The Perfect Beta Team

I am blessed with what is very likely the ideal team of beta readers. Though it only numbers three members (I know some authors like more; I wouldn’t turn down a serious request to be enlisted for the next go-round), they each bring something helpful and necessary to the process.

Reader 1 gets into the thick of it, finding clumsy word choices, unclear motivations, questionable characterizations, and weak pacing. She is also the reader most likely to go full fangirl when characters do something awesome or, more often, find themselves in desperate scrapes.

Reader 2 takes a more big-picture approach. He doesn’t leave me as many comments as Reader 1, but what he leaves is gold. Reader 2 is more likely to alert me to larger issues: whole scenes that just aren’t working, or that need to be placed in a different order; continuity errors; places where I may be expecting too much of my readers’ memory of previous volumes.

Reader 3 is a big-picture reader somewhat like Reader 2, but he brings an eye especially for mythological detail. Reader 3 is the one most likely to question whether what I’m writing has remained true to what I’ve already established about how magic works, for example, or about aspects of culture in the Wonder. Sometimes I think he understands my “rules” better than I do!

Mind you, I had none of this in mind when I invited these three to beta for me. I doubt I could have even predicted how they’d do what I’d asked them to do. But as The River of Night hurtles toward the finish line, I’m grateful to have (accidentally!) assembled such a team. Thanks, guys!

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On the Importance of Nailing the Landing

I’ve recently read a number of free or bargain-priced Kindle books that should have been right up my alley: They featured heaping spoonfuls of magic, mythological creatures, compelling world-building, mystery, and rip-roaring adventure. But they all had the same problem. They were all the first volume of a multi-book series, and it showed.

To be honest, I like series, and some of my favorite fantasy authors do them exceptionally well (I’m looking at you, Rick Riordan, Benedict Jacka, and Jim Butcher). If the characters are interesting and draw me into their world, I’ll be all over that stuff. But I still want each book of the series to have its own proper conclusion. I want a clear sense of development, that the protagonist has not only left Point A, but that he or she has arrived conclusively at Point B.

I wrote Children of Pride (Into the Wonder, book 1) as a standalone novel. I had an idea of where sequels might go, but I wanted the story to hold together on its own, and my sense is that it does. The Devil’s Due (book 2) has a pretty strong sequel hook. You know more adventures are coming, but the story itself still has a fitting conclusion. The same is true for Oak, Ash, and Thorn (book 3). The River of Night (book 4) is still in production. I think readers will like the conclusion, but the less I say about that right now, the better! 😉

So, I want good stories that stand on their own two feet, but I’m still a big fan of sequel hooks. If you want to throw me hints about a bigger, more dangerous world looming on the horizon, knock yourself out. I can even deal with a well-written cliffhanger. (I prefer not at the end of book 1; your mileage may vary.)

To be bluntly to the point, if I don’t know that you can bring your novel to a fitting conclusion, how can I trust you to do it with a series? Please end your novel and don’t just stop when you’ve reached the desired word-count. Give me a sense of resolution, a sense that the protagonist has achieved the goal he or she set out to achieve, and experienced a little character development along the way.

Do that well, and I’ll gladly read book 2. I promise.

Ten Commandments for Epic Fantasy Writing

Well, sort of.

If you’re a budding Epic Fantasy author, you’ve likely read quite a lot of advice about how your novel should start. Having read thousands of submissions and more than my fair share of published novels, I’d like to share with you ten openings that should be avoided. So here, in my opinion, is how not to do it…

  1. Make sure you get all that pesky world-building out of the way up front. How can I ever enjoy your story unless I know everything about the world? What is that clasp on the archer’s tunic made from? Where and when did she get it and how much did it cost? If you want you can put all this in a lengthy prologue, but we need to know this stuff.

  2. Is it raining? Describing the weather is such an dynamic way to start your novel. Nothing says ‘Epic Fantasy’ like a light breeze. We need a least three pages before we can even think about those characters.

  3. The Family History. An extension of 1) really. Ok, so this guy is running for his life. But when was his grandmother born? Quick, I can’t possibly invest in this until you’re told me. That leads us to…

  4. Introduce all of your characters straightaway. Fortunately readers all have photographic memories, so cram in as many names as you can in the first few pages. Better still, give them names that are impossible to pronounce like Horguur’thzogh and Ek’mazikav’tx so they will really stick in the mind.

  5. Describe absolutely everything. ‘She deftly flicked the thin strand of her glossy raven hair from her cold green eyes and purposefully and steadily raised the bow of ancient, dark yew and meticulously…’ Whassat? Sorry, I think I nodded off for a second there.

  6. And it was all a dream. A great way to make your world seem tedious to put a vivid dream right up front and get the reader to invest in it. Then wake your protagonist up, and you can rub it in the readers’ faces that it was all pretend and simultaneously make the ‘real’ world seem really boring. Result.

  7. Waking up. Or you can skip the dream and just open with someone waking up. Every day starts with someone getting up, so why not every novel? Then they can have breakfast, which is one of the mainstays of Epic Fantasy.

  8. Try hiding your info dump in dialogue. ‘My brother Rak, you know how our father, the Emperor, sent us on this quest six moons ago? Well, as we heard those outlanders – our sworn enemies – near our camp last night, if your twisted ankle is up to it, perhaps it is time to lay down the swords that once belonged to our grandfather – a famous hero of his time – and take the long road home through the mountains.’ Smooth, huh? This works well with internal monologues, too.

  9. Use plenty of metaphors. Although you’re writing a Fantasy novel and everything is up for grabs in the first chapter, don’t be afraid of using metaphors from the off. Of course the beast isn’t literally a hundred feet tall or the protagonist really has eyes that shine like blue fire on a dark night. It’s obvious. Your readers are smart; they’ll figure it out eventually.

  10. The epic battle. They say you should open with a bang, so why not a twenty-page action sequence? Who cares that we don’t know who anyone is, aren’t bothered if they live or die, where they are, or what’s at stake! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Resolutions to Help Out Indie Authors

Via Coffintree Hill:

I’m sure that many of you made resolutions and goals for the year; to finish that novel, to make more time to read, to update your blog more regularly. But how about setting some time aside to help out some fellow indie authors? There are heaps of different ways that you can support your peers, to pay it forward.

  • Follow their blog. Read, comment and share their posts.
  • Follow their social networking profiles. Again, read, comment, share, retweet, reblog.
  • Run word sprints/word wars. Find other writers online and write together. Set a time limit, and see who gets the most words out. They’re great fun and great motivation.
  • Join the Insecure Writers Support Group. Once a month, writers all over the world write blog posts about their own insecurities, and offer advice and support to other writers. You’ll find new friends, new followers, and they’re all there to cheer each other on. Sign up here: insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html
  • Host them on your own blog. If they have some news or a book coming out, you could let them have a space on your blog. You could run interviews with other writers, or let them guest blog. It’s win-win: they get exposure and your followers, you get great blog content and their followers.
  • Offer to beta read. Writers always need beta readers to give their opinions on their work. You get to read upcoming books before anyone else, and they are likely to return to favour when you need beta readers for your work.
  • Buy their books. Kind of obvious, right? But why not set a goal for the number of indie writers you’ll read this year? You might discover your next favourite writer.
  • Review their books. Whether on Amazon, Goodreads or your own blog, reviews mean so much to indie writers.
  • Recommend their books. If you enjoyed it, let other people know. Recommend their books on social media, to your friends, to your family. Recommendations really do sell books.
  • Give their books as gifts. Enjoyed it? Why not buy a copy for a friend or family member?

And there are loads of other ways you can help. Writers are often looking for cover critiques, or advice on marketing, formatting, character names etc etc. Just network, keep an eye out, and use your strengths to help someone out.

In Praise of Beta Readers

Julian Saheed praises beta readers as the unsung heroes of literature, and I heartily agree!

Beta readers are there to take a look at our story from the viewpoint of our consumers. They take a much broader look at our writing and provide us with feedback on themes, plots, character development and interactions. They explain to us how our story made them feel, at which points they cried, at which points they laughed. Most importantly, they tell us what they did not like. Their feedback is provided from the mindset of a reader, not the mindset of an editor, whose approach is much more technical. This is precious feedback. Feedback that can help you avoid displeasure in your fans, something we all strive towards.

Writing People of (a) Color (Different from Your Own)

In a thoughtful (and visually appealing) post by MariNaomi of Midnight Breakfast, several cartoonists offered some practical advice on how to write credible characters of a racial or ethnic background different from one’s own.

I hope I do justice to my nonwhite characters. As much as possible, I strive to avoid stereotypes (naturally!) and work from a character-first approach. Whenever possible, I try to draw on my experiences (1) as the kid of two teachers at an inner-city high school whose students often dropped in at our home and (2) the lone white kid in a predominantly black church youth group growing up.

In The Devil’s Due (which is hurdling through beta editing! Yay!), Taylor’s friend Jill plays a pretty significant role. The template from which I built her character was actually my childhood memories of a colleague and best friend of my mom, a strong, intelligent, devout, and compassionate black woman who could stand toe-to-toe with my mother—who is kind of a force of nature, but I mean that in the best possible way!—because of the love and respect they had for each other.

Imagining what that lady, now long deceased, might have been like in her teenage years helped me put a “face” on Jill, at least tentatively.