Beta Readers

One of the steps of editing a new piece of writing is Substantive Editing. This is where you concentrate on the general scope of your work and identify things like plot holes, inconsistencies, and character development. In short, it’s kind of like a professional critique. It’s a service some editors provide–but I think that Beta Readers would fill this role just as well.

This kind of editing is important, because if your story or novel doesn’t make narrative sense or the characters are uninteresting, it’s not going to sell. A story has to be compelling and imaginative, yes; but if the plot is hard to follow, people won’t want to read it. Reading should be entertainment, not work, and a piece that hasn’t gone through this process runs the risk of taking the reader “out of the world of the book” as they pick apart all the problems or try to figure out what just happened.

These are the kinds of things writers (should) know to avoid; if you’ve taken workshops, classes, or read enough literature to understand how narratives work, you should be able to avoid these problems. But a writer is often too close to their own work. These are things that are easy for a writer to miss, and easy for a fresh pair of eyes to pick up on. And this is where Beta Readers come in.

What’s a Beta Reader? Glad you asked.

In the software world, programmers will distribute their work to beta testers, who will play with it to find bugs, discover issues, and generally give input. These contributions are then considered for the product, which is tweaked as needed before final release. The result is software that’s “tried and true.”

Fiction can work the same way. If you’d like to sign up as a Beta Reader for me, send me an email at jparsonswrites@gmail.com. I’ll send you a copy of my collection, The Astrologers and Other Stories, and ask for feedback. You don’t need any special skills for this, and I’m not asking for a detailed 120 page report; all you need to do is read it, and let me know what you think from a constructive standpoint.  I want to know how the characters work, how the plot flows, and if it makes sense. (For further reading, here’s a post by Jami Gold that talks about beta readers.)

Now, I should stress that I’m not asking beta readers to do any editing for me–I just want opinions. It doesn’t have to be in detail, just constructive enough that it’s useful. And what will you get in return? You’ll be the first to receive a free copy of the collection when it goes to print, as well as acknowledgement in the front matter (and if your input is constructive rather than generic, I’ll provide a link to your blog or website). Just for reading a story. I’ll also offer my own services as a beta reader if you have a story you’re ready to publish. Not a bad deal, eh?

On Monday, I have a special treat: an interview with Yesenia Vargas, an indie writer who’s just started offering editing services. She can be found at YeseniaVargas.com. Stay tuned after the weekend for a great talk about the other side of writing!

A World of Your Own: Worldbuilding part 3.

So we’ve touched on the importance of world building for any story–now it’s time to talk about creating your own fantasy worlds.
This is something I’m genuinely interested in, but have never really looked into until recently. The first novel I’d planned–started more than ten years ago and never completed–took place on a created world I called Gi. It had its own mythology, races, geography, and system for magic. I created it from the ground up, but I never had a process for doing so–I just did it. And because of that, there are numerous inconsistencies.
Now, I’m trying to rebuild that world in anticipation of the “Universe” I want to create as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world.
But how does one go about creating a whole new world? As you can imagine, it’s not too different from world building a non-speculative universe, as described in my last post. The difference here is that you have a lot more leeway in what you create, and how everything fits together.
That, however, creates an issue: the more freedom you have in creating your world, the easier it is to develop inconsistencies, as I did. It’s easier to forget a small detail you mentioned several stories ago, or give a character a name that doesn’t really fit into their culture. An especially important danger is changing something major part way through your project (i.e. ‘retconning,’), and forgetting to also change all the little things it affects.

Again, consistency is the most important thing!

So, of course, the main thing is being consistent. However creative your universe is, it should be self consistent. Your people behave a certain way; the geography makes scientific sense; characters of the same race share cultural values, language, and attitudes. World building is a large project, but as long as you’re being consistent, it’s not really that difficult.

What’s different?

The easiest step to take from there is to decide how your world is different from the real world. Does it involve magic, and if so, how does it work? Is this a completely different planet, or are you using Earth as a “template” and changing details? Dos the history of your world follow a similar pattern as our own? Are there comparable social groups? What sort of natural resources are important, and are they different from what we find on Earth? They say you have to know the rules before you can break them, and it’s the same idea here: start with what you know, and go from there.

How different?

This is where you can start getting really creative. Once you know the similarities between our world and your created world, you can start to take liberties. Really, you can go crazy here; the idea is to create something entirely unique, so the more creative you are, the better. You don’t have to think up the details right now, just the major points. In fact, getting mired in details is where I got into trouble with Gi as explained above: I wanted to add all these neat little examples of my creativity that it eventually collapsed upon itself because there was no unifying structure beneath them. So this step should be more conceptual than practical: decide what you want to accomplish with your world, what it will mean to the story, and how you can go about accomplishing that.

Details, details, details…

This is where the job gets challenging–though not difficult, as this should still be fun! There are a lot of websites around that can help you figure out what details to include, and to what extent. Maybe your story centres around a sociopolitical climate–so the variety of food people grow isn’t all that important. Perhaps you want to develop a deeply intricate religious culture, so mythology and theology should be key points of research for you. Or maybe you want to just write a hack and slash adventure, so thinking about politics or religion or history is needless.
But there are certain things you should generally be thinking about, without which you’re not really building a world in the first place. I’d say the most important–and the place to start–is your map. ProFantasy.com has a great suite of software that can help with this; it’s not cheap, but there is a free trial that can get you a quick ‘n dirty map. Or, draw your own.

The next most important piece of the puzzle is who populates the world. Are they humans? Elves, dwarves or orcs? Something entirely different? These are the characters in your story, so get all the details set down early. This is where you’ll thing about languages, culture, mores, history, recreational activities, societal taboos…and so on. You could go really deep here, to the point of creating detailed anthropological histories if your people or creating a language from scratch–and the deeper you go, the more involving the world will be. Just remember to be consistent!

After that, there are a lot of smaller details to think of. What’s the climate? Flora and fauna? Popular entertainment? Important cultural concepts? This is where the world really comes alive. One recent example I can think of is from the special features of the Game of Thrones DVDs, where they talk about creating the Dothraki language. They started by accepting that horses were crucial to their cultural identity, and developed the language around that concept. They ended up with a rich language that made cultural sense.

These details are also where you can get absolutely lost. Keep your notes tidy, and organized. When you come up with a new idea, edit it until you’re sure it fits in the world–and if it doesn’t, rework it until it does. If you need to change a pre-existing concept to allow for a new idea that would otherwise contradict it, make sure you erase it completely, or allow for an explanation if inconsistencies arise.

There are tons of resources for world building online, so for more information, I’d reccomend a Google search. But to start you off, here are a few great ones:

  • 30 Days of World Building: This is a step by stepguide that promises, as the title says, to help create a new world in 30 days. It’s a comprehensive list of things to think about–comprehensive enough that there are some steps you may not need, depending on how detailed you want to be. But definitely worth checking out. You can also download the guide for free in ePub, MOBI or PDF format.
  • Fantasy World Building Questions: This website breaks the creation process down into a series of categories, such as Geography, People and Customs, and Commerce. It’s a solid list, and by going through it all you will end up with a nice comprehensive world.
  • Paeter’s Brain: Free Worldbuilding Tools: A quick post about world building from a Role Playing Game perspective. It includes links to a couple wikis about various RPG settings, which could be good inspiration for your own world. There’s also a link for a town generator, and a city map generator.
  • Speaking of RPGs, I’m a big fan, and a member of a website called Myth Weavers. They have some great tools to help DMs build their own worlds; here’s an example of the wiki. Now, you may be asking yourself why this matters if you’re writing a novel–but really, most of the process is the same. A DM has to create a cohesive world for his players to play in. In fact, building a solid world is in their absolute best interests: because each of their players has a mind of their own, they’ll test the limits of the world in every way possible. A writer would do well to follow the DMs example.

That’s it for today, and for this mini-series on world building. But don’t worry: this is a topic we’ll come back to again, I’m sure. My created world is in something of a crisis, and will need some heavy work–and what better place to troubleshoot the process than a blog about writing and publishing?

In the meantime, if you have any other resources or ideas on world building, please share in the comments below!