Thursday, 11 December 2014

Have A Character Named After You!

Potential Madeline Cain: Adventures in
Fashion cover
I’m very excited to announce that the second book in my Madeline Cain series, Madeline Cain: Adventures In Fashion, is set to be released on the 29th of December.
The book will be available for pre-order from the 12th of December, and the first book in the series will be at 99 cents from the 19th of December until the second book’s release.
Also, YOU could be in the running to have a character in the book named after you!
The Madeline Cain series is a contemporary, new adult story told as if you are reading the main character's Facebook page. Light-hearted and comedic, you can find out more about the first book, The Grand Adventures Of Madeline Cain here.
But back to a character being named after you... I will be drawing the winning name at random this Sunday the 14th of December, and if your name is picked you will receive a signed print copy of Madeline Cain: Adventures In Fashion with you name in black and white as part of the character list. Who is this mystery character, you may ask? The character is a favoured buddy of Madeline, has a habit of using hashtags on Facebook and will be featuring more heavily in future books.
All you have to do to be in the running is sign up for the newsletter in the right hand side bar of the Madeline Cain website.
Potential Madeline Cain: Adventures in Fashion cover #2
Potential Madeline Cain: Adventures in Fashion cover #2
If you want more chances in the draw to have a character named after you there are two simple things you can do:
  1. Review book 1, The Grand Adventures Of Madeline Cain, on Amazon or Goodreads and email me the link to your review at the email above or to score +3 entries (good or bad, I don’t mind as long as it’s honest).
  2. Tweet or Facebook about The Grand Adventures of Madeline Cain, (And tag my Twitter ID @TheMadelineCain or the Facebook page) for + 1 entries per post.
This needs to be before the draw on Sunday for the entries to count, so do it soon or miss out! If you’ve previously reviewed the book please do send me the link to the review so I don’t forget to add your extra entries.
Potential Madeline Cain: Adventures In Fashion cover #3
Potential Madeline Cain: Adventures In Fashion cover #3
Plus, I am offering pre-release, review copies of Madeline Cain: Adventures In Fashion, to any Madeline Cain newsletter subscriber who reviews the first book in the series. Double the reason to review!
Thank you very much for taking this writing journey with me, there are more adventures to come!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Short Stories And How They Can Help You Build A Writing Career

One of the greatest mountains an author has to climb is the Mountain of Legitimacy. Sure, if you have a novel traditionally published, you're considered a real boy (author). Your work is considered hence forth by new readers as ‘high quality’. This idea of quality, as being traditionally published, is still a strong motivator for the reading public. But let's be frank, novels take more time to put together then a 'surprise' present for your Monster-In-Law (though you get delicious satisfaction from both). So how does a new writer gain legitimacy at a quicker pace without a book contract from a publisher?
For this strategy you need to think small, not big. Publishing credits come in many flavours, the more ‘credits’ you have to your name the more legitimate your writing, the higher quality you ‘clearly’ are. Recently, I have been sending almost a dozen short stories out to journals across the world. And in the past three months I have had my first two short stories accepted and published. My flash fiction fantasy story ‘Always’, a bitter-sweet ghost story set on a bus, was published by website Daily Science Fiction (available for anyone online to read for free); and my horror YA story ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, a dark twist on the classic children’s song, was published last Monday in Tincture Journal.Daily Science Fiction Emily Craven
You could imagine my excitement; my stories, in the world, in front of eyeballs, eyeballs who trusted the judgement of the editors of these publications. Being published in these websites and journals has resulted in a bit of legitimacy rubbing off on me.  It is the age old Jedi slight of hand, if someone important thinks you are worth their time, then you must be. “But why bother?” you might ask. “Why waste your time being rejected by journals and short story publishers rather than just getting on with writing your novel?”
Here are four simple reasons as to why you should consider including short stories in your writing game plan:

  • Professional publishing credits add significant weight to your author bio. The bigger the journal the better the credit. The people who produce these publications are ‘professionals’ they ‘know what they’re doing’ (or are good at pretending they do), hence the reader transfers their trust to you. I will always send my stories to the higher paid, well respected journals first and as I get rejections I work my way down to ones that pay less. The journals that are more highly respected not only pay you for your writing (something all writers should fight for), but they command a large audience. Once that audience becomes aware of you, you can drive greater traffic (traffic you would unlikely be able to tape into on your own) to your blog, or independent works.
  • Short stories are quicker to write. We all know writing a novel  takes a bucket load of ass-glue-chair time, and as such, because we can only produce a select few in our life-time, our chances of professional publication are also limited. But with short stories, you can have half a dozen stories out there within a month doing the submission rounds. Less time spent on writing a complete work and shorter submission waiting times equals a quicker way to get publishing credits. Plus, there is a great deal of satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment if you are completing stories on a regular basis (a great motivator as you’re working on a longer work).
  • You get paid! No, before you ask, submitting to journals that don’t pay will not help your cause. The reason you want to get short stories published is to increase legitimacy and drive traffic. If the journal is not paying contributors, then they clearly have no cash flow. No cash flow means a smaller (or no) audience (and indicates they are not treating their writing as a business, you want all of your partners in crime to treat writing and publishing as a business). Once you’ve had your story ‘published’ you can no longer offer it around.  So believe in yourself and don’t settle for free! I do admit though, the getting paid for your writing is the best part of this exercise.
  • Once the exclusivity period for your publication with the journal/website/anthology has lapsed, you can collect all of your published short stories and release them yourself as an anthology to build your readership.
Whether you make this a regular part of your author brand strategy or an occasional activity you indulge in, you will never find writing and sending out short stories a wasted activity. At the very best, it’s giving your exposure and legitimacy, at the very least, you’re getting practise ;)

Emily’s story ‘Always’ is available for free on Daily Science Fiction right now and can be consumed in a single coffee break. Go check it out here!
Her creepy/horror short story ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ is also available now in the delightful Australian publication, Tincture Journal: Issue 8. You can grab a copy of this $8 magazine here, along with other great genre and literary stories.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Endings - How To Wrap Up Your Novel With A Surprising Bow

Barely a second later came the muffled sound of footsteps. My sword was in my hand before Charlie even heard a noise.
Not again, I thought, taking a wide fighting stance.
There must be hundreds of them searching for us.
~ Priori
This is a good chapter ending. Suspenseful and exciting.
~ Isobelle Carmody

Copyright: Harry Li (Creative Commons)
Endings are harder than you think. Or they should be if you’re doing it right. There is a tendency in fantasy writing to go for the easiest fix, the ending that proves black is black and white is white, and if you’re writing epic fantasy, that ‘danger looms on the horizon with ten thousand sharp teeth and a PMS problem’.  Endings are as important as beginnings, if you leave the reader with a clichéd trope the chances of them singing your praises is about as likely as your ability to spontaneously morph into a mermaid.

John Cleese did anamazing speech on creativity in which he encouraged creatives to play with endings long after they had happened upon the most obvious one; to have fun with the generation of ideas rather than treating it like work. He would sometimes play with the endings of his Monty Python sketches for hours past the most obvious joke. By playing with these ideas he would come across the most surprising and funny conclusions.

It was through the generation of such original ideas that Monty Python found success, and it is a sentiment I have taken to heart, particularly ever since I wrote my first Choose Your Own Adventure story. For those of you who don’t know, I run a physical Choose Your Own Adventure project where the sections of the adventure occur in the location the reader is standing. Once the reader experiences the scene, they are then given choices (in different locations) to continue their adventure. While this project, Street Reads, is now run in Brisbane, when I ran the test project for this, I wrote my own real life adventure in Adelaide, South Australia. For my story I had to create eight different endings. It was one of the hardest writing ‘exercises’ I had even set myself, because once the obvious two to three endings had been penned, I still had to find another five endings that would leave a reader satisfied (or righteously pissed off because I’d just ‘killed’ them with an alien ray-gun).

While I won’t pretend it didn’t take hours of blankly staring at walls and suddenly interrupting conversations with, “What if the unicorn in the building façade suddenly came to life and impaled the spaceship with his horn?” I did find that the endings I was most proud of were those last five, pulled from the ether and satisfyingly mashed together. If I were to make a linear narrative and pick one path for the reader, I would end it with one of those last, rather desperately created, story ideas. Because overall they were the most original, surprising, and true.

I should also mention that endings in novels come in two types, the ending of the novel and story arc as a whole, and the ending of chapters. Each has a different purpose. I have never had trouble writing chapter endings, as I have read enough good (and bad) books to know what makes me want to give up hours of precious sleep. See if you can spot why Isobelle, my writing mentor, was so excited by the below chapter endings (and the one at the start of this post):

With a sigh, the boy checked that he had his dagger in his boot and the straps of his pack were securely tightened. If they were going to the surface to find the child with the Priori, he wanted to make sure he was ready for everything. He knew who would get blamed if his sister was hurt or if they led the Ruhle to the Priori. He joined his sister’s side and together they took a deep breath, pushing their way into the centre of the liquid sphere. After a slight pause they slowly shimmered out of existence in an explosion of coloured lights.
~ Priori
Great end of chapter!
~ Isobelle Carmody

I had such a feeling of déjà vu that I didn’t react until it was too late. Shima reared in terror. My breath caught in my throat as the ball slammed into my chest, my body absorbing the blue energy as the impact launched me off Shima’s back and into the air. My last memory was of screams, as thousands of tonnes of earth and rock descended from the roof.
~ Priori
Wow exciting end!
~ Isobelle Carmody

Each chapter ending is a cliff hanger, an exciting, suspenseful discovery, or event that leaves the reader struggling to put the book down. These must be carefully crafted for each chapter and generally leave a strong visual image. A visual is a way to reinforce intrigue, mystery and suspense, making it visceral as well as intellectual. You can double the effect by naming the chapter after with an intriguing or unexpected title, which is what I do for my Madeline Cain book series. Your aim with chapter endings is to make sure the reader can’t put your book down until they’ve reached the last page.

The ending of a novel is a different beast all together. As I mentioned previously, the best endings involve a lot of playing with ideas before a writer actually commits themselves to the final path. The ending of a novel needs to tie up subplots, concluding the sidekick’s love affair with a turtle, or the protagonist’s daddy issues, or the impact of the hero’s actions on that town they accidentally set on fire etc etc.  It also needs to examine the emotional impact on the character. How different are they from the start of the book when they began their journey? Because the mystery(s) has been solved, and the exciting events are in the past, this is where many fantasy authors find themselves falling into cliché, like I did at the end of the first draft for Priori:

Charlie, still trying to guide his little sister from afar. Yes the Kraken was still out there and yes I would face him again. But then there was nothing I could do about it; no way I could avoid it. What was it the Brethren had said? Oh, yes. Destiny cannot be sought but faced with grace. All I can hope is that I can face such a destiny.
~ Priori – First Draft
This does not seem to strive high enough for the very end statement in a story. Try to find some different words, ones that don’t feel like a cliché from a dozen interchangeable fantasy novels. Strive for the truth of this moment. How would you feel? What would you think? Try to find an original sentiment and words to express it.
~Isobelle Carmody
I smiled. Charlie, still trying to guide his little sister from afar. Yes the Kraken was still out there and yes I would face him again. But then there was nothing I could do about it; no way I could avoid it. The time for hiding was over; it was time to face things as Charlie would, with courage.
~ Priori – Rewrite

The rewrite for the end of Priori was much more in keeping with the relationship between the main character Beverly and her brother Charlie, referring to the sentiment in a previous scene. Being able to express emotions in a true, non-cliché way, relies on you knowing your character well. You need to know their motivations, their connections to other characters in the book and how the actions of others have impacted your protagonist’s original state of mind. This requires you to keep track of their emotional arc. This is where having ‘deep and meaningfuls’ with friends can help (sorry gents, you’re gonna have to get your human on). These D&M conversations are how writers can observe the reactions, feelings and emotions of different people. Two people will not react in the same way to the same situation. Collecting these reactions and folding them into your characters, will give you the emotional resonance you need to avoid cliché.

You’ll also notice that the above ending sets up a further mystery, as this is just the first book in a planned series. The reason why this mystery isn’t turned into a cliff hanger, as you would the ending of a chapter, is because I don’t know when I will get to writing the next book. There is no better way to piss off your readers then to leave them hanging at the end of a three hundred page book and take a year or two to write the next one. If you want your readers salivating for the next book, than by all means leave a large dangling taunt at the end, just be ready for the onslaught of reader pressure until you get the next in the series out of the labyrinth that is your creative mind.


It seems fitting that the final blog post on my mentorship with Isobelle should be on endings. Finally, almost two years from the end of our mentorship, everything I have learnt from her has been set down in these digital pages. I can’t thank you enough for coming on this journey with me; I hope I have managed to convey what it means to write original fantasy.

This is not the end of the blog however! (Sorry to all those who thought they could get rid of me, I’m like a fungus, I just keep growing.) I’ll still be passing on writing tools that I have learnt, and ways to expand your writing further, to reinvigorate yourself (and myself) as the months pass. But more excitingly, I will be adding an element of fiction to this blog in the form of a podcast.

I have banded together with the amazing voiceover talents of Kevin Powe, Colin Smith, Sam Piggley and Lois Spangler to turn my novel ‘Priori’, which you’ve read so much about, into a regular podcast. We will hopefully start releasing episodes before the end of the year, so keep an eye out for launch announcements by signing up to the newsletter on your right.

Good luck on your writing journey. I can’t wait to read your original fantasy.

Monday, 26 May 2014

You Don’t Have To Accept Every Edit, You Can Disagree & Ignore… With A Valid Reason

If you ask any professional writer what the hardest thing is about the writing process, what is most discouraging, what kicks you in the stomach harder than a donkey flipping out on bad mushrooms, they will tell you it’s the day you get your edits back from your editor. Or the day you get feedback from you mentor, or beta reader, or writers’ group, or grammar-nazi of a grandmother. Seeing all those marks, all that red and crossing out is enough to make even the toughest penmonkey do one of two things: a) curl up into a ball in a corner, or; b) plan the number of ways they can get back at the bastards who popped their ‘I’m an awesome writer’ bubble. Sometimes it’s so hard you want to give it all up and go back to your previous and more attainable dream of being an astronaut and riding space monkeys through the cosmos.

When you get feedback you always have to weigh up how right it actually is, how much experience the beta reader has and whether or not you trust that experience. For example, though she means well and has a strong grasp of language from the era where you’d get rapped on the knuckles by a cane if you got it wrong, my grammar-nazi of a grandmother would probably have less understanding of what I was writing (How exactly are these horses flying? You do realise this is physically impossible. One rap for overactive imagination) than my mentor Isobelle who is one of Australia’s most awarded fantasy authors.

It’s tough to know when you should stand your ground and when your ego is getting in the way of a good story. I use the below classification to help me make the decision on what to change:

  • Is the piece of feedback from a person whose lifelong passion and profession is editing? If yes, then they probably know what they’re talking about, weigh their words highly.
  • Is this piece of feedback from someone who claims they are awesome at editing (they even have the degree!) but haven’t actually ever had a job as a proper editor? Then I’d take their words with a grain of salt, technical knowledge doesn’t always translate, particularly if you’re writing genre rather than high-brow literary fiction.
  • Is the feedback from an author who has won at least three awards for their work? Ditto on the they-probably-know-what-they’re-talking-about scale.
  • When you look at that piece of feedback, do you instantly recognise that’s exactly what you manuscripts needs but previously you couldn’t: a) articulate what had to change; b) admit it needed changing because you’d already rewritten that section ten times and frankly you were about ready make your manuscript into a paper hat instead. Well now you’ve had some distance from the piece and some outside perspective, so hop to that editing.
  • Is the feedback from a reader of that genre? Then while I wouldn’t take their nitty-gritty line edits as gospel, I would be paying attention to any part where they didn’t understand exactly what was happening, or they didn’t connect with a main character.
  • Is the feedback from a reader who doesn’t normally read that genre (hello mum!)? Ok, so you can probably ignore the ‘I don’t understand how that airship flies or how piranhas are carnivorous alien’ comments, lest you start over explaining things, and focus more on the comments where they say they can’t see the scene, or get a clear image of a character. These comments are going to let you know if your character motivations and sense of place are coming though clearly. 

But there will always be instances where you just don’t agree with a comment, because frankly, you understand physics better than them (in my case). Or sewing, or candle stick making, or the decomposition of human bodies, or penetration depth of cactus needles into the human buttock. There is no rule written, unwritten, or carved into stone that says you can’t argue with edits from a person of high esteem, if you have a valid reason. Not because you like the word, or the sentence, or that smart-arse one line, but because it is exactly the right word or action or character motivation or fact.

It was very rare that I disagreed with the edits and suggestions offered by Isobelle (well…once I’d calmed down and stopped plotting the number of ways I could do damage with a pen), but the below are two cases where I was adamant that these were the right words and descriptions for that moment:

A thread of light streaked from the line in his fingers as though following some invisible trajectory. It arced swiftly like a wave through water from one cave to the next before connecting with the hilt of Charlie’s weapon.
~ Priori - Draft

A wave would not arc. This description does not work because you cannot imagine a line of light moving in an arc, which is not like a wave unless it widens and flattens, in which case say that. Try to find a better way to describe its movement. When in doubt, simplify and use strong, clear, basic words, add the frills later if you feel you need them.
~ Isobelle Carmody

Lifting his arm to chest height, the boy pinched the space in front of him and a short glowing line appeared from thin air. His other hand clenched a neck charm hanging around his throat. Muttering, he flicked his finger, jerking the glowing string taut. A thread of light streaked from the line, as though following some invisible trajectory. It arced like a speeding wave before connecting with Charlie’s weapon. The sword went flying across the room.
~ Priori – Rewrite

You’ll note that while I did simplify the sentence, I did not in fact remove the word ‘arc’. That is because I know from both maths and physics that the waves come in more forms than waves through water , they come as sin and cos waves, they come in waveforms of sound, all of which are made up of arcs of various radiuses linked together. Even a wave through water when shown in cross section moves in massive concave and convex arcs. This glowing line of magic is essentially travelling like a sin wave through the air, and as sin waves are not called that (or even known or studied) in this fantasy world, the word ‘arc’ does quite nicely to describe this particular movement.

The violent tremor pitched me forward, the shaking earth squealing and groaning in protest.
~ Priori - Draft

Squealing is too strange a word to use- unless there is an explanation why it would sound like that.
~ Isobelle Carmody

Having worked in mining for almost three years and having studied geology for four, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that rocks do in fact squeal as they scrape with extreme force against each other. It is akin to the sound of nails on a blackboard and happens much more frequently than ‘groaning’ in a high stress environment. It is not the sound you want to hear whether you’re underground or above ground because it means you are in deep doo-doo.

While you should never let ego get in the way of a good story, there are some things you are going to feel strongly about. Weigh your experience against the experience of the person giving you feedback, and if yours has the hospital bills and cactus pockmarks to prove it, don’t be afraid to stand your ground.

How do you judge which edits to incorporate and which to leave alone? Leave a comment below!

Images: Sin wave by Omegatron

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Notes On World Building – Making Your Make Believe Feel REAL in Five Quick & Dirty Steps

There is a myth in fantasy and sci-fi that in order to world build properly you need to create your own personal set of encyclopedias so large they would flatten an elephant if you dropped them out of a plane. It’s the unspoken rule that at least 60% of this encyclopedia needs to appear in your epic ten volume series. I know it seems like I blame Tolkien for everything, but it really is his fault. I suppose he was a professor of English, so he had to do something with his time to justify the paycheque, but ever since the Lord of the Rings became the new ‘ultimate standard’ we have had a plethora of never ending series of books almost 800 pages long.

World building in some senses is a requirement for all writers. While the people and places in fiction may be mirrored from real life, you can’t guarantee or depend on the notion that a reader is going to be familiar with the lower east side of Manhattan, or the middle of the Australian outback or the gagtastic taste of fried scorpion on a stick in Beijing. Even writers of contemporary reads need to recreate the real places in their fiction, choose key details that are unique and imply a swag of other things that add up to that particular culture.

So while world building is unavoidable for any writer (and a necessity for fantasy and sci-fi writers) there are easy ways to do it and hard ways to do it. You can do the encyclopedia thing, or you can have a succinct series of question and answer guidelines that guide story and character reactions rather than pad your manuscript to look like a literary version of the Michelin Man. Whichever way you choose to create your world, the key is to not let your world building overtake the story like an insidious fungus (Mmmm, delicious fungus). You don’t want your descriptions to outnumber every other element. At best, you’ll have a hard time gathering new fans because they can’t get through the meaty chunks where nothing much happens, at worst you’ll start losing old fans because they’ve given up skim reading in their spare time.

You do not need to force your million pages of world building into the body of the story. Save it, use it as bonus material, interesting blog posts, a new line of toilet paper for hardcore fans. The information should only come out if it’s relevant to that particular story line and that particular character. Readers only need the taster platter, not the smorgasbord. Don’t tell all your stories in one go, it’s how fascinating series are born like Tamora Pierce’s Tortall world, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books.

Below are my do’s and don’ts for world building, my five quick and dirty steps if you will.

1. Do Your Research, Fool.

Every awesome fake world is grounded in some way with an interesting real one. There must be something familiar for the reader to latch onto, something that taps into their comfort zone of what is real and what is not.  Readers will connect with the familiar and accept the rest on faith. If there is nothing for them to grasp they will be left floundering, and no reader likes to be made to feel confused or stupid. This is less restricting than you think.

Wanna go Steampunk? Check out the steam crazy Victorian England. Keen for a barbarian horde? Check out ancient Mongolia. Looking for a futuristic landscape where you don’t have to touch anything to make it work? Check out modern day Japan. Tap into some of the world’s real life mysteries, or ruins and see where fantastical explanations can take you.

2. Ask the Question, Make The Rules

There is nothing more annoying than finding yourself in an alternate reality and half way through the book you realise, anything goes and the conflict is a whole lot of bullshit. ‘Well if they could have just thought themselves a helicopter, why couldn’t they think themselves out of that dominatrix straightjacket in chapter three?’

Just like real life, fictional worlds operate consistently within a spectrum of physical and societal rules. You just got to figure out what those actually are. This is where you do all of the heavy creating which will most likely never make it into the book. One of the first things you have to realise, is you need to start paying attention to every detail you invent, because each event is going to imply things big and small. Is a villager in the centre of a continent eating a fish dinner? Than that’s going to imply fast and reliable transport if the character isn’t expecting to get food poisoning. If there is a massive sea battle with an invading Viking horde, then you need to be able to come up with a really good reason as to why the village was sacked and pillaged if they would normally hear about it a day later like everyone else.

This is going to involve you asking and answering a lot of questions to set up a consistent framework for your world. That way when you write your story (which takes place in a tiny portion of your world’s history) you know where you are, when you are, and what the characters should know and what their part is in causing the future. I highly recommend checking out Patricia Wrede’s list of world building questions on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America website.  They cover everything from the world, physical and historical features, magic rules, people and customs, social organisation, trade and daily life.

3. Don’t Make It Awkward – Build Only What You Need, Imply the Rest

There are some things that you are going to invent just to prove to everyone (including yourself) that your world is unique. But when you add it to the prose, it stands out like a sore thumb. Take for example my rather clumsy attempt in the first draft of Priori below:

Elitree gave an amused smile. “Being awake for… how long is it now?”
“Over 27 hour glasses,” I responded.
“There you have it, well over a day. I have no doubt you need sleep.”
~Priori – The Power Within Draft

I get it that you are doing this in order to build a world that is ‘other’, but this is one of those things I think sounds unwieldy, and which is the mark of a beginning worldmaker. Maybe use hours or simply say something like she doesn’t know how long it is since she slept, then you can have the Master examine her face shrewdly, nod and say, “At least 24 hours I’d say”.
~Isobelle Carmody

There’s no need to be so obvious, world building is about subtly, not ambushing your reader with a sledgehammer. Below is a more subtle example of world building that Isobelle complimented. Notice that it tells you a bit about the advances of the society, and implies the relationship between magic and technology in this world without being in your face:

Around the circumference of the room, were multiple green spheres, comprised of some sort of liquid with fanning ripples moving continuously along the surface. Each sphere was next to a shining silver desk with a person staring at a mirrored surface. Some were talking into a type of headset, made of a simple mesh of Lines like a screen before their eyes, and a ball on the end of a little stick that hung before their lips. Each desk had a smaller mirror under the larger one. In the larger mirror some of the operators were moving different pieces of information about the surface with precise, complicated hand movements, manipulating Lines of Power. 
~Priori – The Power Within Draft

Lovely visual images merging magic and technology- I really like that aspect of your story.
~Isobelle Carmody

4. What’s Good, What’s Bad?

It’s the dichotomy between these two that will cause conflict. And don’t make the mistake of assuming the whole world is the same. A world is made up of a patch work of different cultures, heck even Star Trek is made up of different races with different cultures (even if Earth is supposed to be this one harmonious whole). What is considered good or bad in a different culture? How do these collide?

5. Create Characters Who Plausibly Fit Into This New World

External environment has a way of changing how people react and think, the same thing goes for your imaginary world. In Priori, one group of people live in a city hidden beneath the ocean (Creana) and come to rescue my main character, Beverly, on the surface. One of my writers’ group members pointed out that at no point during their stint on the surface did they marvel at the stars. Which got me to thinking all of the other things which would be foreign to them that I never once addressed, beaches, direct rays from the sun, an ocean breeze, an extreme range of temperatures and animal and plant life. I can’t just have Beverly marvelling at their underwater world without having them do the same in return.

So that's the quick and dirty five. Now start building! Or rebuilding as the case may be. But try to save the elephants, ok?

What steps do you take to world build? How do you judge what information should be included and which should be left behind? Please leave your comments below!

Monday, 3 March 2014

What The Writer Knows, The Reader Must Know – The Importance of Beta Readers

Sometimes I wish I could download my favourite authors’ brains. Imagine all the extra things they’d know about my favourite stories, my favourite characters. Imagine suddenly understanding all the subplots and undercurrents I had missed because I’d been too thick. It’s one of the reasons why I became a writer in the first place, because I know everything about my world and characters, everything said out loud or implied, I understand the reason behind every action, the way the world operates, why I put things in order A rather than order XXX. It’s an additional, enriching experience you can’t get just being the reader. Of course, you being the only person who knows how your brain puts things together can be a massive problem. Because you don’t realise that you haven’t put the connections in your head, onto paper.

A writer may know everything, but if what you know doesn’t appear on the page, then how is the reader going to follow your logic? What the writer knows, the reader must know, and sometimes it’s hard to separate what you’ve actually said in black and white from what your brain is filling in for you. The problem is that unless these gaps in knowledge are pointed out to you, it is almost impossible to see them yourself. You know too much. It’s the one time where being a know-it-all is not in your favour. Which is why it is essential that you pry loose your death grip on your manuscript, and hand it to someone else to read. This someone else is called your Beta Reader. Beta Readers are an essential part of any editorial journey, they spot the gaps, they make you think about why you made something the way you did, and they help you turn your book from a pretty, fuzzy picture into a clear photograph.

In this post I’m going to go through how to pick and train a Beta Reader to give you the feedback you need, and some of the most common ‘holes’ writers have lurking in their drafts (which you still probably won’t be able to find in your own work, but at least you know what they are!).

How To Pick A Beta Reader

It’s hard to let go of your baby, so picking a helpful Beta Reader is key. You want someone who doesn’t just tell you it’s great, you need someone who is constructive and is going to tell you what they don’t understand or like. Generally you should send it to three or four Beta Readers so that you know the comments are balanced. So what should you look for in a Beta Reader?
  • Someone who is NOT part of your family. Unless they are an editor, they won’t be objective.
  • Pick someone you know is going to be objective and critical (but not try to tear you a new one). This person can be a friend, but again they have to be a friend who likes what you write and isn’t afraid to tell you what they think. If they come back to you with no comments on things to change, that does not mean you are the most awesome writer on the planet, it means you picked the wrong person to read. Pass Go, try again.
  • In saying that you are not after someone that will tell you are a horrible writer, and that what you made that character do is stupid. They should not be attacking you as the writer, they should be dissecting the story and offering thoughts as to how things can be remedied.
  • They must read voraciously in your genre. If they don’t understand the basic concepts of mages, witchcraft, wizards, dragons, elves, orcs, or flying houses in the sky, then it’s best you don’t give that person your manuscript about a fantastical floating island where people fight to the death on Magic Carpets. They’re not going to get it.
  • Someone who has the time and is a quick reader. You may have someone who is perfect, but if they don’t have the time to read and critique, or they take two months to read one book, then they aren’t going to be your best pick. 

How To Train A Beta Reader

Most people you find to read your manuscript aren’t going to be trained in the art of Beta Reading. Therefore giving them guidelines will help you get what you need, and will give them an idea of what they’re looking for. There are also certain tricks that will make it easier for you to get specific feedback rather than general feedback:
·       Provide the manuscript (MS) to them in Word format. You want them to make notes exactly where the confusion arose and providing them with your MS in PDF or ebook formats will not allow them to do it easily (or you to access the comments easily). Doing it direct into the word processor is essential.
·       Get your Beta to use Track Changes in Word so that you can see where their questions/comments are.
·       You want them to make specific and overview comments:
-          Overview comments: When they finish the novel you want them to give you an overall impression of it. Key things to ask would be: how did you feel at the end? Was there any point where you think things went too slow or didn’t fit with the rest? Are there sections you would switch the order of, or extra scenes you wish were included? Were the character’s personalities clear? If not, which ones and what do you think the author was trying to make them like? Did you understand each main character’s motivation/intentions?
-          Specific Comments: You want them to make comments within the text when: they don’t understand something; they need more background information; when you have been contradictory; when they want to know why a character did a particular thing (this means you haven’t conveyed their motivations clearly enough); they had to read a line more than once to understand what you were saying (means your sentence is awkward/convoluted and needs rephrasing); when something seems too easy/glossed over/coincidental.
·       If your Beta Reader sees a typo or tense change let them know they are free to mark it, however, proof reading is not the main job of a Beta. You need to stress that their main focus should be the overview and specific comments.
·       Get them to provide examples to help illustrate their point, or have them offer suggestions as to what they think might fix it. Being told something needs to be changed but not how can be infuriating for you and anti-productive.

Now that you have some idea of what you are looking for in a Beta Reader, and in turn what your Beta should be looking for in your manuscript, let’s move onto some of the common ‘holes’ in a manuscript that leave a reader scratching their head.

Common ‘Holes’

Not Showing Character Motivation

Readers won’t just take things on faith, they need reasons, motivation and back story. We have the ‘Show don’t tell’ mantra drilled into us so often that sometimes we go too far the other way. Body language is sometimes not enough, a shrug for one character may mean ‘meh’ where as a shrug for another character may mean ‘I’m going to hide in a closet and scare you when you sleep’. In the examples below you see the need not only to expand upon body language, but also to give background information to a character’s reaction.

Accenting the ‘dangerous’ she looked him straight in the eye. She stared him down for several seconds. He swallowed, then his shoulders slumped.
“All right,” he said resigned.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
Why does he swallow? Is he afraid of her or uneasy about her? That is the implication.
~Isobelle Carmody
Accenting the ‘dangerous’ she looked him straight in the eye.
He stared her down for several seconds then swallowed, his shoulders slumping. She was just too unpredictable. “Alright.”

Never before had a building so fascinated my attention.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft

Because … it was under the earth? Because it was so different to anything she had seen on the surface? Because she knows what it contains? Because it does not look as she imagined? Because of its complexity?
~Isobelle Carmody

Never before had a building so fascinated my attention, a new complexity revealing itself in every pass.


It’s inevitable, when writing a 80,000 word MS over the course of twelve months, that you are going to forget some vital piece of character background or minor superpower that you bestowed on your hero. In Priori, one of Beverly’s minor gifts, being able to talk to animals, became not so minor when she is attacked by a ‘Razorfin’ (yes, it’s just an obnoxious name for ‘Shark)’. In the original draft I was so caught up in creating drama that I conveniently ignored the fact that she should have been able to talk to said razorfin about not eating her. An entire scene suddenly needed rethinking when Isobelle said:

Can’t she talk to animals because of the Priori?
~Isobelle Carmody

Bugger. Yes. Back to the drawing board.

You’ve Only Done Vague World Building

When we originally write a story we are just trying to get events down on a page, like a sculpture attacking a piece of marble with a jackhammer. The subtlety comes later in revision, and with each editing pass the holes get smaller. But sometimes there is a throwaway line that trips up a reader, or an inconsistency that they jump on about the history of your world that you haven’t explicitly described. The first example, the throwaway line is normally an easy fix, but the second example requires more thought. With histories you have to be careful not to info-dump on your readers and will need to weave and hint at the history throughout your novel:

A look of pure greed lit the unkempt faces of the two soldiers, for a rich reward came with our capture.
~Priori – The Power Within – Draft

What is the reward for?  People trying to escape the testing or her specifically (the host)? In which case does the soldier know of the Priori/ her power? I think he needs to say something more specific that makes it clear the reward is for her specifically.
~Isobelle Carmody

My first testing was on my twelfth birthday and since then I have had many more, too many to count. Once a month a loud knock on the door signals their presence as the Ruhle army heft a heavy machine into the house.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
Why are children being tested over and over? Surely a single test would reveal that a child is not the Host, unless they know of the stolen sholac and guess its use, or unless the power will enter only when it chooses, so kids have to be tested over and over.
~Isobelle Carmody
I knew why the children were continually tested, but to show that required the dropping of clues as well as the invention of an entirely new scene. I hadn’t thought the information mattered, but clearly for a reader to trust me as a storyteller they had to know I wasn’t just ‘inventing’ plot points. Ironic.

Shit Doesn’t Just Happen, People Discuss Things

At times you just want to rush through all the boring ‘admin’ scenes to get to the action. It’s all well and good that you know this has all gone on, but for a reader, not seeing a discussion and just having things ‘work out’ is a little convenient, as you can see in Isobelle’s comments below.

Elitree gestured to two chutes, one for each of us. With a wave Charlie stood under his hole and disappeared.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft

This is too expedient- the Master must say a few words. At the beginning he needs to make clear what he makes of her and what is to happen, and this should be a reminder. It is all very well that he is magic and knows all, but we don’t. We need to see that mundane natural conversation, it need not be more than the odd sentence, but make it a good sentence. For instance, he does not tell them where they are going before Charlie is dispatched.
~Isobelle Carmody

As I said, these four ‘hole’ types can be very hard to spot in your own manuscript, hence the need for a select Beta Reading Army Of Awesome. You will come back to these readers again and again as you building your writing career. Treat them well and they will be a reliable part of your editing plan in the future.

Do you have Beta Readers for your work? What do you get them to watch out for? Please let us know in the comments below.