Tag Archives: Writer

Why do we read…or write?

Image from Wikipedia

Fiction, stories, books, novels, that is.

Why do we read stories?  What is it about this form of communication that draws us in and absorbs our attention and focus until the words The End?  What do we seek from reading?  What do we receive from reading?

Conversely, why do some of us write stories?  What are our goals or intent?  Why do we do it?

Rather than go into all the many ideas I have about either of these I am including two polls below.  One for readers and one for writers.

All you writers out there should also be readers and should answer both polls. 🙂

Mark all that apply and then add a comment below to keep the discussion going.

Readers Poll

Writers Poll

First, thank you for answering the polls and discussing more detailed thoughts.  For me, the answers to the above poll questions are evidenced in the creation of the questions themselves.  In effect, I created polls that closely reflect my own motivations for both reading and writing.

The only exception may be my desire to be famous.  I would rather not be famous, actually, and would prefer to be successful and relatively anonymous.

So, let’s discuss.  Why do we read and write, really?

Who is willing to go first?

Advertisements

The Beta Test

…and The Last Portal novelette update.

What is a beta reader? Where do you find one? When is the right time to incorporate beta readers into your draft and revision process? What is the best methodology for garnering beta feedback? Why would a writer want to do this?

By the end of this post, you should be able to answer the preceding questions with alacrity.

Let’s start with the question why.

I’ll answer this question by posing a couple more questions:

  • Do writers usually produce a final publishable version of a story on the first attempt?
  • Are writers so tuned to their craft that they need no input from others?

Hopefully, you see the absurdity of those two questions as they apply to the vast majority of writers. Some famous authors wrote and published first drafts, but even most bestselling authors have editors and copy editors. Writers may outline, world build, scene list, and draft independently and autonomously, but rare is a story or novel that comes out of the writer’s mind and through his typing fingers in complete publishing ready form.

The story will need to be proofed and revised. Just because the author typed “The End” on the last page doesn’t mean the work is finished. In many ways, that first “The End” is really “The Beginning” of a revision and review process that is meant to elevate the earlier versions of the story to the highest achievable level based on the author’s skill, experience, characters, and plot.

Why would you use beta readers?

To more quickly and more easily find and identify the story flaws so that they may be fixed to improve the story.

Many authors, me included, are so close to the story, from the many hours spent writing it, that we often can’t see fundamental flaws in the story, plot, tone, characters, point of view, description, pacing, or any other number of story elements. There are even little typos or punctuation issues we miss along with our word processor’s spelling and grammar checker.

Another few pair of eyes can help spot these weak links and the author can then decide how best to address the issues to strengthen the story.

So, who are the beta readers who can read a story draft and provide meaningful feedback? Where do you find them?

Odds are that you know at least one already. Your spouse or other close family member can be your first beta reader. They will be motivated to support your writing and most will be willing to help you. Bonus points if your first beta reader also enjoys reading in genre in which your write.

As for other beta readers, do you have friends, contacts, or co-workers who are also writers? Do you belong to a writer’s group? Do you attend any college classes? Do you belong to a book club? Do you know someone from work, church, school, or community who is in a book club? Do you write a blog and have a particular few loyal followers who comment often?

These are all potential beta readers. A beta reader prospect is anyone who loves to read, hopefully in your chosen genre, and whom you think will be both willing and able to articulate meaningful feedback

You’ve found several prospective beta readers for your masterpiece and have invited them to be beta readers. They’ve all agreed to help.

What now?

Timing is important at this point and this is where your authorial discretion comes in. At what point in the drafting and revision process should you incorporate beta readers?

In my mind, there isn’t a best answer to this. It depends on your preferences. Do you want a review of your story and feedback after the first draft or the fourth draft? Do you want your writer’s group to give it a read first and then after you’ve incorporated feedback you have your beta readers take a look?

Although it may be fairly fluid exactly when you utilize beta readers, consider these guidelines as a bit more concrete:

  • Beta reading should be completed before you submit to an agent or editor
  • Beta reading should be completed before you indie digitally publish
  • Beta reading should be completed before you enter a contest
  • Beta reading should be completed before you consider the story completed and type “The End” on the final version.

The process for my novelette, The Last Portal, has been to write the first draft and submit to my wife, aka my first reader, AND my writer’s group. I incorporate all the feedback I agree with into a 2nd complete draft. And now, I have at least four beta readers who are now reading the 2nd draft. These beta readers are different from my writer’s group and first reader to get an even broader scope of feedback.

Once you decide when to add beta readers to your revision process, how you get useful, meaningful, targeted feedback?

First, here are a few less successful ideas:

  • E-mail your reader a copy of the story and in the e-mail, ask for any thoughts they have when they finish and then wait………and wait………..and wait.
  • Give your reader a hard copy and ask them to e-mail you any comments they have or to call you, and wait………….and wait…………..and wait.

Obviously if you share your story with no expectation of that specific feedback you need, or an expected turnaround time, you will get exactly what you’ve ask for, which is nothing but a read of the story.

The read of the story isn’t helpful to the author, it’s the written feedback.

Here are a couple more successful strategies:

  • E-mail story to your beta reader with an attached questionnaire of all the types of feedback you want or need regarding your story. The questionnaire asks the reader to comment on whatever elements of the story you specify, i.e. pacing, level of description, dialog realism, character likability or consistency, balance of exposition, entertainment value, presence of an early hook, or a question about what they thought the theme was.
  • E-mail story to your beta reader with some high level ideas of what to look for and then call your beta reader when they’ve completed the read and interview them about their reading experience. You can use the same topics as in the previous bullet. You ask them directly about what worked and what didn’t and try to find out why, if they can articulate.

Either of these later two strategies helps focus the beta reader on what your want to know about the reading experience. If you are worried about the dialog sounding realistic and with distinct character voices, ask more questions about dialog in your questionnaire. If you are worried you don’t have a good opening page or chapter, ask your readers about the initial story hook, what grabbed their attention or failed to grab their attention.

Your questionnaire and/or interview should ask more than Yes/No questions. Ask Why/Why Not questions to get details about a response. Most readers can articulate what they like or don’t like about a story, even if they are not writers themselves.

If you don’t belong to a writer’s group, the beta reads may be all the feedback you can get, unless you pay for a freelance editor. So consider the benefits carefully before you decide whether finding and cultivating beta readers is right for you or not.

As for me, I’ve used the second of the more successful strategies and the process has been very enlightening. This is the first time I’ve used a written questionnaire, however, so I’m eager to see how well that works.

The last step of the process is to collect all the feedback in a timely manner you have previously specified and then analyze it for trends. What feedback is echoed by two or more readers? That is the feedback to take more seriously.

After the process is complete and you have all the feedback, graciously thank your beta readers. They’re taken time out of their own busy lives to read your draft story and fill out a questionnaire or let you interview them. Give them gratitude. Better yet, give them an acknowledgement in your published story and/or give them a free copy of the finished version.

Don’t ask your beta readers to read the same story twice, the feedback will not be based on a first read and will be biased by their previous read. Find new beta readers or utilize a writer’s group or workshop for additional feedback if you need it.

If we put this altogether into one succinct definition, we get: A beta reader is a willing reader of a writer’s early draft who can provide focused and relevant feedback in a timely manner for the improvement of a story.

The preceding is my definition and process for what a beta reader is and how one fits into my writing process. There are other perspectives you’d be wish to consider. Wikipedia defines beta reader as: “A beta reader (or betareader, or beta) is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.

Both definitions work for me and having beta readers is the methodology I’m currently using for my novelette, The Last Portal.

Update: The Last Portal has been submitted to four of five beta readers with feedback anticipated by mid December.

I’ll post specifically about the questionnaire I used, the utility of the feedback I collected, and how that will affect my final draft/revision strategy prior to preparing for digital publication.

Anyone have additional useful strategies for beta readers? Has anyone out there served as a beta reader? What was your experience like?


Hooked a Reader…Now What?

Recently, I wrote about the importance of hooking a reader with a great first line or paragraph in your story.  The goal is to entice the reader to keep reading.

So after you’ve written a killer first sentence or paragraph, what comes next?  How do you keep the reader engaged where they feel compelled to keep turning pages?

Fantasy author Michael Sullivan posted on this topic recently and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you to his post, “Writing Advice 17 – A Reason to Read.”

Sullivan focuses on several key areas to improve the quality of the storytelling that keeps a reader on the proverbial hook.

  • Add layers of mystery to your story.  Parallel or overlapping story questions keep the readers intrigued.
  • Add or increase conflict, a key requirement.  Stories are really about characters in conflict.
  • Add or increase tension and suspense.  Tension creates the emotion of anticipation where the reader expects something important to happen.

I highly recommend this quick refresher on the elements of story that will keep your readers engaged in your stories and eager for the next ones.

Has anyone discovered or used any other techniques to keep readers turning pages?


A Writer Reads

…but what does reading have to do with writing?

For most of us, we learned to write around the same time we learned to read.  It is likely our ability to read developed more quickly than our ability to write and if we liked reading, we did a lot of it.

I was such a child.  I read everything I could find that interested me, from story books, fairy tales, and fables, to Time-Life books about the planets, dinosaurs, Time, or the Earth.  I even read every word of those Publishers Clearing House envelopes stuffed with prizes and magazines to order.

What I most loved to read, though, were stories.  The Bookmobile stopped across the street from our house every Friday after school for years.  I found the selection limited, though, and began haunting my elementary school library and later the middle and high school libraries.  Once I could drive, I spent many Saturday afternoons browsing the racks at the city library.

Somewhere along the way, after reading the dozens of novels and hundreds of stories, all that reading flipped a switch inside me that illuminated my writer self.  I distinctly remember wanting to write a story for the first time in my early teens.  The story was about an evil janitor with occult powers to punish any kids who played hide and seek in the medical and dental offices near where I lived.  The story concept had some merit, but the writing itself was terrible.

Ever since I finished that short story, though, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

But what does reading have to do with writing?

The act of writing is putting a story to words so that another reader can experience that story as you intended to tell it.

The more stories and novels an aspiring writer has read, the more proper story structure, format, characterization, description, plot, and theme permeate the subconscious almost like osmosis.

There is a rhythm to storytelling that is not always innate, but can be learned through reading and studying how other writers tell stories.  How do they evoke emotion?  How do they paint images in the reader’s mind?  How often do they address all five senses?  Are characters revealed through thought, dialog, action, or all three?  What word choices to they use?  How is action paced and balanced with reflection?  Are scenes long or short?  How are the best stories begun?  How are the best stories ended?

Much can be learned by simply reading, taking no thought to how the writer did it, but just enjoying the story.  Even more can be gained by actually studying how the writer wrote a passage that resonates with you or impresses you in some way.

By reading a variety of authors, genres, and both new and old stories, you can learn from the example of others.

If you did nothing else but read avidly and write, you would have a head start over those who attempt to write, but don’t read and thus haven’t saturated their minds and souls with the rhythms of story.

As an example, I’m currently reading Brotherhood of the Wolf the second in the Runelords series by David Farland.  I subscribe to his Daily Kick newsletters on writing and publishing topics and find his advice is generally outstanding.  I like the Runelords world and like to see how he writes epic fantasy, especially his earlier books in the late 90s.

I’m also re-reading Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characterization to improve my current novel in progress, The Lost Tower.

Remember that a writer reads.  Stephen King said in his book On Writing that you really can’t be a writer unless you read a lot.  Good advice from one of the masters.

And with that, what are you currently reading and why?


To Tweet or Not to Tweet

…that is the question.

I’ve read some advice recently that suggests that authors who are serious about building a brand and marketing themselves as writers should be doing more than just hosting a web page, running a blog, or even maintaining a fan page on Facebook.

Well what else is there in the great wide world of social media?

Have you heard of Twitter?  That’s a rhetorical question because I’ll wager that few haven’t heard of this recent phenomenon.

I think a more apropos question is:  Do you tweet?

Here’s a quick poll about the use of Twitter out there:

In keeping with the spirit of brevity found in Twitter, I’ll do the same.

Besides frequency of use of Twitter, what do you think about this tool?  Is it a good way to communicate, or is it just another social media thing to keep track of?

What do you think of Twitter?

Thanks in advance….

–Mark


Three Reasons Writers Need Music

The other day, a writer friend of mine and I discussed the value of listening to music while scribing.  We compared notes on the types of music we liked in the background as our fingers danced over the keyboards in story creation.  We also discussed which music genres we thought were best suited for which genres of writing.  We even discussed how the rhythm or repetition within a song or style of music can aid or inhibit certain types of writing.

This discussion lingered and got me thinking about my own musical tastes while writing and how it helps me.  I came up with three questions about music and writing, and many more answers.

1. Why do many writers enjoy listening to music while writing?

2. What are the benefits?

3. Is there music best suited for particular types of writing?

If you read “On Writing” by Stephen King you’ll discover that he predominantly listens to rock and roll music while he writes.  He is an accomplished rock guitarist and his stories and novels are populated with rock song references so it all fits in with his persona and preferences as one of the most successful novelists of all time.  Peter Straub, another horror writer prefers to listen to classical music while writing.  I’m sure most successful authors listen to music at one time or another, and some must have music on while writing.   It is simply part of their writing routine.

Why is this?

I can’t answer that question for other authors.  For myself, music helps me with the emotional undercurrents of a story.  In a movie, the score and soundtrack bring out the emotion of a moment, whether it is a suspenseful threat to the characters, a battle scene, or a moment of loss and reflection.  Music enhances the emotions and what the audience feels.  Music in the background while I write helps feed my subconscious with motifs, sounds, currents, feelings, and auditory ideas that I can draw from when the time is right in a story.  Music helps me go deeper into the story and hopefully to convey that to the written version of it.  Music is a source of inspiration.

Again, I cannot speak to the benefits of music to other authors, but I can share how music benefits my writing.  First, my writing desk is not isolated in my home and to aid in my concentration and to reduce background noise in a busy household, I use noise cancelling ear buds and listen to music via my laptop.  This helps create a writing environment that more conducive to concentration on the story and characters and reduces outside distractions.  Second, as noted above, music inspires the emotional content of writing when matched in genre.  I’ll discuss more about that in the next paragraph.  Third, music can directly influence your stories and bits of song lyrics you’ve heard may be appropriate for an event or scene in your story.  (Just beware of copyright issues and get permission for use of any commercially published music that is still under copyright.)

What music best matches what types of writing?  That is actually a question for each author to answer for themselves.  The correct answer is whatever works best for you.  If you don’t know what works best for you, try listening to different music during your writing sessions over a two-week period and see what music genre inspires you most or what helps you get into the story best.  What music seems to enhance your writing experience?  This is a personal decision.

For me, when I wrote horror stories earlier in my development as a writer, I listened to heavy metal.  The tone of the music seemed to fit the nature of what I wrote.  The past decade or so, I listen to more tailored music.  While writing my romantic comedy screenplay, I listened to popular music from our iTunes library.  A mix of all kinds of rock and all kinds of artists.  When I began writing epic fantasy, I began listening to classical music via Pandora Radio and eventually settled on a custom station based on the soundtracks of Braveheart and Gladiator.  Big, epic, deep, powerful music helps me with the type of epic fantasy novels I’m writing.  This works for me.

Musical tastes are very personal and should be.  Many writers find that music helps their writing.  Music can inspire, influence, seclude, and focus the writer’s mind during story creation.

Does music do this for your writing?

What works best for you?


Reaching the summit

With a couple of days to spare, I’ve dragged myself up the steep trail and have planted myself firmly on the summit.  The elusive first draft of my novella, “The Last Portal,” is complete.

Whew!

My wife/muse/first reader gave me the thumbs up, so I submitted the story to my anthology group this past Tuesday for editing.  Thus begins at least two rounds of scrutiny and polishing to elevate the story to its peak altitude (mountain metaphors intentional).

So, what was my process for writing a 16,000+ word story?

Since this story is set in the fantasy world I created for my novel series, the world-building had already been done.  I decided on characters and a single significant event that would be considered a legend or myth by the protagonists in the novels (which occur chronologically some 5000 years later).  The same way we look back thousands of years for our history, mythology, legends, and origin stories.

So, I came up with characters who would do something so significant they would be remembered as legends or myths in the story world.  My goal was twofold: produce a new original story for my group anthology and deepen the story world of my upcoming epic fantasy novel series.

To complete this story, I wrote between two and three hours per day for three solid weeks.  I estimate the first draft of this story took me at least 32 hours.  That seems long, but at 16000 words, that averages 500 words per hour.   I am not a blazing fast writer, since I often stop writing to think through the scene or the characters actions and how the plot should progress.  I had written an outline and short synopsis for this story, so it wasn’t discovery writing.  Even with a story plan, I spent big chunks of writing time thinking through a plot point or deviating from the outline for a better story path.

The result is under review by my writing group.  I’ll update soon once I get some feedback.

The process of collaborating on an anthology project has inspired me to expand my focus on short fiction.  I have rekindled my enthusiasm for short fiction, finding the process creatively satisfying.  Thus, I will soon have another new project to discuss as I prepare another novella for publication.  More details to follow.  Yes, another teaser.  This project is even more exciting to me because it is a novella that introduces a potential stand alone novel in the historical/modern fantasy genre.

What do you do to reach the proverbial summit in your writing?  How do you stay with a story until the end?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.