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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Introducing Author Debbie Burke

In honor of her triumphant breakthrough into publication I want to introduce my good friend Debbie Burke, who agreed to write this post for my blog. I met Debbie in the late 90s when I moved to Kalispell, Montana, and joined the local writers group. Debbie was a member of my first critique group and a wonderful mentor to me in my endeavor to hone my writing skills so I could become a published author myself. Her input into the first book of my upcoming Golden Threads series was invaluable, and she was a fantastic beta reader for Book Three of the series. I was thrilled to learn of her success in having her new thriller, Instrument of the Devil, chosen for publication after she won the Kindle Scout contest.

The above photo shows a sweeping view of the Mission Mountain Range of the Rockies. In Debbie’s new book, set in these beauties surrounding Kalispell, a terrorist frames a Montana widow in his plot to bring down the electrical grid by cyberattack on the Hungry Horse Dam. When I read it I was struck by the juxtaposition of the glory and the horror.

For the post Debbie writes about mentors. As a recipient of her mentoring, although I wasn’t a young mentee, I appreciate the sentiments. Thank you, Debbie.

Paying It Forward

by

Debbie Burke

Stirling Silliphant was a renowned writer in Hollywood for decades. His screenplay of the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night won an Oscar. His credits included countless TV scripts and feature films. In addition to prolific writing, he served as a generous mentor to a young Army officer named Dennis Foley.

Dennis started in Hollywood as a military advisor and slid sideways into screenwriting when a director needed an emergency rewrite by the next morning. Dennis delivered and was tasked to redo scripts even though he knew next to nothing about the craft. Stirling took Dennis under his wing and, during many late night phone conversations, talked him through problems and taught him fundamentals.

One day Dennis asked, “Stirling, you’ve helped me so much, how can I ever repay you?”

Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

For more than twenty years, Dennis has passed it on in a big way by mentoring me and hundreds of other students. If not for his wise counsel and broad experience, many of us would not have been published. [Debbie’s book cover at left.]

Sharing knowledge without expectation of payback is what mentorship is about.

My earliest mentor was my third grade teacher, Miss Parker. She recognized my hunger to write and encouraged it, while giving concrete suggestions how to improve. Years later, I invited her to my wedding…and she came!

Sadly, I lost track of her…until recently, when I looked her up on the internet, found a phone number, and called. “Are you by any chance the Miss Parker who taught at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the 1950s?”

“Yes, I am she,” she answered, ever precise with her grammar.

She’s 87 and still sounded sharp, retired after 50 years of teaching school at all levels. We laughed about how the “bad boys” were always assigned to her classes. Although she wasn’t much taller than her third graders, she was ferociously athletic. The troublemakers knew she could drop kick them across the playground and they respected her for it.

After retirement, she taught five more years in the jail system. She affectionately called those students “my jailbirds.” I have no doubt they respected her as much as the “bad boys” had in third grade.

During our conversation, when I referred to children as “kids,” she gently corrected me, admonishing “kids are baby goats.” Still editing me all these decades later, but still with kindness. She congratulated me on the publication of my novel and I’m sending her a copy.

Many other mentors have offered their hands to lift me up. I feel a moral obligation to offer the same to those coming after me. But it’s no hardship.

When I help young writers, I always receive more than I give. [Debbie and piano at right.]

They keep me hopping barely one step ahead of them. How to explain active verbs? Pacing? Point of view? If you really want to learn something, teach it to another person.  The more I have to explain an amorphous concept to a new writer, the more deeply I come to understand it myself. When I analyze what is wrong in someone else’s work, I recognize and can fix problems in my own.

My group, the Authors of the Flathead, sponsors an annual writing contest for high school students. One year, a particular story exploded from the pile of anonymous submissions we were reviewing. All the judges were blown away by compelling narrative, vivid characters, and sophisticated themes. We invited the winner, sixteen-year-old Sarah, to read her story at our regular meeting.

That evening, she asked me if I would mentor her in writing. Of course! Who wouldn’t want to work with a bright, energetic, dynamic young woman? Through high school and college, Sarah often sent me essays, articles, and fellowship applications to critique and edit.

Harvard ultimately accepted her and she earned her PhD in astrophysics (totally without my assistance!). By that time, I only understood a few words in her writing—the, and, because.

Two years ago, she defended her dissertation and I flew to Boston to attend. As she stood before a packed audience at the Forbes Lecture Theater, my heart swelled with pride and I used up a whole package of tissues.

Recently Dr. Sarah Rugheimer posted a video lecture on Facebook delivered by a young scientist she’s now mentoring. Her pride in her mentee’s accomplishment glowed all over the post. I messaged her: “Now you understand.”

In Stirling Silliphant’s unforgettable words: “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

The above photo shows the Hungry Horse Dam where shivery scenes take place in Debbie Burke’s Kindle Scout winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil. Available on Amazon, the book also won the Zebulon Award sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

Visit Debbie at: www.debbieburkewriter.com

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