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Title: Primer On Basic Writing Skills
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Author name: Icarus
Author email: icarus_ancalion@yahoo.com

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I received a very young author's request for a beta review. She sent an unfinished story and was really lookng for help in writing it in the first place. I liked my response, so I'm posting it here:

Hi! Here's my recommendations:

First, finish your story before looking for a Beta reader. If you need a Beta reader in order to finish your story, what you're really looking for is someone to collaborate with you on the story.

If you're looking for someone to collaborate, you could try the www.barrowdowns.com, or check the LOTR Yahoo groups.

Second, never have conversations 'floating in space.' It will read like a transcript of a chat session, and that's not good. Example:

"Hark!"

See? It doesn't tell us anything.

Try using the conventions, example:

"Hark!" he said.

At least now we know it's a man speaking.

Now include a visual description of the environment, example:

"Hark!" he said. While the sun hovered, rimming the world in a blaze of gold and orange, a black smear outlined itself against the sky, like a great smoke seen from afar.

Ah! Now the visual description frames the words. We know a man is speaking (and likely there are others he's talking to), and we have a picture to visualise with it. And there's something for him to be saying 'Hark!' about.

Ideally, you give the image a point, some meaning to him.

"Hark!" he said. While the sun hovered, rimming the world in a blaze of gold and orange, a black smear outlined itself against the sky, like a great smoke seen from afar. "That is no cooking fire. War is afoot."

Aha! The last part about 'war is afoot' tells us a lot: that they did not expect to find something burning ahead, but that they have an idea who it might be.

Ideally, you tell a little bit more about the situation, example:

"Hark!" he said, scanning the horizon. His troops stood behind him warily, trusting the elven warrior's keen eyesight. While the sun hovered, rimming the world in a blaze of gold and orange, a black smear outlined itself against the sky, like a great smoke seen from afar. "That is no cooking fire. War is afoot." His face was grim.

Now you know a lot. Suddenly you know the leader is elven, while his troops are men. You know that they trust him. They are fighters, so they're are more or less trained for war. You knew before that they guessed war was afoot. Now you know how they feel about this war: grim. The reader is wondering - why are they grim? Is this someone they know ahead? Are they outnumbered? Has a truce been broken? Who are these men and why are they following an elven leader?

In one paragraph, suddenly you have a compelling story.

I hope this is helpful.