Beta Love

Hello fellow, bloggers, writers and readers. I don’t know about you, but for me sharing work with friends and family is terrifying. It’s like standing in front of them naked while they sit and judge. (Well it’s not, but it makes you feel just as vulnerable).

av2UntitledAfter my initial beta reading from my best writing buddy, I re-edited my manuscript and doled it out to a wider selection of willing friends and relatives. I was really nervous at first, I was letting my guard down in a real way and then as time passed I stopped being nervous. I stopped being nervous because not a single bloody one of them had read it. Then it was to hell with nerves and on with “where are you?” “how are you doing?” … and other ways of getting their arses in gear.

When I finally started getting some feedback back in from them the nerves started up again. What if they didn’t like it? What if they think I’m weird? What if they think it’s about them? And worst of all, what if they don’t think I should be a writer? … The funny thing about those worries is that they related more to me as a person than they did my book. I’m proud of my book and if I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t have showed it to them to begin with.

I’ll start by saying they’ve given me some fair and useful criticism, tips that are hard to see yourself on your own project. But the overall response has been a big thumbs up. ‘Hilarious’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘I forgot you’d written it’.

The latter is my favourite comment. I think that’s the highest praise you can give an aspiring writer because if the people who know you best have forgotten it’s your voice and are just enjoying reading a story, surely that must bode well for your prospective audience. I hope so anyway.

I’m looking forward to re-editing my manuscript based on their notes and getting it out in the world. Beta reading is about more than reaffirming an author’s confidence. It’s feedback from your market and a chance to see an objective view of something you can only be subjective about. It’s been fab to experience such great beta love and I hope my book will be all the better for it.

Where are you at with your stories? Are you nervous about beta reading? Have you been a beta reader? Do you think beta love is useful?

I always love to hear from you!

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What Makes a Story? #1 – Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes any story (novel, film, tv series) good or bad, so I’ve decided to do a series of posts based on what makes a story. This week I’m going to talk about characters.

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To be completely biased, characters are the make or break of a story for me. I always think you can have the best plot in the world but if the audience don’t feel anything for the characters then you’re sunk.

The book I read most recently was horribly disappointing and the main reason for that was that I didn’t care about the characters. I didn’t hate them, I didn’t love them, I just thought they were pathetic. Now, pathetic characters are fine IF they are meant to be pathetic, if they’re meant to be protagonists then you’ve got a problem.

A good character:

  • Has solid motivation – you always know why they’re doing what they’re doing
  • Demonstrates their characteristics – it’s no good telling readers that the character is brave – you have to show them
  • Has a backstory – you don’t need to know every detail of their lives but a strong character shouldn’t feel like they’ve been plucked from thin air
  • Speaks like a real person – I mean this both in the sense of what they say and how they say it – setting and genre play a big part of this. If they’re in the Victorian times, the speaker is less likely to use contractions but if set in recent history and present day, speech feels awkward if there are not contractions (see what I did there?)
  • Makes the audience care – this is the big one. Even if they’re hit and miss with the other four things, if you care about the character, the author/creator has done their job.

Some examples of great characters:

Jaime Lannister – A Song of Ice and Fire  – fantastic motivation, back story and he’s good and bad.

Don Tillman – The Rosie Project – never has a character had so much heart.

Dexter Mayhew – One Day – amazing character development over twenty years.

Becky Bloomwood – Shopaholic Novels – funny, loveable and always in a mess.

Minguillo Fasan – The Book of Human Skin – a sociopath who you’re partly in collusion with.

Poppy Shilling – A Rural Affair – funny and painstakingly honest. Someone you’ll cheer on.

Will Traynor – Me Before You – a quadriplegic patient with a broken spirit that’s brought back to life

And … Josiah Bartlet – the president in ‘The West Wing’, if only he did run the world …

These are only some of my favourite characters – who are yours? What do you think makes a great character?

 

Shoe Shopping – Part One

A story that has very little to do with shoes.

As soon as the car door slammed shut, her nostrils began to burn from the stench of the acid that had attached itself to her clothes. The acid was effective at removing the mess, but it really did stink. She repressed her immediate desire to leave the car for fresh air. Instead she calmly drove away winding the window down with her immaculate leather glove. There was no time to waste.  She drove with a quiet sense of purpose and continued with her day.

The car was quiet, she did not enjoy music. The sounds of the engine and the road were much more soothing to her than lyrics about, what, love? loss? regret? No, silence suited her much better. As she returned to the limits of her village she remembered the milk. As much as she didn’t feel like walking into a shop, she was supposed to buy the milk. If she didn’t, he would ask why, which would lead into a series of complicated lies about her day. Frankly, the activity of the morning had worn her out and buying the milk, as annoying as it was, would be more efficient.

When she stepped out of the privacy of her car and inhaled the fresh air, she realised that, once again, she’d grown acclimatised to the acidic gases. The acid worked so well for her that this was convenient, yet she was also sure it couldn’t be good for her health. The irony of this was lost on her. She strode into the shop and prepared herself by adopting a ‘friendly’ expression and quickly thinking of lines of idle chat. The shopkeeper lived around the corner and she saw him quite frequently, so she assumed that their mutual friendliness and the length and frequency of their relationship made them friends.

The bells tolled above the door, and the shopkeeper turned round with an expression on his face. Was it fear or surprise? She couldn’t tell. She always got those two confused.

“Rita, how are you my dear?” The shopkeeper said. “You’re the first customer I’ve seen today.” Definitely surprise, she thought.

“Slow day then?” She replied, smiling on queue. What was his name? Marvin? Martin? Michael? She couldn’t remember.

“Unfortunately so,” he said. “I resorted to reading all the newspapers this morning, even the local one!” He chortled and she gave a little laugh, but she couldn’t really get the hang of humour. She certainly wasn’t looking for conversation, it was far too much effort, but the man, (Malcolm?), kept yammering away.

She subtly moved to the back of the little shop to get the milk, and as she reached for it, she remembered. “Do you know a good stain remover?”

He pointed to the left at a tall yellow bottle. “That’s the best one we sell.”

“Great, I spilt red wine on my white shirt and I just don’t want to throw it away.” The lie flowed easily from her tongue.

“In this economy I can’t blame you, everything is an unnecessary expense.” He indicated the financial page of the latest newspaper he was reading. As she reached for her purse, he turned the page of the paper. It was an enlarged photo of a young woman captioned ‘missing’. He caught her gaze and shook his head. “Terrible isn’t it? The poor young thing, she hasn’t been seen for a week.”

“Awful,” she agreed, hoping that her tone was appropriate. They exchanged more small talk until she took her items, left the shop, and returned to her car. Although she’d only just seen the picture of that woman, she couldn’t remember her face. You would think such a detail would permanently remain inside her memory, but it never did. As she drove away she glanced down at the gear stick and caught sight of her shoes, black stiletto Manolo Blahnik’s, she needed no prompt to remember the shoes.

End of Part One.

The prompt for this story was to write about topic X without ever mentioning topic X.  How’d I do? Please tell me what you think!

Writer’s Blog Tour

I was very excited when the delightful Pema Donyo (@PemaDonyo) asked me to take part in this writer’s tour. She’s a very talented and published author – just have a look at her blog. It’s taken me so long to do this! So I can only apologise to the very talented Dorcas who I have nominated to continue the hop.

What am I working on?

I’ve written and am in the process of editing my first ever novel called The Great Graduate Debacle.

graduation-caps-thrown-in-air The Great Graduate Debacle is about five childhood friends who have just graduated from university. They’re getting to grips with being back at home, living with their parents again and working full time. Oh and they’ve stolen quite a bit of money that was hidden by a local drug dealer. What could possibly go wrong?

The plot’s tongue in cheek, you can’t take it seriously and you’re not supposed to. It’s a fun story with relevant characters and themes. But mainly funny, it’s supposed to be funny.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

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I’ve never actually come across a book that deals with this very specific stage in your life, which is why I decided to write about it.

Graduation is a funny time because you feel no more adult than you did when you started university. And yet, you’re suddenly pushed into the real world with the expectation of putting your degree to use. To top things off, if you live back at home, you’re an adult in the day time and still a teenager in the evenings. It can be stressful but it’s funny too, trying something new can often end in brilliant anecdotes.

My novel could fit into the new adult genre but the way it differs is in the characters. My characters aren’t romanticised heroes or villains, they’re just people, with good and bad in them. The normality of the characters and the absurdity of the situation is where I’ve tried to create humour.

Why do I write what I do?

This felt like such a good project to work on for my first novel because it’s what I know. I thought I could tackle this story from real experience that gives it a sense of authenticity I may have not had with more ambitious projects.

As I progress as a writer I hope to write across many other genres, but this was great for getting my feet wet. (And it was fun to write).

How does my writing process work?

I get ideas everywhere. Watching telly, in the bath, chatting with friends … literally anywhere. This particular idea came from a hungover morning with my friends after the funniest night out I’ve ever been on.

Once the idea’s set, it’s on to the characters. Most of the times their names jump into my head and then I decide on their personalities and actions. I take inspiration from people around me but at the end of the day my characters aren’t real (sadly). unnamed

In previous projects, I’ve tried to plan chapter by chapter with no success. So this time I just decided the main points of my story, my chapter titles and the rest sorted itself out. I was lucky in that it just flowed, hopefully it reads that way too!

I’m still editing at the moment and then it’s on to looking for a publishing agent. But watch this space, much like Kodaline I have high hopes.

Now let me introduce you to a very talented writer named Dorcas Amis, a very talented young writer! Over to you my friend! 

DorcasMy name is Dorcas Amis, but my friends call me “Dee”. I am from Chingola, I am 23 years old and I graduated 2 weeks ago from university…yay me.

I have always enjoyed reading. I also enjoy writing my thoughts down. Before I discovered blogging it used to just be me and my diary, experimenting with poetry and just writing short stories which were just for my family’s eyes only. 🙂

I finally decided to get really serious and put more effort in my writing (it was impossible at times, with school and all) and I came up with the YA Fantasy story that I am working on, it is still a work in progress though.

Random facts – I love dolphins. My favourite fruit is a pineapple and I HATE bananas

Twitter, Blog,  Goodreads

Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?

Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter asked us this question in 1865 and no one is any closer to solving the mystery. (If you say you’ve got it, I simply don’t believe you).

I’m three chapters into editing the third draft of my book and I’m asking myself ‘why?’ quite a lot right now. Why did I put that scene there? Why did she say that? Why is that in his perspective? Why did I choose to do that? Why did I want to be a writer? And why, why, is a raven like a writing desk?

You see, I’ve given my book a bit of break recently. I took the plunge and handed over my manuscript (if I’m going to be bold enough to call it that) to a beta reader, aka my long-suffering friend Phoebe. I’ll hold my hands up admit I could have scarcely been more annoying. Where are you up to? What do you think so far? So will you read more tonight? I’m a bit surprised we’re still friends actually… But we are. She put up with me valiantly and provided some top notch feedback. (See picture below)

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Except going back over it now feels different. It was written just long enough ago that now it’s a bit like someone else’s work. Past Sophie’s. I’m struggling to remember why I made these choices and why I put so many blooming words in a sentence. For the most part, past Sophie did quite well but future Sophie will be wondering why present Sophie is farting around instead of editing.

It’s the dreaded delete key! I understand Phoebe’s comments, I do, and I’m adding scenes and explaining more but I’m so reluctant to press delete. It feels like a piece of my soul has gone into that work and it’s so difficult to cut it out, even if it is for the greater good. Do you ever feel like that?

On the whole, feedback has been both positive and helpful. Having a writing buddy is really useful because they can be honest with you. And my writing buddy is a tough critic. I’m gradually telling my friends and family that I’ve written a book and want to be a writer. It feels a funny thing to admit. I’m half proud (ok a lot proud) and a bit embarrassed. On the whole everyone has been very supportive and I’ve had a lot of reading offers which I’m taking everyone up on! I need as much feedback as I can get – a book is a collaborative venture.

The support here online has been overwhelmingly lovely. I’d say something more emotive but I’m too British, emotion is reserved for fiction.

So why have I done it? Why have I decided to write? Well because I can’t not. And no other why’s seem to matter … except why is a raven like a writing desk, Lewis? One would almost think it was nonsense …

Reading Like a Writer: Game of Thrones Edition

Thanks to the lovely people at Casual Readers I’ve just published my first ever guest blog. And here’s another look here!

I don’t know about you but I reread books, sometimes more times than I can keep count of. Every time I pick up an old faithful someone will ask, “that again? But you know what happens!” It doesn’t matter that I know what happens, I still enjoy the journey. There’s another reason too, as an aspiring writer, rereading stories teaches me how the the author has created their story.

I can’t help but read like a writer. Reading like a writer and reading like reader is the difference between reading actively and passively. There is nothing wrong with reading passively, we all know it’s lovely to read and turn your brain off but writers, even if they’re only amateurs like myself can’t help but look for the how and why.

I’m going to use George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books as an example (and I’m going to try very hard not to include any spoilers). I started the first book A Game of Thrones about six weeks ago and I still have one and a half books to go before I’ll have finished the series. But I developed a theory about one of the main characters half way through the first book, although I don’t yet know for certain that I’m right, I have every reason to believe Martin is pointing in this direction.

In the very first book you’re introduced to a character called Jon Snow (portrayed by the beautiful Kit Harrington), he’s the bastard son of Lord Stark and he’s been raised in his father’s household as one of his children. But Jon’s life isn’t quite like his highborn brothers and sisters, the Lady of the household despises him, he is colloquially known as the bastard and his father keeps his mother’s identity a closely guarded secret.

Why? Was my first question, what is the point of giving Lord Stark a bastard? Good writers don’t introduce big characters like Jon Snow without a purpose, but as a bastard Jon is fundamentally limited in Martin’s world, so why make him a bastard?

My second question regarded the identity of Jon’s mother, it wasn’t who she was but rather why she was a secret. One explanation could be that Lord Stark didn’t want to upset his Lady wife but other than seeming a pretty flimsy excuse, he has no trouble telling her to keep her nose out when she asks. So why the secret? A Game of Thrones is written in the perspective of different characters, Lord Stark could tell the reader her identity in any of his chapters but he doesn’t. In my experience, a writer explaining away someone like they have Jon’s mother is for two reasons. One, the writer hasn’t actually thought it through (a bad writer), or two because it will become significant later and Martin has invested in his world too thoroughly for it to be anything but the latter.

By half way through book one, I’d reaffirmed that Jon’s parentage was important because the question of his mother continued to be raised. Also by this point, I’d gotten to know Jon’s father much better and the more you read of him, the odder it seems that this man even has a bastard. Lord Stark is honourable to his core, you know it and other characters know it, but siring Jon while he was married seems far from the honourable picture Martin has created of Lord Stark. In fact, it starts to seem distinctly out of character. Lady Stark is forever miffed by Jon and the way Lord Stark fiercely protects the identity of his mother, she says he must have loved her very much.

But the only woman Lord Stark loves other than his wife and daughters, is his sister. The same sister who was set to marry the king before her untimely death, and Lord Stark did make her a mysterious promise on her deathbed…

Before I seal my lips, I’ll present you with one last question, why has Martin included such a rich background for a character that died before the story starts?

A friend of mine read GOT at the same time as me and didn’t come to the same theory. Another friend has finished the entire series, he holds the same theory but didn’t come to it until very late on. The difference between my friends and I was that I read this as a writer, I was looking for clues and asking why right from the beginning.

I will hold my hands up and admit that I don’t know if I’m right about Jon’s identity, but if I’m wrong all Martin’s signposts have been planted wonky.

Please let me know what you think! I think I’ll start ‘Reading Like A Writer’ as a monthly thing, so let me know your thoughts or any book ideas!

Colouring in the Words

So far I’ve accomplished three things this week, seriously hurting my neck from trying to do an 8 minute abs work out, getting an abysmally low score on a pub quiz and beginning going over my book. I’m sure my neck and general knowledge will get better and but my book’s a bigger problem.

Just to catch you up if you haven’t read my previous post, I’m writing a book about five recent graduates who steal a load of money to help them get by in a time where they have no idea what to do next, so of course thievery seems like the best option available. It’s supposed to be funny and a bit ridiculous but have enough heart to relate to the graduates out there going through the same thing (minus the robbing).

So far, I can say the writing’s not bad (yay) almost good the more the story progresses but I work on that later. My concern now is that the story isn’t substantial enough, it feels a bit flimsy. I’ve got good motivation, I’ve got well rounded characters and I have a clear plot but my story still feels a bit thin (unlike me because I’m unable to do anymore exercise – damn my weak core).

I’m one of those freaks who likes grammar, I actually enjoyed editing essays at uni, but editing the big picture and moulding the plot is so much harder than fixing sentences. I wish I could lay my whole book out in front of me and absorb everything at once but no visual metaphors are helping right now. My lack of objectivity here is a big problem, I’m too close to tell whether it’s a good story, I’m finding problems everywhere and mucking about with sentences where I should be fixing content. My confidence is ebbing and my nerves are frayed from a whole load of small, medium and big spiders appearing at very inconvenient times.

When I’ve read the whole thing once, whether I’m happy with it or not, I’ll hand it over to someone else to read, namely my good friend (and the superior writer) Phoebe. I can trust her to be brutally honest with me and she can trust me not to get all offended and cry. I’m essentially asking her to strip my story down and point out every flaw she sees, it’s not going to pretty but it will be helpful. I figure I’m in for a lot of criticism down the line so I may as well begin it with my friends, who will hopefully be gentle.

I need your help too! If you were reading a graduate story like this, what kind of things would you want in it? What do you think would give it meat (so to speak)? Any comments and anecdotes are more than welcome!

(Apologies for the aesthetics of my blog – I’m new to wordpress and I’ll make it look nicer once I figure it out a bit more!)

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