Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Beta Reader

When you've written a book, you're supposed to have beta readers take a look. Beta readers are supposed to let you know what does and doesn't work in your novel; where you've lost their attention; and how they think it should have ended. If you're lucky, a lot of them won't even get back to you at all.

But what I need beta readers for is other stuff. Stuff like noticing that my hero is born in 1965 and yet is now only thirty years old, and this isn't a magical realism story. Or that Selma was the secretary at the sheriff's office on page one and worked for the post office on page forty. Or that a guy named Dave shows up in the middle and no one knows who he is, because he was Steve thirty pages ago.

I have trouble with names. I spend a lot of time trying to work out my characters and outline my plot before I ever start to write. After a while I give my characters placeholder names so I don't have to keep typing out "rich girl" and "village idiot." When I do start writing for real, I change their names, sometimes more than once, and I don't get tidy about sweeping up the old ones. Also, sometimes I forget which one is which.

It got easier when I discovered the "replace" function but that was troublesome too. One novel I wrote had an "Alan" character, and at some point I realized I occasionally spelled it "Allen," so I did a search-and-replace for Alan to Allen and got 50 replacements right off the bat. Felt pretty smug about that until I reread my manuscript and discovered words like "ballence" and "nonchallence" sprinkled all the way through.

One of my first actual beta readers noticed pretty quickly that half of my names started with H. That's fine in real life, but it's unnecessarily confusing for readers. I wasn't aware I'd done it. My reader started circling "H" names and writing "another H" in the margin, until, in my very last chapter, I introduced a Hannah and she just underlined it and wrote Really? in the margin.

The book I'm writing now is particularly confusing. I am following a half-dozen characters, and I'm filling in their histories in flashbacks. So it goes back and forth from the present to their adolescence and points between--in literary circles, we refer to that as "willy-nilly"--and now I can't swear that some of them haven't given birth to their own grandmothers.

It kind of makes me wonder how God did it. Just slammed everything down bip bam boom and came in ahead of deadline and knocked off for a day. That's some serious chops. Of course he was a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy. No flashbacks there. You just create a setting and plop in your characters, and if Time is operating correctly, it should be pretty coherent from then on.

Heck. Anyone could write that.


26 comments:

  1. God could've used a Beta. Some of the plot lately has been so far-fetched that it defies belief. A Beta would've pointed that out, and --hopefully-- God would've made corrections.

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    1. I believe God was in beta until Noah and then he hit his stride.

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  2. You could just market it as a temporal paradox novel. Folk'll never know!

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  3. Remember that God delegated the naming of things to Adam.

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    1. That's right! That's just what I need. An assistant. I believe I have enough dust around here to whomp one up.

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  4. I feel for your machine's inability to tell Alan from balance. I haven't done that yet, but am hitting rearrangement of letters in words as I read. Left becomes felt and vice versa. Now becomes won, etc. I had a beta reader for a while, but then she got distracted with her granddaughter and declared that everything I wrote was good and that didn't help at all!

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    1. Interesting! I've discovered I sometimes type "won" for "one," although I always catch that won right away.

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  5. Way back, last century back, in fact...computers all used spellcheck.[the option to dislocate/smash spellcheck had not then been invented.Or even, apparently, considered]. Also, spellcheck ran on an American system and had conniptions at any non-American words. Like "arsehole." See! It STILL puts a wiggly line under that! But back in the early days it used a bent paper clip to offer alternatives.One alternative offered was "casserole." It was a long time before I could eat a meal cooked in a covered dish in an oven...

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    1. I remember the paper clip! That was back when I had a Microsoft computer. I certainly don't miss him and condescending manner. One of the first things I did with my Mac is disable the spellcheck to where it just does the red squiggly line but doesn't change anything. Often it is correct that I have misspelt something, which I then correct myself. But oftentimes it picks out something with an unconventional spelling or something that isn't even a word (like Arrrgghh!) My own scribblings undoubtedly are confusing enough without having Arrrgghh automatically changed to Argyle.

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    2. Although it would probably class you up considerable if you yelled "ARGYLE!" when you were frustrated.

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  6. I got to be a beta reader a coup of times and it was fun! Way easier than coming up with an original story and have it make any sense. With all of your alternative words it might be a bit of a challenge even for those who are really good at it. I like the idea of half the characters' names starting with H.

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    1. Yeah, I don't really need a line editor so much. More of a development editor. A person to remind me to build the setting, or put the scenes in a different order, or drop a character altogether, or spell something out more...that sort of thing.

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  7. I've ignored my one and only partially written book for almost a year now because I can't figure out how to tie parts one and two together for some action and a solution in part three.

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    1. Those are some discouraging deficits, for sure. Sometimes things come to you if you really concentrate on fixing the problems instead of thinking the solution will show up with enough time. I don't usually DO that, but...

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  8. Good luck with yours. I wrote a "cast of characters" list when I began and just add each new one and what occupation they do when I introduce them in whatever chapter, for instance, "Beverly, hairdresser" and I keep the list beside me when working on it. Or I did when I was working on it.

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  9. can't wait to tell someone 'you're an casserole', then say, 'sorry, spellcheck'.

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    1. I would LOVE to be called a casserole. Must be my Lutheran upbringing.

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  10. Baby bomers are already being abused in the retirement homes, and the only way you baby bomers will escape this fate is by killing yourselves before you reach the stage of life where you are old and helpless.

    You deserve this for destroying your own children's future. No one is coming to save you. Suicide is your only hope.

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    1. Oh goodie! Where do I sign up for Boomer Mass Suicide Day?

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    2. The Anonymous family is always so off-topic.

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    3. I'm going to assign the Anonymous family to some long lost continent that is under the oceans. Poor things couldn't make it to school. Seriously, one wonders about the national origin of the bots that produce such stuff.

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  11. And they can't spell "boomer."

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  12. I also learned the hard way about that "replace all" function.
    The good beta reader is worth their weight in gold, and acknowledgements. Even better is getting a beta reader once removed--a friend finds them for me so I don't even KNOW who my readers are and they don't know me--the honesty is wonderful that way.

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