René Penn

Author wannabe. Blogger. Follow me.

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What to Ask Beta-Readers

I toiled over my novel manuscript, rewrote it, and then sent it off to beta-readers—I released the baby bird. I knew the manuscript had flaws, but I needed confirmation on what the flaws were and how to tackle them. I needed validation and maybe a hug.

Sending out that draft to beta-readers was the first time it had been seen by anyone other than me. Was my novel just creative, nonsensical dribble, or was there something good there? Something likeable and interesting?jon-tyson-518780-unsplash

I fretted as I waited to hear back from my first beta-reader. I thought: I should’ve done this and that differently. I should have given the main character a different personality. I should just start over. I have a dribble draft!

During lunch with one of my beta-readers, who is a dear friend, I was nervous to receive feedback. I kind of regressed to my 6 year-old self—I was very close to crawling under the table. What was I so nervous about? This was the moment I had been waiting for. I should’ve been excited not nervous.

Thank goodness, I matured to my current age—or thereabouts—and asked some “beta-reader questions.” I wish I had the following list printed out, so I could’ve been more organized. But that’s life. Lesson learned.

  • Pacing

Is it too fast, too slow?

  • Plot
Is there too much going on? Not enough? Are there things missing? Is anything not believable
  • Characterization

Do you like the characters? Are they believable? Stereotypical? Are there things about them that you think are missing?

  • Points-of-View
I switch between different points-of-view. Is it too much? Does it work/not work?
  • Dialogue

Is it believable? Does the dialogue of each character match their personality?

  • World-Building

Do you feel immersed in this imaginary world? Is it believable? Does it feel contrived, or are the details too sparse to believe?

I got some great feedback from my first beta-reader, including some of these paraphrased nuggets.

  • “I wanted to know more about what the main character was thinking.”
My writer translation: I need to add more of the character’s internal thoughts. Intersperse more of it between dialogue.
  • “I know what the secondary characters want to accomplish, but I’m not as sure about the main character.”
My writer translation: The main character’s goal isn’t clear. Ouch! I need to go back to the basics, work on a character sketch, clarify her goal, and rework her sections. Those changes may also help the first bullet above, with increasing the character’s internal thoughts.
  • “When the main character was talking to her lady’s maid, I felt like they were discussing things that they would have already known.”
My writer translation: I was over-explaining—perhaps I need to look for instances where I need to do more “show don’t tell.”
  • “I think there are ways to incorporate more humor. I remember you said that you wanted it to be a funny book. I think you accomplish that more with the secondary characters, but not as much with the main one.”
Writer translation: The tone isn’t exactly right. It’s not consistent. Again, the main character is soggy.
I received some positive beta-reader feedback, too. But obviously, I have some work to do.
How do you work with your beta-readers? What kinds of questions do you ask them?

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…And Then I Saw ‘Lady Bird’

charles-deluvio-466054-unsplash.jpgI’ve been behind the writing schedule I set for my novel-in-progress. I should have already sent out my third draft to two beta readers. They may have even provided feedback by now, if they were completely riveted by the story. (Or not.)

As the dates slid, I decided not to wag the finger at myself anymore for being off-schedule. It was my own schedule, not one set by Random House (or any house, for that matter). It was okay to be “late.” To think otherwise would have been silly, counter-productive, and, in a way, self-destructive to the process.

I shook it off, plugged away, kept going. I said to myself, in the New Jersey accent I wish I still had: “Finish the freakin’ thing, already!”

Finally, I got the first half of the book over to two beta readers last week. I was revising the rest. I had only 20 pages left to the end, and two more new scenes to add.

…And then I saw Lady Bird.

It’s a fresh, coming-of-age story about a non-Catholic, Catholic high-schooler who has cool hair, likes snacks, falls in love, carries unrealistic expectations about a myriad of things, feels too big for her little-big city, and has Mommy issues. The script has a scrappy feel to it. And the actors deliver the snappy lines perfectly.

I loved it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterward.

Creative ideas were crowding my writer-brain: I should write a script again; maybe a coming-of-age film. Dare I?

But wait, I still have those 20 pages to revise and the two scenes to write with my WIP.

I was getting ahead of myself, ready to follow the next shiny-penny-writing idea, when the finish line was right there, so close. Thankfully, yesterday, I finished that third draft. The beta readers have the whole book now. I can start working on my Lady-Bird-inspired screenplay-that-will-be-only-a-fraction-as-good.

Yet, I still need to research agents that I’ll want to contact when the book is finally ready to shop around. I have to write a query letter. The WIP is still a work-in-progress.

What is a lady to do? What would Lady Bird do? She would be inspired. She would have a snack. I’ll start there, and will keep you posted on what follows.

Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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He “Said.” But What If He Scowled?

my_tweet-4The word “said” seems like such an innocuous word. But when you’re writing a book, those “said” uses really start to stick out.  Now Novel talks about dialogue tags and mentions that other words for “said” can indicate emotion, tone, and volume. How many times do we see the word “said” in a novel? It varies, obviously. But out of curiosity, I pulled a few books from my shelf and did a quick “said” count for their first 25 pages.


  • Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen—12 “said” count
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert—11 “said” count (including one “saying”)
  • The Human Stain, Phlip Roth—14 “said”/”saying”/”say” count

For my manuscript, the “said” count is 22 by page 25. Seems a little high based on the three books above. During my third draft, I am going to work on lowering this number. Below is a short list of words that can be used to replace “said.”

  • muttered
  • scoffed
  • continued
  • pointed out
  • pronounced
  • cut in
  • nodded
  • asked
  • remarked
  • sobbed
  • murmured
  • quipped
  • suggested
  • replied
  • relented
  • chortled
  • answered
  • added
  • shot back
  • exclaimed
  • frowned
  • spoke up
  • put in
  • echoed
  • interjected
  • amended
  • admitted
  • scolded
  • mused
  • pressed
  • returned
  • admonished
  • announced
  • repeated
  • scowled
  • explained

Looking for a longer list of words to use other than said—one that’s like 300 words long? Check out this article. Another option for “said” is to describe facial expressions.

What have you done to rise above, or tone down, the he “said,” she “said” in your novel?

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Relationship status with my second draft: It’s complicated.

my_tweetWhy does working on the second draft of my book remind me of a relationship? And I don’t mean that in a Beyonce-Single-Ladies-carefree-dating-kind-of way. I’m talking about the awkward stage. Where you’ve been dating someone for a while, and it’s starting to feel like “work.”

It wasn’t always this way. When we were in the first draft stage of our relationship, it was organic and stress-free. Things seemed to click. Sure, there were a few hiccups. But nothing that we couldn’t get over. The more time I spent with it, the more I liked it—especially because it made me laugh.

I’d lose track of time when I was writing it. There were late nights and early mornings. I daydreamed of what the cover would look like when it was published. I even made a mock-up of it in Microsoft Word. I know, I know I was gettin’ all carried away. Silly me. But what can I say? I was excited about it. Vested. Committed.

Now that we’ve passed the first draft phase, and we’re now into the second draft, things are more complicated. I’m really starting to notice the quirks. Like, I’m not sure if it’s as funny as I thought. We don’t spend as much time together as we used to, either. Sometimes, I’ll go a whole day without being in contact. And when I do spend time with it, I’m picking it apart, examining the flaws, trying to fix them, make it better.

I compare it to published books, and I wonder if it’ll measure up. Worse yet, my mind has started to wander. I think about other story ideas, and how much easier it would be to start from scratch, a blank page. That’s where the thrill is, when you’re still trying to figure it out, the plot’s turning points, the characters’ motivations. Discovery is exciting. After that, it starts to feel like…work.

I’m too far into this manuscript to give up now, though. As I rewrite the first few chapters, I’m realizing that the foundation is there. The dialogue still makes me laugh, and I find that I still enjoy reading it. Sure, some things are being fine-tuned, but that’s part of the process. I’m too far along to turn back now. I think I’ve got a good thing going, and I’m not going to give it up.

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Revising the First Draft—My Story

I read online about Revising the First Draft. Those online people make it seem really straight-forward. They must know what they’re talking about. They’ve got books published and writerly looking profile pics. I follow their advice.

I decide to print out my draft, rather than edit it on the computer. That’s going to be a lot of printing. I’ll need to buy ink. And a binder to put the document in. And blue and red pens for editing. Because literally every single pen I own happens to have black ink. I can’t use black ink for editing—every writer knows that!

I go to Target and get a binder, a new ink cartridge for the printer, as well as blue and red ink pens for editing. Supplies are ready…

Good thing I got that back-up ink cartridge. The print job got all streaky at around page 138. No biggie. I’ll reprint those 10 pages or so. The printing is done. It took forever. It’s a 292-page brick. A real door-stopper. Why didn’t I print double-sided? I’m a tree-killer. How am I going to get all of these pages in the binder? By using my old three-hole puncher that only allows me to punch like five pages or so at a time. That’s a lot of punching. The little, white whole-punches are flying everywhere. I can recycle them—that sort of makes up for all the pages I printed. I get a little light-headed from all of the hole-punching, but my triceps feel really toned.

The advice I read online says that I should be done reading the draft in one or two sittings. I’m on my fourth sitting, and I’m not done yet. I have this cozy chair that I love, and I curl up with my draft and my blue pen. I read and edit some, and then I get sleepy. I take a nap. I wake up and gnash teeth over the fact that I fell asleep. (Does this mean my novel is boring?) I read some more, and then gnash teeth over what I’ve written. I get sleepy again and give myself a pep-talk. “It’s only boring to you because you wrote it,” I tell myself. I make tea so I don’t fall asleep. I use self-torture device so that my eyes can’t close. Device proves to be effective.



I make edits on the pages, mostly line edits. I start a separate sheet and divide it into columns to help identify structural issues—columns titled, What Needs to be Further Developed, What’s Missing, and Plot Holes. As I read more of the draft, I realize that I need more columns. I notice lines that could seem like foreshadowing techniques when they’re not. It reminds me of the saying, “If you have a gun in your novel, you have to use it.” Well, I don’t have any guns in my book, or under my pillow. But I add a column called Smoking Guns and list all of the bad lines, because I’ll know what it means later.

I add another column, because I’m starting to notice terms that appear over and over and over in my draft. How many times can a character lean forward, blush, or be surprised? I have “purr” a lot, too, which is odd because I’m not even a cat-person. I recall an article that I read years ago about a book that shall remain nameless (Fifty Shades of Gray), which noted that variations of “bit her lip” were used dozens of times. I do a Find search in my document. Luckily, I’ve only used “bit her lip” twice. I label the column Overdone Descriptions, as opposed to Bit Her Lip.

The columns are getting longer, and my manuscript has blue ink on every page. I gnash more teeth, which are now down to nubs. I put in a mouth guard to save what’s left. My mother will be upset next time she sees my nub-teeth. She spent a lot of money on my teeth back in the day, on braces and such.

I think I scare my husband when he comes home from work. I’ve been in a bad state these last four days of revising my draft. Me with my eye-opening device and mouth guard, lips dribbling tea, and murmuring, “It’s only boring to you because you wrote it.” But he doesn’t ask questions. He just hugs me, and I hug him back with my blue-ink-stained fingertips. And we say, “It’ll be over soon.”

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This Year Is 20Gr18, When Great Things Happen

The holidays are over, and it’s “20Gr18.” Expectations are high, and I’m already excited about what’s in store.


I think that the year 2018 is going to be a year when great things will happen. I’ve noticed that years can be somewhat cyclical. One year can be more like a “prep” year, where I’m doing lots of preparing, working, researching, planning, saving, etc., to reach my goal. That happened when I bought my home and planned for my wedding. Both events took months of preparation before those great things actually happened.

Looking back on it, I think that 2017 was a “prep” year. I finally quit my job in the Fall to work on my novel full-time. That was a big leap, and it seemed like a great thing happening. But that step was actually still part of the preparation toward achieving my goal, which is to become a published author.

Since I left work, I’ve been able to turn the “prep” mode into overdrive. I finished my first draft by hand, and I just spent the last month typing it up. Now I’m revising the draft, which includes doing the “Big Read.” If you don’t know what that is, I encourage you to read more about it.

READ ARTICLE: How to Revise a First Draft by Scott Berkun

The point is that these steps are part of the prep that started in 2017. If I keep it going–and I’m too far along to turn back now–then the plan is to cross the finish line to become a published author this year.

“If all goes according to plan” can be the hardest part. It leaves room for dream-killers like X-factors, Murphy’s Law, and other persnickety phenomena. I don’t have control over that. I only have control over what I can do, and how, to prepare–that’s what I’m going to concentrate on.

Is 2018 your prep year or the year where great things happen? I’m claiming both. Who’s with me?


Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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Bird by Bird, Word by Word


The phrase “bird by bird” has been running through my mind a lot lately.

If you recall—or if you don’t, or if you’re unaware—the phrase came to be 50-something years ago while a boy was overwhelmed with the task of writing a report about birds. The boy was author Anne Lamott’s younger brother.

“We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

It’s funny how the brain recalls things. I haven’t read Bird by Bird in years. Yet, that short scene of father and son is so powerful, and its’ resonance has rippled throughout the writer community, that it’s no surprise that it came back to me—especially now.

I’m at that place, at the kitchen table, “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” But instead of “unopened books on birds” before me, I’ve got a file of my sh*tty first draft open. On my computer, I also have a growing list of edits to review when I proof the draft later, and a running list of things to research for historical accuracy. And there’s that deadline I gave myself, because I don’t want to meander around the pasture too long.

“Bird by bird.”

I have been saying it out loud to myself on those days where I feel sluggish, those days that I feel overwhelmed, the days that I feel less-than, the days where I go from, “Yes, my end goal is to find an agent and become a published author” to “perhaps I should just self-publish something just for my friends and family to read,” those days of self-doubt, of nitpicking, of not feeling good enough.

There’s something cathartic about the term “bird by bird,” when you give it all the power of its’ intention. It can become cathartic, hopeful, empowering, and even whimsical. And there’s more force behind it when the phrase is said aloud. You start to claim it and own it.

The last time I said “bird by bird,” I added on “word by word” to it. Yes, I’ll admit that I probably said it haphazardly at first, because of the rhythm. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that there was depth to it. That little add-on reminds me how far I’ve come. To get to the place I’m at, to get to this sh*tty first draft, I had to write word by word.

If I keep doing what I’m doing, bird by bird, then I’ll get to the second draft, and so on and so forth…

I decided to revisit the book that made the phrase so famous. I pulled the copy from my bookshelf. The copyright date is 1994. I seem to remember buying it within a few years of publication. I had underlined some sentences, dog-eared some pages. This was around the time that I started to take this whole writing thing more seriously. I wanted to study the craft of it, understand it better, understand why I felt the way that I did about the process–immobilized, afraid, enthused, excited. The book helped with all of that, and then some.

Twenty years later, it’s still helping.


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