Castles in the Air

To beta read or not?

For those of you who don’t know, beta readers are people who read a pre-publication draft of a manuscript and suggest changes. They aren’t editors, and normally they don’t pick up on grammar and typos, although some do.

The main role is to provide feedback on how the book hangs together from the reader’s perspective.

Sometimes readers get an edited version, but often, it’s a version that’s not been through a professional editor, because an author isn’t going to want to pay for one round of editing to have to go back, rewrite and pay for extra editing.

Usually, it’s done for free, for example authors reading the books of other authors.

Not everyone uses betas, or, an editor may fulfil the role of a beta.

What are the sort of things beta readers look for?

The obvious ones are: characters and their development throughout the book, pacing, dialogue, flaws, inconsistencies and plot holes, structure eg is the order and emphasis right? more of this and less of that? what worked, what didn’t, and the big one – did the reader like the book?

People reply differently with their feedback. Some provided detailed comments via track changes (I can’t bear all the annotations, gives me vertigo), others make general comments, others look at specific aspects in detail. An author may ask readers to look at certain sections they feel are weak, or they may give betas a list of areas they want feedback on. It’s very flexible.

In one of the professional book review groups I’m in, one author asked for beta readers. So … I ended up reading Alison’s terrific book, Castles in the Air.

It’s a family memoir of her mother’s life, based on diaries, letters, and Alison’s observations as a child and young woman.

I was intrigued for so many reasons: Royal Naval connections, travelling and ex-patting from England to south-east Asia, to South Africa, back to England, then Malaysia, and then Australasia. With a few more trips thrown in.

Molly, the main character in the book, was born in the 20s, and her family travels to Hong Kong in the 30s shortly before the outbreak of WW2.

Molly pushed up the Peak
Molly pushed up the Peak

We read about the four or five week voyage out there, life on board ship, and the amazing life young Molly had in, firstly Hong Kong, then Singapore, and later at school in the Cameron Highlands. But as the war becomes more intense in south-east Asia, Molly and her mum are shipped out, although they have no idea where they will end up.

It’s a world in the past but Alison recreates it beautifully. An added bonus in the book is a selection of photos from this long-past era.

I loved the detailed reference to on-board ship menus in the 30s, so much so that I got hugely distracted hunting down more of them.

I can understand why Molly recalled the food on board ship, as they were served what, in that time of austerity, would have been elaborate meals. Family meals at home would have been simpler: one course, perhaps two at weekends or on special occasions. It must have seemed as though they were going out to dinner every night. A typical adult Tourist Class lunch menu from the sister ship of the Corfu, the Strathmore, in 1936 consisted of soup or Welsh rarebit to start, followed by veal cutlets with bacon, potatoes served three ways and bringals (aubergine). On the cold sideboard was potted meat and fish, Leicester (pork) pie, roast rib of beef and ox tongue. There was a choice of four salads, including beetroot and American. On the sweets menu was fruit roll pudding and a blackcurrant water ice. The cheese course offered four types of cheese, including gorgonzola, accompanied by a selection of bread rolls.

Get that! And people think food has improved? Check out these menus from the 30s. Sirloin steak for breakfast.

Menuly retentive link.

As Molly grows up, we watch her start work, take pride in the career she chooses, and then she becomes engaged.

Molly in her Guy's nurses uniform
Molly in her Guy’s nursing uniform

Molly travelled out to Singapore again in the early 50s. Hm. Menu not as good.

Gala dinner. 1951? Go back to the 30s I say
Gala dinner. 1951? Go back to the 30s I say

After her marriage, we follow her new life and read about her starting her own family, and the inevitable challenges of leading an ex-pat life in yet more countries.

I don’t want to retell Molly’s story, so suffice to say it is surprising, poignant, heartfelt and very moving. With an unexpected ending.

It’s hard to say ‘great book’ when there is sadness and tragedy involved, but this is a well-crafted and well-written story that I enjoyed from start to finish.

And, reading the beta version and the later one, was fascinating. Not only had Alison generously mentioned her two beta readers in the acknowledgements, she’d made a number of changes that I’d suggested.

There is no obligation on an author to do this, but, as a beta reader, it’s interesting to see suggestions that are taken up. It feels like time that hasn’t been wasted. I’ve still got a few editorial gripes, but I usually do.

Whatever, it’s a great story, and I totally recommend it to people who are interested in memoirs generally, and specifically, twentieth century history, difficulties of being expats, living abroad, nursing, drugs, depression, family relationships, and … close unspecified relationships. Throughout the book, Molly’s relationship with her family friend Steve, hovers, even after his death.

Steve
Steve

Castles in the Air by Alison Ripley Cubitt and Molly Ripley.

A few refs on beta reading, for anyone who wants to know more:

https://ireadencyclopedias.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/authors-answer-37-beta-readers/

10 TOP TIPS For the BETA Reading Stage

http://www.storiestotellbooks.com/blog/beta-readers-help-fine-tune-your-self-published-book.html

Photos by permission of the author.

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100 comments on “Castles in the Air

  1. That sounds intriguing!! In our house, hubby’s the one who reads non-fiction (in fact, I don’t think he’s ever read a book of fiction although he must have, to graduate High School) and I invariably read fiction. The great exception, of course, is auto/biographies, which I love – pictures are an added bonus! What a wonderful ‘assignment’ for you; it’s always good when work is fun!

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  2. I suppose I really should resist the temptation to beta bout the bush by remarking you can’t beta beta reader to beta book into shape as a beta read.
    I’m sure you also find that it is difficult to do an edit without becoming a beta reader. Even if one is thoroughly enjoying the book, one can’t help remarking on aspects, not technically wrong, where improvement would lead one to enjoy it even more.
    I think I would really enjoy this book, particularly as from an era and situations – transpose Asia into India – which my mother would reminisce about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Just ha.
      The problem with editing is that people don’t know what they want or what editors can offer. What is the difference between an MS appraisal, a beta read, a developmental/constructive edit etc etc ?
      And, how much will people pay?
      But yes, I find editing a raw MS can’t not involve being a beta reader. Whether it’s this needs more here, less there, alter the characterisation etc. and, to be fair, most authors accept that. So, I’m puzzled why anyone would want half a dozen people asking that.
      I loved the geography in the book: Bombay, Colombo, Hong Kong, Singapore, just amazing.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Is this the same thing as getting a “Proof Copy”? I love those. Sometimes.
    I love the idea of this story. The writing style on the other hand is tiresome and unsophisticated. But I’m difficult :)

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    • Do you mean an ARC? Nah. We probably understand different things by ‘proof copy’ as, to me, they are always something that needs more work.
      Anyway, a beta read copy can be semi-finished, almost finished or should be better finished (that always applies in my case).
      The story is good. Remember the style is about using the diaries and letters and providing a commentary. To that extent, I think it works. OK, I’m difficult too, and there are some changes I suggested that didn’t happen. I certainly don’t think an analytical commentary is tiresome or unsophisticated though. Perhaps I like the raw reportage?

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      • I suppose the first bit in the post doesn’t do it any favours. “By mid September…”- “an awkward age for any teenager.” But as I said, I’m difficult, so it’s probably my own thing/problem. I just don’t have the energy for that sort of writing.
        I also find what I call “post-aristocratic” writing somewhat dubious. When experienced first hand there can be something deep and intense (a sort of punch in the gut from loss)- other times it can be an attempt to find self-worth through the status others once had. I haven’t read this, so I’m not sure which category it sits in ;)

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        • What I liked was the richness and variety of experience plus the broad sweep that almost casually included WW2 in the far east, the Malaysian Emergency, and then a new life elsewhere. Plus, some very sad endings. This is no HEA book.

          But on style, you might like Polly Trope’s Cured Meat. Maybe pretentious, but it’s very visual and interesting. It needs another edit though. I reviewed it for Awesome Indies, but she refused to have it re-edited so it didn’t get approved. Still, it is imaginative and creative.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have been told off before for backing Pink, but when I read “who was quiet and shy until you got to know her” I wondered if you would lay into that.

            It makes me wonder. I read high quality stuff- War and Peace at the moment- and see problems in my own style, which is one of my inhibitions atm against sending out writing. If the matter is interesting, could I just get away with it?

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          • Well, I don’t usually tell people off for backing him, unless he is being deliberately and provocatively naughty. And then I’d tell him off :D
            One key point to consider, which Dylan referred to below, is not to impose our view on an author’s style. I think that applies whether reading, beta reading, editing or reviewing.
            Most of us aren’t Tolstoy (years since I read that). My personal faves cover a wide range of styles. If I could write like anyone, I would probably choose Oscar Wilde.
            Right now there are so many would-be writers it is unbelievable. So, maybe you could. Another blogger has detailed his submissions and the rejections he has received so far.
            In the case of this book, I think Alison went for a fairly detached observer perspective in the first part of the book where much of the material is historical diaries and letters. In the latter part, ie after her birth, then there is more of a personal feel as she talks about growing up.
            Interesting material? Question is, who will it interest?

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  4. Wonderfully interesting review of Castles in the Air. Plus, the whole idea of beta readers helping out other authors really appeals to me. Put me down both for loving to have a beta reader later on in the year, regarding my sequel to Learning from Dogs, and for acting as a beta reader for someone else ‘out there’.

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  5. I always try to beta read at least a couple of books a year. I’d love to do more but it’s quite a lot of work and can be quite stressful, especially if it’s for somebody you’ve never beta read for before.
    I think the hardest part of being a writer who beta reads is to curb your natural instinct to shape the book as you’d write it. I try to be objective in my feedback focussing on what worked for me and what didn’t, and why. I try not to offer solutions but occasionally fail. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the amount of work involved in a beta read is underestimated. I read one post that said it involves one read. There’s no way I could do that. Sure the first read gives first impressions, but then to write the detailed report, it means going back through that, plus notes. And, it also depends (like editing) what the author wants from their beta read. Alison said that her readers gave her different aspects, so it seemed to work out well. I was surprised when I read the final version that she had seriously edited part of the book that I thought flagged somewhat.
      I think it’s difficult not to offer solutions. By default, saying, this doesn’t work, it’s too slow, repetitive, irrelevant, you are basically saying cut it out or rewrite it significantly. Or the plot doesn’t hang together because … Or, this character doesn’t ring true. Of course, whether someone pays attention is another matter. And their choice to do so or not do. A bit silly if you pay for a beta not to take some of the advice though !

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting from so many angles – The expat side, because of my current location and having met other expats who are fresh out of current day Singapore, the historic – because I have always been interested in general, but also the behind the scenes activity of publishing. There seems to be what feels like a number of really useful, inexpensive, support systems available where folk are helping each other get it done. Very cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always susceptible to an expat tale! The history in there was interesting too.
      I think the internet and self-publishing has made it easier for people to get help and share experiences, but it’s also meant much more competition!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds an interesting read – and I always think photos help a memoir along.
    I have what I guess is my beta reader. A good friend and work colleague with a fair but critical eye always reads my creative pieces before I do anything with them. She’s very good at telling me what works and what doesn’t, regardless of whether she actually likes the content. I have found her comments very valuable and can usually rewrite stuff on her advice.

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    • I love old photos. They totally capture a past era. So, yes, I agree they do help a memoir along.
      If you have someone whose eye/advice works for you then that’s great. Especially if they can be objective, that’s a key part of any literary criticism/review.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have read many wonderful manuscripts through beta reading, and even believe I’ve been helpful to a few. For those of us who write but aren’t editors, it can be a great way to develop an editorial eye, and notice issues in your own work. Castles in the Air sounds like a great read–I will look for it!

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  9. Beta readers are like gold – hard to find and very valuable. Most of mine are brilliant writers themselves, and good friends as well, so I know I can trust them to be kind but honest – lots of juggling involved. :)

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  10. This was so interesting. I shall look out for it, especially as my Mum did her nursing training at Guys – most likely at about the same time, or possibly a bit later. She then went to Uganda on colonial service. And good to know what a beta reader is.

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  11. Wow, this is a fantastic piece of history and great documented family ancestry for generations of that family to come. Thanks for letting us know about this one.

    I had a beta readers on my finished novel. Didn’t get a whole lot of feedback from mine, but I did make changes on the few suggestions I received.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was hoping for more focus on beta readers, but I suppose there’s not much to them really.

    I am curious if Beta Readers are a relatively new thing (last 20-30 years). I ask because when I read about the early days of Stephen King, or Isaac Asimov, or other authors from late last century, there is no mention of beta readers. The whole process back then was different, and it seems the editors who bought their works also functioned as beta readers.

    One of Heinlein’s rules was to write it and send it out as quickly as possible (http://www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm).

    As for my preference, I’m only mildly interested in grammar/punctuation feedback (except if they are flagrant and egregious infractions), and more interested in whether the person enjoyed the story. Most of all, whether while reading it they become aware they are reading a book – get taken out of the story – due to plot points or character actions that don’t flow (I should probably rewrite that sentence, but you being an editor and all means you can work your way through it).

    I think that’s where I’m most conflicted. I think “regular” readers read differently than writers or editors. I think of feedback from readers as commentary on my ability to tell a tale. I think of feedback from writers/editors as commentary on the craft of writing (and that is sometimes subjective and highly dependent on individual styles and preferences).

    Yes, there is overlap, but if one is to publish something, it’s readers who comprise the bulk of the sales.

    The analogous situation in cinema is that I sometimes review movies. My reviews are often plot and character based, whereas some of the professional reviews dip into the cinematography, lighting, etc. (Why I seldom read reviews from movie critics – I much prefer hearing from ‘ordinary’ people if they liked the movie or not, and I don’t want to hear particulars)

    Anyway, thanks for the links – I did click and read them.

    As for the book, not my cup of tea, but the photos are interesting.

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    • Not sure what more focus you want. A description? CV? It’s not exactly difficult. Mostly, someone doing something for nothing or reciprocity.
      New in terms of terminology, ie dates back to computer testing, ie beta testers. It did exist before that, Tolkien and Carroll are the ones usually quoted.
      I think editing has changed over the years with the delineation between this sort of editing and that sort. It’s very pigeon-holed now. Well, in America at any rate! I see no reason why an editor can’t say, ‘um, need to change this a bit’ and ‘grammar needs improving’.
      I don’t think betas should act on grammar issues. But, some choose to. I think the whole idea is for free MS appraisal/critique. Did this story work? If not, why not? If it did, what was good?
      I hope I still read as a reader or else I shouldn’t be doing it. I’d liketo think I do both. That’s why I can say good book/story, even if not my choice.
      I think films are a bit more complex because of the additional aspects.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If I knew what I wanted to know, I probably would not have needed to read it. Seriously, the material in the links you provided were more in-depth but basically the same things I already guessed.

      One of the reasons I’m curious about Beta Readers is because I’m impatient. Without legions of beta readers at my call, I’m likely to forego the process which, according to everything I’ve read, spells doom for any chance I might have at ever being published.

      Also, with rare exceptions, I’m not sure I’ve gotten all that much from beta readers. Mind you, I’ve had a few very good ones, but they have lives and struggles of their own and are mostly unavailable and have been for the past year+. Add that to my reluctance to ask people I don’t know – and for people I don’t know to tell me to fornicate off – and the reality is a dearth of beta readers.

      Here’s where my incredibly resilient and giganormous ego is going to trip me up . . . I’ll start thinking I can do without. Heck, I’m practically already there.

      Time will tell if I’m good enough to forego what is often touted as a “must.”

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  13. Nothing like old photos to anchor the history and story down. Tale sounds intriguing ( due to your style of reviewing. Sounds like you like this one, too)
    Beta read in one pass? Not sure about that possibility – guess it depends on what result/information is being offered to the writer.
    Maybe in earlier years of publication, writers might not have used beta readers due to the skill level of authors? Today isn’t quite the same. Writing skills not so honed in schools over here. Not as much attention to details in a hurry-up “oh, it wiii be fine” world?

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    • Old photos work so well in these type of books. The past captured for an instant but now so long ago. Yes, I did enjoy the story. It was exotic, historical, happy and sad. And went halfway round the world, and mostly to places I’d been.
      I rarely even review books on one read only, let alone provide a reasonable report for a beta read on one read.
      In earlier years I think some people did use beta readers – but they weren’t called that – others didn’t. Things are certainly very different now when all the world is ‘a writer’. Coincidentally I read today about someone who did rush to publish a book, and was later horrified to discover how many errors it held …

      Liked by 1 person

      • Long ago they used educated “friends” maybe – and writers were more concerned about making a good presentation that would reflect badly on their thoughts, thought process, and their education level. People used to worry so much more about their reputations and appearance in public? Few would risk looking illiterate or ignorant. (which brings us back to maybe some modern writers actually do not understand basics?)
        It always fun to read about places you’ve seen. Sounds like a book that will appeal to many.

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        • I think people hope their betas are educated. But yes, writing was largely an educated thing.
          Style is one thing and I always accept that. But basics? Some make Ulysses look sensible.
          A book that touched this half of the world, not the Americas, but yes, I’m pleased people are interested in it :)

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Ah, that sounds like a great read, I’ve just bought it. Exactly the kind of tale I most enjoy.

    If I ever attempted fiction I’d definitely be looking for beta readers, but as a non-fiction writer I know what I want to say and how I want to say it, without being influenced by anybody else’s thoughts, apart from my editor. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, it isn’t meant to be, but when I’m writing my experiences and thoughts they are just that, uniquely mine and told in my own way.

    I’d be concerned that beta readers may suggest ways to ‘refine’ the style and content into something that wasn’t ‘me,’ and lead to self-doubt, which is a killer for any writer.

    Roll on bedtime with what I know is going to be a great read, Molly’s story.

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    • I know Alison will be delighted, she’s already had other sales and Kindle Unlimited reads as a result of this post. I was surprised last year on my post about book preferences that so many people chose memoirs. It’s not necessarily my choice, but there are some good stories out there, and this was one.
      I think the beta thing is interesting. I didn’t edit Alison’s book, but if I had, I’d have suggested the same things I suggested as a beta reader, if that makes sense. I do suggest structural changes as part of editing, because in a way, editing is beta reading. It’s the author’s choice to accept or ignore. It doesn’t mean I’m right, it’s a suggestion based on a first-time objective read of a MS. What I don’t do is suggest style changes. Either an author’s style works for readers or it doesn’t. Suggesting changes to style/content/tone is tantamount to a rewrite!
      I do hope you enjoy it. Postcard from Gib did. Let me know :)

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  15. Wow… how intriguing! Love the title, pics, everything about it. Mm… one I shall have to remember when I start buying books again. :)

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  16. I’m always happy -time allowing- to beta read for indie authors, and have read some great books this way. I’m never sure if I’m a great beta reader as I tend to like or hate but I guess that’s why many beta readers make a book work.
    I’m hoping it’s sign of free time to come as Castles in the Air is my second Kindle book purchase in as many days thanks to your reviews :)

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    • Damn! Missed this! As a beta reader, I do it better for money. I can be much more objective and thoughtful that way. Put more time and effort into it. Sad but true. People said they like memoirs when I asked for book preferences so, seemed worth a post. Hope you enjoy it, post-gardening …

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