Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Beta Reader Basics

   An important step in the writing process is sending your manuscript out to beta readers once you've completed self-editing to the best of your ability. This topic came up recently in my critique group as several members have completed their WIPs. They are ready for someone to read the entire piece, not just chapters.
   My suggestion, and this will benefit both the reader and the writer, is to send along a list of questions you hope the reader will answer. If your beta doesn't have specific things to look for, you might receive comments like, "I really liked it!" or, "Just wasn't my cup of tea." Comments such as those are no help whatsoever.
   The following are some of the important questions, I as a writer, would like answered. Of course, this assumes the manuscript has already gone through the process of critique and editing so it's readable. Oh, and make sure you give your betas a deadline.

   1. How soon were you hooked into the story? Or, if you never felt hooked, do you have any suggestions?
   2. Did you feel a connection with the characters? Were they well rounded and interesting? Did any fall flat? (This is especially important to me since I try to write character driven stories)
   3. Was there a point in the story where it became dull and you lost interest?
   4. Are there any plot holes or questions that never got answered?
   5. And the most important question for me is, after you read the last page and set the book down, how did you feel? Did you love it and want to read more? Or was it, "WTF did I just waste my time reading?"

   I enjoy my stories whether anyone else does or not, but my goal is to write stories that entertain. While it's nice to get a pat on the back, knowing what might need to be improved is more important at this stage.
   Also, a question I see all the time is, "Where do I find beta readers?" My answer to that is join online writer's groups. There are plenty to choose from on every social media platform. Become an active member who comments on posts, encourages others, and occasionally share snippets of your own work. Then, when you are ready, ask for beta readers from the group, and you should get plenty of takers. It seems that 4-6 people is a good number to start with.
   I hope this has been some help to those ready to send their baby out into the world.

   Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Downside of Writing

   From the time I learned to read until my early sixties, I was a voracious reader. I read anything I could get my hands on. Every book in our little library at my elementary school had fueled my imagination by the time I graduated. In high school, I would sit in the back of the class, course book propped up on my desk with a paperback inside. I never went anywhere without a book.
   If I had money, bookstore here I come! If not, it was off to the library to come home with an armload of books. Sometimes, when I would run out of fantasy or sci/fi, I would grab some of my wife's westerns or romances. As long as they were well written, I enjoyed them all. When money got tight, I got picky and only bought books that were over five hundred pages so I could make them last a day or two. I didn't care what genre it was, it just had to be long. And don't even ask me how many times I picked up a new book with an awesome cover, intriguing blurb, get a couple chapters in and realize it's a re-release of a book I'd read years earlier. 
   Ironically, it was love of epic tales that drove me to start writing. Unwilling to shell out 7-8 dollars for a book I could devour in a couple hours, and unable to find new epic length books I hadn't already read, I got a wild hair up my butt and decided to write my own. Now it frustrates me to no end that in the four years I've been writing I've probably read less then ten books. And most of those were from writer friends I'd met online or agreed to beta read.
   I have an entire shelf full of books from my favorite authors I've bought over the last couple years that are still sitting there untouched. I can no longer read simply for the pure enjoyment of it. I'm always looking for plot arcs, where's the hook, or how is this character developing. Minor errors I would never have noticed before stand out like sore thumbs. And of course there is always this little voice in the back of my head asking: "Why are you reading? You should be writing!"
   I don't think I could ever stop being a writer now. It is what I am. However, there are times I wish I could turn back the clock, never pick up that pen or write that first short story, just continue my life being filled with the joy of reading.
   Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

My Thoughts On Chapters

   To cover the entire topic of chapters would take up more space than I intend for this short blog. These are just a few observations based on the vast number of books I've read over the years, and from conversations with readers and writers.
   The first point I'd like to discuss is chapter length. I've read where some writers say they have chapters with only one sentence, or they don't bother with chapters at all, only scene breaks. Others say they just pick a spot to stop one chapter and start the next. For me, stories like that would be difficult to read.
   I've read studies that say the average reader can consume 4k words in about 30 mins. In today's world where so many folks read during their commute, at lunch, or set aside an hour to read before bed, this seems like a reasonable number to shoot for in regards to chapter length. If a person has a half hour train ride to work or lunch break and are looking at an 8k chapter, they may decide to read something else or attempt to cram down the chapter. They will probably start skimming and possibly miss an important point in the story. Not good!
   While chapter length isn't set in stone, I think consistency is key so readers know what to expect and can plan ahead.
   The second point I'd like to cover is chapter content. I've read a few "How-To" books that claim each chapter should be treated as a short story. I don't believe it's necessary to have a complete three act plot arc for every chapter, but I do think each one needs to have a definite purpose.
  As a reader, I like to have a sense of closure after reaching the end of a chapter. Maybe the characters reached their destination, met someone central to their success, or found something they'd been looking for. I also enjoy the occasional question or hook at the end that keeps me reading. Just make sure you don't take too many chapters to answer the question or satisfy my curiosity.
   Lastly, a quick note on chapter titles. They help me as a writer to focus on the purpose of that particular chapter. As a reader, sometimes I like to go back to a previous chapter, and finding it using the table of contents is easy with titles. Using chapter titles is purely personal preference.
   Like I said at the beginning, an in depth discussion of chapters could fill an entire book, so these are just a few points that matter to me. I'm more likely to enjoy a book if I can expect consistency of chapter length, and feel confident I will discover something important to the story at the end of each chapter.

   Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Does Your Story Have A Theme?

   A friend of mine, who is an avid reader, came over the other day and we had an interesting discussion about themes in writing. He always looks for an underlying agenda in the books he reads. He believes every author is trying to push a personal belief or maybe influence the reader to see a different point of view. Depending on the genre and author, that might be true.
   I love my friend dearly, but sometimes his suspicious nature can be burdensome. He can't believe every writer doesn't have some ulterior motive they're trying to push when writing their stories. I don't think he truly believed me when I told him I don't have an agenda, especially in my fantasies. Maybe that's why he doesn't read or understand fantasy. 99% of the time it's just good vs. evil.
   Of course it got me to thinking and wondering. Do I have a theme or agenda I put into my stories without consciously thinking about it? I really don't think so, but what am I trying to accomplish with my story telling?
   I purposely set my stories on worlds totally separate from our own so I'm not tempted to comment on the economic and social atmosphere that exists in our world today. I try to focus on my characters, and even though they occasionally have to endure physical hardship, I'm more interested in how they deal with emotional issues. How do they handle rejection and feeling inferior? What goes through their minds when someone actually accepts them for what they are? How do they deal with death?
   I know for me, one of the deep seated reasons I enjoy reading and writing fantasy is because of feeling totally helpless as a child without the power to protect others or myself. I always fantasized having some kind of super power where I could change my world, protect those I loved, and punish those who I thought deserved it. I've come to believe, after many years of talking to others, this is not uncommon.
   You won't find the characters in my stories being mercilessly abused over and over as if that will somehow make them better. The only thing it did for me was make me thankful I survived. I certainly don't believe it made me a better person. All it did was make me hard and cynical especially towards people who whine and snivel about how rough their life is. They have no clue.
   If there's a theme to my books, it's to provide the reader with a character they can relate to. Someone to share in their joys and sorrows. I also hope to transport them out of their reality for at least a moment in time where they can forget their problems and be entertained.
   Thank you for reading!

   PS: Years ago I used to post snippets of my writing here, but I rarely received comments so I stopped. Would anyone be interested in reading them again?


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Find Your Voice And Write

   It seems that writers will forever argue over what constitutes good writing. No matter which writing group I visit, there is always a discussion going on. Active vs. passive; pantser vs. plotter; 1st person vs. 3rd person; POV shifts; too much description vs. not enough, etc.
   It seems to me, with all the differences in opinions one way or the other, whatever way you write will be liked by some and disliked by others. Even if you're a pantser who uses a little passive writing, maybe not a lot of description and head-hops occasionally, there are people who will enjoy it. If that is the way you have the most fun writing, stick with it. Make it your voice as a writer.
   I've seen too many novice writers pick up a book on "The Rules of Writing", try to change their voice to follow those rules, and get so frustrated they want to quit. The joy of writing is gone. I wish they would change the word 'rules' to 'guidelines'. The only rule I try to pay attention to is proper grammar and word flow. This is also where a good editor is priceless. As far as I'm concerned, content and voice are separate from grammar.
   Then there are those folks who are physically unable to visualize what they're reading or writing. These writers have to plot because they need a very detailed outline describing every aspect of the story to be able to picture it. I visualize everything as if I'm right there with my characters and write what I see. Setting, descriptions, feelings, thoughts and discussions are put down on paper together as a whole as they happen. Several writers I know have to write in layers. They can't visualize the entire scene and have to build it up one layer at a time. It works for them, and the end result is complete.
   It may take me weeks to write several thousand words, but other than a few minor tweeks, it's done. Others may write two thousand words a day, but have to re-write ten times to get it completely fleshed out. The end product is the same.
   The point is, find your voice and the method that works best for you and stay with it. Not everyone will like it, but eventually you'll find those that do and then target that audience.
   Maybe next week I'll tackle another point of discussion.
   Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valetines

   Wow, here it is, the 14th of February already! It certainly feels like the old saying is true: "The older you get, the quicker you get older."
   I'm slowly easing my way bank into writing, finally. In the last couple of weeks I've written a Science Fiction short story, added to a children's fantasy I've been working on, cleaned up up a couple of chapters in the next Queen of Darkness story to submit to my critique group, and wrote down some ideas for major plot points in the next Deluti book.
   Between not feeling well, and the nagging doubt of my ability as a writer, it's been difficult to find the joy I once had while writing my stories. I know it's par for the course as many writers feel they will never be good enough, but sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get better.
   I've gone back and re-read some of the things I wrote several years ago and think, this is better than what I'm writing now. Yet others have commented on how my writing has improved. Why can't I see it? Maybe the style of writing I enjoy reading is not the same as what others enjoy.
   Which brings up an interesting point. A topic of discussion came up the other day in a fantasy support group I belong to. The question was: "What makes good fantasy?" I was blown away by the number of folks who replied; "It has to be realistic, or make sense". Hello! Have they even read the definition of fantasy in the dictionary? If you want realism, read non-fiction. I thought about all the popular fantasy stories out there, both in print and on screen, and there is a decided lack of realism.
   What is realistic about walking, talking trees, dogs who can fly, or humans who can change into animals? "But we're talking about things like a real planet with earth and sky, and a sun to provide energy, real food to eat, that kind of realism".
   Oh really? Many years ago, I read a story that still haunts me to this day. It was about a civilization of sub-atomic energy beings living inside a light bulb. They knew their source of energy was failing and would soon burn out, and were trying to deal with the inevitability of their mortality. Some accepted their fate while other struggled to find a way to save their civilization. The light bulb shattered, and the end saw a human sweeping up the debris and dumping them in the trash. Where is the realism in that?
   Anyway, I'm always amazed at the different things people look for in fantasy.
   Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Can A Critique Group Become Too Large?

   First of all, I'd like to thank all those folks who have come back every week to read my rambles. You are one of the main reasons I continue to share my thoughts on life and writing. I'm still amazed at the milestone I reached last week by hitting the 10,000 pageview mark. You all rock!
   The question on my mind this week, as I officially take over ownership and administration of our local writers group is: "How big is too big?" It's probably not something I really need to worry about at this time since attendance normally drops off as we head into summer anyway. But what about next fall and winter?
   Our group saw unprecedented growth this last year. People come and go as they attend one of our meetings and then decide it's not for them. However, this last year more decided to stay than leave. The positive side of this is I think it reflects on the positive attitude of our current members and the supportive and encouraging atmosphere we project. I can't help but brag a little by saying we are an awesome group.
   The negative side is with so many folks submitting and attending the meeting, we couldn't get through all the critiques in three hours much less the two hour limit we try to adhere to. One of the first things I had to do was add a second meeting each month to split up the submissions into a manageable number. We also came up with some suggestions to speed up the critique process. So far, it's helped.
   I hate the idea of setting a limit on the number of members because new blood always adds a spark and freshness to the group. I've been around a long time and been in a number of groups where eventually they begin to stagnate and become unproductive. Those groups rarely let new folks join in.
   We live in a Navy town with people coming and going all the time, so maybe the problem will resolve itself. I hope so. The last thing I want to do is restrict new membership.
   Thanks for reading.