The Beta Reader
When you’ve written a book, you’re supposed to have beta readers take a look. Beta readers are supposed to let you know what does and doesn’t work in
your novel; where you’ve lost their attention; and how they think it should have ended. If you’re lucky, a lot of them won’t even get back to you at all.
But what I need beta readers for is other stuff. Stuff like noticing that my hero is born in 1965 and yet is now only thirty years old, and this isn’t a magical realism story. Or that Selma was the secretary at the sheriff’s office on page one and worked for the post office on page forty. Or that a guy named Dave shows up in the middle and no one knows who he is, because he was Steve thirty pages ago.
I have trouble with names. I spend a lot of time trying to work out my characters and outline my plot before I ever start to write. After a while I give my characters placeholder names so I don’t have to keep typing out “rich girl” and “village idiot.” When I do start writing for real, I change their names, sometimes more than once, and I don’t get tidy about sweeping up the old ones. Also, sometimes I forget which one is which.
It got easier when I discovered the “replace” function but that was troublesome too. One novel I wrote had an “Alan” character, and at some point I realized I occasionally spelled it “Allen,” so I did a search-and-replace for Alan to Allen and got 50 replacements right off the bat. Felt pretty smug about that until I reread my manuscript and discovered words like “ballence” and “nonchallence” sprinkled all the way through.
One of my first actual beta readers noticed pretty quickly that half of my names started with H. That’s fine in real life, but it’s unnecessarily confusing for readers. I wasn’t aware I’d done it. My reader started circling “H” names and writing “another H” in the margin, until, in my very last chapter, I introduced a Hannah and she just underlined it and wrote Really? in the margin.
The book I’m writing now is particularly confusing. I am following a half-dozen characters, and I’m filling in their histories in flashbacks. So it goes back and forth from the present to their adolescence and points between–in literary circles, we refer to that as “willy-nilly”–and now I can’t swear that some of them haven’t given birth to their own grandmothers.
It kind of makes me wonder how God did it. Just slammed everything down bip bam boom and came in ahead of deadline and knocked off for a day. That’s some serious chops. Of course he was a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy. No flashbacks there. You just create a setting and plop in your characters, and if Time is operating correctly, it should be pretty coherent from then on.
Heck. Anyone could write that.
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