This is it.

You have had an Idea.

A brilliant, shiny idea. It’s a masterpiece in the making, you’re sure of it. You can already see it being bought by Netflix if Disney doesn’t beat them to it first.

You can’t wait until the kids are in bed so you can finally start writing it all down.

But as you get more and more words on the page, the doubt begins to creep in. You begin to struggle with the setting, or with the plot. Maybe it slowly dawns on you that you don’t understand your characters internal motivations as well as you thought.

Or perhaps you were so overflowing with the zeal of creation that you could barely keep up with the jumble of ideas and words pouring from your fingers. As you type feverishly away you begin to wonder if the story makes sense to anyone but you.

You want feedback on what you have so far, but this is dangerous territory.

Your story is in its infancy. It has barely begun to draw breath. Even the slightest criticism could crush it irrevocably. What do you do? Do you continue on, ploughing through the words while plagued with self-doubt?

Or do you risk showing it to someone, knowing your vision could be destroyed before it ever gets off the ground?

If you find yourself in this situation then what you need is a first reader.

A first reader is someone you trust and someone who will act as a cheerleader for you.

A first reader will be positive and support your efforts no matter what. And while your first reader should be supportive, they should also give you useful feedback on your unpolished story. What did and didn’t work for them about the plot? What characters did they love or dislike and why? In Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ he mentions that his wife, Tabitha, is his first reader and he can feel secure in the knowledge that she’ll be supportive of his efforts, but also let him know where his story is going astray.

It’s important you trust your first reader and that you know they have your best interests at heart. Your first reader should be able to be honest with you without crushing the life from your story.

It can be hard to find a first reader that strikes right balance between honesty and cheerleader. While it may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to have someone tell you that every word you wrote is brilliance, it is not very helpful.

ALL first drafts have room for improvement, no matter who wrote them.

If your first reader showers you with nothing but praise you would do well to look further afield for someone who can give you more objective feedback.

If you don’t have a first reader that you trust, then I would suggest not showing the work to anyone until it is completed. It is all too easy have your creative vision derailed by a savage or thoughtless comment.

Alpha Readers

Alpha readers, in my opinion, tend to be writers. Often, they are your writing group and they do not critique your novel as a whole but on a chapter by chapter (or word-count by word-count) basis. The type of feedback they provide is very much dependent on the individuals and the nature of the writing group.

Writing groups are peculiar creatures, each one having its own quirks and agenda’s.

Hopefully you have found a positive and supportive writing group – be it face-to-face or online. If not, it is well worth your time to do so. Don’t be afraid to try out different groups until you find the one that feels right for you. Not all writing groups are going to suit all people.

In general writing groups should focus on structural level elements of your piece, such as plot, consistent character motivation, believable dialogue, and avoiding rookie writing mistakes such as all telling rather than showing, ‘As You Know, Bob’ dialogue and so on. But each writing group will have a hobby horse or two that they like to harp on about, as will individuals within the group. Don’t be surprised if different members of your writing group nit-pick different things, like commas or use of prose despite your manuscript being at the structural stage of development.

The great thing about the diverse focus of writing group members is that they help flag problematical aspects of your novel that might otherwise not have occurred to you, such as the way a fire spreads in a closed room, or the real colour of a river in a certain climate. Each little piece of feedback is another ragged edge you can file off your story; so be thankful for it even if its not immediately relevant to your structural edit.

At the alpha reader stage you’re looking to smooth anything out that will be jarring to your beta readers. You want to avoid throwing your beta readers out of the story wherever possible so that they can focus on their reader experience.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are your test audience. They are a group of people who read your novel as a whole and provide feedback on what did and didn’t work for them. They are often not writers themselves and that is fine because what you are looking for at this level of feedback is the reader’s response to your story, not a writer’s response. Beta readers don’t need to be concerned with grammar and punctuation, what you want them to focus on is what worked for them and what didn’t? What did they love? What did they hate? Where were they bored or confused?

Where Do You Find Beta Readers?

Beta readers can either be volunteers or paid. Most writers try to source willing victims readers amongst friends, family and followers on social media. I would suggest that you get ten to twenty people to beta read your novel. Any less than that is too small a sample size to give you meaningful feedback.

You can do two rounds of beta reading if you like, having ten people read the first version, then making the necessary edits before having the second ten people read your manuscript.

Skimp on beta reading at your own peril.

It can be hard to find quality beta readers and emotionally painful to wade through their feedback. It can also feel overwhelming to go through your novel and implement the required changes. But if you don’t get this feedback from beta readers you will soon be getting it via poor reviews and lack of sales if you self-publish and from agents if you go the traditional publishing route.

When seeking beta readers, it helps to keep in mind that most people, no matter how well intentioned, will leave reading your manuscript until the last possible moment. If you give them four weeks to read it they won’t start until the third week. If you give them six weeks to read it they most likely wont start till the fifth week. It is simply human nature. Similarly, you can expect 30 – 50% of volunteers not to complete the assignment for one reason or another. Life gets busy and being a beta reader is hard work.

Therefore, you should treat your reliable beta readers like the amazing golden people they are. Never take them for granted and always be gracious in your response to them, regardless of it you agree with their feedback on not.

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On that note at the end of the day only you can know the correct vision for your story. You don’t need to implement all changes your beta readers suggest, nor should you. What you are looking for is a general consensus. If two thirds of readers felt the pacing was uneven, then its quite likely that the pacing of your story is uneven. If eight out of ten people love your main character but two find him whiny and annoying then feel free to ignore that those two opinions.

How Long Does It Take To Beta Read A Novel?

You can grant your beta readers any amount of time you like to read your novel. Though I’d say two weeks is too short a time for people to read and critique a novel, and six weeks is too long. As mentioned above, most people will leave it till the last minute anyways, so the longer you give them, the longer they will leave it for.

What Type Of Feedback Should I Ask For?

You can ask your beta readers to focus on any aspect of your story that you like, though as mentioned earlier beta reading tends to focus on the readers response to the story structure. Some of your beta readers may do little more than note things like: ‘LOL’ and ‘I thought his coat was red?’ while others (like myself) won’t be able to help but line edit as they go. Both forms of feedback are fine. They all add to giving you an overview of your novel.

I provide simple instructions to my beta readers ask them to flag the following areas (credit for the system belongs to Mary Robinette Kowal):

A – awesome: Let me know anything you think is awesome so it doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor

B – boring: let me know where your attention wandered.

C – confusion: Let me know anywhere you felt confused and why

D – didn’t Believe: let me know anything you didn’t buy into and why

E –  expectation: Let me know where you think the story is going next.

What If The General Consensus Is My Novel Sucks?

Ouch. That’s going to hurt. Getting beta feedback can be tough at the best of times. If you have ten people beta read for you and your novel is 300 pages long that’s 3000 pages of people nit-picking at your work that you have to wade through. Even if people predominately liked the story the weight of all the feedback can start getting to you, but you just have to soldier through it. And maybe bolster your spirits with a glass of wine, or a hot chocolate. Trust me, if you don’t have tough skin at the beginning of the process you certainly will by the end. Either that or you will have been swallowed by a pit of despair and vowed never to write again.

As mentioned earlier, if two thirds of people flag an element as problematic you’re going to want to look into it, whether you end up implementing changes or not. If most people didn’t finish your novel, or only finished under duress because they felt obligated as your friend/family member/partner there’s a problem there. Online readers are not going to be as forgiving and your book will end up on their DNF (did not finish) pile. You may also end up on the receiving end of a scathing review.

Put simply – if people consistently don’t finish your novel, there’s a problem with your writing. It could be the story structure; it could be the prose or any number of things. Go back to the feedback you received from your writing group and beta readers and see what you could take on to improve your story.

If the response to the story is overwhelmingly poor the novel may be a ‘trunker’. Put it away in a box under the bed or in a folder on the computer and start a new story. No words are ever truly wasted. They all add to your skill and experience. Take the lessons you learnt on this novel and apply them to your next project. Now you can get busy making a higher level of mistakes and receiving a whole new level of nit-picking.


Welcome to the world of writing friends.

It sucks.

You’re gonna love it

Jesse xxx

Futurescapes Workshop 2019

Futurescapes Workshop 2019

I won a thing!

My whole life is dedicated to being a successful, published author. To that end I applied for a writing workshop in America. Here’s what happened.

I was awarded a place at Futurescapes, a prestigious writing workshop in Utah.


I was also awarded a scholarship to attend.


The Futurescapes workshop is highly competitive. Places are offered to people whose writing is on the cusp of professional standards or higher, and you must submit an example of your work as part of your application process.

Attending Futurescapes provided me with the rare opportunity to workshop my manuscript (as well as hobnob) with some amazing authors, editors, and agents, such as:

  • Ted Chiang
  • Ali Fisher
  • Matt Bialer
  • Matthew Kirby
  • Lucienne Diver
  • Thao Le
  • Dan Wells
  • Ben Grange
  • DongWon Song
  • Fran Wilde
  • Christian McKay Heidicker

to name a few.

Being based in Australia makes attending these types of events a bit of a challenge for me, but I felt the opportunity was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, my autoimmune condition has recently forced me to drop down from full-time work to part-time work even though I need a full-time wage in order to be able to feed the mortgage beast and keep the utility monsters at bay (the cat and dogs are also pretty keen on regular meals).

Nevertheless, I was committed to attending, and after a pep talk from my best friend, she convinced to me to start a GoFundMe campaign.

‘After all,’ she said, ‘You might as try to raise the money. You already can’t afford to go, so you have nothing to lose by trying.’ Made sense to me and so I launched my campaign. And of what a squirmy, uncomfortable process that was. The concept made me feel SQUIRRLEY with embarrassment. SQUIRRLEY I tell you (not to be confused with squirrely). I learnt a lot about myself in a short amount of time. I realised that I might, just might, have some issues around self-worth and self-esteem and asking for help.

 I’m the kind of person who, even if I have ten bags of groceries in my arthritic hands I will still try and open the front door by myself even though there’s someone else standing right there. That’s just how I am. Asking for help has always been anathema to me. But now here I was asking for the most embarrassing kind of help – money help. From strangers. I was cringing and dying inside.

And then the donations started coming through.

I was flattered and honoured. Each one made me say out loud to myself, “Oh no – you shouldn’t have” as I covered my mouth with excitement and embarrassment. I was also astounded when a few big-name authors (who shall remain anonymous) donated. They know I exist? I thought with amazement as I saw their donations come in.

The GoFundMe campaign was quite successful and, in the end, raised almost enough to pay for my flight to Utah. It was official. I was going!

Having had previous experience in just how heavily jet-lag can affect you on these trips I left three days early to allow myself enough time to adjust, and it was just as well because I hadn’t factored the altitude of the location. Now I live at literal sea level and walk to the beach most days. But Futurescapes took place in at The Chateaux in Deer Valley – a gorgeous hotel located at 8100 feet or 2400 meters.

Let me tell you, breathing was hard. If you’re asthmatic or have ever had a severe chest infection, it felt similar to that. My lungs were burning. It felt like someone was standing on my chest. Because I couldn’t get enough air I felt like I had anxiety (pounding heart, quick shallow breaths, anxiousness) but it was simply the lack of oxygen. Which, by the way, also made me feel quite loopy and surreal. I’m pretty sure the walls were breathing in and out at one stage.

I slowly adjusted to the altitude and by the time the conference officially started I was feeling almost human, though I did get quite faint every time I got to the top of a staircase.

My feedback to my patient critique group was also given in this manner:

“[deep breathe in] I feel that this [deep breath out] piece could benefit [deep breathe in] from changing the order [deep breath out] of information [deep breath in]”

It’s safe to say that, thanks to the altitude, I was neither the brainiest nor most eloquent during my time at Futurescapes.

The first day opened with our critique group meeting with Thao Le, from Dijkstra Literary Agency to assess our first three thousand words. Half an hour before the meeting I got very anxious, but my fears were allied as soon as I met my group and Thao. Everyone was lovely and supportive and offered fantastic insight into each other’s work. (Yes – that means even more revisions for The Truth About Dragons. But I gained some really valuable insight into deepening the POV in tight third person, so it will definitely be worth it).

Over the next few days, we continued to workshop our manuscript. I got to review my query letter with author Emily R King, who uses the three C’s when constructing a query letter. The format she uses is:

First paragraph – Character:      

What does the MC want and why do they want it?

Second paragraph – Conflict:     

What is stopping the MC getting what they want?

Third paragraph – Consequence:

What will happen if the MC doesn’t get what they want?

On query letter bio’s DongWon Song said: “No one cares how many kids or pets you have. Don’t put it in there. Put in something that will make you stand out.”

Sage advice 😊

It was great to see familiar Writing Excuses Cruise faces at Futurescapes including Bob Connick, Nick Bright (and of course DongWon Song). Since my arrival on the 9th The Chateaux had gone from empty to filled with writers talking about writing in every lounge chair, nook and cranny you could find. The sounds reminded me of a flock of chattering birds on a wire. And while it was great to indulge in such fervent excitement on the topic of writing, I also took frequent breaks from it, but retreating to my room to decompress for an hour at time.

Once it stopped snowing (and I could also breathe again) I even went for a walk and a swim. To say it was picturesque was an understatement. I mean, look at me doing tough here:

All too soon the Futurescapes workshop was over and it was time to head back to reality. I had gained some valuable insights on the craft, met up with old friends and made some fabulous new ones.

I’m look forward to my next overseas writing conference, and I have my eye set on attending the Nebula’s and New Zealand World Con in 2020.  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Happy trails,

Jesse xx

How To Use Scene Cards To Write A Book

How To Use Scene Cards To Write A Book

How do you write a novel?

Let me count the ways….

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, using scene cards can help you stay on track as you work through your first draft, as well as help to ensure that less of your writing ends up on the cutting room floor. When you write without a plan, your risk of wastage is twofold. One, in wasting a writing session on ‘pointless’ prose. And two, in wasting another writing session editing that ‘pointless’ prose out. This is where scene cards can help you, even if you want to pants the whole novel from, ‘Once upon a time,’ to ‘The End.’

But before we can get started, we need to understand what constitutes a scene.

What Is A Scene?

According to

“A scene is a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Any time your story moves to a new location or jumps forwards (or backwards) in time you have started a new scene. New scenes in novels are typically denoted using a ‘section break.’ Section breaks create separation between two passages of prose, thereby giving the reader a heads-up that the next passage of prose has changed time, location or POV (point of view.) This helps prevent readers from feeling disorientated as they move through the story.

Section breaks can be denoted in several ways; either with extra line spaces or by using symbols, lines and flourishes.

What Purpose Does A Scene Serve?

Ideally, a scene should:

  1. Reveal new information – either about the characters, the plot and/or the world-building
  2. Advance the plot – that is, move the story forward to its next logical step
  3. Increase the conflict – XYZ just happened, so now things have gotten worse for the characters
  4. Increase the stakes – thanks to this new scene the character/s now have even more to lose personally

If you have a scene in your novel that does only one of the above, you have two options; either remove it or make it work harder by making.

If you have a scene in your novel that can be cut without the story falling apart, then that scene can, and should, be cut from your story. This is what they mean by ‘kill your darlings.’

How To Write A Book Jesse Greyson Scene Cards

Scenes and Sequels

Not every scene you write needs to do all four of these things at once. Stories tend to have a natural ebb and flow of tension and pace, with some scenes increasing the speed of action, and tension, and other scenes relieving the tension and slowing the pace. These two different types of scenes are called a ‘scene’ and a ‘sequel.’

A scene scene is a unit of story that introduces a goal, conflict, or disaster (thereby upping the tension and stakes).

A sequel scene is a unit of story composed of a reaction, reflection and/or decision making.

Scenes tend to be action-packed with a lot happening. Sequels tend to be slower, as characters reflect on what has occurred so far, and makes decisions about what they will do next. A great piece of advice I heard from Lauren Clarke was to rate each scene for tension on a scale from one to ten (once your draft is complete).

For any scene that you rated as under five for tension, ask yourself:

‘Is this an intentionally slow scene? Or is it a stagnant scene that is not doing enough heavy lifting?’

If the scene is stagnant you know what to do. Either make it work harder for you, or cut it from the story.

Using Scene Cards To Plot Your Character-Driven Novel

This year I read Lisa Cron’s ‘Story Genius,’ and fell in love with her philosophy for writing character-driven novels. According to Lisa, characters come into the start of your story carrying a life-long set of beliefs that may or may not be accurate. These beliefs are what the character uses to understand the world around them, to interpret what is happening, and to decide what they will do next. Once you have unearthed your character’s set of beliefs and misbeliefs, there will be only one or two logical options for what they do next after each scene. Using scene cards based on Lisa’s book can help you clarify what that is.

I have created a free scene card template here that you can download and use. I have also created a less pretty Word Version that you can access for free here.

I have found the use of these scene cards helps me get clear on what the purpose of each scene is before I write it, and what I want to achieve by the end of the scene. I use the Word template and free write my way into the scene, using stream of consciousness as I ‘tell’ myself the scene’s purpose. The result is not pretty or ‘clever’ and doesn’t need to be. It just needs to help you get clear on what you are writing next, and why. Before I write a scene, I ask myself the following questions:

  1. What is the main plot point of the scene? What role will this scene play in the external cause-and-effect trajectory of your novel?
  2. Why is this scene necessary?
  3. What is the scene’s main job?
  4. What do you see in your mind’s eye when you imagine this scene?
  5. What do you want the reader to feel in this scene?

Questions To Ask Yourself Before Writing A Scene

How To Write A Book Jesse Greyson Scene Cards

Why Is This Scene Necessary?

  • What integral role does this scene play in your character discovering new things about themselves and their world?
  • In what way does this scene advance the plot?
  • Why would the whole story fall apart if this scene wasn’t in it?

What Is This Scenes Main Job?

  • What does this scene do to advance the character arc?
  • What does this scene do for the reader?
  • What role with this scene play in the external cause-and-effect trajectory of events (aka the plot.)
  • What role will this play in the character’s inner journey (aka the ‘story.’)

What Do You See In Your Mind’s Eye When You Envision This Scene?

  • When you imagine this scene, what do you see?
  • When you imagine this scene, what do you hear?
  • When you imagine this scene, what do you smell?
  • When you imagine this scene, what textures do you (your characters) feel?
  • When you imagine this scene, what emotions do your characters experience?

What Do You Want Your Readers To FEEL In This Scene?

  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away feeling….
  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away thinking…
  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away believing…

Using Scene Cards To Map A Character’s Inner Journeys.

When all is said and done, stories are not about the plot*. They are not about the events that happen, no matter how amazing they are. They are not about world-building, no matter how fresh and unique the setting.

Stories are about what people believe and how these beliefs do, or do not, change over the course of the novel.

If the character has a set of beliefs that are challenged by events over the course of the novel, and by the end of the story the character has changed and grown in some way, then you have written a ‘comedy’ (in the traditional sense of the word.)

If the character has a set of beliefs that are challenged by events over the course of the novel, and by the end of the story the character has refused to, or has been incapable of, change, then the character falls victim to their own fatal flaws, and you have written a tragedy.

Either way it’s the way a character changes or fails to change that a story is really about.

*the exception being thrillers, which are usually all about plot and little else.

By using the scene card templates I linked to above you can track both your novels plot (the series of cause-and-effect events that happen) and story (the character’s inner journey.) By being familiar with your character’s story you can avoid the pitfall of finding your characters standing in a tavern one evening, with no idea of what you should have them do next.

Even if you are a 100% pantser, completing a scene card before writing each scene should make it clear to you what your character would inevitably feel compelled to do, both in the current scene and the one that follows it. By using these scene card templates you can also avoid the pitfall of ‘idiot plotting.’ That is, having your characters do something unrealistic, or out of character for them, merely to achieve some predetermined plot point.


When writing a novel, you need to track two things – the external cause-and-effect trajectory of events (the plot) and the inner journey your character undergoes (the story). The use of the scene cards linked above can help you get clear on the purpose of your scene BEFORE you write it, thereby saving you time and heartache from writing prose that will later be edited out of the novel. Using scene cards can help to ensure that your scenes are doing enough lifting by making sure that they do at least more than one of the following: advancing the plot, developing the character, increasing the tension, and raising the stakes.

Okay – that’s it! Please let me know if you found these scene cards of help, or if there is anything else you think they could benefit from. Have you used scene cards before? Were they like these scene cards, or something different?

Let me know in the comments below.

Happy creating,