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.
Advertisements

Author Interview with M. J. Patrick

If you haven’t yet, check out my interview with fellow author and MWA member M. J. Patrick! Many thanks M. J. for this opportunity!

via Indie Author Spotlight: Andrew McDowell

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

Life imitating Art

Some say life can imitate art, or be inspired by it. With Mystical Greenwood, I certainly drew on my love of wild animals and Nature, which in turn has grown and changed as a result of writing that book.

Growing up, I loved reading about animals and watching television shows about them. I was fascinated to learn new things about animals, and to see them in zoos and aquariums. While reading about animals, I also read about climates and ecosystems. I learned how animals, trees, and plants are interconnected with one another, and with the Earth. Eventually I decided that love for Nature would be the story’s heart. In conducting research into natural magic, Nature-based faiths and spiritualism, the spiritual and sacred essence of that connection fit in well with that love of Nature.

In writing Mystical Greenwood, I’ve come to view the natural world in a different way. I respect nature more than I feel I ever did as a child. Green became my favorite color, and that hasn’t changed since. My research advocated communication and interaction with Nature. I now speak to many different creatures, even insects. I find I don’t freak out upon seeing some of them as much as I did when I was younger. I’ve learned to stand still and not give them reason to fear me, as many creatures may try to defend themselves from people if they feel threatened. When I’ve gone walking or jogging, I look more closely at the trees, and I feel a sense of happiness and peace when I see green leaves in spring and summer. Autumn and winter have their magical charm too.

At St. Mary’s College, I was able to continue connecting with Nature. It’s a beautiful campus, and I remember walking by the St. Mary’s River many times. I would sit on benches in the church cemetery and look out at the water. Other times I’d go down and sit by the water. I tried a technique my characters did by sitting and meditating, which I’d learned through my research is called grounding. Although I didn’t sit up against a tree like Dermot and his friends, I listened to the water and felt the warmth of the sun. A few times I can remember hearing birds come close to me, and I did my best not to alarm them by remaining calm. I looked very closely at the river and into the water. It was never a blank stare. I felt a connection, and serenity.

I don’t necessarily share the beliefs of those who follow Nature-based religions today, but I do respect them, and in my own way I get a sense of the Divine in the natural world. I’m glad of the effect Mystical Greenwood has had on my outlook and love for Nature, and I’m sure it will continue to strengthen with the sequels.

I had a great time at the Maryland Writers’ Conference last week. I sold six copies of Mystical Greenwood! Don’t forget to order yours!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books a Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

CDN$:  Amazon.ca

I hope you enjoy the book. PLEASE post a review and spread the word! And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Don’t forget to follow me on social media as well!

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  YouTube  |  Tumblr

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!

Believe in Your Writing, and Yourself

My latest guest appearance on the blog of the amazing author Sharon Ledwith, where I discuss the importance of self-confidence for writers, and dealing with self-doubt:

Believe in Your Writing, and Yourself

Many thanks to Sharon for this opportunity! I highly recommend her blog for all you writers and readers out there.

Gryphons and Dragons and Unicorns!

Gryphons and dragons and unicorns, oh my! Yeah I couldn’t resist. Mystical Greenwood features these three mythical creatures, as was revealed in the book trailer created by Mockingbird Lane Press. So this month I thought I’d discuss their history a little, as well as the personal fascination that led me to include them in my story.

GRYPHONS

5249459841_5d94958101_b

When it came to choosing the “main” mythical species for Mystical Greenwood, from the beginning I wanted one a little more unique than dragons or unicorns. I first truly became acquainted with gryphons while reading about them in the Harry Potter book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There was something about them that struck a chord with me. I knew right away this was the creature I wanted for my story.

Gryphons represent courage, boldness, majesty, and nobility, and true love since they were said to mate for life, and only once. Their name can be spelled differently too, as I mentioned before when discussing names in general which is what led me to choose the spelling I did. I also read their nests were reputed to contain emeralds, which I felt would fit well with the “Gaelic” atmosphere I was striving for.

DRAGONS

indexdragon

When reading about knights in shining armor and dreaming of being one as a child, I read about dragons. There’s that common story line of a knight slaying one, like St. George. They’re undoubtedly the quintessential fantasy creature. Western dragons are often depicted greedily guarding treasure, like Smaug in The Hobbit or the dragon in Beowulf. They’ll embark on rampages when a single item is stolen from their hoard. They’re linked with power and magic, like the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen.

Dragons come in many colors, all of which can be interpreted symbolically. The fight between Wales and England has been embodied by red and white dragons  (the same colored dragons a young Merlin realized wrecked Vortigern’s castle from constantly battling in an underground pool). They can fly, breathe air or fire, dwell on land or in water. There are so many possibilities with dragons!

While living in Japan, I became acquainted with a dragon different from the Western one. The Eastern dragon is often wingless, benevolent, and worshiped. I once thought about having both in my story, but it would’ve been a world-building dilemma so I didn’t (which is also why I used “feline” instead of “lion” for gryphons). Because of the Western dragon’s association with greed, those in Mystical Greenwood are villains. Nevertheless, maybe I can somehow introduce good dragons in the sequels. There’s also the possibility of sea dragons. Maybe I can combine the two. We’ll see.

UNICORNS

index.jpg

Unicorns represent purity and goodness. In the first Harry Potter novel, drinking their blood extends life, but that life becomes cursed for slaying such a pure creature. Their horns were said to be made of a substance called alicorn, which possessed healing capabilities. Narwhal tusks were once believed to be unicorn horns. Like dragons and gryphons, something about them draws me. Perhaps in my childhood fantasies about being a knight I dreamed of riding one (though whenever I imagined myself on an actual horse, it was white).

I’m considering introducing a few other mythical creatures in the sequels, but I am glad I chose these three for Mystical Greenwood. Please don’t forget to purchase your copy and post your review!

Further Reading
  1. Mythic Creatures: The Griffin at Sarah Sawyer
  2. What’s in a Name? at The Gryphon Pages
  3. Dragon Colors at The Circle of the Dragon
  4. Draconika Dragons
  5. All About Unicorns

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.

Distinguishable Characters

My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.

via GP: Distinguishable characters by Andrew McDowell

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.