5 Tests You Should Put Your Story (or characters!) Through

Ever wonder “is my writing/book/character worth a dime?” Well, there’s a few things you can do in order to make sure. None of them are fool-proof, and all of them have their pitfalls, but you can improve your work and have new and improved ways to ensure you’ve done things the best you can.

Also, long article today. Fair warning.

Reading Level Test

This test won’t be able to tell you if your book makes sense or if it has deeper artistic merit, but there is something to be said about the ability to string together words into a sentence. Your story idea could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it won’t matter if you can’t communicate it.

Probably the easiest (and safest) way to do a readability test is through MSWord’s “editor” function (used to be spellcheck, for you fellow fogies). Unfortunately, the new version of MSWord makes you go through all of the spelling and grammar “mistakes” before the analysis will show up. If you are writing a fantasy, sci-fi, or other piece with a lot of non-standard words, the MSWord built-in statistics might not work for your whole book. However, you can copy a more manageable selection into an alternative document and perform the test on that. Sampling errors may apply.

In MSWord, your output window will look like this:

Don’t let a “low” grade level scare you. A book with a sixth grade level score will be easy to read for a large number of people, which is good. I took the excerpt Penguin offers for A Game of Thrones, and the Flesch-Kincade Grade Level on MSWord was 5.6. Remember: the grade level your book is scored doesn’t mean the book is for kids or isn’t literarily sound. It means the book may be easier to read. If you’re writing fiction, remember that most adults who read for fun aren’t going to seek a book that will force them to look up words every few minutes. They’re going to put down books with sentences so wordy they’ll have to re-read them. A book for adults should be easy enough to read that they won’t have to try.

However, let’s think about this from the other end: if you go much lower than a 4th-grade level, your sentences may feel repetitive or so simple that a reader could get bored. A children’s book has simple sentences so children can learn to read different words and gain confidence. Once that confidence is built, they can move to grander sentences.

In my opinion, anything between 4th and 8th grade should be sufficient for an adult fiction. YA shouldn’t be much different in terms of reading requirements, just in the grander content and character age.

If you don’t have MSWord or you have too many fantasy words in a passage, online tools such as this one exist.

Number of Characters

This isn’t like Twitter – it’s not a count of letters. It’s a count of how many persons are in your book.

Because, believe me, it’s far easier to get your book filled with too many characters than to not have enough. Don’t believe me? Think of your favorite episodes of TV: many people love those episodes with just one or two characters trapped in a cave, or a spaceship, etcetera. The episode “Fly” in Breaking Bad is this way. These “bottle episodes” are hugely popular because they explore the activities and relationship of only a couple characters, or maybe even just one character.

If you’re in my audience or if I’m in your audience, though, we’re probably thinking about fantasy, sci-fi, or some other form of fiction. So let’s use a good ol’ standard: The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy has 40 characters, and that’s including everyone from Bilbo and Smeagle to Carc, a raven. That’s a fair amount of characters, because you can keep up with them.

Here’s another way to think about it: how often do you introduce a new character? I once beta’d a book (probably for a young person, so I’m sure they’ve improved since) which included something on the order of 200 characters for 100,000 words. That’s literally a named character introduced, on average, every 500 words. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has 95,000 words. On average, that’s a new character every 2,400 words. I find that if you have at least 1,500 words per character, you’re going to be fine. I aim to be right there where The Hobbit is when I write a novel.

So yes, here’s the test:

[Number of Words in Book]/[Number of Characters in Book]

And that’s it. It’s up to you if you want to include unnamed characters, which I tend to do. I keep a running list as I write.

Diversity Tests

I love these tests because it can help you realize when you’ve done something accidentally wrong, and it does so in a recognizable fashion. The tests I’m going to suggest are based on the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test.

The Bechdel Test is a very basic test for female representation. In this test, the requirements to pass are:

  1. Have two female characters with names.
  2. These two characters talk with each other about something other than men.

That’s it. It’s also incredible how many books fail – including the aforementioned The Hobbit. You can also apply similar characteristics to characters of color, LGBTQ+ persons, persons with disabilities, or whatever.

There are two caveats to this test I want to talk about, though: one is that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to pass. Let’s say you’ve got a story set on a war ship in WWII. It’d take a very special situation for a woman to be on the ship, much less two. To pass the Bechdel test in that situation would be odd. Similarly, if you don’t have multiple races present in the location or setting (i.e. Ancient China or pre-exploration Australia), you might not be able to pass the test with a racial slant.

The other caveat? There are stories that would fit a feminist slant without passing the Bechdel Test.

For example: Mako Mori was a character from the 2013 film, Pacific Rim.

The Mako Mori test requires the presence of one female character who has her own plot arc, and neither that character nor that arc exist to supplement or serve a male character. To me, this test helps detect one thing the Bechdel Test can’t: tokenism. You can pass the Bechdel Test and have those characters still not matter. Once again, the test can also be applied to any sort of diversity marker.

Just to be real, though: there is no single way to get this right. You can do any number of tests, any amount of study, have sensitivity readers, everything – and still fail. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that your shouldn’t include diversity in your books. It just means you will always be limited by your own life experiences, and learning is the key to your expansion.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu Test

Someone out there is inevitably asking: what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?

A Mary Sue (we’ll just use Mary Sue for now) is a character who has too strong powers or overworked personality traits. Physical appearance can be indicators of Mary Suedom, especially as they veer away from anything “normal.” As a whole, I classify Mary Sue traits as almost anything that can be “cringey” but not in a “creepy, touchy uncle” kind of way.

Think: something a teen would write (poorly). Something a middle schooler would think so dark it makes a black hole look light. See the wordy and very crude/insulting/awful/potentially-triggering Coldsteel the Hedgeheg meme below for the most stereotypical Mary Sue nonsense:

But for those of us who don’t have a main character named Coldsteel the Hedgeheg, there’s more reasonable tests like this unsupported one. That test is no longer suggested by its creator, and I understand: the scoring at the end doesn’t really work. I suggest it, though, so you can think about what’s going into your character and what other people could see. Not all of these things are bad for every character, and often nuance can make many of the Mary Sue traits work. Breq/Justice of Toren from Ancillary Justice is an example of a Mary Sue that works. What’s important is to know what sort of pitfalls you may have fallen into. It’s more useful as a thought-provoking test than anything else.

Beta Testing

That’s right. You can do all of the above alone, in the comfort of your own home, without a single scary foray into the minds of others. If you want to share your writing – for what is writing but a plan to share an idea with someone, even if that someone is a future version of yourself? – you’ll want to get a second opinion.

That’s where beta readers come in. Get opinions on your diversity, your character quality, and some idea of common grammar mistakes you make. Try to get a variety of readers, and have fun.

For more information on beta reading, I’ve got a slew of articles under “Beta Reading” on my Writing Resources Page.

Do you put your stories through other sorts of tests? Let me know in the comments, or look through the comments for additional thoughts!

Gentle Letdowns – Beta Reading Something Awful

02112018 freeimages.com don-t-need-this-1529905Sometime in your career, if you decide to be as free and helpful as you can, you’ll run into it: a book that’s either so bad or so not-your-type that it melts your soul to read it.

I have read some fantastic beta books (E. Kathryn’s Fire’s Hope was one of them!), but I’ve officially just finished something I almost couldn’t handle.  I nearly put it down for good several times.  I wanted to stab small mammals every time I set my eyes to it.

I learned a lot by getting through this book, and I hope you’ll be able to glean kernels of advice from my mistakes experiences!

Know Your Limits

I beta read for free right now because I am being paid in the experience.  At some point, I may feel confident enough (or requested enough) to start asking for payment. Because I’m doing these for free, though, I have learned there needs to be an internal line that I will not cross again.  I have to put an actual value on my time.  A book that is bad enough to put down early may be better reworked by the author before someone tries reading again.

hell no

If you beta read, go in knowing how bad you’ll need to feel or how bored you’ll need to be in order to quit. If your requirements are pretty tight, consider letting the author know beforehand.  If you reach this internal boundary, embrace that decision. Don’t look back.

Give Constructive Advice

analysis blackboard board bubbleOver the past few months of critiquing and beta reading, I’ve realized that railing on someone’s work helps no one.  I’ve also learned that when a reader gives no positive feedback, it can be harder as an author to believe what they say is meaningful or true (even though it’s not their job to give positive feedback!).

When something is awful, point out what is done right, even if it is hard.  With this last book I beta read, I had sincere difficulty doing so, but I tried giving at least one good comment on chapters that were long and relevant enough.  At a point I lost the ability to keep up with what was going on, so I tried to ask questions more than point out what was wrong.  If you find the good, you will come off as more believable, encouraging, and professional.

Avoid Words like ‘Stupid’ or ‘Awful’

I am super guilty of the above.  I once said someone’s character seemed stupid.

caveman

After I received similar comments on a character from one of my betas, I realized those types of comments can be easily interpreted as ‘This character was stupidly designed’ or ‘You, as a writer, are stupid,’ neither of which are probably intended.

Using words that have little wiggle room for qualification can make your statements go from constructive criticism to seeming like stabbing, personal vindictiveness. Instead of ‘this character seems stupid,’ you can say, ‘this character’s decision didn’t logically follow from the prior events.’  Instead of, ‘This passage was awful,’ you can say, ‘This passage was confusing, and I’m concerned that a misinterpretation could cause some people to feel offended.’  It takes effort, but those kinds of statements are more specific, helpful, and don’t sting nearly as much.

Be Truthful About Your Experience

With this latest beta read, I wanted to give up after the second chapter.  I wanted to give up after every single sitting.  I struggled with the question:

Should I tell them?

Luckily, I also recently went through the beta process.  One of the things I am most genuinely worried about is if the readers who said they liked it actually thought it was a steaming pile of poop.  I have hired an editor now, and I can’t help but worry if doing so was a mistake; if the book doesn’t have publishable qualities, why should I waste the money on the editor?  Why should I continue to waste time on it?  If my readers lied, I’m out a good passel of money and a WHOLE LOT of precious time.

Anyway, if it is bad, I would have rather someone tell me from the beginning that it needed significant work.  I would rather know that it might be easier to start from scratch.  I would at least want to know that someone severely disliked it and almost quit (or did quit).

Here’s what I decided to say:

Because I’m beta reading, I will finish this book; however, if I were just reading for my pleasure, I would quit here.
Some good points I’ve noticed:

(gave 3 points)

The primary reasons I would stop reading:

(gave 5 points)

And I hope that was good enough.

Have you ever had any terrible beta reading experiences?  Tell me about them in the comments, especially if you had a clever way to let someone down.

How Many Beta Readers Do I Need?

Recently, I went through the beta reading process with a novel I wrote. I had 2 alpha readers, 5 (a 6th may or may not finish) beta readers, and a constant cheerleader.  I’m in the process of courting up an editor now, and I feel like I have had enough input from readers to do this.

Getting Beta Readers

This isn’t easy.  When people read your unpublished work, they’re not getting something finished.  They’re expecting to have to analyze it like they did in high school or college, and a lot of people (even friends!) balk.  Most people will say no.

hell no.gif

That’s why I suggest joining writers groups.  You will give, but you’ll also get in return.

I also strongly suggest finding people online.  When you have in-person writing groups, you’re inevitably going to end up with a bunch of people who share a similar culture.  I needed people from the internet to read my book just so I could make sure someone who wasn’t a white Southerner would read it (not that I don’t appreciate my white, Southern friends who read it!).  The internet is filled with a wider array of diverse people than your backyard, in all likelihood.

Suggestion: Do it One or Two at a Time

I did my beta reading in 3 pushes. This way, I could take action on the feedback prior to getting information from new readers.  I think I got the best work possible for the least money this way.  The problem?  It takes a LONG time.

giphy

Waiting… watching… suffering…

Overall, it’s taken me more than 7 months to get all my beta readers together, gather input, and make the changes needed.  For me, it’s not a big problem – I have no set deadline (though I would like to try pitchwars later this month if I’m ready), and I have another form of income.

Why Quit at 5 or 6?

I’m done getting beta readers now because I reached a point where I’m hearing suggestions that point out smaller issues, things that contradict other beta readers or my own sense of judgment, or things that I’m pretty sure can’t be fixed without changing what I want the book to be.  It’s up to you when you feel like you’re done.

giphy1

One thing that helps is to have quality readers.  I was lucky to have access to so many awesome readers who read the book in a reasonable amount of time.  Similarly, I don’t think fewer than 4 is a good idea if you want good results.

Why Should I get More Beta Readers?

I’ve had some FANTASTIC readers for my book.  Their information has been detailed and reasonable.  However, I can see myself looking for more readers if:

  • My simultaneous readers (I usually have 2 at a time) are giving conflicting information that I can’t decide between
  • I were still receiving complaints about the same thing
  • I need to test out a major change in a revision
  • Readers in a certain phase aren’t doling out good info (this could mean that they’re just not saying anything or aren’t answering questions)
  • I just feel like it

Right now, I have a little internal conflict about number 2 – I had one thing that multiple, but not all, readers caught and my changes took multiple iterations to improve.  In this last iteration, I finally think I fixed all the main issues.  This means it’s on to copyediting!

Thanks to My Beta Readers!

Thanks to everyone who has beta read for me, whether I met you in real life or online.  You’ve done fantastic work, and I couldn’t have done it without you!

Beta Reading – The Interview Style

I recently found Dolls Don’t Cry, a YA book, to beta read on Tumblr.  A couple months ago I beta read E. Kathryn’s Fire’s Hope, and I talked about that marvelous experience here.  While the author of Dolls Don’t Cry would prefer I not share her story ideas here, I will share her chosen beta reading style and its pros/cons!  This was the first time doing an interview style beta read, so I definitely learned a lot.

Interview Style Beta Reading

Last time, with Fire’s Hope, I talked about ‘Question Style’ beta reading – giving the reader either a chapter or host of chapters followed by some pointed questions aimed at eliciting the information you want.

The Interview Style has a similar idea behind it, except the reader doesn’t know the questions beforehand and answers the questions during an interview after each section is complete.

Pros of Interview Style Beta Reading

When you aren’t speaking with your reader directly, you may not be able to elicit an answer you need.  If you need more information, you have to wait – and, by then, your reader may not remember enough about the previous chapter or give you what you need.  During an interview,  you can instantly press for additional information and tweak your questions in real time.

From a reader’s perspective, I think I give different answers on the spot than I would if I have the opportunity to study.  When doing an interview, I have to rely mostly on what I remember rather than what I can look up.  If I can look up information, I may do so in order to seem smart, or I may question my memory rather than how obvious an earlier piece of information may have been.

Cons of Interview Style Beta Reading

When you do an interview style beta read, both you and your reader must put forth the time and effort to chat.  For me as a reader, this often felt hard to do – I’d schedule a time and it worked out well, but it added a significant amount of time to what I already had to do.  For the author, you’d similarly have to set aside time for interviews.  Right now, I’m doing an interview every chapter, and they take between 30 minutes and an hour – that would get really cumbersome with multiple readers!

When you ask questions on the spot, you run the risk of not allowing your reader to tell you something important that they pick up.  I’ve found that I must forego thoughts on smaller issues, like specific sentences or paragraphs, and sometimes the questions don’t really get around to some of the things I find pressing.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t really like the interview style.  It felt forced, and I’d rather my reader have ample opportunity to plan what they want to say.  I also didn’t like the scheduling part – even though I didn’t often have anything pressing to do in the evenings, I did have to arrange things such that I could talk with the author.

As a whole, I’m glad I got the opportunity.  Now I know that I’m not suited to this kind of beta reading, and I’ll be better able to direct my energies.

I hope that the author of Dolls Don’t Cry got good answers from me, but I worry that I may not have answered terribly well.  I hope she lets me know what happens next with her publishing adventures!

Do you have any books you’d like beta read?  Do you have experiences beta reading that you’d like to talk about? Let me know in the comments!

How to Get the Best out of Beta Readers

Welcome to the second post in a series on beta reading! I love beta reading, especially for science fiction or fantasy, and I believe the practice not only worthwhile but necessary. (If you would like to have me beta read for you, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of the page or through the comments.)

You may be gearing up to recruit beta readers – but what should you do when you have volunteers?  These tips are meant to get your noggin rolling and help you craft a good beta reading experience for your friends, family, and other volunteers.

Today’s Tip – Ask Good Questions

While I love beta reading and do detailed analyses for fun, most of your friends and family will be reading as a favor to you.  The easier you make their job, the more likely they will be to complete it.  Sometimes people will put in-line comments that are very helpful, but other times you’ll receive your lovingly crafted file back with one of a couple sentences at the end: “It was good” or “I wasn’t a fan,” some of which is determined by how much they like you as a person.

By placing questions at the end of the chapter, you do a couple things:

1) You direct your reader’s attention to items that you’re concerned over
2) You make it easy for your reader to interact with you by explicitly showing them what you want

Even if you get people like parents to beta read a book, offering questions to answer will help your readers return more useful information with less effort on both of your parts.

What Kind of Questions are GOOD Questions?

A good question is one that asks about specific information yet leaves enough open room for the reader to truly comment on your writing.

I recently had a fantastic beta reading experience, and I asked E. Kathryn, author of Fire’s Hope, if I could talk about it here. I thought her questions were posed very well. She left between five and eight questions at the end of every chapter, referencing events (primarily) in that chapter. If you join the bandwagon soon, you too can beta read for her.

Some examples of good questions inspired by my recent read:

Were the fighting descriptions easy to follow?

This type of question helps the reader consider writing style without seeming too ‘high school English class.’ Fight scenes, especially, have a tendency to focus on weapons, powers, and movement, which can get tedious or confusing to read. This type of question will ensure a scene is up to snuff.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more specific the scene you point out, the more likely the reader is to respond with information you need. Is there dialogue you’re concerned about? A transition of scenes? A sudden occurrence? Ask about those certain places you’re unsure about.  Feel free to point out specific paragraphs, especially if you’re able to put links in your document (as with MS Word).

Do you have predictions about what will happen next?

When your story is plot driven, it is especially important to make sure that the proper elements are set up to build plot twists and, eventually, the climax. E. Kathryn did a good job directing me to think about the trajectory for specific characters or items, and I replied to her with my predictions. If I replied with something completely out of left field, she now has the option to either scale back her surprise factor or ratchet it up.

You want to have a certain amount of your book predictable, but not too much. Keeping up with reader predictions will help you gauge the creativity of your story as well as how well you’ve built plot twists.

Do you think the main character’s angry attitude in the middle of the chapter undermines his role as a “savior” archetype?

This is an excellent question. It makes the reader think symbolically and simultaneously about character growth. I liked how it asked about an opinion on the main character and his ability to seem believable as he carried out the actions necessary to drive the story.

Character growth is essential for most stories, and there may be times where you feel your character’s actions are strained. Think about what you want from your character, and ask if that came across. If it didn’t, you may need to think more critically about who that character actually is or consider changing the scene to get what you wanted across.

What was your favorite/least favorite character/scene/setting element?

This is an easy question to ask, and anyone is capable of picking out a favorite (or defending their reason to avoid doing so). If your goal is to sell your book, you should hope that people do have favorites.

Least favorites, I find, serves more to allow the reader to vent; there’s always going to be something wrong with a story, and it’s often easier to find what’s wrong when you’re going in with a judgmental eye. It would be great if your readers take these questions seriously, because then you might get information about where potential buyers would stop reading prematurely.

How Often to Ask Questions

This is ultimately up to you, but at the end of chapters works well since a reader can answer during breaks. You can also have larger chunks of multiple chapters, perhaps in each of the pieces that you send, with a single set of questions.

One thing to be careful with in your questions is how much you want to spoil in the story. Make sure you read them over and consider if it’s going to give away romantic tension, plot twists, or other information that a reader without the questions wouldn’t have access to.

Good luck with your writing!

Want a good beta reader?

Not to brag, but I’m fairly good at beta reading. I’m confident with grammar, excellent at catching plot holes, and very experienced with science (for you science-fiction writers). Hit me up if you have something you’d like honest feedback on, especially if you have specific (and good) questions!

 

 

 

 

The Number ONE Rule for Beta Reading

Getting beta readers is an important step for your own writing, since a beta reader test-drives your work before publication and is much cheaper than an editor.  Without them, the quality of your work relies on one person’s eyes to catch mistakes and test for the presence of an audience.  A lot of people want beta readers, especially the kind that aren’t friends or relatives and thus don’t have any reason to give back only good, fluffy remarks.  But how do you get this help?

READ for Others

If you want to get beta readers, it is only right and just to beta read for others. There have been times that I’ve read multiple novels for people only to be turned down for the reading of a short story, and this always gets my dog hide.  It’s also, thankfully, very rare!

I have been lucky enough to have a few beta readers for some of my more important (i.e. not on this blog) works, but part of having beta readers was giving back in the form of beta reading for others.  Eventually I’ll want to collect beta readers for something, but that means I need to be working up the karma in the meantime.

Are you looking for a beta reader?  Fill out the form at the bottom of this post.  I’m finishing a beta read now and will be available for a new one come Saturday.

Get Better at Editing

Ever felt like you can’t read your own works well?  Like you can’t catch simple mistakes?  Reading others’ works will help you learn how to find mistakes.

When you write, you read back what you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote.  When you read someone else’s work with the intent to edit, it’s easy to see what went wrong.  It’s easy to pick apart another person’s story because it’s not your baby.  At the same time, the other author might make the same mistakes you do, or you may identify a type of mistake in their work that you’ll see in your own upon closer inspection.

It’ll also help you figure out what kind of information is useful to you as a writer.  What kind of information would you like to get back?  How detailed does this edit need to be?  What kind of instructions should you give to a beta reader?  All of these questions will be more easily answered once you’ve done it yourself.

Beta Reader Available HERE and NOW

As of Saturday, I will finish the current book I’m beta reading (look for a blog post next week on what I learned during the edit).  Thank you so much, E. Kathryn, for letting me read your novel!

If you would like me to beta read for you, fill out the form below.

Things I’m good at:

  1. Finding plot holes and inconsistencies
  2. Helping make your science more realistic, or at least not completely impossible
  3. Reading with an eye for diversity
  4. Spotting places where you can show rather than tell
  5. I can give you a fair pass at grammar help, especially if it is requested

As always, I will not share your work if you choose to request my assistance.  Looking forward to any new books to read!