In Praise of Beta Readers

Back in November, I asked several of my friends to be beta readers for The Reluctant Agent and this weekend, I received their feedback.

What Is a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is a beta tester for a piece of writing.  The beta reader can do a number of things; check spelling and grammar, spot typos, identify plot holes and continuity problems, evaluate characters, and adjudicate the overall quality of the story.

Why Would You Need a Beta Reader?

I can tell you why I needed beta readers more for this book than my previous book. “The Reluctant Captain” was written in a short period – just over three months. This book has been two years in the making. And for whatever reason, it was a slog. There were times when I was really busy and didn’t have time to write, but when I did, the words struggled to come out. I try to adopt the Dory model of writing “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” But the whole time I was writing, all I could hear was the Evil Editor in my head telling me, “This is crap. No one would ever want to read this screwed up pile of words.”

For me, having beta readers was the test to see if I was or right (it was a good story and interesting) or if the evil editor in my head was right. And because I’ve read it over and over and over, I’ve lost all objectivity. Part of me was starting to believe the Evil Editor.

I’m happy to report that for the most part, I was right and the Evil Editor was just a nagging voice. That’s not to say it was a perfect book. I received excellent feedback which corresponded to my own suspicions (but not those of the Evil Editor) and I’m going to tear into it and try to shore up some areas.

What I Look For in a Beta Reader

  • It’s someone whose judgment and opinion I trust –  The people I asked to read my book are people who I’ve known for a long time and I respect their opinions. If one of them recommends a book, I am very likely to read it (and probably enjoy it very much).
  • They will be honest, but not in a brutal way – They will tell me if it’s bad, but they won’t make me feel like a failure in the process. Trust me, the Evil Editor in my head is very good at his job and he needs no help whatsoever.
  • They are the potential audience for my book – I try to write the kind of book that I want to read. My beta readers fall into that audience as well.

What Does This Have to Do With the Book?

The feedback I’ve received is kind of spot on with some of the nagging voices I had in my head so I’m definitely going to see how I can apply it. I have to say that while I agree with all the feedback, some of it means a minor reworking of the plot that’s been in my head for two years. It’s hard for me to now go back and readjust it because I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

So I have a couple more weeks of tinkering. But that’s a good thing.

Thanks to Keven, Melanie, Bob, and Donna for reading it!

Happy Journeys!





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Writing and Coding

In the past few weeks, I’ve been writing and thinking about writing more. As I’ve mentioned in the last post, I’ve been listening to the Write Now podcast on my forty minute commute to and from work. The Write Now podcast includes a separate set of podcasts called “Coffee Break” which are interviews with authors. The mix of both episodes about writing and episodes about other writers got me thinking about how I write.

I seem to have been predisposed to wanting to write fiction. I remember my favorite times in English class were the rare times we got to do creative writing. In middle school, a friend and I wrote a very crappy (and short) derivative fantasy novel in the vein of Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara. In college, I took Creative Writing as one of the three liberal arts classes I had in my schedule (I was an Electrical and Computer Engineering major).

I also discovered computers during high school. This was in the heady days where memory was measured in kilobytes and a storage device was a cassette recorder. To totally give away my age, I cut my programming teeth on Apple II’s and a Commodore 64. I am happy to have missed the days of punch cards, but not by very much.

My day job is software developement, so I write code. I’m at the start of an upgrade project where we have to rewrite a bunch of the code that makes the screen look pretty (there’s the highly technical description).  Between that and the podcasts, my brain has realized how writing code for nearly half the day impacts my writing.

Ways Coding and Writing Are Similar

  • Both Start with a Blank Page – When you write code, you are starting with a blank screen just like in writing.
  • You Take Thoughts and Give Them Physical Manifestation – In coding and writing, you take logical processes and translate them in a physical manifestation just like the writer takes his/her thoughts and creates the  physical manifestation of the story.
  • The Physical Act of Coding is Identical to Writing – It’s no coincidence that programmers “write code”. In coding, you have a fixed grammar consisting of words and rules for how they must be combined. Computers don’t let you violate the basic rules of syntax or grammar, but as in writing, there’s nothing to stop you from creating a non-sensical, grammatically correct statement.
  • You Have to Create a Logical Sequence that Directs the Flow– Coders constantly wrestle with taking data, applying some action, and sending to the next logical step in the process. Writing also needs to follow a logical sequence; if you’re writing a mystery, the killer has to pick up the weapon before it’s used, the body must be discovered, the inspector must uncover the clues and solve the mystery. Readers don’t like it if the plot of a novel doesn’t flow in a logical sequence or a deus ex machina device shows up to eliminate the conflict (although I could tell you there are days that I could us a deus ex machina device to fix my code!).
  • Debugging and Editing – Same thing. In coding, you fix your “shitty first draft” of code; in writing, you fix your “shitty first draft” of the story. In both, you have to fix syntax, correct logic errors and generally look at it and say “Why did I do that?”


Ways coding has influenced how I write:

  •  I have to start with a clear idea of the “problem” – Like in programming, you have to know what it is you hope to accomplish. For my novels, I have a very loose outline in my head where I know the general plot points so I’m always moving from or to the plots points. And like a programmer, none of that is documented except in my head.
  • I have to work in a linear fashion – I have to start at the beginning and work my way to the end. I would have a difficult time writing scenes out of order and reassembling them into a whole. I have to work chronologically in the story.
  • It impacts the tools I used – I write with Microsoft Word. Many writers use it; many writers don’t. Tools like Scrivener let you break your work apart into pieces and allow you recombine it however you wish. Other editors do this or also offer a distraction free environment. I like Word because it really is the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) of writing; there isn’t much you can’t do with Word.
  • I do best when I can scroll through the whole novel – This is related to line above. I need to see the whole novel and be able to scroll up and down. I have a sense of where the information I’m looking for can be found and I just scroll back and forth until I find it. I think that comes from moving back and forth betweens screens of code.
  • Coming up with a clever solution to a problem makes me happy – I get a great deal of pleasure from staring at a  problem (in either code or writing) and coming up with a clever solution to fix it. When I fix something that hasn’t been working, I get very happy. Conversely, when I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I get very frustrated.
  • Trying to avoid the use of if/then in my writing – I’ve heard it said that you can tell a programmer’s writing versus a non-programmer’s writing by the use of if/then in his/her writing. For me, this started with my first computer language: BASIC. The construct for determine what to do during a certain condition was always:
    IF <something is true> THEN
    do something
    do something else
    END IF
    While I don’t write exactly like that, it’s second nature to write something like “If I can’t fix this, then we can kiss our asses goodbye.” OK – maybe that wasn’t the best example, but it’s very easy for it to sneak into my writing. And I work equally as hard to excise it.

So What Does This Have To Do With Anything?

So glad you asked. I think understanding the things that affect how you write gives you a wealth of information. It shows you your strengths, your weaknesses, and things that can give you ideas to try something outside your comfort zone. Looking at this list, I think that a good challenge for me would be to either write something with a non linear plot or write the linear plot in a non-linear manner. Or use other tools to move the writing around throughout the work.

How does your profession influence the way you write?

Happy Journeys!



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How Mike Got His Groove Back

I know you’re shocked – another blog post within only two weeks! But that’s because I seem to back in the groove with my writing. Right about the time of my last blog post, I was starting to slowly pull myself out of a writing funk. As any part-time writer will tell you (or at least this one), finding time to write when you have a full-time career and a family can be a challenge. My problem was I couldn’t bring myself to actually write when I did have time  and if I did, I barely squeezed out a few hundred words. Each word felt like a heavy rock added to the pile (All I can think of now is the line from The Crucible when they are punishing Giles Corey by stacking rocks on him and he keeps saying “More weight!”).

But things have changed and I’m on the upswing. In fact, according to the WordCounter app I bought for my Mac, I have written more in the last ten days than I had since the start of the year. I’m actually optimistic that I might finish the initial draft in the next few months. I have lots of activities coming up in the next few months so time to write on the weekends will be scarce. But I’m actually looking forward to the times where I can really get huge blocks of writing done.

Other than writing, I’ve been spending more time listening to a new (to me) podcast called Write Now with Sarah Werner | For Writers, On Writing. I’m a little late to the game because this podcast has been running for over two years now. Sarah’s podcast is about helping writers find a healthy work/life balance that will keep them writing. If you want to write and need a little push, I highly recommend it. I really enjoyed several of the more recent podcasts to which I’ve listened, particularly the one titled “Does Listening to Music Help Your Writing?” (btw, the answer for me is YES!!).

And one more thing I’d like to plug is the blog of my friend (and illustrator of my book’s cover) Emilee Smith called  The Perpetual Creator. Emilee is very much a perpetual creator;whether it be music, food, crafts, or art, she always seems to have some project in the works. For the five people who actually read this, I encourage you to stop over and check out her blog.

I hope to come back to the blog more frequently to update you on the progress. I’m excited again and that bodes well for the book.

Happy Journeys,


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Being a Writer: Thoughts from my Weekend Writing Retreat

On this past Friday (9/30), I left home and drove a few hours to Saugerties for a writing retreat. Last year, our family stayed there for a week in one of a quiet group of cabins set in the woods. After we left, I thought, that would be a good place for a writing retreat. I tried to pull it together last Fall, but it didn’t work out. But this year, my wife “gave” me the retreat for Father’s Day and I choose this weekend to “redeem” it.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Why would he leave a perfectly good house and office to go write in the woods with dodgy wifi?”

A valid question, indeed.

A big part of the answer to that question I can feel like I’m a writer.

“But Mike, you have a written a book. Doesn’t that, by the very definition of the word, make you a writer?”

Well, a bit, I suppose. But when I meet people and they ask what you do, I automatically default to my safe answer “I’m a programmer.” because it’s safe and easy. And true. But this weekend, when I met my neighbors in the next cabin and they asked why I was camping, I said “I’m writing”. And it felt good to self-identify as a writer. I do many things: I program, I play in a number of bands, and I also write. I tend to always acknowledge being a programmer, sometimes acknowledge that I play trumpet in bands, but rarely do I come out and say “I’m a writer”. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s my innate fear of sounding too smart (a trauma from high school that I still try to overcome) or hoity-toity.

This weekend was a chance to play out the fantasy of being a full time writer. After setting up camp and making dinner, I wrote around 1300 words, which is equal to my output on a very good evening of writing. Saturday, I got up a little later than I wanted, made coffee and breakfast and settled down to write. I wrote for a couple of hours and took an hour break which included, wrote again until 5:00 where I took a break to make dinner. I started again a little later and worked until 10:00 PM. In the end, I wrote nearly 3500 words on Saturday. I didn’t write anything this morning because I wasn’t overly ambitious and packing everything up took longer than I thought.

So this weekend represented a real chance to say to myself (and make me believe it): I am a writer!

And since we’re talking about me identifying myself as a writer, I’m going to be attending the Indie Author Day at the Sherburne Public Library on Saturday, October 8 from 11:00 – 3:00 PM. I’ll be talking about how I became an independent author (you can take it as an inspirational or cautionary tale – I’ll let you decide). I’ll also have my book The Reluctant Captain available for sale and I will sign any copy, although the other authors might not want me signing their books. If you any interest in writing and finding out what it takes to publish a novel, please stop by and Saturday, I’d love to meet you!

Until next time, Happy Journeys!


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And Now Back To the Novel Previously in Progress…

Let me turn this blog away from the Great American Road Trip and Star Trek back to its original purpose – talking about my novel(s).

It’s now been a full two weeks since we returned from our trip and life has settled back into the usual rhythms of school and work. For at least the previous five months before the trip, I was working a great deal of overtime in my day job and had no time or energy for writing. I channeled my little time for writing on our trip to blogging the experience. But things have opened up now and I’ve had time to write…and found it hard to get anything out. I’m not sure what the resistance is, but I find myself trying to do anything else but sit down and write. Last week, I had two whole evenings free to write and all I got out of it was two paragraphs. My wife was away  today and the weather was supposed to be crappy, so I tried to focus on writing. And I kept finding things to do to avoid it until I finally put my head down and just wrote. I managed to get nearly two pages written. I’m not sure what’s up with my sudden reluctance to write now that I actually have time to do it. It’s not writer’s block in the sense that I can’t think of anything to write – there’s just a reluctance to get going on it.  I’ll keep working at it; hopefully I’ll get this resolved before my writing retreat.

Yes, I’m going on a home made writing retreat in less than two weeks. For Father’s Day, my lovely (and understanding) wife “gave” me a writing retreat. In two weeks, I’m going to a KOA camp that we visited last year. I have a cabin in the woods from Friday through Sunday and I’m going to write. I’m sure I’ll do a couple of other things, but the focus of that weekend is to write and kick some butt on this book. Perhaps I’m subconsciously waiting for the writing retreat to open the creative faucets. Personally, I’d like to get myself back on track so that I’m writing more freely when the retreat starts.

And speaking of writing, I have been listening to Julia Roy’s podcast How We Work Now, available here or on iTunes. In her podcasts, she interviews writers and editors mostly in the business or non fiction genre (but also includes a few fiction authors and even a poet).  I’ve been listening to this on the way to work every day and it’s really got me thinking about my own writing in ways I never considered. Even in episodes that I think won’t pertain to me at all, I usually find some nugget of information. I went into the episode where she interviewed the poet (let’s cut a long story short and say that I don’t care for poetry much at all) thinking I would hate it and I think it’s my favorite episode to date! If you’re interested at all in writing, I highly recommend it!

And finally, I’m happy announce that I will be participating in the Indie Author Day Event at the Sherburne Public Library on October 8 from 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM. I’m still working on the details, but the event culminates in a 2:00 PM Webcast with writers, agents, and the industry leaders. I’ll send an update out once I have more details.

That’s all for now; I need to get back to writing….

Happy journeys!



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What Do Creators Owe Their Fans?

In case you hadn’t heard, Issue #1 of Captain America: Steve Rogers came out this week.


The very last panel of the comic tells us that Steve Rogers aka Captain America is an agent of HYDRA (the Nazi like evil agency that hopes to liberate the world by subjugating it under its control). And according to Nick Spencer, the new writer for Captain America,  Cap has always been a HYDRA Agent and it’s not the usual comic book trickery (mind control, alien duplicate, etc.).

WTF ?!??

The Internet was outraged by the new issue and I have to say, I was too. I had planned to pick up this issue, but now I won’t.  The question came up on Entertainment Weekly Radio this week “What, if anything, do Creators Owe Their Fans?” This got me thinking since I now am a creator and have characters who have a definitive image in my mind.

What Do Creators Owe Fans?

In a a word, nothing.  The characters, plot, and setting come from the mind of the creator; he/she is the final arbiter off what is and isn’t in world.  That doesn’t mean the creator is infallible and won’t make stupid decisions, but it’s his/her stupid decision to make. Everyone laments that George R.R. Martin constantly kills off characters just as you get to like them and that is his prerogative.  In order to finish anything (music, fiction, art, movie), you have to have a singular vision for the piece.  We’ve all seen films that seem to completely lose their voice and tone and it’s not surprising when we hear after the fact, the studio made numerous changes to the story in order to please the audience.  I’m not saying that creators are immune to any suggestions of improvements – authors have editors, directors have producers, etc.  But such suggestions have to be incorporated in ways that don’t compromise the integrity of the piece.  Which brings me to my point:

Creators Owe A Responsibility to the Integrity of the Work

This is what makes me mad about this whole thing. Marvel and the writer are pulling a huge publicity stunt that shits on the integrity of the work. There is seventy five years of back story that now pretty much makes no sense whatsoever. Captain America is defined by his ideals; they are in direct opposition to what this twist represents. It’s almost like saying Batman murdered his parents or Spider-Man killed Uncle Ben.

I’m not saying that you can never make a huge (apparent) change in a character. But it has to be earned. You have to see that the seeds of the change are planted well in advance. The most masterful example I can think of this is the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books. J.K Rowling did an exceptional job of posting clues that made you wonder whether Snape was really aligned with Voldemort or Dumbledore. Yes, there’s a big reveal at the end, but it puts every single one of the clues she had laid out well in advance in proper perspective.

Compared to other comic book stunts in the last two decades (The Death of Superman, Bane Breaking Batman’s Back, The Death of Captain America), this one does not feel earned. In each of the three events I mentioned, they were set up well in advance and were logical conclusions of the events. Captain America’s death at the end of the Civil War, while shocking, was logical; the stakes in Civil War were high with superheroes losing their lives or imprisoned. Shooting the symbolic leader of the Anti-Registration side was a logical consequence. Again, in each case, the “twist” was earned through a multiple book arc.  And each of these were reversed in an equally (well, almost – there’s a bunch of comic book “magic” that justified the events) earned arc.

If you really insist going down this ridiculous plot line, we should have at least seen points where something didn’t happen the way it should have, shadowy conversations with hidden people, or even an investigation. Anything that could plant a clue. This twist is the worse and cheapest trick. It’s the comic book equivalent of  the “It was a dream” season on Dallas in the Eighties. It’s lazy, sensational story telling simply aimed at making a buck or generating buzz.

Who Cares? It’s Just a Comic Book.

That’s true; it is just a comic book. If Marvel wants to shoot themselves in the foot, so what?

The fundamental truth is that the stories we read or the shows that we watch are a huge part of who we are and who we want to be. The human race has been telling stories almost from the time we invented language. Our perception of the world and our role in it are shaped by stories. Stories give us frameworks for morality or social mores. The characters are either role models or cautionary tales. Captain America has been a role model for so many people (myself included) and messing around with role models should not be done lightly.  It’s a sad commentary on our society that we can’t seem to have any truly good guys any more. Look, I love anti-heroes as much as the next guy, but do we really have to drag all of our heroes into the muck? Can’t we have a least a few heroes that are honestly good and not morally adaptable?  Must everything be about shocking people or creating buzz? Can’t we have nice things? Can I stop asking rhetorical questions?

In true comic book form, this will probably resolve itself down the line (it better!), but I’m deeply disappointed in Marvel. I was thinking about picking up the comic book again, but now I absolutely won’t do that. Sure, they have created some really bad plot lines in Captain America (Cap-Wolf or the one where meth basically bonded with the Super Soldier formula), but while they were bad ideas, at least they made sense in the plotting of the comic and the result of a logical progression. This twist is the equivalent of ending a story with “And then, I woke up”

I just hope that I wake up from this horrible plot twist soon.


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