Using, Finding and Preparing Beta Readers

Blog 34I’m going to devote a few posts to the topic of beta readers. I’m including the posts under “Thoughts on Writing” because beta readers can help writers both traditionally and self-published.

This post is about using, finding and preparing beta readers. The next post will ask what do with their feedback. One can have different views on these topics; here’s a link to another blog.

What are beta readers? Software developers release beta versions of programs for users to test functionality before the final release. Similarly, before writers publish their manuscripts, they sometimes circulate advanced drafts to beta readers for responses to their stories.

Beta readers are usually unpaid.

What do beta readers comment on and is it useful? Beta readers comment on anything from whether they found a book interesting, to problems they encountered with plot, characters or setting, to language use, grammar or typos. They’re likely to raise issues that take a writer by surprise.

For both The Case for Killing and False Guilt, I found beta reader comments highly useful.

When does a writer give beta readers his manuscript? Beta readers are not substitutes for editors, except perhaps for self-published writers on a tight budget. Rather, beta readers contribute to a manuscript’s preparation before it goes to a publisher or freelance editor.

For my second book, I also asked a beta reader for comments between the structural edit and copy edit. I wanted to double-check pacing and character development.

Where does a writer find beta readers? I use four or five beta readers for each book. They’re family, good friends and acquaintances. As my readership grows, I may use new readers. I understand a writer can find beta readers online but I haven’t tested that. Book clubs and writers’ groups are other good sources.

Some commentators say a writer should only choose beta readers if they meet requirements like being a writer themselves or being an avid reader of the manuscript’s genre. I found beta reader comments so useful, I believe beginning writers should accept any potential reader’s interest and be thankful.

Using some of the same beta readers for different books can be a good idea. Those readers may comment on the writer’s overall development.

If beta readers are unpaid, why do they help? Usually it’s because they’re nice people and intrigued by contributing to a book’s development. They might also have enjoyed a writer’s earlier writing. If they’re writers themselves, they may look for a return favour.

How should a writer prepare beta readers? Quality in, quality out. Provide beta readers with a very good manuscript, even though it likely will change a lot once all comments are in. Also, give beta readers a list of questions to address. My list means beta readers will tell me if they found the book entertaining; what did and didn’t work about plot, characters and settings; and where they found weak writing. Also, I want them to read my manuscript like a book they’ve just bought. Therefore, I ask them to circle the grammar problems and typos they find without reading for that. That’s for my editor – and me!

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Book Research Methods

Blog 33In my last blog on how to self-publish, I posted about the importance of research for a work of fiction. Today I’m following with a post about what, when and how to research.

Let’s first consider what to research.

In a fiction manuscript, a writer will obviously introduce a lot of content about characters, plot and setting. Characters and plot will often be the product of the writer’s imagination. However, as characters and plot develop, they will invoke the customs and institutions of the day, such as dress, language and politics. In dystopian and science fiction, these too may be fictional. But for other genres, they will reflect the real world and, for verisimilitude, could require research. For example, a police procedural should incorporate the actual homicide investigation procedures of the time and place.

Setting could require more research. A story should accurately present features like geography, city and streetscapes, and seasons. Even when a writer writes about what she knows, she’ll still have to double-check things like street names. Further, the setting should work for the plot. For example, a character shouldn’t visit a gallery on a day it’s closed or walk to the end of a street in half the required time.

Bottom line – a writer should do as much research as reasonably possible, and err on the side of too much. As I wrote in my last post about self-publishing, research is the backbone of readers’ suspension of reality and engagement in the writer’s world.

Now the question of when to research. The danger to avoid, of course, is to get deep into drafts of an intricately plotted story, only to find it collapses under the weight of facts. With practice, each writer finds what works for her. Many writers complete most of their research before starting the manuscript, perhaps while doing an outline. Some, such as yours truly, will be in a hurry to find out if there’s a good story, and leave some research to the end of the first draft. Whichever way, be prepared for checking and double-checking facts right through to the manuscript’s final proof.

Finally, how does a writer conduct research? Obviously the Internet offers enormous resources. The challenge is finding information that is reliable and sufficiently in-depth. Good quality, relevant texts often still yield better information and may even be available at the local public or university library. For historical content, museums and archives can also be very useful.

In addition, for manuscripts set in recent times, writers should seriously consider visiting settings (however useful Google Earth is) and, if possible, interview people experienced with key plot points. Contacts are usually surprisingly giving and it can a fun way to spend a coffee or dinner.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Fifty Seconds of Terror

Blog 31 BCOn LogoFor budding crime thriller writers, it’s a challenge to connect with readers and other writers and to learn about the marketplace. That’s the reason for conferences like Bouchercon. I’m just back from the 2014 version in Long Beach, California.

Overall, I learned a ton. However, I arrived with apprehension after receiving an email inviting me to join the “Meet the New Authors Breakfast”. Did I want to stand up and tell readers and other writers the most important thing they should know about The Case for Killing? In fifty seconds? Along with fifty-two other debut writers? At 7:00 a.m.?

My instinctive response was to run. But I know I need to self-promote, so I agreed.

Long Beach hasn’t seen rain in months, but the first day there, the breakfast hung over me like a towering cumulus. When I arrived at the event the following morning, the same cloud obviously hung over other presenters. Faces were grim, breaths were deep and laughter was nervous.

I said things like “No one’s listening anyway,” and “Who’s going to be here at 7:00 a.m.?” Useless platitudes. A microphone and speakers made sure people had to listen, and the large room filled. I acquired an advanced case of stage fright.

Well, I certainly didn’t hit it out of the park, but the fifty seconds got done. It turns out that when you’re staring into the eye of a storm, they go by very fast. I wish I could have used humour like other presenters did. Sadly, it’s just not my strong suit in those situations. I did say I once practiced law and I’m told some folks responded with a gentle hiss. Yeah, I’m probably going to stop mentioning that.

Anyway, despite the panic, I’m counting those fifty seconds as a great experience. Mostly that’s because I met a lot of interesting debut writers. It’d be nice, though, if my heart returned to sixty beats per minute some time soon.

Thanks for the opportunity Bouchercon.

Logo used with the permission of Bouchercon 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Self-Publishing Stigma

Blog 31 Raise the BarToday I’m posting a few thoughts about the stigma associated with self-publishing. I’m including the post in my series of blogs about what a first-time fiction writer should consider when choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Self-pub authors know the stigma I mean. It shows in many forms. Newspapers and many bloggers won’t review us. Many book stores won’t stock us. Occasionally, a traditionally published author looks at us askance. From behind our backs, we’re sure we hear, “Oh well, he had to self-publish because, you know, no publisher was interested.”

For this post, I’m not going to analyse the origins and current state of the self-pub stigma. Lots of others have done that; here’s a link to a good one. Instead, I want to make one of those points so simple and unoriginal, it’s almost embarrassing. A well-crafted story makes the stigma fade.

In the last few days, I saw this first-hand as it modestly applies to me. The father of a close friend whom I knew quite well sadly passed away earlier this week. I attended his visitation and service. In talking with others, the topic of my writing came up many times. My friend and his stepmother both read and liked The Case for Killing, and endorsed it to others. The result: not a whisper, to my face at least, of the stigma of being self-published.

I have no doubt that the varying quality of self-published books makes readers doubtful about investing the time and money to read them. However, knowing this, self-pubs should devote great attention to their story, and to the editing and design of their books. In fact, I’d say that they should set those bars higher than traditionally published authors in their genre do.

With really good work, self-pubs can clear those bars and leave the stigma behind.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

How Important is Book Research?

Blog 30 7In my blog series on how to self-publish, it’s time for some posts about research. Today I’m writing about the importance of research for a work of fiction. In future posts, I’ll discuss when and how to do it.

Let’s start with the problem of an author getting facts right.

The very credibility and success of a non-fiction book turns on the accuracy of its facts. Is this the case for a book of fiction?

The answer, I think, is that fiction can still be well-received with the occasional, unimportant wrong fact, but that fact-checking is still really important.

Say, for example, Richmond Street is misnamed Richmond Avenue in a book set in Toronto. If the use of the name is truly extraneous, perhaps because it occurs once in a transition paragraph of a dystopian novel, many readers will overlook the mistake. And many who do see it will say, “Well, it is a work of fiction,” and look the other way. That’s particularly true if they’re enjoying the plot and characters.

Even so, the mistake will irritate certain readers. Some will even connect it to the book’s overall quality. So, it’s certainly unhelpful.

Now let’s enhance the error a bit. Let’s imagine that the book is a police procedural, and Richmond Avenue is mentioned ten times because a suspect was seen running down it. Now the mistake starts undercutting the entire book. So the room for factual error in fiction is slim.

Another challenging area for authors is making settings authentic.

Sometimes authors deal with this by writing about what they know. Without much research, they have at hand the context and details that make their novel’s place, time and social environment ring with truth.

Of course, an author may choose to write about an unfamiliar setting. It’s very likely some readers also know it, and a few may call him out if it’s not faithfully presented. This risk is highest for a current setting, but many readers know historical settings, too. Good research is required to avert this risk.

But research has a function beyond getting facts and settings right. One of an author’s goals is for his readers to suspend their reality and fully engage in the world he’s created. Careful research is the backbone for this, and may separate the author from the competition.

So, an author’s best approach is not to rely on his readers’ patience and to do the best research possible. This is especially true for self-published authors, who don’t have the benefit of whatever fact-checking publishing houses perform.

Look on the bright side. You can learn a lot from research, and usually it’s fun.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).