After hearing about my struggles with beta-reading in a genre I don’t entirely understand, I thought you might like to hear from the other side. Please welcome Dilo Keith, who is a writer after my own heart in this very important way.
Like the talented woman who generously invited me to post here, I’m a big believer in research. Carefully chosen details can improve the reading experience on many levels, from a general impression of authenticity to the pleasure of finding familiar objects and places. A minor detail can set the tone for pages beyond the one on which it appears. This, however, has a downside for me: I often remember errors more clearly than other elements of the scenes in which they occur. After finishing an excellent book last month, I couldn’t shake the incongruous mental image of a nail polish bottle shattering and leaving bits of glass in a painted canvas. Plotwise, neither the nail polish nor canvas was trivial, so I can understand the author’s motivation. However, those little bottles are tough. I haven’t researched the matter, directly or indirectly, but I’d guess you’d have to hurl one into a stone wall to get so much as a crack. The nail polish incident was one of several, fortunately not all in one book, in which that author had various objects break with suspicious ease.
I’m left wondering if authors realize how many readers notice what they’d consider trivial details; perhaps the durability of a bottle seemed too insignificant to investigate. Admittedly, little things like that can be set aside, but it bothered me much more when a gay author old enough to know better wrote about a test for HIV existing two years earlier than it did. I didn’t have to look up the date — I was there, as I suspect were many other readers of gay fiction.
Another detail I pay special attention to is character names, which most authors choose with great care. I routinely check on the popularity of names around the year when a character would have been born, and their distribution by gender. After a beta reader for my upcoming release said she initially thought my narrator was female — understandable since I met her on a BDSM, not M/M site, and I had not introduced the name early in the story — I browsed name databases for one that was never used for females. All of the other characters in that story, by the way, are named after friends, with their permission and my acceptance of the condition that any character called Justin must be a top.
The re-release with a new publisher, JMS Books, is scheduled for September 13 and is 20% off the first week. It’s about a kinky, married male couple confronting a sex-related problem that could threaten their relationship. I think the story falls somewhere between erotica and erotic romance; while there’s a lot more erotic activity than romantic plot, it’s still about the love between Toby (Tobias) and Justin. I’ve posted reviews of the first edition here.
I met most of the friends I wove into that story on the forum of a gay porn site, Just Us Boys, which I discovered during a search on the name of a porn star. I had enjoyed a funny story called “Dear Drew Peters” in The Mammoth Book of New Gay Erotica, edited by Lawrence Schimel, and I wanted to check out a reviewer’s statement that the author, Harry Thomas, had fabricated Drew Peters. He hadn’t. At the time of the story’s publication, it would have been relatively easy to find online descriptions of Drew’s predilections. While the story — a letter to Drew explaining that he didn’t need to perform all those increasingly outrageous sex acts in order to be loved — stood on its own, it was a bit funnier once I learned more about Drew.
In addition to general discussions about accuracy of details, which most authors seem to think is a good idea, genre permitting, I’ve followed some narrower exchanges about author responsibility in portraying potentially risky activities such as BDSM. There appears to be little consensus on how much, if at all, authors should aspire to educate rather than merely entertain their readers. Some solve the problem with a warning statement, while others, including the writer who serves me as a long-distance submissive, think simply labeling a work as fiction ought to be sufficient. Unlike him, I’m firmly on the side of educating readers, or at least not misleading them. It’s not just for my own work; I consult for authors who want to write BDSM believably and/or with safety in mind. While I’m somewhat motivated by a sense of responsibility for both ethics and facts, I simply enjoy a story more if I can relate to the content. Of course there are plenty of worthwhile stories that have little to do with reality, but, with the exception of sci-fi, I’m not as strongly drawn to them.
Regardless of genre, careful attention to detail isn’t simply a matter of meeting some arbitrary standard of accuracy; among other things, it can make a significant impact on the pleasure of readers like me.
Thank you, Dilo.