Posts Tagged beta readers
I’ve had this question from M:
I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.
My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?
No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.
Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.
So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.
Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’
I know. That way madness lies.
But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?
M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?
First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.
How big is their role?
More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.
More research you can do
That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.
How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.
It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.
You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.
Not a setback after all
For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.
You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)
On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.
Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Once upon a time, writing was a solitary activity. Just you, your thoughts and your pages. Now, writing can be one of the most sociable things you can do on the internet. You can post chapters on a blog as you finish them, or on a serialisation platform like Wattpad, or in online communities.
Some of us – like me – hate to show anything before it’s had a lot of polishing.
We’re all different, but we all need feedback at some stage. Even the most secretive of writers (me!) occasionally yearn for an encouraging comment, simply for its own sake, to share the thing we’ve been building, to help us keep going, Artistic life is sometimes perverse.
Are there good times to show an unfinished work? Are there times when you should be cautious? Might you live to regret it? What about comments from readers – when might they be useful and when might they steer you wrong?
These are the questions I’m considering in this episode with my co-host, independent bookseller Peter Snell.
Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.
I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.
I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.
Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change. Those notes are more stressful.
But I have a strategy!
1 – Merge everything
My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.
Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.
2a – the factual and literal stage.
I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.
2b – the flow stage.
Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.
In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.
This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.
I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.
PS Update – Ever Rest is now out! (With a shortlisting in the Eric Hoffer Awards 2022, actually….) Find it here.
PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!
I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.
I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:
- some parts will be overcooked
- some will be undercooked
- and hopefully some are just right.
After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?
I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.
Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.
‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’
Find Carol here.
Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.
‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!
Find Peter here.
Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.) Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.
‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.
‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.
‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)
Find Marcia here.
Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.
‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.
Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.
Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.
Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.
‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.
‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.
Find Claire here.
As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think. And her point leads me to a final tip.
To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.
I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.