Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they’re already published, and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Herbs in Mystical Greenwood

April showers bring May flowers. So this month I thought I’d talk about the herbs that appear in Mystical Greenwood.

Wortcunning is a real term that I found in my research. I liked it and chose to use it in the book. The herbs Saershe employs for medicinal purposes were likewise inspired by real herbs and the treatments for which they were used.

Here they are:

*Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve discussed before how fantasy can often be rooted in reality, especially when it comes to world-building. Originally when I was conducting research on herbs and plants for medicinal purposes, I chose herbs primarily for their purposes and didn’t give too much initial thought to where they came form. Eventually though I decided I wanted them to all have a generally similar place of origin to make the sense of reality stronger (similar to how I chose trees sacred to the ancient Celts), so some were discarded and new ones came in, specifically Comfrey and St. John’s Wort. Yarrow, wild mint, and red clover were there from the beginning and I’d decided were able to be kept.

Some are referred to by their proper names in the novel. Others are instead referred to by alternate names (which are given for those who haven’t yet read the novel). I didn’t set out to use those alternate names; I found them when I was reading about those herbs. I chose to use the alternate names because I felt their proper names sounded too modern and would not fit in a fantasy world (similar you might say to how dinosaur species in the Land Before Time films were referred to by names such as “Longneck” and “Sharptooth”).

Their healing abilities may be exaggerated for the purposes of storytelling, as Saershe also uses magic when employing them (it is a work of fiction after all), but I did try to make sure their purposes would be mostly authentic, and so the story did not stray out of that feeling of reality.

Don’t forget to order your copy of Mystical Greenwood!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

CDN$:  Amazon.ca

If you enjoy the book, PLEASE post a nice review and spread the word! And if you’re a fan, order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Further Reading
  1. Celtic Herbs
  2. Wildflowers of Ireland

Interview with author Andrew McDowell

This is my second guest appearance on Ari Meghlen’s blog. Many thanks again to Ari for this opportunity, and if you’re a writer looking to do an interview, I highly recommend her site.

Today I welcome back author and good friend of mine, Andrew McDowell who has shared his advice with us before.  Today he agreed to do an author interview.  Check out his answers below 🙂

Interview with author Andrew McDowell.  Image:  Speechbubbles

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The Importance of Names (Video)

Watch my talk on the importance of names for characters, settings, and things at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA if you haven’t yet:

This was my first talk geared specifically towards writers. I had a wonderful turnout that evening, and I’ve been informed that some of those who attended used what they learned in their own writing.

Here’s the handout from the event:

Importance of Names Handout

Do elements of my talk sound familiar? Read these old blog posts from which it draws upon:

Many thanks to all of you who purchased Mystical Greenwood! If you haven’t yet, please do so! Plus, it’s now available in Nook! Remember, books make great gifts! If you enjoy it, and I hope you do, please post a review! Help spread the word!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Questions of Narrative and Tense

One has a story in mind, and wants to tell it well. It then becomes a question of how you want to tell it. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to write a novel. In fact there are many, and like all details run the risk of being overthought or overdone. Sometimes one can get so worried about them it leads to writer’s block and one cannot move forward, sort of like when when choosing a book title or character name. These are among the first details to choose at the beginning. Yet at other times, they seem to manifest themselves and/or change in the process.

One of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to write in first person or third. I find it often depends on the type of story being told. When writing Mystical Greenwood, I chose to write in third person as I felt it was the right way to tell a fantasy story set in an imaginary world no reader would have personally lived in, but could still observe and imagine. But there are many subdivisions of third person, and that was not so easily defined for me.

I flirted between third person limited and subjective. Subjective is trying to convey more than one characters’ thoughts and feelings at the same time, whereas limited focuses on chiefly one character. After sending Mystical Greenwood to Mockingbird Lane Press, at my editor’s request I made it third person limited throughout because there were originally some scenes with slight POV shifts that caused confusion. While some chapters and scenes are told from the perspective of characters other than Dermot, and there are scene breaks and a change to another character’s POV in others, I still tried to limit it to one character at a time.

I could’ve written in third person objective, but that would’ve left out every character’s feelings and thoughts, which I felt could detach readers from the narrative. Third person omniscient is often used for high and epic fantasy, where all character’s thoughts and feelings are presented. That can sometimes make it hard for readers to attach themselves to the story, as there would be too many characters to choose from to bond with while reading. But that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m presently trying I-narrative with the neglected pets story. I feel first person works best with realistic fiction (as it’s a setting readers and writers live in and understand), mysteries, and thrillers. I would like to try an epistolary format (telling a story in the form of diary entries and letters), perhaps for historical fiction. Some authors have alternated between third and first within the same book (using the latter for their protagonist), which I might also try. News articles could also be used in epistolary stories, and be another way to alternate. Other writers have changed narrative within a series, like the late Stephen J. Cannell did with the Shane Scully books.

With first person, one can also make it plural or use an unreliable narrator. Some novels try to replicate the thought-process, or stream of conscious – third or first could work, but I personally find it hard to follow. Some classic books have had chapters or scenes written in the format of plays; another thing I could try.

I should also mention second person narrative: “You”. It’s rarer in literature, as is writing in future tense. Most stories are in past tense, but some have been written in present, just like plays and screenplays. But there have been some well-told stories written using one or both, most famously perhaps Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s always good to experiment and try new things with writing. Writer should use whatever they feel is best for your story.

Further Reading
  1. Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited.
  2. Aldridge, Ally. Point of View.
  3. Wolf, Kalesjha H. First Person vs. Third Person.

Errors and Typos

They range from misspellings and repetitions to grammar and formatting errors. Some are more noticeable than others. I see Facebook posts all the time about how “errorists” win when there are typos like an unmatched parenthesis. Writers and editors try to catch all of them before publication, but they’ve been slipping past for centuries, even with famous works, to the point where they’ve become the fascination that they are.

Mystical Greenwood it turns out is no exception. I spotted some after going through a copy from my first order. I’ve notified Mockingbird Lane Press and we are working on making corrections for future copies. Certainly there is a benefit of second and third editions and so on: typos can be caught and fixed in between, although the initial copies remain as they are.

Certainly for any writer, it’s a frustrating feeling to see your work in print with errors. But good friends have given me encouragement, feeling typos won’t be a big deal, and the overall story will outweigh them. Well, certainly classics, even modern classics, are still around and people continue to read and enjoy them. To you reading this right now, if you’ve bought one of the early prints of Mystical Greenwood, let me express my hope that you will still enjoy the story.

The simple truth is perfection is impossible, but we still try to get as close as we can. It’s fair to say that future books I will write will no doubt have some typos in their first printing. Lesson learned.

Further Reading
  1. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. Go Set a Watchman books missing text from final pages after printing error.
  2. Heffernan, Virgnia. The Price of Typos.
  3. Van Huygen, Meg. 15 Famous Typos in First Editions.

Count your Lucky Length

Often when works of fiction are discussed, word and/or page count comes up. When you see books on a shelf, one of the first things you’ll notice, apart from the author’s name and book title on the spine, is how thick or thin they are compared to each other. Some people like J. R. R. Tolkien enjoy reading long stories. Others prefer shorter works. What is it about length? Does it matter?

Often when you look at a book’s title page, there will often be a subtitle saying “A Novel” or something similar. “A Novella” and “A Novelette” appear to be less common. Instead perhaps you might see “A Short Novel”. Furthermore, when it comes to defining types of writers we have novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter. There are no set terms that I’m aware of for writers of novellas or novelettes. I sometimes feel novel is an umbrella term under which any fictional work longer than a short story can be labeled. Often, it seems word count is what it really comes down to, as I’ve seen so many sets of word count ranges that are used to define these works. Or is it?

In my senior year at St. Mary’s College, I took a high level creative writing class called “The Novella”. Some of the books we read felt like novels or long short stories. We each had to write a novella, and I started writing that story about neglected pets. It fit into a novella word count range. However, my classmates and the professor felt it should be expanded into a novel. I admit before that class, I’d first imagined it as a novel. Perhaps a work of fiction is what the author believes it to be, and subsequently calls it.

Writing for the stage and screen can be more restrictive, though it’s by page count rather than words. Once at a meeting of the MWA Annapolis chapter it was stated a page of a screenplay equals a minute of screen time. Thus an ideal film script should be 100-120 pages. A TV episode script would be 50-60 pages. Plays too it seems have page count limits these days. Audiences I can understand would rather not sit in a theater all day.

Some classic plays and films are long. Hamlet is usually abridged when staged or filmed. The 1996 unabridged film version lasted over four hours. Sometimes I wonder what Hamlet’s stage and screen history would’ve been like had Shakespeare written it as two plays, as he did with Henry IV (which has appeared onscreen only as TV films). I also wonder what the movie Gettysburg would’ve been like had it been a TV miniseries as initially planned.

Charles Dickens’s works were first published as a serial (like novelettes or novellas) before being printed as complete books. The serial versions were cheaper, making his novels available to the masses, whom, with a cliffhanger, would be enticed to buy the next installment. The novels of the Brontë sisters were published in “volumes” – but like Dickens’s books they’re are only published as complete works nowadays. Some people feel novellas and novelettes have difficulty getting published these days, and if they do they are usually combined with similar works.

In the end, it all comes down to the writer. It’s up to the author whether they want to define their work as novels, novellas, novelettes, short novels, or short stories. Length is applied in the public consciousness, but maybe it doesn’t have to. Does length and its description on the title page affect the customers decision to purchase or pass?  What do you think?

Further Reading
  1. Meer, Syed Hunbbel. Differences Between a Short Story, Novelette, Novella, & a Novel.
  2. Playwriting 101. Chapter 1: The Play’s the Thing.

Edit, Revise, Rewrite

Any writer who takes their craft seriously will have edited their work many times over. I can pretty much guarantee that any bestselling novel or literary classic you take off the shelf is not in its first draft. Novels go through several drafts before they are published. It can be said of any form of creative writing too, really.  It can even feel at times while you write that you are editing too, and the editing takes over the writing process. Some say to not edit at all with the first draft, to just write it and get it done. Also, others will say that you eventually have to stop editing and move on, otherwise you never will. Both of those sentiments make total sense, but editing is still a vital stage of the writing process.

Perhaps you remember from writing school papers the concept of rough drafts and final copies. Editing enables you to polish a rough draft so that you have a final copy. It is the same with novels. So what chance does a work have without being edited, or without at least one other pair of eyes not your own offering critical feedback? Taking feedback is never easy, but it should be constructive, so you can see it as a way to ask yourself what can be done better.

Going beyond grammar and spelling, the book itself goes through many drafts. Plot points are altered. New ones come in. Old ones are eliminated. It’s same with characters, names, and the elements and rules of world-building. Plot holes are identified, along with anything that does not fit. The problem is tackled, usually more than once. It might be necessary to start over from scratch, using the old draft for reference. Format can change too: chapter titles come and go, length can be altered, and the format of chapter numbers (word numbers, Roman numerals, number numbers) can change.

With Mystical Greenwood, I’ve learned the power and importance of editing. It’s always beneficial to have another pair of eyes look at what you wrote, so you might see what potential readers might say. Whether they’re beta readers, critique group members, or professional editors, their opinions will go a long way. At a time when I thought Mystical Greenwood was good and the plot solid, an insightful and encouraging critique from author John DeDakis showed me that more work still needed to be done. To quote Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer, I came to think of it as a case where “all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” Some scenes were moved around and rewoven together as a result.

Originally I had around half as many chapters that were twice as long, but then I started to wonder if they were too long. I’ve read books with really long chapters and found it to be frustrating finding a place to stop before bed. So about two thirds through a draft, I split those I had in two (excepting the prologue). I also switched from word numbers to number numbers. I once had chapter titles, but grew to dislike them, and after failing to think of new ones, I discarded them altogether. I felt they had become unnecessary.

The main reason I approached Mockingbird Lane Press was its founder, Regina Riney-Williams, has a great reputation as an editor. Over the course of two rounds of editing, I have found her insights and opinions invaluable. She has been constructive and encouraging, and I’m very grateful for her feedback as much as her willingness to take my book on. I’ve learned not only that so much can change through editing, but as a writer to never stop with one draft. To be a good writer, one must seek and accept feedback, subsequently editing, revising, and often rewriting, which must continue with every novel to come.

The Four P’s of Getting Published

My uncle first came up with the concept of the P’s of getting published. He came up with three: patience, politeness, and professionalism. I added a fourth: persistence. One could call them principles, or perhaps even virtues (although that doesn’t begin with P). Each is important when corresponding with agents, editors, and publishers, and ultimately towards becoming published authors.

Patience

Everyone knows patience is a virtue. It’s also something I brought up when I discussed rejections and criticism. One writer is a fish in a deep ocean when it comes to editing and publishing. People in this industry have to judge every query and submission carefully, and with great thought. They have to decide whether or not it is an investment worth the risk, which like the publication process itself, takes time. Another saying people know is that good things come to those who wait. It’s especially true for writers. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way never to rush when it comes to writing or getting published. It’s important to respect publishers and editors for taking quality time to be thorough in their jobs so that a writer’s work reaches its full potential.

Persistence

I already discussed the importance of persistence over a year ago when I talked about facing rejection and criticism. Writers have heard it said before and I’ll say it again: don’t give up. Now, once a contract has been signed, it isn’t a good idea to press agents, editors, or publishers, or sound pushy. Rather writers should be persistent to a degree that shows they care about their work and accomplishing goals, but are patient and respectful of those with whom they’re working.

Politeness

A writer must never forget once they have a contract that he or she is not the only writer under contract. Agents, editors, and publishers alike have to work with and help many writers. So writers should always respect their position and what they’re doing for them. They should respect what they say in their critiques, even if they the writer disagree with it. Now, being a little rude is one thing. But I recall one editor’s story of how a client went beyond being merely rude to being outright vile and foulmouthed, calling the editor offensive names. That editor wouldn’t work with that client again. Now this case, as I said, goes beyond mere rudeness. If writers are a little rude such as when defending their vision of their work, publishers and editors can handle that. Sometimes, people can be rude without realizing it. Still, it’s important to remember editors and publishers are people and have feelings, as do writers. Being polite and respectful goes a long way.

Professionalism

A writer should be professional in his or her correspondence, something that’s apparent from the beginning when querying and submitting work. No doubt everyone recalls dressing professional when going for a job interview. One certainly wouldn’t think of dressing too casual then or when hired. It’s a similar situation when approaching and communicating with those who’s job is to edit, publish, and market writers’ creations. Only in this case it’ll usually take the form of words both written and spoken rather than clothing and hairstyle. Acting casually or even sarcastically can give the impression writers aren’t serious about their work being a success, that they don’t care. Publishing is a business. Writers must take it seriously as they would their work, so as to increase the likelihood of getting it and themselves out there.

Formatting a Manuscript

Writers can certainly have visions of how they want their books’ interior to look when readers open them, with such things as drop caps and fancy-looking fonts for the title and chapters and body. For those who self-publish, it’s certainly up to them what design they want. However when submitting to agents and/or presses, they’ll rarely accept a manuscript that’s been elaborated as such. It needs to be easy for them to read and edit, similar to how play and film scripts must be easy for actors to read. Design for novels comes later. I’ve found it best to use a manuscript format while writing. It makes it a lot easier to focus on the story. A similar situation I think most people can relate to would be school papers; teachers and professors often give specific formatting guidelines to their students, based on their own preferences.

Agents and publishers will often have their own preferences that they specifically ask for or use later, but there are some commonalities I’ve found in advice and tips already out there, and from my own experience. What follows are some personal observations and recommendations based on some of these commonalities. Note: this discussion focuses specifically upon novels, as opposed to plays or screenplays (both of which I’ve learned have their own formatting guidelines), and using Microsoft Word.

Now, writers can go in manually and adjust, or modify text formats and headings so they can just be chosen. When it comes to the text, Left is preferred rather than Justified, and no hyphenating (both will come later, with the final layout). Tabs aren’t recommended; instead, format paragraphs so the first line is always indented. The only paragraphs which don’t have to be indented are the first in each chapter. With titles and chapter headings, I’ve learned it’s best to Center and Bold them so they stand out. Italics are used only when there’s a specific need for them, such as for internal thoughts.

When it comes to font, a small handful are generally preferred: Times New Roman, Arial, Courier New, and probably Calibri and Cambria now. Make it all size 12 (except the book title if you wish). I also turn off the Widow/Orphan Control when setting the paragraph format. Why? Say there are one or two lines left on a page for a brand new paragraph. It’ll automatically instead go over to the next page and you have an empty line. Turning off the Widow/Orphan Control prevents that, so a page’s entire space is used. 1″ margins and regular paper size (8.5″ x 11″) are also preferred. Old school would have two spaces after every sentence, but nowadays it’s just one. Some would have the book title on the same page as the first chapter. In other cases there’s a separate title page, which I personally prefer. I also make it a separate section from the chapters, so it doesn’t have page numbers like they do (which are typically centered in the footer).

In the end, I now think of manuscript formatting this way: it’s a book ready to receive edits as well as an elegant design, just as a play or script is ready to be read by actors. It’s beautiful in its own way, designed to be presented to the publishing world. If you have experiences and/or opinions of your own on formatting a manuscript, please feel free to share them.

Further Reading
  1. SMF – Standard Manuscript Formatting.
  2. Dacus, Kaye. Manuscript 101–Introduction & Basic Manuscript Format.
  3. Fogarty, Mignon. Two Spaces After a Period.
  4. Hill, Beth. Format Your Novel for Submission.
  5. Kewin, Simon. 16 Manuscript Format Guidelines.
  6. Klems, Brian A. What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?
  7. Williamson, Jill. How to Format a Fiction Manuscript.