Why Fursuit…

this article was originally published in the Further Confusion 2014 Conbook.  Since the topic of Fursuit etiquette is making the rounds again I thought it fitting to republish it in my blog. 



It was dark, hot, and the world around me was muted softly.  I could feel my breathing and hear my pulse.  Blacklights spread over the room made the white fur on my suit’s muzzle glow, casting a fun blue tint across my limited field of vision.  Pounding music started to drive me as the dancing started.  Spinning around to the soundtrack of my misspent youth I was living a dream years in the making, I had finally fursuited Further Confusion.

That was me in 2011 at the Dead Dog Dance, traditionally the last gasp of Further Confusion.  I had been to Further Confusion previously but never with a Fursuit. It felt wonderful.  It felt magical.  I didn’t want the Con to end. It felt like I had finally made it, and included into something that I had only seen from the outside looking in.  So how can I express to you what it’s like to don a suit and change who you are on the outside?  I might have to bend the magic a little; I’ll try not to break it completely.

So what’s the difference between a fursuit and a common theatrical costume?  In truth, not much except for the character it emotes. Fursuits have a personality.  Does the suit look like a friendly face or a scary one?  Do you want to run up and give it a hug or run away in panic?  Can it inspire you? Does it show you what it’s feeling?  All of these little things go into a suit’s creation. It is what the world will see when the performer wears it.

This is what I mean, an actor could not get on stage with a frown on their face and perform ‘happy’ believably.  The audience sees the frown and will focus in on the performer’s real attitude.  Putting on a fursuit envelopes you, covering your own emotions for the emotive qualities of the fursuit. In effect the fursuit becomes both a stage on which the fursuiter can perform, and a shield to hide behind during the performance. Refuge and excuse all wrapped into one.

The ‘Fursuit’ might be as simple as a mask with concealing garments or so complex to include stilts arranged to allow for quadrupedic movement.  The common theme in all of these costumes is to make the wearer look less human and more of — well whatever they wish.  High tech materials, servos, LEDs, fans, battery packs, advanced puppetry; all sorts of things can go into these amazing costumes.  A complex suit can cost several thousand dollars and represent untold hours of work. That is why it is important to show respect for these fursuits and ask for hugs or other physical interactions, rather than assuming they’re okay.  All of that hard work and expensive materials might be too fragile to permit horseplay—ahem—human-play.

One of the most persistent things about ‘Furries’ is an intense need to live vicariously, through a favorite character, a favorite creature, or even a favorite story or fable.  Be it a means to protect yourself from a harsh reality, or exploring parts of life that are impossible for a mere human to appreciate on their own; Living vivariously becomes a way around the limitations of reality. Fursuits are but one means of doing this.

Dain you fool, sounds like your talking about a religion here, cut to the chase and tell us what does it feel like to wear one. Ok, I will. Can you imagine bundling up in the heaviest winter clothes you have? Its a little hard to move around isn’t it? Can you imagine putting on a tight fitting hat that keeps the sun out of your eyes? Can you still see that menu at the fast food joint without tilting your head? Can you imagine wearing thick mud boots? Keeping to the ramp rather than take the stairs? After all of these silly questions you might now have an idea of what its like. Fret not, I shall probe a little deeper.

Vision is restricted to the point where the performer probably qualifies as legally blind. The area that can been seen varies from head to head, but most heads eliminate more than half of ones peripheral vision, limit vertical range and the viewing area that your eyes can normally track through. In addition to the limited aperture of the fursuit head’s eyes, the material with which eyes are made can make it hard to focus on the world as well, leaving the performer to ignore fine details in favor of a general impression of the world around them. This is especially true with ‘mesh’ eyes as you have to force your eyes to focus on things past the mesh, which becomes difficult for the nearsighted. Some fursuits put the performer in odd places inside, and they might not be looking out the eyes at all.

Pro Tip: Don’t be offended if a fursuiter does not react to you, chances are very good they cannot see you.

The more wonderfully artistic that Fursuit head looks, the more likely it is to have poor air circulation inside. Between the fur and other coverings, any electronics inside, and the performers own breathing the fursuit head can quickly become an oven. These days it is common for most fursuit heads to come equipped with one or more small battery powered fans like the ones in your computer at home. These fans move air in or out of the fursuit head and allow the performer to breathe fresher air. Having fresher air to breathe results in allowing the performer more time in fursuit. If you find yourself sharing an elevator with a fursuit performer and hear a little buzzing, its not the elevator about to breakdown.

Pro Tip: Be polite and pretend you cannot hear that noisy fan in a fursuit.

While I’m talking about fans, some fursuit heads are so elaborately padded that hearing the world around the performer becomes difficult, with a fan blowing white noise and fresh air into the fursuit head can render the performer effectively deaf. That said hearing is perhaps the least restricted basic sense.

Fursuits are hot, really really hot! No, zreally, the fursuit covers so much of your body that it makes getting rid of the heat generated by dancing, performing, and even just walking around difficult. The human body uses evaporating sweat as its primary means of cooling down. The fursuit keeps the sweat from easily evaporating and this keeps the performer hot inside. Most full-suit performers use a base layer garment (often spandex or similar high tech athletic fabric) to help trap the sweat and keep the fursuit clean. Some performers wear ice-vests and cooling packs to extend their time in fursuit. Getting a hug from a fursuiter after the parade or a dance is likely to be a rather warm and damp experience. Performers need a lot of water to help avoid dehydration. Water stations with cups and often straws are setup all over con spaces to give the fursuiter a chance to take a sip without making it back to the headless lounge. While I’m discussing the need to stay hydrated forgive me a brief sidebar on Heat Stroke.

Heat Stroke is a serious danger for a fursuiter. I have discussed above some of the ways the performer disassociates their self from their character. Now it becomes a serious disadvantage. The fursuit makes it much more difficult for an outsider or handler to see when the performer has hit their limit. Should you see a fursuiter, without a buddy or handler, looking out of sorts, its ok to ask them if they are ok. Most of the time the performer only needs a little water or directions to the headless lounge or some other place where they can relax. If you can’t get an understandable answer, or if they tell you they need help find a Convention Staffer at once, the fursuiter may be in distress. If you find a fursuiter that keeps falling down and doesn’t get up right away, you do not need to ask if they are ok. Quietly find assistance at once, but don’t make a scene out of it. In any event don’t attempt to help a fursuiter in distress unless you are a trained first responder. Summoning trained help is often the best help the untrained can give.

I have mentioned the Headless Lounge several times now, but just what is it? It is a special area where performers can ‘break the magic’ and remove their costume heads (hence the name of the room), take on water, cool off, relax, make fursuit repairs, attempt to dry out their gear, and generally just take a break.

In every convention I have ever attended, the Headless Lounge is a restricted area, available only to fursuiters and their handlers. Also I should note photography of any sort in the Headless Lounge is STRICTLY PROHIBITED for what should be obvious reasons. Its not a social gathering spot, its the ‘break room’ at work. Fursuiters leave the Headless Lounge to be social, so your not missing anything interesting back there anyway.

Still interested? Learn about becoming a Fursuit Handler. They are permitted ‘backstage’ and it is a wonderful introduction to performing in Fursuit.

So here I am, cooking in this sweaty oven, breathing through a fan powered ventilation duct, more than half blind, a little deaf, and quite daft: what do I get for these hardships?  I get to perform magic.  Oh, not hocus-pocus fluff, but real performance magic.  I can show you what I want you to see, interact with you in the way I wish, and if I’m really clever, make you think you have seen a cartoon made real, or even perhaps something that science says cannot be.  That is magic in my book.

There is a source of ‘make-believe’ that resides in each of us.  That source might be a slowly dying ember hidden under years of bitter calluses or a beacon-fire so bright that it brightens the world for all to see.  To take that flickering ember and brush away the dust and ash, bring it into the fresh air and let it begin to burn again for everyone to see is magic at work.  For me, fursuiting is a way to amplify that magic and share it with the world. How much better could this world be if we each tried our hardest to build up that magic rather than tear it down?

Why do I go to this much trouble?  I have a blast ‘taking off’ this human ‘skin’ and dancing around in the real world in a form of my choosing, in a manner of my construction, and with a character of my creation.  Its not that I wish to abandon reality, but it feels so good to escape it for a while.  I know that sounds like a muzzleful—ahem—mouthful, but its true. I can boil it all down to this: “It’s a lot of fun.” Others may put far more into it than that, but that is my reason. If you find your reasons to fursuit different from mine, thats ok. Tell me about it sometime, I love sharing the magic.

The Dangers of Living Part 3: Packing out, shipping out.

My stay in the hospital was not that long, only two and a half days.  But after being released, Mother and I stayed in Roanoke another five days before we were finally able to finalize my affairs there, and obtain a flight home.

The first order of business was a real cuppa Joe at a local Waffle House.  Oh my Lord was it glorious!  Real eggs, scrambled with CHEESE! Sad thing was that I wasn’t able to eat very much.  But the Coffee…    Forgive me, I digress.

That first night in the hotel, I just laid there.  Watching TV and resting.  Lest you think me completely lazy, there wasn’t much more I could have done.  Packing to go home wasn’t possible because my truck was still to be cleaned out.  The winter weather blowing through the United States was still causing all sorts of delays in air travel.  This was during the big scare over the “Polar Vortex” if you recall, silly as it was seeing as how the weather pattern wasn’t anything new or not understood by meteorologists.

Tuesday morning, Mother and I bundled up in layers and went to the towing company where my truck was parked.  My employer decided to move the truck from the Truckstop, to protect the equipment and my personal belongings.  It was bitterly cold.  It was about 14 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chill.  Inside the cab of my truck is was even colder, as it had gotten down to almost Zero Fahrenheit the night before.  It took Mother and I almost four hours to pack and clean.  This was made more difficult due to the extreme cold, and some of the things I had in the truck.

One particular item was a bottle of water I had.  It was a brand I hadn’t seen before “Voss” I think it was, but the draw was the fact that it was in a glass bottle.  Well, during the bitter cold of the three days I was out of my truck, it froze and burst.  In fact the resulting mess froze my sheets to the mattress of the top bunk and glass shards and slivers too.  There were similar issues with most of the liquids I had in the truck, though the broken glass bottle was the only breech.

Two thirds of the way through the clean up and pack, we broke for lunch.  It was during this lovely meal that we discussed our plans again.  The next day we would have to sort through everything that we had packed out of my truck.  Some things would be packed up and shipped home, others would be donated to a local Goodwill, and others would simply be discarded.  We still had to make firm Airline plans, Mother had one standby reservation for the next day’s last flight.  It was shaping up to be too much to do in that time.

Back at the hotel after finishing up, I was beat.  Mother wasn’t in much better shape.  Granted she hadn’t just had a heart attack, but you also need to understand I was under doctors orders not to try and lift more than 10 pounds, so she was doing all of the lifting and carrying.

That night I called Delta, and after getting shuffled around three or four times to reach the right agent, finally spoke with the person that could help us.  I do wish I could remember the agent’s name, because she deserves recognition.  With all of the terrible mess the winter weather was putting the airlines through, she was calm, helpful, professional, caring, and most of all, sympathetic.  No, there was not another seat on the flight Mother had the standby on.  No there was not another flight out of Roanoke with two seats until Saturday.  We would return home via Atlanta.  The wrinkle was that it was a tight layover in Atlanta, but they would be able to provide a wheelchair for me.  With that settled, I went to bed content to know that we had a way home that did not involve driving the rental car.

The next day was sorting, cleaning, and packing.  We put everything I intended to keep: tools, needed files, personal effects I couldn’t part with, etc al. into three boxes to be shipped home.  Everything else,  went into two large black canvas bags, or one of two carry-ons.  It was a lot of stuff we were sending home.  But the pile of stuff staying was just as impressive.  A trip to the local Goodwill and 2/3rds of that pile were dealt with.  Leaving only the trash and stockpile of snacks and foodstuffs I had kept on the truck.   The hotel offered to handle that.  By suppertime Wednesday we had almost everything finished.  It was a good thing too.  Of all of the medicines I was on then, three of them listed dizziness as a side effect.  I was worn out, mentally and physically.

Thursday was the day we intended to get things shipped out, so that we could have Friday to rest and have fun.  It was late in the afternoon by the time we got the three boxes packed.  All three boxes ended up about the same weight, 42-44 pounds.  Pro-Tip:  When packing many items in a box to be shipped, place a heavy duty garbage bag inside the box first, that way if the box becomes damaged in transit, the items inside are still contained in the bag.  And let me tell you it was a good thing I followed my own advice.  Of the three boxes, all were beat up some, and the two smaller ones were breeched, but not the trash bags inside. 

Again I sought the help of others and received it.  The hotel’s maintenance man lifted and moved those three heavy boxes to the car, and when we arrived at the shipping place, their employees — on learning of my needs — happily came out to the car to retrieve the boxes to be shipped home.  Ground trains for the three boxes ran up to just shy of $200.  I learned then that both UPS and FedEx will ship luggage for similar or cheaper costs than airline baggage fees.

That chore done, Mother and I settled in for the night content to know that tomorrow we had the time to have some fun before turning in early for our flight home. 

By Dain Unicorn Posted in Blog Tagged

The Dangers of living… Part 2: Convalesce.

Last time I told of the horrible events that lead to my heart attack and the resulting ambulance ride to rescue.

I concluded that article with a note about how after putting the word out of my malady that my Twitter Friends conspired to blow up my phone with love and support and friendship.

What I didn’t say was that for the first six hours I was required to lay absolutely flat. I could twist my head left and right, but not pull my head up. I could move my arms as desired. This made bathroom tasks impossible to accomplish alone. Oh well, all the nurses that helped with that little part of living were kind and gentle.

While I was still getting the word out, someone from my company called and wanted to know something. They were not the supportive and caring indivuals that I dealt with the night before. After the second question I became a little tired of dealing with it and handed my phone to the nurse. Forgive me a giggle here, but she was professional, and a total sweetheart to me, but to them she turned into one hell of a Mother Bear Nurse Ratchet!

The Doctors came in to see me next. And when I say Doctors I mean plural. There was four of them, and they were about the best sawbones I could have hoped to have overseeing my recovery. They promised to check on me later. The charge nurse returned and asked if I felt eating lunch to which I said I didn’t feel up to it in the posture I was currently in.

More phone calls to family, once again I summoned the charge nurse to help out with relaying information when my limited endurance to handle such things wore thin. Lots of questions and answers and boredom. Oh how wonderful it was to have my Twitter Friends interrupting that boredom at random intervals. One pair of my close Twitter Friends (and you know you are) even tried calling the hospital. Sadly, the Hospital did what they were supposed to do and didn’t release any information.

3pm came and it was time for the 9 inch spike to come out. I had every intention of snapping a photo of it for later posterity, but the nurse kept her back to me, preventing me even a glimpse of its removal. She did offer me a moment to look, but in the moment, the opportunity to take a photo escaped me. Part of the procedure left me sore and bruised. The nurse had to hold hard pressure on the spot where the spike was driven in, for twenty minutes by the clock. While mauling my tender crotch, the nurse was warning me about the area’s importance to my blood stream and that I needed to let them know at once if there was any bleeding from the site.

As my mind is want to do, it cast back into memories then. I silently wondered if I yelled ‘Nurse Quickfoot, I’m bleeding’ into the intercom (not that I needed it, being adjacent to the nurses station) if the reaction would have been memorable in its swiftness. Thankfully the need to put this trivia to the test did not occur.

So far, the weather I could see outside my window was dreary and bleak. I could see the coal trains passing below. Hear the med-flight chopper come and go. Even hear ‘heart alerts’ coming on the PA and knew that they were getting all the same attention I had that morning.

In truth, my Mother was blindsided by my call that Saturday morning. She put the word out to the family and started trying to find a way to get to Virginia in a hurry. Delta bent over backwards to help out, but it wasn’t possible for her to get a flight out Saturday night but had a standby reservation for Sunday.

At 6 pm, I was permitted to sit up to a bed level of 30 degrees. It wasn’t long after this that I was able to eat the first meal I’d had in almost 24 hours. Night had fallen outside my window and there wasn’t much happening. I didn’t get up until later that night after the Doctors came by on their evening rounds. The first thing I did was pull out the drawstring shorts I keep in my shower bag and put them on. Then I grabbed my iPad and played games to distract me until about 11pm when I put everything down and fell asleep.

Sunday morning began much like the day before, though the breakfast tray was the stimulation. I ate most of what they offered me, but didn’t care for much of it. The coffee was decaf, the milk was skim, and the ‘western omlette’ was… Perhaps I better not dwell on that. Called Mom, and she gave me the bad news that she had lost her standby seat because of something else that was going on at the time.

That weekend, a terrible winter storm system was causing all of the airlines much grief all over the United States. But where that goes, I’ll save for the next installment.

The Dangers of living… Part 1, Heart Attack on the road.

Any followers of my blog here know that I often go silent for many moons at a time.  Sadly, I don’t find the time to update things regularly, partly due to my job, partly due to my attitude on free time, and partly due to not always having access (despite having a iPhone and iPad and other gadgets).

All that said, this last ’bout of quiet has a little more than the usual reasons for it, and its serious as a Heart Attack.  In fact, it was a Heart Attack.

Continue reading

By Dain Unicorn Posted in Blog Tagged
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The world inside of ice

I have always been fascinated by ice, the little fractures and bubbles inside of it, and its very nature. From the galaxies of stars in the middle of a common ice-cube, to the way a sheet of ice will form on a sign and slowly slide downwards. Unlike snow, ice has no color, save for the light that reflects through it. Like amber or certain types of crystal formations, it envelopes what it forms around and locks it in time, that is until it melts.

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See the greenish tint in the icicles on the right? Its from a street lamp, as are the dots of orange glow in the others. But do you see the tiny little bubbles trapped within? Oh the lovely level of detail this new camera finds.

That street light wasn’t working properly, its light faint and a sickly hue. Between that and the icicles on it, made it another subject for my lens.

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Perhaps the most fascinating image I took turned this up, after cropping. Are those ‘scales’ of ice over that branch?

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I’ve a few more shots I’ll post later that demonstrates the variable focus a dSLR allows that most point&shoot digits can’t match.

These were taken in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on December 22-23, 2013.

New Year, New Camera

Just before Christmas, I took advantage of a special sale at Target and finally got me a good dSLR. I had been wanting one for awhile, but hadn’t made it a priority. This special sale allowed me to get a Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm VR AF-S and 55-200mm VR AF-S lenses in a bundle for less than the regular retail price of the D3100 alone. The D3100 isn’t the latest and greatest, but it is a high-end dSLR with a decent sensor and access to some of the best lenses on the market.

I got my first SLR camera for Christmas in 1985. It was a Sears branded Pentax, the “KS-1″. It used standard Pentax ‘Bayonet’ style lenses and was a really good entry level camera. It didn’t support autofocus but it did have an auto-exposure mode that made the camera really good choice for a budding photographer. Needless to say after that I spent most of my allowance on either Film or Developing. Sadly, the film was always cheaper than developing. Somewhere, there is a cache of some thirty or forty rolls of undeveloped film, and its probably so old its not worth processing.

I’ve been really happy with the Nikon. Its reminded me of how much I learned about photography with that old Pentax. Framing a shot has usually come easy for me, but getting the focus right has been a real pain with the digital cameras I’ve used in recent years. Granted the Kodak KP850 had a manual focus mode, but it was not easy or fast.

Perhaps it was destiny, that sale at Target. I got the camera in Norman, Oklahoma. The day before freezing rain iced in most of the city. While the roads were clear, the trees, signs, buildings, just about everything exposed was covered in ice. A photographer’s paradise!

By Dain Unicorn Posted in Blog Tagged

Summer, Fall doldrums…. Exceptional American Marketing

Wow, it seems as if its been forever since I last posted anything here. I have a cyclical work pattern. I’ll go from several free hours a week to almost none and then back again. It gets so bad at times (like lately) that finding 90 seconds a day to make sure I haven’t overspent my bank account is a real chore.

Also, averaging 6k+ miles a week of ground travel leaves very little time for hardly anything other than sleep. As a American Commercial Driver, I’m allowed to drive 70 hours per week, my co-driver is also allowed to drive 70, thats 140 hours between us. There are only 168 hours in a week, and time spent at rest areas, truckstops, and at our pick-ups and deliveries does an effective job at eating up those extra 28 hours.

As I write this, my co-driver is driving. We are approaching Fremont, Ohio on I-80. We switched out about nine hours ago at the Seneca Travel Plaza on the New York Thruway (I-90) after picking up a load in Freeport, Maine. We have another 30 hours to get from where we are as I write this, to Salt Lake City, Utah, approximately 1650 miles. Of those 30 hours, we will have 90 minutes of regulatory breaks, at least two fuel stops of probably 30 minutes each (a ‘quick’ gas-n-go is 12 minutes if we don’t have to wait on a pump or to leave) and three more stops to switch drivers, perhaps 3 hours overall. We are going to have to average 61+ MPH in the time we are rolling to make it on time. As you can see it keeps the stress up.

This morning, as we left a fuel stop in Fultonville, New York I spotted something… I had to stop and snap a picture of it.

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Something grabbed my eye, and it took a moment to see… So I took another picture.

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To my dawning astonishment, the sign is presented in 3-DD!

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Now I didn’t fuel there, I fueled up at the Travelcenters of America next door, but seeing this put a stupid little grin on my face for a hundred miles.

Working with other writers

In the last two articles I’ve given solid advice about sending work out for feedback and how to accept work to offer feedback on.  This week I’m going to talk about working with other writers.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this, lets take a brief look at what The Writer gets to do.  They get to build.  They can build it all from scratch or recycle one or more points from other sources.  They literally get to be the creator of it all if they choose to be.   They decide what the world looks like, who the characters are, what side of the bed they wake up on, the trials and tribulations that they encounter, the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, and the ugly too.   In short, The Writer has total control.

Writers — plural —  have less control.  Even in a rare pairing where two writers know each other so well they fit well, there are conflicts between the creative forces.  Its part of the beast, all that potential to build and craft a story usually ends up with someone getting emotionally invested in a specific Point-Of-View and when two of these POVs become mutually exclusive, there is friction.  In well run groups, someone backs down.   When there are more than two writers collaborating on a project, this gets progressively more and more complicated.  If you have ever read a compendium of short stories by two dozen authors, you will have seen that while the universe and theme might stay consistent, the storyline typically jumps all over the place.

The pitfalls observed, lets look at the benefits.  First and foremost, you have your Beta Readers built in.  You really can’t be a successful writer if your not also an avid reader.  You cannot hope to be part of a collaborative project if you won’t read what the others write.  Second, you have someone who can help you with the hard parts, or even perhaps a specialist or two that can offer parts of the story you cannot manage.   Writers may not have total control of the work, but its often times a means to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.   One writer works on their strengths and leaves off where they are weak, and the other (or others) do likewise.  It sounds like a wonderful way to put out a really great story right?   Its not.  It works a lot like a marriage.  And how many of those end in divorce?  But if you do your part to make things work, the creative crucible can produce really intense results.

So why would you agree to commit to such madness.  You might be invited to it by someone who’s work you respect.  You might get to collaborate with friends.  Or, perhaps you get invited to continue where another writer left off, most notably after their death.  In future articles I’ll discuss working with another writer’s Intellectual Property with permission (under license or contract) or without (Fan Fiction).  For the rest of this article lets assume your partners are still alive and an active part of the project.

You’ve chosen a literary partner that you can get along with.  You have the story idea, where you do you get started?  Its a really good question, and there is no ‘right’ answer.  Pitch in and between the lot of you figure out where your creative processes are leading you and try and leave the other(s) alone for the first draft.  Plot it out first?  Just grab a hook and start writing and fit it all together later?  Establish a world and a setting before crying Havoc! and let slip the dogs of literature?  Some common ground rules are crucial, but I can’t offer you a ready made framework for your project.  There is hope, because you and your partner(s) are all intelligent enough to write stories, I’m sure you can settle on ground rules.  While some plotting might be unavoidable, its a good idea to plot together, but write apart.  When your stuck go back to the group, but don’t depend on the group to do your work for you.   And please don’t spend so much time in the group that you don’t leave enough time for your work.

In other words, Its every bit as important to close the door to your writing partners until you complete ‘first draft’ of each section.  After you’ve finished a draft of a section, that’s when its time to swap with your partner and read theirs as they read yours.  Unlike the solo writer, you will need to swap sections a little more often, so that both of you know the project isn’t falling apart.  This leads us to the next point.

Who is the Editor?  Your group needs to understand that with several different writers, an Editor will be necessary and that editor could be one of the writers, or might be someone holding themselves apart from the writers in order to be above the literary bickering.  The Editor, becomes the final word on what parts of the work stay, which go, and who gets their way.   Remember that sometimes you’ll be the one that wins these little spats and sometimes you wont be.  You agreed to work together to craft a story and it has the potential to be something great…  Just try and remember that when your feeling picked on.

Alright, the drafts are in, the Editor has put things into a cohesive story, and its time to start sending it out for an outside read.  Everything that I said two weeks ago still applies.  For that matter everything I said last week does to.  The difference is that there are more people to report to on what the Beta Reader finds.  However, one big difference is that with an Editor on the project already, there should be far fewer problems with the story.

For this next section, I need to apply a disclaimer:  I am not a lawyer, Accountant, or any sort of privileged advice professional.  I cannot give legal or money advice.  The rights of a collaborative project are tied up in interesting ways.  If the work of one specific writer can be reasonably separated from the whole,  then that writer may be able to claim independent rights to those parts (Example: A report writes for a newspaper under a byline.  Anything under that byline they can lay independent claim to).  If the work of one specific writer can not be reasonable separated from the whole, then that writer cannot claim independent rights to the work. (Example: Brian Sanderson took the mountains of source material, dictated tapes, partially written scenes, and other sundry and miscellany that Robert Jordan left behind after his death and finished the Wheel of Time for us.  In those books, it is mostly impossible for the reader to figure out where Jordan’s work ends and Sanderson’s begins.  Those books must show both writers in the credits.  You should already have an idea of what a partnership will bring you.  Set the terms at the beginning and stick to them.  That aside, make sure you know what your rights to the project and any future work will be after the project ends.  Do set these details down before you get started and make sure its in writing.

As far as dealing with a project partner that stops being active, or worse, dies, is where you need to get real legal advice based on the laws of the State(s) and terms involved in your specific situation.

About giving creative feedback

Last week I spoke on an writer’s need for feedback, and I was speaking to the writer needing the feedback. If you missed it, I invite you to take a look.

This week, let me speak on giving that feedback to a writer, and this time I’m speaking to those wonderful individuals that are entrusted as Beta Readers.

First off, please oh please, never accept a manuscript you have no intention of reading. This might seem really basic, but let me say it again. NEVER ACCEPT A MANUSCRIPT YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF READING. It does an artist no good — and some harm — if you just accept a manuscript just to make them happy. It is better to tell them you can’t help them this time, far better in the long run.  Writers understand that when they send their manuscripts off to Editors and Publishers that their work will languish in a slushpile of other manuscripts waiting to be read.  Having a good close friend slushpile their work can be a devastating blow to their ego.  It can also have a chilling effect on your relationship with the writer too…

Second, and this is even more important, if after accepting a manuscript you intended to read, you discover that you just can’t finish it, return it with apologies. Do this as soon as you realize you will be of no help to the writer.  While its likely to sting the writer some, it will hurt far less than wondering why you quit answering their emails, IMs, phone calls, text messages, carrier pigeons, stone tablets, dispatches, pony express…  I digress, but the point is hopefully made.  While I’m talking about it, let me stress that it is equally important to keep those lines of communication — however arcane — open to help feed the fragile writer ego that has intrusted their baby to you.  Even if the best you can do is something simple like: ‘Been really busy lately and haven’t been able to finish yet, but I’ve gotten to the 4th chapter.  Hope to finish it soon.’  Whatever you decide to say, be honest.

Last week I urged the writer to be patient with the Reader.  The writer spent long hours into the manuscript and needs to give you a reasonable time to read it.  You should honor that trust by giving the manuscript the attention it deserves, not dribbles and the dregs of your otherwise busy life.  Try to finish sections if you cannot finish the whole manuscript in a single sitting.

Alright, you’ve cleared your schedule, put a do-not-disturb tag on your door, turned off the internet, set your iPhone to airplane mode, fobbed the kids off on an unsuspecting relative and have sat down to read the bloody thing…  Now what?  Take notes!  Record your thoughts and any questions you have that the piece that doesn’t address.  In fact, try to read it through at least twice.  On your first pass, skim and look mainly for glaring errors and questions and confusions.  On the second pass, take your time and try to find the answers to the questions you had on the first read through.  Any questions left need to be part of your report.  Don’t let that word scare you, this is not an elementary school ‘Book Report’.

Why two passes?  Why a skim before a careful read?  On that first pass look for points where you stop reading to scratch your head and wonder what you missed.  Quasi-interested readers will stumble on these points too.  On your second pass, you will be familiar with the work.  Perhaps you can answer your own questions.  If you do find answers to first-read questions, record them to discuss with the writer, they might not be the right answers.  Even if you can’t you need to be looking for problems and unanswered questions you missed the first time around.

A Beta Reader needs to know what the writer is looking for in feedback…   If they just need a sanity check before sending it out for editorial review or submission to a publisher, they need a fine-tooth-comb sweep.  Typos, misused punctuation, sequence errors (chapters/scenes out-of-order), missing sections, in other words, EVERYTHING YOU CAN FIND THATS SCREWED UP!  This is not really a proper task for a Beta Reader, but something a little more.  “First Reader” or “Ideal Reader” are terms thrown about in various circles.  A Beta Reader usually gets asked to do this but by that time the Beta Reader is more familiar with the manuscript.  In any case, it’s a little beyond the scope of this article however.

Most of the time when writers send manuscripts out to Beta Readers, they are looking for feedback because they have a story that is on life-support.  At this critical stage in the creation process, they are trying to find out if the story that lives in their head and imperfectly transcribed into a manuscript is really as great as they think.  Ok, maybe not quite that grandiose.  The writer has hit a level of their work where they need to know if they are actually doing something worthwhile or just wasting their time.  What is most helpful at this stage is an honest review of what works and what doesn’t.  What is really interesting and what is boring.  What is overdone and what is cliche.  What questions aren’t answered, and where scenes or characters don’t work.  While pointing out typos and grammatical errors is of some limited value, it really doesn’t help at this stage.  Here are some comparative examples.

“John doesn’t really seem to care about Martha at all, the relationship is wooden and cliche, it just doesn’t work.”   This is good.  It gives rather pointed advice on what is at fault.

“I hated the way John treats Martha.”  This is ok.  Not great, not really helpful, but at least its honest feedback.

“This sucked.”  Is not good at all.  I know it sucked, thats why I sent it out on a Beta Read.   Tell me why it sucks if you can.

“I found that you kept shifting tenses in the verbs when you get into the action sequences.”  This is really useful grammatical advice.  Shifting between Present and Past tense in your verb forms confuses readers and can lead to other errors getting overlooked by the eye being drawn to the non-standard usage.

“Pick a tense and stick with it.”  This is not useful.  Its more of a complaint than a constructive feedback.  It’s also an example of a flippant backhand quip that reflects that you didn’t read enough to show more respect for the esteem the writer holds you in.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”  Great line from Princess Bride, but not such a good thing to hear from a Beta Reader.  Humor is a great defuser, but follow it up with what word you’re referring to.  Consider if the next example were to follow this one…

“You have been using ordinance — i.e. Laws — when I think you mean ordnance — i.e. weapons and ammunition.”   Much better advice, because it outlines the error.  It’s actually it’s a two-fer in that you get the proper term and its meaning and the improper terms meaning as well.   Writers are not perfect — thats why Editors exist — so help your patron writer out by showing them why the word they use is probably a poor fit.  But tell them what their imperfect fit means to, that way if they were being obtuse you have covered both bases.

Alright, you’ve finished your two read thorough, taken lots of notes, and are ready to report your feedback.  How do you do this?  There is no hard and fast way.  Sometimes marking up a copy of what you were sent in different colored text is one way.  If your dealing with a physical printout, marginalia is good too(and one of my favorite obscure words).  Typing up a separate document with page/section/Chapter&Scene references is also good.   Be as complete as you can.  Be as honest as you can.  Your writer does not need a sycophant, they need honest feedback, even if it means you have to tell them the story is no good…  Especially when you have to tell them the story is no good.  You can be gentle if you feel the need to.  You can be brutal as long as your writer knows your not just ripping him to shreds for sport.  But it is paramount that you give honest feedback.   Being available for real-time discussion is a great bonus, and if your able to do so in person, its considered polite to bring the beverages to drown the sorrow or celebrate the good news.  After all, its the least you can do for the writer after put their story — and maybe even their soul — under your microscope.

Remember, as a Beta Reader you have a special role in the development of the story.  The writer has turned to you  for help in figuring out where their head-cannon and manuscript don’t line up.  And in the end you can have an impact on the final product.  You can help find plot holes, fix problem characters, and even drive the parts of the plot the writer has problems with.  Or you can do nothing, and encourage the writer to give up.  No pressure.

About seeking creative feedback…

I’ve been writing creatively for a rather long time.  I’ve not however found a lot of solid feedback from most of my work.   Sure love ones can be emotionally guilt-tripped into reading, but more often than not the feedback is lackluster.  Your loved ones want you to be happy, and they don’t want to be the one that makes you unhappy.

As a writer, I spend a long time crafting in secret.  All those little story ideas (a good friend calls them plot bunnies) bouncing around inside my head until the total chaos of all those plot bunnies flood into my Muse’s apartment.  This makes him cranky and he gets out the big guns to settle the problem.  And thus, words come streaming out of my head as my Muse tries to recover his space and his peace and quiet.

I’ll gather all of these words up and — if I’m lucky — record them all in a story.  When the plot bunnies are quiet and there are no new holes in my Muse’s apartment, I review what I’ve written.  Since the story already lives in my head, the missing pieces are fit together magically and I see the wonderful new story before me that if it doesn’t hit the best seller’s lists, then I have indisputable proof those metrics are all faked!

I simply can’t believe just how great I am and so I seek feedback.  I gather up the story, clean it up for presentation, and submit it out to a few trusted souls and wait…   And wait…  And wait…   (taps hooves)  No, really, I’m waiting here with baited breath…  Yes, the internet is up…    And here comes a new email….  Oh, rats!  No, I don’t need pills for that…

Its so very hard to remember at times like this, that writing is a -inside the skull- art.  It starts inside, it transmits inside, and it is received inside.  Its not like drawn art where you can look at it and take it in quickly.   It takes time for all of those words to go from the book to the Reader.  And dear friends, I capitalize the Reader because he or she is very important.  The Reader is the reason writers exist.  So here I am, waiting with my soul exposed to the harsh elements, waiting for the Reader to finish their job and get back to me.  I just know they are going to love it, tell me I’m great and out will come the superlative…   And…   Still waiting.

You might think I would become angry at this point.   Actually, I understand quite well what’s going on.   I drop an unfinished manuscript section on someone and they see at once that its thirty thousand words, prints about to about 90 pages and is likely to eat several hours they could better spend grinding on World of WarCrack in hopes that one particular shield finally drops.  And why should they put my ego above their own leisure pursuits?

The short answer is that they are not an ideal ‘Beta Reader’.  They may be people who’s opinion you value, or who’s approval you crave, but unless they are willing to give you the time it takes to read your stuff, they won’t give you good feedback.  And even if they do, they will almost never give effective feedback.

Such kinds of ineffective feedback can be really upsetting.  Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

“I can’t wait to see where you take the story.”

“I liked it, but you keep making [insert grammatical/spelling error here] mistake.”

“Wow that’s just great!”

As you can see there is no meat in the message there.  Even the second one isn’t really helpful because its just picking nits and not actually commenting on the content of your story.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a time to pick on every nit you can find, but this isn’t it.

Beta Readers are worth their weight in gold, but don’t waste their time.  They are willing to give to you their attention and deserve a little in return.  If your section requires more than just a cautionary paragraph about its raw, work-in-progress nature, then perhaps its not really ready to share yet.  Yes, I’m rather guilty of this, I’ll send a section out, get back a bunch of constructive feedback (if it hurts, but also helps your story, it was constructive) I have a hard time not firing off an updated copy as soon as I’ve addressed all of the things that were pointed out.   Don’t do that, trust me, it doesn’t work out well.

So you have found a willing ear, what should you send them?  Well, at best send them a finished DRAFT.  It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should be complete.  If its only part of the whole, send a complete part, and save off where the edges are still showing.

How should you format what you send?  Take a little effort to assist in readability.   Start new paragraphs off with an indent.  Use a scene separator of some kind [—], [***], or something similar.  Use a page break between Chapters.  Use a blank page between sections.  The first page should be a title page.   While the title page you might use to submit the work to a publisher will do, lets add a few items on the front page: Word count, the name and info of the person your offering this copy to, the date it was put together for them, a brief statement of what sort of feedback your looking for (or not looking for), and your gratitude for their read.  While it might be a wee-bit rude to include a date to return it by, adding “Please reply with your comments no later than…” is ok.

Now, I’ve formatted my story, found a real good Beta Reader, and sent it on its way; now what?  You wait, and wait as patiently as you can.  Your Reader will get back to you after they have read it, had time to digest it, and write up their comments.   It took you three months to write those 90k words, you can give your Reader more than 30 minutes to read and reply.

TLDR: While you might be a needy artist, acting like one does not help you at all.  Chill out, and help your Reader like what you’ve written.