Beta Readers

One of my Montana writer friends, Debbie Burke, just drew me into a role I’ve seldom played–the role of beta reader for her upcoming novella, Crowded Hearts (brand new cover by Brian Hoffman shown below).

Beta readers, those generous people who are willing to slog through an author’s rough drafts and offer critiquing, are vital members of the writing craft.

I’ve been depending on these readers from the beginning of my long years as a writer, usually three or so per book. But while I have occasionally read for fellow critique group members and other friends, I have never fancied myself a beta reader.

It’s not an easy task. You may be looking at the work of someone with a different voice than your own, a different style.

And I’m sensitive to an author’s feelings.

When I lived in Montana some twenty years ago and first joined a critique group there they called me the comma queen because that’s all I felt competent to mark on the scenes members presented each week. Of course when a professional editor got hold of my first to-be-published book I decided I knew nothing about commas. Even so, as a writer I have a fairly solid sense of grammar and can do line editing. Or scour for typos. But reading for content and substance? That’s another thing.

Fast forward to now. I have been in editing mode, trying to get my own ancient historical series polished, but decided it was time to rest for a while and go on a reading binge.

I soon got wrapped up in Debbie’s series of thrillers, having met her during my Montana years. She was in one of those critique groups I joined there. Most of her series is set in the remarkable beauties of that mountainous state. She calls them “thrillers with heart.”

Not only do they take you on exciting and perilous adventures, but there’s some intriguing romantic tension as well. Her protagonist, Tawny Lindholm, is a saucy redhead who gets mixed up with a sinister fellow while she’s grieving over the loss of her husband. And she finds help from Tillman Rosenbaum, an arrogant high-powered attorney with plenty of issues of his own. The sexual tension between her and the attorney becomes a sizzling feature of the series.

When I finished reading Debbie’s Book Four, Dead Man’s Bluff, which takes Tawny and Tillman on a side trip to Florida during Hurricane Irma, I wanted to plunge right into Book Five, but that isn’t out yet. I emailed Debbie and told her how much I liked the latest installments and asked when I could read Book Five—no pressure, of course.

Just happened she was putting the finishing touches on the novella, which is an interlude in the ongoing story. She asked if I would be a beta reader for it. Hungry for the next word in the series I said sure.

Not only did I experience the delight of knowing what happens next, I found I was able to offer some substantive suggestions. When Debbie gave me the copy to critique she told me to be brutal. I think that released me to the incisive response that could actually help her. And maybe because I’d been in editing mode with my own and had become more open to comprehensive changes there, I was better prepared to offer a few thoughts for Debbie’s work–which I must say was quite fine to start with but I think became even better. In fact I really enjoyed the role of beta reading.

In return, Debbie has agreed to be a beta reader for my upcoming one. I know she’s good at that. Some years ago she read one from my series and she offered plenty of unvarnished wisdom that kicked it up to a higher level. After all, we authors have to face the sometimes brutal truth if we’re to make our work shine.

Debbie Burke

So here’s to the beta readers we writers all need so much. It’s hard to see our own mistakes or our failures to communicate. We know what we mean, but the words may not convey what we intend. An extra pair of eyes becomes gold.

And here’s to Debbie’s Tawny Lindholm thrillers with heart. I happily recommend them.

Debbie’s new Crowded Hearts will be out soon on Kindle.


Some Virus History

In these days when our entire world faces a new and deadly virus, some perspective might be found in a look back to another virus that once struck us. Polio.

My friend, Susan Wyatt, has just published a family memoir about her own father, Forrest Clough, who struggled against the crippling effects of this disease, A “Polio” Finds His Way: My Father’s Remarkable Journey.

Book Cover Showing the Author’s Father in His Band Uniform

It’s a loving tribute to a man who never knew the joy of walking without a crutch, never ran, never jumped, never danced. But he played a mean trumpet and traveled the world, married a gutsy and devoted woman, and fathered two children.

Despite his disability from a dread disease that attacked him at the age of four months, he forged his way through life with a good humor and resilience that seldom failed him.

I especially enjoyed the chapters where Susan describes his adventures with the Southern Methodist University (SMU) marching band which toured the nation with the football team and gained considerable attention. That’s Forrest in his band uniform on the book cover. He didn’t march but he added his fine trumpeting when the band played in the stands. His brilliance with the trumpet led to other gigs as well.

Susan relays some of the history of polio. Historians believe the disease may have been around from as early as 3700 B.C. from evidence of a disfigured Egyptian mummy.

Author Susan Clough Wyatt

It may have come across populations in waves. It ravaged Forrest in 1909. Presidential historians will remember it struck Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1921 at the age of 39. And Susan herself caught it in 1952 when she was in the third grade, although she did not suffer the paralysis her father did.

As we sit isolated, impatiently waiting and hoping for a vaccine for Covid-19, it’s unsettling to realize how long it took to come up with a vaccine for polio. We think little of it now as we and our children receive vaccines for polio.

I don’t remember the fears that swept through the country before they had a vaccine for polio. Maybe Oregon, where I grew up, had fewer cases than in other parts of the country. But I do remember getting that sugar cube–which Susan explains in her book was not available until the 1960s. Fortunately the efforts against past diseases have taught researchers a lot and will hopefully speed up today’s search dramatically.

Susan found a wealth of material for her book, thanks to her father’s diligence in recording so much of his active life in several scrapbooks he kept over the years. Then she brings in her own story and her growing understanding of the tolls polio has taken on her own life. The book is a story of challenges, of many helping friends along the way, early days in radio, and meetings with some influential people.

Susan herself has an impressive resume with her overseas work in the U.S. State Department, work stateside in career counseling, and her years as a Foreign Service Spouse, which she describes in another book, Arabian Nights and Daze: Living in Yemen with the Foreign Service.