“Bitter Days” Goes to Beta

Let the Beta Readers Begin!I just sent my latest story, “Bitter Days,” to my beta readers. Many thanks to those members of the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers who volunteered to be beta readers. The story is 14,500 words, so it’s solidly in novelette territory. It’s Episode 1 in the Pageeda & Scuffee serial, which I’m projecting to run for five episodes (for this first “season”). This series is, in turn, part of a larger canvas that I’m working on called The Thousand Kingdoms.

Here’s my elevator pitch for the story:

Somebody once said: “Our enemies define us.”

A young homeless girl, raised on the streets of a grim fantasy city by her older sister, vows revenge when her sister is seized by the Nazi-like religious cult that is steadily taking over the kingdom.

She’s so overmatched by her enemy, she has no choice but to become extraordinary. Anything less is unacceptable.

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The Unexpected Knight

I’ve been working on a story called “The Silent Knight” for quite a while. It’s about a knight named Sir Kedric Hawkthorn. The backstory is that Kedric’s tongue was ripped out while on a diplomatic mission for his liege, King Bannon. Hence, the nickname, the Silent Knight. After the king’s death, Kedric’s entered the service of the new king, a spoiled imbecile who hates everything associated with his father, including Kedric.

It was an ambitious story, featuring a character who can’t talk, some elements of romantic comedy, a dastardly villain who can influence the story but can’t physically oppose the hero until the very end, and a time span of about four months. All of these things are challenging.

I reached about 11,000 words of what I intended to be a novella, a story of 18K to 25K words. I also intended it to be Part 1 of a 5-part serial, with all of the parts being individually self-published on Amazon. Then, I intended to gather the parts together into an omnibus, a book.

The problem was that the story didn’t come together the way that I wanted. The further I continued, the less I felt that I was building the conclusion on a solid foundation. I still believed in the story, and the characters. But it didn’t feel like it was coming together for me.

So I put writing the story on hiatus. I let it sit for a while. Then I sent it to one of my beta readers, a friend who is also a non-fiction writer. She’s also in Toastmasters which, while it is an organization for teaching public speaking, also provides training on giving evaluations. In other words, she knew I was looking for problems, not praise. In the story, where sections were left unwritten, I provided a concise outline of what was supposed to happen and how it would affect the characters.

This is what I got back from her:

I’ve read it, all in one shot. It’s a great story. I have few suggestions. Need your list of what you are concerned about to continue.

One suggestion: If you have a term that is strange or foreign to people of this generation and time, the first time you use that term you need to define it. After that, use it without the definition.

It’s a good story. I want the ending!! I saw the roughs of the ending. Cool ideas. Where are you stuck? What doesn’t feel right?

How long do you intend it to be? Does it have to be of a certain length for some reason, or the length is no problem. I could see this as a whole novel. The silent part is not a problem. Clever tactics to get to know him by other people talking about him.

Great writing!

I was totally floored. What wasn’t working for me, worked just fine for my beta reader. Naturally, I sent her the list of my concerns so she can continue her evaluation. At this point, I think I’m also going to run the story past some of the members of my writing group as well.

It looks like this story is going to come off the back burner again this summer, probably right after I complete the second story about Pageeda and Scuffee. Even with its problems, the story has achieved some of the impact I was hoping for. I’m excited again. You don’t know how good that feels.

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The Writer’s Village

The writer sits in a darkened room, his face lit only by the glow of his computer screen as he madly types on the keyboard. Soon, his latest opus will be completed, so perfect that no second draft will be needed. He’ll submit it to a publisher, who will instantly accept it, and all too soon it will be a New York Times bestseller.

For many people, the perception is that professional writing is done by supremely talented people working in isolation and producing perfectly publishable stories and novels without any additional help from anybody.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it generally works in real life.

Think about it for a moment. Have you ever opened a book and seen an acknowledgement page where the author thanks dozens of people for helping him complete the book?

What’s going on here? Isn’t writing a solitary art? What could all of these people possible do for a writer?

I’m going to tear the veil aside, and tell you who these people are, what they do, and how they help writers produce their stories and novels.

This is, of course, highly relevant to me because I’m trying to jump-start my own encore career as a professional science fiction and fantasy writer.

To that end, I’ve set up, or am in the process of setting up, five basic groups of people to help me.

  1. Mastermind Group: To help with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur.

  2. Writer’s Group: To help with the creative aspects of being a writer.

  3. Alpha Readers: To help improve my content by focusing on structural issues.

  4. Beta Readers: To help improve my content by serving as a test audience.

  5. Subject Matter Experts: People who know more than me about key subjects like sword fighting, military tactics, etc.

So, what’s a Mastermind group?

Writing is a business, and I’m pursuing a multi-pronged approach for my writing career. While writing needs to be my primary activity, I’ll be augmenting this with other activities such as workshops, storytelling performances, videos, blogging, marketing, etc. Basically, I’m planning on using my advanced public speaking and storytelling skills as a locomotive to pull me through the marketplace and help advertise my fiction. This is a complicated business plan with a lot of moving parts.

Accordingly, I need a team of people to help me out with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur. A Mastermind group provides a collaborative environment where ambitious, driven individuals can meet to discuss business plans and engage in mutual problem-solving. Most importantly, however, a Mastermind group requires members to set goals, and holds them accountable for reaching those goals. The group helps members push their limits.

A Writer’s Group allows me to interact with other writers in my field. We can meet, kick around ideas, brainstorm, solve writing problems, etc. This helps me get better at the craft of writing.

Alpha readers and beta readers help make your content better. Alpha readers are people with industry knowledge who read your story in its roughest form, often multiple times, and tell you what’s not working, where there are structural problems in your story, etc. They also challenge your underlying assumptions. To put it bluntly, they tell you if your story sucks, explain why it sucks, and give you recommendations on how to make it suck less.

The best example of where I thought alpha readers could have really made a difference involves the two Star Wars trilogies. If George Lucas had surrounded himself with the kind of detail-oriented people who make good alpha readers, he would have never perpetrated Jar Jar Binks on us.

Beta readers are your test audience. When you think your story is complete, and ready to be published, you give it to them. By the time they see your story, the basic architecture should already be sound. Beta readers help you fine-tune your story to make it even more effective. They tell you about issues like character motivation problems, clumsy dialogue, pacing problems, and areas where they were jarred out of the story.

Finally, subject matter experts. Have you ever seen a book where key details were wrong? Subject matter experts help prevent this. They are volunteers who give you advice on topics like sword fighting, police procedures, forensics, the possible physics of interstellar space drives, etc.

And you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to find subject matter experts to help you. If you ask nicely, most people would love to answer questions about their profession or hobby. For example, I needed expertise on sword fighting for a story. This past Memorial Day weekend, I attended the Virginia Scottish Festival and Games. One of the organizations present at the event was the Virginia Fencing School, where I met two men who were delighted to answer my questions about fencing, the different types of swords, and different fighting styles.

Writing is not a solitary art. All of these people are essential if you want to be a high-performing professional writer. If you’re writer, or want to be a writer, I hope that I’ve opened your eyes about the writing profession and how volunteers can help you achieve your dreams. If you’re not a writer, well, I hope that I’ve provided you with a better understanding of how stories and books are really produced.

Every writer really does need a village.

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