Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Importance of a Good Beta-Reader

From wiki commons, labeled for reuse
This week I'm sorting through feedback I got from three wonderful beta-readers. Betas are people who take my self-edited manuscript, read it, and respond with detailed notes about the current manuscript. I use a worksheet provided by my dear friend and fellow author Connie Jasperson, and it works wonders in eliciting honest opinions about my current work-in-progress.

Because that's what I need at this point: complete honesty. Glowing reviews are lovely, but in this creator's journey I desperately need signs and guideposts to help me to the next level as I develop this tangled mess that will, once day, be a somewhat polished book.

Luckily, I have those amazing betas to help. None of them held back in offering opinions, and it's an incredible thing to get inside their heads a bit while they detail what bored or turned them off as they read. All three are very intelligent, and they were quick to point out a huge section that has to be completely re-researched and rewritten.

Naturally, it would be great if the feedback was "Amazing! Ready to go to the publisher!" And of course, each time I open a beta's feedback form I'm secretly hoping for that. Instead, I always get a series of little reality checks to show me where I somehow lost my mind while I wrote. Characters 'appear' in rooms without explanation. Entire plot points make no sense. It's impossible to tell who's speaking in a scene. One character's ethnicity isn't described well enough. 
from flickr.com, labelled for reuse

It's as though I got the chance to go inside those readers' brains and look through their eyeholes, like a mad scientist. And what an amazing view it is! The feedback suggests entirely new journeys for my main character, for the antagonist, and I can't wait to get started.

I have an extremely tough job ahead of me, but it's going to be fascinating - like untangling a huge knot while simultaneously fighting a hydra and taming a pack of wolves. I really can't wait to get started.

As I do, I just want to say a huge thank you to my wonderful betas. You make writing my books possible. Cheers!
The beast SHALL be tamed. (wikipedia, labeled for reuse)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Don't Forget Me, Bro by John Michael Cummings

The last words Steve Barr ever said to his brother Mark were, “Don’t forget me, bro.” When Steve passes away (perhaps from complications from his schizophrenia or a complex reaction to his prescribed drug cocktail) Mark insists on driving back to West Virginia to visit his spiky, damaged, unloving family and try to fulfill Steve’s last request.

What follows in the novel, titled after Steve's last wish (due out this October) is a journey into the heart of starkness, an odyssey of within and without. Leaving Brooklyn and returning to his family’s broken home – in every sense of the word – makes Mark confront memories that are unbelievably bad and, along the way, golden as well.

John Michael Cummings details this journey without a trace of Lifetime-movie proselytizing or Hallmark card sweetness. Each character is real, alive, vibrant in their sodden acceptance of the ugly nature of living and being human. Only Sherry Mayer, the mentally-challenged girl Steve called his girlfriend, sees life as colorful and wonderful, a view reflected in her pink, sparkly sweatshirts and the way she eats fries - by throwing them in the air and catching them in her mouth.

The lovely language of Mark’s journey, both inner and physical, seduced me completely. It’s tough and spare, but beautiful at the same time. Look at this description of Steve, the deceased brother:

Steve was that guy on “COPS”—no teeth, no shoes, no shirt, hairy white beer belly hanging down over his dirty jeans, screaming and hollering in the street for Momma or Loretta Lou, only to whimper as the cops walked him like a child to the backdoor of the squad car.  On that last visit home eleven years ago, I had thought—he’s dead already.

Greg, Mark’s second brother, is evoked through an odd little story:

God, he was still strange.  Back in junior high, he once ate a whole lemon—bit right into the bright-yellow rind, then proceeded to chew it up and swallow it down in half a dozen face-wrenching bites, just to impress some girl who, as it turned out, wasn’t even watching.  Instead, he impressed half the guys in school.  They looked at him, at first amazed, then a little weirded out. 

And there are tiny details that catch the readers by our throats, pulling us further into this peeling, gothic world: a Snoopy figurine, with ‘angry, inverted-apostrophe eyes’. I was transfixed by the simple horror of ‘Overhead sagging power lines, black snakes frying on the sky.’ In fact, snakes appear throughout the book, most frighteningly as a metaphor for the wires Steve and Mark’s father attached to Steve’s mattress designed as homespun electro-therapy for when the boy wet the bed.

Yes, Cummings isn’t holding back in this book. Such dark visions take great courage to write, and I was lulled and horrified by those dreams.

Throughout the novel there is a struggle over burial versus cremation. Mark is entirely against turning his brother to ashes, since Steve requested a corner of the churchyard near their grandfather. This theme is expounded, always with frustrated attempts: the burial ground has a two-year waiting list. Mark cannot get legal advice quickly enough. And always his own stifled endeavors, lost promise, and mental challenges are there to catch him up, stop him from doing something heroic.

As someone who cremated both parents, I was able to read with detachment the sections giving Mark’s fervent opposition to cremation. After all, he is what is now called an unreliable narrator, and we all have different views on death and the afterlife. Still, for those readers who might not be able to read those sections with such detachment, I must advise caution for those chapters.

I loved the scenes with Sherry, and even the taut, frigid interactions with Mark’s parents are so real they bloom like funereal flowers. However, my favorite section of the book was the painting of Steve’s old bedroom with Sears paint Mark finds in the attic. The walls are covered with notes about the Baltimore Orioles, and Mark refuses to use primer or sandpaper before he splashes on the Eggshell White. His method is explained, and for me it crystallized the novel:

There was a secret reason for my slap-dash approach. If I painted over the Mona Lisa, experts could remove my cheap Sears paint, and there’d she be, unblemished and all the more radiant for the world to worship. If I soaked Steve’s walls without first sanding away scuffs, smudges, and stains, the evidence of his growing up in this little house might not be destroyed but preserved.

Not destroyed, but preserved.

Because it seems we are all looking for a piece of the future, a slice of memory even after we are dust or ashes. As we write, create, paint, or simply survive, one large portion of being human is a plea that screams, Remember this. Don’t forget me. Don’t forget me, bro.

You can find John at Goodreads and Amazon Author Central. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Syndication – Good, Duplicate Content – Bad. What to Do? by Donna Huber

 Ever since Google started cracking down on blogs that had duplicate content, I have wondered how syndication played into it. In legacy media, being a syndicated columnist was a huge feat. The columnist reached greater audiences with the same content.

Then there are the news stories that play over and over on every television station and every newspaper. Even as the legacy media moved online, the practice continued. Online news sites like Huffington Post even reposts content from other sites.

I've asked around in various groups what makes syndication okay for sites like a newspaper, but not a general blog like mine? Early answers were that they were somehow exempt from Google's algorithm. Not fully understanding, I searched the web and Google's own information and all I got was some technical mumbo jumbo that all I took away from was syndication was okay but not duplicate content.

I got into another discussion yesterday with an author who read an article about the benefits of syndication, but wasn't sure how it differed from duplicate content. It got me thinking and again I went searching for answers. I ran across the most helpful article to date on the subject at Search Engine Journal.

To bottom line the article - it's all about the quality. You really should read the article for yourself, but I'll highlight a few things I took away from it and some thoughts on syndication as it applies in the book blogging world.

Quality Matters

A lot of bloggers and authors are doing book blasts or sponsored giveaway posts. These posts usually only contain "canned" information. The whole point of the post is to be an advertisement. Ads = low quality. It is likely that Google will view these types of post more as duplicate content than syndication.

What is a high quality post? One that contains meaningful information is usually of high quality. Meaningful content may be timeless, usually answers a question the reader has on the subject, and/or provides insight possibly not found elsewhere. Interviews and guest articles usually are good examples of high quality content.

But content alone does not make the post high quality. It must be well written: free of grammar and spelling errors, contain clear and concise language, structured to be highly readable.

How to Syndicate

After reading this post, authors may be thinking "Great! I have that awesome post I wrote on my tour last month. I can syndicate that." Not so fast. You may be running into a rights issue. Who "owns" that content? When I developed my Submission Guidelines, I consulted literary magazines and other publications (both ones that have print issues and ones that are online only) to determine how they handled content submissions. Most had language detailing the rights and permissions. Even if money did not change hands over a post, it is still possible that a guest article you wrote belongs to the blogger. Just to avoid hard feelings if nothing else, I would advise authors to check with bloggers.

Bloggers, should you give permission to have a guest article syndicated by the author? While the decision is up to you, I would tend to say yes, you should. Again if you look at my Submission Guidelines, I state I have exclusive use rights for a certain period of time, after that time the author may reuse the article, but a link back to the original post on my blog is required. Why? Getting other sites to link to your blog is good for SEO purposes also it means that more readers will see your blog's name and since the post is of high enough quality to be reposted then it speaks well of the other content on your site.

Another option for syndication is to write an original article and then send it out to bloggers to post. You may first publish it to your own blog or you might not. Either way, make sure there is a bio and a link back to your website/blog. This option is open to more than just authors in the book writing sense. Bloggers can also have their own content syndicated. For example, most of my tips posts would make excellent content for syndication. I recommend including at the end of the article or somewhere unobtrusive, but visible, a statement to indicate it is a syndicated article. By indicating it is a syndicated article may encourage others who love the post to consider posting it on their own site.

Problems with Syndication
(or when does syndication cross the line to duplicate content)

According to Google, duplicate content is not grounds for action against a blog. So why have I been told not to post duplicate content? Mostly because there is a fine line between white hat SEO techniques and black hat SEO tricks. Did I lose you? White Hat = Good. Black Hat = Bad. Anything that attempts to manipulate search engine algorithms is bad. Duplicate content can become black hat if it looks like a linking scheme (meaning you are more interested in having a site post a link to your site than the content you are providing in the article). That's why the most important thing to remember is QUALITY.

Bloggers may be thinking "hey, I never have to write another post. I can just post syndicated articles all the time." I'm not sure if that would be a wise move. I think that the algorithm looks at the ratio between original content and duplicate content when determining if a site is trying to artificially influence search engine ranking (how high on the list a site is when someone searches for a subject).  Adding in a few original posts will also keep your readers interested. It is no secret that many book blogs share the same readers so if you only have content they can also find on another site they may stop visiting your site all together.

A third problem with using syndicated articles is related to the problem above. If 10 blogs post the same article then Google's search algorithm decides which blog gets the top billing when returning search results. A couple of things play into it. One, the site that posted the article first may get pushed higher. Two, sites with better page rank get higher billing. I'm sure there are other factors, but you get the idea. The other sites may rank higher than yours in search and therefore your blog isn't "found" by new readers.

Speaking of page rank… That is another problem you can run into with syndicated posts. If you have 10 blogs that have a lower page rank than you pointing to yours through a link then that might not be so good for you. And possibly worse you are linking to sites with lower page rank. What is page rank? It is a scoring system that Google uses to rank your site's content. The better the content the higher the rank. You linking to a site is seen as an endorsement of sorts. I don't fully understand page rank, so I'll leave it at that. An option you have is to make the links "nofollow".

Bottom line: syndicated content can be great for both bloggers and authors, if you used appropriately. Use it for good not evil by devoting the extra time to making sure that one post is worth being syndicated.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the blogger behind Girl Who Reads and author of the how-to manual Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.
Original post: http://www.girl-who-reads.com/2014/04/syndication-good-duplicate-content-bad.html