Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Building A Book: Beta Readers

So, you've written your book, gone through several edits, and things are shaping up nicely. Or so you think. That's when the beta readers come in.

What is a beta reader for? They just read the story and tell you what you think, right? Isn't that the same as a review? 

At this stage in the game, no. What they do at this point is much more important. These readers aren't doing this to edit for you, though some may point out the more obvious errors. Beta readers are for pointing out serious mistakes in the manuscript while you still have time to fix them. 

Beta readers are readers. First and foremost, and as such, at this stage of the game, they're pointing out things which make them stop and put the book down. Things like characters appearances changing, or characters not acting in ways consistent with how they've been described. Holes in the plot. Loose threads which seem important but that are just left dangling. Twists which are so out of the blue, it's like a shark just attacked them in their own hallway.

(Because that just makes ALL the sense in the world.)

Beta readers are there to tell you the things in your story that just. Don't. Work. It may be hard to listen to them at times, because they may point out that the whole sub-plot from page 24 through page 317 makes no sense; something which would require a major rewrite to fix. But that is exactly the point. These are the things which will flat out kill a book that they're trying to point out to you. Things you will need to fix before your next great work heads to a professional editor for a grammar and punctuation cleaning.

That being said, there are different levels of beta readers. You have your close friends and family, who are likely to tell you that everything is awesome and not to change a thing. Enjoy the praise, but don't trust it. After all, these are the people that want to see you happy and to see you succeed more than anything and they're likely to overlook discrepancies in order to tell you what they think will make you happy. 

That doesn't mean you shouldn't ask them to take a look and tell you what they think, it means you need to be prepared when you approach them. Include a list of questions for them to answer when they've finished reading. Questions like: "Did you like the main character?" "Did the scene on page 154 make sense?" "How scary was the scene on page 243?". Specific questions make it easier for them to mention and talk about things that didn't work for them, as it lets them know that you're aware there might be issues without putting them on the spot to pick things out on their own. 

After close friends and family, you have people that you know and trust, but that may not be so attached to you personally. These include experts in fields that your book contains, people you've come into contact with professionally, maybe people you consulted on certain subjects for your book, and that have a personal interest in making sure you have your details right. These are the people who, while likely to still be able to tell you that your main character is unlikable and they were waiting for him to die, are going to point out things like whether Ford made Escorts in 1978. It really can be a detail that small which rips someone out of your book with enough force that they won't go back to it. 

Then you have professional beta readers. Some editors offer this service in addition to working on the punctuation, but make sure you don't get the two things confused. These are two completely different steps in the publishing process. These are the best you can do for a good beta experience, although they aren't free, you usually get a written report after they've gone over the work, explaining what worked well, what didn't work at all, and depending on the service, you may even get a list of suggestions to fix the issues they found. 

So what comes after all this? More revisions. You listen to what the beta readers have to say, see if comments line up along multiple beta readers (You should at least have three to four, though I would say not more than seven, that way you have a tiebreaker if you need one). If the book needs a minor touch-up, great. More often than not though, you're going to be looking at a rewrite or two. An additional scene to get a particular relationship across, maybe re-write a scene so that your main character's actions make more sense or so he's more likable. 

Remember, this is all for the betterment of your book, so keep at it. Don't fret! Even if your work requires some major work, every step forward is a step closer to the end, and the end is almost in sight. 

~ Shaun

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Size Matters

So you've got this great idea for a story and you've sat down, pulled up the word processor, and you're committed to making this the best story you can. The question is, how long should it be?

While talking about writing, it makes sense that sooner or later, we'll touch upon the subject of word counts. Currently, there are about five different categories for story lengths that I'm going to go over really quick for those of you who are unaware or need a reminder/refresher.

(An example of Word Count in MS Office, and a teaser treat for those of you paying attention.)

Flash Fiction - This is a little hard to pin down, as it largely depends on what the publisher is looking for. Some magazines will accept works as large as 1,000 words as flash fiction, while others require fewer than 300 or even 100 words. Of course, this also includes the trend of 2-sentence stories, which could be as few as ten words and still manage to convey a story. The point is, these are stories which can be read in a matter of minutes by the average person; little bits that allow people to break away for a moment even if they don't have much time.

Short Story - The next step up, these start where the Flash Fiction ends, right around 1000 words and go up to about 7,500 words. Most people are pretty familiar with short stories. These are the ones you generally find populating anthologies, or in magazines. With the current self-publishing movement, you can also find a supply of short stories standing on their own, either for free or at the $0.99 mark. Also, before I get much further, I'm going by the word counts listed under the category requirements for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula awards. While there will almost always be some wiggle room where word counts are concerned, the counts they suggest are fairly established and give what I think are good averages.

Novelette - Now we're getting up there. Ranging from 7,500 words on up to 17,500. Now we're getting into some meaty stuff. For an average reader, this will be a couple hours worth of entertainment. Something to read on a long bus ride or waiting at the DMV. Like the short stories, it's not uncommon to find some of these standing on their own on Amazon, but you're also likely to find a few stories of this length mixed in among the short stories in a collection.

Novella - This is finally starting to get up there. At 17,501 - 40,000 words, these are the short 'books'. Still, these are generally good for an evening or even a weekend read depending on how fast a reader you are. You can also find these as a kind of main course in a good-sized collection, where several short stories lead up to or even tie in to the final novella story.

Novel - This is a book. 40,001 words is the minimum required for the Novel category in the Nebula awards, but I do take exception to this just a bit. Most publishers won't consider a manuscript book worthy unless it is at least 50,000 words, and some require even more depending on genre. Still, I think everyone here knows what a real book requires, so not much more really needs to be said.

(See the difference in thickness?)

So now the question is, how long is your story going to be? Well, that all depends on you and your story. When it comes to you, it's a matter of writing style. Is your prose full of description and philosophical musings? Or do you tend to get straight to the point, forgoing needless details like what your character had for breakfast or what the particular shade of blue the sky is reminds him of? Of course, writing style is only going to carry you so far. It might turn a short story into a novelette, but beyond that you're probably cramming extra stuff in there to force a word count, and that is almost never a good idea. 

What really dictates a story's length is what is in the story itself. How many characters are included? How many hoops are there for them to jump through before the climax? What about side-plots? Are all loose ends tied up or are they left out there for possible future use? 

I think most of these things will be dictated by the story itself and if you listen, you'll know what to put where, and how to draw the lines. One thing I would suggest an author never does though, is to force a specific word count. Many times, forcing a book to stretch fills it with unnecessary details that can spoil the pace, as well as introduce details that don't make sense with the rest of the story. 

A perfect example of this, for me, is Rick Hautala's The Wildman. Some may enjoy it, but to me almost the entire book felt like it was a novelette stretched out to novel length for no real reason. The second to last chapter can be summarized in three lines: "I can't go on", "I wonder if I'm dead", "My body is still moving somehow." rinse, and repeat for at least fifteen to twenty pages. Seriously. It's almost literally those three lines, drawn out into paragraphs, and then repeated over, and over, and over. If that isn't forcing a word count, I'm not sure what would qualify. 

Yes, it can be frustrating when you're writing and your story suddenly seems to fall well short of what you thought it would be, but rather than trying to stretch things out, read it over, see if there's anything you forgot to add in. If so, great! If not, don't force it. More often than not, when you use force to try and make something do what you want and not what it's supposed to do, you're going to break it. There is plenty of room out there right now for stories of all lengths. Don't break your hard work trying to force it to be something it just can't be. 

~ Shaun

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creating a Monster: The Hungry

So, I'm lying in bed, waiting to go to sleep, when I get this idea. It's not a story idea specifically, but an idea for a monster. And as I'm lying there, it's almost like I'm just watching the pieces come together, like a puzzle, or one of those mix-and-match playset thingies. It was really fascinating watching it come together into something I could recognize as fairly original and I though I would share it with you all. It may give you some ideas of your own for monsters, demons, and/or degenerates.

This is where it started, a human torso and arms. The version I pictured though, didn't extend down to the pelvis. It more ended just past the rib cage. Why this is where I started, I couldn't really say, but I do have an idea or two. First, recognition. If people see something of themselves in a monster, even if it's just a physical similarity, it breeds familiarity. Things with which we are familiar, coming after us with intent to cause harm, is a very basic fear in that to a degree, we can almost imagine that being us. I think that is one of the things that makes zombies so frightening. They are us, even if they are dead, rotting, missing limbs and walk around with massive, open wounds. 

From the torso, I moved up to the head. Sort of. Actually, I didn't get past the neck. It became an extended stump, waving around, with skin covering the end, except for a small hole in the middle. But then the skin retracts, the end of the stump expands, and we have...

Lots, and lots, of sharp teeth. Reaching out, grabbing things, and dragging them down the throat and into the stomach. Of course, it can't exactly chew with a mouth like that, and being attached to a torso, that makes spinning a little uncomfortable. So generally, if something fits in the mouth hole, (reminder, we're only talking about something maybe a bit bigger around than the average human neck.) it swallows it whole. If it attaches to something too big to swallow, it'll point the first row of teeth out, stab the prey with them, and then suck out the blood, like a giant leech. If it happens to grab something which fits, but is attached to something that doesn't, like an arm or a leg, it flings the prey around until the teeth manage to do enough damage to just rip the appendage off. After all, you'll probably have to look around a bit to find someone who isn't squeamish about worms and leeches. 

So now the top half is done. I just needed to figure out the bottom half. I figured the torso would use it's two arms to drag itself around, so out goes any need for legs. I also had to figure on where does all that blood and body parts it eats go. How about just a sack? 

Yeah, something like that, like a termite or ant queen. Something that just continues to swell as the monster eats more and more. 

Fairly disturbing image, yes? Imagine seeing that crawling around the corner of your bed or the couch, A human torso, with a worm-leech mouth straight out of a headless neck, dragging along a bulbous sack behind it full of what it's eaten. 

Now imagine more than one. 

Now, what I think is the fun part, figuring out the story. First off, there's one more physical detail I thought out. It has no eyes, no ears, no nose, no brain even to speak of. So how does it find people and prey? How about a long, snake-like tongue that flicks in and out of the throat hole while the mouth is closed. Disturbed yet? 

Anyway, where was I? Ah, the back story. Well, for being a human-like creature, and having the strength to drag around that bulbous abdomen no matter how big it gets, it makes sense that this is a creature which is demonic in nature. A minor demon, maybe the representation of bloodlust. As such, this also becomes something you probably won't find in the creepy forest or the big, abandoned mansion on the hill. This seems to me to be more of a city dweller, maybe hives of them living in lost and unused subway tunnels, sewer systems, and other underground labyrinths. Oh yeah, they (smaller, unfed ones) would roam in groups. This would prevent them from getting too big, too fast. 

Also, being demonic, they don't actually digest what they eat. Everything just sits in the ass end until it rots away to soup. So the sack will literally contain everything the thing has eaten since it was created/summoned/born. Break one open and you will quickly find yourself inundated with blood, bones, and a soup of rotten sludge. Keep in mind that the sacks expand and stretch in order to hold everything. One that makes its way into a nursing home for instance, could, over the course of a day or two, expand to fifteen feet long and ten feet around at the widest point. 

Not only that, but they are never sated. They only stop eating when they can't find anything else to eat or when they've been destroyed. Hence, their name: The Hungry. 

All that while I was trying to get to sleep the other night. Really, brain?

Anybody want to draw one up for me? My visual arts skills suck. That's why I paint with words.

Sleep tight everyone. Also, don't forget to check the Giveaways link at the top to keep up on Kindle Free Days, contests, and other chances to win stuff!

~ Shaun
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Giving Back

So, this week, when I looked at where the visitors to my blog had come from, I saw most of the usual. Facebook, Goodreads, AbsoluteWrite, Google. I also saw a new page. Those are always fun to check out. Let's see, who has linked to my blog?

Elizabeth Spann Craig. Huh. Never heard of her before, let's check it out. 

Wow, that's a lot of links. It's really an honor to be listed among them. That's not the first site that's linked back to a specific post that I've done though, and hopefully it won't be the last; but I really have to thank Mrs. Craig, as well as the others who dig through the massive lists of blog posts which go up every day and filter out the ones they find helping and inspiring.

Contrary to what some believe. The business of writing is not a zero-sum game. Authors are not in competition with each other the same way other types of businesses are. The purchase of book A does not mean the customer isn't going to purchase books B,C,D,E, and F. The most competition that really exists is when a reader can only purchase one book at a specific time, decides between two books, and then forgets about the book they didn't choose. That's more of a failure in marketing as much as competition though, as the author or publisher stops pushing the work to keep it fresh in people's minds.

In actuality, every book sold, whether online or in a store, ebook or physical, big name or just starting, helps the entire industry. Every book sold either creates a reader or encourages someone to read more. So every well written book is helping out every other one to some degree.

Authors can also do so much more to help each other and society than simply writing more books which encourage people to read.

There are people like Mrs. Craig, who spend their time passing along helpful information to current and aspiring writers. In addition, there are dozens of other ways authors can help the public and other writers, to promote the qualities of literacy and community, in addition to getting their names out there.

So, how can you give back to fellow writers and your local community?

All are happy in their new homes!

  • Volunteer with a local organization. Once a week I spend four hours working with PAWSBINK, helping cats and kittens find homes. Animal rescue organizations always need volunteers, along with food banks and other welfare organizations.
  • Bring your expertise to a local writing group. Mine meets once a month, but as a (somewhat) established writer, they are all grateful to have my input on their own bits and pieces. It also give me the opportunity to share works I'm uncertain of and there are always people that know more on a specific subject or two that you can learn from. 
  • Check out online writing and reading forums, like Goodreads.com or the forums at AbsoluteWrite.com. There are always aspiring authors with questions that you can help with. 
  • Do things like Mrs. Craig does, and use social media to pass along blogs, articles, and reports that contain useful information. That includes things like earnings reports, calls for submission, and tips on writing, publishing, and marketing. 
  • Check with your local libraries to see if they have programs you can assist with. Some have writer's groups where you can share your experience and expertise. Some have sessions where you can volunteer to read out loud. They may even allow a "Meet a real author" session in order to bring in some attention. 
  • If you have kids, or know some teachers or faculty members, check with their schools. They may appreciate a published author coming in for a Q&A session or to discuss the importance of proper language with the students in English classes. 
  • Look up book clubs in your area. If you have a few copies to spare, offer them a few in order to kick-start a group read of your book. Join in so people can ask the author questions as they read. If you can't find a book club or reading group in your area, talk to your friends or the local library about starting one. 
Now, just remember, this is as much about getting your name out there as it is helping out others, but don't senselessly bombard people, and don't cram your book cards down their throats. Nobody likes a pushy salesman. For example, there are slow days at PAWS where I volunteer. So I brought a copy of my book in and left it there with a little sticky note for anyone to take and read. The next week it spurred a conversation with the other people in the adoption center about my being a writer and everyone was happy to take a book card after some discussion. 

Of course, these are just some ideas. You may have other opportunities unique to where you live. As always, if you think of something to add to the list, feel free to do so in the comments. In the meantime, let's all help each other out and spread the words of reading and literacy. 

~ Shaun