There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the wonderful folks all of us use to make our tales the best work possible. Who should we let read or work, and at what point should we let them read it? Just as important, who should not read our work? Let’s take them in the order that they should appear in our process.
Alpha Readers: Most writers are familiar with and use Beta Readers, so what is an Alpha Reader? An Alpha Reader, sometimes called a Critique Partner, is a highly trusted individual who takes a look at either an incomplete manuscript or a rough draft and provides you with objective views of your concept, first impressions of your characters and the direction your story is going. They might point out areas which need further development. They are not someone who can be relied on to pat you on the back and encourage you to keep at it. That is NOT their function. They are an excellent way to spot what works in your draft, what doesn’t work and to insure the foundations of your story are solid before you spend a great deal of time editing it.
So, you take their feedback, make whatever changes and revision you feel are appropriate and continue on until your story is finally complete.
Beta Readers: For most of us, the Beta Reader is the first person to lay eyes on our manuscript. They generally provide overall feedback on your story as well as pointing out plot holes (also called continuity errors), those gaps or misstatements which fly in the face of logic, such as “Jones stole a paint pony from the hitch rail and fogged it out of town”, then arrives at the hideout on a “sweating, wind-broke bay”. Another example of a plot hole might be where an object is laid aside and later appears either in hand or across the room as if by magic. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time--to all of us. Your Beta should also point out incorrect words (such as window seal instead of window sill, excepted instead of accepted, etc.), and factual errors. An example of a factual error would be having a character prior to 1873 “thumbing cartridges into his Colt”. There were plenty of Colt revolvers going as far back as the 1840s, but there were no cartridge models until 1872 and they weren’t readily available until late 1873.
Your Beta Reader should also point out inconsistencies in character. You may wish to have your character grow and face their fears over the course of your novel, but Frodo is never going to draw sword and charge a Hobgoblin. It’s not in his character.
Finally, your Beta Readers should be honest enough to tell you that this piece is terrible writing. Yes, it’s nice if they can find a gentle way to put it, “Charles, you never told me your children were writers”, or “This is really good. What grade is Tommy in now?” Maybe they will try a humorous tack, “Bro! How wasted were you, when you wrote this?” However they do it, tell you they must, and you must take it and thank them for it.
There are as many ways to work with Beta Readers as there are Betas. Some will give a short, written critique of the work, others will leave track changes on your manuscript. Some are excellent at finding those pesky plot holes, others at picking out the misspellings and odd word choices, some are the proverbial grammar Nazis, a select few are superior at catching the little factual details that otherwise would get you a stack of hate mail about why Poinciana is only found in the very southern tip of Texas and nowhere else in the United States including your New Mexico locale. Personally, I love my Beta Readers. They make my work infinitely richer and so much more believable and entertaining.
So, you make the necessary changes and revisions. If there were plot holes and inconsistencies which required a major rewrite, you will want a second round of Beta Readings, but at last your story is the best that you and your team can make it. You send it off to your editor. We’ll cover them next time. Until then, thanks for stopping by.
Lately, I’ve heard quite a bit of discussion about the different lengths of fiction, and the relative difficulty of each. So, let’s begin today with what the varying lengths of fiction are. There is a lot of disagreement on where the border lines between forms are, so keep in mind that the numbers I am using do not necessarily reflect the definitions of any editor or publication, but are rather generalizations. With that disclaimer, here we go.
>200,000 words Russian Novel
120,000 to 199,000 words Epic Novel
50,000 to 120,000 words Novel
30,000 to 50,000 words Novella
12,000 to 15,000 words Long Short Story
2,000 to 10,000 words Short Story
1,000 to 2,000 words Brief Short Story
Under 1,000 words Flash Fiction
About 500 words Short Short Story
100 words Drabble
50 Words Dribble
140 Characters Twitterature
There are a few even shorter forms including the 15-word story and the 6-word story. We’ll talk more about these at the end of this blog.
Notice that the term Flash Fiction is inclusive of several other definitions, which are sub-categories of Flash Fiction, and which all fall under 1,000 words.
I’ve heard writers with multiple published novels say that they simply can’t write short stories. Others have made the attempt, and find it incredibly hard. The consensus seems to be, that the shorter the piece, the more difficult it is to write.
Some writers, don’t want to attempt something as difficult as short fiction, until they are comfortable with their skills, and have established themselves in the longer forms. Just as many, myself included, see the short story and its shorter cousins to be a means to hone their craft, develop skills, and establish a following prior to attempting a longer work; a sort of apprenticeship.
For myself, I find that most of my writing falls in the low end of the standard short story around 2,500 to 3,000 words. I write some shorter and some longer, but that is where my average story falls. Although my longest work to date is about 75,000 words, it is a horribly rambling and somewhat disjointed piece, which has never made it past the first draft. I keep promising myself to get back to it and I believe that I will eventually.
I attribute this rambling largely, to the fact that I am a pantser. I write with no outline, and relatively little advanced planning. Plotters, on the other hand, will have their entire novel outlined with volumes of character sketches, plot lines, sub-plots, character arcs, et cetera, before they ever begin to write. They are far more organized than I.
So, why do so many accomplished writers have such a hard time with shorter pieces? I believe that it is a combination of two factors. The first is word choice. The shorter the piece being written, the more important it is to cut the non-essential words, and to make each word that you keep serve a function. Each word must be essential to building your character or moving your story forward.
For a novelist, this can be a very difficult task. They are accustomed to working in little bits and pieces such as backstory, motivation, setting, et cetera. They may be a writer of fantasy, used to creating and populating entire worlds and cultures, creating economies and religions which must be explained to the reader as they go along, inserting a bit of information here and there, so that the reader understands how this world works, who is allied with whom, which races and lands have traditional enemies, and so forth. There is little room in a short story to accomplish all that, and much of it is unnecessary.
The second factor which makes short fiction so difficult for some is focus. The short story is not the proper means to tell the tale of poor farm families from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma being displaced and their struggles to move west and make a new life for themselves in the farming communities of California.
One could, however, tell the tale of a single couple struggling in those immigrant camps to find medicine for an infant, and the sacrifices they make to do so. Here, the story is narrowed down to just a few characters with a single conflict to resolve.
If you are writing flash fiction, it needs to be distilled even more. Perhaps you could tell the simple story of a wife who barely has enough to eat and her struggle to find a way to buy a gift for her husband. Here your story had been focused down to two or three characters and a simplified quest.
Maybe you are writing micro-fiction. Now you have only six words to tell your story. You might come up with something like a rather famous one attributed to Hemingway. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never Worn.”
For writers accustomed to the sweeping drama with underlying themes, complex characters, and subtle sub-plots, it is no wonder that the short story or flash fiction present a real challenge. It is, however, something which will improve their writing by forcing them to focus and to make their every word count. It will result in tighter, richer writing even in their longer works.
I promised early in this piece that there would be more about micro fiction. Here it is. I recently submitted several pieces to Haunted Waters Press for their Penny Fiction section. The requirements were to write stories of exactly fifteen words. Although my entries were eventually rejected, I believe they are worth looking at to see what can be done with so few words. You can find them in the Musings and Writings section of my website at www.dennisdotywebsite.com. While you are there, check out some of my other writing and maybe some back issues of my blog. Thanks for stopping by.
#writing, #fiction, #writingadvice, #shortfiction
You may have heard writers speak of the “honeymoon” phase in their writing. If you haven't, it's that period right after you write a piece, where you are totally in love with it. Your characters are amazing, your scenes are vivid, the dialog would make a Hollywood screen-writer jealous and you are certain that this is that one plot that no one has ever thought of before.
Unfortunately, just as in a relationship, over a relatively short time, the bad habits, thoughtless behaviors and warts begin to appear. You have left it sit for a minimum of three or four days, preferably three or four weeks.
You open the file to put a final polish on it, and send it out to your admiring Beta readers, but wait. What's this? Pages of utter drek. The characters are one dimensional, the settings at best blasé, and the brilliant dialog now sounds more like a couple of wasted Valley Girls. What in the hell happened to your masterpiece?
The simple answer is, nothing. These are the words you put on the page. Now, you are seeing it in the same cold harsh light that an editor would, and aren't you glad you didn't send it to him? This is where the real work begins.
You read through the entire file just to make sure that it really is your story and not some decoy placed there by the pirate who lives in your computer. Nope. It's yours alright. As you read through, you make a couple of notes about plot holes and passages which make you stop and read them twice … or three times … sometimes four. You notice that the grammar and punctuation were perpetrated by a ten-year old, but that is to be expected from what you now rationalize is “only a first draft”.
You begin again at the beginning. Where’s the hook? It’s your piece, and you can barely force yourself to read the first paragraph. Does anyone really care that the heavy winged paw-footed Queen Anne sofa with the scrolled crest and arms hardly goes well with the delicate spare lines and elegant marquetry of the Duncan Phyfe sideboard or the plain stark utility of the Shaker chair? You scratch it out and write, “Jeremy sat in a room furnished with a mish-mash of worn-out antiques, scribbling in a leather-bound journal.”
“Are we like going to the theater or what?” his wife, Carol, asked as she entered the room. Oh, my God. Again, you strike the offending line through with our red pen and recraft it. “Darling, we have to leave in thirty minutes if we’re to get to the theater on time.” Carol, peeked into the room as she attempted to hook the clasp on her pearls.
You continue with the bitter task of painstakingly repairing and rebuilding your creation. You carefully insert more tension. You develop your characters, giving each of them more depth, personality and unique speech patterns. You scatter bits and pieces of background and setting being careful to show and not tell. You add here and cut there until finally your piece is nearly as good as you originally thought it to be.
At last, you put your pen (or keyboard) aside and read your story aloud. Inevitably, this will turn up a few missing, misspelled, or awkward words. You make the corrections. Just to be sure, you run it through spell-check and Grammarly or Hemingway to find any little odds and ends you missed. Now you can send it out to your beta readers. If they are any good, it will likely come back looking like a cowboy friend of mine who once walked into a Samoan bar and made a few disparaging remarks about music that wasn’t Country and presumably those who listened to it. In his defense, he had already consumed a fifth of Jim Beam after being mauled by a bull with the same name.
You park yourself at your desk and carefully make the indicated changes, or at least the ones you agree with. You will probably choose to ignore a few. Others, you will literally beat your head against the wall for not noticing yourself. A few, will be so brilliant as to make you say, “Whoa.”
You send your piece to your editor. Do another round of changes and have your proofreader look it over. Finally, you are ready to submit.
When you come back to your work after a time, there are always things which escaped you before. Even after all the above steps and having submitted a piece, I often will pick it up a week or two later and find something that all of us had missed. That’s why, if I have a piece rejected for publication, I will immediately put on my editor’s shade and read through it again. Almost always, I will find a little tweak here or there that it needs before I send it out again. The point here is that, just like with new love, you couldn’t see any of this until you laid it aside, and allowed the honeymoon to pass.