The Beta Deficiency

bookediting   I’ve been struggling lately. Struggling with commitment to my novel. To world-building. To character development. To creating language and mannerisms and ways of thinking for the people who live in it.

It’s a lonely place, writing fantasy. Even when my head is filled with alternate history and magic systems, with geography and theology, languages and learning, Matthias and Livuina and two temples and three heavens and plots and plans and disasters, I am the only real person who lives there. The only one who is figuring it all out. The only fan.

My first readers have been fantastic. They read some or most or all of my first draft and made great comments. Some difficult observations that I hated to hear but needed to, and some that I can smile and laugh about and fix with a stroke of the delete key. They devoted a lot of time and effort to slog through a 100,000 word, very imperfect book because they love me and they’re fabulous.

But now I’m editing. And if world-building is a lonely place, editing is a Bog of Eternal Stench where it’s always 2:30 in the morning, and it’s dark and raining and muddy, and no one in their right mind would want to hang out with me there. And neither do I.

I spent decades as a fan fiction writer before I attempted my own work. I’ve written a 100,000 word Stargate SG-1 story that includes a new world, new characters, plotting, planning, and all the bells and whistles. (Here’s link if you’re interested and have about 35243 free hours and the firm intention not to call me on the obvious errors  ) But, even though that story won awards and was a major accomplishment, I was borrowing everything that mattered from other writers, from actors, from television production companies. So, does it count? Well, yes, of course, and this is not the place or time for that discussion.

But, is it the same as writing a new, completely original work? Not at all.

Writing fan fiction is a horse of a different color. In fact, it might not be a horse at all. It may be a zebra. Or a giraffe. Or a hippopotamus. Besides the obvious, besides the fact that the world you’re writing has been handed to you on a platter, the characters established, their mannerisms and looks and names, the way they talk and think and act have all been written by teams of writers, adjusted by editors, and added to by actors you can watch on the screen, besides all this, fan fiction is written for fandom. And fandom is all about community.

Fandom is community. It’s a place where people meet who are prepared to love what’s offered because they are coming from a place of love. Of interest. They’ve already made the choice to invest in this world and these characters. They’ve spent significant time among them, talking about them, watching them, reading and writing about them. They’ve done research, had long, intricate discussions about back-stories and science, about how an alien race came to exist, how the magical systems work and when it fails to make sense. They throw around terms like “hand-waving” and “show bible” and “OOC” like the current intern pool at Microsoft uses acronyms. They speak the same language, cry at the same plot points, and have a feral devotion to their particular OTP. (One True Pairing aka romantic partnership)

When I write Stargate or NCIS I know that people will read it. Not because I’m important or awesome or people are crouching in front of their screens waiting for my next opus. No, I know people will read it because of fandom. Because new Stargate stories are few and far-between and we fans gobble them up as soon as they’re offered. Because, now that MW has left NCIS, competent!Tony stories have dwindled away. Because fandom wants these stories and these characters and these worlds to continue.

There’s no community waiting out there for my next chapter of Matthias’ story.

And, even worse, there’s no Beta. Or Alpha, for that matter. No, no, not the Greek alphabet. Or game testers. Let me explain.

Smart fan fiction writers rely on other fans, not just to read their work, but to offer advice and correction. Stargate SG-1 was on television for ten years, NCIS is still going at fourteen. Not even the most attentive fan can remember everything that happened, every planet designation, every case, the name of that friend of Teal’c’s we met that one time on that one planet, or can parse the many, myriad, ridiculous back-stories for Tony DiNozzo. We need help. We need our community.

Wikipedia can only do so much.

When the story starts to gel, when the muse is excited and you have a sort-of plot and a partial-kinda-iffy plan, you go to your Alpha. You chat about the concept. The characters. If the story makes sense within the Stargate or NCIS world. When it should take place. Before Daniel dies? After he comes back? During the Kate years or the Ziva years? These are the fans who can help you with the big problems, with the monkey wrenches that will certainly be hurled your way. That can nail down the science or the law. With your Alpha – or Alphas, if you’re lucky – you know you’re speaking the same language. You don’t have to explain who the Tok’ra are, or why McGee shouldn’t be left alone in the woods. And, bonus points!, you are getting immediate feedback. You get to talk about your story with someone who is bound to love it almost as much as you do.

If the story’s a long one – like most of mine (Yes, I hear you shouting out there! It’s hard to write a short story, okay?!) – your Beta can help with editing. For making sure the words are spelled correctly, the sentences are, in fact, sentences, and that the story hangs together. She can remind you that, in Chapter 3, Daniel lost his glasses so he shouldn’t have them on again in Chapter 5. If the story’s shorter (meaning, apparently, it’s written by someone else) you can send the whole thing off to them in one attachment and get it back all shined up and spiffy.

Again. Immediate feedback.

I’ve had the luxury of having some truly wonderful, knowledgeable, and highly argumentative (in a good way!) Alphas and Betas. Cheryl. Char. Anja. Darcy. Jill. Denny. Janice. Many, many more. They’ve helped me as much as I’ve let them. Suggested great twists. Held my hand while I’ve excised entire subplots. Reminded me how to spell Selmac (Selmak? Selmack??) and which of Gibbs’ wives came in which order.

In case you haven’t gotten my very subtle point here, there are no Alphas and Betas for my original fiction. That doesn’t mean there aren’t cheerleaders. Pom-pom waving friends who are totally invested in my success. Family, friends, fellow fans of various franchises. They are on my side and loving and supportive. BUT, and it’s a big one, unless I am willing to explain roughly six years of research and world-building and character development – and, even less likely, they’re willing to sit still long enough to listen – they aren’t Matthias’ fans. They don’t know him like I do. They don’t walk down the streets of Iconia with me. They aren’t able to argue from knowledge. They can’t remind me of the way the heavens work, or how aethereal magic leaks into the physical world. And they can only give me feedback if they read the whole bloody thing.

I miss my Betas. Especially now, when I’m editing. Questioning every word choice, every twist and turn, every decision my character makes. How do I know it’s going to work? Who can I ask? Alicia, my first first reader and lovely, smart, annoying daughter is in her first year of her OB/GYN Internship in a Philadelphia hospital. Laura has a bit on her plate, ready to fly off to China to meet her new daughter the day after Thanksgiving. (Tears of joy!) Until I implement the changes Mike and I have talked about, I can’t really send him any more chapters.

And I shouldn’t. My faithful and longsuffering husband – my first and best cheerleader – gave me a stern talking to the other day. “Finish it,” he said. “Finish it the way that seems best. And then ask for feedback.”

He’s right. Of course. AGAIN. My book is not a group effort. Neither was my fan fiction. It’s time to put my metaphorical foot down and do this thing. My way. The best way I can. And I will. Matthias’ story will be told. It has to be.

So, bear with me if I miss my Betas. If, sometimes, at ten-thirty, when I’m looking at the clock over the edge of my laptop and Matthias is not cooperating, I wish I could send a paragraph – a page – two little chapters off to a friend for a little feedback and back slapping and a couple of “attagirls,” a few “it’s goods!” and a couple of spritely “you can do its!”.

I wonder if Lois McMaster Bujold went through this when she created Chalion? Or Frank Herbert when he was first thinking about giant sandworms? All I do know is that they did it. They slogged through the smelly bog and got it done. And those are a couple of pretty dang good fantasy writing role models to emulate, don’t you think?

Gotta go now. Matthias is waiting.

(Is that a pom-pom-waving cheer I hear in the distance?)


Introducing Matthias

Would you like to meet Matthias?

After two years of steady – and not so steady – writing, this fan fiction writer might just be ready. I have a few more chapters to fix, to edit, another two or three to write, but my first fantasy-alternate history novel might possibly be almost sort of ready. Ish.

It is hard to believe that this is finally happening. All my life – since my first unfinished attempts in high school and college, through my odd work life, raising my talented and beautiful daughter, teaching writing and literature, my love for fan fiction, my long, convoluted mystery novel that lies in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet – now, now I’m calling myself a writer.

I’m not positive of my title. Not quite convinced of every title/language/historical timeline. I discover new things I haven’t nailed down in this alternate earth of mine every day. But, Matthias? Yeah, I’m sure of him.

And I think I’m finally ready to share a tiny piece of his life with you.

Just one more caveat – I’ve lived with this character for years now, he’s very real to me and giving him to you is very difficult, like sending out my toddler on her first day of pre-school. So, be gentle with him. And, like every mom, I’m very protective and quite a little bit proud – and very scared.

Here’s some important business before we get started…

~Excerpt from Chapter One, More Noise Than Thunder~
©2013 Maryel Stone, All rights reserved. All characters, plots, language, belong to the author. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

And now, may I introduce Matthias?

The other children sat to school – learned lessons by rote and recitation in ordered groups of ten. Matthias stood one day beside his mother as she drew water from the trough, watching the bent heads of his sometime playmates, black and brown and yellow hair cut short or plaited or curling in long locks as they followed the words of their teacher. Two fingers in his mouth, he tried to hear, he wanted to know what they were marking on their flat slates; he’d even taken one step towards them when his mother’s hand brushed against his face and turned him back against her side.

He looked up to see her smile and couldn’t help smiling back. Pulling his fingers out of his mouth, he blinked in the bright sunlight. “Eema- I want to learn.”

“Ah, my sweet Matthias, you are learning,” she whispered, leaning down to press a kiss against his cheek. “You learn every day – those eyes of yours see so much more than mine.” She shook her head in play reproof, “and your questions are as many as the sky’s stars.” His eema watched his solemn face and sighed. “Matthias,” she began again, “your learning is special because you are special; it will come from the very air around you, from the soil beneath your feet, the trees and grass, rain and sun, and pour into your soul.”

She turned her head to greet an old priest tottering by, one gnarled hand clutching fast to a long stick. Matthias’ eyes followed hers and he saw the pain of the man’s joints in his awkward step and tasted the sadness of his losses gathering across his back. The weaving of the priest’s long life’s pathway was thick and layered, curving up to catch his feet gently as he laid them down. Inner eye wandering towards the distance, Matthias saw the tightly woven pathway would soon rise up to enfold the old man’s being, carrying him beyond the mortal world.

“You learn whenever your father takes you into the Temple. Or in the yard with the animals. Or even by the riverside when we watch the fishermen.” She set the large clay jug at her feet and crouched beside him. “You are always learning my little one.”

Matthias frowned, his gaze straying back towards the gathered children, their voices chanting all together. His lips pursed. Other voices whispered to him, the same voices that spoke in his dreams, showing him things, feeding his imagination with scenes of distant lands and great temples built of glass. He’d seen criss-cross roads that lay beneath a powerful monster that breathed smoke, and crowds of men and women in many colors of cloth and wearing funny things upon their heads.

He blinked away the images. It was true. He was four now, and he knew lots of words and names and places and could even milk a goat if she wasn’t fretful. He could count to two-handsful all by himself. He watched as one of the boys leaned over to speak in his fellow’s ear and then hide a laugh behind one hand. Something ached in his chest. “But, Eema-“

She smiled gently and pressed her cool cheek against his. “I know. It is hard to be different, my son.” From within the folds of her robe she drew an impossible tangle of red beads and thread and held it out. His hands reached for it all on their own and he began to stroke the beads, feeling the pattern of the weave between chubby fingers, bending his head to the task as he walked along, shepherded by his mother’s gentle touch now and then. He instinctually saw how to slide the stones, to unknot the thin cord and put the beaded chain to rights. In a few moments he lifted the jewels up into the sunlight, showing his mother his achievement and she thanked him and hung the ribbon of stones around her neck.

It was only then that he remembered the other children and he turned back, fingers wandering back into his mouth, to find the schoolroom far behind, heads still bent over their tasks.

“Shall we take your boats to the river today?” His mother asked as they made their way towards home. “Or, perhaps, take a walk through the nassa fields and see if there are any rabbit burrows?”

He skipped beside her, his mind already moving across the low plains, diving down the rows between the tall plants, looking for the tiniest sign of life crouched among the thick roots. He reached for his mother’s robes, testing the cloth between his fingers. He loved the feel of the rabbit babies’ fur, so soft, so light and full of air. Once they’d come across a newborn clutch, tiny bodies huddled together beneath the long grasses, skin quivering with the barest touch of a breeze, eyes tight shut. His mother had knelt down some way away, but urged him on with smiles and waves until he sat right beside the hidden burrow.

“One finger, Matthias,” she’d whispered.

He’d nodded, eyes open wide, and traced a line through pale brown fur from one frail body to another, all clumped together into a pile. He spread his hand, one finger lying lightly upon each shivering rabbit. Their frantically beating hearts had slowed, and he’d smiled, so proud of how they’d calmed under his delicate touch.

His eema had made a sound in her throat, almost too low for him to hear, and he’d looked up to see the mother rabbit, her nose twitching just at the edge of a nearby row of nassa. Her long ears were pricked forward, her pink nose trembling up and down, huge liquid brown eyes watching him. Matthias looked down into the shallow nest and sighed, reluctantly letting his fingers trail from the bundles of softness and warmth to sit back on his heels.

One front paw raised in the act of creeping forward, the mother rabbit still watched him, still sniffed at the air.

“It’s okay,” Matthias whispered, hands on his bent knees. “Your babies are safe, rabbit-eema.”

The slight movement he caught out of the corner of his eye was his mother’s small gesture of ‘come’ and he scooted backwards into the circle of her arms, still watching. Once he was pressed back against her chest she’d leaned down, her breath tickling his ear.

“She will come now, my son. She will scent only the rightness of her children, the sweet smell of your Law upon their slumber. See?”

She was right – the mother rabbit hopped slowly until she was stooping over the edge of the nest. She lowered her head, pink nose moving so quickly Matthias had to blink to follow it. A moment later she was down among her children, carefully settling her warm weight against them, her head angled upward, dark eyes looking straight into Matthias’.

“Any other touch, any other scent would have warned her off, that’s why I stayed back,” his mother whispered. “But you are the Balance’s own son, Matthias; nature itself knows you.”

They’d sat and watched the mother and her children, warm in the spring sunlight, Matthias growing drowsy in his own nest made of his mother’s skirts. He’d woken hours later in his bed, memories of the trusting hearts beating against his fingers and the soft feel of the fur making him smile.

Matthias sucked at his fingers and looked up into his mother’s shining eyes.

“To the fields it is,” she laughed.

I’d love to hear what you think.
Proud Mama Writer