Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Beta readers and Winnie the Pooh

Pooh murmured to himself

"But whatever his weight in pounds, shillings, and ounces, 
He always seems bigger because of his bounces."

"And that's the whole poem," he said. "Do you like it, Piglet?"

"All except the shillings," said Piglet. "I don't think they ought to be there." 

"They wanted to come in after the pounds," explained Pooh, "so I let them. It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come." 

"Oh, I didn't know," said Piglet.

This is an early example of a beta reader having his advice overruled by the author. Piglet's suggestion is correct, yet the removal of the shillings would not improve the couplet.

I've reached the end of my next novel, and I've started sending it out to beta readers. I don't send it to everyone at the same time, since I'm making changes as I get feedback and I want to get comments on the latest version. (Also some of my lovely betas are doing Nanowrimo.) I'm still obsessively tweaking the fight scene, too; in my experience fights take a lot of rewriting. It's very interesting, reading betas' suggestions. I've had three reports so far, and none of them have queried the same things, and they have all made some suggestions which I have leaped upon and incorporated, and others which I have not.

The variety of responses confirms me in my view that half a dozen good betas perform better than the average editor. I write for readers, not people working in the publishing industry, so it makes sense to have readers vet my books. I imagine it's possible for an editor to become jaded, or didactic. I like a nice mix of readers and reader/writers. Readers can tell you what's wrong, and a fellow author can often tell you how to fix it.

My betas so far have liked my latest novel. This is a relief. It's lonely, writing a book, and quite worrying waiting to see what readers make of it. I hope to publish in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Fussy Librarian

One of the biggest problems for readers and authors is to find each other. A brand new site called The Fussy Librarian aims to help with this. 

From their home page:

1. Enter your email address
2. Select what types of books you read
3. Indicate your preferences on profanity, sex and  violence
4. Get daily emails & enjoy great books
5. There is no step five*

This recommendation service has been going a month, and can only get better as the choices are refined and users give feedback. (I think people's definitions of mild profanity and non-explicit scenes of sex can vary wildly, and examples would help.)  Jeffrey Bruner says they plan to keep adding categories - there are currently thirty - and content options.

I think this could be good - I've joined, and you can too, here.

* I want a step five!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Do not trifle with readers' expectations

A couple of weeks ago Harper Collins published the third and final book, Allegiant, in Veronica Roth's popular trilogy. I'd actually bought a copy of the first book, Divergent, and got several chapters in when a horrible certainty came to me that Roth had sold the book as "Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games," and I went right off it.

Currently Allegiant is at number 5 in the US Kindle Store; it has 2,040 reviews with an average of 2.8 stars. Why the huge sales and the low customer ratings? Because Veronica Roth chose to end the series in a way that her readers hated. Here is a typical comment:

"I loved Divergent and Insurgent and was really looking forward to Allegiant. I don't recommend this book to anyone unless you want to be distraught and depressed for days afterwards. The first 300 pages are boring and totally detached from the plot of the first two books. The book picks up in the end only to leave the readers broken-hearted. There is no happy ending. There is no real closure. The author can do anything she wants with the final book and needless to say, I really dislike Veronica Roth as an author after reading this. Why end a once epic trilogy this way? I read books to be entertained and I was far from entertained. I recommend readers only reading the first two books and making up their own ending."

There is a compact between writers and readers; the reader will suspend disbelief, the writer will be true to the characters and the genre. How would we feel if Bertie Wooster suddenly murdered his Aunt Agatha? We would feel indignant and cheated, just like Roth's fans. I think there is an urge successful writers sometimes have to demonstrate they are really serious artists, prepared to shock and confound expectations. Doing this is generally a mistake.

It happens with screen writers, too. I still remember the final episode of MASH, where the writers, assured of a vast audience, decided to go all serious. Then there's the episode of Cheers where Sam discovers the dishy young woman accompanying an old friend is not his girlfriend but his daughter, and feels old and alone. This glum stuff is not what we watch Cheers for - we want to be amused, that's all.

It's difficult enough to write a good book without being wilful. Don't be wilful. Readers will not forgive you.