Books, Writing

To Beta, or Not To Beta?

Beta reading is your opportunity to provide feedback to another author. Some will have teams of betas, others will work with just a very select few. How beta reading is approached is a very personal choice; there is no right or wrong way, it’s what the writer is comfortable with.

I have beta read on two occasions (same book, later version was heavily revised), and really enjoyed the experience. Not only did I get to read something very few people had set eyes on, but I also got to enjoy it in its original incarnation. I am now beta reading another manuscript, and expecting one more to come my way soon.

SO, WHAT IS A BETA READER?

  1. Someone who will read your unsolicited manuscript.
  2. Provide feedback and critique.

WHY DO I NEED ONE?

Betas can help writers see the woods for the trees. As a writer, you’ve spent months, maybe even years on your opus magnum, it’s precious to you; this makes it harder to see the flaws. You love the story, and that’s what counts. Right?

Wrong. It’s for this reason that a beta will provide an invaluable service.

  1. Overall feedback on the story.
  2. Critique on plot, tone, pacing, characterisation, and dialogue.
  3. Spot plot holes.
  4. What they liked/didn’t like.

Ideally, your beta should be a fellow writer or bookworm who works and/or reads in the same genre. You might have written a great thriller, but someone whose interest lies in historical romance probably won’t be a good fit.

It’s also a good idea to have a few betas, too many can muddy the waters though, how much critique do you want to sift through? Three is a good number as you are more likely to spot an overall theme in their feedback.

Family and friends aren’t always the best choice, more than likely they won’t want to upset you!

WHAT ABOUT PROFESSIONAL BETAS?

Beta reading isn’t a recognised skill such as editing or proofreading i.e. you can’t get a qualification in beta reading. Your best source for betas is the wonderful writing community of which you are already a member! Social media is a fantastic place to find people more than willing to read your manuscript. If you have a Twitter or Instagram account geared towards your writing endeavours, you will find betas amongst your connections. Facebook and Good Reads have critique and beta groups.

Of course, you do have to consider the implications of copyright and trusting someone with your work, so don’t just e-mail off your manuscript to someone you’ve only had one or two interactions with. Do your research, ask other writers if they can recommend someone.

This article has some very useful information on writing copyright.

WHAT SHOULD I ASK FOR?

This is entirely down to you, here are some examples (not exhaustive):

  1. What was your overall impression?
  2. Favourite character and why.
  3. Least favourite character and why.
  4. Were there any parts that bored you? Please elaborate your answer.
  5. Any particular prose or phrases that stood out as well written?
  6. Were there any scenes that seemed unnecessary?
  7. Were there any sections where the pacing suffered?

Again, this is where you, the writer, decide what you want to get out of the beta read. Tailor the questions to suit the genre, if there is romance involved, or violence, for example. Do they illicit the reactions you want?

Remember, betas are not for proofreading or line editing, services which do work on a hire basis. They are not there to pick up on grammar and punctuation, writers should already have a pretty good grip on these, and they will be fine tuned during final edits.

I hope this post has proven informative, if you would like to comment, please do. Additional tips are always welcome!

Writing

Nine Years of Writing, Faffing, and Editing…

Back in 2017, I wrote those immortal words, “The End”. I had done it, I had written a book. An ACTUAL novel! The sense of achievement was amazing.

Horizon Skies has had many iterations over the years, but in 2012, I sat myself down, notebook and pen in hand, and I began to write. I knew the story, it had been playing out in my mind like a movie for years, it was desperate to be told.

After finishing it, I took a break, then went through the painful editing process. It was at this time, that I wasn’t ruthless enough. I loved the story, and didn’t feel it needed changing. I tweaked and tidied, made it look presentable, and then sent to to my betas.

Feedback was generally positive, no real changes were suggested, there were a few questions, and my magic system and world building stood out as elements that weren’t fully explored. Two areas of the book that, to be honest, I hadn’t dedicated much time to.

I pressed on, however and in 2018 queried with agents. Of course, I was roundly rejected, which I was prepared for, and I expected it to happen. How many first time writers are lucky enough to snag an agent straight away? I was encouraged by some of the positive rejections I received though, this at least meant I was on the right track.

I hired a professional editor, Lucy Rose York, (I highly recommend) and found her advice and feedback invaluable. She went through my manuscript in detail, gave me really concise editorial notes, and I realised I’d been too precious about Horizon Skies. Whilst the book didn’t need a complete overhaul, she pointed out areas for improvement, parts that could be moved to earlier stages in the story, and again reminded me to elaborate further on my magic system.

Who knew magic systems could be so difficult?!

For two years, I faffed about with Horizon Skies, picking it up, and thinking “I can’t do this again.” The thought of having to edit further was so disheartening.

I did though, during lockdown in 2020, I started working on it again. I made some major cuts, and fleshed out a character arc.

These changes weren’t enough though. I went back through the annotated manuscript Lucy had sent me, and worked through all her suggested edits. Some I didn’t agree with, but for the most part I did what was suggested. It was hard work, minor changes could take up hours, but when reading back the amendments, I could immediately see how they improved the story.

Yesterday, I finished writing my final interlude piece. I’ve been inspired by Brandon Sanderson to slot in some small chapters to provide a bit of background, make the world building a bit more interesting, and elaborate on the magic system. It’s still a rough draft, but I’ll tweak it up when I transcribe it into my Word document.

After that, I’ll do a grammar edit and proofread. Whether or not I get it beta read again, or go back to Lucy remains to be seen. I don’t feel I can do anymore with the story. How much editing, revision, and rewriting is someone supposed to do? I could tweak forever. I just want to get it back out to the agents, and see if this time, I can make a success of it.

Writing

The Writer’s Dream.

What do you dream of achieving as a writer? Will it be enough to simply have your work out there, being read by a handful of book lovers, or are you dreaming of the big time? Movie deals, perhaps a Netflix adaptation? Maybe you’d love to see your hard work immortalised with a special edition hard back boxset? How about a queue round the block for a fully booked signing session?

Whilst it’s important that us writers keep our feet on the ground whilst our heads are in the clouds, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those dreams. It’s happened for plenty of authors in the past, why not you?

My dream is to be able to work full time as writer. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I must admit to having romanticised the notion in the past. When I first queried agents, I imagined I’d receive a slew of manuscript requests, and there’d be a bidding war for me. Ha! The reality was very different, instead I was rejected (some were positive though) and had to face up to the reality that I wasn’t going to be “The Next Big Thing”.

Here I am, a few years after querying, but having learned so much more. When I read through Horizon Skies now, I spot constant areas for improvement. The early chapters still show my immaturity as a writer, and I even cringe at some of the dialogue! This proves to me that I have improved my craft, I can write, I’m actually pretty good, so why not dream big?

Dreams are so important, they give us something to strive for. If we don’t dream, how can we ever explore the possibility of being able to achieve that dream?

Whatever form your writing dream takes (or maybe you’re not a writer, maybe you’re a poet, or a dancer, or studying) believe in yourself that you can do it. Practice every day, indulge your passion for what led you in that direction, connect with like minded individuals who are in the same field. It’s amazing how bouncing off others can give you motivation, encouragement and a sense of belonging. Above all, remember this sage advice from the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett

Life, Social, Writing

A Not So Little Announcement.

I have been a prolific user of social media over the years, starting off with Facebook, then Twitter, Blogger, a stab at Instagram, and even Vero. On the whole, I do believe social media can be a force for good, but it’s trapped in a quagmire of toxicity and hate (particularly Twitter) which is not being tackled.

I’ve had a few Facebook and Twitter accounts as I’ve decided to leave, then come back and start again. My first Instagram account felt like a huge waste of time, I was constantly spammed with ads and offers; add to that the constant barrage of idealistic lifestyles, and you end up feeling like a failure for not leading a fantastic and aesthetically pleasing life!

What I have realised though, especially after taking a proper break from Facebook, was that I really didn’t miss using it. I’ve crept back in with a few posts here and there, but honestly, who needs it? People managed perfectly well at keeping in touch before social media, and it was always fun getting photos developed after a holiday!

I’m back on Instagram, giving it a proper go this time, aiming my posts and follows at the writing and reading communities. As books are my biggest passion in life, I can connect with people who have the same interests as me. As a writer, connecting with others is very important. It’s useful for swapping hints, tips, advice and sharing in each other’s stories. I had this initially on Twitter, but my trending feed is full of depressing stories. Another black life is taken by a white cop in the US, the Tories continue to get away with lies and corruption, Meghan Markle is bullied and slagged off on a daily basis. No one is held accountable, and Twitter as a company utterly fails to deal with abusive accounts.

Not that Facebook is much better. You’ve probably all heard the stories of their involvement with Cambridge Analytica, data harvesting, and allowing the Russian interference which influenced the outcome of both US and UK elections a few years back.

All social media companies are complicit in deceit and corruption somewhere along the way. They’re almost as powerful as the right-wing owned mainstream “news” outlets who lie and deceive with impunity.

To cut a long story short.

After some thought, I have decided to permanently close my Twitter account. I will be keeping Facebook as I do have my author page on there which some of my friends follow, but I won’t be using it for personal reasons. I will now only be active on Instagram, and my blog.

I know a lot of my writerly connections on Twitter are also on Instagram, and I’m finding it quite difficult to connect with some of you on Instagram! I would love to stay in touch, so if you haven’t yet connect with me, and would like to, please do! My handle is @AspirestoCreate and it’s all about books, reading and writing.

Hope to see you there!

Life, Mental Health, Writing

2021 So Far, So…

If 2020 was the annus horribilis, then 2021 is shaping up to be the annus phaulia (courtesy of Google translate, forgive any etymological oversight).

If you’ve kept up with my blog, you’ll remember back in January, I had a breakdown, resulting in me taking almost two months off work, popping the happy pills, and signing up to an online CBT course.

I returned to work full time a few weeks ago, the pills seem to be working their magic, and the CBT course is proving to be very useful. There was, it turned out, light at the end of the tunnel after all. I am in a much happier place, and feeling a lot better. I must mention the fantastic care I’ve received from the NHS’ Mental Health services (severely underfunded and understaffed). If it wasn’t for having access to the service, I’d be in a straitjacket . We in the U.K. have a responsibility to fight tooth and nail for our wonderful NHS.

I digress…

My writing mojo made a reappearance! After months of languishing in the doldrums, my half hearted attempts at editing Horizon Skies almost put paid to me ever getting the damn thing back out there. During the last few weeks of my sick leave, I not only started editing properly again, but came up with some new ideas for the novel. I have worked out more backstory for book two, added in some interludes, put more detail in around the magic system, and tightened up elements of the plot. I’m really happy with the latest progress, and my aim now is to send the second round of queries out in the first week of May.

On a sorrowful note, my boyfriend lost his father to leukaemia on the 18th March. Pete’s dad fought a long, hard battle with the disease, and never truly let on to us the extent to which he was suffering. He was 79 when he died, which is a great age, but there is still a sense that he was robbed of a full life. He was robust, active, and always cheerful; were it not for the illness, I believe he would have had another good 10 years in him.

Grief is a strange emotion, and we all process it in different ways. With the difficulty of the last few weeks behind us, we can now start to move on, and work on healing. I’m enthusiastic about my writing, and have tried to do as much as I can so I can put the final draft of Horizon Skies together.

I’ve also given Instagram a second chance. I could never get on with it before; too many ads, spam messages from profiles I wasn’t interested in, and the inability to share posts a lá Twitter. However Twitter has become incredibly toxic, and I’m tired of seeing so many negative trends and events. I’ve discovered with Instagram, that I can avoid all that as my account is geared purely towards my passion for books. It is quite difficult to gain followers though, and takes a bit more work (hashtag the hell out of every post!), but quality over quantity is more important.

Watch this space!

Writing

Practice Makes Perfect.

I’ve enrolled on to a Creative Writing Course!

Ok, I’m already a writer, just not a very professional one. But I do have a published story to my name (the popular Grey Ice), I’ve been writing this blog since 2015, and I have completed a novel. Yay me 😁

As with any profession though, there will always be room for improvement, and as my initial plan to go on an Arvon writing retreat this year has been scuppered; I decided to take a look at distance learning.

I work a full time job, so my free time is limited to weekends and evenings. Plus, my job is very busy, demanding and stressful. The writing retreat would have been an ideal break, but I can go another time. With distance learning, I can dictate my own study time, work at my leisure, and still get online support from a tutor.

The Open University offer some great courses, sadly though, even the online package prices are way beyond my means. It would have been so nice to go for something like a degree though. Again, maybe I’ll be able to pursue that another time.

I trawled the internet, looking at various courses with publishers, literary agents, and colleges. Eventually settling on Open Study College which I was already aware of, and who have a very good reputation, as well as being affordable! I signed up, and within a couple of days, received my study pack.

I believe that if one is serious about a particular vocation, or ambition, wishful thinking is not the way to achieve that goal. I know this, because I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. When I was younger, harbouring dreams of becoming an actress, I used to imagine being “discovered” by famous film directors (Charlize Theron was discovered in a bank, so it can and does happen!), but honestly Steven Spielberg wasn’t going to be visiting Southampton for any reason.

As an adult, hurtling towards my 48th spin around the sun, I’ve realised over the last decade how actually putting in the work to achieve something can get results. Putting myself out there on the Amdram circuit meant I’ve been able to act on stage, and knuckling down to get on with my writing meant I was able to finish my novel, and work on other pieces. I’ve written a slew of short stories, blogged on various subjects, and have other novels I’m working on.

My other half is a great example of working hard to achieve his goals; he’s ambitious with big dreams, but puts in the work to achieve those dreams. He’s toured Europe, played gigs in the US, has released his own music, videos, and even performed lockdown gigs. He’s a prime example of someone who deserves every success because of how much work he puts in.

I need to apply the same work ethic, but I also need to improve on my existing skill set. There’s a lot I don’t know about writing. I read a huge amount, which is an absolute necessity, but I need to learn a bit more about technique, style, even improve on grammar, (and I’m already a member of the Grammar Police).

Musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, athletes etc, all practice their chosen skills; writers should too.

Life, Writing

Reflections

It’s been a funny old year. I don’t normally reflect on each year that passes, that’s never been my nature. Like many people, I suspect I’ll be looking back on 2020, not with fondness, but with incredulity.

Let’s face it, 2020 has been a clusterfuck of monumental proportions.

Politically, we are in turmoil, however I congratulate our cousins across the Pond for finally seeing sense in the November elections. In the UK, we’ve simply set ourselves up for another four years of abject jingoism disguised as getting our sovereignty back. (We never lost it). Add to that, the epic mishandling of a deadly virus that’s killing people in their thousands, because of *checks notes* “the economy” and you’ve got something resembling the sinking of the Titanic, with the musicians serenading the screaming passengers as the country sinks into oblivion.

Writing wise, it’s been tough. I’ve procrastinated with the best of them, dipped my toe in and out like a Channel swimmer in January, had a huge lightbulb moment a few months back; which resulted in eight chapters of a brand new story in a week, then nothing. My notebook stares back at me in disgust as it gathers dust, whilst I’ve got the entire story mapped out in my head, but pen hasn’t touched paper for a while.

Horizon Skies, which I finished in 2018, continues to suffer. I’ve done lots of editing, tried to tighten up parts of the plot, but it’s beginning to feel like it will never be 100% complete. My new aim now, is to use my Christmas week off to finish it, with a view to resubmitting to agents in January. If it fails again, well, I haven’t thought beyond that. I know self-publishing is a viable route, but even that is a minefield! I need to work on my story arc for Sanctuary Of Stone (standalone fantasy) and continue with Daughter of Tomorrow (working title). Ugh.

At least, Christmas has been lovely this year. I’m not a very festive person usually, however I was quite looking forward to it this year. Despite being in tier 3 lockdown, Pete and I enjoyed yummy food, LOTS of drinks, wonderful pressies, and had a bit of a laugh. Without the pressure of having to travel anywhere I felt like I was finally able to relax and not worry for a few days. My anxiety has been spiking a lot recently, my day job has had some very stressful moments, and self-care really is the order of the day.

On a final note, if you’re a regular visitor to my blog, thank you for your support, and for taking the time to show an interest. I will try to make more effort with it in 2021 as it’s always been a great place for me to exercise those writing muscles. If you’re a new visitor, I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and that you will come again! Before you go however, please take a moment to provide some feedback.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year xxx

Writing

Not Another Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Dystopia Novel!

I’ve always had an idea in my head for a film about the rage outbreak, as depicted in 28 Days Later. I’ve imagined the opening scenes, time and time again. This idea has been germinating for years.

Like Tina in Bob’s Burgers, I have a complicated relationship with zombies. My favourite zombie film is Dawn of the Dead; The Walking Dead Tina Belcherand Fear The Walking Dead have been part of my life for years (although, I do think TWD has really had its day) as well as another great TV show, Black Summer (visceral and brutal). That’s not to say I like all zombie films and shows, for every good one, there are probably at least ten that are utterly dreadful (Zombie Nation, take a bow.)

Recently, I read an interesting trilogy of books called Plague Land, Plague Nation and Plague World which isn’t really a tale of zombies but a strange infection that physically assimilates humans into its invading mass. How the infection starts, spreads, and how the dwindling humans desperately try to escape made for a curious read. I’ve simplified the story as there is so much more to it, but I’m not a reviewer.

 

There’s also the usual dystopia novels I’ve read over the years. The most devastating being The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a bleak, heart rending story of one man and his son trekking across a devastated US to reach the coast where the father believes they can find safety. The book, like it’s film adaptation, packs an emotional punch to the gut, but is so subtle, the tears did not flow until I’d finished the last page. I’m not sure I want to write something that emotionally wrenching.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2.

As a gamer, I’ve really enjoyed The Last of Us parts 1&2. Like all good RPG’s, the stories are wholly immersive, gripping, and invoke all sorts of reactions. Part 2 in particular, with its character swap part way through in which the player HAS to play the antagonist plays with your feelings as their personal story unfolds. I may have been #teamellie all the way, but for the hours I played as Abby provided an alternative perspective to the story. Her tale of vengeance becomes clear, you understand why Ellie and Joel are the bad guys in HER world. Whilst I may not have rooted for her entirely, I was able to empathise, and this puts a big question mark over the morality at play.

They say to write what you know. 

As a fantasy writer, I have been well prepared for writing Horizon Skies (my current nemesis) and Sanctuary of Stone (stalled WIP) as most of my library is fantasy fiction. From a young age, when I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, fantasy novels have fuelled my imagination more than any other genre. 

I do read other genres though; I have horror (James Herbert) dystopia, science fiction and a few contemporary novels. I’ve read classics (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens), and I love Kathy Lette. It’s important not to restrict one’s reading material, particularly when the goal is to be a writer. I’ve currently got it into my head that I want to read Dante’s Inferno.

All of this, the TV shows, the movies, and the books; all have given me the tools to write this new story. Ok, it’s not an original idea, I’m well aware of that. But, maybe I can add my voice, my take on it, and write something that will appeal. I’d love to join the ranks of female authors who have written successful novels in this genre. 

In less than a month, I’ve written eight chapters, the story continually plays out in my head. I know where it’s going, how it’s going end, who survives, who doesn’t, and a lot of awful stuff in-between. Aside from writing a good story, this is also an opportunity to explore my darker side, a place in my imagination not populated by myth and magic, but with fear and anxiety.

Writing

Revision, Revision, Revision – Please Let This Be The End!

I must admit, I’ve been dipping in and out of Horizon Skies for the last few weeks and realising that, despite all the editing, the book I presented to agents is still not completely finished.

The notes from my editor are incredibly helpful but have raised more questions about my work.

World building and my magic system are two areas that still need expansion. I honestly thought I had built my world quite nicely. Apparently, it reads as rather generic with no unique markers to differentiate the various locations. Weird how, what is in my head has not necessarily translated that well onto paper.

Luckily, she has been complimentary overall about the book, the story and my writing style so at least that’s an affirmation of my ability to write.

After spending a few hours on Horizon Skies yesterday, I achieved very little. I’m focusing on the minor revisions such as, what people look like and adding in a bit of detail here and there. When I get to an area that needs a major overhaul, I’m terrified! In my head, I’m thinking, “I spent YEARS writing this, I can’t face it again!”

So, giving it some thought this morning and I think I’ve come up with a battle plan:

  1. Work through the minor revisions first
  2. Print the chapters off requiring more of an overhaul
  3. Get the old notebooks out again and revise by hand (I prefer writing this way)
  4. Expand upon the magic system

I think the magic system will be quite hard. The basics are already there but I have to consider the following:

  1. Type of magic i.e. elemental, chemical etc.?
  2. Are magic wielders born with it or is it taught?
  3. Are there levels of magic?
  4. Does everyone have an ability or just a select few?

Elemental magic is a very common trope in Fantasy, mainly because it is an incredibly easy system to write. People with the ability to manipulate fire, earth, air and water are seen quite often in the books we read from this genre.

I’d love to be able to have the ability to create different magic systems the way Brandon Sanderson does. He manages to create something different in all his novels, they are all unique to the planets within the Cosmere (his universe for the uninitiated). From swallowing different metals (Mistborn) to Lashing (The Way of Kings) Sanderson cleverly demonstrates that we don’t have to rely on tried and tested tropes.

I lean towards elemental, it’s in a lot of books I read plus, as a bit of gamer, I’ve seen it’s very common in RPG’s. The earlier Final Fantasy games had characters specifically gifted with one of the elements.

There are some very handy charts and diagrams all over the internet explaining magic systems, some of these are very intricate but I don’t want to borrow from anyone else. Let’s face it, a lot of fantasy stories have very common themes, especially in Young Adult so it’s important that, as writers, we do create something unique. Something that will make the story stand out just that little bit more to an agent.

Here I go again…

Writing

Rejection is the Name of the Game

I’ve been fully prepared for the rejection process since I started submitting my novel back in May. I’ve had a few “form” rejections and a few positive rejections; the best of which came from Curtis Brown and Skylark (nice e-mails from these agents too).

So, I have now joined the echelons of writers who have put themselves in the laps of the literary gods, bared my heart and soul to people who hold my future in their hands.

Ok, that might seem a little melodramtic but anyone who knows me, knows that I have a penchant for theatrics!

So far, I’ve clocked up thirteen actual rejections. Next, I have to look at those who simply haven’t responded at all; but, my list is dwindling. I have twenty-four agents yet to respond and whilst I am fully educated in the nature of rejection (ALL writers, published or not have gone through this experience) I am starting to feel ever so slightly despondent.

Being rejected definitely raises questions.

  1. What wasn’t “quite right” about my story?
  2. Why weren’t they “passionate” or “enthusiastic” enough to take it further?
  3. Am I a terrible writer?
  4. Is it a terrible story?
  5. What’s so wrong with it?

Honestly, I think I could drive myself made with these questions whirling around my head.

I read so many books and sometimes I think, “mine is definitely as good as this”, but what is it about THAT book that made the cut? What made it stand out enough to attract the attention of a literary agent?

I’ve researched that a poor cover letter can be enough to earn a firm “No” but the fact that I am getting responses suggests to me that I must be doing something right. One agent’s response was “Your submission caught my eye so I read it straight away. I enjoyed HORIZON SKIES. It was an intriguing concept. However, I’m afraid I didn’t quite love this enough to take it further.” It was definitely encouraging but obviously not what I wanted to hear.

So, what next? Do I revisit my manuscript, get some new betas, hire an editor? Or, consign my creation to the bottom of the pile and hope that my current WIP makes the grade?

One thing I am definitely sure of in all this; I am NOT giving up on my ambition. I AM a writer, you just won’t see me on the shelves of Waterstones…yet.