When Beta Readers Attack
I got a slightly strange email last night to which I didn't bother responding until this morning. But it was from a former friend of mine who'd taken me to task for "taking liberties with words" and cited the use of the word "Neanderthal" in Gods of Our Fathers as the only example she'd given me.
While the phrase "taking liberties with words" is a cryptic one, I had as my sole context her one example of how I'd used an anachronistic word that, I learned on examination, hadn't been coined until two years after GOOF takes place in 1854. So I good-naturedly said, "So sue me", assuming no one reading my book, aside from anal-retentive former editors and amateur historians would know the provenance of the word "Neanderthal." So I asked her for more examples of words I'd erroneously used.
Now, before I go on, I ought to inform anyone reading this that while Gods of Our Fathers took me less than three and a half months to research, draft and edit, in that short space of time I'd done a tremendous amount of research into the syntax and slang of the mid 19th century as well as that of the earliest history of the Boston Police Department, the Anthony Burns affair and the slave trade and Underground Railroad in general, the biographies of the historical principles such as John Brown and countless other topics. When confused about the date of origin of a certain word, I'd look it up online and usually an excellent online resource such as Webster's or Dictionary.com will give one, among other things, the origin and provenance of the word in question.
So the relatively brief amount of time I'd spent on my novel is in no way a reflection of the diligence and quality of my scholarship. I can write and research at an exceedingly rapid pace and Gods of Our Fathers' nearly 118,000 words and all the attendant research behind it proceeded at a record pace.
So, after my friend had done Mrs. JP and me a kind turn, I offered to send her a copy of this novel and she unhesitatingly said yes. So I mailed it off a couple of months ago and she'd just gotten around to reading it. Prior to last night, she said she was enjoying it, moreso than Tatterdemalion. I said something on the order of I wished my next to last book would take off with readers as I'd hoped as, by contrast, I'd sweated and labored over that title for almost two and a half years. But there's no accounting for taste.
Then the trouble started this morning. OK, I asked, since you're a former editor, I'll assume you're prepared to back up your allegations and inform me which words don't belong in 1854. If I find out they don't, I'll make the necessary amendments in a future edition and be grateful to you for the shoutout.
But, I cautioned, without specifics, I have no starting point and if one indicts an author, one must do two things: Be specific in your charges and be prepared to back them up. This was met with furious charges of my being an egotistical writer who is too thin-skinned to entertain criticism.
Asking for specifics and proof of my transgressions has nothing whatsoever to do with ego and even less to do with hubris. If someone spots howlers in one's book, then the author should in all fairness vet these claims then make the necessary adjustments. Asking for specific examples and for the beta reader to be prepared to back them up is a very reasonable request.
I'd tried reasoning with her that when writing a book taking place in the mid 19th century, some balance needs to be struck between the authentic and accessible. A book written entirely in mid 19th century English isn't likely to sell big unless it's written by a really big name. So, while authenticity that aids Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" is always a good thing to keep in mind, accessible English for a modern reader is at least if not more important than authenticity. I felt I'd struck that balance between the two in my last two novels.
I then went on to cite as extremes on either side Lyndsay Faye, whose Timothy Wilde trilogy is so laden with mid 19th century patter flash all three books require a glossary so the poor reader can translate what the characters are saying. Troy Soos, on the other hand, didn't provide for a very immersive experience in his Micky Rawlings and Marshall Webb series and simply wrote his narrative and dialogue in modern English.
Caleb Carr, on the other hand, masterfully addressed both issues with pitch perfect balance and I use that as my template when writing my own historical thrillers.
In the end, she had taken her case public, not that anyone cares, I'm sure, on her blog (I will not provide a link as it's just pseudo-intellectual farting in the wind) and she had informed all who'd care to read that she has blocked my email and phone numbers.
I don't know what happened but whoever had kidnapped my old friend and replaced her with this pod person is not at all amusing and I wish they'd bring her back. I do not like this version of my former friend. I know she has a lot on her plate but dealing with the emotional fallout of that angst is something I do not need as I, too, have a lot on my plate.