Tag Archives: Writers Resources

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?


How to Make a Scene

Often as writers we get lost navigating the forest of our stories because once we enter the woods, we don’t know which direction to go or we have our eye so firmly focused on the distant exit that we can’t see the trees right in front of us.

Yes, this is tired metaphor, but let’s compare these trees to scenes in a story.  The ideal and most interesting path from the beginning of the forest to the end will be lined with trees.  Just like the ideal story will be composed from beginning to end with the appropriate and most interesting scenes.

Sure the forest is full of many other trees that could be followed, but they will lead you away from the ideal story road onto diverse paths that may seem intriguing, but ultimately lead to dead ends.

So, how does one stay on the proper story path?  How do you know which scene trees to follow?

At its most basic, a story is a series of connected scenes, like pearls on a string or trees along a path.  Each scene is a self-contained unit of action that advances the plot, reveals character, creates questions or provides answers, and layers in theme.  A good scene offers one of more of these traits.  A great scene offers all four.

Like the overall story, a scene should have a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of the scene should establish the setting (time and place), introduce the characters involved (especially the viewpoint character), and identify a problem, conflict, or question that must be faced.

The middle of the scene should show the characters attempting to resolve the problem, conflict, or question.  They should make progress, have setbacks, move forward, slide backwards, and ultimately things seem to get worse, or at least more complicated.  The characters are tested and stressed in a way that fits the genre, theme and story arc.  Often the middle ends with a dark moment, or crux, where the situation presented at the beginning of the scene has gotten so bad it seems impossible to resolve.

The end of the scene is the resolution.  The characters find a course of action using their unique talents, skills, experiences, or via cooperation to either solve the problem, or fail to solve it.  They either discover something new, or the answer eludes them.  Either way, the building suspense of the scene problem is over as the action concludes.

Obviously, a scene is more complex than simply thinking in terms of beginning, middle, and end.  However, by structuring a scene in such a way and building transitions between scenes to connect them, you create a continuous story that flows naturally from beginning to end.

And what more do readers want than a great story that compels them to keep reading to the satisfying conclusion?

I recommend a great book that opened my eyes to the importance of writing complete and effective scenes.  Check out Make A Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Click the image for a link to Amazon.

When you know which scene trees to follow along the forest path, you’ll arrive at the end of a satisfying story journey.

What tricks have you learned about scene writing?


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?


Resist the e-Revolution?

I just read this week about the bankruptcy of the nation’s second largest retail book chain, Borders.  I have also read recently that the popularity of e-books is growing at a significant rate and that many are forecasting the demise of the traditional bookstore.

Is this true?  Are books made of cardboard and paper with full color jackets going the way of the dodo bird?  What does this mean for writers?

To be honest, I don’t know the answers to these questions.

What I do know is that options for readers to obtain the books they want are increasing with the e-book format.  Imagine being at the beach and you just finished reading a great novel.  Now what?  Well, if you were prepared you would put the novel back in your bag and withdraw another book and start reading.  If you were not prepared you could either do something else or pack up and drive to the nearest bookstore in your swimsuit and flip-flops and buy something new to read.

Or, if you have an e-reader, you simply open up your memory file and select another book and off you go.  If you don’t have a book you want to read in your memory, you can search online and download a new book in a couple of minutes (assuming you have 3G or Wi-Fi connections available).

Either way, you have options, choices.

Have you ever been to a bookstore and they were sold out of a book you wanted to read or didn’t carry it in stock?  What did you do?  Buy something else, shop at a different store, or actually go to the library to borrow the book (good luck finding new releases)?

This happened to me last month.  We took the kids to the local Barnes and Noble to buy them each a book and they didn’t have the book I wanted, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  So, I ordered it at the store and had to wait four days for it to ship to my house.  It was inconvenient, but I was willing to wait.

Of course, if I had owned an iPad or Nook or Kindle, I would have been able to purchase and download the book from an unlimited inventory in minutes.  No shortages, no out of stock, no sold out, no driving, no lines, no waiting.

Alas, I still prefer the tactile feel of a traditional book in my hands and paper pages to turn.  I like the heft of a big door-stopper epic fantasy.  At over 1000 pages, The Way of Kings is a big book.  Also, fantasy books tend to have paintings by famous artists as covers and additional inside cover art, maps, and diagrams that don’t yet translate well, in my opinion, to pages depicted in black and white e-ink.  The iPad is full color and is changing the landscape, but many of us don’t have $500 to plunk down for a reading device, when you can order many best sellers and new releases online for less than 20 bucks in traditional format.

So, that’s me.  I read real books.  I was a late adopter of cell phones, blogs, and more recently Facebook, so I will probably wait to get an e-reader as well.

As for the impact on authors and should I pursue publication via the old school big publishers or self-publish electronically and keep more of the profits, I don’t know.  I need to write a complete book first.  I’ll address that issue in a future post when I’m closer to the decision point of how to best market my work.

So, anyone out there know of someone who has successfully self-published e-book fiction and made a real go of it?  Is there still sufficient reason to go traditional with agent, editor, publisher and get a professionally produced book for  a much smaller slice of the profits?

You tell me.

Also, today’s post includes a poll about what format you like to read…please tell us your current and/or future preference.  You already know mine.

–Mark


Outlines are for wimps

I have never liked outlines.  Thinking through a story and crafting a narrative skeleton only to start at the beginning again to flesh out the details.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  These cycles can take a hours, days, or weeks as you are writing, but not really writing. Only when the story structure, acts, chapters and scenes are designed can you begin the actual task of writing the first sentence of the story.

So, I never used an outline.  I believed that writing a story was an act of discovery for me, the writer, and I did not want to know how the story ended any more than I wanted to know the ending of a book I read.  How much more fluid and spontaneous would my narrative be if I didn’t know what was going to happen next?  How much more could my characters ad lib and pursue tangents and tell me, the writer, what they really wanted to do?  How could I justify putting a script in my characters’ hands and telling them to only say this and do this?

After all, this is how Stephen King writes.  Hasn’t he published forty plus books and sold millions?  He doesn’t use outlines and if we are supposed to emulate the most successful people, why wouldn’t I emulate one of the top sellers of all time?

Two unfinished novels totaling over five hundred pages later, I had my answer.

I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a story with the natural rhythms of structure and plot pouring out of my mind and onto my computer in a first draft.  I wrote myself into a dead end in each novel by not planning out how to get from the beginning of the story to the end.  I had a great concept, great characters, settings I either developed or knew well, and I had compelling opening scenes and conflicts to launch the action.

But somewhere along the way, all that untamed creative energy buzzing around in the recess of my mind dissipated and I was left with an empty reservoir of momentum.  I had no plan to move the story forward beyond the vast expanse of the middle of the story.  And so like many aspiring authors, I relied solely on creativity and inertia and when both were spent, I had a story that could go nowhere like a car with no fuel.  I was stranded on the side of the road to completion.

So, this year, with my new prequel novel I am writing an outline first.  A story plan, structure plan, character plan, and everything else plan so that when I’m six months into the first draft, I don’t stop and wonder what is going on with the story and why it isn’t working.  I intend to avoid writing myself into the proverbial corner.

The month on January is my outline month.  February 1, I will begin writing the first draft.  With this plan, I except to spend less time along the way on detour and subplot tangents and more type craft the best story I can write.

When I finish the first draft, I will then know that it was the outline that made the difference.

If that makes me a wimp, to use an outline, then so be it.  I take that title all the way to publication.

–Mark


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.