Call for beta readers: The Thieves of Traska Draft 6

This is it, my friends: the official call for beta readers. Last time we were here, I was absolutely terrified. Only one friend had read most of The Thieves of Traska by that point. If my readers didn’t like the story, I might have spent a significant amount of time crying and maybe given up on it altogether.

But my readers liked it. Some even loved it.

For the second time, I ask for volunteers. The Thieves of Traska now has nearly 300 pages, and more than 86,000 words.

If you want to be a beta reader…

  • Comment on this post, tweet at me, or email me at Amanda (at) ajswitz (dot) com by Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017
  • Specify your preferred format for reading (Microsoft Word document, PDF, .mobi, etc.)*
  • Please briefly explain your interest in being a beta reader

*NOTE

If you provided feedback on Draft 4 last year, you are eligible to receive a professionally printed and bound copy of Draft 6. The number of printed copies I order will be based on the number requested. If you would like to receive a printed copy, please notify me no later than Jan. 15, 2017.

Beta readers should prepare to provide a thorough, honest critique beyond “good,” “bad,” or “x/5 stars.” To avoid interfering with your reading process, I will save specific questions until after you’ve finished reading.

For a brief description of the story, check out the new Books tab on the top of the site!

Well #?^% XXVII: Not writing for a different reason

It was pretty much a standard for me that I didn’t write every single day. You don’t have to go far into my blog archives to find posts where I talk about not working on the things I ought to, either because of all the other work I had to do leaving me tired or I just didn’t want to spend my “free time” doing more work. But over the last six months or so, I started writing every day. I usually write a lot.

Since I sent out The Thieves of Traska to beta readers, I haven’t been writing. I started working on the second installment in the trilogy, but decided it would be better to wait until the ending of ToT is absolute. So, I’m just going a little crazy.

My brain won’t shut off, so it has been coming up with scenes and ideas non-stop. Could be I’m shooting myself in the foot by not writing most of them down, but I’m really trying to give myself a break. It’s so tempting to just keep working, but I know that I’ll need to come back to the story with fresh eyes — both as I’m editing, and when I get to the next parts of the story. Characters and concepts have to be reintroduced so new readers still know what’s going on, but old readers don’t roll their eyes and think, “I know all that! Get on with it!”

I’m still figuring out how that will work, and I’m sure it will make for some good blog posts in the future. For now, though, I just want to keep my sanity. I want to stop imagining spinoff novellas that go into the pasts of other characters. I want to stop thinking about awesome things that could happen in book three, then wonder how I can set up for them in book two.

Unfortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), I will probably keep poking around at this world I invented. I’ll write scenes in my notebook about other characters so I can understand them better. I’ll write notes about made-up religions so I’ll know how people should react to their world.

At least I can’t stop being productive, right?

The Thieves of Traska needs beta readers!

Hello, friends! I’m very pleased to announce that I have finally finished the fourth draft of The Thieves of Traska! And that means we’re ready for the next step: beta readers!

When I first announced the project a couple years ago, I said it would be a novella. Now — at a whopping 52,580 words — it stands to be the first installment in a trilogy. It is also the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written and the only one I’m prepared to show to a test audience.

Honestly, it’s scary. It’s like critique day in class all over again, but the stakes feel much higher. I’m not asking for feedback on a 10-page short story that I can edit in an hour or so. I’m asking for feedback on a 186-page novel that is supposed to launch my dream career as an author. So no pressure, right?

Even so, I come to you, my friends, to recruit some beta readers. I need volunteers willing to read the whole novel and give me your feedback. Whatever format you need — Word doc, PDF, Google doc, printed copy, etc. — I will gladly send it. And then I will forget about it for six weeks while you read and come back to it with fresh eyes.

If you’re interested in reading this fantasy adventure about a runaway and a fugitive getting swept into a dangerous game of intrigue between the shady criminal leagues who control the city of Traska, let me know! Comment here, email me at amanda (at) ajswitz (dot) com, or reach out on social media.

If you already volunteered before I finished writing, then keep an eye out for a message from me. Thank you all in advance and I greatly look forward to hearing from you.

Studio Session: “The Scarecrow” by Christian Burney

We have another of my classmates contributing an opening paragraph for this week’s Studio Session. I’m very excited because what I’ve seen of his work in classrooms has always been unexpected and absolutely fascinating. We salute you, sir!

The Writer: Christian Burney (Twitter)

The Piece: “The Scarecrow” is a ‘classified government document’ profiling an anomalous/supernatural entity in the style of a website that runs off that formula.


Item #: ISE-493

Security Tier: SS

Special Containment Procedures: ISE-493 must remain in a 10×10 meter concrete and steel-enforced enclosure on site. Ventilation into the room must remain sealed at all times except for █/█, when ████████. ISE-943’s enclosure must retain a luminosity of 45000 (forty-five hundred) at all times. Dark shadows should never be present within the enclosure. Two armed personnel equipped with standard protocol flamethrowers and EMP grenade attachments are to guard the enclosure at all times. Senior Director Orchid must approve all access to ISE-493. Access to ISE-493 without prior admittance from Senior Director Orchid will result in immediate termination of all responsible parties. Instances of ISE-493-2a/2b are to be detained and examined. Following testing, ISE-493-2a should then be terminated.


The first assumption I’m going to make about this story from the first sentence is that it’s not a good idea to let whatever ISE-493 is out of its box. And it probably wants out. So we can bet the story will involve some sort of struggle to keep it or put it back in the box. I have no idea what the letters in the item number correspond to, or where SS ranks on the security system (Super Secret? Special Stuff? Soft Shell tacos?), but those are mysteries I expect to be solved quietly at some later point.

Of course, any time you have blacked out information, it’s going to pique your curiosity. So under what circumstances is it okay for ventilation to be unsealed? Personally, I wonder if “sealed” means absolutely no airflow in or out, or that it has to be a self-contained system. Again, these are more answers I expect I’ll have later. This does also set me up to believe that this thing (which, based on the title, I will assume is a scarecrow of homicidal nature) can release some sort of toxic/mind-altering gas or spores. If it turns out that the thing only smells really bad, I’d be disappointed.

We get some more rules about how this thing must be kept, starting with the amount of light. Darkness is a bad thing to have around our mystery object. The why can come later, but the writer has set me up now to be wary of how he describes both the air and the lighting in each scene. If we go a few scenes where this thing is locked up and being in total darkness isn’t a danger, we’re really going to get excited if/when the thing gets out.

“Standard protocol flamethrowers” might be my favorite phrase out of all this because you can’t go wrong with flamethrowers and it’s nice to know straightaway that we can kill the thing with fire. It’s a good Achilles’ Heel sort of setup that will give readers a shred of hope to hold onto for the rest of the story; no matter how bad things get, all you need is fire. The EMP grenades throw me a bit — if this thing is a demonic scarecrow, I’m not sure how that will help. If I need a broader idea of a scarecrow that includes machines/mutants/supernatural creatures sensitive to electromagnetic fields, then this could be the first clue our creature isn’t made of sticks and straw.

Or pumpkins. Image source.

From there, we have the mention of the character and another rule: don’t access the thing without permission from Senior Director Orchid (whose name makes me imagine Poison Ivy runs this place). With this, there’s no concrete indication that we’ll see someone access the thing without authorization. I’d like to think this is the reason for its escape, or someone could somehow fake their authorization, but I’d also believe someone was playing by all the rules and accidentally set this thing loose. What I am vague on is how anyone trying to access the thing will be terminated. I’m assuming with lethal force, though they could also just be fired from this facility.

Due to my limited understanding of what’s going on, it may be too early to introduce ISE-493-2a/2b. This first paragraph is dedicated to containment procedures, so whatever those “instances” are, I can only assume they are some form of leak or breach of containment (in which case someone needs to revise how they store this thing if leaks happen frequently). And since we again have the word “terminated,” I’m not sure if these “instances” can be disposed of by sweeping them up and dumping them in an incinerator, or if it’s some sort of living thing that needs to be killed.

Given the amount of expectations set up for me before those last two sentences, I need something clear and concrete right after this paragraph to ground me in what’s going on. This has such an intriguing and abstract opening, I need details to pull me. If I don’t get details in the next paragraph, I’m going to be floundering for the rest of the story.


If you’d like to volunteer a piece of writing for a Studio Session, head to my contact page. I’ll go sentence by sentence, commenting on the writer’s voice, authority, intention, the expectations they create, and the level of intrigue. Any and all types and genres are accepted. I will happily give my two cents on the opening to your novel, short story, memoir, cover letter, artist statement, author bio, potentially rude email to professors or coworkers, ode to tater tots, and whatever else you creative geniuses come up with.

Please include your name and the URL to your website (optional), the title of your piece, a brief description, your first paragraph only, and any specific concerns you’d like me to address if you have them.

Imitations of style: Setting up the three acts

One of my writing classes this quarter focuses on structure in story. For assignments, we come up with a story and write it in the style of another piece of literature. Our options for this assignment included the Bible, Greek myth (Theseus and the Minotaur), fables (The Lion and the Mouse, The Dog and His Bone), and fairy tales (Cinderella, The Little Match Girl). It’s a 300-level Writing elective and the pieces we write are for practice, not eventual publication.

Overlooking the comma splices, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, confused homophones and a widespread lack of how to properly use “alas” (the editor in me never sleeps), my classmates have come up with an interesting collection of stories.

Some of the more entertaining ones are written in the style of the Bible — one about a bride planning her wedding, another about a student reading scary stories online instead of sleeping. But looking past the narrative, these stories all share a similar structure.

Act I

Each story begins with something to ground us in the story’s reality: setting or character. In these short stories, the exposition can last a whole page or simply be one paragraph. No matter how long, there’s usually some small detail that sets us up for actions later in the story.

Sounds like foreshadowing, right? But on a much smaller scale (especially since we’re working with short stories here, not novels). A single adjective with the introduction of a character sets up for a crucial action they make later on. If you tell readers “there once was a naughty boy named Jim,” that makes the promise that Jim will do something bad. But if you tell your readers Jim is a sweet little boy and he drowns a sick kitten later on, we’re not going to believe it.

Act I is all about establishing your authority as the writer. If we don’t trust that you own the story from the very beginning, we’re not going to stick around for the rest.

Act II

Here is where the tension lies. For books, most of the story takes place in Act II with its minor conflicts rising and falling, building up to the climax. In short stories, we’re probably still going to spend most of our time here.

Let’s say you start Act I describing the setting and introducing us to a character. Act II begins with the action or decision that starts this particular story. After working late one night with his father, the boy wakes up and discovers his dad has disappeared. Bam! Now we’re in the story of the boy’s search for his father. And all the little things that pile up to build tension — dad’s truck is missing, the house is a mess, the mailbox has been knocked over — make up the most of the story.

Tension builds in Act II. You can have your character development going on at the same time, but tension defines this part of the story. By the end of Act II, readers should feel like the tension can’t get any higher.

Act III

The final act begins with the inexorable surprise — the thing that surprises us, but we realize it couldn’t have happened any other way. Remember those tiny promises you made back in Act I? Time to make good on those.

Naughty Jim — who drowned a sick kitten because his father called him soft — finds his father has driven into a ditch and is badly injured. Rather than get help, Jim gets the truck out of the ditch, drives to a lake, and drowns his dad. Maybe a bit morbid and extreme, but it works if you set it up correctly. We wouldn’t believe it if “sweet little Jim” suddenly drowned his father. But we expect bad things of “naughty Jim.” And since his father taught him to kill things to end their pain, of course he’d kill his suffering dad!

The tension jacks up a bit higher in Act III, and then it drops down for the resolution. And that’s it.

I pulled these examples from one of my classmates’ stories. Though I simplified it to help explain the three acts, it’s one of the more successful and memorable stories.

Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

9 Types of Artist Bios Students Write

I’ve been editing the biographies people submitted to accompany the accepted submissions to Port City Review. There’s about 63 of these and the quality ranges from only needing a comma fix to me setting aside part of the day to rewrite them. The entire selection I’m working with comes from SCAD students only, but they’re from various backgrounds and fields of study. So here are your 9 types of artist bios.

  1. I’M A TEXAN AND IT’S THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD. I’ve gotten a few of these, all girls and all closer to 19 years old. They like sunshine and live a life of dream. Whatever that means.
  2. BOW BEFORE ME, TINY-MINDED PEASANTS. Some people like to brag about their degrees/awards/gold star they received in first grade without giving any other information. Must not be much to these people beyond their awards.
  3. I’M JUST STARTING OUT AND DON’T KNOW HOW MY WORK GOT ACCEPTED. First- and second-years let you know they don’t actually know what they’re doing, are still discovering who they are and what they like to do, and talk about their sincere hope to pursue art for the rest of their life.
  4. HERE IS MY FORMULAIC BIOGRAPHY. Nothing sticks out about these people. They’ve got their name, field of study, work they like to do and where they came from.
  5. F*** YOU AND YOUR DIRECTIONS. We asked for a 3-5 sentence artist bio by a certain date and you gave us a 500-word explanation of how complicated and deep the message of your work is. Oh, and you sent it long after the deadline. Even then, you only did it because we threatened not to publish your work because you can’t follow directions. Now I get to turn your manifesto into a 3-5 sentence paragraph and you have to deal with what I write.
  6. I’M ARTISTICALLY GIFTED AND FUNNY. They’re not just going to give you the basics of their life; you also get a story and a giggle that sick out in your memory. In addition to number 5, I remember these people the most because they mentioned running as fast as their tiny legs could carry them or escaping from a lab instead of being born the normal way.
  7. I’M SO INSPIRED AND DOESN’T MY WORK INSPIRE YOU? These bios are all about the food/weather/scenery/pet/gambling addiction that inspires their art and what they want their art to inspire in others. In other words, they wrote an artist statement instead of what we asked for.
  8. I’LL JUST USE WHAT I PUT IN THE ‘ABOUT ME’ SECTION ON ALL MY SOCIAL MEDIA. Like the Texans of number 1, these sound more like they belong on Tinder or Twitter. Not sure how many people you think you’ll pick up with this bio in a magazine, but you do what you feel works.
  9. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT AN ARTIST. You like to throw in words like “chiaroscuro” to describe your work. If anyone who didn’t go to art school (or knows the word for whatever reason) read your bio, they’d probably think your work is more complex than it really is because they have no idea what that word means. Congratulations! Your work has light and shadows.

I’m sure there are other kinds of bios out there, but these are the kind I’ve been editing. Does yours fall into any of these categories?