I’d like to thank Nicole over at InkWell Spills for hosting me in an Author Spotlight this week. We covered how I ended up writing The Jack Hansard Series, my turning point in becoming a ‘professional’ author, and a few tips on how to see the value in your work and to make that crucial step towards a professional writing career. You’ll also find a wealth of free writing resources on her website.
IT’S RELEASE DAY and the book launch party is now in full swing! There’s still time to join in with the event and enter the competition to win a free ebook. Check it out here!
Here’s the event schedule so you can see what’s in store:
10:00 Welcome to the Party!
11:00 Competition Opens. Submit your entry to win a copy of the ebook.
12:00 Join me for a chat and a peak inside the paperback.
13:00 Game time!
14:00 SNEAK-PEAK. Read an excerpt of the brand new ‘Episode 8: Informant’ from Season One.
15:00 Quiz time! Find out which Jack Hansard character you are…
16:00 Author Q&A Session – ask me anything! I’ll be at my computer for the full hour trying to keep up.
18:00 FIRST LOOK at Season 2! Be the first to read the opening to S2 Ep1
19:00 Competition Closes. Entries after this time won’t be included.
20:00 SECOND LOOK at Season 2! Another special snippet from what I’ve been working on
21:00 Competition winners will be announced.
22:00 Time to wind down. Thanks for coming to the Launch Party!
Yes, that is a full 12 hours! I wanted to make sure that our friends across the pond would have chance to join in as well. All timings are GMT+1.
Here are some of the major stores where you can order a copy of The Jack Hansard Series: Season One
Save The Date: 27th September 2020
Put it in your diaries folks, we’re less than two weeks out! The Jack Hansard Series: Season One will be available in ebook and paperback from online retailers – and in fact, the ebook is already available for preorder at a number of stores! Grab it from the links below:
UK price on release:
What is a book launch without a Launch Party? I’m celebrating with a full 12 hour virtual event on Sunday 27th September – and everyone is invited!
Find the Facebook Event page here.
There will be sneak peaks, author Q&A, games, and a competition to win free copies of the ebook and a special cameo spot in Season 2!
Sign up on the Facebook Event to attend. We’ll keep all activity on the event page so it’s easy to find throughout the day. Drop in for just a few minutes or stay to hang out for a couple hours – whatever works for you!
Don’t do Facebook?
In the meantime
Gosh, I’ve spent so long gearing up to this point I almost don’t know what to do with myself any more. Mostly I’m just working hard to get the word out, so I’m approaching other bloggers and reviewers at the moment for more exposure. (Incidentally, if you are one and are interested in receiving an Advance Reader Copy or a guest post, hit me up.)
Otherwise, I’d love if you could share my Facebook Launch Party event with your friends, or share this post to help spread the word!
And don’t forget, if you’re hankering for a Jack Hansard fix in the run-up to launch, there’s an exclusive story up for grabs when you join my newsletter (and another little freebie featuring Edric Mercer will be delivered as well).
If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to get in touch.
Twelve days to go and lots still to do. See you at the Launch Party!
Jack Hansard is the man who can sell you anything.
Luck in a bottle, fame in a box, dreams on a leash: anything is possible when you’re a trader on the occult Black Market.
Jack is used to a life of handling dangerous goods, dodging disgruntled customers, and sometimes running away very fast. But when Ang – two-and-a-half feet of furious Welsh coblyn – buys his help to find her missing kin, Jack suddenly finds the goods are riskier, the customers more treacherous, and escape is anything but guaranteed.
The Jack Hansard Series is an episodic contemporary fantasy with a wide streak of humour and just a dash of horror. Season One contains the first fifteen episodes in the series.
A little update here on The Jack Hansard Series. Thanks again for sticking with me – we’re making steady progress! I know it’s proving to be a long wait, but I promise the end result will be worth it. I know it’s a bit dull to just hear ‘I’m editing’ over and over again, so I thought I’d give you all a little insight into what I’ve been working on, and exactly what ‘editing’ the series means in practice.
For a start it involves…
Wait! Don’t worry – nothing’s been cut, just condensed. The original episodes were written and published on a fortnightly basis, and realistically I could only churn out up to 5000 words in that time. This meant that several stories got split over separate episodes, and the episode lengths weren’t consistent. So you’d finish reading a satisfying 5000 word episode, to then stop short at the end of a 3000 word ep like: ‘Where’s the rest of it?’
So I’ve been working on evening out those word counts, and putting full stories into one episode wherever possible. For example, remember where Jack first meets Ang in Ironbridge? This was needlessly split into two episodes – there’s not even a proper cliff-hanger to lead from one to the other! So now they are joined together in one seamless story to be enjoyed without any interruption.
What this also means is I’m…
Adding New Content
Some of those stand-alone episodes are still too short, especially near the beginning of the series. You see, when I started out my episodes were only 2000-3000 words each, but as the series developed the characters found their voices and the plots became more rounded, demanding longer stories to see them through. You can see this in the explosive Phoenix finale, which took a whole five episodes to complete!
So I’ve been adding in extra details, and occasionally whole new scenes. Remember Episode 1, where Jack gets cornered by Scallet and makes a lucky and quick escape? The story no longer ends there. You now get to see a fraction of London’s underworld as Jack goes on to encounter an old ‘friend’ at the Black Friar and… I won’t spoil it for you.
A bizarrely shaped building, the Black Friar took up a corner of Queen Victoria Street and had a habit of playing tricks on the eyes. Viewed from the side, it appeared as a long, unrealistically thin building. From the front, a V that seemed to occupy more space than was possible. Rows upon rows of art nouveau windows gave the impression of crowded bedsits built for high society. And, naturally, there was a statue of a jolly black friar with his pudgy hands folded over his stomach, beaming down from his spot right above the front door.
You can also expect more interactions with characters like Ang, Officer Jo Neills, and Mark Demdike. Oh, and the lovely Devin Tracey gets a much-needed spot in the limelight as well. You might recall he’s the devilishly handsome Irish siren from episodes 8-10. It always bothered me that I never wrote him a proper purpose other than to act as a sounding board at the Market. Why have a siren if you don’t get to glimpse their ability in action? So you can expect just that – a glimpse.
But unfortunately, as well as adding I have also been…
Alas, it is necessary. But again, don’t get too concerned. The whole point of editing is to cut details that the reader won’t miss, like clunky, slow dialogue or a lengthy portion of exposition that would be better used later.
Perhaps one of the biggest chunks I’ve cut so far is from Episode 6: Cockermouth where Jack’s internal monologue became horribly clogged up with an explanation of his different types of customers. It was awfully long-winded and not really relevant to the situation at hand – so now it’s transformed into a much more enjoyable argument with Ang over the subject.
‘He falls into the ‘spurned lovers’ category of our demographic, Ang,’ I said knowingly. I ignored her mouthing ‘Demo-what?’ under the table. ‘Desperate people, angry people, these are our favourite customers. They have an axe to grind and I’m here to provide the grindstone.’
I should also say that if you’ve read the series’ most recent iteration on Wattpad (or here on An Inspired Mess after January 2017) then you’ve missed most of the drastic cuts already. The version currently published online is actually the second draft, which had an extensive overhaul of its own. So don’t worry – you won’t recognise what you don’t miss.
On a more cheerful note, editing also involves…
I suspect this is what a lot of people think editing is, while forgetting about the dirty work of necessary cuts and story structure. Technically all of editing is a refinement, but here I’m talking about the more enjoyable, low-level edits that are designed to just make the writing easier to read.
These are usually quite simple changes, a matter of phrasing and word choice to make a sentence read more smoothly. Also checking grammar and consistency – you won’t believe how long I agonised over what form my ellipsis should take. Google did not give me a straight answer.
Would you believe that in publishing it’s usually a matter of house preference? Some publishers will put the ellipsis in the middle of words like this … while others will join it on, like this…
Yet others will use a spaced out ellipsis like this . . . which was always my favourite until I discovered it caused no end of formatting problems online. A comically simple, but frustratingly time-consuming issue to overcome.
This is always the most important part of any editing process, and it feeds into everything I’ve outlined above. A lot of self-published authors apparently pay for professional editors to proof read and critique their work – but I’m afraid I cannot even slightly afford such services. So I did the next best thing: assembled a pool of people I trust to give me real honest feedback and help pick the series to pieces. They played a large part in shaping that initial, harsh edit.
This second round of editing is largely influenced by the voice of genuine readers; that is, people who came to read the series because they wanted to, not because I asked. If you’ve ever left a comment or shot me a private message about an episode – whether it contained praise or criticism – you can guarantee that I’ve considered carefully how it should impact on the writing.
On this note, a general tip for other writers out there: heeding feedback is not the same as always following feedback. As your spidey senses develop, you begin to learn how to differentiate – when to follow the advice of others, and when to follow your own instinct. But don’t throw out criticism just because you disagree with it. First, try to understand where that criticism is coming from, why you disagree, and then why you might be wrong.
So that’s where we’re at, guys. I think I’m about two thirds of the way through this process, and I’ll let you know when we’re close to publication. If you’ve been wondering, the series will be available through Amazon Kindle as an e-book later this year.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this post you might also enjoy:
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.
This is an update for all you fantastic people following the progress of The Jack Hansard Series.
Firstly: thank you for your amazing support! It means a lot that you’ve stuck with me (and Jack) throughout this weird journey. I’ve just recently finished editing Season 1, and so have turned my sights to self-publishing.
Joining me on this venture is artist Dominique Lane. She’s well overdue for a formal introduction (I’ve her to thank for the kick-ass landing page of this website) so I’ll be sure to set up a little ‘Meet the Artist’ feature next.
The focus of today’s post is a little more practical, and involves audience participation!
Dom’s been working hard on book cover concepts, and we’ve narrowed it down to three which I’d like to show you today. The following images are all drafts – we can expect the final product to look somewhat different with more colour and cleaner lines – but they represent the designs we are considering. And we’d love to know what YOU think of them! Take a look:
Which one do you prefer? Can you tell us why?
This is your chance to affect the final product. I’m not just asking because I can’t decide (although honestly, I really can’t; they’re all way better than I even hoped for!)
We really do value your input – because after all, this cover is for you. So it ought to be something that you like 😉
Don’t be shy: have your say in the comments!
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 A Game 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 😉
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 week for a link to the most recent one. You can also Follow Me On Twitter.
Take care y’all.
What’s the key to good writing?
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! =)
While I’ve been over here in the corner umming and ahhing to myself over the challenge of attempting to become a paid, published author, a friend of mine has thrown caution to the wind and dived in headfirst. Gregory Satterford – fellow re-enactor; ex pro wrestler; fitness instructor – can now add ‘published science fiction author’ to his list of extravagant professions.
I suspect the thought of self-publishing will have crossed the minds of most writers. Who wouldn’t be tempted by the prospect of publishing on your own terms, without the hassle of submitting to multiple agents and publishers; without the gradual erosion of self-esteem as you deal with an inevitable influx of rejections; without the pressure of a publishing house bearing down on you with contracts and deadlines and obligations to fill.
On the flip side, it sounds like all of the above is replaced by the hassle of having to produce your book by yourself. All the proofreading, editing, and formatting is down to you, unless you want to pay extra to outsource those services. Then you’ve got to handle the distribution and marketing of your book, and that’s no task for the faint of heart. I’ve always been curious as to whether the effort required, and the money, to an extent, is worth the end result. What is involved in the process? What do you get for your money? I took the opportunity to grill my newly appointed author friend on his experiences starting out in the indie industry. Here’s what we talked about:
1. Obvious question first. Why did you choose to self-publish?
“No-one else would have me? Seriously though, I made some forays into various publishers but on discovering the benefits of a publisher were actually not great I decided I would try to go for myself. As far as I can tell I would be paying all the same charges, cover art, advertising, etc. and losing much of my income for the strength of a publisher’s name. In the balance I would rather be able to work my own time-frames and work with my own dreams without interference. In time I may come to regret this, but with the growth of self-publishing I’m hoping to the contrary.”
2. How did you decide which publishing tools to use?
“I chose Amazon Kindle Unlimited because I have been a satisfied user of Amazon Kindle for many years now and they have the most convenient way of publishing work to the widest audience, as far as I can see. Kindle publishing seems tailor made for the independent publisher as the editing is fairly simple for the computer savvy and there would be fewer charges to worry about, such as printing and delivery, so I decided to go the electronic route for my first foray into publishing. I had not planned to publish in paperback until I had released another few books and was more established and confident, but due to demand I located CreateSpace through Amazon as well and found them a helpful company for reformatting and cover work. It turned out paperback was also well catered for, the most difficult part being the page editing to fit their requirements and create a professional appearance.”
3. What can you tell us about your experience with Amazon Kindle Unlimited and CreateSpace?
“Publishing through Kindle has been remarkably stress free, they have an excellent review system to check the formatting and help topics covering most subjects with a responsive help team. It is excellent that I can adjust the manuscript at any time and it will filter through to the purchased copies and the deadline feature for publication really helped to motivate. Kindle Unlimited is a good feature for new authors as people do not need to buy the book and it is interesting to see how it is developing, but they do not allow usage of other ebook vendors such as Google. This is restrictive so people will need to decide which way they would rather go, but I felt I would experiment with them for a while as it seems a good option for a new name like myself in publishing.
Createspace is fairly easy to sign on to and use, and the staff are very helpful. The only issues I found were trying to adjust and match the formats from Word with their book layouts, requiring a few proofs before we got it right, but that is all just part of the learning experience. Cover art proved very different when printed in particular, with gloss and matte options and other similar things making it a bit more complicated. Once you get the hang of their system it’s a lot simpler, it just takes some patience.”
4. What costs were involved in the process?
“Aside from the writing software I also needed to spend money on my cover art (being an appalling artist myself), editing, proof-reading, and advertising mainly. The art was done through 99designs where I auctioned the image idea and discovered many fascinating interpretations from various artists, then selected the one I liked best. Then there are potential costs for editors and proof-readers but I was able to minimise these by enlisting the help of friends and family. I would recommend a professional if you have the funding available as no matter how devoted family and friends may be some errors will get through, whereas someone under contract has his payment hanging on his accuracy, which is an excellent motivator for scrutiny. Advertising is proving the easiest cost to run away with as there are so many methods of varying effectiveness around the web. The actual publishing is free to use through Amazon and CreateSpace: the companies take a percentage of your book sales only.”
5. Part of the appeal of traditional publishing is that the publisher handles a lot of the legwork, especially where it comes to distributing and marketing a book. Self-published authors seem to have to take on a lot of extra labour – how have you dealt with that workload?
“I’ve actually found publishers I checked do not help with advertising beyond a page on the website and some advice on book signings, etc. Most indie authors I’ve spoken to have the same legwork as traditional ones. I’d say the hardest to work on was editing my own work and making it good for publishing, requiring a strict timetable to hit my deadline.”
6. How do you support yourself while writing? I’m guessing the new book might not be drawing in $$$ straight away.
“At the moment I’ve only been published for a few months so I’m still putting the sales aside to pay fees. I am continuing to work as a fitness instructor for the majority of my income while writing when I can.”
7. Do you think the cost and overall effort has been worth it?
“Yes. No matter what the result I’ve enjoyed writing my work tremendously; creating a large universe of lore beyond anything I expected to do when I started. I’ve got a 5 star review that pleases me more than I can explain and I hope that it is received favourably in the future so I can continue to explore the galaxy with my readers.”
8. And finally, in 50 words, tell us what your book is about~
“It is based in a dark future where genetic engineering has created three castes of humankind: pure Lowborn, the enhanced Highborn, and the mysterious Bloodborn. Book One introduces this galaxy and prepares the four characters for a rebellion in a vassal world amid an alien invasion and great social upheaval.”
P.S. Are you an author in either traditional or indie publishing? I’d be interested in hearing how your legwork compares to Greg’s – is it true that big publishers don’t necessarily offer much support? How crucial is that big name to drive sales?