Audience-driven Short Story: Guardian (1)

The Experiment: An Audience-driven Short Story

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure genre? The reader would reach frequent decision points and choose what the point-of-view character did. These decisions altered the story line and possibly the eventual conclusion.

In a similar vein I’m going to try to write an audience-driven story. Periodically (weekly? fortnightly?) I’ll add a slab of text to the story and then present a choice for the readers. Based on votes (or suggestions they propose), I’ll then write the next installment of the story.

Obviously given the timeframe involved and my other writing projects, I can’t promise a highly polished story. (I also reserve the right to ignore suggestions if they’re obviously designed to ruin the story).

This might work out or it might fail, only time will tell. One thing is for sure: audience participation is required.


Guardian (Installment 1)

(Please note: this story is a work of fiction).

I’ve always had exceptional hearing, and ears appropriately sized for the task. I’m not sure if there is a hearing-equivalent of 20/20 vision, but if there is I’d ace it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not super-human, just well above the average. My ears got me into trouble a lot as a kid, with nicknames like Dumbo, Wingnut and Radar.

After I left childhood I thought my ears wouldn’t cause me any more trouble. When I heard the faint cry I should have let it be drowned out the other ambient street noise, like it was for the dozens of other people around me.

The noise drew me into the alley between the shops. Just a few steps: I’m no fool. I wasn’t going to leave the safety of the road and all its witnesses. It was early afternoon and the alley was well lit, covered only by a few shadows at the back. I heard the cry again. My heart sunk. It was unmistakably a human cry so I couldn’t ignore it. I looked back to the street and the passers-by.

“Did you hear that?” I asked back toward the street. A young woman looked up from her phone. She shook her head but I doubt she even really heard me. Her electronic-possession reasserted itself and her attention returned to the phone as she walked off zombie-like.

There was another cry, a sad whimper. No one else seemed to hear it. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. But I’d heard it and had to investigate. The alley was empty except for two commercial bins on both walls part-way down. The cry must have come from behind a bin. I had no intention of putting myself in danger. Reality, however doesn’t consider intentions.

“Hello,” I called, hoping they’d show themselves, “is anyone down there? Do you need help?”

No movement. Nothing.

I hoped it was an abandoned baby or child and not some thug with an iPhone recording. No sooner had the thought occurred that I felt bad – why would I wish a child abandoned? I patted my pocket, annoyed to remember I’d left my phone at work.

I had to go down there.

I tried to loosen my shoulders and ready myself for anything even as my legs stiffened involuntarily. I tried to walk softly down the alley, one cautious step at a time. I glanced over my shoulder to reassure myself the people were still there, only a dozen or so metres away. If something bad did happen, they’d help me right? That’s what I told myself, but I knew in this day and age it was a 50/50 bet.

I looked around for a weapon, but there was none. My two flailing fists were all I had. They would flail if required…but given I’d never been in a fight, it was doubtful how effectively.

I was near the bins now, hoping that there was no one waiting inside of them ready to spring out on me. I heard the cry again and was relieved to see a child’s auburn-covered head behind the bin.

“Hi,” I said in a gentle tone as I walked around the bin, “what’s wrong?”

“Oh, crap!” I called out in surprise. Lying at the little girl’s feet was a huge African man, slumped against the wall. He was holding a wound in his chest, and there was a pool of blood growing around him. His face was covered in sweat, fixed in a grimace of pain and stubbornness.

“I’ll get help,” I promised.

“No,” the man said in a tired baritone voice, “just look after the girl.”

“Someone call 000, I need an ambulance. A man’s been stabbed,” I yelled at a passer-by. The rude woman pretended not to hear, but her pace increased.

“Look after the g–” he tried to say.

“You look after the girl,” I retorted, “we’ll get you help and you’ll be fine. She’s your daughter,” I said, before realising the only way this Caucasian child belonged to the dark African man was adoption.

“You can’t help me. Medicine won’t help–” the man grunted.

I tried to reassure him, like I’d seen them do in movies. “Don’t be silly, you’re not that far gone–”

“– me. I’m an Angel.”

It took a few seconds for what he’d said to register. And then a few more before I had any idea of how to respond.


What happens next? Post a comment below or send me an email to vote.

guardian-option1


Help over the fenceWant a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.

Lab Rats Sought for Experiment

And by “Lab Rats” I mean generous, heroic, courageous individuals (of course). If that sounds like you, or embodies characteristics that you aspire to, read on…

I’m looking for approximately 10 helpful people who are willing to read up to the first 5 chapters of Vengeance Will Come, my first novel. 

All I’m looking for is an answer to 1-3 simple questions:

  • 1) “Did you make it?” Under normal circumstances (i.e. you just picked this book up of a shelf) would you continue reading, or did you put the book down in boredom before reaching the end of the 5th chapter?
  • If you didn’t make it to the end:
    • 2a) Where did you stop?
    • 2b) Any particular reason why?

Easy, right?

Ideally I’m looking for people who enjoy reading (adult level). In terms of genre, it’s a ‘light’ fantasy/scifi adventure. (* Previous beta readers exempted; I need fresh blood, and, hopefully, a consensus).

At an average reading pace I can tell that will be approximately 30 minute reading time. You could help me realise my dreams in spending a morning commute reading. I’d be very appreciative, especially if you’re willing to answer any follow up questions I might have (not required).

If you’re interested please contact me on [my-first-name].[my-last-name]@internode.on.net (after replacing the bracketed bits), or post a comment below with your contact details.

Naturally I’d request that you don’t send it onto anyone else. (Under Australian law the mere fact I wrote it makes it copyrighted, which is nice).

I’ll fire back an email, and then all you need is a cup of tea or coffee and somewhere comfy to sit…

A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

Jumping the Productivity Moat

Although revision on Vengeance Will Come has only just begun I’m reasonably happy with the progress so far.

Revision Work…

Here’s a summary of what I’m looking at:

  • I’m Cutting out superfluous words. Not just the occasional word in a sentence, but also entire sentences. For example, the following line of dialogue:

“Physical muscles are less important than mental strength and wisdom, neither of which is guaranteed by age.”

I originally wrote it as a subtle dig at a character that he was physically weak, to feed a sense of inadequacy. That reference is no longer required and its presence is now out-of-place. It adds no value and causes only distraction. The delete key fixed that.

  • Word choice. Sometimes I’m using the same word in quick succession and that is poor form. (Sidebar: A previous Writing Excuses podcast I listened to mentioned that there are some words you can only use once in a story).
  • Using contractions in dialogue. This, strangely doesn’t come naturally to me. Although I speak with them, for some reason I write long-form. My flow-of-consciousness dialogue tends to be formal and so feels scripted. It was something an earlier version alpha reader detected, and I was trying to fix this… obviously I missed a lot. I suspect the further into the story the less I detected.
  • being more descriptive about motion and emotion; trying to show in a more nuanced way, instead of telling the reader.
  • Evaluating the criticisms of my beta readers, and adjusting accordingly (more about that in another post).

…Meets Productivity Moat

But then my forward progress is halted, midway through chapter 2 (of 29). I’ve hit a piece of text that’s really slowing me down: a productivity moat that’s blocking my path.

I’m not happy with the paragraph of text and are indecisive about wording and positioning. Several times I have opened up the document and sat there looking at it, as though it were written in Swahili (which I can’t read). After an annoying ten minutes of staring, my enthusiasm begins to wane. Stupid moat. I’ve tried to skip it and move on, but it’s like I know it’s there like an enemy at my flank and it’s on my mind.

I have a new strategy. To be honest it’s not much different from my previous strategies, but often I’ve found writing is a mind game. So if my slightly modified strategy works – hooray. They say you need an edge over your enemy: not a whole new weapon, just an edge.

I’m going to:

  1. Highlight the paragraph, admit to myself that I currently lack the ability to solve it and I can’t allow it to slow me down.
  2. Write some extensive comments: what I think is wrong with it (why I am having difficulty) and any possible options I can see to fix it in the future. I’m going to try to be descriptive e.g. “Z might work but that would require Y (which I don’t have)”.
  3. I’m going to move on, having done everything I can currently.
  4. At a later date, either at the end or when the answer presents itself, I’ll go back and fix it.

The productivity moat may cause a change in strategy, but it won’t stop me.

Revising Vengeance Will Come, Again

Previously I stated it was my intention to not further revise my first novel, Vengeance Will Come unless of course a publisher decided they wanted it. (Not that I’ve sent it out yet).

That decision was born of the knowledge that many first time authors get stuck in an endless rewrite cycle, and I didn’t want to be one of them. Especially considering how long this project has taken.

However since making that decision I’ve learned that professional authors can regularly do 6+ revisions. (Granted, some of these would likely be under the direction of publishers and editors).

My beta readers have also alerted me to the fact that there are numerous improvements to be made. This new-found knowledge of my novel’s shortcomings means there are two options:

  1. I revise, or
  2. my book goes in the bottom desk drawer, never to see the light of day again.

I realise that I’m still learning the writing craft (very much so) and my novel won’t be perfect. Ever. However, I’m not willing to let the book out into the world with simple things I know how to fix. It’s about quality control, and respecting my readers to do the best I can.

And so, the revision process begins anew.

PS: I’ve taken “The Hostages” off my progress chart. I’m still very committed to writing it, but it’s not going to progress any time soon, hence it’s disappearance.

My Beta Reading Experience (Part 1)

As Vengeance Will Come is my first novel it stands to reason that I’ve never had beta readers before. In this post I describe what I did, how it worked out (part 1, anyway) and what I’d do differently.

Who to choose as beta readers

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast it’s pretty clear that the who and why of beta readers varies from author to author. Some authors want industry insiders to beta read and other authors want average Jill-and-Joe reader.

Ideally I was looking for people who would cover off on some of these criterion:

  • could be relied upon to give an honest assessment. Liars, be they ever so motivated by noble sentiment in this instance, will not help me improve my craft.
  • well-read in my genre. Not only do they read a lot, they also read in fantasy/sci-fi so they can compare or contrast, and have some kind of benchmark or knowledge of common norms.
  • people who are likely to provide the most valuable feedback. More than just a thumbs up or down; detail behind what they liked or didn’t like.
  • grammar aficionados. Although I was more interested in the sweeping narrative than the minute detail, I’m also happy for someone to spot errors.

To be honest I didn’t feel like I had an already assembled go-to group. Quite possibly this is something I need to remedy. Maybe some of my time online needs to be spent on genre forums. Decision made: I’m going to try it getting into a few fantasy forums.

Without a go-to group, I just about begged passersby. I did manage to pull together a group of people who were willing read for me. It helps to remember that these people were doing me a favor. They were taking time out of other leisure activities to read a first novel (with all its inherent problems). Good people.

How I managed the Betas

beta readers

In the interest of focusing the feedback I inserted a page at the beginning of the book with some directions for my beta readers. By putting it in the book it meant that it was always available for them to refer to, not something separate in an email that might get lost or deleted.

Inserting a ‘due date’ is also a must. The last thing I wanted to do was leave it wide open. I didn’t want to be delayed by a well-meaning but continual, “I’ll get it to you soon.” I gave my readers two months, which I thought was a reasonable timeline. While setting a date I correctly guessed that it would be pushed out, but at least there were still goal posts. One beta reader returned it super fast and others around the due date.

I also gave my readers an ‘out’. The last thing I wanted to do was harm friendships or make it a heavy chore. Again, generous volunteers should not be abused.

I’ve also heard of some authors providing templates or more structure for their beta readers. I likewise have ideas for a number of tools that I’d like to be able to implement in the future.

I received feedback from only a portion of my beta readers, and I think that is to be expected. Life happens and sometimes unavoidably crushes everything that stands in its way. It’s also a reflection of my choices: I knew some people read less, and in different genres than were ideal.

It’d be naive to think that some readers didn’t just got bored and hit the delete key, too-kind to tell me.

I did intend on sending a reminder email to my betas at the halfway point, but didn’t do it. I didn’t want to harass them. In hindsight a single (or couple of) reminders really isn’t that much hassle and may have increased the number of returns I received.

Going back over the text, I question if it was too early for beta readers; a heinous crime. The goodwill of potential betas shouldn’t be exhausted with three-quarter-baked reads. Choosing and working with beta readers is absolutely a skill that needs to be developed. Beta reading is also a skill (one that I don’t possess myself). Undoubtedly as my skill improves for picking betas, and writing, others will become more interested, improving the fruitfulness of beta reading.

Examining Character Balance: The Rebel Queen

One of the things I’d recommend before getting into the actual revision of a writing project is to take a step back and look at the character balance.

To discuss this topic I’ll be using my second novel The Rebel Queen and examining how regularly each character gets a point-of-view turn. (To do this I’m using an Excel workbook that I intend on making available soon).

Does a character rarely get a point-of-view?

Every time there’s a new viewpoint the reader needs to create a little box in their memory to store the character’s personality, opinion and experiences. The reader can only keep track of a small number of boxes, so adding too many is problematic. (Sidebar: George RR Martin is famous for his huge cast of characters, but I think I was halfway through the first book before I could differentiate properly between characters. Occasionally throughout the series I also read scenes not remembering who this particular character was).

Minor characters clog up your reader’s memory and are also likely to be under-developed, crude caricatures of what a character should be. Sometimes a minor character is legitimately required; that’s the only time they should be used.

If a character only has a small number of viewpoints my first preference will be to eliminate them as a point-of-view character. I’ll ask myself:

  1. What is their viewpoint providing?
  2. Are those outcomes critical?
  3. Can another character or a change in circumstances deliver the same outcomes?

In The Rebel Queen the worst two offenders are clear. Den-ta, who gets a single scene in the final chapters of the book is definitely going to be cut. The Prior, who is an important plot aspect is a little harder to determine. I’ll try to cut him first, but if that doesn’t work I’ll resurrect him and pad him out.

However, if the character’s viewpoint is irreplaceable and necessary then I’ll be looking for ways to give them more “air time”. If I can’t kill ’em, I’ll try to make them stronger. Can they be involved in more scenes? Can they replace another character’s viewpoint on some scenes?

Draft Cal POV

I’ll be looking for a few more scenes for the character Cal; trying to raise her prominence.

Are there characters who get introduced too late?
My current rule of thumb is that I don’t want to introduce any new character viewpoints after halfway through the story. By that point everything should be moving towards resolution, not continuing to expand. (Sidebar: Interesting question: Does that hold true in a series? I think so. I prefer the method Robert Jordan uses, taking a minor character who doesn’t have a viewpoint until a later book). Introducing a character towards the end of the story also risks them being a deus ex machina (“person or event which provides a sudden, unexpected solution to a story”).

In George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons poor old Uncle Kevan waited approximately 900 pages for a viewpoint, and dies at the end of the scene. As a reader, it felt like a completely unnecessary death; almost like Martin realised he hadn’t killed anyone recently, so someone had to die. The problem was, I didn’t know who Kevan was, so I didn’t care at all that he died.

Draft General Pkar POV

Returning to The Rebel Queen, even though General Pkar is a significant character in the story, I discover that he doesn’t get a point of view until too late. I’ll be looking to give him a scene or two earlier in the story, so the reader know he’s important.

Are there characters who go silent?

This aspect is more complex to work out (and it seems, to describe too). I’m looking at the gaps between points of view, when combined with plot developments. In the image above General Pkar goes silent for 4 chapters (15-18) but in this instance that is okay – the plot-action is happening elsewhere.

But if there was a plot thread that General Pkar was chasing down and he inexplicably went silent for multiple chapters, that might be a problem.

Note however that they don’t necessarily need a point-of-view; it might be enough to have them mentioned by another character, so that we know they are still around.