The beauty of beta readers

Although writing a novel is a solitary craft, there are usually many more people involved in getting a book to publication. In addition to the editor and publisher there are the often unsung heroes – the beta readers.

Beta readers are trusted volunteers who test-drive the manuscript and give you their honest opinion. Their purpose is to flag up plot holes, character inconsistencies, things that irritated or weren’t properly explained or places where their interest dipped.

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Who should you ask and how many?
It’s good to ask at least three people but probably not more than six or you could find they all give conflicting advice, sending you round in circles.

Obviously there is a risk with asking people you know – it’s quite nerve-racking as a writer to ask people’s opinion of your work and equally pretty scary to be asked to comment as a reader. A novel is a very personal thing and potentially friendships could be broken over it. No writer should ask beta readers for their opinion if they are going to shoot the messenger. But equally there is little point in someone saying the book is fabulous when it isn’t as that won’t help you improve it.

I asked people I knew because they were all avid readers and either involved in writing or could give me their expert opinion on relevant sections. They were also people with strong opinions who knew I could trust to be honest.

But if you don’t want to ask people you know you could post a request in an online book group or offer to swap critiques with another writer. The most important thing is that you pick people who are regular readers, especially of your book’s genre.

No matter how many times you read through your work there are sure to be things that you won’t notice simply because you wrote them. We all have little things that annoy us when we’re reading and some of these are probably unreasonable (The word ‘chuckle’ sets my teeth on edge when used outside of a children’s story or a pantomime) but others might make you rethink how you phrase things. I will try to never again use the word ‘like’ when I mean ‘as though’! It was also helpful to have a friend with a Modern Languages degree point out that the meaning of an Italian word wasn’t obvious without some explanation.

IMG_5127What they need from you

Beta readers will need clear instructions about what sort of feedback you want and how it should be presented. I wanted mine to give examples where possible – “I didn’t really warm to this character” is helpful but it would be so much more useful to know why – the character’s lack of reaction to the crisis on p16, their attitude to their wife on p24 or the way they spoke to the police on p54.

I drew up a list of questions I wanted my readers to bear in mind when reading – these were about the main characters, the ending and a couple of key scenes.

It’s only fair to ask how readers would prefer to receive the manuscript as they are giving up their time to help. I printed off a hard copy and gave it to my first reader with some coloured post-it notes. I then printed off a second copy and gave it to my second reader with different coloured post-its. One of these was then passed to the third reader with a different coloured set of post-its. They each scrawled their comments on the page and marked it with a post-it and I then copied all of these comments into a file.

The other readers were happy to read the novel in a Word document. One of these gave me an extremely detailed handwritten list with page number references, the others preferred to go over the changes face to face or on the phone.

One thing I would recommend is to not make any changes until you have everyone’s feedback. Otherwise the pages and line numbers will change and it can be hard to find the points people are referring to.

The other thing I found is that it all takes time! Readers have other things going on in their lives. They might fall ill, go on holiday or be busy at work. You’ll need to agree a time limit and build in a bit of leeway.

Dealing with criticism
You might not agree with the advice offered and you don’t have to take it. You might also find that readers give conflicting advice but if the same point is raised by several people it must be worth thinking about. And the way I look at it, any criticism, however hard to hear, is worth having if it helps you improve the book.

I’d love to hear about your experience as a writer or a beta reader.

And to my beta readers I just want to say an enormous thank you – I couldn’t have done it without you!

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History People #10: Katharine Johnson, Inspired by Italy

Today I was lucky enough to be invited onto Vanessa Couchman’s blog to talk about my work in progress which is set in the same Tuscan villa as The Silence

Vanessa Couchman

Author Katharine Johnson

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Katharine Johnson to the History People slot. Lucky Katharine has lived in Italy, which has provided inspiration for her writing and she’s supplied some mouth-watering shots of Italian views and villages below. But I’ll let her tell you about that.

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The Story Behind the story – Jennifer C Wilson talks about Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile just before it goes to press

With me in the coffee shop today is Jennifer C Wilson who’s here to talk about her second novel, Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile, the follow-up to Kindred Spirits: Tower of LondonHello Jennifer, how lovely to see you. Can I get you anything?

IMG_4824Hi Katy, and thanks for welcoming me along to visit today! I never used to be a coffee shop person, but thanks to attending a weekly writing group in a wonderful little café in Newcastle, my tastes are expanding! So I’ll have my favourite banana twist tea, if you have it, and really up the fruit and veg ante with a slice of carrot cake, if that’s ok? That’s got to be a portion!

 

Of course. So the big day’s nearly upon us – are you all set for the launch?

I cannot believe we’re so close now – I’m excited and terrified all at the same time, and very much in need of more sleep.

Can you tell us a little about your books?

The concept of the Kindred Spirits ‘world’ is eavesdropping on the ghostly inhabitants of our greatest historical sites and buildings, and for somebody who loves history, it’s bliss to write about. Helped along, I have to confess, that I can break the rules a little bit, and if my version of Mary, Queen of Scots has a slightly modern take on life, that’s fine – her ghost has been hanging around ever since her death in the 1500s, she’s surely allowed to pick up some modern slang or attitude? She’s even been on a plane, so she’s definitely a modern woman.

Exploring the Tower of London’s residents came about fairly randomly, but I’ve wanted to write about Mary, Queen of Scots for years, and have pages of notebook scribblings, trying to find a ‘way in’ to one of my favourite historical characters. She has always been a heroine of mine, and almost a family joke, when, on family holidays, almost every house or castle in Scotland seemed to have a room she had apparently stayed in (and we visited a lot of Scottish houses and castles!). Therefore, following the publication of the first Kindred Spirits, there was only one place I could possibly write about next – the Royal Mile, Edinburgh.

IMG_4828The Mile has so much history crammed into one relatively small patch, so narrowing down the buildings and characters to include was tricky, and for a while, it all felt a bit scattergun, but having Mary as the central character, joined by her father, James V of Scotland, one of his courtiers, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, and Sir William Kirkcaldy, the man who tried to keep the Castle for Mary, it all started to fall into place. And I knew I had chosen wisely when, on a recent visit to the castle’s esplanade at night, I overheard one of the ghost tours talking not only about Janet, but one of the other ghosts who turns up in the novel too – definitely validation I had picked my ‘cast’ well.

Once I had the characters in place, the next task was to figure out who might be interacting the most with who, and how? In the end, I went for a brainstorming approach, writing lots of scenes to try and get to know the characters a bit, then gradually, a thread for Mary came about, helping her father, and dealing with her wastrel of a husband, Lord Darnley.

IMG_4827Being a massive history fan, but not consistently interested in the same period, it’s great thinking about how folk from different eras might come together and interact. My biggest hope is that people enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it!

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PARTY TIME!

I’m hosting an online launch for Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile on Thursday 1st June, on Facebook, and you and your readers are more than welcome to attend – just click here for more information, and I look forward to seeing you there.

 

Thanks Jen, it sounds like a great opportunity to find out more about the book and have a bit of fun. Count me in! Thanks so much for coming along today.

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who spent much of her childhood stalking Mary, Queen of Scots (initially accidentally, but then with intention). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consulting since graduating. Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to develop her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. She is also part of The Next Page, running workshops and other literary events in North Tyneside.
Jennifer’s debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London,  was released by Crooked Cat Books in October 2015, and Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile is coming June 2017. She can be found online at her website

on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s website.

The Allure of Secrets

I’m with Miriam Drori today discussing secrets. Join us!

An' de walls came tumblin' down

I’m delighted to be visited today by Katharine Johnson, author of Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings, and now of The Silence. She’s going to talk about her fascination with secrets, so, over to her.

KatyJohnsonI know publishers and bookshops like books that have clearly defined genres. It makes them easier to market and display which in turn makes them easier to sell. The trouble is not all readers are as easy to categorise. I’m sure there are people who only buy romance or historical novels or detective stories but I’m not one of these. I like books from lots of different genres. You’re as likely to find me reading a family saga as a thriller and some of my favourite books don’t fall into any genre that I can identify. But I suppose if I had to find a common thread to the novels I love it would be…

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Sunday Sojourn – Tuscany

I was thrilled to be invited by Jennifer C Wilson to contribute to her Sunday Sojourn series. Come with us today on a virtual trip to north Tuscany where The Silence is set!

Jennifer C. Wilson

Having been watching BBC 2’s Second Chance Summer in Tuscany, and dreaming of running away to a dream life in Italy, I’ve been looking forward to hosting my guest today, Katharine Johnson, to talk about her upcoming novel’s inspiration…

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Hello Jennifer and thank you for inviting me onto your blog. I love reading your Sunday sojourns so it’s a real treat to be taking part in one.

Today I’d like to take you to Tuscany where my psychological/coming of age novel the silence is set.

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Most people probably associate Tuscany with the gentle rolling hills, art cities and cypress-lined roads around Siena that we see on calendars and postcards. But the landscape in north Tuscany where my novel is set is wilder and less hospitable with jagged mountains, narrow gorges and thick forests. The hills are crowned by Medieval villages which are enveloped by cloud some of the year and can…

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Published today – The Hanging Murders by Rex Carothers

IMG_4971Today is launch day for The Hanging Murders by Rex Carothers so it’s fantastic to see Rex in the coffee shop. What can I get you Rex?

Hello Katy, I’ll have an espresso and biscotti please.

Certainly. Congratulations on the book. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Yes, it’s set in 1957 in and around the area of Lone Pine, Inyo County, California, which was the birthplace of filming westerns in 1920.

My protagonist, the flawed county sheriff of Inyo County, California, Jim Cobb, has been on a four-month drunken binge since the deaths of his wife and daughter while they were leaving Inyo County’s rural setting and the Sheriff for a History Professor at UCLA.

Jim has given up on his job, the people surrounding him, and all reason for living. In the depths of Jim’s despair, the Hanging Murderer returns, after a fifteen years hiatus. Between 1932 and 42, ten unknown men, all drifters, were murdered by hanging in the county. None of these cases were solved. All the previous murders occurred under the watch of Merrill Cobb, the Sheriff for thirty-six years, and Jim’s father.

Jim doesn’t think he could solve the crimes if his father couldn’t while he was Sheriff. A week after the discovery of the latest Hanging Murder, Jim’s best friend and retired sheriff’s deputy, Barton Haskel, is found dead in a car out in the Alabama Hills, a location area for movie westerns. Haskel’s death, at first, looked like a suicide, but Jim Cobb knows it was murder.

It sounds great. What gave you the idea to write it?

I wanted to write a damn good murder mystery and I’m a big fan of westerns.

Have you always enjoyed writing or is it something you’ve taken up recently?

I wanted to write since junior high, I loved inventing characters and stories, I even had an imaginary friend named George. My favorite stories were mysteries, thrillers, and suspense.

Who is your favourite writer?

My all time favorite writers are Elmore Leonard, Joseph Wambaugh, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, to name a few.

The Hanging Murders is the first in a series, isn’t it? Are you working on the next book?

Yes, I plan to write sequels to The Hanging Murders, the next in line is Blind Revenge dealing with Japanese internment at Manzanar in Inyo County.

Sounds fascinating – thank you for dropping in today, Rex and best of luck with the book.

The Hanging Murders us available to buy from Amazon

IMG_4972Get in touch with Rex through his website,  Facebook,  Twitter or Crooked Cat Books 

The story behind the story – how Romeo and Juliet inspired Sue Barnard to write The Ghostly Father

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With me today is Sue Barnard, author of the ghostly father. I’m fascinated to know what prompted her to write this book.

Welcome back to the coffee shop, Sue. I’ve just finished reading Never on Saturday which I loved so I’m very much looking forward to reading this book. What made you write it?

Hello Katy and thanks for the coffee. I wrote the book I wanted to read.

It’s more than thirty years since I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s wonderful 1968 film of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the end, and I came away thinking: This is the world’s greatest love story – so why does it have to end so badly?

That question haunted me for many years. Then, a few years ago, I chanced across one of those lists of Things You Must Do Before You Die, and the one which caught my attention was Write The Book You Want To Read. The book which I’ve always wanted to read is the alternative version of Romeo & Juliet – the one in which the star-cross’d lovers don’t fall victim to a maddeningly preventable double-suicide.

Why, I asked myself, should there not be such a book? And the answer came straight back: Why not indeed? And if it doesn’t exist, then go ahead and write it.

IMG_4738I mulled over the idea, but it took a while before anything definite happened. I’d dabbled with Creative Writing in the past, and had taken a few courses on the subject, but I’d never attempted to write anything longer than poems, or short stories, or the occasional stroppy letter to The Times. The thought of tackling a full-length novel, even one on a subject about which I felt so strongly, was a daunting prospect. Then, in one of those serendipitous moments which really make one believe in Guardian Angels, I was browsing in a bookshop in France when I came across a novel which took the form of the lost diary of a woman who had been the secret lover of Count Dracula. A voice in my mind whispered: “A lost diary? You could do something like this…”

Back at home I powered up the laptop and started writing. I was writing the book mainly for myself, because it was the outcome which I’d always wanted, but when I’d finished the first draft (which took about six months) I showed it to a couple of close friends, who both said, “This is good. You really ought to take it further.”

Even so, despite this vote of confidence, it was another year or two (during which time the manuscript underwent several revisions) before I plucked up the courage to submit it to Crooked Cat Publishing, for whom I’d recently started doing editing work. I wasn’t very hopeful, so when I received the email from them telling me they wanted to publish it, I had to print it out and re-read it four times before I could convince myself that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

IMG_4739The book’s title, The Ghostly Father, is based on a quotation from the play (it’s how Romeo addresses the character of Friar Lawrence), and the story, which is a sort of part-prequel, part-sequel to the original tale, is told from the Friar’s point of view. I’ve always been fascinated by the Friar, and have often wondered why, in the play, he behaved as he did. By giving him what I hope is an interesting and thought-provoking backstory, I’ve tried to offer some possible answers. Plus, of course, I wanted to reduce the overall body-count, and give the lovers themselves a rather less tragic dénouement.

The book was officially released on St Valentine’s Day 2014. Since then, judging by the number of people who have bought it, read it, and have been kind enough to say they’ve enjoyed it, it seems as though I’m not by any means the only person who prefers the alternative ending. As one friend was generous enough to say to me recently: “Now I will never feel sad in Verona again.”

Thank you so much, Sue. It sounds a great read and the perfect book for me to take with me when I go to Verona this summer.

About Sue

img_4245Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet. She has devised questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult “Round Britain Quiz”. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.

In addition to working as an editor for Crooked Cat Publishing, Sue is the author of four novels: The Ghostly Father, Nice Girls Don’t, The Unkindest Cut of All and Never on Saturday. She is also very interested in Family History. Her own background is far stranger than any work of fiction; she’d write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her. Sue lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

Author and Editor at Crooked Cat Books 

Blog   Facebook  G+   Twitter @SusanB2011 Amazon

NOVELS:

The Ghostly Father: Amazon   Smashwords  Kobo  Nook Apple iBooks

Nice Girls Don’t: Amazon Smashwords kobo Nook Apple iBooks

The Unkindest Cut of All: Amazon, Smashwords, KoboNook Apple iBooks

Never on Saturday: Amazon

So coffee shop visitors, is there a story that you would change the ending to if you could? If so, I’d love to hear from you. My choice? I wish that little boy hadn’t been permanently turned into a mouse in Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

What about the book you want to read? If you can’t find it in the bookshops why not write it yourself?