Thursday, April 26, 2012

To Penname or Not to Penname?

A lot of writers angst over how many pennames they should use, or even if they should use one to begin with.

(Yeah, my post has such an original title. I know.)

/dry tone

So why might an author use a penname, a pseudonym, a name other than their* own to grace that gem they've written?

  • Their name is common enough that they will have problems differentiating themselves from the others with that name.
  • Their name is uncommon enough that nobody will be able to spell, remember, or pronounce the name.
  • Their name doesn't match their genre, like an author of chick lit romance named Marc MacRobertson. (Note that I'm counting name type and gender under the same point, here.)
  • They don't want their writing career to potentially interfere with their day-to-day life, sometimes because they write in a genre some object to (erotica?) or due to how employers or clients will view their writing (like a doctor writing medical thrillers).
  • They want to protect their privacy. (This has been called a "silly" reason by some folks, claiming that anybody can find an author's legal name after a few minutes with Google. That isn't necessarily true. Find mine.)
  • They want to escape some bad sales numbers or reputation they've developed under their previous name.
  • They want to attempt a new genre or publishing method without affecting their career in another genre. (Example: A traditionally published author of children's fantasy might decide to self-publish adult mystery stories under another name, to avoid potential issues with their publisher.)
  • Their contract might contain a nasty non-compete clause** that prevents them from publishing anything in a remotely similar genre or even under the same name for an extended period, forcing them to use a penname if they want to keep the bills paid.
  • They might want to avoid the stigma of "Fast writing = crap."
  • Their name might be built as their "brand", so stretching into a different genre or type of writing means creating another "brand" name.
  • They don't want readership to accidentally cross-pollinate, between the two. (For an example, keep reading. For some of my work, this is me.)
  • They want to clearly delineate their different work to make it easy for folks who want to stick to one type of story to do so. (Also me.)

Why might an author not use a penname?

  • None of the above reasons apply or matter to them.
  • They feel that the "brand" of their name is them, not a specific genre or writing type, and that's more important to them than splitting themselves up into multiple identities for easy classification.†

If you've checked out my website at all, you may have noticed that "Misti Wolanski" is my penname. It's probably more accurate to call it my "Internet identity" or "Doing Business As (DBA) name". I use it so much that I probably get called "Misti" more often than I get called by my legal name. (My legal name is one of those odd rare ones that you've probably heard of, though likely not with my spelling. Even if you know my first and last name, you'll get a mere handful of hits on Google.)

I've never wondered, "Do I stop using my penname?" No. I'm not writing under my legal name. I don't want to. My name gets slaughtered enough in person, thanks, and I like my privacy.

No, I've pondered, "Should I use another penname for my adult fiction?"

See, I have some works in progress (WiPs) that enter "Every character's a sociopath" territory. Some of these stories, my friends have actually confessed to being a bit scared just hearing about them. I don't want some teenager who's comfortable with the dark undercurrents in A Fistful of Fire to pick up one of these completely dark, humorless, more gruesome titles and have nightmares. I mean, these things creep me out! (If you're familiar with the Bible, think along the lines of, er, Judges.)

Then again, my Darkworld titles get… gruesome, for some folks. And even the more light-toned Aleyi titles touch on such themes as insanity.

But that's the distinction, I guess. These adult WiPs are darker than my YA+ titles. More psychological. More disturbing. More graphic. (Though in a minimalistic graphic way.) Between that darkness and the detail that I also work as "Misti Wolanski," I'm thinking it likely wouldn't be the brightest business move to release psychotic titles under the same name.

Particularly when some of those planned psychotic stories will also cross into politics. But then, I've been looking into entering that more as a freelancer, too, so that's not a good reason for using another penname.

As you might guess from my use of the same name for my YA fiction and my freelancing, I don't really believe that "Using the same name for different types of works dilutes your brand" argument. As I pointed out to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in an e-mail: "Your works all interest the same writer, so why is it such a surprise when they interest the same readers?"

(A little background: I found Rusch originally from one of her few Star Trek novels; years later, I was browsing my library's limited adult fantasy collection and happened upon the first Fey novel, and that name recognition made me try it out despite the cover. I liked Sacrifice enough that I sought the author out online, which is how I found the blogs of she and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith—and I have yet to encounter a title of Ms. Rusch's that I haven't enjoyed reading. And that includes the cute paranormal romances she writes under the Kristine Grayson penname.)

Sure, some readers don't pay attention and will flip out when they don't receive what they thought they were buying. But some readers flipped out over that Homecoming graphic novel that Patricia Briggs released, too, because they were expecting a novel—despite the detail that it was clearly marked as a graphic novel everywhere you looked. That misunderstanding was their fault, not Patricia Briggs's.

Some folks will misunderstand you no matter what you do to prevent it.

So reader confusion isn't that big a deal, in my book, and the assumption that readers won't cross-pollinate is also silly. (Not that every reader will cross-pollinate, but some will.)

But for some stories, I actually don't want my readers to be able to easily cross-pollinate. Adult readers? Sure. Mature teens who like thrillers and horror movies? Okay, if your parents are okay with it, too. Your average teen? Absolutely not.

So I've decided to use another penname when I do release adult titles. (By the way, I always suspected that I might end up using at least one other penname, which is why I use that "Carradee" handle everywhere.)

Also, some readers won't cross-pollinate. They won't want to. So while "Misti Wolanski" is a name that might release anything from a non-fiction how-to article to a fantasy movie script to a YA novel, everything under this name will be… me, balanced. There won't be dark without light. There won't be grim or serious without humor.

Stories that are skewed (or in usually male genres), will have other pennames. In those cases, though, I plan to openly link my names. Just not the names for my psychotic stories or the ones for which I'm not in the intended audience.

(Note: If you are trying to decide if you want to use a penname, check with your local laws: country, state, municipal, etc. I don't have to register a DBA name. You might.)

What are your thoughts? Do you use a penname? Can you think of a reason for using a penname that I missed?

—Carradee (AKA "Misti")

*There are historic linguistic grounds for using they as both a plural and singular pronoun, so I'm using it.

**Beware of non-compete clauses. Seriously. Beware. Get pro legal help (which I'm not) to deal with them. Maybe the horror stories are rare; maybe not. I've heard them since I was in high school, and between freelancing and short story markets, I've seen enough nasty rights-grabbing contracts to suspect that more writers have fallen prey to bad non-compete clauses than are willing to openly admit it.

†This I-am-my-brand thing is why I'm even willing to write book reviews, positive and negative, under my author name. It's also why I've been reluctant to pull out another penname.††

††No, I am not intentionally channeling Robin McKinley's blog style.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beta Reading Etiquette: How to Give Critique

If you've ever tried to give a writer feedback on their story, you've probably experienced the backlash of someone getting mad at you because you told them what they didn't want to hear.

And you, the poor person who was often even asked to give that feedback, were left wondering what on earth you did wrong. All you did was answer the writer's question, right? So why, if the writer asked you for feedback, did she snarl at you and yell and start crying when you pointed out that, er, 50-year-old men don't usually go around treating the cheerleading team to ice cream for no apparent reason, so it makes that major character seem more creepy rather than nice?

Been there. Done that. Had my head ripped off and left dangling by a vertebrae.

*pauses and eyes above line, wondering if it's too gruesome*

*considers the content in her published stories, shrugs, and leaves it*

Yes, I have had folks call me morbid. How'd you guess?

Now, how many of you were wondering when I'd get off that tangent about my sense of humor and back on-topic about how to give critique? How would you have phrased your critique?

  1. Rabbit trail.
  2. That part's a bit off-topic.
  3. Get to the point.
  4. I'd like to learn about the beta reading techniques sometime today, please.

Each of those options have situations where they could be used, but they have their pitfalls, as well. #1 could be interpreted as a direct, concise alert—or it could be read as a snide comment. #2 conveys the problem, but in a mild enough way that the author might not realize there is a problem. #3 would probably be thought rude, the phrasing suggesting that you're bored, though it might be intended as a concise request. #4 might be interpreted as intended humor, but the recipient would likely believe it to be mean-spirited snark.

Notice that each phrasing will probably be interpreted in the worst possible way.

Many writers take critique personally. Many say "It never stops hurting." (Which makes me scratch my head, honestly. Critique isn't an ad hominem, a personal attack. At least, it shouldn't be.)


How do you as a beta reader actually give critique without ticking off the writer? Use some basic psychology. Humans remember negatives better than positives, and we remember the beginning and end of something better than we do the middle.

Beta Reading Etiquette:

  • Always assume a writer will interpret your critique in the worst possible light.
  • Always sandwich critique in-between positives. Always.
  • If you're giving a lot of notes, also intersperse positive comments throughout.
  • If you're critiquing throughout the manuscript (such as with Track Changes), also comment on positive things and your emotional reactions to scenes.
  • Always include positives, even if the writer says you needn't bother.
  • The first time you beta read for someone, test the waters. Start out with a tactful overarching comment (see the previous list's #2); burrow deeper after you see that the writer's fine with what you're saying.
  • When the writer has solicited the critique: Always ask what kind of feedback the author is looking for before you start.
  • When the writer has not solicited the critique: Always take tactic #2 and say more positive things than negative.


You can ignore all of the above rules if…

  • you have a well-established critique relationship with the writer. The relationship must be secure enough that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can ignore those rules—OR
  • you're being paid. If you're being paid, it's a good idea to still point out some positives, but you needn't be quite so careful. The author is then paying you to be negative—tactfully negative, granted, but negative.

Granted, even if you're offered money for content editing or line editing or copyediting, some authors will still expect you to treat them with kid gloves. If that's the impression an author gives you—Are they pitching a fit over their "So mean" reviewers?—be wary.

Anyone who's offended by critique or negative input isn't someone you want to work with.

Yes, that's my opinion. But I've developed it in my time as a beta reader and as a recipient of beta reading. Perhaps your mileage has varied.

Do you have any beta reading tips you'd like to add, either as a writer or as a beta reader?


Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Become a Beta Reader (4 Ways)

After last week's post on "How to Find Beta Readers", Kristi N mentioned that she beta reads to keep her skills sharp for her own work. She also asked:

Question on the flip side of finding beta readers . . . how does one volunteer to be a beta?

Good question, Kristi. I answered in a comment—but I realized it, too, needed to be expanded and addressed in a blog post. :)

4 Ways to Become a Beta Reader

  1. Offer to beta read for a writer you're already acquainted with.
  2. Pros: Since you already know the person, you should already have some idea how they'll handle critique, and maybe even what their weak points are as a writer. You might already know some of what the person writes, too, to know if it interests you. If it isn't a genre you usually read, sometimes just knowing someone is enough to get you to try reading a genre you aren't already familiar with. (For example, I had a classmate in high school who hated fantasy but loved A Fistful of Fire.)

    Cons: Since you already know the person, expressing potential interest in being a beta can get you swamped with titles or destroy the relationship, if the other person takes things personally. The other person might also expect you to be interested in and/or like 100% of what they write.

  3. Find some writers who interest you in the blogosphere and keep your eyes peeled. Even published ones will sometimes put calls out for betas on their blogs, Facebooks, or Twitter feeds. You could also try e-mailing someone you're interested in to ask if they need a beta buddy.
  4. Pros: You can watch the person on the blogosphere and have some idea of their personality and ability to take critique before volunteering. There's no face-to-face contact, which can make it easier emotionally on both the writer and the beta. Also, because you're the one approaching the writer, you can specifically ask to beta a project you're interested in reading.

    Cons: If the relationship goes south, the Internet-savvy person might attempt a smear campaign. Also, misunderstandings are more likely in online communication than in face-to-face communication, because text doesn't convey tone of voice or body language. If the critique is in a forum or site where other members can see it, you might also be attacked by other readers who see the critique—even if the writer's perfectly fine with your input.

  5. Hang out in the "critique" sections on forums that promote work sharing. (On a lot of forums, these sections require a password and/or special membership, because otherwise anyone who posts their work in the forum is giving up first rights.)
  6. Pros: The community's (presumably) built upon critique, and the members will (presumably) be professional about the giving and receiving of it.

    Cons: The community might presume wrong about its goals and professionalism. It might not offer the kind of critique you need, or it might have members whose idea of "critique" is to rip your work to shreds and rebuild it in their own writing styles. The community may not have members representative of the intended audience for your work.

  7. Visit a free-to-post site like or even a fan fiction site.
  8. Pros: Lots of stories to pick through, so you can probably find something you want to read. If you want to give a specific kind of critique, you can probably find that, too.

    Cons: Lots of stories to sift through, with poor grammar and sentence structure and such. Lots of immature writers who will ask you for critique then pitch a fit if you give it, or who will see you giving someone else critique and come after you for it. You will come under attack, if you pursue this route.

  9. Pay-to-post sites aren't worth signing up for.
  10. They attract the professional critic—the kind of people who will mock you for "misspelling" the word fairy as faerie and give you all-around idiotic advice. ("No, don't have your older, proper, mature woman say 'Came with child'! Have her say 'Knocked up!'")

    For the record, I do appreciate the experience of having been on a pay-to-post site—thanks, Grandma and Grandpa—but I strongly advise against others doing it in the hopes of getting or giving critique.

Warning about Volunteering as a Beta Reader:

Writers can be a fickle lot. How many of us have politely pointed out a plot inconsistency 20 chapters into someone's work-in-progress and had the writer and other readers of the story lambaste us for "hating the story"? *raises hand*

Or encountered a writer who claimed to want "honest" feedback but got defensive and tackled and verbally attacked when we gave it? *raises hand*

Or gave a friend the critique she requested and have her not talk to us again until we managed to approach her and figure out what we'd said wrong, and until she accepted our explanation of where we were coming from (assuming she let you smooth things over)? *raises hand*

Or given requested critique on a story only to have the author (or another reader) troll and trash our own story or stories? *raises hand*

If your hand isn't raised, just wait. If you beta heavily, you'll probably end up encountering situations like those, particularly if you don't screen the writers before offering to beta read.

A sign that the writer isn't ready for a face-to-face critique: The writer calls their writing their "baby". Even if the writer uses the term in depreciating good humor, the anthropomorphizing of the story suggests that the writer might take critique of the story as critique of themselves.

…And all this gives me an idea for another related post, "Beta Reading Etiquette" (or: "Beta Reading Techniques to Use to Avoid Ticking Off Writers"). Anyone interested?

What method do you like using for finding writers to beta? Have any beta-reading stories to share (identifying details redacted, please)?


Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Find Beta Readers

Last week, Carmen asked:

I’m still on the first draft of my first novel. When do I start looking for a critique group or beta readers? How do I find them?

Great questions. :) I answered in a comment, but let's go into a bit more detail.

When do I start looking for a critique group or beta readers?

When to Start Seeking Beta Readers:

Common advice is to wait until you have a complete edition before you seek a beta. Reason: Your beta reader(s) can negatively influence how you write your manuscript. For example, if you want to make the hero of your romance novel a fat man who can't adhere to a diet to save his life, and your beta says "Ew! Nobody will want to read that!"—it'll likely influence you to change your hero.

Changing your story to fit someone else's expectations isn't want you want to do, particularly when you're starting out. If you choose to do that later, as in ghostwriting or writing something for a specific market opening, fine. (Not everyone can do that, by the way.)

But when you're starting out, your primary concern should be telling the story you want to tell or read. Not the one you think is wanted by readers.

Once you have some experience with writing and receiving critique, you can figure out if "in-progress" betas help or hinder you.

Personally, I work well having "in-progress" betas and "final version" betas (plural) for each project, but I'm unusual. I've not met many other writers like me—but then, I don't know any other writers who had many friends willing to say "This sucks" about their work, either. :) I tend to be brutally honest, and my friends return the favor.

My one friend whines, "Another vampire story? When will you write something without vampires for me to read?"; another grimaces and says, "Another unreliable narrator? No, thanks; I don't want to read it." I don't mind their reactions one bit. I keep my eyes peeled for stories those two friends will like.

So they're uninterested in most of my work. That doesn't bother me. It's due to those stories not matching their interests, not because I'm a schlock writer. That distinction usually takes time to learn, and is why you need to be very careful when seeking beta readers.

How do I find [beta readers]?

How to Find Beta Readers:

Consider what you want out of a beta reader. What would your ideal beta reader look like? A reader, to give basic input? Another writer, to be critical? Someone from another country, to make sure your descriptions make sense?

Once you know that, consider if you know anyone like that. If not, check places where you have an online presence; ask folks you know if they know anyone who might be interested.

If you still can't find a beta, find a writer's forum and check for any open threads asking for betas. If necessary, you can make such a thread.

Personally, I'm careful to match up story types with what I know those readers like. Once, when I needed fast input because I was submitting the short story to a contest, I put a call out on Twitter and got someone to help me. (Thanks, Phoenix Sullivan!)

But if you can find someone who doesn't usually read your genre who's interested in reading your piece, that can be handy, too. You just want to be extra careful when reading their feedback. (See my below warning.)

Warning about Beta Readers:

Finding a good beta for you will probably be a learning process. Betas are good for identifying problem areas, but even other writers might misidentify a problem's cause or how to fix it. So don't be too eager and blindly apply all changes recommended by the beta.

Example: My first "novel" I wrote as a teenager, my friends read it and said they got confused about who was who because the names were too similar. Eventually, I realized the story had way too many main characters. They had the problem right, but not the cause.

Also, some betas overstep their bounds and try to put their own techniques and writing style in your work.

So don't assume that a beta reader's right, but also don't assume they're wrong. Particularly if you're newer to writing, your first reaction to critique will probably be a knee-jerk "How dare you!" or "I suck!" reaction.

Take a deep breath and consider the critique. Try to figure out what made the beta reader say that.

And keep writing.

Do you have betas? How do you find betas? What do you do when your current betas are all busy or uninterested in a piece?


ETA: I keep meaning to add this—there was something in the water the morning I wrote this, and Jami Gold came up with a great post connected on the beta reader topic. Go check it out!

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