wrote back when they resubmitted saying, “I liked your first two points, but I tried your third and it just didn’t work.” We’re not perfect either, but when we get responses saying somebody has attempted our suggestion we see “TEAM PLAYER” and it excites us to build a relationship. Don’t burn your bridges.

Ask Questions.

This is a double edge sword. You need information, but you don’t want to pester. We found both sides of this happened while we were open for submissions. We had forthright questions, “Do you see any gaps in your submissions?” all the way to, “I have a pitch, can I get feedback?” We responded to as many as we could with as much information as we could. But there came a point when some of the questions stopped being about needing information and turned into needing validation.

Ask a question if you must. But remember you are one of dozens of emails each day. When it became obvious some of the emails were essentially asking us for a plot so they could write the story, we ceased communication. Needing facts is very different from needing creative energy. Ask facts. Be specific, be clear, and be concise. If time allows, you’ll receive a similar answer. However, if your answer requires time, energy, and especially creative energy, you might be overstepping boundaries.

Ask questions through the proper channels. Yes, we have twitter and Facebook which allow us instant access. Some of the authors even have our cell phone numbers. Text and you’re dead to us. Shoot a fast message on Facebook, we’ll try to respond. Put it in the official email, then it feels like business and we want to foster professional relationships, so that gets the fastest (and most thorough) answers. Seeking out on social media is okay if you’re tight with the editor, but don’t abuse it. Some of us only use Facebook to swap recipes with our moms. Social media is still not considered a professional line of communication (your mileage may vary with this statement.)

Patience is a Must.

In the fast paced world of self-publishing, an author can finish writing a book and have it published in days. Even micro publishers move within months where the old model of traditional publishing can take years. Times are changing and with deadlines and quick production, there is a sense of urgency. “Did I get in?” “Any word?” “When will the decision be made?” The more these questions are asked, the more stress/pressure goes on the publisher. We’re not saying don’t ask, it’s important to your livelihood to know these things, but give it time. Even with forty submissions, it took us nearly two months to read and provide feedback. As each of us have full-time jobs, as do many small presses and free lance editors. We spent every available moment reading and making comments. The editorial process takes time.

With many self published authors simply putting their book online and wondering why sales aren’t taking off, it needs to be a constant reminder that success takes time as well. Curating and providing feedback is only half the job. We spent countless hours preparing a marketing plan on how to fund, produce, and market our anthology. We set the publish date a year into the future to allow time for editing, cover production and pre-orders. Always feel free to ask what the “plan” is, but be aware, the time-table might not be a mad dash to the finish line.

 

We debated on what should go onto this list. We had many other thoughts and considerations, but these we felt were a universal truth with our anthology and beyond. As always, we want to watch our authors flourish, so we hope this bit of insight behind the scenes of The Final Summons, helps guide your hand in future anthology submissions!

How Improv Comedy Helped My Writing

How Improv Comedy Helped My Writing

Like most who know about the artform, I was introduced to improv comedy from the famed TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Despite many of the references going over my young head at the time it first aired, I still found myself bursting at the seams with laughter at the off-the-cuff antics of the performers.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in an improv club, where we not only played games, but also took field trips to performances and studied techniques from professionals.

While I was goofing off in a cloud of gawky adolescence, I was ignorant to the fact that improv was not only teaching me how to think on my feet, but also how to tell stories. And one day it clicked that the beauty of improv, as well as the core of storytelling, is all about engagement. Whether you are performing or observing in the audience, improv is a hands-on experience, much like the worlds you build in your narrative and the relationship you have with your readers.

It was only later in adulthood that I realized I was inadvertently applying these skills in my D&D gaming sessions. It started simple enough with my character creation (and giving my GMs headaches with grotesquely detailed backstories), then evolving further when I started DMing myself. Eventually, it got to the point where I chucked the rulebooks out the window and ran completely diceless campaigns.

After making this connection, I was able to apply my knowledge to large scale writing projects and develop the eyesight to become my own content editor. (NOTE: Don’t depend entirely on your own skills for content editing if you can help it. I am saying I was able to recognize enough to save work for someone else).

These skills not only helped with the writing aspect, but also the business side of being a “Competent Author™.”  Elevator pitches, networking and relationships, public speaking etc. All of this can be improved upon with a flight from the seat of the pants.

But performance, no matter how small the audience, is much easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety. With practice and a few quick, short-worded sentences tucked in your belt, you can excuse yourself from overwhelming situations:

“Hey, this was a great conversation, but I really need to be elsewhere right now.”

“Thanks for chatting! I’m headed to another appointment, but maybe we can continue later?”

Whether it’s true or not, it’s great to have some pre-fabricated exits. However, I am speaking through my personal experience, and not everyone can find this helpful.

If you want to start off with playing improv games, try it out with a few close friends just to get a feel of the mechanics. The more you practice in a safe environment, the easier it may become for you. Remember, your replies will NOT sound polished. In fact, they will be clumsy and awkward until you learn what bits of your personal conversation filter can be shut off at will.

And that’s okay! Improv is not supposed to be polished, it’s supposed to be messy and random. A lot of the most noteworthy moments can come from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind (in both good and bad contexts). Just like editing a draft, polish comes later with time and practice.

A good first-time game is called “One Word,” where participants take turns telling a story one word at a time. Put a little flair on it by adding a theme or setting to help keep everyone focused. Make a space adventure and tell the story of a first alien encounter. Perhaps an opposing kingdom is beating down the gates to your castle, what happens next?

A quick google search of “Improv Comedy Games” will bring you a slew of options, but here’s a pair of sites with great examples to get you started:

http://www.bringyourownimprov.com/games.htm

http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/

Many games can be tailored to fiction, adding genre spins to suit whichever you want to practice. Focus on setting and character creation, or even use the Question Game (make a conversation only using questions) to practice your dialogue development.

Introduce exercises in your next writing group meetings or convention mixers as an icebreaker. But please be mindful of those with social anxiety and be respectful to members not participating! Improv requires a certain level of trust, and some may not feel comfortable for whatever reason they may or may not feel like sharing. Do not take it personally if you get rejected but be sure to leave the door open for those who want to try.

And on that note, another vital skill learned through improv is the ability to read the room. Improv is not just about spouting off the first thing that comes to your head. It’s also about learning the dynamics and knowledge base of the participants as well as the audience.

For example, any games involving song titles or movies may leave some players out because they don’t partake in popular media. It is also advisable to stray away from politically charged topics in a new setting until everyone is familiar with each other. It will take some experimentation to determine everyone’s comfort levels, as well as what types of games everyone excels at. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, have fun with improv whether you apply it to your writing or not! It’s a fantastic way to practice interactions and storytelling while enjoying time with others both in and out of the industry. And most importantly, don’t be too serious when playing. It is comedy, after all.

I Am a Woman Learning to Roar

I Am a Woman Learning to Roar

As co-founder and female counterpart of the duo that started New England Speculative Writers (NESW), I have the pleasure of writing the final blog post for Women’s History Month. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to fully understand what being a woman in society means and how that impacts me as a human.

I’ve always tried to look at people as humans first, before applying the gender tag they identify with. I think that’s part of the storyteller in me – looking for commonalities first and building out from there. In many ways, I’ve applied that practice to how I view myself too. When I think of myself in a context, I don’t necessarily view myself as a female in the middle of a situation, I think of myself as a person in the situation, but unconsciously, I have come to realize, I have been applying certain gender rules that have affected the trajectory of my life. It’s not that I was unaware of the “traditional” roles women play in society, I just didn’t really think many applied to me. In some ways I thought of myself as a strong independent woman who blazed her own path in life and didn’t adhere to societal gender rules. I still think I am, but…

I’m an X-gener. I grew up in the era when traditional roles for women were in a great shift. My parents were the offspring of what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation”. I grew up in the 70’s when society was seeing and feeling the effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the battle cry of “I am woman, hear me roar (“I Am Woman”, co-written and performed by Helen Reddy, 1971, along with Ray Burton). More and more women were leaving to work outside the home, and the term “latch-key kid” became more prevalent. In addition to more women in the traditional workforce, there was a boom of companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Stanley Home Products that allowed women to have a foot on each side of the fence so to speak. They could work and earn money, but still have the flexibility to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother; keeping a home and raising children.

Combine what was happening in society with watching movies like 9 to 5 where a group of women are fighting “the man” and reading books written by both male and female authors who portrayed girls and women as smart, strong, independent or fighting against their society rules, like A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle or some of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists Of Avalon, I grew up seeing the shift toward equality in action. I saw great strides, and have continued to see progress, but I also realize we have a ways to go still. Many of the women of my childhood were straddling old and new cultural rules and trying to make them both work, and in a lot of ways we still are today.

Like a lot of people, I’m in the process of a sort of awakening. I think we as humans are becoming more enlightened about inequalities at a faster pace than previous generations. A big reason for this is technology, social media and the internet. The world is a much smaller place than it was twenty years ago. News travels faster, cell phones with cameras are everywhere and people are really starting to realize that there is a lot of bad out there, but more importantly we are also realizing that we can do something about it, as seen in the myriad of hashtag causes, including many to continue the fight for equality for women.

I spent over twenty years in the working world, ten of those years were in the corporate world. Five years ago all of that changed. A series of events occurred – a long and boring story not worth telling, but all the same life changing. I found myself unemployed, burnt out, extremely unhappy with my life, and ready for change. I made the decision to get off the hamster wheel of “working to live” and change my perspective to finding a job that would allow me to “live to work”. I took time to start doing things I enjoyed and really learning what makes me as a person happy.

During my time off from the working world I started writing again. The more I wrote, the more my world and perspective blossomed. One of the first things about my writing I realized was that all my protagonists were women. Women of all different strengths and backgrounds, but strong, independent, adventurous, amazing women. The more I wrote about these strong women the more I realized I was writing about all the women I knew or read about and admired, and I started to see the differences between the life I had been living and them. That’s when I saw how inequalities of women had affected my life. The workplace is one example. For instance allowing the term “work wife” to be applied to me, even though I was a national account manager of a multimillion dollar account, allowing myself to be talked over during meetings, not voicing my opinions as loudly as the men were, all the while never really thinking about how wrong that was. I didn’t see it. It had been happening all along, and for so long, that I didn’t recognize it as anything but normal, nor did I recognize how unhappy I was trying to conform. I can now say, never again. My eyes are open. The “box” I had been trying to fit my wild and unconventional self into for the sake of fitting in, has been tossed in the trash!

I think we as people will always have struggle – either collectively or in groups against one injustice or another, but we, right now are lucky and unlucky enough to live in an era of technology and social media which has made the world a much smaller and more transparent place. It’s a double-edge sword, that we have quickly learned to use negatively, and are finally starting to use to our advantage. We humans, we women, have more power now to change the world than we ever did. And we’re doing it. We as writers have the unique power to reflect the changes we want in our writing.

I want to take a moment to thank our NESW community for being a wonderful, diverse, inclusive group. That was one of the visions Jeremy and I had in starting this group. Please continue to help us build that. We need more of “us” in this world. Let us lead by example.


Cristina currently lives in Massachusetts. She earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and spent many years on the West Coast living and working in Arizona and California. She moved back to New England in 2008, and began a journey that led to refocusing her life on the ‘want tos’ rather than the ‘have tos’, by making what she enjoys doing creatively a priority. In 2013 she participated in her first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a story called The Empire that a few years later would become her first completed novel. The Empire is currently available on Amazon.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

This celebratory month of women in speculative fiction has seen posts  on many topics all of which come back to a central important issue – inclusion. I write in an area of fantasy that is often relegated to the back burner in the sci-fi/fantasy community and among writers in general: romance. Yes, romance is frequently the red-headed step child at the family reunion, but I can’t help it. Love and relationships are always the focus of my writing.

Most of my published work would be classified as either paranormal romance or romantic fantasy with many of these being in the category of retold fairy tales. It’s a genre I’ve loved for decades and while it generally finds a lot of success with the reading public, many people I meet have an easier time believing in mermaids and magic than love or happy endings. (New England is especially known for this – romance sells the lowest in this part of the country).

And yet…

What can be more basic, more interesting, and more revealing than how we choose and treat our closest relationships?  When as writers we create worlds we need to ask ourselves about the mating, pairing and parental relationships that exist in this new world. When we read, if these things are left out or ignored, something about the world seems off, lacking.

Certainly the various movements including #metoo, #timesup and #ownvoices show that how we interact with one another, how we include those who identify differently from us, has a lasting impact on current and future generations. Speculative fiction gives writers and readers an amazing opportunity to look at the truth of these relationships – the problematic and the healthy – from new perspectives which can help us understand our own.  Look at the recent resurgence in popularity of The Handmaids Tale, science fiction which puts relationships at the core. No, it’s not a romance. This is a world where there is no place for romance – and look at the results of that.

I know that in my own writing, when I work in a paranormal world, I look at what rules I no longer have to adhere to, where I can get creative, and where can I build something completely new – something that reflects what I believe is the best a relationship can bring to an individual.

And yet…

We still have challenges when presenting these relationships either in books or film. From Sleeper to Demolition Man to Gattaca science fiction and fantasy movies show what might be different in the future when it comes to the challenges of love, sex and relationships on other worlds and in other futures. Many make it comical (when I asked about this on Facebook a friend reminded me of Barbarella), some eliminated it all together.  But at the end of the recent blockbuster hit Wonder Woman she extols the value of love and how this aspect of who we are is one of the things that make us worth saving.

Would you like some recommendations? My favorite fantasy author who looks at the importance and influence relationships have on our lives and our world is Anne Bishop. All of her books explore romantic relationships, but the Black Jewels trilogy (and beyond) is particularly amazing as is her Others series. And if in your fantasies you want vampires, then Joey W. Hill’s Vampire Queen series is one of the hottest series I’ve ever read.

I have come to believe that we brush love and all it stands for aside at our own peril. It deserves to be a priority, not a second thought, not something relegated to the silly or trivial. Certainly not something called “girly”. Anyone who has felt and expressed a wide range of emotions knows – emotions are not for the faint of heart. They require great strength and they show the strength of those who experience them.

As Diana says at the end of Wonder Woman, there is darkness and light in all of us and only love can truly save the world. I agree.

 


A Jersey Girl trapped without good diners or boardwalks in New England, Rachel Kenley is the author of eight romance novels, most recently the Melusine’s Daughters trilogy. Rachel started reading romances at 14 and credits them with her lifelong fascination with relationships and how they contribute to our ability to go for our dreams. When she is not writing she is homeschooling her sons, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with laundry, and laughing as much as possible.  She believes in shameless flirting, finding pleasure in the everyday, never missing the chance to watch The Wizard of Oz and the emotional and economic power of retail therapy. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and at www.rachelkenley.net where you can also sign up for her newsletter.

Tricks For Self-Editing

Tricks For Self-Editing

Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.

Read Aloud

So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.

Read Backwards

I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.

Spellcheck

Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.

Mark Your Spots

Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.

Let It Simmer

When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.

Don’t Take The Easy Way Out

Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.

Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes

Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.

Kill Your Darlings

I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.

Save The Bodies

Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.

Have A Saving System

One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.

Fall Into The Story

Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.

Listen To Yourself

If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.


Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.

Inclusion Riders and Vicarious Contact: Improving Representation and Inclusion in Media

Inclusion Riders and Vicarious Contact: Improving Representation and Inclusion in Media

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand (one of my all-time favorite actresses) gave a rousing speech about diversity in filmmaking, encouraging women nominees to stand and be recognized, and ending with two words most of us have never heard: inclusion riders.

An inclusion rider is a clause that A-list actors (well, presumably, any actor, but the A-list have the clout to pull it off) can add to their contracts requiring that the film they’re working on hire diverse people both on and off camera. Its intent is to level the playing field, to give all people, regardless of gender, race, culture, or sexual orientation, the same opportunity to work in film and to be represented in film.

I cannot stress enough the importance of representation in media, and the past few years have given us a remarkable shift in representation: black female mathematicians in Hidden Figures, black, Hispanic, and female protagonists in the recent Star Wars films, powerful superheroine Wonder Woman, and the magnificent, box-office-smashing Black Panther. For me, Rogue One was particularly powerful, in which the protagonist are a woman and a Hispanic man, possibly the first time since Spy Kids that I’ve seen a Hispanic person in a leadership role in film, and my reaction was not unique.

Note that every example I’ve given is a work of speculative fiction (with the possible exception of Hidden Figures, and that has sufficient geek points to be worthy of mention). That’s because speculative fiction has the room to imagine things as they could be, not as they are. Or even as they are but are not yet represented.

There’s been a recent trend to recast traditionally white, male roles with underrepresented minorities: the all-female Ghostbusters, Hamilton, and the recent bold casting for A Wrinkle in Time. While that helps improve representation, it would be even better if the representation were already there, in the source material. That’s our job, as writers and content creators. It’s up to us to create the world we want to live in.

Fortunately, we have a tool available to us that counteracts stereotyping, prejudice, and racism. It’s called vicarious contact.

“In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, [Krista Maywalt] Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.

“After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.”

— Krista Maywalt Aronson and Anne Sibley O’Brien, “How Cross-Racial Scenes in Picture Books Build Acceptance,” School Library Journal, May 12, 2014

It turns out that when we see other people doing something, we become more comfortable doing it ourselves. When we see others acting with tolerance and acceptance, we are more inclined to act that way ourselves. And “seeing” includes viewing images of tolerance and reading stories that include tolerance. Of these, the best are stories in which inclusion is not the point of the story but rather a given, a backdrop against which the story plays out.

We’ve seen this in science fiction, from the original Star Trek series to James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. A diverse cast, with members representing many human races, ethnicities, and cultures, work together toward a common goal. Vicarious contact is less present in fantasy, particularly high fantasy, but urban fantasy such as Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper is gradually beginning to change that narrative as well. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The oldest, first purpose of storytelling is to instruct, to pass on tribal knowledge from generation to generation. As writers, we can instruct our readers. Those of us who live in large metropolitan areas probably have friends of many races, ethnicities, religions, and genders, but this may not be true in rural areas or in places with largely homogenous populations. I’m not just talking about Iowa or Sweden, I also mean segregated urban neighborhoods and gated communities. We can reach into these places and grant our readers vicarious contact, the experience of seeing a diverse group, not just tolerating each other, but working together, enjoying each other’s company, and accepting each other as ordinary human beings.

Children can perceive race as early as three months old. By three or four years old, children’s racial context is more or less set. But we can change that. We can give children and adults the experience and the context they lack. Here’s how:

  1. Show diverse characters in relationships between equals.
  2. The characters must be recognizably different.
  3. The characters must do something positive together. Children have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Older children go adventuring together. Adults work together to resolve problems for mutual benefit.
  4. Emphasize what the characters have in common, whether it’s a common interest such as dinosaurs or a common threat such as alien invasion.
  5. Point out the characters’ differences in ways that show how those differences combine to make the group stronger. For example, in the all-female Ghostbusters remake, Patty Tolan is the sole black member of the team. She’s poorly educated, a subway employee, but she brings to the team a deep understanding of the geography and culture of New York City (http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2858071065). It would have been even better to have a black female scientist on the team.
  6. Impress upon your readers the characters’ friendship, despite their differences. They should mutually respect and rely upon each other.

This being Women’s History Month, it’s important to point out that vicarious contact also works for showing the inclusion of women in traditionally male roles. I love the Avengers films, I truly do, but it galls me that every female Avenger’s primary role is as girlfriend to another Avenger (Black Widow and the Hulk, Scarlet Witch and the Vision). Compare this to Jessica Jones in the Defenders: she’s physically the strongest member, acerbic, no-nonsense, and a full, valued member of the team. Consider Wonder Woman in Justice League. Progress, yes.

And yet, only 25% of the Defenders are female, 20% of the Justice League. The Expanse? 20%. The Avengers? 20-25%, depending on the film (the ratio worsens over time as more male superheroes such as Spiderman, Ant-Man, and Black Panther join on). Really, it should not be harder to have equal representation in film than at MIT, where the overall undergraduate population is 46% female.

Among these, Black Panther stands out as a film with an astonishing number of powerful, confident women, making up 60% of the protagonists. We haven’t seen that level of strong, female representation since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Magicians also has a great ratio of male to female protagonists, and they are strong, complex female protagonists.

Again, it’s important not to just show women as protagonists. We need to show women interacting with men as equals, demonstrating leadership, solving mutual problems, and working towards common goals. And as with other underrepresented minorities, we need them proportionately represented, which means that half of the protagonists should be female.

Will vicarious contact in your fiction make a difference in our society? Well, let me put it this way: it can’t possibly make things worse, and it has the potential to do a lot of good.

Okay, folks. Go out and save the world.


Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI and NESW, and a former editor of New Myths magazine. Aside from 18 years as a technical/science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. A Latina geek originally from Albuquerque, NM, she now resides near Boston, MA with her husband and two daughters. You can find her short fiction in the 2017 and 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guides. A Pixie’s Promise, sequel to Her debut novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, is forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2018. Visit her website, www.diannasanchez.com or follow her on Facebook.

Identities and Intersections

Identities and Intersections

Intersections Can Be Confusing

Because I’m a woman and I write spec fic, I’m often put on panels at conventions dealing with “women’s issues” vis à vis writing. I enjoy those panels and enjoy meeting my fellow panelists and the conversations we have about what it’s like striding into what has been traditionally men’s spaces.

But the conversations don’t really go far enough for me and it feels like I’ve been participating in the “101” level discussions for some time now.

In some ways, I also feel awkward in those conversations. My female identity is only a part of who I am, and it’s limited me far less than some of my other identities.

While I’ve never deliberately hid my neuro-atypicality, I’ve also not been extremely public about it. Until recently, I really didn’t believe that my “aspie” nature was a hindrance to my current life. After all, I wasn’t identified as having Asperger’s until my 30s and by then I was a successful physical therapist, wife, and mother.

So what does it mean to be a woman who is also neuro-atypical?

For me, it meant that very little in the literature described me or pertained to me. Not in the women’s literature. Not in the autism literature.

When you live at an intersection, instead of doubling (or tripling, etc) your identity, it fractionates it. Try to find writing advice for women on the autism spectrum. Until very recently, it wasn’t even believed by the scientific establishment that many women were on the spectrum and nearly all the data, all the research, all the narratives focused on the male presentation.

The advice for women writers often didn’t speak to me. I’m not sure whether that’s because of my aspie nature or because of other experiences and identities I hold. I’ve never had a hard time finding my voice or feeling like what I had to say wasn’t “worthy”. What held me back was near-crippling anxiety and until I started to embrace my non neuro-typical identity, I had no tools to address it.

And still, 20 years after the psychiatrist I was meeting with reviewed my history and my educational records and told me I was on the spectrum, I have kept that part of my identity cloaked.

Not fully hidden, but certainly not a label I publicly claimed.

So why am I talking about it now?

I recently saw the call for the “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” anthology and thinking about submitting to it make me extremely uncomfortable. So I spent some time getting to why.

Part of it was I feel relatively privileged: I am in a situation in which I am supported to be a full time writer. My books are finding their readers. What “right” did I have to submit and potentially take a spot away from a writer who might deserve/need that break more than I did.

That was the surface reason.

Digging deeper, there were others.

Was I “disabled?” If so, was I disabled enough? Did I want my carefully crafted identity as a women writing SF&F to be conflated with the word disability?

These are heavy questions and I don’t have final answers to them.

In the end, I didn’t submit to the anthology.

And yet, I’m “outing” myself here.

(I never said I wasn’t a hot mess of contradictions.)

So who am I and how to my identities inform my work?

I would describe my novels as extremely character-centric. Most of what I write is in deep third-person point of view and I feature fully-realized female characters in everything I write.

I do the same for all my characters, regardless of gender.

In looking though my body of work, there are definite themes that emerge, many of which come from my various identities. Characters have different patterns of strengths and struggles. They have disabilities – some overt, some hidden. Those struggles inform each characters’ growth and arc, rather than simply function as surface traits.

Ultimately, that’s what I have come to understand about my own intersections: being female and being neuro-atypical (two of my myriad identities) shape the lens with which I view the world.

And they are foundational to how I chose to write new ones.


LJ Cohen’s fifth and final book of her Halcyone Space series – A STAR IN THE VOID – will be available Summer of 2018.