Tag Archives: Plot

Writer, be a ‘beta’ reader!

“Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.”

ONCE you’ve read your manuscript, ensured the plot is the best you can make it at this stage, and seen to any glaring inconsistencies in your narrative, it’s time to have your work read by someone else. In the independent and traditional publishing landscapes, this is the moment to seek out beta readers, and for you to become one.

You can do beta than that

Beta readers are not family. Cousin Myrtle is not going to give you objective criticism on your manuscript, nor is Uncle Eric. They will always love everything you do, blinking in slightly confused admiration about your writing pursuits, but they are undoubtedly not equipped to read and appraise an emergent piece of writing. Beta readers are other writers or people who work with words (editors, academics, sub-editors, journalists, etc.). Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.

Beta currency

Often the stock-in-trade of writing groups, beta reading should always be about reciprocity. After telling people you’re a writer, be prepared for other writers to ask you to read for them. I have been doing so for long enough that I’ve read second and third titles by the same writers, and vice-versa. The process makes you into a great watchdog of their work, and they provide the same essential service for you. Get used to regular beta reading – all your work on plotting and narrative sets you in good stead for the process.

One last read… for now

As a courtesy to your beta readers, before sending them your manuscript, give it one more read through to ensure it’s the best it can be at this stage. This will invariably involve working on it more before sending it off, but hopefully you’re getting used to the reality that being a writer is all about doing the work. The term ‘beta’ reader stems from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, which assumes there is someone in the ‘alpha’ reading position. That’s you.

Beta courtesy

When sending your manuscript to a beta reader, it’s wise to lay down some ground rules. If you only seek feedback on plot, say so. If you want the whole shebang, through to spelling, ask for it, but also respect that a voluntary beta reader may not have the time or inclination to go into great detail. The format you send your manuscript in will depend on these decisions, particularly if you want to enable the beta reader to leave sticky notes or comments in the places they refer to. The most important feedback a beta reader can give you is about the manuscript’s readability (which is indelibly linked to your plot), so while it would be helpful for someone to proofread your manuscript, this is not the stage for it.

“Remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.”

Beta packaging 

There is no need for a manuscript to have a final title. The title is not important at this stage, although rare is the writer who has not decided on one, but be prepared for it to evolve down the track. Ensure your manuscript is legible. There are a number of formats to follow (the classic plain typeface, one-inch margin on four sides, double-spaced lineation, page numbers, new chapter-new page format is standard) but down the track you will be required to tailor your manuscript to different publisher’s requirements. Some beta readers will ask you for a printed manuscript, or at least some payment to cover the cost of paper and ink for printing it out at their end. This is an entirely reasonable request, and if that makes you roll your eyes, this is your first taste of the electronic vs print tussle of publishing. A very large proportion of the reading public will not read a book on a computer screen. Get used to it.

Beta deadlines

When selecting a beta reader, it’s always okay to negotiate a deadline for their response. Most writers are keen to get their work to publishers (or to self publish), so an open-ended time period to read a manuscript can become a drag. Be real with your potential beta readers, indicating a notional timeframe. A month is not unreasonable. Six months is way too long. Give beta readers permission to tell you they got to a certain point and got confused or lost interest. This feedback is essential and shows you where to immediately rework your book.

Paid reading

Ever since the independent publishing marketplace expanded, manuscript appraisal services have been popping up in all major publishing territories. There is no standard fee, which is usually charged per word, and there are plenty of companies seeking to stream writers into their independent publishing services (‘taking your book from manuscript to paperback’). If you’re going to pay for the service, clear negotiations and a contract are essential, outlining costs, timeframe and what you’re paying for.

Beta feedback

Reading the responses of beta readers is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process. Good beta readers know this, and do not seek to destroy the spark of a writer’s soul when they critique. It’s very important to remember that receiving negative feedback is really the point of beta reading – rather get it now before your book is a paperback sitting on the shop shelves, when the only way to change anything is to pulp the lot.

Sifting criticism

It takes years of practice, but it is possible to gauge constructive criticism. If you find yourself having several ‘a-ha’ moments when reading the feedback of your beta readers, these are the first things to take on board. The reason is they resonate with you, but they can also frustrate because, of course, your inner critic is saying: You should have thought of that! All constructive criticism will inspire you into immediate action.

DON'T SWING IT A wrecking ball approach does not work in beta reading.
DON’T SWING IT A wrecking ball approach does not work in beta reading.

Worse is not beta

Not all beta readers are fair. Sometimes, writer jealousy kicks in and unreasonable or unwarranted feedback is given to your work. When this happens, it’s your first opportunity to endure a bad review (and they are coming your way if you plan to publish anything). It can hurt like hell and inspire you to retaliate, but my advice is to seek clarity about the criticism with your beta reader, if you genuinely don’t understand what it means. Beta-reader feedback can be an ongoing discourse, and I reckon good beta readers can be judged on their willingness to have a dialogue about their thoughts and responses to others’ work. When providing feedback on a manuscript, remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.

Beta planning

Sometimes, beta readers prefer to give you feedback on the phone or in person, so you’ll need to take detailed notes. If you can’t act on the feedback immediately, ensure you save it somewhere you can find it later. There is no requirement to act on beta readers’ feedback immediately. Giving their ideas brewing time can help our perspective when working out the next stage of the rewriting process. You may have multiple beta readers – if so, wait until they have all responded to your manuscript before you begin reworking it.

Beta marketing

Sometimes, a marketing issue will crop up in beta reading feedback. This might give you a jolt if it’s cold, hard sales issue, such as: ‘A book like this will never sell!’. Marketing concerns can be a frightening reality for emergent writers. It’s early days when our work is at manuscript stage, but marketing is always relevant in publishing, so it’s wise to walk the line when sifting feedback that refers to a manuscript’s genre, length, ‘place in the market’ and/or saleability. Don’t balk at a beta reader’s marketing-style feedback, it can help shape the direction of your publishing pathway, although if anyone tells you your book has no place in a bookshop, remember that’s been said about many very successful books.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSSending your manuscript to its first readers is an incredibly courageous act. Congratulations! You have come a very long way. While your work is being read, use the time to continue your marketing through regular online publishing, and consider starting your second book!

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, read your own work!

“The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of work is to leave it alone for a while.”

A FEW years ago I asked my social media followers if anyone had complete or partial manuscripts sitting around, perhaps something potentially ’embarrassing’. This question yielded some interesting answers, and many fantastic potential books. One of the reasons I started Write, Regardless! was to assist stymied writers to dust these works off and breathe new life into them. The next step is one of the hardest for independent writers – successfully rewriting your first draft.

Don’t send in your first draft… just DON’T!

The best thing writers can do with our newly-completed manuscripts is put them away. Ensure you have saved your work, backed it up to a memory stick, or at least printed it out, then bury it somewhere. Unfortunately, the negative reputation of the independent publishing industry is formed on the back of writers who complete a first draft of their books one day, then hit the publish button the next. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of our work is to leave it alone for a while; I’d recommend a few months. Use that time to keep your social media platform buoyant… you’re going to need readers and followers, so start attracting them! Of course if you have a long-buried manuscript already, it’s time to rewrite it.

Do the work!

It sounds far too simple, but the best way to rewrite great second and subsequent drafts is to learn the discipline of reading our own writingThis is harder than it sounds, but it’s become an essential tool for all writers in an age when editing and proofreading have lost currency. Even if you are gifted with the perfect writer’s pathway – your manuscript gets picked-up by a mainstream publisher, and you are assigned an editor who lovingly massages your talent – you are going to be better prepared for this luxury if you know your own work better than anyone else. The only way to achieve that is to read your manuscript. Do the work.

“Publishers are not looking for problem writers.”

Manuscripts must be fit!

Even if you are planning to approach traditional publishers with your manuscript, you’ll need to complete several drafts of it before submitting. I cannot say it enough: publishers are not looking for problem writers. They don’t have the time, money, or inclination to find a ‘genius’ and shape their work. Sending a manuscript to a publisher or literary agent is just the same as job interviewing and auditioning – you and your work must be on top form from the very first moment you have the ear of industry professionals. Do the work.

Don’t overdo every rewrite

For me, rewriting is about seeking entertainment and distraction within my own work. I figure that if I cannot move myself through my writing, then I am not offering anything to a reader. When we embark on a first read, many hours of work on our manuscripts lie ahead of us, so it’s best to avoid getting stuck in too much detail. We need to see the big picture of our story arcs, not worry about spelling and grammar at this stage. Insert notes so you remember things that spring to mind, but move swiftly through your read, trusting that next time you’ll make it even better.

Be hard on your plot!

By now you should have a good grasp on what makes a good dramatic story arc. Detailed reads of our work are our chance to see where our plotting is weak. Revisit my article on plotting many times as you reshape yours. My advice would be to correct plot failings as soon as you discover them, because there is no use trying to gloss over a story with, say, no antagonist; or a novel in which there is no conflict; or a work of non-fiction that does not have an effective resolution. Be prepared to admit your first draft is not yet complete, and go back to the drawing board. That level of honesty with your writing will pay dividends down the track.

HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Writer angst

I have written plenty in Write, Regardless! about practical approaches to writing. It’s time to focus a little on the emotion. If you find yourself distracted, head in the clouds, missing appointments or late for work, chances are most of your mind is happily engaged on your plot. Don’t panic! Your family and friends will notice a change, very often they’ll interpret your daydreaming as a form of selfishness. Confessing to being a writer can trigger familial panic (we’re loose cannons in all rigid economies, we creatives). Reading, rewriting and plotting takes time, quietude and headspace, and when we don’t get these things, if we are doing the work, our brain does something clever… it takes over and does it whenever it gets a chance, such as when we wake, or as we are drifting off to sleep, or doing the dishes, or driving. Surrender to this process. In order to achieve your writing, you’ll need to do plenty of artful dodging with loved ones. Expect the odd angry outburst to surface if you are a writer doing the work. What you’re probably having trouble expressing is your need for headspace.

Rewriting short stories

The art of writing entertaining short stories is something most writers attempt at some stage in our careers. It’s a unique form of expression that relies on being even more adept at plotting, not less. Don’t confuse ‘shorter’ with ‘easier’. Check out my notes on rewriting short stories.

Read the warning signs

The independent publishing marketplace is full of advice and tips on how to achieve success. I’ve been gleaning great ideas within it for years, but one thing I have learned to watch for are signs of back-pedalling. While the rush to the Publish Button has become a tempting shortcut, I have read plenty about self-published writers who design their book covers before embarking on the writing process; who set-up marketing campaigns before fleshing-out their novel’s plot; and quite high-profile self published authors pulling their books off the virtual shelves to rework them. They do everything, it seems, apart from sitting still and actually reading their own work.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSThere are many exclamation marks in this article! That means there is an important message you need to listen to: you are the first audience of your output. If you want to be an effective writer, you need to practice the art of reading your own work. All the secrets to improving your manuscript are on the page already, even by their absence. Read, read, and read your own manuscripts. Do the work.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.