Author has written 4 stories for Harry Potter.
[Three short essays follow the profile:
I'm a man who resides south of Miami, Florida.
My chief hobbies are music, humor, reading and writing;
I've worked as a writer, editor, astrologer, waiter, salesman, manager and business owner.
In recent years, I've been treated for prostate cancer, kidney disease, and two heart conditions; and in 2012, I had my aortic valve replaced with a bovine valve, via open-heart surgery. (Moo.) So: Buy now! Supplies are limited!
I regard myself as "spiritual not religious." I don't blame God for religion. I like the saying: "Religion is for those who are afraid of hell; Spirituality is for those who have already been there." Of course, your mileage may vary.
Here's the short version on getting a beta, for those who are impatient and don't want to read the whole thing:
The best source for betas is to draw from your own readers. They already enjoy and support your writing, so are more committed to help. I recommend putting an author's note (to solicit volunteer betas) at the HEAD (not the end) of the next posted chapter: The head so it's noticed, the next because it hasn't been read yet (many readers won't reread prior chapters).
Why You Shouldn't Get a Beta Reader
If a mere 60 percent of the following ten qualities are true of you, you could probably get along fine without a beta:
1/ You are a skilled and impeccable editor and proofreader yourself, with an eagle eye and many years of experience. You are an expert grammarian and a champion speller.
2/ You are a fine writer, a highly talented wordsmith, and your reviewers all say that your style, composition and usage are veritable perfection and virtually unmatched.
3/ Whenever you run spell-check and grammar-check programs on your story chapters, they never find a thing to correct.
4/ You use your estimable skills to carefully go over your own chapters at least 2-3 times, to weed out any typos or other errors.
5/ You are ruthlessly efficient at paring down the extraneous and repetitive, and can be utterly objective about weaknesses in your own work. You can take criticism graciously, and you never mind rewriting if it means improving. You are humble and wise enough to admit when you're wrong.
6/ Your stories always start with carefully constructed outlines, so you always know where you're going -- and the text reflects that sureness.
7/ You keep thorough notes so you always remember your place in the story-line, and what ideas, characters and events you want to introduce, and where.
8/ You are highly knowledgeable about your chosen story-universe, with an outstanding memory, so you never make mistakes regarding characters and their back-stories.
9/ You're utterly at home with reference materials. You always have dictionaries, thesauruses, source materials and almanacs within ready reach. As a great researcher, keen observer and logical analyst, you know life and the world so well that your stories never get caught in improbable or impossible dead ends.
10/ You are an omnivorous reader: you've spent your life reading literature of all kinds, you're always noticing and learning how good writers use structure, composition and word usage to best effect, and so you bring a wealth of understanding of writing, story-telling and pacing to your work.
(Didn't match with at least 6/10 of those? Then you may be well advised to read the next section:)
Why You Need a Beta, and How to Get One
From time to time, I see stories here of outstanding promise that are like diamonds in the rough. They could have become great literature, but instead they have been left in an unpolished -- one might even say corrupt -- state, weighed down by errors, confusions, miscues and inadvertent dead ends. They are a chore rather than a pleasure to read, because no effort has been made to get help in cleaning them up. This is a great pity. So many readers give up, in exasperation, on a confusingly-written story that could have been great, when all it really needed was some light editing to shave off the messiness and reveal the beauty.
If you have a story you're proud of, why wouldn't you want it to be shown in its best possible light? There are so many people here with skills and talents at editing as well as writing, and they'd be happy to help if only they were asked or permitted to help. Are your words so sacred, your talents so unique, that nobody could possibly improve on them? If so, then you are the only such writer in the world.
Even the very best of writers need good editors. It is hard for even the very best editors among writers to edit for themselves.
The reason to correct all these errors is that mistakes tend to draw the reader's attention toward the mistakes THEMSELVES, and away from the actual writing. When the poor, baffled reader encounters a glaring but confusing error, s/he has to come to a screeching stop, look off into the distance, try to decode what the writer actually meant from the error presented, rewrite it in her/his head, and then start up reading again. This interrupts the flow of the story, and more importantly, it disrupts what is known as the "Suspension of Disbelief."
However, introduce enough errors, or discontinuities, and the inner critic reawakens. It nags the reader, "This doesn't make sense," or "This isn't true." If it happens often enough, the reader detaches from the story and loses interest. Moreover, while preserving that Suspension of Disbelief is important in any kind of fiction, it is absolutely critical in the genre of Magical Fantasy. A magical story has to have even more attention paid to its internal logic, consistency and precision than any other form of fiction, because it is, by its very nature, so much more improbable. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have to make MORE sense than do the works of Ernest Hemingway and John Grisham! That's why careful editing is important; and yes, even J. K. Rowling herself has some excellent editors.
Some people believe that all those pesky rules of grammar, syntax, usage etc. are an arbitrary confinement, imposed upon us by oppressive experts, and therefore defiantly rebel. Actually, they're not completely wrong, because language rules and word usage do change over time -- just try reading Shakespeare without annotations! But within one's own time, those rules provide the same security and sureness to English users as the rules of the road do for drivers: they let us all understand at a glance what another writer means, without having to guess or assume. We don't get to pick which side of the road we want to drive on, or there would be too many deaths. Similarly, if we insist upon the right to choose or invent our own rules of language, we practically guarantee that we will be misunderstood by nearly everyone else. Far better to save our creativity for our stories and ideas, and let the framework of standard language endure for one and all.
Writers, by definition, are good at noticing stuff. (Or should be.) We can learn a lot by observation and study; we don't have to leave all our repairs for a beta to make. For example, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the very useful tables of English Irregular Verbs that can be found online through search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo. Normally, when a piece of writing has many errors of irregular verbs (such ghastly atrocities as "I seen" or "he had went" in particular), a canny reader would attribute them to the writer's not being a native speaker of English. But when we see bad usage by a native speaker, it's a dead giveaway: this person is not a reader. Look: I assume that you're a good writer, and you don't want to look ignorant. If you're writing in the Harry Potter story universe, you'll also want to bookmark the Harry Potter Lexicon, Pottermore, and Harry Potter Wiki -- each one is an exhaustive resource. And if referencing science, it pays to check your facts. If you don't know what's wrong with the phrase "Around the country and across the world", you need an extra beta.
(And if you don't care to know the real, classical, correct meaning of "beg the question" -- don't use the expression. It's a mistranslation of petitio principii, which means, To assume the initial disputed point -- a circular argument that is a fallacy of logic and a fault in debate. [If you have been using the expression as an antecedent to an actual question -- as in, "That begs the question: what does it all mean?" -- then the phrase you really want is, "That raises the question." Or even, "That demands the question." Best: "One must then ask."])
I've seen all the above misused in fanfictions, by otherwise good writers. Some readers feel discomfort when reading these errors, while not quite knowing why. Adequate editing and proofreading would salve or prevent that discomfort.
If you don't yet have any editing help, you would do very well to post an Author's Note to ask your readership for volunteers for Beta Reader. Why ask your readers first, instead of using the website's beta volunteers? Because your own readers are already invested in and committed to your story! They know the material and like your ideas, and will be more enthusiastic about helping you -- that is, IF one of your readers has the actual editing and proofreading skills. But if none of them do, then better to accept an anonymous recruit who knows how to edit, than an old fan who eagerly volunteers but can't deliver.
A beta receives the draft chapter, makes appropriate corrections, and sends it back to the author for posting. (Two superior formats for this exchange are Open Office and MS Word, because they let you turn on correction tracking so both sides can see, in another color, what corrections have been made. Open Office, because it is the native format for FF dot net, is probably best to use here. If you're the editor, you make a new copy of the document with a slightly different name (using "Save As"), then you click Edit, Changes, Record. You then make corrections and save the file; then you send the tracked and corrected file back to the author. If you're the author, after receiving it and saving both versions, please be sure both to study the corrections made, and then to turn the tracking off before submitting the final copy to the website for uploading and posting! Otherwise, both the original and the corrected items will appear in the posted chapter, which is even more confusing [and embarrassing]. The most important reason to use correction tracking is so you can learn what mistakes you're making, so that you won't repeat them.)
"Okay," you may say, "I get the importance of grammar and usage, but why should I bother with fixing spelling and punctuation?"
Spelling is a function of observation and memory. (That "noticing" thing I mentioned.) If your spelling is constantly off, readers will take that to mean that you observe and remember poorly, and will be less likely to believe you or to believe in you -- especially if you misspell well-known celebrities' or characters' names. Even worse, misspelling can produce entirely wrong words, which adds to your readers' confusion.
Punctuation shows how a sentence "breathes." That is, when punctuation is used correctly, it provides the cues of emphasis, pausing and tone that would make everything unmistakably clear if the sentence had been spoken aloud. In fact, proper punctuation marks are almost like script directions: they make a story that is read aloud clear to any listener. When misused or underused, those cues to meaning are confusing or lacking, and so the reader has to keep guessing and figuring what the real meaning, intent and emphasis should be -- which soon grows exhausting. See if you can spot the difference:
A few writers are afraid that a beta will somehow "spoil" their story. While that could happen rarely or theoretically, more often such writers just tend to be pretentious and insecure, mistakenly believing that their every word is sacred, or their "child," and that every correction or deletion is an attempt to "slay their child." This delusion is laughably untrue; a good editor only makes a writer look good, and never tries to totally rewrite a story or stifle a writer.
Then too, some writers arrogantly assume that their writing could not possibly be improved upon. Even if (by some miracle) that were true, those writers might still be missing little errors of usage or context that could be making their story (and, by extension, them) look silly. Just a brief run-through by a competent beta -- or better yet, two -- would save them a whole lot of face.
Some fan-fiction authors say that they have a beta, yet their stories are still loaded down with errors and confusions. In some cases, this was because their beta was really only interested in being the first person to see a chapter, but not in actually doing the work. In other cases, their beta was merely the first person to offer to help, but may be no more competent at word usage, grammar, spelling, punctuation and composition than the author him/herself is. If your beta is falling down on the job and not properly correcting the submitted chapters, you owe it to your own creative work (and to your readers) to either get a second beta, or to simply replace them. Don't keep a failing beta on just because you're afraid of hurting their feelings; that's co-dependency. And don't be bullied -- especially not by someone you've never met who only knows your email address and screen name!
To get a beta, Ask! Post an author's note saying, "I'm looking for a beta"; but put it at the heading of your NEXT chapter. (If you go back and add it to the end of your last chapter, too few people will see it, because they'll have already read it -- and many people do not back up to reread old chapters.) Once you have 4-5 volunteers, send them all the next following chapter -- BEFORE you post it. The one who returns that unpublished chapter with the most (valid) corrections, and the best suggestions, gets the job.
Why bother to beta? Some writers airily proclaim that they're "only writing for themselves," or that they "can't be bothered tidying up their art for the sake of fuss-budgets."
Hope you'll forgive me for waxing poetic on the virtues of editing! Bear in mind that I would not offer correction for a story I did not respect; I would simply skip it and say, "Next!" If I like and respect your work, then I want to see it set in a more attractive frame.
Wise Words to the Writer
1/ Every writer needs a quality collegiate dictionary within easy reach whenever writing. (I like the Random House Webster's Collegiate best, but I have others too. I like to have a good Canadian and a good UK dictionary handy as well, and translating dictionaries for Latin, French, Spanish, German, and other languages. A good thesaurus, an almanac, and a major-media stylebook couldn't hurt either.)
The good writer loves language, and is always eager to learn more about it. Good reference works, close at hand, help produce better literature. Likewise, good writers are also good readers. They constantly inhale books, magazines, websites, newspapers, and even billboards because they love to read. They learn good composition and structure largely by observing how other good writers do it. Bad writers, on the other hand, pay no attention to literature or dictionaries. They arrogantly assume that they are above all rules and teachers, and that they can be an artist, despite having never been a student. It is fair to say that someone who never reads cannot know how to write.
2/ The writing and editing functions draw on opposite sides of the brain. Writing is more creative and imaginative, while editing is more analytical and critical. It is extremely hard to perform both functions simultaneously, and wiser not to try. Even if one does have the skills and experience to be one's own Beta -- it is best to go ahead and just write until the muse is exhausted; then go back to review and edit oneself; then wait a day before posting or submitting the material, and review it again. One will always see things differently (and usually more clearly) after 24 hours have passed. It can be very surprising and humbling to realize, after a day's wait, how many things could be better-phrased, or how many errors one failed to notice while lost in the bliss of creation.
3/ One's every word is not sacred! Writing is as much craft as art. As a good sculptor or architect will tell you, very often Less Is More. If you or your editor believe that a word, a phrase, a sentence or even a whole chapter distracts and subtracts rather than clarifies and adds to the story, try the idea out with an open mind and leave that word or chapter out for now. (Just keep the full, uncut version aside in a separate file; that way you can still restore the missing piece easily if necessary.) Remember, unedited movies would be sixteen hours long if the screenwriter had his way. Tighter is almost always better. Extravagant verbosity is self-indulgent. (Like that one.)
4/ A story is not a diary or journal. Not only is it unnecessary to describe every moment of every day, it is downright tedious. Even diarists eventually tire of recording their every thought. Observe how the passage of time is handled in well-written fiction: often weeks or even years may pass, with only a bare mention of the fact. The only action one must include is that which furthers or enhances the story; all else is mere stuffing.
5/ Timing isn't everything; it's only 90 percent. (That's a joke, son; joke, that is.) Good storytelling includes clever pacing. Just as in telling a joke, telling a story requires not blowing the punch line. Many good writers compose the conclusion of a chapter -- or even the ending of a whole story -- first, and then outline how they propose to get there. (Sort of like the story of the boy who shot his gun at a wall, and then drew targets around the bullet-holes; then a military officer, passing by the wall, saw the targets and mistakenly assumed him to be a sharpshooter!)
6/ No fanfic or series reader will ever know that you took a little more time to polish a story unless you decide to tell them; and unless you made the mistake of promising to write chapters to a strict weekly schedule (which is almost as bad an error as writing by surveying what readers want to see, rather than what you want to write), they can't complain. Taking a day or even a week longer to make a story better is a far greater service to your readers than getting it out as fast as possible. (The only valid excuse for putting haste above care is if you have -- God forbid -- only six weeks to live.)
Readers will also notice if a story summary is error-ridden or lame; or worse, refuses its duty to summarize. If a writer has the gall to post "I can't write summaries, just read it!", I can promise them that I won't, and I am sure neither will hundreds of others. If you can't write one now, better to put "Summary to follow" than to arrogantly refuse. Readers rely on summaries to guide their choices among thousands of stories. Even zero guidance is better than petulant, demanding guidance. Readers will reasonably assume that the inability to summarize may well imply the inability to write. (Or at the very least, the inability to condense an idea concisely -- which means they can expect that a story will contain a lot of wasted words and bloviation.) Far better to just submit the matter to one's subconscious or dream nature to create a summary, and come back to it later; or get help from one's beta, friends or readers. (Oh, and by the way: If your HP story summary reads something like "Hermoine and Voldermort meet Sirus and the Dursley's in Private Drive Surry" then expect precious few reads, let alone reviews. Spelling and punctuation do not count for everything; but misspelling of major character and place names is a very telling hint: poor writing and observation ahead.)
7/ Length: While there are no absolute hard-and-fast standards, for purposes of fanfiction, somewhere between two thousand and five thousand words seems to work best for average chapter size. Very short chapters suggest that an author has not developed his idea sufficiently, or hasn't much to say; and terribly long chapters become hard for readers to sustain their concentration on. If a chapter is ten thousand words long, the writer would do well to find some natural splitting point to separate it into two. The brain can only contain what the bottom can endure. (Exceptions: joke stories leading to a punchline deserve to be short. Tense, gripping, action-packed battle scenes that climax the story deserve to be long.)
8/ You Can Never Please Everybody. It makes no sense to even try. Writers, speakers, artists, actors, musicians, politicians and even clergymen learn early on that unanimous audience approval is an impossible goal. Even if you're great, you're lucky to get eighty percent approval; and if you change what you do to attract the rest, you'll simply alienate a different twenty percent! So you might as well be true to yourself, and follow your own creative impulse. It is good to take advice; but creativity is virtually never enhanced by taking a poll. With very rare exceptions, creativity is a solitary endeavor. You must be happy with your writing. If you write first to please yourself, you're far more likely to find an audience that finds you worthy than if you try to please everyone.
9/ English is the most widely-distributed language in the world. Besides being the de facto universal language of business, science, computing, telecommunications, aviation, entertainment, travel and diplomacy, it is an official language in 52 countries, it is the first language of some 400 million people and the second language of roughly a billion more.
10/ Use what you know; don't use what you don't know. If you know physics or chemistry, it's just fine to use them to develop your story -- at least in a way that a general audience will comprehend. If you've read every issue of National Geographic for the last 15 years, go ahead and take your characters on a round-the-world tour; you probably know your way around. If you know French or Latin, it's fine to use French or Latin (within reason, and not just to show off); you won't confuse your conjugations and declensions, or misuse your idioms.
Conversely, English has many peculiarities that do not translate easily. Chief among these are "Phrasal Verbs." In English, we take a simple verb, and add a preposition. (Or sometimes, an adverb or adjective.) The combined result is a Phrasal Verb -- which has a unique meaning, often very distinct from the simple verb on which it's based. Most other languages have nothing like this. While English-speaking kids pick these up naturally over time, it takes adult English learners ages to Get the hang of (to become familiar or capable with) phrasal verbs.
Writing is an art of creating a world in the mind. When too many elements of that world are obviously the product of ignorance rather than imagination, the reader loses all respect for the writer. So to keep their respect, and interest, it is wise to reflect, rewrite, and when needed, to get help. The good writer is, first of all, a keen observer. The best writers create those imaginary worlds so artfully and transparently that the reader's own world is changed.
Language is the clay and sticks, words and grammar are the flesh and blood, with which we create and populate those mental worlds. Barring great progress in the technology of telepathy, we need carefully-crafted English to convey our ideas to others. To whatever extent we may lack well-honed language tools, it is a sign of wisdom and strength to get whatever help is needed to design and polish our work so that it may be beautiful as well as intelligible.
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