Rain gushed over ancient tiles, overflowed from dilapidated gutters, and dripped off the end of a cold, stone nose. A church congregation filed in under the cross-eyed gaze of the gargoyle.
The people were drab, in both colour and spirit. The door slammed, locking them in with their sins. Guilt should not be tangible, but the gargoyle tasted it in the rain.
It tasted anticipation, too.
An organ gasped geriatrically to life.
One by one, lonely voices joined into a growing chorus. The music swelled, and took a stone heart soaring upwards to heaven.
It strikes me that it must be rather lonely to be a gargoyle.
I wrote this as an entry to the 2018 Southam Flash Fiction Competition, which required stories to be under 100 words and contain the phrase ‘the door slammed’ somewhere in the work. I had a lot of fun with the theme and will share some of my other entries here as well.
Just over a week ago I asked y’all to give me your opinions on some draft book covers for The Jack Hansard Series – and your response was fantastic! Thank you for all of your messages on the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Wattpad – we’ve been weighing up your comments and have come to our final decision…
Support was almost evenly split between options 1 and 3, with just a few shout-outs for option 2 – clearly the majority of you prefer a splash of colour! The lack of a clear favourite made our decision all the harder, but I’m proud to announce that we’ve firmly agreed on… cover 1!
‘Intrigue’ is the word that kept cropping up in your comments about this design and we heartily agree: it has the atmosphere of those mysterious, underhand dealings that define Jack Hansard. I’m a little bit sore to leave cover 3 behind (I can’t overstate how much I loved all of the options Dom presented me with) but who knows – future poster material, perhaps?
What happens now?
Dom’s job is to evolve this concept into the final polished cover, and mine is give the series a final edit to make it perfect for publication. Watch this space – we’ll keep you updated as we go.
Hit that big ol’ Follow button if you don’t want to miss anything. You can also watch out for sneak-peeks and other news via Facebook and Twitter!
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good look at some folklore, isn’t it? Under the spotlight today is a Japanese cultural and religious object – the omamori – which is a surprisingly common item of stock sold by our favourite occult tradesman:
Peggy straightened her notes. “Honestly, Jack, you’re never prepared. You never know when you might need something as simple as a pen and paper.”
“I’m prepared in different ways,” I said, patting the protective paper charms in my pockets.
“Jack, when have your charms ever actually worked?”
“They all work!” I said, indignantly. This, at least, was true. I don’t often lie to my customers (that’s a lie, part of me pointed out), it’s just that I sometimes omit important information. I will give a lifetime guarantee, on my word and my honour as a tradesman, that every one of my protective omamori charms are in fine working order. What I can’t guarantee, however, is what they protect you against.
Omamori is a name given to a type of Japanese amulet: loosely translated, it means ‘protection’. Omamori normally take the form of a rectangle of patterned silk which contains prayers, the name of a god, or other religious text written on paper or wood. They exist as charms of good luck, or to act as wards against bad juju. Whether providing good luck to help pass a driving test, for example – or avoiding the bad juju of traffic jams – the main function of omamori is protection.
Omamori are a shared aspect of Japan’s two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Both have several varying branches of tradition so it’s hard to sum them up briefly – but I’ll try. You might describe Shinto as a religion that grew out of a rich body of native mythology and which is structured around belief in a huge host of gods and spirits (also known as kami) who can have both positive and negative effects on the world. Kami can include personifications of nature, natural forces, and even ancestral human spirits. Meanwhile, Buddhism was introduced later to Japan from its spread through China, and might be considered a more philosophical doctrine based heavily on the teachings of the Buddha – the central tenet being a realisation of the temporary nature of life and the ongoing cycle of rebirth.
Omamori charms are usually dedicated to one of these Shinto kami or a key Buddhist figure, and they are designed to provide a very specific brand of luck or protection. Charms to protect your health and ward off illness, for example, are quite common. If you’re going on a long journey, there’s an omamori to keep you safe while you travel – it’s particularly popular with bus and taxi drivers! A student might buy a charm specifically designed to bring luck in their education, especially during exam-season. If you can think of it, there’s probably an omamori for it.
“I’ve learned over time, and through an array of consumer complaints, that my stock of oriental paper charms can variously protect against finding moles in the garden, slight breezes, rains of fish, tripping over on a Sunday, burning your tongue on hot tea, sneezing in alleyways, and success – one charm so counter-intuitive that I could’ve sold it as a revenge curse if only I’d known what it did at the time.”
If you hadn’t already guessed, these little amulets are still hugely popular in Japan today and can be bought from the vast majority of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The modern omamori is bright and colourful and most are designed to hang from things like bags and straps. You can even buy them in less traditional forms such as car bumper stickers, phone charms, and (my personal favourite) memory cards to protect your digital data and electronic devices! The key thing is that a true omamori will have been properly blessed and so infused with power before use.
Good news for tourists: buying omamori as souvenirs is encouraged – it’s a nice way to participate in Japanese culture and support the shrine or temple you are visiting.
I for one am saving up my pennies. I’d love to visit Japan some day.
In The Easy Cut: Editing Tips Part 2 we looked at quick and easy ways of improving your writing by making small aesthetic cuts. The reason these cuts were quick and easy was because they were largely superficial – they tightened up your work without making you lose anything you’d really miss. The Easy Cut was all about polishing the writing. The Hard Cut is all about polishing the story, and that means cutting where it hurts.
Unlike last time, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut without reading your work: every piece will need a different kind of editing. Instead, I can give you a series of checks you should make – questions you need to ask – to highlight where your work needs alteration.
So get your scissors out; we’re going deeper this time.
1. Check your driving
In the Hard Cut we’re looking for problems in our story’s structure and composition: do all the parts fit together and do they tell a coherent, entertaining story? One of the first questions you can ask is: “How are the events in my story driven?”
Does stuff just happen to your protagonist, or do they make it happen? Do they have a habit of escaping bad situations through sheer luck, or by the agency of another character rather than by their own skills and cunning? Exactly how many decisions does your main character make, and do their decisions affect the progression of the story?
If you answered ‘no’ to that last one in particular, then you’re in a heap of trouble. A main character who doesn’t drive the story with their decisions is barely a character at all. Why would I want to read about a protagonist who just bounces from one random event to the next? Your story might as well be called ‘A List of Stuff That Happens to Some Guy’.
There are ways to make a character vulnerable to the influence of others while firmly rooting them at the steering wheel of your story. I’ll point out Discworld’s Rincewind as a good example. Here’s a very cowardly character who appears to be bounced between unfortunate incidents as if the universe has something against him, but in fact it’s usually his own bad decisions that place him in these situations. He decides to run away, and ironically runs head first into another dangerous predicament and thus advances the plot. He also makes plenty of decisions – who to side with, how to escape, and, on the odd occasion, when to face his fears – which ultimately lead to the story’s conclusion.
So bear in mind that a little bit of luck to save the day isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only ace up your character’s sleeve.
2. Check your conflict
This is an easy way to make sure your story has a sensible structure: ask yourself “What is the central conflict?”
The vast majority of stories follow a similar structure: we begin with a status quo, a conflict is introduced, the main character/s go through ups and downs to try to resolve the conflict, and finally the conflict is resolved.
That conflict is what ties your story together – it’s the core of the plot. To see how well your conflict is written, try this experiment: ask your Beta Readers to sum up your story in 15 seconds. If they can’t, then it’s possible your central conflict isn’t clear enough.
Sure, you can argue against this by shouting about your ‘multi-faceted conflict’ and ‘diverging sub-plots’ and whatnot, but what’s the glue that holds it all together?
So let’s try this with AGame of Thrones, a book written from several viewpoints and spanning a series of vastly interwoven political intrigues. What’s the main conflict of the story? Let’s see:
Game of Thrones is about a power struggle over the Iron Throne.
Right? Right. It’s right there in the title. Yes, the book is also about a lot of other stuff and foreshadows plenty more besides, but the central conflict is that power struggle: it ties in all those other sub-plots under its bloody, bloody wings.
Another exercise you can try is drafting a blurb for your story. How would you sum it up in, say 100 words? Now try 50. That. That’s your conflict.
3. Check your motivation
Next: What are the motivations of each of your characters?
It doesn’t matter how small a character they are, they will have some kind of motivation driving their thoughts, words and actions. That barista doesn’t politely serve you a cup of coffee because she is a barista by nature – she does so because she needs to pay her rent, and the desire to keep her job tends to stops her from spitting in the milk.
It’s important to know what your characters’ motivations are, because those motivations will help to drive the story. You should pay special attention your protagonist’s motivation, because this thread should wind through your entire plot and the way they try to resolve the central conflict. At every step, the reader should be clear on what your main character is trying to achieve – again, ask your Beta Readers what they think that character’s end goal is. If they can’t figure out why your character is doing what they’re doing, it’s time to consider a re-write.
You should also consider how your characters’ motivations might change over the course of a story, and this brings me onto…
4. Check your arc
I feel this is perhaps the most important question of all: is your main character exactly the same person by the end of the story as they were at the beginning?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have some major editing to do.
Generally, all stories follow one or more main characters – it is their story we are telling. If your character hasn’t changed by the end… then what was the purpose of the story in the first place?
This is something that has always bothered me with the structure of TV sitcoms. It’s always the same: status quo, conflict, character learns a humorous ‘lesson’, everything returns to the status quo . . . and the next episode proves the character never actually learned anything as they make the same mistakes over and over again. Consider How I Met Your Mother: how many times does Ted continue to make the same douche-baggy moves, fall for the same girl, despite professing to have learned otherwise?
That’s kind of OK in a TV show which has to run for 10 seasons of 20 episodes or something silly like that – but only because we’ve gotten used to that kind of poor writing and atrocious structure being the norm. On the flip side, there’s now plenty of episodic television out there with stellar writing and character development. The Walking Dead is a good example: every character is constantly changing over the course of the series in line with their harrowing experiences. There is no status quo.
I’m not suggesting your character needs some soul-searching, personality-changing inner transformation to occur. But it is necessary to understand that humans are subtly ever-changing creatures, and we are inexorably shaped by the events around us. So figure out how your story has shaped your protagonist, and you’ll have found the cornerstone to their character arc.
5. Check your purpose
This might be the quickest cut you can make, but also one of the hardest. Do all your side-characters serve a purpose? By which I mean, do they either advance the plot or add depth to your main cast?
You might find a couple of your favourite side-characters are just fluff, taking up unnecessary space if they don’t serve either of the above. You need to give them a reason to be in the story, or cut them completely.
An example where I’ve fallen into this trap myself: I once gave a teenage character a whole roster of pointless friends with too much page-time just because he was in high school and ‘ought’ to have friends. Each one had a personality, back story, and . . . next to zero impact on the plot. They were just decoration, an unnecessary detail in a story where the main character spent most of his time not-even-on-earth. All I actually needed to do was pick out one key friend to play the role of confidant and flesh out the protagonist at the start of the story, and drop the rest into the background, where they belonged.
So give your side-characters purpose, or get rid.
Taking this a step further, you can apply the same philosophy to actions as well as characters. It’s a hard rule to live by, but the majority of your words should be on the page for a reason. Consider a plot where a character called Bob gets up one morning to catch a train which will then crash on his way into work. How long do you describe his toast-making ritual? Do you go through every getting-dressed action before he leaves the house? Do you list every item in his fridge that morning, the way his wallpaper looks, the way the tap whines when he’s pouring water to boil for coffee?
Of course you don’t. You tell the reader just enough about Bob’s morning routine to show the reader something of his background and his personality. For example, you might point out the lack of creases in his suit to highlight his fastidious nature; you can tell us that he eats a few mouthfuls of unbuttered, burnt toast to show us he doesn’t look after himself well; and then you could mention the picture of his wife that he knocks over in his rush to get out the door. Each of those points is there to tell us something specific.
Cutting back to these purposeful details can greatly improve the punch of your story, allowing us to get into the meat of the conflict quicker and with more decisiveness in the storytelling.
6. Check your research
Here’s a fun question that every author hates asking: where did I go wrong?
Here you want to be actively searching for the plot holes in your story. Ask your Beta Readers to find reasons that your story wouldn’t work – and then explain to them why it does. If you don’t have an explanation, then you have a plot hole, my friend.
Sometimes these can be big plot holes; for example, if a jet engine is key to saving your character’s life, but you’ve misunderstood how a jet engine works, that’s a pretty massive hole that the reader will fall all the way into. Sometimes they can be quite small; the one that will always stick with me was not understanding how hard it would be for a driver to miss a flat tire in their own car. A hole not big enough to topple the entire plot, but certainly enough to make the reader trip over it.
You want to smooth as many of these holes over as possible, and sometimes it’s going to change how your character tackles the problem at hand. Jet engine won’t work? Well, is there another kind of engine that would work, in this scenario? If not an engine, a parachute?
Science isn’t the only thing you want to study for. If you’re writing in the ‘real world’, spend some time researching the locations in your story. Have you done something silly like describing Northumberland as flat? Have you done something even sillier like calling the Northumberland coast hilly? Because it’s not. It’s flat. Specific locations require specific knowledge.
Don’t think you’re off the hook just because you write high fantasy, either. Do you know what rocks your mountains are made of? I can guarantee your dwarven/gnomish/goblin miners are going to need that piece of information. How does your army’s trebuchet work? Is it possible that you’re actually describing a mangonel instead? When your hero starts life as a farmer, do you know as much about working the land as they should?
Proper research adds richness and depth to the storytelling, and if you’ve done it right then you’ll have sealed up those hole before the readers can get to them.
7. Cut and Paste
Time to apply a bandage, a final tip to make the pain of cutting a little more bearable: save your favourites.
I keep a document stowed away called ‘Bits and Pieces’, and it is literally bits and pieces of stories I have chopped up. From five lines of dialogue to 500 word paragraphs, down to an odd five-word phrase… I keep things that I can’t bear to lose forever, and I keep them for a rainy day when I might need them again. It’s my personal cure for Writer’s Block; if I’m having an off day I can browse this cutting-room floor and pick up a discarded remnant and buff it into a shine. Sometimes a line of dialogue, an odd word is all it takes to spark those neurons into a creative fire once again. And I find it dulls the pain of cutting out beautiful, but utterly pointless writing.
There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to editing. Some of these tips will work for you, and some won’t, and that’s OK. Editing, just like writing, is a skill that you develop with experience: you can’t just teach it in one go. If you want to hone your skills, then I highly suggest you join a writing group of some kind – an online forum, or a social writer’s circle – and I urge you to critique other people’s work.
We can always find faults with the work of others more readily than with our own, and we learn to identify faults that we can’t see in our own writing. Then, in providing constructive criticism for others we are forced to explain why we think something doesn’t work, and as we get better we can explain how to improve it. And gradually this translates into how we edit our own work. ‘Teaching is the best way of learning,’ and all that.
This wraps up our little mini-series on editing. You can find Parts 1 and 2 below, if you missed ’em. Excuse me while I go back to… more editing. I suspect most writers are masochists at heart, especially once we hit the point of enjoying our editing process. Good bye for now, and best of luck on your own road of pain!
Do you have burning desire to tell me how wrong I am about my approach to editing? Light it up in the comments! Are you in the middle of editing your work now? Come share your own tips, tricks, and bitter frustrations with the rest of us. Misery does love company 😉
Dydh ha, my lovelies! Just popping my head above the surface to let you all know that I’m still here, and that An Inspired Mess is far from sitting quiet. I’m now halfway through editing TheJack Hansard Series: just ten more episodes to go! Every week I upload the polished edit of another episode that you can read for free – keep an eye on the Home Page to see which one has been most recently updated.
I’m currently collating my editing experience (read: mistakes) into Editing Tips Part 3: The Hard Cut. This article will cover the heart-wrenching aspects of editing, the changes we can’t always bring ourselves to make. Stay tuned, I’ll have it ready soon.
As you may have guessed from my infrequent blog updates, I am far from an avid blogger – I do enjoy reading and writing articles, but my heart definitely lies with fiction. The downside is that by not blogging as often, I’m making it harder for myself to reach out to y’all!
I’d like to find more ways to connect with like-minded readers and writers both in and outside of the blogging sphere . . . so here’s a question for you: If you’re a reader, where do you prefer to connect with authors? How do you like to be kept updated about their work?
And if you’re a writer, what platforms do you use to reach out to your readers? For my tuppence: I’ve recently joined Wattpad, and I’m finding it fantastic for making friends and joining engaging conversations. Conversation, I think, is the key. There’s no point in reaching out to your audience if you’re not willing to invest some time in getting to know them.
So if you want to chat, hit me up! You can reach me on:
Editing is a skill that you need as a writer, regardless of whether you intend to self-publish or not. The first draft will never be your best (it certainly isn’t for most great writers) because it’s the editing that makes it great. In this three-part series we’re looking at three keys elements of fiction editing, with some simple guidelines that will help you hone your work from first draft to final.
The Easy Cut is a simple first step you can take to tidy up your work. You’re looking specifically to cut bits out in order to streamline the text and make it flow more smoothly. The word I like to use is tight – you’re tightening up the writing.
So what kind of things should make the Easy Cut?
Cut the Unnecessary
A good rule of thumb is to remove words that are unnecessary, or redundant. See that sentence you just read? That’s a prime example. The words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘redundant’ essentially mean the same, why do I need both?
You don’t need to apply this rule to everything, but you’ll find most paragraphs read better once you have. A couple more examples:
Try saying ‘they gathered’ instead of ‘they gathered together.’
Because the ‘together’ is already implied by the verb of having gathered.
Try cutting words like ‘quite’. Eg: ‘He quite liked the look of it . . .’; ‘She was quite artistic . . .’
Ask yourself, why are you qualifying your statement with ‘quite’? Is your character artistic, or is she not?
I am so guilty of having too many ‘quites’ in my writing. I could argue that it’s part of my character’s voice, but really it’s my own creeping in. You can (quite!) often remove this word and end up with a punchier sentence.
Cut the Repetitive
Pay attention to where you may have repeated the same kind of word within a short space. Read the paragraph below and think about how easily you could improve it by changing the repeated word:
The wind was howling outside the bedroom windrow. Melissa shivered and pulled the covers up to her chest, stealing a glance at the clock. Almost time. When would he arrive? Would he come at all? Finally the clock struck midnight, and the wind howled louder. She couldn’t remember when the town had last been struck by such a howling gale.
That’s a very exaggerated example, but not uncommon: the writer is overly intent on creating atmosphere with the howling wind and can’t let go of the word. Do we need all those howls? If you are certain you have to describe the wind at those three points, perhaps you could vary your description? Instead of howling, perhaps the second time it roars. Instead of sound, perhaps you can show us the chill it pushes through the window. Maybe the shadows of tree branches clawing at the walls.
This is one of the easy jobs you can give your Beta Readers – ask them to highlight words they think you’ve used too often, or too close together.
Cut the Weak Action
Another way to make the Easy Cut is to get rid of some of your adverbs. Adverbs are often rather weak descriptors and can be replaced by a much more expressive verb. For example:
‘He walked slowly . . .’ could become ‘He ambled . . .’ ‘She said quietly . . .’ might be better as ‘She murmured . . .’ ‘He leaned forward quickly . . .’ becomes way more assertive as ‘He lunged . . .’
Here’s a nice little resource that might help you find the active verb you’re looking for to replace some of your duller adverbs.
And if in doubt, pick up a thesaurus! (Or search for synonyms on Google.)
Cut the Weak Description
Similar to above, look out for where your adjectives have words like ‘very’ in front of them. Is there a better, stronger adjective you could use – one that punches harder?
‘very hot’ could become ‘scorching’ ‘very small’ could be ‘minuscule’ ‘very angry’ could be ‘fuming’
There is a certain satisfaction to be gained from being precise with your phrasing. Why just be close to what you mean, when you could say exactly what you mean?
Cut the Dialogue Tags
Sometimes less is more, especially where dialogue is concerned – at least, where your dialogue tags are concerned. A dialogue tag is a word that attaches to dialogue primarily to identify the speaker, and sometimes to convey tone of voice. Words like: remarked, demanded, exclaimed, muttered . . . you know, all the ones your English teachers drilled into you to replace boring old ‘said’.
Thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Go pick up a book and flick to some dialogue. Read a page or so. I’ll wait.
Bets are that the section you just read included more ‘said’s than any other kind of tag. Also likely that it didn’t include many tags at all. There’s a simple reason for this: dialogue tags are distracting and can break up a nice flow of speech. Your eye is trained to slide right over ‘said’; it gets stuck on words like ‘shouted’. So this means that if you spend every other line telling the reader how she shouted then he exclaimed then she raged then he groused then she screamed . . . you don’t get an intense argument, you get a string of lumbering, clunky verbs.
An expressive tag carries a hell of a lot more weight if it occurs in isolation. Use them wisely to add impact at key moments in your characters’ conversations.
Cut the Stalling
If up to now you’ve been staring at your first draft wondering how you could possibly improve it, start with the simple cuts I’ve suggested here. By all means, don’t cut everything that falls under these guidelines – you have to learn to trust your gut, after all. But this should help you recognise the places where you can tighten up your writing, and hopefully I’ve helped you understand why some things will read more smoothly than others.
So what are you waiting for? While your Beta Readers are still plowing through your work, you can be getting on with your Easy Cut.
Save your tears for Part 3: The Hard Cut.
Are there any tips you’d like to add for other writers going through the Easy Cut? Share them in the comments!
If you want to be notified when Jack Hansard episodes have been updated with their final edits, you can follow the AIM Facebook Page to receive these updates, or check the An Inspired Mess homepage each Monday for a link to the most recent one. =)
I thoroughly believe this. The first draft from even the best of writers is likely to be a pile of crap – and that’s because they know the important thing is to get that first draft finished, not perfect. If you are constantly polishing and editing as you write, you run the risk of never being satisfied with what you’ve created, and in the end you create nothing.
You may have seen this video by Jake Parker doing the rounds; if not, watch it and get pumped.
This is why I think the second key to good writing is to let the first draft be crap. Just get it out there, in the open, onto that blank page. This is why exercises like NaNoWriMo are brilliant: it encourages you to pour your soul out and get something finished in a set time-frame, to a deadline.
That’s what I set out to do with the Jack Hansard Series, and I’ve now completed that first crucial step. Season 1 is finished, exposed, and ready for stage two. The Big Edit.
If you’re a regular reader or you follow my Facebook Page, you may have noticed that I’ve already begun this process. Every Monday I re-upload an episode with its final, truly polished edit: I’ve gone through four episodes so far, and Episode 5 will receive its facelift on Monday 19th. Over the next few blog posts I’d like to share some editing tips and observations which might help guide your own editing process, especially if you feel at a loss as to where to start. In this article we’ll be looking at what is possibly the single most important step towards editing your work: finding Beta Readers.
What should you look for in a Beta Reader?
Finding a group of Beta Readers to give feedback may sound like an eyebrow-raisingly obvious tip, but it might be harder to achieve than you think. What you need is a group – I suggest a minimum of four, but aim as high as you can – that will read your work in its entirety and provide meaningful feedback. Where do you find the people who will make up this select group?
First, Find An Author
A good way to do this is to join a writing community and find someone to exchange work with. You’ll (hopefully) get knowledgeable criticism from a fellow writer who understands the craft and can help you with sentence structure, grammar, tone and voice and so on. They will also be able to provide a totally detached viewpoint: they don’t know you personally, and they have no reason to hold back on the constructive criticism.
By reading their work in exchange, you’re likely to pick up editing skills you didn’t know you had. Evaluating someone else’s writing style is an easy way to learn what does and doesn’t work – and why. And because you have to explain that why to your fellow author, you end up with a deeper understanding of it. They say that to teach is the best way to learn.
What’s the downside? This internet stranger might not actually be enjoying your story – they may be more interested in what you have to say on their work, rather than providing meaningful input on yours. Furthermore, if they are not enjoying your story then you won’t get a true reader’s reaction from them, and it will lack the emotive response – they won’t be able to tell you how it makes them feel, and why – that a truly interested reader can provide. Thus I feel a read-for-read deal like this is best for picking up on technical issues in the writing, but might not inform well on how the actual story is received. I’d certainly suggest taking the time to find a fellow writer who is on a similar wavelength to yourself: make sure you are both clear as to what you are getting out of the arrangement, and that you are both genuinely interested in reading each other’s work (at the very least interested in the genre you write!).
If you can’t find someone to exchange work with, then participate publicly in a writing forum or similar community. Critique lots of people’s writing, learn how to evaluate a range of styles and voices, and occasionally offer up your own work for collective criticism.
However, be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort if this is your only group of Beta Readers, and remember that skill level and effort from others will vary. From my own point of view, I dabble in writing forums here and there but often find I don’t get out the same as I put in: where I might take two hours to write a thoughtful review spanning five hundred to a thousand words, in return I’d receive a short paragraph telling me to change a piece of phrasing and remove a comma. I don’t mean to gripe – I believe it still helps me to understand and improve my own writing techniques. By picking out the flaws of others, you begin to identify those same flaws in your own work, and you can heed the same advice you’ve given people before you.
Now, Find A Reader
So you’ve got your outside perspective from someone completely detached from your writing; good job. Now you need an inside perspective.
This is the section of your Beta Reading group that should be made up of people who have a genuine interest in what you write. I’m going to say something controversial here: Don’t automatically pass off friends and family as being unable to give honest critiques.
I know the standard line is that ‘your friends will lie to make you feel good’, but if that’s always true then I feel you have shitty friends. The thing to remember is that they need guidance: you need to start by teaching them how to be good Beta Reader. As with anything, you need to invest a little time in them in order to expect a good return.
You should be able to explain to your Beta Readers the sheer importance of honest feedback, that they shouldn’t feel obligated to only mention the good stuff, and that criticism is generally the most helpful kind of feedback – challenge them to find the flaws, to search for the things they’re unsure of. If they point out something in a vague way, question them until they make it specific.
And . . . allow them to give you good feedback too! Good feedback isn’t bad, and it can equally inform you how to improve. Instruct your readers to think deeply about why they might like a particular part of the story; why they are responding so well to this character; why they smiled at that sentence. It will help you understand what you are doing right, and what elements you should pay more attention to.
So reach out to friends and family who genuinely want to support you, and reach out to current fans of your work – if you explain things properly, they should be able to find something to criticise. In fact, I believe they are more likely to go out of their way to help you improve, because they are already invested in you and your writing. The key is helping them understand what they need to identify, and that you aren’t going to get all teary-eyed over an ill-received chapter. They are likely to surprise you with the things they pick up, and the additional knowledge they can provide.
Every one of my Jack Hansard episodes went through a single, reliable Beta Reader before being published for the first time on An Inspired Mess: my husband (did I mention I got married last week? News! =D) He’s great at pointing out plot holes and errors in my reasoning, and isn’t afraid to tell me he doesn’t like some of the more surreal aspects of my story-telling. Here’s a great example of where a Beta reader can pick up on something the writer missed:
In Episode 12: Shadows, Hansard’s car suffers from a flat tire at a dangerous time. In the unpublished draft, I wrote that they had been driving on the flat for some time without noticing it, until suddenly the car couldn’t effectively drive any more and that was that.
“How could they not notice it?” said Husband, in response to this. “You bloody well know if you’re driving on a flat tire. And even if Jack has realised and was trying to keep it quiet, there’s no way that his passenger wouldn’t notice it as well. The wheel would make a sort of thumping noise. You’d be an idiot to keep going.”
“Oh,” said I. “Oops.”
That outside perspective is truly crucial for picking up on little details like this. Someone simply asking: “But why did he do that, if it would have been simpler to go the other way?” can make you totally re-think part of the story. It might not change the plot, but it might add a motivation you hadn’t considered, or define more accurate details.
Now that I’m on Round Two: The Big Edit, I reached out to friends and readers of the series to act as my main Beta group. There is an interesting variety in the feedback I’ve received. One reader tends to splurge enthusiastic praise for virtually everything – but she’s brilliant in expanding on the reasoning of why she likes things, and the criticisms she does point out tend to make me pause for thought. Another has very little to say, but what is said is always poignant and useful, and will pick up on character traits I hadn’t considered. Yet another likes to make comparisons with other works in the urban fantasy genre, and has helped me think about the bigger picture where my little world is concerned.
The one thing they all have in common is that they enjoy reading the series – they are a part of my actual reader base, and that makes their reactions the truest reflections of my audience. Think of it as a kind of market research: you focus on gathering information from the audience you are trying to sell to. I’m not trying to impress a fellow writer who prefers sci-fi and knows a lot about sentence composition (though they were very helpful in my early growth as a writer) – I’m writing for the people who want to read this kind of story, therefore their feedback is now the most valuable to me.
This concludes my advice for searching out and utilising your Beta Reading group. Stay tuned for Editing Tips Part Two: The Easy Cut, where we take a look at some quick and simple techniques for editing your work, and Part Three: The Hard Cut, where the soul-wrenching edits happen. Take care y’all!
Was this helpful to you? Do you agree or disagree with how I approach Beta Reading? Let me know in the comments!
Since my last blog post I’ve been doing a lot of reading into how one goes about reaching an audience for their episodic stories . . . and I’ve learned that there are no clear-cut search terms to help navigate the topic, and no clear definition of what this form of writing actually is. And part of the reason, I think, is due to the digital age we live in, where eBooks and self-publishing have expanded the possibilities open to authors today.
At its simplest, episodic or serial fiction is a narrative presented in separate installments over a period of time. But that’s about as specific as defining a novel as a book with words in, and this vagueness of meaning seems to be frustrating readers in various corners of the internet who perhaps didn’t know exactly what they were buying into when the author described their work as ‘episodic’.
Below I’ve attempted to collate my own understanding of the two main types of serial fiction, and the challenges faced by both readers and writers using the form.
The Serialised Novel
With the availability of e-publishing, a lot of authors are now experimenting with serialising their novels. This means the author has written (or is in the process of writing) one complete story which can be broken up and sold as stand-alone segments. Sometimes these segments have been designed with serialisation in mind, ending on a cliff-hanger to keep the reader hooked waiting for the next installment; sometimes the installments are just normal chapters released for sale separately over time. This means the author can charge a small amount, say 99p, for each individual segment or chapter, potentially making more money than if they’d just sold the complete novel on its own. As a plus, readers might be persuaded to also buy the completed novel in order to have the story sections collected together.
Ultimately, a serialised novel can be presented equally well as a novel or as a series. But it has a relatively short run, to the length of an average novel in its genre.
From my Googling efforts and conversations with friends and family, I get the impression that most people, when talking about ‘serialised fiction’, are referring specifically to serialised novels. This frustrated me no end when I was trying to find advice tailored to the kind of serial I like to write, which is:
The Episodic Series
I would liken this form to a television series. The individual installments are more likely to stand up on their own within an episodic series, much like how you can watch a single episode of Supernatural or Game of Thrones without having seen the rest – you might not get to grips with all the character background and world lore, but you’ll be able to follow the plot that’s presented directly in front of you for the course of that episode. (You won’t understand why it was important that so-and-so’s dad killed so-and-so’s aunty five years ago, but you’ll understand why the character you only just fell in love with was horrifically murdered in this episode with nary a warning. And then you’ll curse George R. R. Martin and resign yourself to watching the series from the beginning.)
In this sense an episodic series is often longer and more likely to be without a fixed end. It might be composed of wildly disparate settings and characters, but be tied together by an underlying motif or intertwined plot. An episodic series also has the potential to be divided into seasons, where a set of episodes are bound by one overarching plot arc. E.g. There are twenty episodes that make up Season 1 of the Jack Hansard Series.
Whereas a serialised novel is a complete story that has been broken up, an episodic series is a story that is constantly unfolding with each episode and could (potentially) continue unfolding infinitely. Y’know, just like a beloved TV series that jumps the shark and goes on way, way too long. (Lookin’ at you, Supernatural.)
Here I feel it makes sense to call the installments ‘episodes’, whereas the installments in a serialised novel could sensibly be called ‘chapters’ or ‘segments’. Crucially, I feel the key thing about an episodic series is that it would not work as a novel. I’m not saying you couldn’t edit and adapt it into novel form. I mean that if you collected a season’s worth of episodes together, it would still read as a season of individual (though connected) stories, rather than as one story where all the segments run seamlessly into each other.
I don’t claim to be a pro, and the definitions I’ve given are hardly rigid. Even my Jack Hansard only loosely fits, as not every story can be consumed separately from the rest: because I’ve restricted myself to very compact installments (4000-5000 words a piece) some stories spill over into several episodes, so that the overall series contains mini-arcs of three to five episodes long. But again, I’d liken it to a TV series, where script-writers will often create two-part episode arcs to build suspense.
Do People Read Serials?
Short answer: YES, and then some.
Nowadays it’s easier than ever to access serial stories: you can buy them easily through Amazon and other e-publishing services; read them on your phone, tablet or Kindle. Websites like Wattpad offer a free platform for readers and writers of all types of serialised fiction, and the idea seems to be pretty successful: with an audience of 45 million readers a month on Wattpad, it suggests there’s plenty of demand for this form of writing. But whether serial fiction is a good or bad idea varies from reader to reader, and probably depends on how much you enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the next installment to arrive – and how effectively authors present their work.
For instance, the self-publishing platform Smashwords has been decidedly lukewarm to the concept of serial fiction, and although serials are recognised as a viable form in their Terms of Service, there’s a handy section that declares a publication must not be an “unfinished work-in-progress”. Y’know, a definition you could easily apply to an episodic series if you didn’t want them hanging around, cluttering up your webpages.
I can understand why. In the past some authors have abused the system and annoyed readers by flooding an online shop front with images of their multiple ‘serial’ works, instead of a solitary entry for a novel. A cheap trick to get attention. Readers have also explained their dislike of having to pay for separate installments, seeing it as a tacky device to make them pay more for each chapter. Sometimes this negativity is because the reader didn’t understand they weren’t buying a finished story at point of purchase, or because they jumped in halfway through a series by accident.
So what can we do, as writers, to help readers enjoy the serialised story form? More than anything, I think we need to be clear about what we’re selling. If you’re selling chapters of a book that you’re eventually going to release as a completed novel, be upfront about it: readers may prefer to wait and pay for the finished deal. Letting them know they have a choice matters, and hopefully curbs feelings of ‘I’ve been cheated’ from those that don’t enjoy cliff-hangers or the anticipation of waiting.
If you’re selling an episodic series, I think you need to start by explaining exactly what that is, in relation to the story you’re presenting. It’s going to suck balls if the reader thinks they’re subscribing to a series of novels and then receives short stories for their money. Will you be releasing a collected ‘season’ of your episodes, so that readers don’t have to buy them separately if they don’t want to?
In particular, we need to avoid the temptation to abuse the episodic form for attention. Don’t upload all your episodes at once to spam a reader’s page. If you promise to update to a schedule, meet your deadlines. Even if you are charging a pittance for each installment, make sure it’s still worth the price, and if you use cliff-hangers keep them inventive and thoughtfully planned – not thrown in at the last second to keep your reader dangled on the line.
Now more than ever I think episodic storytelling is coming into its own. With our busy, frantic lifestyles and device-addiction, it makes sense to present stories in easily-digested chunks that can be served up during a long train commute or snatched during a coffee break. When people are finding they have less time to read, we can try to make the reading easier for them.
Was this helpful? Do you agree with my definitions of serial fiction? Perhaps you have a completely different understanding of how it works, or a better idea of how to classify it – let me know in the comments! =)
A friend of mine writes this cracking blog with great tips for writers (and most recently some fascinating travel articles from Berlin). Here she addresses a topic that crops up a lot in my blog – the inherent fear in writing – and she offers some great advice to tackle it.
I’ve had this site set up since Christmas. I spent ages choosing my layout, the exact shade of colour I wanted as my background, my header and tag line. The next six months I stared at a blank page and thought to myself “Ah, well I don’t have time this week. There’s that important paper I have to write… and that book I’ve been meaning to read… maybe next week.”
It’s quite scary getting your writing out on the big wide web, where it can be criticised and talked about. What if I’m not as good as I thought I was? What if it doesn’t get any views? What if I’m a failure? I think the fear of failure is one of the biggest challenges to over come, even overcoming the fear to start an introduction blog post to a community who probably won’t find it until I’m several, more…
Now that Season 1 of Jack Hansard is complete, this seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the past year and a bit. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and the beautiful thing about mistakes is that they cause you to evaluate the way you work and the way you write. And, crucially, they make you figure out how to do it better next time.
So I present to you the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned from them. Although Jack Hansard is only a free series I publish for fun, these same lessons are applicable to all kinds of serial or episodic writing. Whether you’re publishing webcomics, writing weekly articles for an online magazine, maintaining a daily blog, serialising your novel or working on a short story series, I hope you find some useful pointers here.
Give yourself enough time to write.
I gave myself two weeks to write each Jack Hansard episode. It was just enough time to fit in around my job. I know there are writers out there who seem to be able to churn out a thousand words a day on top of working 40 hours a week, but I’m not one of them. And that’s okay. The important thing is to know your limits, and my limit is one Jack Hansard episode – or about 4000 words – per fortnight. Any more than your limit, and you run the risk of burning out.
You should also consider the quality of your work. Two weeks is the minimum I needed to write an episode, with full proof read and some minimal editing before it was published. And no matter how hard I tried, it was never, ever perfect. Because of course it’s not. For a perfect short story, ideally you want to leave it a few days, and then come back and re-do the whole shebang. The question is how important ‘perfect’ is to you.
At first, I was okay with imperfect – Hansard’s journey was intended as more of a training exercise from my perspective, a challenge to write consistently and meet deadlines. But as the story and characters grew, I grew endlessly attached to them and wanted to do them greater justice. I have made countless edits to the Jack Hansard stories – cleaning up the little niggles, polishing here and there – but it still frustrates me that I can’t pull it all down and piece it back together so that’s it becomes even better. If I were to rewind, I would give myself at least a month to write each episode, and I’d spend more time working out how they all intertwined in the wider scheme of things.
So before you set off on your episodic journey, before you publish anything and set the clock ticking, take some time to work out how long each episode, article, or strip will take you to produce – and make peace with the schedule you set yourself, because later on you’re gunna have a lot of fights with that bastard.
Once you’ve worked out your time-table, stick to it.
I’m quite proud that I met my fortnightly deadline most of the time, even if it did result in a few episodes I wished I’d spent more time on. It proved to me that I really could work under pressure and still produce something of a decent quality.
I found my biggest set-backs came when I took some time off. Now, sometimes this is very necessary – in my case there was a funeral to attend, there was a massive adventure in Belgium, and there was Christmas reserved for friends and family. There’s no reason not to take these times off – if anything, I’d recommend that you build a holiday into your timetable so that you don’t burn out during periods you know you’ll be too busy to fully commit. But where I went wrong was in not setting a proper ‘return-to-work’ date. Particularly after Christmas, this was a deep holiday hole I fell down where a long stint away from writing the series left me very complacent and lacking enthusiasm.
My key advice would be to keep your holidays short. And just because you’re having time away from the series, doesn’t mean you should have time away from writing altogether. Try using the time to pursue other projects, or enjoy writing just for the sake of it – anything to keep your eye in.
And how can you make your brief holidays easier on both yourself and your readers?
Get started before you start.
Before I launched An Inspired Mess and Jack Hansard, I’d already written the first two episodes to give myself a head start. And, even more cunningly, I’d written two future stories (which became Episodes 11 and 16, both sparking their own sub-plots lasting several very fun installments).
These future episodes were there to give me breathing space, to cover my ass if I couldn’t finish the time-tabled episode in time, in case a family emergency came up, and to provide content during my planned ‘holiday’ in the middle of the series.
All very good in theory. My mistake: I didn’t use my breathing space. I should have kept at least one episode ahead, but I didn’t. If I had, there wouldn’t have been month-long gaps in the summer and winter where nothing was uploaded.
So make sure you have several stories or articles written before you publish the first one, and save one or two for those unexpected gaps that will undoubtedly crop up.
On the subject of planning . . .
Other people might say ‘make plans’, but I say that’s up to you. Best-laid plans work for some, and the advantages of knowing the plot in advance are obvious. But I’m someone who prefers to plan off the cuff – I’ve the rough plot for the next three episodes, and a vague sense of the overarching story, but I don’t want to be hemmed in by details. The brilliant thing about a short story series is that some very unexpected details can unfold if you just go with the flow and allow the series to take a different direction from time to time.
But if you don’t write plans, write notes. These are those unfolding details that might become very important later. So you just introduced a side-character who you whimsically gave a sense of humour that revolves entirely around fish puns . . . five stories later a joke about a haddock might end up the turning point of the whole plot. Or perhaps it’s the colour of his eyes? Her eyes? Damn, where did our main character meet this person again?
Going over these little details can also help you in times of Writer’s Block, as well as in tightening your overarching storyline. If you’d forgotten that one particular character loved fish puns, reading over the notes could spark that very turning point in the plot.
I was a lousy note-taker, and I wish I’d created a binder full of them for easy reference. Instead I found myself leafing through the hand-written drafts and scanning the published episodes for references to personality quirks and physical descriptions I couldn’t quite recall. In particular, the way Ang speaks – I was constantly referring to the Coblyn’s previous dialogue to refresh my memory. Character profiles: wish I’d bothered.
If your episodic writing is more non-fiction based, I would still suggest keeping notes of the subjects you’ve covered. Say you blog about a different 80s glam metal album cover each week – you probably want to keep a record of what you’ve featured so far, and a list of your favourite words for describing fabulous hair.
And finally . . .
Remember to believe in yourself, and the fact that your work isn’t as terrible as you sometimes think it is. Show it to your friends and family and believe them when they tell you they like it. If they don’t – take on board their advice, it’ll only make you stronger. And it’ll make them more invested in helping you; they’ll care aboutyour work when you show that you care about their opinion.
I wouldn’t have got this far without my fiancé nagging me in the background. Even though my genre isn’t really his cup of tea, he’s dutifully proof read and mercilessly criticised all of the Jack Hansard series for me (and half of these blog posts, too). He gave me the push (shove) I needed to get that final episode done when I was suffering from prolonged Christmas/New Year’s/Springtime/GotANewJob blues (read: excuses).
So find someone, or a group of someones, who you can rely on to give you that extra little push when you’ve lost your mojo, and remember that a bit of tough love and self-discipline will get you further than you expect.
If you have any tips of your own I’d love to hear them – just leave a comment below. Take care y’all.