Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Writing Wednesday: ARCs and Betas and SMEs - Oh My!

Good morning! I've got my Longaberger mug of coffee in hand, but no M&Ms for a while, so I'm enjoying staring at this photo - trying to lose a few pounds before spring... But that has nothing to do with the topic at hand: ARCs.

An ARC technically stands for an Advanced Reader Copy. This can either be "official," as in the advanced copies from your publisher of your final work, that you can distribute for reviews, or it can be a draft ARC, which is how I'm using the term today. A draft ARC is the "finished" reading copy you send to trusted readers to get their opinion of the story arc and characters, for them to tell you if it flows, if it works, if it holds together... basically, if you need to dive back in and make changes before you send it to the editor for the last time.

Those trusted readers - those are your Betas. You, the author, are the Alpha, right? You wrote it, you read it first. Betas are the ones who are the first ones to read it besides you. Having a slush pile reader or an acquisition editor be your Beta is a rookie mistake. Big no no. I know I've talked about Betas before, finding someone who will give you an honest opinion and tell you where the plot holes lie.

Something I didn't think too much about until my current work in progress is having an SME, or Subject Matter Expert. There's probably a better literary world term for this type of reader, but in my other world (the tech industry) they love their acronyms, and SME is one of the terms thrown about a lot. It basically means someone who knows what they're talking about for a specific subject.

A lot of authors, myself included, can get by with learning and writing about a profession other than our own or a place we've never actually visited through research. The internet is a fabulous tool for that, as is the public library. When I wrote Ghosts Don't Lie, I did a lot of internet research on diabetes, crack, and of course various psychic powers. I didn't have a drug dealer read through that specific chapter to make sure I portrayed him realistically, but I did read a lot of police accounts and first person narratives to get a feel for that scene.

But other times an author needs to get it right. Julie James, for instance, was a lawyer before she started writing romantic suspense, so she "knows" the lawyer parts of her story. But she still consults with SMEs about the FBI and police procedural parts of her stories to be certain to get that right. If you look at the Acknowledgements sections of a book, they will often thank the SMEs they spoke to or who beta read for them to get the details right.

Why is that important?

Well, first of all, if a storyline is talking about something the reader is familiar with, they will KNOW when it's wrong, and the author immediately loses credibility. For just a simple example, I was reading a book supposedly set on Martha's Vineyard in March, where everyone was wearing tank tops and shorts for spring break. Umm, really? This is New England, not the Caribbean. The clothing should have been more L.L.Bean warmth than the barely there get-up the author described. Did I finish reading that book? Of course not. She insulted me by not knowing what she was talking about.


In my current WIP (work in progress), a cop goes undercover at a 5-star resort to catch a drug dealer. You'd think the cop stuff would be my sticking point, but my bigger problem was actually the resort.

I've worked in kitchens, but not a 5-star resort, and not recently. There are rules my story violated that I had no idea I was breaking, despite both my research and prior knowledge. For one of my Beta readers, I went back to the trained chef who first helped me understand the outline of 5-star kitchen hierarchy. She pointed out the health code violations my supposed trained kitchen staff were breaking. Would readers have caught these flaws and stopped reading because of them? Maybe. (Certainly she would have.) But I feel better knowing I got it right. And it gives the story more credibility as a whole.

There's a reason for the advice "Write what you know." The reader has to be able to trust what they're reading, or else it pulls them out of the story. But. If you don't know, research. And find an SME to help you out. Most are more than happy to chat about their jobs, and walk you through the finer points you might need for a story.

What do you think? Have you ever used an SME for a story?





10 comments:

  1. Great advice. You're right. The Internet is no substitute for finding someone with real experience.

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    1. I think this is one of the reasons that writers like to chat with people, and find out more about their lives - or maybe that's just me! I love hearing about other people's jobs and families and whatnot. And yeah, some of it ends up in my books. Thanks for stopping by, Sandy!

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  2. Great idea, Katie. If we stuck with the 'write what you know' rule our subject matter would be very limited. We all want to break out of the box.

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    1. You're so right, Sandra! There are already so many romances with writers as the main characters, lol! Totally need to switch things up. Thanks for chiming in!

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  3. I write historicals and I'm kind of a stickler for research, so much so that it often causes writer's block. My fear of getting it wrong either freezes me (as in the police procedures for my YA) or I can't make myself stop researching (my Civil War novel.) At some point I have to stop and trust that I've done the best I could and pray I've not written a wall-banger. I worry readers will be discussing my book on one of those sites where they discuss stupid mistakes writers make, like tank tops in March. BTW, I'm from New England and Martha's Vineyard is in New York.

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    1. Martha's Vineyard is an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I can see their fireworks from my beach on the 4th of July. They're in the same soccer league with my kids' high school. I think you're confusing it with the Hamptons.

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  4. Great article Katie! For my current WIP, the heroine is a lawyer and I am a recovering one so that helps me. My hero is a war vet with PTSD. A friend did 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave me reams of information on what happens in ground combat, stats on PTSD, etc. he was my starting point for my hero. I supplemented his accounts with research into other veteran organizations. I love the research piece!

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    1. Yea for research! I'm totally not saying don't use the internet - research is my friend - but having an SME on hand to glean info from or to beta read and say yes that works, no this doesn't is another great tool int eh writer's toolbox!

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  5. I agree, Katie. I recently used an SME for my book that was just contracted. Getting it right is very important!

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    1. Thanks for chiming in - and congrats on your recent contract! That's awesome!

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