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Word to the Wise: Pay Attention to Your Beta Readers

Three years ago, or maybe four, a man I did not know arrived at my writing group, and during a long conversation about the first chapter of The Bone Trench, he said, “I’m ready to see Cat Thomas return.” I assured him Cat, who opened the novel in a brief scene, would be back shortly, specifically at the beginning of the next chapter. Believing his concern satisfied, I put it out of my mind.

During this recent revision process, I’ve been working on development of the Jesus character, trying to make Jesus’s scenes as active as Mother Mary’s. Problem was, I did such a good job that when I read the opening chapter with Mother Mary, I thought, why is this not working?

To answer that question, I did what I often do during revision (not during writing, during revision.). I pretended the novel was being filmed and looked at the scenes through the eyes of a film director. This trick immediately shows me when a scene is flat, static, and ultimately boring—I can just hear the film director saying, what am I supposed to be filming here? Nothing’s happening!

When I directed my camera on The Bone Trench‘s first chapter, I saw them . . . walking down the sidewalk. Jesus, by contrast, was hunting the Mississippi River, preaching to a gathering crowd, and being attacked by Demonittes. When I asked myself how to fix it, the man’s comment from long ago rose into my brain and, mirabile dictu, I listened.

Now Mother Mary meets Cat directly in the first chapter. The scene provides the action I wanted, but it also adds an additional layer to the imagery that will close the novel, a benefit I wasn’t looking for but received just the same.

So, in the immortal words of ZZ Top, to the man, whoever you are, who gave me this piece of advice, I thank you.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

adding action to a scene, Beta Readers, listen to readers' comments, revising, revising a static scene, revising your novel, revision, the benefit of a writing group, writing groups

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