Beta To Be Better!

Most writers know the importance of beta readers. Sometimes (well, a LOT of times) you simply can’t see the words for the prose in your own work. You can’t see that you haven’t got your point across properly, because you know what you’re trying to say, so you can reread it a hundred times and your mind will still fill in the blanks. You don’t notice glaring plot problems (like the fact you’ve got a family running from a blazing building, even though the flood waters are rising during an apocalyptical downpour… Yes, I have done this). You don’t realise you’ve said the same thing three different ways (or felt you had to, until a beta tells you “I got it the first time! Stop harping on!”

Good betas are invaluable. Every writer wants them. But, there seem to be fewer writers who want to BE one. To my mind that is a terrible shame. Not just because it’s nice to be helpful to others, but also because beta reading for others helps you with your own work.

I’m not just talking about the prospect of reciprocity, though that is a great thing too. Beta reading for other writers will often lead to them offering to do the same for you in return, which is great. You scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours. But even if there no prospect of the favour being returned, what you learn from beta reading is reward in itself.

As well as getting to read some really awesome stories, and the opportunity to give input to their construction, I have learned a great deal about my own words by reading those of others. It is far easier to see what works and doesn’t work in someone else’s work than in your own. But, and here’s the rub, having learned to identify it in the prose of others starts to make it more obvious to you in yours. You start to see that YOU’VE committed some of the literary sins that you’ve highlighted for others. They were hidden beneath your own perceived awesomeness before, but suddenly they’re leaping off the page at you. Suddenly, you can see your own grammatical errors more easily, spot the wrong pacing, realise that your character is coming across dull as dishwater… It’s as if your eyes have been opened.

So who should you beta for? Well, ideally you want to make sure that whoever you are reading for actually WANTS to hear your opinion. If what they’re really after is a pat on the head, or someone to faint with awe at their literary prowess, don’t go there. Make sure they are serious, and genuinely want to improve. Otherwise, your suggestion that perhaps having the main character wake at the end to find it was all dream, or reveal in the last page that they are in fact a dog, is not the best idea will be met with anger. And justifications. Or perhaps they’ll start to explain the bits you didn’t understand… Are they planning on visiting everyone who buys their book personally to explain the obscure bits? No? Then they ought to take your lack of comprehension as an indicator that they haven’t quite pulled it off.

In short, be sure your input will be welcomed. Sometimes writers receive critiques that make them seethe. But if someone has spent time and energy trying to help them, that in itself is a compliment. I always thank my betas profusely, and instantly, for their feedback. Even if I’ve just been kicked in the stomach by their words. And you know what? Often, when the initial shock dies down (“How could they not like my twenty-foot high giant poodle? How is that not the most awesome thing ever?” – OK, I made that one up), and objectivity creeps in, I can see real merit in the blows I’ve been dealt.

Often, they hurt the most because they confirm what the nagging voices in your head were already telling you. You knew it all along, you just didn’t want to listen.

So be the type of writer who takes criticism from betas with good grace, and in the spirit of helpfulness in which it was intended (but do get more opinions if you fundamentally disagree. REAL opinions, don’t cherry pick the people you know will boost your ego…), and be the type of beta reader that tells it straight, but tells it constructively.

It is also highly possible (and to my mind, positively essential) for the whole process to be great fun. The trick to that is to find someone with a similar sense of humour. I don’t know if any other writers out there cry with laughter at the cheeky, sarcastic comments their alpha/betas return their manuscripts with, but it sure helps if edits come with a free giggle :). Why take everything so seriously? It’s perfectly possible to get the laborious task of nuts and blots editing done with a little laughter to sweeten the process.

Now, I sit here eagerly awaiting the next instalment of a fantastic story by my (reciprocal) alpha reader. Last time I got edits back from him on my own work in progress the git had “corrected” gigglesome typos that I hadn’t made, he’d put them in for his own amusement… Well, it’s my turn to edit his work now… Be afraid, be very afraid… 🙂


Personal Challenge (Part 1 – Game On!)

So, back in January, as part of the whole this-is-the-year-I’m-going-to-chase-my-dream extravaganza I enrolled in a creative writing class, which began two weeks ago. Now, when I enrolled I presumed I would have got precisely nowhere by the time the course commenced (many would argue that this is still true – many would then get a wet raspberry blown at them 😉 ). I certainly never envisioned having already penned half a novel and having five shorts accepted for publication by now.

So, I have decided to set myself a little personal challenge. As well as learning new things from the course, and completing the assignments as well as I can, I’m going to attempt to recoup the cost by (hopefully) selling the stories I write as assignments… This is a big personal challenge, and one I will likely fail, as I intend to experiment with different genres and styles, step out of my “comfort zone”, as it were. But I’m nothing if not game for a challenge…

So, to date:

One assignment set and completed.

One submission sent and pending.

Cost of course = £70

Earnings from selling assignments = £0


Can I do this?? Am I crazy?? Probably no, and yes, in that order. But hey, watch this space and I’ll let you know!

Review of “Cattle Market”, a novelette by Steven M Hawley.

I recently had the privilege of beta reading “Cattle Market”, a novelette of approximately 38 pages, by the up and coming writer, and thoroughly nice guy, Steven M Hawley. He’s known on the writing forum circuit, and twittersphere, as “Potty” – you can follow him here:

I was particularly keen to read it, as Steven is a care worker, like myself. Cattle Market, whilst entirely fictitious, was inspired by his real life experiences in the industry. It follows the one man’s experiences in the sector through several decades, from the 1960s to present day. Times have changed, but have they changed enough?

It’s a timely release, following hot on the heels of Panorama’s undercover investigations broadcast just two weeks ago. If you work in the sector you will find yourself nodding, and frankly will likely be a little unnerved by how shocked you DON’T feel… We’ve all met the characters Hawley brings to life. I defy anyone who has worked in care for any length of time to not put a face from among their own colleagues (hopefully past, but probably present) to the domineering Amanda. If you don’t work in the sector you’ll no doubt find it a very uncomfortable read, yet it’s a subject we cannot shout too loud about.

I myself am fortunate enough to work in a small, homely establishment with an excellent team of carers who actually take the job title seriously (y’know, actually CARE). But too often this is not the experience of workers, or clients, in the industry.

Hawley has a passion for his subject matter that leaps off the page. The issues are close to his heart, and he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths. It’s gritty, compelling and will take you on a rollercoaster ride as you share the victories and despairs of its protagonist, a young man trying to keep his humanity, and make a difference.

You can purchase Cattle Market Novelette here:

There’s no doubt it’s a damning indictment of Hawley’s own experiences in the care industry. But it also shows the hope among the darkness. The carers who work tirelessly with compassion to make a huge difference in the lives of those they support. Hawley speaks for them, and their voices need to be heard.

A Little Note:

If you’re reading this, or reading Cattle Market, and facing the prospect of needing to find care for a loved one, please don’t despair. There are many excellent establishments, and many more excellent care workers out there. If you find yourself worried about finding one, please feel free to drop me a line and I’ll let you know what (in my humble opinion) you ought to be looking for when selecting a care provider. It’s worth noting that at the establishment I work for, over the years many of our clients have been relatives or friends of staff members. To my mind, that speaks volumes. If the staff (and let’s face it, they’re the ones who REALLY know what’s going on) feel happy to place their own loved ones there, then you can be sure the home is doing something right…

“Mummy, I’m so glad you understand about reading!”

I am very pleased to say that my (almost) nine year old daughter is a total bookworm. Few things give me greater pleasure than peeking into her room an hour after she’s gone to bed to find her curled up, eyes glued to her book. Often she’s so engrossed she doesn’t even notice me. When she does she smiles sweetly, blows me a kiss and says goodnight… All with one eye on the page. Children (especially your own) are rubbish at hiding their true feelings from you. It’s blatantly obvious that the niceties are a brush-off, intended to hasten my exit so she can get back to what she’s reading. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

It was a few days ago, when she was enthusing about reading, acting out how difficult it was for her to put a book down, (“My eyes are all watery, my body screams sleep, but I…Just…Can’t…Stop…”) when she gave me a huge cuddle and said, “Mummy, I’m so glad you and Daddy understand about reading!” I know what she meant by that. She meant that both my husband and I are prolific readers, who simply can’t be militant about “lights out” time when a small child is currently being transported to a world of wonder by the written word.

“Please, I HAVE to get to the end of the chapter! I shan’t be able to sleep if I don’t.” combined with wide-eyed panic at the prospect of not finding out what happens at the end of a scene will be met with empathy pretty much every time. “You’re soft!” I hear you cry. Not really. Really we’re quite strict about a lot of things (although we are sillier than the vast majority of parents a great deal of the time too), and bedtime IS one of them. But books… A genuine love of reading… To us it’s akin to a human right. We know how we would feel if someone prevented us from getting to the end of a chapter because of some silly, arbitrary, real-life concept like time. Not to say we’ll permit her to keep reading until Silly O’clock, but we will certainly allow the leeway of a few extra minutes for the pursuit of such a valuable interest.

My (just turned five) son is now beginning to show great aptitude for, and a huge love of, both reading and writing too. He’s blitzing his way through all the “targets” at school, which is lovely, but not nearly so important to us as the fact that he loves it. Loves words. Loves reading them, loves learning about their construction, and loves using them. Boy, does he love using them. I don’t think his mouth stops moving in the thirteen hours a day he’s awake. I worry about the longevity of his jaw if he keeps flapping it so much. But it’s great to watch. Prising his little torch and his book out of his hand when he’s fallen asleep reading is another great pleasure.

It’s hard to say if it comes down to nature or nurture. I’m certainly no expert and wouldn’t pretend to have nearly enough knowledge or understanding one way or the other. But I do think it’s quite telling that whenever either of them draws a picture of Daddy there’s a kindle in there somewhere… Not hugely surprising, I myself wonder at times if it is somehow surgically attached to his hand. And my son has started producing books… Lots and lots of books. Either pritt-sticked at the edges or bound by bits of wool, tome after tome of stories straight from his crazy (and slightly twisted…) imagination appear on the table.

How does any of this relate to me writing? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. You may take from the above that, as parents, our love of the written word has inspired our children. This is true, no doubt. However, it is my daughter who has inspired me.

She’s having much the same experience as I did at school. Being hailed by her teachers as a great creative writer, having her work read out to the class. And what does she want to be when she grows up? Yup, an author. It’s like talking to myself at her age. That got me thinking. How can I encourage her to chase this dream when it is also mine, and I haven’t? I’ve let life get in the way. Let normality intrude too far into the fantastical. It’s often said you need to BE the type of woman you want your son to marry and your daughter to become. I want to show her that chasing your dreams can be a reality, not some pithy concept bandied about to take the edge off the daily grind.

Whether I get where I’m headed or not, I want to be the type of woman who gives it her best shot, and the type of mother who supports big dreams.

To Date…

So here I am venturing into the blogosphere, with not one single clue as to what I’m doing. But then, three months ago I ventured into the unknown world of words in a similarly ignorant fashion. So far that’s turning out OK, so I’m a convert to the “just jump right in and act like a pro” methodology.

I have no idea where this journey will take me. I know it’s going to be a long one. I know I will likely walk in circles a great deal of times, cursing the landscape when I ought to be cursing my own sense of direction. It may all amount to very little in the end. But one I thing I know for sure is that I won’t get where I want to be unless I put one foot in front of the other. (Or, more accurately, one word after another…)

So far, so good. I’m sitting on a 100% acceptance rate for my short story submissions. No doubt soon to be broken by rejections. But hey, I can’t be a REAL writer until I’ve got a stack of rejection letters, right? So new submissions going out very soon.

My début novel is currently at 50,000 words, and I’m dividing my time between writing more and editing what’s been done already. I am incredibly fortunate to have some awesome alpha and beta readers who are helping me.

So, I shall dive in head first, start keeping a blog and hope there’s some people out there who fancy coming along for the journey…