Category: Writing

Beta Readers Are Worth Their Weight In Gold

What (or who) is a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is someone who has agreed to read an unpublished manuscript and give their feedback. Isn’t that what a critique partner/group does, you ask? Not exactly. A critique partner/group has specific requirements when they read and evaluate a manuscript. Then you ask, isn’t it the role of an editor, to give feedback? Again, not exactly. An editor, among other things, will give advice how to fix weaknesses in the manuscript.

A beta reader is someone known to the writer, whether it be a friend, someone introduced through a friend, a family member or someone in the writing community, perhaps an author. A beta reader is trusted to give their objective, unbiased thoughts on the manuscript. There’s no room here for trepidation on the reader’s part nor to be thin skinned on the writer’s part. Friendships and family relationships aside, the goal here to let the writer know what is good in the writing and what is not good. The writer must listen to what is being relayed and not become hurt or offended by the remarks.

A beta reader is not just someone who’s an avid reader. Writers like beta readers who have a sharp mind, pay attention to detail, perhaps even closely familiar with the genre. Most writers prefer beta readers that include both writers and non-writers. Even though there are pitfalls in using either or both, the variety of feedback can only help the writer improve the story. Using them at different times has its benefits. For example, a fellow writer, as a beta reader, can be most helpful in the early draft stages of writing and for ongoing feedback. On the other hand, a non-writer beta reader can be most helpful when the manuscript has been completed as a means of testing the target audience.

Ultimately, the writer must decide what to do with the feedback. If it’s from the non-writer beta reader, the suggestions may not be actionable since the reader may not have knowledge of the writing craft. A fellow-writer’s feedback may be equally not actionable because the feedback may reflect how the fellow writer would write the story.

It can be a challenge to find good beta readers. There’s a significant commitment on their part. Timeliness, for example. A writer can’t wait six months for a reader to read the manuscript, collect the feedback and share it with the writer. Also, remember that the reader does not charge anything for taking on the task.

A writer truly appreciates the commitment and work that goes into being a beta reader. With this appreciation many writers volunteer to be a beta reader as a means of giving back. Whether you volunteered or accepted the invitation to provide feedback, remember the feedback or constructive criticism is often seen as having negative connotations and overshadow the comments of strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Keep this in mind, as a beat reader, your feedback should always include encouraging comments because writers build on their strengths and adds to a beta reader’s value.

I have been fortunate to find good beta readers both in the early stages of my manuscript for The Final Crossing, as well as upon its completion. My beta readers have been a huge part of my writing process, helping me with those “blind spots”.  I always welcome anyone who wants to be a beta reader because, to me, they are worth their weight in gold.

Until next time!

Vince

Interested in being a beta reader? Drop me a line.

Leave me a comment. I’m always interested in what others have to say.

 

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

History Is A Mere Backdrop To A Story

You have a story idea and you like history. Now you have to put the two together.

Writing historical fiction has its challenges. The story may be about a period in time that some readers know very little about or they may know more than the writer. Regardless, the historical facts of the story need to be researched and then used to help tell the story.

Photo by Adam Bichler on Unsplash

A writer considers the facts and then utilizes all five senses and weaves them into a story to make both facts and senses real. And don’t forget, a fiction writer takes “creative liberties” with their story. Does that mean the facts are distorted or changed? No. There are limits to how a writer wants to relay the facts to readers.

A writer might consider historical accounts and, based on other lesser-known facts, use them to conceptualize an event or situation. The purpose is to make the story readable, believable, or spark thought-provoking alternatives to traditionally known facts.

For example, in the novel A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles mixes both fact and fiction. Towles spent more than 20 years in the investment business before becoming an author. He tells the story of a Russian aristocrat living under house arrest in a luxury hotel for more than 30 years.

Towles admits he is not an historian and his book is not a book of history. “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t,” says Towles. He sees the task of a novelist differently. He describes it as using “the backdrop of history to tell a story.”

When I was researching for my story, The Final Crossing which is set in the Ancient World (Egypt and Mesopotamia), I was intrigued by the history of biblical events or phenomena. In my research I discovered that manna, the so-called “bread from heaven”, was a unique substance that grew on desert shrubs. After they fell to the ground, they were collected, ground and pounded into cakes and then baked. Bible passages tell the story of the Israelites eating manna, sent by their god, during their trek across the desert. In my story the protagonist learns about this mann es-sama from Bedouins living in the desert. I try to show that even what many believed to be a miracle from above can be explained in Nature.

It’s important to remember that a writer is not writing a history book, yet care must be taken so that all those interesting pieces of information, unearthed in research, do not end up as “info-dump” in the story but rather become an integral part of the story that keeps the momentum moving. They can be sprinkled into the story, invoking a picture for the reader of the scene or story as a whole.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another way to look at it, in a simplistic sort of way. A painter prepares his canvas and may choose to paint the backdrop first. Strokes of colours, accents in shades – all to help bring the painting to life. Then the painter adds what he or she wants to depict – the focus of the painting. We look at the finished work, perhaps of a man, his face wrinkled like old leather, his eyes staring in determination. In the background, grey clouds overlook a farmer’s corn field ready for harvest. The painting is about the man. The backdrop tells us something about the man and his world.

It’s the same with historical fiction. The history is a backdrop to what the story is about – the protagonist and his quest. The backdrop helps create an accurate representation of the protagonist – his world and the events that propel him towards his goal.

So, is history a mere backdrop to a story? It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s the canvas, carefully prepared to help bring characters and settings to life.

How do you see history in historical fiction novels? I’d like to hear from you.

Until next time.

Vince

© 2020 Vince Santoro