Beta Readers

One of my Montana writer friends, Debbie Burke, just drew me into a role I’ve seldom played–the role of beta reader for her upcoming novella, Crowded Hearts (brand new cover by Brian Hoffman shown below).

Cover for CROWDED HEARTS (art by Brian Hoffman)

Beta readers, those generous people who are willing to slog through an author’s rough drafts and offer critiquing, are vital members of the writing craft.

I’ve been depending on these readers from the beginning of my long years as a writer, usually three or so per book. But while I have occasionally read for fellow critique group members and other friends, I have never fancied myself a beta reader.

It’s not an easy task. You may be looking at the work of someone with a different voice than your own, a different style. And I’m sensitive to an author’s feelings.

When I lived in Montana some twenty years ago and first joined a critique group there they called me the comma queen because that’s all I felt competent to mark on the scenes members presented each week. Of course when a professional editor got hold of my first to-be-published book I decided I knew nothing about commas. Even so, as a writer I have a fairly solid sense of grammar and can do line editing. Or scour for typos. But reading for content and substance? That’s another thing.

Fast forward to now. I have been in editing mode, trying to get my own ancient historical series polished, but decided it was time to rest for a while and go on a reading binge.

I soon got wrapped up in Debbie’s series of thrillers, having met her during my Montana years. She was in one of those critique groups I joined there. Most of her series is set in the remarkable beauties of that mountainous state. She calls them “thrillers with heart.”

Not only do they take you on exciting and perilous adventures, but there’s some intriguing romantic tension as well. Her protagonist, Tawny Lindholm, is a saucy redhead who gets mixed up with a sinister fellow while she’s grieving over the loss of her husband. And she finds help from Tillman Rosenbaum, an arrogant high-powered attorney with plenty of issues of his own. The sexual tension between her and the attorney becomes a sizzling feature of the series.

When I finished reading Debbie’s Book Four, Dead Man’s Bluff, which takes Tawny and Tillman on a side trip to Florida during Hurricane Irma, I wanted to plunge right into Book Five, but that isn’t out yet. I emailed Debbie and told her how much I liked the latest installments and asked when I could read Book Five—no pressure, of course. Just happened she was putting the finishing touches on the novella, which is an interlude in the ongoing story. She asked if I would be a beta reader for it. Hungry for the next word in the series I said sure.

Not only did I experience the delight of knowing what happens next, I found I was able to offer some substantive suggestions. When Debbie gave me the copy to critique she told me to be brutal. I think that released me to the incisive response that could actually help her. And maybe because I’d been in editing mode with my own and had become more open to comprehensive changes there, I was better prepared to offer a few thoughts for Debbie’s work–which I must say was quite fine to start with but I think became even better. In fact I really enjoyed the role of beta reading.

In return, Debbie has agreed to be a beta reader for my upcoming one. I know she’s good at that. Some years ago she read one from my series and she offered plenty of unvarnished wisdom that kicked it up to a higher level. After all, we authors have to face the sometimes brutal truth if we’re to make our work shine.

Debbie Burke

So here’s to the beta readers we writers all need so much. It’s hard to see our own mistakes or our failures to communicate. We know what we mean, but the words may not convey what we intend. An extra pair of eyes becomes gold.

And here’s to Debbie’s Tawny Lindholm thrillers with heart. I happily recommend them. Debbie’s new Crowded Hearts will be out soon on Kindle.

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Milestones in Rewriting

Back in February of this year I announced in a blog post that I had done a major rewrite on Book One of my trilogy set in early Greece. Having put so much effort into recasting the story, I felt certain I had it ready this time. After all, I had been improving it for 20 years.

Revised Trilogy

I proceeded to update Book Two and Book Three to reflect those changes and wrote a blog post in early April on the whole trilogy, putting a bow on it.

I thought it was done.

With that accomplished I headed out in late April on my trip to Europe to research settings for the full series, having drafted six books so far.

The emphasis on my trip was the second trilogy, since I thought the first was essentially complete. Of course I was open to any tweaking my new explorations might dictate.

My impulses first drew me back to the center of it all, the fabulous ruins of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. I hoped I wouldn’t see anything that would require significant changes, but I opened my senses to the wonders around me.

Charging Bull Fresco, Knossos
Room in the Palace/Temple of Knossos

On my return home I was happy to report that in the first trilogy my descriptions held up. Except for a couple of additions I wanted to make in Books Two and Three, that trilogy was virtually ready to go.

Then reality hit. I received a harsh critique on Book One. Because of that critique and because this first book is the foundation of the entire series, my agent asked me to focus only on this one now and to give it another thorough revision with feedback from new readers. Another comprehensive rewrite!

I backed up and approached it one more time. I plunged into new research, including discussion with experts on the setting and technology. I gave it substantial new polishing, new scenes, clipping and reshaping of old scenes. I received new critiques by beta readers who never saw it before, did more adding and clipping to address their concerns, and more thorough polishing to see that everything works together.

Last February I thought I couldn’t make it better. Now I know I could because I have.

Remains of Stepped Portico, Knossos

Besides all that clipping and adding and reshaping, whispers of memory infused the pages from my recent visit to the site. I could see it more clearly through the eyes of my characters because I had just seen it through my own eyes.

Yesterday I sent off the new rewrite of Book One with hope that this time is the charm. Fingers crossed. I can say for certain it’s another milestone in the process.

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New Manuscript Ready for Reader

Here’s my newest creative effort, all tidied up for my beta reader Carol Beckley. I’ll print out more for my other readers, Judy Emmett and my daughter Carisa Cegavske.

After completing the rough draft in record time, I stepped away from it for a few days, then read it myself to smooth it out a little and correct the typos. Odd things appear sometimes when my fingers move fast. I always go through it twice at this point–once on the computer, once on paper. I still see a lot on paper that I pass right over onscreen.

It will need many more reads and fine tuning, but getting it ready for readers is another landmark in the process.

As noted in my last post, this is the third in my trilogy centered in ancient Ireland. The working title is Pushing the Tide. This trilogy is an offshoot of my trilogy set in Minoan Crete. Altogether these epic historicals cover a 100-year period from 1470 B.C. to 1370 B.C., following families who face profound challenges affecting their world. The stories are filled with adventure and romance–sailing and swashbuckling, thundering horses, moments of laughter and tears and of intimacy.

Just as I was finishing this one another story in the series began to grow in my mind. So the epic continues.

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