Questions to ask your Beta readers

I volunteered to be a beta reader once but, by the time I’d figured out the technology to read the work, another reader had made substantive suggestions which the author decided to take on board immediately with a re-write. To be clear, he didn’t communicate this with me directly, I read it in a tweet – which I ‘liked’.

But then I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I continue with reading the original version and offer my feedback on it regardless? Should I wait for him to incorporate those changes and read the revised version? In all honesty, I should’ve asked him what he wanted me to do – but I didn’t. He hadn’t communicated with me direct, I was new to the whole #writerscommunity and felt totally out of my depth.

A couple of years later and our co-written work The November Deadline is getting closer to completion, and thus being ready for beta reading. As a result, I’m paying more attention than usual to this subject, so was delighted to find an article on this very subject at BetaReader.io. In brief, BetaReader was set up by a writer who’d had a less than perfect experience with beta readers, and set out to look out for a better way. Do check out the site as it may prove to be what you need.

BetaReader recently compiled a list of the most common beta questions asked by authors:

  1. Did you lose interest, even only a little, at some point? Where and why?
  2. Which character did you enjoy the most? The least? Why?
  3. Did the dialogue feel natural?
  4. If you could change anything to make the story better, what would you change?
  5. Did anything in the text confuse you? What? Why?
  6. Were there any points throughout that you found unbelievable or illogical? If so, why?
  7. Were any parts of the plot predictable?
  8. What’s your favorite part about the book?
  9. How was the pacing between narrative and dialogue?
  10. What enticed you the most if anything? What grabbed your attention the most?
  11. Lastly, did the climax feel climactic, was the payoff in the end worth reading the whole book?

In the spirit of gathering as much information as possible

As a writer
are there additional questions you’d like your beta reader to answer?
are there areas you don’t want your beta reader to comment upon?

As a beta reader
how much direction do you like to receive from writers?
what questions have you previously been asked by writers that you would add to the list above?


 

 

 

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Experimental Writing: Part 6

Meredith hopped into the back of the Landrover.  Bunter chipped in with a prompt to put on the seat belt: clunk click every trip [smiley face].  There was also a social cue:

“This is so kind of you – thank you.”

“Oh, no trouble, bach, we’re heading that way anyway.”  This from the driver.  A sub-routine of the AI – one that hadn’t achieved sentience and independence – tagged this individual as male.  A warning flag appeared: the driver was adolescent, albeit coming to the end of this development age, and hence prone to naturally occurring chemical fluctuations that could cause risk-taking.

“I’m Owain, by the way, and this is my sister Esther.”  Meredith could see Owain using some kind of primitive mirror to look into the back of the car.  The boy had his attention on the road, but he couldn’t help being intrigued by his passenger’s outfit.

“We’re going to pick up my sister.  She went to a party there.”  The sub-routine labelled the person in the passenger seat as an adolescent girl, but just coming into this stage.  “Why are you heading there?”

“Oh, I’m just doing some walking around here.  I camped up on the mountain last night and when I came down this morning I realised that I’d gone a bit off course.  There’s no where to get anything to eat in Llangynidr, and Crickhowell looked to be the closest place to sit down and have a bit of a think.  Is there anywhere you’d recommend?”

“Hm. Well, I quite like Number 18 –

“Oh, you would!  Trying to be trendy!”

“You be quiet, or I’ll not give you a lift again!”  The boy’s words sounded serious , but Meredith was beginning to get a feel for tone, and accompanying facial expressions and realised this was not the case.  “I suppose you’d recommend Bookish!”

“Nothing wrong with having a read at the same time as getting a drink – you should try it sometime.”

“Courtyard Café?”

“That’s always so busy – lots of families with little ones.”

“How about that new one – down by the art centre.  I know it’s a bit out of the town, but it would put us in the right place for picking up Nerys.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.” Meredith tried to decide if it would be better to part company sooner, and avoid the complication of an extended contact, or to stick with the encounter and gather further information.

“Oh, no trouble.  We’ve got a little bit of shopping to do, but that’ll keep.  Be nice to check out the new place.”

They drove through the town centre, passing a mix of shops that seemed like they’d been there forever, or that they’d popped up yesterday.  It was still quite early really, but the town was definitely waking up, and starting to get busy.  On through the town centre and out the other side.  The road took on a more residential feel, and after only a minute or two they came upon a stone building that looked old, but not ancient.  It was a large, single story building, with gabled rooves.  It was set back slightly from the road and had its own small car park.  Bunter informed Meredith that it was an old school, approximately 150 Earth cycles old.

No one noticed as a CCTV camera followed the small group across from the Landrover to the front door.

They entered the building: to the left was the gallery and a sign pointed to studios and the café to the right.  Owain opened the door and led the way into a short corridor.  Here there was one door at the far end and a couple of doors on the left.  The door into the café was open and they walked straight in.  The space was light and airy: the walls were painted white and pictures for sale hung on three of the four walls.  The high ceiling had a couple of skylights that let in lots of natural light.  Sturdy tables made of a light-coloured wood and of various sizes were scattered around in no particular pattern, grouped with chairs in twos and fours.  Subtly, Meredith tried to steer them to one of the larger tables which was as much in the shadow as it was possible to be – at least it wasn’t in the direct light coming from above.

A cheery soul was behind the counter and welcomed them in; she was alone, and the party were clearly her first three customers of the day.

“What can I get you my dears?”

Owain started the proceedings by ordering a large latte and a large slice of bara brith, complete with butter and marmalde.

“Oh! You are greedy Owain,” Esther exclaimed, “you’ve only just had breakfast!”

“Breakfast was hours ago, and I’ve been working on the car for Nerys.  Unlike you, I spend more time doing things than with my nose in a book.”

Esther gave him a nudge in the ribs with the boney of elbow of gangly 12 year old.  She went for a fruit tea and piece of short bread.

“It looks so good, I don’t know what to go for,” said Meredith, gazing at the counter and trying to work out what everything was.  Bunter immediately popped up with several suggestions, including one for a drink with a big pile of sculpted white stuff, topped off by a scattering of multicoloured strands and a small red sphere.  Meredith muted the programme.

“I’ll think I’ll just have a filter coffee, please, and a piece of the toffee blondie.”  Meredith saw that Owain was pulling out his wallet.  There was no need for the cue here: “No, please let me get this, as a thank you for the lift.”

There was gentle back and forth as Owain accepted, with grace, but not too easily.

“I’ll bring everything over to you, cywion” said the lady behind the counter, the term of endearment clearly an automatic reflex.

They sat down at the table and started talking about life in the valleys and rebuilding the car and so on.  Neither Owain nor Esther noticed that Meredith was adept at steering the conversation away from anything to do with their purpose here.  The drinks and cakes were brought over with a “there you my dears” and “have you got everything you need?” and “just shout if you need anything”.  They tucked in: Meredith had never tasted anything like this before and was wondering about the feasibility of getting some coffee plants to take back home.  And a cook book…

“So where are you heading next then, bach?” Owain asked.

“I’d quite like to see Llyn-y-Fan Fach, but I don’t know if I’ve got enough time.”

“Hm.  Well, it’s about an hour’s drive from here, I guess, depending which way you go, but I don’t think that you could walk it in a day.  I’d be tempted to get the bus from here to Brecon, stay in the youth hostel or something and then walk up to the lake from there.  Are you planning to camp there?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.  I’d like to do some…sketching there.”

“Have you got a map?  I’ll show you the roads.”

It was at this point that Meredith started to feel uncomfortable.  The AI hadn’t flagged there being a problem with any of the food and drink, but it was not settling lightly on what a medical person would describe as Meredith’s stomach.  Things were taking a decided turn for the worse, and rapidly.  Meredith was just about to excuse himself when a group of men burst through the door.  They did not look friendly.  They threaded their way through the tables raising pistols to point at the three at the table.  Owain’s chair scraped back; Esther looked on with open mouth.  By chance the lady behind the counter had stepped out to a back room, so it was just Meredith and friends surrounded by half a dozen gunsels.

“Just stay where you are sonny, and no ones gonna get hurt.” It was not a local accent.  He pointed at Meredith “You’re coming with us.  Now.”

Meredith stood.  The term ‘technicolour yawn’ was unfamiliar to Owain and Esther; it was a phrase that was more familiar to their grandparents.  But if they had known it, it would have been perfect for the current situation as rainbow coloured liquid burst from Meredith’s mouth and sprayed over the gunmen.  Unknown to Meredith, the coffee contained trace amounts of dimethyl disulphide and butanediamine, and it was these that had reacted unexpectedly with the alien’s digestive system. Even AIs make mistakes.  Still, every cloud has a silver lining: the spectacular outcome of this natural chemistry was the perfect distraction.  Fighting to overcome the effects of losing everything consumed in the last 24 hours, Meredith jumped and simultaneously changed shape, shedding clothes in the process.  Initially the shape became a long thin cylinder, but as the tip of the cylinder touched the ceiling, Meredith’s body contracted into a sphere: from here it was a question of playing the angles.  At this point the gunmen were still concerned over the vomit that had landed on them, and were discovering that the liquid was starting to eat holes in clothes.  Incipient panic boiled over as they tried to react to the sudden movement through the fog that fear of chemical burns and disgust of wearing someone else’s stomach contents had created in their minds.  Before they could start stringing coherent thoughts together, the men were bowled over by what appeared to be an oversized basketball.  Somehow the alien managed to miss all of the works of art and all of the other furniture, bouncing off wall, ceiling, and heavies, to create a highly localised zone of carnage.

The sphere rolled to a stop by the small pile of clothes that had crumpled to the floor during the unconventional disrobing; Meredith put the clothes back on as he had the first time, shaping the body to suit the clothes from the inside.

Adjusting the glasses, hat, and scarf, there was a realisation that the boy and girl were staring at him.  With the men on the floor beginning to groan, Meredith said “Thank you for your help this morning, I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry if I’ve got you into any trouble.  I’d better get going, and I think you should find some where to lie low too.”

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  Every month there is a poll on some feature or another. Now we need to work out whether Meredith is going to get some assistance from Owain and Esther, or whether it’s time to part company.

Option 1: Head for the hills!

Option 2: Head for somewhere busy!

Option 3: Part company – Meredith should get a bus out of town or something.

Option 4: Plan B  (Please comment on what you think Plan B is!).

 

I‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for one week, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you think this is heading!

See you next month!

#Secondthoughts: The Next [Insert Name]

“Where were you when…?”
There are some things that stick in your mind: the dates are indelibly imprinted on your memory, together with what you were doing when they happended.  In some respects you can define a generation by the memory.  “Where were you when JFK was shot?” “What were you doing when they landed on the Moon?”

One of the ones for me is the London bombings of the 7th July, 2005.  That summer I was writing up my thesis, ready to defend it later in the year.  I was returning from a supervisory meeting.  I must have had my phone turned off or something, because it was only when I was on the bus on my way home that someone got through to me to say that my girlfriend at the time was ok.  Why wouldn’t she be ok?  I hadn’t heard anything about the coordinated terrorist attacks so I hadn’t had any reason to be worried.  She was working in London, and had been caught up in the subsequent problems facing the transport system.  I don’t think she even made it to work, but instead came straight home – although even that took several hours longer than it should have done.

I’m not going to go off on one about encoding memories or anything like that, but I find it interesting that there are few things that I remember in quite that much detail.  One of the other ones is more interesting for me on a personal level because it marked a major watershed for me in how and what I read.

I was in my early teens and had been reading Terry Pratchett books for a few years, and absolutely loving them.  When this anecdote takes place, some of my very favourites had been published, and when we were given the opportunity to study one of our own choices for English, I chose Reaper Man, which retains a special affection.  Given the title of this #secondthoughts, you can probably see where this is going…

I went to the library one day and I picked up “Colin the Librarian” by Rich Parsons and Tony Keaveney.  I had a passing knowldege of Conan etc, aware of their existance, but I hadn’t read any of the Robert E Howard classics (and now that I think about it, I still haven’t).  Anyway.  I was browsing the shelves for some stuff to take out, and I came across this book, obvious pun for the title, which for me was a selling point.  Pick it up, on the back was a a blurb, which included the phrase “the next Terry Pratchett”.  Sold!

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but this was the first book that I did not finish – I use this term loosley.  If we’re more precise, then it is the first book that I skipped to the end to see if it was worth reading, and that I skipped through to find any good bits.  I did not find any.

Work progresses on the shared project with Debs and on a couple of other projects, to the point that selling them is becoming an increasingly important factor.  When you are writing to agents or publishers or editors or whoever, you are supposed to provide some examples of what your work is like.  You can understand the rationale: on the one hand particular people specialise in particular genres and they want to have an idea about whether than can be passionate about it and sell it, whether that be to the publisher or the general public.  On the other, is there a market for this book?  Are there people who will buy it just because it is like something that they’ve enjoyed previously?  If it is not like anything else, is it too niche?  How will you get the word out about the book?

But I can’t help feeling that being compared to someone is a bit of a poisoned chalice: there are authors who are a bit derivative, but it feels unfair to compare any author to someone who might be considered a giant in their field.  And then of course, what if you don’t like a top author, but might have liked the new person, but were put off.   Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but I’ve been put off a lot of Dickens by the sheer size of his work, which is ironic given the epic fantasy novels that I’ve worked my way through.  I’ve not read all of Agatha Christie’s stuff, because some of the ones that I have read have been a bit repetitive – although there are some stories that I love immensly.

A closing thought, because I’m not sure that there is an answer to the paradox, but on the back of Reaper Man is a quote:

I’m beginning to think that Terry Pratchett is the best humorist this country has seen since P. G. Wodehouse – less coarse than Tom Sharpe, less cynical than Douglas Adams, simply a pure joy.’

David Pringle, White Dwarf
Perhaps comparisons are inevitable, a link in the chain.  Still, caveat emptor.
© David Jesson, 2019

Shirlyn

Named by my grandfather for his wife and daughter, Shirlyn may have been a vast, white colonial edifice, but it was also a much loved family home.

With covered verandahs stretching the length of the house, a car porch extended the upstairs verandah, providing us with the perfect location to sit out on cool, dry evenings. There, during family visits, we’d chat or listen to the BBC world service, while my grandfather got to smoke his pipe in peace.

The main body of the house was split into three. The rooms on the outer edges were cavernously long, while the middle ones were square and positively homely in comparison. I say in comparison, as each comfortably housed four large sofas, giving my sister and I every opportunity to bicker over who could sit where.

Downstairs provided the perfect base for entertaining – a favourite pastime of my grandparents. That middle room held not only those four sofas, but a magnificent sideboard for turntable and speakers, coupled with a gorgeous dark wood sprung dance floor. Absolutely perfect for a time when having the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep in your repetoire was commonplace; of course my sister and I preferred to experience the spring as we jumped on and off the sofas while playing badminton.

One cavernous room contained a vast dining table, the other my grandfather’s bar. The bar had been made in rattan and dark red leather, and held every drink you could possibly imagine – and then a few more. Six or eight matching bar stools ranged in front of the bar, where family lore places my mother drinking Martinis on her 21st birthday, two days before my birth. This was my grandfather’s domain, where relaxed entertaining took place, where he could wear a bush shirt, and mix drinks as he chatted and laughed with his guests.

My grandmother favoured the formal dinner party, although the size of their dining table and her preferred grand style, meant these were more akin to banquets. Off the kitchen was a locked storeroom, bursting at the seams with wooden packing chests. Inside those chests was the most extraordinary array of crockery, silver and glassware, everything painstakingly packed away in straw between uses. During each family stay, my grandmother would arrange a storeroom visit, imperiously instructing staff to unpack different items for our careful and awed inspection. As a child I remember most the sparkle – everything from from the gilding on the dinner service, the buffed and polished silverware, to the carved facets of the crystal glasses. With age and the passage of time, grand dinning happened only rarely, and I came to realise that my grandmother loved her beautiful things and needed an appreciative audience for them.

The kitchen was the domain of Cookie – a one-legged master chef. He ruled the staff with a rod of iron, yet was patient with my mother despite the hours she spent by his side, painstakingly transcribing recipes. Those hand-written recipes were scribbled over and much amended, for Cookie wasn’t traditionally trained. A pinch of this and a handful of that was easy enough to translate, but his method of indicating measures using the knuckles on his fingers caused my mother many a headache.

Shirlyn provided the perfect venue for the reception when my parents married. The long staircase with its intricately carved dark wooden balusters was the ideal backdrop for those traditional shots of father and bride.  The long verandahs proved a wonderful venue for photographs of the wedding party, and the car porch the perfect place for their wedding gift – a small black car tied with a large white bow.  Yellowing pages found decades later in an old leather suitcase contained local press reports of the grand event.

It was a different time. It was a very different life.


© Debra Carey, 2019

#FlashFiction: Project Gutenberg inspired stories

A day with Ludwig Beethoven

Bob was a writer.  One of these days he was going to make it with his own stuff, under his own name.  Any day now.  Any day.  But for now, and indeed for the last couple of years, he’d made his living as a ghost writer.  Or, to be strictly accurate, as a ghost composer.  Ghost writers were two a penny, even the best of them, but Bob really was in a league of his own.  We’re not talking about the in-house composers who delivered up jingles or incidental music or, Heavens preserve us, muzak.  No, Bob provided high-class material that would blend seamlessly with existing scores.  Perhaps a last minute edit needed a whole new piece of music and the original composer was no longer available, or someone wanted a piece of music that sounded like it could have been by someone famous, albeit an obscure and forgotten one, but couldn’t afford the fees to get something kosher: Bob would be there to help you out, via the dozen or so people who knew how to get hold of him.  And then of course there were the people who thought they could compose music, but really couldn’t, or who were a genius in one genre, but were about to lose a hard-won reputation by attempting something completely, as they say, different.  Bob would be there.  It didn’t matter if it was as simple as a spit-polish to a piece that was nearly there, but not quite, or starting from scratch on something that was never going to work otherwise.

Bob was also unusual in that he was a ‘method composer’.  When working in the style of one of the greats, he would adopt their practices in order to help him enter the spirit in which they wrote their original pieces.  There were several jobs that he had on hand at the moment, but the most pressing was that of one to be completed in the style of Beethoven.  Normally Bob would have allowed himself a week to acclimatise, but there really was not enough time: he threw himself into things whole heartedly. He finished off the piece that he was working on with a flourish and set it aside to review once the new ‘Beethoven’ was safely away to the client.

Properly he should have a housekeeper to truly emulate the great man, but that was out of the question in the modern world, and so he would just have to prepare his meal himself as usual.  Supposedly Beethoven favoured something akin to macaroni cheese, and whilst Bob fretted slightly that his recipe was not truly authentic, his own recipe was more than acceptable, and so he got on with it, and ate it with some grilled sardines and some runnerbeans picked from the garden.  This he ate accompanied by a generous flagon of – cold water.  Supposedly his desire for water in copious quantities bordered on a mania.

Bob checked his notes, and allowed himself a brief pause, before setting out on a brisk walk into the country.   Living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes in the 21st Century was…different to what late 17th/early 18th Century Vienna and the rural environs must have been like, but a country walk is a country walk.

A light supper, a philosophical treatise, vaguely related to the commission,  and he felt equal to the task.  As he headed to bed rather earlier than usual, his last job of the day was to count out exactly sixty coffee-beans.

He woke at dawn, ground the coffee beans, made coffee, and picked up his pen.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

The Englishwoman in Egypt

“Blast!” Jonathan swore under his breath. Freshly back from a period of home leave, he’d been about to pop over to Tristan’s, only to find a messenger from the Consulate at his door. Seems they’d had an urgent chit about an Englishwoman said to be in some distress who lived just a couple of roads over from him, so could he look into it … sharpish.

Hastening to the address given, Jonathan could hear the commotion as he approached, and broke into a run. He had to push through a number of weeping and wailing women before he could reach the door where two men were struggling; it appeared one was attempting to gain entry while the other was holding him back.

Using his best parade ground bark, Jonathan shouted for silence. Much to his surprise, the noise did reduce, and the men stopped fighting … if only for a moment. Sadly, their attention was only re-directed, as each and every one started shouting at the top of their voices … this time, at him. A few more barked out commands and the shouting subsided to a muttering.

Deciding that he would hear what they had to say in strict order of age seniority, Jonathan briskly introduced himself and instructed the most elderly woman present have her say, having first sternly instructed all, especially the two men, to hold their tongues and wait their turn.

It didn’t take long to hear the sorry tale. They were members of the same family; the family of the man attempting to gain entry to the house who, they all insisted, was having an affair with the Englishwoman within. The man in question repeatedly and with increasing desperation, declared otherwise. Jonathan took notes, obtaining full names and addresses of each person (information which was reluctantly given) before assuring them the matter would be dealt with by the British Consulate. He then firmly escorted them off the property.

When all but the man in question had moved into the street, the door opened and Jonathan got his first sight of the Englishwoman. Valerie stood framed in the doorway, her long honey-coloured hair tied back with a vibrant scarf. Tall and broad, she shook his hand firmly before shoo-ing them both into the living room. Jonathan introduced himself and briefly explained his mission. Using surprisingly colourful language, Valerie expressed her frustration with busybodies, do-gooders, and people who leapt to conclusions, all in rapid succession.

“My husband … he died … after a short illness a few months ago” Valerie took a deep breath and surreptitiously wiped away a tear “and I’ve not known what to do with myself, especially as I’ve been unable to paint since it happened. Then I had a letter from Tristan – you know Tristan Dawes, right? He’s an old friend who’s been terribly kind. When I told him about being unable to paint, he suggested a change of scene might help and invited me to stay. He was right, I took to Egypt like a duck to water, so he helped me find this place soon afterwards.”

“And …?” Jonathan, waved his hand casually in the direction of the other man.

“Ah yes, of course as a lone Englishwoman in Egypt, I can’t wander freely as Tristan does, so he introduced me to his friend Nasser to act my chaperone. Sadly, Nasser had a road accident a little while back which left him with a brain injury and has struggled to return to his old job, so this seemed to be the ideal solution for us both, until …” Valerie’s voice tailed away as she gestured to the front door.

Nasser started to apologise over and over again about the behaviour of his family. He was clearly deeply distressed by what had happened and Jonathan could see by their body language that while both were grateful the arrangement worked, there was no inappropriate relationship there. Jonathan believed them and promised to intervene on their behalf.

Having instructed Nasser’s family to attend a meeting the following day at the Consulate, and after issuing a stern warning they would be held responsible for Nasser’s physical safety, Jonathan returned Nasser to the bosom of his family and went back to Valerie.

Pouring them both a gin, Valerie tucked her legs up underneath her on a comfortable divan and started to talk. She’d arrived during the three months Jonathan had been on leave. At first she’d sketched a lot, figures mostly. She showed Jonathan some of her work, and he made a mental note to enquire if any were for sale as soon as was polite. Sketching in charcoal, her strokes gave that same impression of movement contained in Tristan’s watercolours. Jonathan commented as much, which caused her to clap her hands “oh goody, that’s exactly what I was trying to achieve, but I’m useless with watercolour!”

Uncurling, she invited him into her studio. The room was dominated by a large figure in oil which had the same sense of movement and vibrancy as contained in her sketches, and this time Jonathan didn’t hesitate … “Can I buy it?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

#FF Prompt – Project Gutenberg

We’ve kept you waiting long enough for your favourite #FlashFiction prompt from Fiction Can Be Fun – yes, it’s time to pick a new release of an old (out of copyright) book at Project Gutenberg.

To select your prompt, go to the Recent Books section of the Project Gutenberg website. Pick a book whose title makes you go ‘ooooh I know what I want to write about …’ and there you have it – your #flashfiction prompt for this month.

Do have a good browse while you’re there – you could find even more reads to add to your massive TBR lists – and all at no cost!

 

Word count: 500-750 words
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 7th June 2019

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.