Back to the betas

beta-reader

At long last I’ve finished the sequel to Night Shift. Long-time readers of this blog will know it as my problem child novel; it’s taken years to get into any sort of shape, and has been through renames and remixes aplenty.

What I’d like to do now is to get it off to my editor and then hide under my desk for a few months until I get a response. I might do that anyway, but first I must take time and do my best to ensure the eventual response doesn’t draw out a guttural howl of agony. It is time to request beta-readers.

Beta-readers are saintly humans who are willing to give up their time – sometimes a lot of it – to help make your work better. They ask for no money (yet – they really should unionise), dealing only in favours; specifically, the expectation that you’ll read their blithering drivel works of undiscovered genius in return.

beta-reader-cartoon

Beta-readers aren’t professionals; they’re not sensitivity readers and they often don’t have the experience of paid-up editors. But they’re spot-on 90% of the time. If they tell you your multi-time-frame-and-perspective-jolting climax isn’t working, they’re probably on the money.

It also helps that in many cases, these betas know you and know how to give criticism, coming as they do from that mythical group of people called ‘friends’. Sometimes payment is made in beer, wine and chocolates.

But this is the hardest time for me. I know the novel needs at least a good sanding down; there must be rough edges aplenty. There is work to be done.

But I just want to get on. On to the next one. Maybe do some real writing for once.

beta+reader

All the way down

 

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Street art in Richmond VA. Artist unknown, by me at least

Everything is a trope. Every idea you’ve had, every thought, has come before. The precise number of plots is debatable but all who have managed to get others to pay for their opinions agree: stories are finite. Only the telling varies. Yet there is no algorithm to tell us how to write the perfect story. We continue to devour tales that seem to us to be distinct and unique and precious. Experts, our brains scoff, what do they know?

It’s the same with tropes. We can identify them: there’s the Dead Lesbian and the English Villain (beloved of Hollywood); there’s Women in Refrigerators and Humans are the Real Monsters. There are so many that it becomes almost paralysing. You don’t want to be part of a trend, do you? You don’t want to perpetuate damaging myths or be victims of the witch-hunt of the week.

I try not to be racist. I try not to be sexist. So when I’m writing I try to have a diverse cast. I try to have characters of differing sexualities – not representations but living, breathing people – in significant roles. I do this because it represents the world we live in and the future I’d like to see (and I try to read diversely too). But it’s also a minefield. With so many tropes littering the path it seems impossible not to trip up somewhere.

Do I, for example, dare to have a BAME villain? Or a woman? Can my nastiest character be homosexual? What if I cause offence? The internet is a rage machine: do I want to be defending my work – my character – and do I have to be defended by racists and other people I detest?

Recently Lionel Shriver caused controversy by pointing out that all fiction is inherently fake. It’s a difficult argument: she’s right, of course: everything I do is a lie and part of the job description is to put myself in the head of someone I’m not. But there is a horrible arrogance in her position; that we shouldn’t care about the opinions of the people we’re representing (appropriating); that we can take at will without hearing their voices directly.

Now we have sensitivity readers to help us, and that’s good. We don’t know everything and we need help in picking up the slack. It’s been said that this will limit the issues we can address, but I see the opposite. I think the growth in awareness will give us – us being, I suppose, white western cisgender writers, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the other way too – the confidence to address controversial issues and periods of history.

I am in favour of political correctness. I want to be challenged. I believe that it’s right to listen when someone tells us they’ve been offended. If nothing else these issues make us reassess our own prejudices; and, I hope, help us produce better work.

This is what I want to communicate here: being aware of all these issues makes our work better. You can rail against all these limitations or you can use them to build more rounded characters and plots. This is what I’m trying to do. If I realise that I’m falling into a trope-trap I will work harder to think of a more creative solution. The story will be richer as a result.

We still live in a massively ‘white’ world. If we want to write about other peoples and cultures then the least we can do is get it right.