Beta Readers are like Gold

I value my Beta Readers. Like gold, they shine bright and their feedback is invaluable. A keen reader of thrillers – who has devoured over 30 books this year so far – has just finished my book. He was tasked with general feedback, rather than detailed analysis. The golden nugget for me was his comment that he felt the story only got flowing with the submarine action. This got me thinking about the sequence of chapters and made me realise that I could bring the underwater action forward. After some heavy cut-and-paste, this action now begins at Chapter 3 and the story is better paced and more engaging. My reader made a few other passing comments which has led to further tweaks and a better novel. This one made me smile;

“I had a feeling that the story was going to end with a twist and it was a good one.”

Conclusion? Beta Readers are like gold!

Here is an easy guide for Beta Readers:

  1. Identify characters who are not engaging so I can strengthen or remove them.
  2. Identify anything that’s confusing (chapters, paragraphs, or dialog).
  3. Evaluate Plot and Pace: was the book a “good read” that kept you engaged and wanting more? If not, what parts lacked engagement?
  4. Finally, the ending: was it OK? Unexpected? Can you think of a better one?
  5. Would you tell your friends about this book after having read it?

Read–>Research–>Rewrite

Edit 101: A great technique that I have found useful for reviewing my work (after the basic spelling, grammar and sentence lengths, etc.) is to read through a chapter–>research on areas lacking detail and then–>rewrite. Let’s take an example from the 2nd to last chapter in my new book:

I gaze at my surroundings, soaking in the ambience. Beyond the pool and a sixty-foot yacht, sparkling blue water laps the high walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a bastion protecting us from prying eyes. Rows of olive and citrus trees flood the bank behind us, and the gardener waves when he spots me.

After a short google on “fruit trees in Dubrovnik” my rewrite looked like this:

I gaze at my surroundings, soaking in the ambience. A classic sixty-foot yacht lies tied alongside the pier and, beyond, sparkling blue water wraps the high walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, protecting us from prying eyes. Rows of olive, apple and citrus trees flood the bank behind us, and a gardener waves when he spots me. He’s gathering bitter oranges from laden branches with a grin as bright as the day.

Notes: a later reference to the yacht required more detail earlier, hence the rearranging and greater emphasis in the second version. The gardener needed a more solid platform, rather than a passing mention.

There you have a minor, but important revision tool

Looking After Yourself

I recently had a request from an agent for my full manuscript. You can imagine the excitement in our household after four years of punching out, and editing, the 101,000 words. This momentous occasion was a cause for some celebration but, some four weeks later, was followed up with this email;

Thank you for sending the manuscript for [new book name here]. I’m sorry to say that, after further consideration, I have concluded that it is not quite the right fit for me. This of course reflects less on the quality of your submission and more on my own personal tastes. Thank you for considering me this time and if you do not find an agent for this book, please remember to try me again with any future projects.

How did I feel? Gutted and dismayed that my book fell short, and somewhat disappointed that I did not receive more helpful detail from the agent. That resulted in a long lull in my writing and my enthusiasm to write died. But, a few weeks later, I am more determined than ever to take my book “up a notch” for readers (see earlier post) and for my future agent. The difficulty is how to do this. My first step was to send the manuscript out to two readers who I trust to be honest and ask for their feedback. While I await their responses I am taking a brutally honest look at the plot and flow, especially in the early chapters. The Synopsis is also on the chopping block.

Avoid Clichés; Scare Your Readers

The Power of Words to Resurrect Your Story

The legacy of our earliest ancestors left them with two options when confronted with fear – to stay and fight or to run as fast as they could. Those who were good at predicting the outcomes survived and passed this genetic trait down to us.

Faced with this situation – real or imaginary – the brain mobilizes the body’s resources. It sends a rush of adrenaline and other hormones coursing through the body. Our pupils dilate to see better. Our heart pounds and our breath quickens to rush blood and oxygen to our muscles. We might turn pale as blood is directed away from the skin to power the muscles and fuel the brain. We might tremble or shake as our muscles tense, primed to take action. You might even get goosebumps, as tiny muscles flex in the skin, causing hairs to stand up. All triggered by the brain’s prime directive: survival.

When we realize that the danger isn’t real, we are left with a dopamine rush – the “feel good” hormone released in the process. While I adore a good scare, not everyone enjoys the thrills of a haunted house, a wild roller coaster ride, or a spooky story. Neuroscientists believe that may be because our brains have different sensitivities to the dopamine rush.

At an anniversary screening of Halloween many years ago,  one of our young interns, now a successful manager and producer, sat beside me. She squirmed throughout, grabbing my arm and practically crawling into my seat in the scariest scenes. “Jamie Lee Curtis is alive and well and sitting two rows ahead of us,” I hissed. It didn’t matter. For her, the dopamine rush was too intense.

Strong storytelling engages us, draws us in, pulls us into the world, and straps us into the shoes of the character. We feel what they feel. Instead of merely observing, we are participating. We are in the moment. Caught up in the spell you’ve woven with your words.

Delicious dopamine cannot be activated with the overly familiar. Our brains have come to ignore phrases that once made storytelling awesome, but have been overused:

          Upset the applecart.

Clichés fail to activate our brains. Switching them up with something inventive yet understandable grabs our attention. It delivers more emotional impact and will resonate with your reader.

          Shaken like a snow globe.

To keep that dopamine flowing, the words and the elements of your story must be fresh and distinctive.

Read the full article from scriptmag.com

Drafting Reveals a New Story

Alaa Al-Barkawi says, “Growing up Iraqi Muslim American post 9/11 and during the US occupation of Iraq, I was constantly flooded with images of my people as the villains, and it affected my work as a writer…Through many trials, plot changes, and mental breakdowns…not only did I have a newer, shinier draft—but a new story I didn’t know existed in this book!”

Alaa’s comment resonated with me. I had the same experience and wanted to share this too. During extensive editing on my new novel, and from Beta Reader feedback, I discovered that there was another story within the pages; one more powerful and convincing, and one that propelled the plot. My novel moved from pure thriller to crime and grew in meaning and impact (for me, at least). Read more about Alaa’s writing journey here.

Regaining the Excitement

A writer (Jed Herne) mentioned that, at just over halfway through their novel, they found that the excitement had faded. That got me thinking about my new thriller. I thought the main plot was strong, but the ending not so. The trap for writers – and this is a personal view – is that getting the main action to a climax is a straightforward process, but finishing with an equally powerful flourish can be a challenge. In my case, one of my Beta Readers pointed out the weaknesses in my final chapters. I used this feedback to put a much better twist to the ending and, in a recent edit, added another chapter to link back to an earlier one and round out the finish. I smiled and I hope readers will too :-).

Duck for Cover

Duck for cover – the new book cover, that is. After much back and forth with my designer, the final version has come through for my revised first thriller. It looks something like this:

Yes, you are the first ones on the planet to see this new look! It just needs a minor tweak with the sizing and it will be ready to launch. The gap on the lower back cover is for the ISBN, etc. BTW, this is why I don’t recommend self-publishing—I should be spending my time writing and not worrying about book cover design, re-writing, correcting errors, uploading files, etc. [You can order a copy of 3 WISE MEN here]

On a Cold and Rainy Day

What to do on a cold and rainy day? I could finish painting the spare bedroom, but the weather is damp and the paint won’t dry very well. I could take my wife out for a coffee, but she is ill and resting. I could keep editing my new book—or, rather, what I call fine-editing since the major editing is finished. No, I need a new inspiration. So, I decide to work on my first book; produce a new cover, revise the first chapter and update the About the Author page. My goal is to have this done in three days. Meanwhile, my darling publisher Amazon have changed their Kindle format from .mobi to .pub, so that requires more work :-). The next day, I have a head cold and don’t feel like doing much at all. But, the weather is warmer and the painting is almost finished. I’m praying for a better week ahead and a new-look to the bedroom as well as my first book. More news to follow if all goes well. {PS: good progress on both the bedroom renovation and book revisions. The text changes are done and have been uploaded to Amazon. Now I am working with my illustrator with final touches to the cover. All will be revealed soon}

The Day of the Jackal Sets a High Bar for Thrillers

Author Lee Child has published 25 thrillers, featuring Jack Reacher, which have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.So when he says The Day Of The Jackal is “a year-zero, game-changing thriller, one of the most significant of all time” you listen.

It is 50 years since the book by Frederick Forsyth was published but, in a new introduction to a special anniversary edition, Child says it still feels “luminously fresh and new”.

And no-one is more surprised than Forsyth himself. Not only was it his first novel, but also he tells the BBC: “I’d never written a word of fiction in my life.”

Back in 1970, the former RAF pilot and war correspondent was out of work. “[I was] skint, in debt, no flat, no car, no nothing and I just thought, ‘How do I get myself out of this hole?’ And I came up with probably the zaniest solution – write a novel,” he says.

Forsyth “dashed off” The Day Of The Jackal quickly on an old typewriter in 35 days. It is a gripping tale, set in 1963, about an Englishman hired to assassinate the French president at the time, Charles de Gaulle. But publishers were not interested. After all de Gaulle was very much alive, the mission had obviously failed, so where was the suspense? That, says Child, is the key to its success.

“It had a wholly new approach. It was talking about how things were done, rather than would something succeed. [read more from the BBC here]. PS: I smiled when I read this article and hope that my new thriller is a success because the mission given to the lead character fails to unfold in the way we would expect. (oops, did I give too much away?)

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