Monday, February 9, 2015

Beta Reading Notes

NOTE: I'm beta reading an excellent novel -- and I'm posting the notes here so I remember what I told this guy so I remember to do it in my own writing.


I’m liking this book. The characters are fun and the action is good.

I do have a few suggestions:

Jargon and “technobabble”: I’m getting lost in it. First of all, I think being consistent will help. You refer to Med-Tecs, then Tecs, within paragraphs of each other (page 21). Pick one term. I’m also worried your use of impulse power is just too Star Trek. It’s a familiar term, yes, but it stands out as Hey, you’ll be seeing Scotty coming ‘round the next bend. I’d consider something else. I don’t mind that you’re using jargon – it’s to be expected in sci-fi. Just make sure you’re using it consistently and in a way the helps your readers remember what the words mean. As far as the technobabble – that’s what they call it in production of Star Trek TNG – I’m leery of it. It adds nothing to the story when the navigator belts out what direction they’re heading. It’s meaningless to the reader. (example, “Starman,” Reagan shouted, “Set two-seven-one!”, page 37) What does that mean? Yes, it’s part of the nuts and bolts of running a ship, there have to be commands shouted, but keep it to a bare minimum.

Characters: You’ve got some great characters in this book, many of them developing into the kind of well-rounded characters other writers will envy – but I’m lost in figuring out who is who, what job function they have. You refer to them by first name, then by last name, then by first name again – I can’t connect them. I can’t tell if you’re talking about one character or two characters. It’s rare to hear a crewmember’s full name in one go, but you’ve got to do that because I’m getting lost in the soup. That makes me not care about them because I don’t know really who you’re referring to.

Dialogue attribution: Kill the adverbs. Now. Almost every dialog attribution is along the lines of “So and so called out excitedly.” Get the excitement into what they say and dump the adverbs. Also – and this is a matter of style – I would limit the use of words like “called out,” “announced,” and such. Let the emotion, the urgency, come out in what is said – and then say the character “said” it. Sometimes things can be shouted. Or screamed. That’s fine. But stick with said more often than not. And make sure the emotion the adverbs are trying to add are in what is said – then you don’t need the adverbs and your dialogue will be more emotive.

Dialogue. Also, read your dialogue aloud. Some of it is pretty klunky – for example, “That would be why I’ve come” on page 21. It’s snappier to say “That’s why I came.” Shifting the tense from the past whatever to the present is snappier. Another example:  “I’ll do my best, sir” the droid replied. “What we’re all going to need to be doing,” Reagan mumbled (page 61). It would be better for Reagan to say something like “That’s what we all have to do.” It’s present tense. It’s immediate.

Breathing space: As I said when I read “Thulsa’s Gate,” you do action well. Far better than I do. But your readers need some breathing space. I’m at page 40, and you’ve had your crew go through at least four crises. They’re handling it well. But the reader – and you – need some down time. For exposition. For character development. To help your readers know your characters’ names, what they’re like in off-action situations. Look for those moments where your characters have some time to breathe, and expand on them. Help us to get to know these people so we care more about them the next time the battle stations come up. This would give you time to follow up on some things I had some questions on – such as what happened to the urgency of getting this life-preserving fluid for Reagan? He goes through a big battle to get it, but it’s then mentioned almost as an afterthought as you follow up on it. Here’s a chance to expand some breathing space and let us know what’s going on with his body and such. He can have some downtime, interact with the characters (helping us to get to know their names and jobs in the process) before the next battle comes up. Use a little breathing space to explain why they’re going to Oneida. You got them there and I couldn’t remember why they went there in the first place. Seems like they ought to have a good reason to go to such a dangerous place, but I couldn’t find it.

Suspending Disbelief: The chapter “What Time Is It?” I struggled with. The name confusion thing doesn’t help. I have no idea who these characters are. I think you need to dial this chapter back a notch, because I’m not sure even Scotty could handle all this devastation. I know you’re setting up for Reagan’s display of superstrength brought on by his two hearts, but there’s got to be a way to do this that doesn’t toss physics out the window.

Emotional Superstrength: In the chapter “Always” you also have a chance to develop Reagan’s character tremendously here as his wife dies – he can show super strength of an emotional caliber, or demonstrate that his emotional strength hasn’t quite caught up with his physical strength.  As it is, her death leaves me kind of flat. He doesn’t really react. Here’s action of a different caliber you need to apply yourself to. You’ve got the talent to do it. Challenge yourself.

The, ahem, ladies:  You mentioned a previous beta reader was a little frustrated with the ladies. I can kind of see her point. The ladies get described with curves and hair and such – but only one of the men gets such treatment. It’s traditional in sci-fi to do this, but in this day and age it seems a little outmoded. I kind of go with the Hemingway method of describing characters: Don’t. Let the readers sort it out in their heads. Unless a woman’s blond hair is an integral part of the story, I’m not sure it matters all that much if she has blond hair. I admit when writers describe their characters, I get lost. Sometimes, it’s because the character is so well-developed I already have a picture of them in my mind, associating their strengths and weaknesses with people I already have in my head in a visual way. Then the description comes along and my image gets garbled. So to make reading easier, I toss out of my mind what the writer says. Almost every time. Almost completely, unless, as I mentioned earlier, there’s an attribute of the character’s appearance that’s going to be important later on. I might even have to read the book two or three times to pick up on the important clue the writer dropped, I’m so used to forming character images in my own mind.

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