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The Art of Taking Feedback on Your Writing

I often encourage my clients and other writers to get feedback from alpha readers, beta readers, and/or critique partners or groups to improve their writing.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect science, and even editors can disagree on whether this feedback is useful or not. Like reading “news” on the internet, as writers, we have to learn what feedback is useful and what is garbage.

If you can learn to wade through the good, the bad, and the ugly, getting feedback from readers and critique partners can be invaluable.

In this post, I give you some tips on how to deal with feedback in a way that will not only improve your current writing project but also help you to grow as a writer.

Tips for All Feedback

Having multiple readers can be especially useful for learning whether a certain piece of feedback will really help improve your work in progress. All readers are subjective, but how can we determine which comments and critiques are worth our attention?

A rule of thumb is to always pay attention when several readers give you the same feedback. For example, if three different readers tell you that a certain paragraph or scene is awkward, make sure to go over it until you can pinpoint the problem and smooth it out. If possible, ask those readers for specifics to find out where they stumbled over the text.

You can also use this rule for positive feedback. Mark sections to “leave alone” if several readers have lauded a certain sentence or paragraph.

When only one reader points out a problem, however, as the writer, you must be the judge. Look at the text carefully and see if you agree with the reader.

If it’s something as simple as a typo or misspelling, that’s an easy call.

If it’s something more broad like “I think you should kill off this character,” then you have a judgment call to make. Is it something that works for you? Do you think following this advice would improve the story as a whole or just cause other problems?

Never make a change just because one reader said so. On the other hand, never avoid making changes just because they are inconvenient. Really evaluate the feedback and then decide whether your reader’s suggestion would make your story better.

Tips for Conflicting Feedback

Conflicting feedback can be especially confusing, especially to a new writer. If half of your readers tell you one thing and half tell you exactly the opposite, what are you supposed to do?

First, try to distill exactly what element of writing your readers are having issues with. Take some time to either learn about or clarify that issue and see whether there are any resources you can find that the deal with it. Talk with a trusted writing mentor. The point here is to make the most educated decision that you can. If there is no “right” way to deal with it, then use your own personal preference. These preferences and writing styles make your writing unique and give it flavor.

In the end, it’s another judgment call.

Tips for Positive Feedback

As writers, we all love good feedback. When other writers or potential readers laud our work, we can’t help but glow. However, that big grin on your face isn’t really improving your writing.

You may think that positive feedback is worthless, but it can help you mark your progress as a writer and tell you when you’re moving in the right direction.

If you give your book to six carefully selected beta readers and they all have mostly positive things to say, then you are probably ready to move forward to the next stage. (See My First Draft Is Done! What’s Next? for an indie author guide to the stages leading up to publishing.)

feedbackTips for Negative Feedback

On the other hand, taking negative feedback—or outright criticism—of your writing can be a real challenge. How do you keep a badly worded or insensitive review from making you want to stop writing altogether?

The first thing you need to do is step back and process the feedback.

Natural human reactions to negativity make it hard for us to deal with this kind of criticism, especially when it’s targeted at our creations. It can take some time to be objective enough about it that you can evaluate whether the feedback is helpful and determine what you should do about it.

Depending on how harsh the criticism is, this can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to several days or even longer.

Once you feel like you can face the feedback without screaming, you need to distill it to find out if it will be useful for you.

The Troll

You may find that for whatever reason, the feedback isn’t feedback at all but rather needless trolling with no other point than to be negative. Anyone who is on the internet has run across the kind of people who leave spiteful comments and reviews just to stir up trouble.

How can you tell if your reader is a troll? Look for insulting language or comments directed at you as a writer or person instead of the writing itself. For example, take “I’ve never seen such dribble” versus “I’m having trouble connecting to the characters.” The first is insulting, but the second gives you specific, constructive feedback.

If you think that you are the victim of a troll, just move on, and make a note never to use that reader again. This is one of the biggest reasons for getting to know your readers and/or critique group well before handing over your writing.

The Amateur

You may find that the person giving you feedback doesn’t understand your genre. Be careful that you aren’t just saying this because you want to argue with your readers. See how their feedback compares to that of others before discarding it.

How can you tell if your reader is an amateur? Look for signs that he or she isn’t familiar with the genre. Readers new to a genre are often overly enthusiastic or extremely negative about tropes that are very common to it. For example, if your reader is “not into all this new agey stuff” and your book is visionary fiction, there is your evidence.

The Honest Brute

Here is the one you really want to pay attention to. The person who honestly (and without insult) points out the flaws and strengths of your writing is the one who can help you the most. Take the time to really evaluate what this person has to say as it will likely help you improve not only the book but also your skills as a writer.

Lessons Learned

When receiving feedback on your manuscript, always remember that this is your book. Own it, and own the responsibility for revising it in a way that you feel makes it better. Don’t let strongly opinionated readers turn it into something that you don’t even want to claim anymore.

In any case, whether the feedback you receive is positive or negative, considerate it practice for when your book or story is live and people start leaving reviews.

Reviews bring attention to your work, so although they lay you bare for comments and criticism, they are an essential part of the published writer’s life.


A lack of criticism can lead you to believe that you are flawless as a writer. Unfortunately, that in itself can lead to a degradation in the quality of your writing. Writers need to be open to new ways of learning, new techniques, and of course, criticism to keep improving.

How do you deal with feedback from readers on your own writing? How about feedback from editors?


From Wordy Speculations

“11 Rules for Your Critique Group”

“An Indie Author Guide to Saving Money on Editing—Part 3: Using Readers”

“What Is a Beta Reader?”

Other Resources

“The Importance and Limitations of Beta Readers,” Jen Anderson, Clearing Blocks

“Writing Feedback: The Ultimate Guide to Working with Beta Readers,” Amanda Shofner, The Write Life

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8 Tips for Creating a Sellable Book Title

Last week, we discussed 7 Ideas for Creating a Knockout Book Title. This week, we’ll discuss how you can take those ideas and turn them into a book title that helps you sell your book.

Some Tips for Getting Your Book Title Right

1. Get Feedback.

You wouldn’t dream of putting your book on sale without getting feedback from readers or editors. Your book title is arguably just as important. Get feedback on it before you put it out into the world.

Get advice from people who are familiar with your genre. They can tell you whether the title fits and what kind of mood the title conveys.

2. Search Google and Amazon.

You’ll be competing with lots of other book titles, so it’s important that you pick one that is unique enough to stand out, one that doesn’t get lost among other similarly titled books.

This is especially important for the first few books in a series or when you’re just getting established.

Sure, by book 12 of his popular series, The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher could get away with the generic, one-word title Changes. Actually, it is a rather clever and appropriate title for those who know the series well. However, by that point, Butcher had people waiting with bated breath for the next Dresden book to come out, and he didn’t have to worry about whether his title would get lost in the shuffle of the more than a quarter million books published in the United States each year.

For the rest of us, Google and Amazon can help us discover whether the book title that we have come up with has already been used or whether there are a bunch of other books with titles so similar that search engines won’t know the difference.

Be sure to search for your title with and without quotation marks. Using quotes around your term directs the search engine to look for the exact order and combination of words that you have typed. For example, searching lovers and demons on Amazon books gets you quite different results than searching for “lovers and demons.”

Use what you find to get an idea of what book titles are already out there, and tweak your own as needed.

3. Keep It Simple and Specific.

If you look at the current lists of Amazon and New York Times bestsellers, almost all of the titles (not including subtitles) is one to four words long. There are exceptions where longer titles work, but people are often looking for titles that are unique but simple enough to remember.

4. Use Keywords.

For titles that might trend toward the generic side or if you are a new author, the use of keywords, especially in your subtitle, can help your book attract readers. For example, adding the subtitle “A Vampire Romance” will let paranormal romance fans know immediately that this is the kind of book they’re looking for.

book title

5. Avoid Book Titles that Have Nothing to Do with Your Actual Story.

Be careful that your title doesn’t convey a meaning that you don’t intend. Together, your title, cover, and back cover blurb should give your readers a clear picture of what your book is about. If any of these is misleading, it can lead to bad reviews and turn away future readers.

6. Be Cautious of One-Word Book Titles.

A one-word title might work for you if that particular word is uncommon or even made up. The use of a character’s name can also be an effective method for creating a one-word title. Think Beowulf, Dracula, and Rebecca. These names really work as book titles, and the first two especially have no risk of being confused with anything else.

However, if you use too common a word for your title, it may be pushed down to the bottom of the search results and/or be duplicated by other books that are already out there.

Once your book is known and people start searching for it, they need to be able to find it. For example, if your book is titled Seduction, readers might have trouble. A search for the word seduction brings up a lot of book titles on Amazon, especially in the romance genre. The title of your book will be competing with not just single-word titles but all the titles containing that word.

Adding just a couple of memorable words to your title can make it easier for readers to find. In our previous example, changing Seduction to Seduction at Clear Point makes the title much more searchable.

7. Avoid Offensive Titles or Ones with Unintended Negative Connotations.

Be careful that you don’t offend potential readers with the title of your book. Save your controversial content for the inside. It’s generally a good idea to avoid offensive titles unless they serve to attract the audience you’re looking for.

8. Don’t Spoil Your Book with Its Title.

On the same note, be cautious that your book title doesn’t give away your ending. Otherwise, why would people want to buy it? How many people would want to read the play Hamlet if it were titled Everyone Dies in the End? (Well, maybe more than we’d think, but those folks may not have been the audience Shakespeare was looking for.)

What are your tips for creating intriguing, sellable book titles?

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7 Ideas for Creating a Knockout Book Title

As an author, you want your book title to be unique and memorable. You also need it to be discoverable in searches and intriguing enough that readers go on to read the back cover blurb or book description.

Your book title is right up there with your cover design and back cover blurb in convincing people to buy and read your book.

Keep in mind that most of these tips apply to series or short story titles as well.

1. Use the Name or Title of One of Your Main Characters

Depending on your story, you might choose the protagonist or the antagonist. Use it by itself (think Hannibal) or with a combination of other words (as in The Dresden Files or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

You can also use a character’s title. For example, Hamlet could have been called The Prince of Denmark.

2. Use Your Theme

Theme can make a strong book title. Peter Brown uses his title The Wild Robot to describe both the main character’s journey and one of the book’s themes. Bella Forest uses The Gender Game to emphasize the strong theme of gender division in her book.

3. Use a Significant Event or Plot Point

If your book centers around a major event, why not use that event as your title?

Suzanne Collins uses The Hunger Games as both the title of her first book and the series title.

If you employ a MacGuffin, a device which triggers the plot, you can use it to create your book title as Dashiell Hammett did with The Maltese Falcon.

4. Use Your Setting as Your Book Title

A unique or catchy setting name can also create an intriguing book title. Robin Carr uses the name of her fictional small town Virgin River as the title for both a book and the series it belongs to.

This method is especially appropriate when your setting figures strongly in your work. You can also use a general setting and combine it with other words or themes to create a discoverable title as Holly Black did with The Darkest Part of the Forest.

book title

5. Use a Character’s Unique Perspective

If your character has a strong viewpoint, you can use this to your advantage. An example from nonfiction is Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. You hardly even have to read the blurb to get a feel for this book and the author’s outlook on life.

6. Use a Favorite Line of Text or Dialogue

Judy Blume uses her main character’s oft-used line as her title in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. As you read through your book during revisions, write down favorite or iconic lines and see if one might work for you.

7. Steal Your Book Title

If appropriate, use a line from something famous or make a play off someone else’s title. Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea is an obvious play off Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

So many people have “stolen” titles from lines of Shakespeare’s work that there is a whole Wikipedia page devoted to them.

In a future post, I’ll cover some dos and don’ts on getting your book title right. In the meantime, how did you come up with your book title(s)? I’d love to hear your stories.


My 2017 Camp NaNoWriMo Experience: Failures & Successes

I have this bad habit of jumping into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experiences at the last minute. Last Halloween, I decided to do my first NaNoWriMo, which started November 1, without any real preparation and only an idea. Then, I went and did it again for this April’s Camp NaNoWriMo when some Twitter friends asked me to join their cabin (What Are Cabins?).

I was already working on a rewrite of my urban fantasy novel, Blood Mastery, so I figured I could just add another tracking form to my month and get some extra support in the meanwhile. It didn’t turn out to be that easy, and here I’ll discuss why.

Camp NaNoWriMo 2017

Camp NaNoWriMo: Failures

1. I didn’t write as many words as I did in November.

Camp NaNoWriMo is not set up the same as November’s NaNoWriMo. To win regular NaNoWriMo, you must write at least 50,000 words within the 30-day month of November. With Camp NaNoWriMo, you set your own goal.

In the end, although I technically won, I had written only 20,184 words on Blood Mastery in April versus the 52,359 words I wrote on my other novel in November.

2. I had to lower my goal part way through the month.

I started out with a goal of 25,000 words. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to write that many, at least not on my novel. Before April 20, when people were allowed to start validating their writing for a “win,” I was allowed to change my goal in Camp NaNoWriMo, and that’s what I did, although I didn’t feel so hot about it.

3. I felt stretched completely thin.

I ended up feeling more scattered and stressed during Camp NaNoWriMo that I had during NaNoWriMo, even though my goal was lower. The reason was that during November’s NaNoWriMo, I was working on a single project, one novel. By the time April rolled around, I was working on several projects, each of which needed my attention.

In addition to my novel, I was writing and editing four weekly blog posts, a one-act play, and a nonfiction booklet for authors. Because I couldn’t put any of them off, my 20k words for Camp NaNoWriMo had to be done on top of all these other things.

4. I got slowed down by poor planning.

Although I had a rough outline for my book, by about the middle of the month, I realized that my rewrite wasn’t going to be long enough to qualify as a novel. I was quickly approaching the climax, and I was only about 25,000 words in.

I had a brainstorming session with my cabin mates, and I was able to come up with some ideas. I would add more conflict and subplots to my book. However, obsessive that I am, I went back to the beginning and edited the book right away before going any further. Of course, that slowed my writing speed down a lot.

5. I lost a complete day because of unforeseen events.

One of my children injured her foot at gymnastics, and we had to go to multiple appointments to make sure that it wasn’t broken. Life happens, and I don’t regret taking the time out to see to it, but it wasn’t any good for my Camp NaNoWriMo progress.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Successes

1. I wrote twice as many words for my novel in April as I had the month before.

I write basically every day, participating in the Twitter monthly writing challenge and allowing very few things to stop me.

The extra incentive that Camp NaNoWriMo provided helped me to write 20,184 words of my novel in April. Even with my small goal of 500 words a day, I had added only 10,432 words in March, even with the same extra projects. That’s almost double.

2. At the beginning of the month, my goal was flexible.

As I mentioned before, I reduced my goal part way through the month. That flexibility was an advantage, even though I didn’t feel good about using it. Camp NaNoWriMo lets you set your own goal, and before winning begins, you can adjust it up or down.

You can’t do that with regular NaNoWriMo: it’s 50,000 words no matter what. It’s more about proving to yourself that you can write a novel than meeting your own personal goals, although those two interests might intersect.Camp NaNoWriMo

3. The support was phenomenal.

Our cabin, the little group of writers that was my community during Camp NaNoWriMo, came mostly from people I know on Twitter and the monthly writing challenge. However, in this new forum, we were able to share and support one another more deeply than we normally can with the limited 140 characters or less per post allowed on Twitter.

There were questions and conversations about general writing topics but also real, nitty-gritty problem solving and feedback that helped us all keep moving forward. The one-thread forum format was a little difficult to navigate, but we managed.

4. I wrote 10% of my goal on each of the last two days.

By about halfway through the month, I had pretty much given up any hope of winning Camp NaNoWriMo. My distractions—a.k.a. my other projects—were taking away too much of my attention. However, as the last week rolled around, I realized that I was now in a place to put them aside for at least a week and work only on the novel. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded since I was out of town on two of those days for a kid-related activity.

Despite all that, I ended up writing more than 2000 words on each of the last two days of Camp NaNoWriMo, just barely clearing my goal. One of those days, I dictated them, and on the other, I typed them in a hotel room with two of my children playing nearby.

In any case, I impressed myself a little. It’s not that I’ve never written 2000 words in a day, but it’s pretty rare for me. This full-time editor thing, homeschooling my kids, etc., keep me pretty busy.

Camp NaNoWriMoWould I Do Camp NaNoWriMo Again?

I honestly don’t know if I will take part in Camp NaNoWriMo again or even in NaNoWriMo in November. I will just have to see where I am at that point with each of my projects.

Despite my lack of preparation, last November turned out to be the perfect time to start a new novel. I had just finished the first draft of Blood Mastery. I really needed to put it aside, and working on a new novel was the best distraction.

If I do either NaNoWriMo event in the future, I will not only start with a rough outline but also clear my schedule as much as possible. I’ll write and schedule extra blog posts the month before and move other writing projects around as necessary. The extra stress from those extra projects was just a little too much, and I wouldn’t want to repeat that experience.

I want to say thanks to the writers in my cabin for all the great support! And congratulations for accomplishing the impossible!

Did you do Camp NaNoWriMo this year? What was your experience like? Will you do it again?

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11 Tips for Creating a Strong Opening Chapter

Just how important is the opening chapter of your novel? Traditionally published authors depend on it to gain the interest of agents and editors. For both indie authors or traditionally published authors, a strong opening chapter translates into sales (through book excerpts and previews), page views on services such as Kindle Unlimited, a larger author platform, and increased income.

The following tips for creating a strong opening chapter should help you whether you are writing or revising the opening to your book.

1. Hook Your Readers

If your book is to be successful, it is essential that your opening chapter be interesting and intriguing enough that your readers feel compelled to turn the page and continue the story. Opening chapters with an overabundance of narrative description, dull characters, or unessential backstory may leave your book unfinished—forgotten on an e-reader or gathering dust on a shelf.

Let’s say our main character is a woman named Charlie. Should the chapter start with Charlie brushing her teeth, taking a shower, and avoiding calls from bill collectors, or should it start with Charlie in the middle of trying to rob her neighborhood bank?

2. Give Your Opening Line Mystery

Your story should start out strong from the very first line. It should cause the reader to ask questions. For example, “Charlie pushed open the glass door to the bank, one hand shoved into her coat pocket, her fingers wrapped around the handle of her Smith & Wesson revolver.”

opening chapter, mysteryImmediately, the reader is asking questions: “Who is this?” “Is Charlie going to rob the bank?” “Is she a cop? Maybe a spy?”

Your readers are hooked. Now, keep it going.

3. Don’t Mislead Your Readers

It can be tempting to pull off #1 by using minor characters, or unrelated themes or plot devices in your opening chapter to hook readers before starting the main story in Chapter 2. Don’t do it. This is called the bait and switch, and it will leave your readers feeling betrayed and misled.

If the story is about Charlie, the opening chapter should be about her as well.

4. Establish Your Tone and Theme Early

Don’t hold back important details that let your readers know from the first chapter what your story is about. Establishing tone and theme in your opening chapter let your readers settle in and get ready for the escapades ahead. Being overly vague and mysterious will only annoy them.

For example, don’t fail to mention that your main character is a werewolf or a police detective (or both). Showing Charlie’s fangs and fur early on lets readers know that they are in for a paranormal adventure (your cover and book description should do this as well).

5. Don’t Give It All Away

On the other hand, don’t be so obvious in your opening about what is going to happen that your readers have no reason to continue. If you already let slip that your protagonist will lose this battle, what is their reason for continuing the story?

6. Don’t Drop a Ton of Backstory on Your Readers

In your opening, begin telling your story, not your character’s or setting’s history. Show readers an interesting character with an interesting dilemma. History can come later when it is needed to push the story forward. Although it can be tempting, you wouldn’t tell a new acquaintance your entire life story before becoming friends. You get to know each other one experience at a time, occasionally sharing histories when the situation is relevant. Let readers get to know your story and your characters in the same way.

The reader doesn’t need to know that Charlie got a B on her third-grade spelling test and it scarred her for life, at least not now. Wait until these details can serve to clue readers in to specific evens and decisions in the course of your character’s story.

7. Establish Your Setting, But Don’t Overdo It

Along the same lines as #5, let your readers know where they are and give them enough detail to keep things from getting confusing, but don’t bog them down in narrative detail.

Letting them know that Charlie is standing in the middle of the Bells Largo Bank lobby in the middle of the afternoon may be enough. A little more, just to set the scene, may be fine, but don’t get so enamored with the white marble floors and crown molding that you forget (and let the readers forget) what the story is about.

8. Start Your Opening Chapter in the Middle

It can be tempting to open your first chapter by leading the reader up to the story. But why not start them right in the story?

Instead of sharing the events leading up to Charlie robbing a bank, why not open with her wearing a ski mask and holding a gun on everyone’s favorite bank teller? Which opening would you prefer? The other details can and will come later.

9. Don’t Forget the Stakes

If you want readers to turn to Chapter 2, make sure that you establish your character’s stakes early on. Your protagonist should want something, something big and important (at least to her). Bad things will happen if she doesn’t get it. Make your readers care enough about what happens to turn those pages to find out.

In our bank robbery example, Charlie needs to successfully get the money and get out. If she doesn’t, she could be arrested or, worse, gunned down by police. If you just show her robbing the bank but give readers no idea why she is doing it and what will happen if she doesn’t, they may quickly become confused, annoyed, and maybe even frustrated.

10. Conflict Is Key

Don’t make it easy on your character. An inherent conflict for our Charlie is that she’s a police detective robbing a bank. What happens if a little old lady in the back, who turns out to be Charlie’s grandmother, suddenly says, “Charlie, darling, is that you?”

More Conflict = Higher Stakes = More Interest

11. End on a Cliffhanger

You’ve got your readers hooked. Now, you need to get them to turn the page. The art of writing a cliffhanger is a subtle one, however. You not only want to leave your readers hanging on edge of the cliff with your character, but you also want to give them a tiny sneak peek of what’s on the other side. Like with the opening line, you want your readers to have not only a strong emotional response to your chapter ending but also questions that they need answers to.

For example, with Charlie, you could end the chapter with the following:

“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat.”

This definitely leaves the reader with some vague questions: “Who is in the car with Charlie?” “Has she been caught?” “Is someone going to rob her?

Using the sneak-peek method, you might end the chapter this way instead:

“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat. It was her partner, Detective Evan Jones.”

This sets readers down a whole different path of specific thought, ramping up their expectations and excitement. “Oh, no! What is her straight-laced partner doing in the backseat of her car? But wait, if he was going to arrest her, wouldn’t he have done it at the bank? …”

That little kernel of knowledge that you’ve given them creates new conflict, ups the stakes, and drives the reader on to the next chapter with more urgency.

What is your favorite tip or trick for creating a strong opening chapter?


“8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One,” Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest

“4 Approaches for the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Jeff Gerke, Writer’s Digest

“25 Things to Know about Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds

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