Phoenix Fire is about to break out!

Mark your diary for 15 December, Phoenix Fire is about to break out!

More Than a Fish by Natalie Rivener

When Myhrrl runs away from her arranged marriage and (sort of) into Eldvin’s arms, he can almost ignore the fact that they have been captured by pirates. Maybe this fisher boy is destined for more than gutting fish after all.

Layers of Darkness by Ann-Elize de Ridder

Growing up with tales of great warriors taught Eveline one thing: When things get tough, a true knight will not ride off into the sunset with you. A true knight will stand by your side through the darkness.

The Kobold Who Breathed Fire by Richard T Wheeler

The Eldkin told Kobold Nix that he’s to become a snatcher. He, however, is set on becoming a mysterious flametongue to impress enigmatic she-kobold Shi’zine. Nix’s a little greedy thing. Too bad kobolds define greediness as a four-letter yip.

Dragon’s Breath by Rob McShane

A dragon without fire? When Warheart is called to lead his house to war, he can hide the loss of his dragon’s breath no longer. Will he find his strength or is he doomed to fail and burn?

Radiance by Carmen Dominique Taxer

For six decades, Ka-Jyn has sworn to protect the people of Disara from pain and disease. But now, succumbing to the ravages of age, she must defy the laws of nature and seek help from an old friend.

The Pirate Who Played with Fire by Ryhen E Knight

When magical fire and a drunk pirate collide, things go south and it is up to Tom and Elyan to set aside their wedding plans to rescue the situation. And maybe a cat.

Ancient Ashes by Minki Pool

Dell, a troublemaking heiress, is sent on an archaeological expedition to unearth an ancient religious relic. When it becomes clear that the relic has devastating secrets of its own, she must choose between betraying her family, or betraying everything she has come to believe in.

What Remains by Vittorio Leonardi

“It’s amazing what you’ll agree to when you’re on fire.”

Cole has been haunted by his father’s words since the old man’s death. On the dark side of the moon, he’ll come closer to understanding them than he can imagine.

 

 

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Implementing feedback

Implementing feedback is daunting. Because real feedback (at least, on your first few drafts) will probably require rewriting and some serious story editing. Unless your feedback was that polite drivel I mentioned before in my post about providing useful feedback, in that case, you may just have a few typo corrections to do.

And, here, I want to stop and make you really listen.

If a beta reader points out a problem, you can harp on about why it makes sense and isn’t wrong for three hours and it won’t make the problem go away UNTIL you make it clear in your story why it makes sense and isn’t wrong. I understand that you don’t want to spell out everything. It feels lame. I agree. But you CAN give hints and seemingly insignificant little indicators that later make the whole thing come together. It’s called foreshadowing.

Now, we can go on.

Characters

I can currently think of three main things that tend to come up – character growth, believability and relatability. Yes, yes, there are more. Please leave a comment.

Character growth

About half my writers got this one for feedback (and I was one of them!!! *gasp*): The protagonist shows no character growth. At the beginning, they had this and that opinion, then, things happened and they didn’t change their opinion. Soooo…what is the point of the story?

I can promise you, every reader likes a different kind of story. But we all feel cheated if the protagonist doesn’t discover something that changes them or their life. Does he discover something about himself? Does she learn something that changes how she treats someone else? Does he find out everything he believed was a lie? Does she finally find it within herself to forgive her parents for divorcing each other? We need some catharsis!

Believability

When your beta readers tell you that a character is not believable because they don’t act the way a real person does in the given situation, it is not just a comment. It’s an obstacle to reading your story.

There’s no glossing over a problem like this. It needs to be addressed by taking the character and defining his or her:

  • personality
  • motivation
  • history
  • frame of reference
  • sense of morality and
  • more.

Then, you go to every single appearance, action, dialogue or thought by this character and make sure that it makes sense considering who this character is and what they’ve been through.

If you think this is a waste of time, be prepared to lose half your audience. Not half their attention. You’re losing half the people who will ever bother to read your stories.

Relatability

If your beta reader tells you that they couldn’t get into the story because they couldn’t identify with any of the characters, you need to ask why. What made the protagonist or supporting characters so off-putting?

The biggest problem here is that relatability is extremely subjective. And, no, you can’t please everyone. But I can tell you this: If more than one of your beta readers have brought this up, you need to do something about it.

Things that put readers off:

  • Cruelty and/or being abusive – to others, ESPECIALLY children and animals
  • Rape
  • There are more, I’m sure. Please leave a few comments.

These are gold for making a hateable antagonist. They are contraindicated for protagonists.

It takes an extremely skilled writer to make a protagonist guilty of these things relatable. So far, I have not come across one.

People want to identify with at least one of your main or supporting characters. If they don’t identify with anyone, they won’t read.

Plot holes

It seems like a no brainer but, trust me, plot holes happen to everyone. If you wrote them, chances are that you won’t be able to spot them. When someone points it out, you may even want to say something stupid, like: “Is it really that bad? Can’t I just leave it like that? Who will notice that, anyway?”

Buck up.

Take that plot hole and kill it. If your beta reader found it, some hateful troll on the Internet will too. And that troll will show the whole world that they found it. Rather fix every plot hole beta readers find and give that troll less to embarrass you with.

No story hook or a weak ending

There are two spots in your story where people form lasting opinions: At the beginning and at the end.

Bad first impressions can stop the reader from reading your story past the first page. You need something tantalising. Narrative summary (descriptive paragraphs) is not tantalising. You need something immediate – dialogue or in-the-moment action. If you don’t know how to come up with something tantalising, ASK your beta reader what would have appealed more to them.

The end should also be satisfying. It needs to answer questions raised during the story. It needs to show that your protagonist has grown. It needs to show that the crisis has been resolved OR resolved enough until the sequel can address it more thoroughly.

More than one of my writers for Phoenix Fire ended their story too late. How does this happen? If you start adding more and more to your story after the crisis. That’s how. Keep it concise. If you suddenly need to add two more chapters because of something that came up after the story hit 75%, you are probably adding an unnecessary side quest. Kill it. Your story needs to end strong.

Again, if you don’t know where that is: ASK someone you trust, AKA your beta reader. If they don’t give you a solution that appeals to you, ask someone else until they give you something you can use or you hit an ah-hah! moment.

Stilted or unnatural speech

This isn’t quite as big a sin as the stuff above but it can make your story really hard to read. If your reader is expecting good writing, this will put them right off.

Soliloquies

If your characters tend to talk for more than 4 lines at a time, they are essentially giving a speech every time they open their mouths. People don’t talk like that unless they’re being interviewed or addressing a large congregation of people.

Sit down and listen to people talking. Write down everything they say, from full sentences to false starts to wordless utterances. They give away a lot about what they are thinking through non-verbal cues (body language, harrumphing, coughing, facial expressions etc.). Their word choice might reveal enough to put you under a pretty specific impression of their intentions.

Jargon

These are topic-specific terms or – if my jargon is leaving you blank – fancy words. If your beta reader says they couldn’t keep track of all the story-specific words, you may be overdoing it.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, unless the animal they are riding is an insect-like creature or an antelope with the feet of a bear, I’m sure “horse” will do. We already have words for ‘day’ and ‘night’. If you start calling them ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in your book, you’re just setting yourself up for awkward prose.

Sci-fi settinge lend themselves to all kinds of futuristic tech. Yes, this stuff should have names but, if you make the names obscure (e.g. “OrgonnnonXII” for an AI bot that has a green stripe on its torso) and difficult to pronounce or remember (e.g. “Xhi-BVotholYn” or something similarly obscure), your are hampering your own story.

If you need to differentiate between two cultures and you want them to use different words for the same concept, make the words familiar-sounding enough that your reader doesn’t feel brain whiplash every time they come across it. “Ch’kta, o bishni” is a lot harder to remember than “G’day, mate” or “Greetings, my good sir”. If it is actually important to the plot that you have this kind of unmistakable phrase, then, use it. But if you have five of these crucial phrases in one story…I don’t think you understand what “important to the plot” means.

In A Song of Ice and Fire (AKA A Game of Thrones), we come across “Valar morghulis” – “all men must die”. Why isn’t this too difficult? Because we come across only three important High Valyrian terms (“Valar morghulis”, “Valar dohaeris” and “dracarys”) across all of the books (each of them well over 500 pages).

Awkward or stilted speech

Unless the character who’s talking is identified by his awkward phrasing, you should use normal sentences, normal speech, normal words. As much as Shakespeare is praised for his clever play on words, normal people don’t talk like that. People who use flowery speech tend to be the butt of jokes because other people think it’s ridiculous to talk like that.

Overuse of names

“Hi, James!” Basil said.
“Basil! Good to see you!” James replied.
“How are you doing, James old pal?”
“Well, as always, Basil. Why did you say my name again?”
“I don’t know, James. It just keeps coming out of my mouth.”
“Basil, I’m scared. It feels like someone is forcing me to say your name.”

Catch my drift? People use terms of endearment like “dear” and “pal” and “sweetie” when they talk to each other…if they refer to each other while talking at all.

“Hi!”
“Basil! Good to see you.” James smiled.
“How are you doing, old pal?”
“Well, as always. How’s your wife?”

See, no more creepy, weird overuse of names.

***

There are so many things feedback can point out, I simply don’t have the energy to cover all of it. I welcome comments to fill out the list and advice.

If you take home nothing else from this post, remember this: Implementing helpful feedback takes real effort. If you put on “track changes” (it’s a review function in Microsoft Word) while you do story editing, it’s going to look like a bloodbath. Don’t let that scare you. Making mistakes does not make you a bad writer. Refusing to correct mistakes beta readers point out because you don’t feel like it does, though. As does pretending to correct mistakes by changing two words that have nothing to do with the problem.

You can do this. Just take it one sentence at a time.

Getting feedback

getting feedback

Ah, feedback. A two-sided sword in a writer’s existence. Without it, most stories are utter drivel.

I can already see you getting ready to object. Simmer down, there, bucko. If you have a look at any good book, you will see that the writers tend to thank a list of people, including their editor(s). You know why? Because these people spotted the plot holes and poor character development and niggly details that threatened to sink the story before it even hit the shelves.

As a writer, you overlook your own mistakes. You get caught up in your story and the feeling you want to create. You don’t read what is written anymore. You’re just too close to it. You need a pair of fresh eyes, uninfluenced by hours, days, months, years of planning and changes and rewrites and new ideas. And, of course, someone who’s willing to upset you when they find problems. This person is called a beta reader.

If you have been following my most recent posts (about Phoenix Fire, blurbs, beta reading and feedback), you are well aware that I am now dealing with writers who have received feedback from my collection of beta readers. Similarly, you then also know how touchy our species is about getting feedback, good or bad. A few years back, I wrote a post called Reality Check. If you need insight into what it feels like to get feedback as a newbie, that would be a good place to start.

As one of the aforementioned beta readers, I have been subjected to cruel and unusual torture. Giant blocks of descriptive summary. Characters that give speeches in stead of talking like normal people. The worst grammar I have seen in ten years. “Stories” that read like dry historical accounts. And, of course, the incestuous couple finding themselves.

Call me petty but I am so over being nice to inexperienced writers who believe they are next in line for a Pulitzer. If anyone comes back to me with complaints about cruel and hurtful feedback, I will respond n the wise words of Dr Beverly Hofstadter (Leonard’s mother in The Big Bang Theory): “Buck up.” If they are affronted by my advice. I will follow it up with Beverly’s amended “Buck up , sissy pants.”

Providing useful feedback

People often think writers work in isolation. And, to a certain extent, this is true. We have to plan, write, try to be witty (and laugh at our own jokes – as if doing that’s not super lame), do research…the list really just goes on and on. In the end, though, we have offer up our brain children to the world. They get devoured, rent apart and insulted. It tears us up real bad seeing all that happen. And, trust me, if we could prevent that from happening we would.

The answer is pretty simple. Get a second opinion. Here! Please read this for me and tell me what you think! Sounds, straightforward, right?

I wish. First, you get people who promise to read it but they never give any indication that they did. They keep telling you they’ll get around to it but they don’t. Thank you for showing me that you care so much, you giant insufferable jerk whom I used to trust and like.

Then, you get the people who read it (or claim to have read it) and say the enjoyed it. Or “I liked it.” Um. Thanks. But was there anything that didn’t work? Then they give you that panicked, dear-in-headlights look. Usually, they didn’t think to look for stuff like that or they “don’t remember anything in specific”. LAME.

What you really want is someone who’s willing to tell you as it is. Someone who is willing to offend you if they think there’s a real problem. Because it’s sure as hell going to be easier to hear that in private from someone you trust than to get it from all sides on the Internet right there on Amazon in your book’s reviews.

Funny thing is. Even that rare honest person often has no idea how to give you decent feedback. It’s like society is too damn afraid to offend someone to teach us how to give each other vital feedback. Heck, I’ve taken creative writing courses where the facilitator and class mate give you feedback like they’re walking on shells.

I am going to give you a little list that helps. It’s not the end all by any means. I’ve received amazing feedback from fellow writers who know how to critique and provide truly helpful feedback that went far beyond this. But you have to start somewhere if your willing and (hopefully) brutally honest beta reader doesn’t have a lot of experience.

Feedback questions:

  • Did you enjoy the story?
  • Did you lose interest at any point?
    • If so, please describe why (especially if the beginning didn’t hook you).
  • Could you identify with at least one of the characters?
    • If not, what made them not relatable?
  • Was the story believable?
    • If not, what broke the suspension of disbelief for you?
  • Does story-specific jargon hamper the story?
    • If so, what was the problem? (unpronounceable/too many to keep track of/so silly you couldn’t keep concentrating/something else?)
  • Was the dialogue stilted or unnatural?
  • Did the story end strong? (Did you feel satisfied at the end or want to read more?)
    • If not, please tell me why.
  • Are the internal inconsistencies/plot holes?
  • Any other feedback?

It helps if they answer in full sentences. Yes/no answers are nearly as unhelpful as the beta reader who gives the insipid “I liked it.” Be clear about what you’d like.

And, yes. This list will scare off some people. People don’t like conflict when they have to be directly involved. (Yet, they love to read about it. Go figure.) You probably won’t like the negative feedback either. It’s the only way to improve your writing though – knowing what you’re doing wrong.

I hope this helps you at least a little bit. I know it’s changed my beta reading experiences with friends and family.

Writing a blurb

It turns out, I suck at writing blurbs.

What now? What’s a blurb?

A blurb is the little advertisement for the story that you see on the back of the book (or on the front inside cover). It’s supposed to entice you to read the story inside.

But, Natalie, that should be easy! It’s not even a full page.

Yeah. That’s what I thought too. Until I started writing blurbs for my most recent short story. See, I started out with a short description and quickly realised I was giving away too much of the plot. Then, I wrote up a short teaser. Except, it sounded like some teen romance.

He’s a fisherman’s son. She lives up at the holy palace.
He has a boat load of fish to gut. She wants to escape an arranged marriage.
He just realised she might be nobility. She says: “Run away with me.”
He almost chokes. What if things go wrong…

Who’s he kidding? He’s going with her. It’s not like they’re going to be facing sea serpents or taking a bunch of other people who will get in the way.

At this point, I knew I needed outside input, so, I contacted my local Facebook writer group. They tore that last one so many holes, I had to breathe deeply for four hours before I could even start writing more than two words without summarily deleting them. The good news is: They did provide me with a kind of formula.

This is the formula (after much deleting of unnecessary explanations):
♦  Sense of character
♦  Life as it is
♦  Inciting event
♦  Secondary character
♦  The stakes
♦  Make the stakes personal (question/choice)
♦  Other interesting characters
♦  Intriguing end/hook

I sat down with the formula and substituted my story details into it. Boy, did that go badly. I stared at the abomination and added a little teaser from the first page of the story. Okay, that’s a little better, I thought to myself. I posted it on the group again.

Fish cleared his throat. “Wedding dress?”
“Yes, that thing where you wear fancy clothes for a day and then you have to have some stranger’s children because you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.”
“But you can’t marry-” He had been about to say “someone else”. He coughed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Myhrrl said, turning to face the sea again.
“But you said-“
Her eyes glittered. “I’ll run away.”
He’d been expecting something else. He wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t this. The butterflies in his stomach fluttered. “Run away…?”
“You’ll come with, of course,” she said, already turning on her heel.

Fish has been in love with Myhrrl from the day he met her while offloading a day’s catch of fish behind the Forest Lord’s holy palace kitchens. Since then, she’s gotten him in to all sorts of trouble, the least of which has been a sound beating from his father for shirking his fishing duties.

When they get on the Kish Kist, a trading ship, to escape her impending nuptials, he has no idea that he’s embarking on a journey that will bring him face to face with the two most feared presences in the Kish Sea.

Will they survive Myhrrl’s escape plan or will they die before Fish gets a chance to profess his feelings toward her?

Turns out, they love my story writing but they still hated my actual blurb. I hated it too. But, you know, you can’t win everyone. Maybe I was just the one who couldn’t be won. Well, we know how that turned out.

I sat down again. This time it took me four days to write something that I didn’t reject off the bat. One of my best efforts looked like this:

There’s a boy. There’s a girl. There are pirates and a sea serpent.

Good heavens, Natalie! Are you kidding me? Sadly…no. Hahaha. *ahem*

I sat down again. This time, I consulted my good friend, Richard T Wheeler. I told him all about my blurb-writing woes. He sounded confused about my epic struggle. Whatever was the matter? On short order, he wrote up a blurb for his submission for Phoenix Fire and showed me. It was short, it didn’t even look fancy but it was enticing and I wanted to read the story. How did he do that?!?

I showed him the third blurb I had written for my Facebook writer friends (they actually liked this one, by the way):

What’s a boy to do when the girl he loves is running away from an arranged marriage? Why, sail the high seas and get captured by magic-slinging pirates, of course!

His reply was: Give me a moment. I’ll write up a version for you.

As good as his word, within five minutes, he had a blurb for me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was my short story in blurb form. Maybe one or two details too many about the plot but it was almost exactly what I needed.

I altered a word or two. A phrase. But it’s really almost exactly what he sent me.

Scruffy fisherboy Eldvin knew that ethereal maiden Myhrrl was so far beyond his reach that he didn’t stand a chance of catching her, but when she ran away from her arranged marriage and (sort of) into his arms, he took his chance anyway. Too bad about getting captured by pirates in the process. Hopefully, his love will find a way, even through magic hell and high Suhl waters.

Sure, this one isn’t as punchy as the one a few lines up but it certainly gives more of a feel for the style of the story. And you know what? It follows that formula I had extrapolated.

Now, I have two blurbs. Sure, both can use a little polishing but they beat the heck out of my first efforts.

Shows you that a little perseverance and willingness to keep trying pays off! That and selfless help from others. Thank you, writer friends!

Phoenix Fire – beta reading

Phoenix Fire - beta reading

When writing a story of any length, you need to get outside input. As writers, we are deeply invested in our work and it’s easy to start believing that everything you created must be gold. In fact, even if you secretly think your work is the worst and should never see the light of day, you still feel like every single word of negative feedback is unfair and hurtful. It’s easy to understand why writers are so afraid to ask anyone to read their story before it’s published, right?

The funny thing is: Writers are the harshest beta readers. You know what you want from a story to make it a delight to read (even though it somehow eludes you with your own work). You know that it should be effortless to read. You know your genre and what the audience expects from it. Even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory of good writing yourself, you expect every other writer to be the utter personification of it.

So, what do I do to balance it out for anthology submissions? I use two beta readers per submission (at least, for the first round) – one academic (a writer or someone who studied literature) and one layman (someone who reads but never studied literature). If both of these beta readers hate the story, then something is obviously wrong. If only the former finds the submission lacking, it means the writer did not apply good writing theory and needs to develop their skills but a total overhaul of the story is probably not necessary. It is highly unusual for the layman to dislike a story if the academic finds it satisfying.

Wait a minute, Natalie, you just used the word “satisfying”. You know that’s a subjective thing, right?

Yes, I realise that. This is why I give all my beta readers, regardless of background, a list of questions they must answer about each of the stories. Some of the questions are simple, for example: “Did you enjoy the story?” Some questions involve story writing terms and concepts that I actually explain in layman’s terms in brackets. This means that my layman gets a little guidance on what to look for and my academic is kept on track (if you give this particular dog a bone, he won’t let it go).

Of course, there’s no way that the beta readers will identify all the problems. There is always that one troll reader who will tell you all about the plot holes and character discrepancies once the book is for sale. And don’t get me started on beta readers being too polite to tell you what they were really thinking. All I know is: I try my best to help my writers craft a better story.

That’s all for today. I’ll post about helpful beta reading another time.

Phoenix Fire – stoking the fire

Phoenix Fire

It’s amazing how fast you forget how much effort goes into doing something from scratch. Whether it’s raising a child (potty training – groan) or compiling an anthology, there are so many things that need to be done – little, big, somewhere in between…

After getting into contact with my writing community, I have an initial list of writers, beta readers, language practitioners and artists/designers. Each of these groups get an info pack to let them know what they need to do by when.

This sounds simple but it takes a lot of time and careful consideration. I need to keep in mind that all of my helpers are volunteers. When are the deadlines too tight or too lax? What is too much, what is too little? At what point do you overwhelm your helpers with information?

Here, in the beginning of the process, the worst is really waiting for responses and submissions. I don’t know who will fall out. I don’t know who will pull through. I don’t know whether there will be enough stories in the end or whether my writers will present me with drivel. And, I’m working with writers and artists…so, everything will happen at the last possible minute.

I guess, the good news is: I have one story already in beta reading. If everything else goes wrong, I can publish that story.