The Power of Betas
Who knew? I know I sure as hell didn’t.
Now, you might be thinking, and rightly so, what the hell is he going on about now?
Well, I’ll tell ya.
Sometime last year I began to get quite interested in being a writer. It’s not something new. I’ve had these stories burning in my head – albeit on very far away and distant back burners, mind you – that needed me to get on with the telling.
So last year I began to start writing in earnest. I was writing mostly for me. I still am to a great degree. It doesn’t matter if no one else really likes what I am doing. I like it and that’s the bar I need to hit – as a matter of reference I am never quite satisfied with any creative work I do so that bar is probably a helluva lot higher than any of the critics out there could begin to tear down.
In any event, I began writing.
First it was a story that had been passed back and forth between my husband and myself – an alternate history dealing with Natives from the America’s and the ‘what if’ of a little known and oft missed point in our American past where the British reneged on an agreement that would’ve backed the establishment of a Native nation on the burgeoning American continent. In actuality, there was a small book that my husband introduced me to that dealt with this in an indirect manner – an alternate history of a world where this had come to pass. It detailed, quite well, how Natives would have evolved in western society and applied their precepts and outlook on modern life in an alternate universe that pseudo paralleled our world.
The book was: The Journey of Silas P. Bigelow by Keenan Heise.
It’s a lovely little book that actually grapples with some fairly complex societal mores. I loved the book and I was inspired to write my own “what if” on how I would see Native’s in the bold new modern frontier if they’d been allowed to prosper and evolve unimpeded by the western Europeans.
So I started on that piece and it became quite a behemoth in scope as well as in tone. I decided to table it because so much of it was interesting but it just wasn’t jelling. I was undeterred though – I knew that writing was my thing – I just needed to find the right vehicle to get me started. So that story is on the back burner where it my likely remain for all time. I have the manuscript files, I have the notes and research (which was extensive in both history and in quantum mechanics and native theory on physics in general). Just those pondering alone can point to an over-indulgent exploration that would rival Tolkien’s. To be blunt about it, I wasn’t up to the task (just not then, at any rate).
So that got shunted for another take on Native life – since I am of native descent (my own father coming straight from the rez) I took to writing a different sort of story that was still scientifically based (mostly because I married a real rocket scientist) I wanted to play with the whole – let’s present it as magic (ala Harry Potter but with Indians) only to show by the end that it was all science – just not understood by those who were wielding it what it was. That work is still in progress and has quite a bit amassed already.
But then I got an itch, brought about by Chris Hemsworth’s turn as Thor. I wanted to do something with Viking lore – so I became enamored with the Norse Fae called the Feigr. That iron was put into the fire and I began writing that in earnest too.
I am sure you can see where this is going – a whole shit load of irons in the fire but nothing coming from it.
Enter my Angels: Marco, Elliot and Pietro.
Angels of Mercy had none of the above. When it hit it came like a hurricane and completely sidelined EVERYTHING I was doing. I wrote the first volume of Angels of Mercy in a matter of months. At 205K words it is one helluva tome – and it is only the first of three books in the series. With book one completed (yes, I FINALLY completed something) I began to write volume two (I figured I was on a roll now).
Then NaNoWriMo reared its attractive head – ‘write a novel in a month’ was the challenge. I’d just put the wraps on a 205K novel so the 50K challenge didn’t seem like anything of the sort. So I set aside Marco’s part of the tale in Angels to create another new universe: Werewolves in a fictitious town of Sparrow’s Hollow in 1956 West Virginia. It’s proving to be a bit of fun writing fluff of a horror nature (albeit with a whole lot of gay boy on boy lovin’ thrown in for good measure – I am all about the man on man love fest here in case you hadn’t noticed).
Well, that is about to wrap up (within this week), and I have taken time off to get it accomplished so by the time November 30th rolls around I’ll have my second (if smaller) novel completed.
So, aside from the possible tie-in with werewolves, where does the whole beta thing come in?
Simple. As a writer I found out from my other author pals that betas are invaluable to any author and are worth their weight in gold if they aren’t the sort that will just (as one author put it so eloquently) “cast so much sunshine up your backside that you get a sunburn from it.” So I found out I needed me some beta readers to give me feedback as I began to write and develop my worlds.
Now to be honest, this was something that initially I was toying with. I was always going to write either way. It’s just in me to do so. Yet, here’s the thing: I was curious to a small degree on what someone else thought of my work.
So I began to find others who might read it. I found my first beta in a LGBTQAI support forum board and began to chat him up (no, not in that way – head out of the gutter now), to see how receptive he was about my writing. He admitted that he wasn’t much of a reader to that point because most of what was out there didn’t interest him. But I asked him to read Angels of Mercy and to tell me what he honestly thought. Surprisingly, he did.
While he had praise for the work, which I found so gratifying, he also demonstrated a complete attachment to my boys in the story. As if they meant something to him. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t have a plan for that. But there it was – plain and simple – he loved my world. He loved my boys. And he had thoughts on what was working and what didn’t. I had me my first beta.
He’s golden. He’s one of a kind. He’s thoughtful about my worlds, he’s asked questions and pointed out inconsistencies when they’ve cropped up. In a word, I was gobsmacked. I just didn’t think that anyone would find what I did remotely interesting let alone be just as hooked with them as I was.
I’ve since taken the works to a few others and the response has been rather universal. The work has a certain something. It has some sort of quality that people respond to. My other betas have all said the same sorts of things (with variations on a theme depending on where their own life has taken them). That has been a wonderful thing to take to heart. Sometimes I don’t believe it. It’s just easier from a writing standpoint if there isn’t someone else’s bar in the mix. If it’s my own I can write to that and attempt to impress myself.
My betas? Yeah, that’s a tough one. Not because they’ve kicked me really hard (though they have certainly held my feet to the literary fire when needs be), but because they’ve all consistently gave me the consistent encouragement to press forward. That what I was doing wasn’t in vain or some little silly thing that only I was going to ever read.
In the course of my writing, I discovered that while I write stories with strong gay male figures that contain (amongst other things) a strong romantic element thread, they are not the M/M romance fluff that is out there. I am not disparaging those works – those that find them of interest have a large selection to choose from. As for myself I require more. I require an element of truth that only comes from within. From having lived this life as a gay man. I am not a writer like those of the M/M romance genre. More power to them but I am not of their kind. We may have elements in common but that is where we also diverge from one another.
My betas all seem to be in agreement with me in this. They like that I am not guaranteeing anything when you open one of my books. There is no automatic HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy For Now) ending. Because life doesn’t work that way. My worlds, fantastical though they may sometimes be (the Feigr, the “magical” natives, etc) are all rooted in my own or a loved one’s experiences.
This is reflected in the lives of my betas themselves.
Recently one of my beta readers, my very first, a man who I’ve come to count on for a great many reasons ran up against a health concern that had the potential to be life threatening. When that hit I literally almost fell apart. I didn’t write. I stopped cold. The passion drained from me – and this in the middle of the NaNoWriMo contest – not a good thing. But my beta’s life was in the balance. Nothing seemed as important as that. I stewed, I pondered the what if’s – which were many because my husband also had been a practicing physician so I had the 411 on what the potential outcome was even before my new found friend got the official news.
I was gutted.
And let’s be clear – this wasn’t about me. I was overwrought with concern for him. I am not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination. There were no prayers involved. I’m just not built that way to give into the whole ludicrous “no atheist in the foxhole” mentality. Yeah, husband has had his life threatened numerous times so if I was gonna cave on the whole God vs. No-God thing it woulda been back then. But it certainly didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to stop and think about how my bestest friend, my first “fan” (if you will) was faring through a very difficult time.
He dropped off for a while. Little to no communication from him. Wasn’t easy to endure on my end because I wanted to know how he was doing. But I gave him space. I wrote him once to tell him I was here no matter what – it felt so empty to offer that. I wanted to give him back so much more.
That caused a fire to be lit in my belly. I began to focus all of that into my writing. I had taken up the subject of werewolves because of this very person who was struggling with this life threatening illness. I wanted to write something for him since he has a particular fondness for werewolves (along with men). So it was sort of a fun thing I was doing for him. Only now, it had morphed into being for him in ways I never originally envisioned. I recast one of the characters in the book with his name. I dedicated the book to him. It felt so hollow in many respects – so railing against the big thick glass pane that separated us (he in Michigan with me in CA). But I wanted him to know in some small way how much I’ve come to count on his advice. How much his words meant to me.
I never bargained for this when I started out. I never in a million years thought that I’d ever have this to deal with (and Michael, this is NOT a gripe on my part – please believe me). But these people, these generous people who have given me their time and energy in reading my works and giving me “what for” when I went astray, have become so important as I progress and grow as a writer.
I always said I would trade five million five star ratings for one person who deeply felt what I was doing. Michael is that guy. I am writing for him and men/boys like him. Men who need to hear about our worlds from our own. Men who understand what it is like to deal with the world around us that keeps reminding us at every turn we are NOT like them. We are NOT the norm. I welcome anyone who wants to read what I write. I thank them with all the humility and graciousness I can muster. But I am clear about one thing – I write for men like Michael.
A dear friend I met through my writing.
A man who has so much to offer in life.
A thoughtful individual who cares about my boys almost as much as I do – sometimes, more so.
Yeah, turns out, this Alpha writer does need his betas. They might matter most of all.