Writing and Publishing

Writing and Publishing

Beta Reading (Part Two)

Nearly four months have flown by since I first posted about beta reading and the methodology I’ve used for gathering feedback on Avarice of Empire. The usefulness of the process has far exceeded my expectations.

Nearly four months have flown by since I first posted about beta reading and the methodology I’ve used for gathering feedback on Avarice of Empire. The usefulness of the process has far exceeded my expectations.

In order to ensure everyone had a way to provide anonymous quantitative feedback, I created a brief online survey that asked a number of questions requiring 0-10 rating answers. Sixteen beta readers have now completed that survey, and some of them volunteered detailed qualitative feedback as well.

Three of the nine questions in the survey related to specific characters and readers’ emotional responses to the story. Those answers are helpful to me, but wouldn’t make much sense in this summary. The six main questions, with their average ratings, were as follows:

Overall, how much did you enjoy the story?
8.1 / 10 (50% rated it 9 or 10)

Overall, how much did you enjoy the style of writing?
8.8 / 10 (67.5% rated it 9 or 10)

To what extent did the first page (or first couple of pages) of the first chapter grab you?
7.1 / 10 (32.5% rated it 9 or 10)

To what extent did the last few chapters satisfactorily complete the story for you?
8.8 / 10 (67.5% rated it 9 or 10)

To what extent did you find the ‘Historical Note’ interesting?
9.5 / 10 (93.75% rated it 9 or 10)

If Avarice of Empire was published, how likely would you be to recommend it to others?
8.2 / 10 (43.75% rated it 9 or 10)

The average of those averages is 8.4 out of 10, which I am of course delighted with. However, one of the purposes of the beta reading process (really THE purpose) was to identify feedback trends that would inform revisions to the manuscript.

Although not a poor score in isolation, the 7.1 average rating for the question about the first page(s) of the first chapter particularly stands out compared to the others. Qualitative feedback also highlighted the weakness of the opening scene of the story, so it was obvious I needed to fix that problem. I’ve since completely re-written the first half of chapter one, and it’s so much better than the original version.

Other ratings need a little interpretation, and that’s made possible thanks to a few beta readers waiving their anonymity with the survey. For example, the 8.8 average rating for the question about how well the last few chapters completed the story isn’t higher because some people wanted to know what happened next for a selection of characters (which is a good thing.) The 8.2 average rating for the one about recommending the book to others was apparently tempered by beta readers taking into account that they might only recommend Avarice of Empire to people who enjoyed history (even though historical fiction was a new or only occasional genre for the vast majority of beta readers.)

The lowest ratings in the survey came from a beta reader who’d been recommended to me as someone with “a passionate interest in military history.” However, it became apparent from their other feedback that what that really meant was a strong preference for commercial military fiction filled with blood-soaked battle scenes (which Avarice of Empire most definitely is not.) That doesn’t make their feedback any less useful, and in a sense it gives extra weight to their more generous ratings, but the context is relevant to understand.

Aside from the ineffectiveness of the opening scene, two other important trends emerged from beta readers’ qualitative feedback.

Firstly, it was clear that the personality and presence within the story of one of the main characters weren’t as strong as they needed to be to create an appropriate level of reader empathy. The re-written first chapter is part of the solution to that problem, but I’ve also made a number of other edits and written a completely new chapter.

The other trend relates to prior knowledge of the story. As I mentioned in my first post in February, half of the beta readers were told about the “…by the hand of an assassin…” wording on Charles Agnew’s memorial at Canterbury Cathedral before they started reading, while the other half had no background information at all. Although that doesn’t seem to have influenced the 0-10 survey ratings, it certainly had a profound impact on the way people engaged with the story and the assumptions they made about where it was heading while they were reading. On balance, it became clear that prior knowledge significantly increased reader empathy and investment. I’ve therefore added a new opening section to the prologue, which transports readers to the south aisle of Canterbury Cathedral.

I can’t overstate how invaluable the beta reading process has been to improving the Avarice of Empire manuscript, and I’d like to reiterate my thanks to all those who’ve given up their time to take part.

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Writing and Publishing

Mozart: A Writer’s Best Friend

I’ve always been someone who’s needed peace and quiet to be able to write. The closer to complete silence the better, but failing that at least the absence of disruption. The rarity of such ideal

I’ve always been someone who’s needed peace and quiet to be able to write. The closer to complete silence the better, but failing that at least the absence of disruption. The rarity of such ideal conditions is a significant factor in why, for a long time, my progress with Avarice of Empire was much slower than I might have liked.

Then I discovered something that has revolutionised my creative work.

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve developed a love of classical music, and I wish it had been very much sooner. While struggling with a particular chapter, it occurred to me that listening to music contemporary with the scenes in question might help somehow. That experiment failed to yield the inspiration I hoped for, but it did demonstrate something useful: listening to music ‘in the room’ — even soothing classical music — was just as much of a distraction as conversation, traffic noise, or a slamming door.

However, what does work wonders for me, as I later found out somewhat by accident, is having the music ‘in my head’ (via noise-cancelling, over-ear headphones) rather than being an external noise in the room. Non-active listening is the key, and it has to be instrumental music only. Throw in some lyrics and my brain automatically tries to comprehend them.

I can’t overstate the transformative impact. Whereas before I felt I needed to wait for extended windows of tranquility before even contemplating trying to write, now I just don my headphones and within seconds I’m immersed back in the story.

That approach might also be helpful to you if you struggle with distraction and creative immersion. However, for some people the complete opposite can be more appropriate. A friend of mine who has ADHD, for instance, tells me that rather than avoiding lyrics she needs their overt presence in order to keep the ‘noisy’ part of her brain occupied.

It seems there’s been all sorts of research undertaken into the potential benefits of listening to classical music, including the so-called Mozart Effect (1)

“…listening to music activates a wide distribution of brain areas.” J.S. Jenkins

“…listening to Mozart’s K448… an increase of… brain wave activity linked to memory, cognition and open mind to problem solving…” Walter Verrusio, et al.

Although the musical properties of compositions by Mozart and Bach have been found to have particularly notable effects on the brain, listening to classical music in general enhances, “…the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning and memory…2

There’s evidently a great deal of variation in the usefulness or otherwise of listening to music from one individual to another. My partner, for example, finds classical music distracting, because as a musician she has an emotional and experiential relationship with it. Other research 4 suggests that factors such as personality type and proneness to boredom play a part, and that music ‘in the room’ can impair complex task performance.

Because having classical music ‘in my head’ has had such a profound impact on my creativity and writing output, a while ago I began curating a Music for Writing playlist on Spotify. I’ve embedded it below and there are links to it at the top and bottom of every page of this website. I recommend playing it on shuffle. Learning from the research, it includes renditions of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos K.448 and his piano concerto number 23 in A major K.488.

Do you listen to music when you’re writing (or being creative in another way)? Please do share in the comments below what you’ve found works best for you.


1. Jenkins JS. The Mozart effect. J R Soc Med. 2001 Apr;94(4):170-2. doi: 10.1177/014107680109400404. PMID: 11317617; PMCID: PMC1281386.

2. Helsingin yliopisto (University of Helsinki). “Listening to classical music modulates genes that are responsible for brain functions.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150313083410.htm

3. Walter Verrusio, et al. “The Mozart Effect: A quantitative EEG study.” Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 35, 2015, Pages 150-155, ISSN 1053-8100, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.05.005.

4. Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello (2019). More Than Meets the Ear: Investigating How Music Affects Cognitive Task Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 25. 10.1037/xap0000202.

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Writing and Publishing

Beta Reading (Part One)

I posted on Threads back in January about my approach to beta reading for Avarice of Empire, and how the practical, creative and experiential benefits of the process were becoming apparent. I thought it was

I posted on Threads back in January about my approach to beta reading for Avarice of Empire, and how the practical, creative and experiential benefits of the process were becoming apparent. I thought it was worth talking about here in a bit more depth.

What Is A Beta Reader?

Coming from a digital marketing background, the importance of beta testing software, websites, apps and so on is something I’ve long taken for granted. However, I confess it wasn’t until last year that I learned some authors also use a kind of beta testing to gather feedback on their work. It sounded like a wise idea to me.

To attempt a definition, a beta reader is someone an author trusts to read a draft of their manuscript once it’s at an advanced stage and has been proofed. They then provide detailed feedback about aspects like structure, readability, story arc, and characterisations, which the author may choose to take into account when refining the book further before continuing towards publication.

Beta Reader Selection

When I first started thinking about organising a phase of beta reading for Avarice of Empire I envisaged it might involve 10-15 people. However, the list grew and in the end a total of 22 people agreed to beta read for me. With the exception of a couple of close friends, whose objectivity I knew I could rely on, they are all relatively impartial acquaintances. Historical fiction is a favourite genre for three of them, while for everyone else its either a rarity or an entirely new reading experience.

The beta reading group is highly diverse in terms of age, nationality, education, career, etc. English is a second language for several, and two are doubling as cultural sensitivity readers.

Crucially, half the group were made aware in advance of the “…by the hand of an assassin…” wording on Charles Agnew’s memorial at Canterbury Cathedral, while the other half began reading with no background information about the story at all.

Beta Reading Book Format

I wanted people to be able to read off the page instead of on screen, and in a format that was comfortable to sit with, so I invested in having the manuscript printed across three wirebound A5 booklets. To encourage people to use them as working documents, the booklets resemble notebooks and are intentionally very plain.

What I Asked Beta Readers To Do

I specifically asked beta readers not to concern themselves with proofing the manuscript, but rather to simply read it as they would any other novel and (hopefully) immerse themselves in the story. If they happened to spot errors along the way, they were of course welcome to highlight them.

The group was encouraged to annotate the booklets with wild abandon — the good, the bad, the confusing, and the whatever else.

Gathering Beta Reader Feedback

Qualitative feedback is coming to me in the form of annotated booklets and, in some cases, with a beta reader’s additional notes about their thoughts, questions, and suggestions.

To get around any doubts about impartiality, I wanted to ensure everyone had an anonymous way to provide some overall, quantitative feedback as well. To do that I created a brief online survey, which asks a number of “To what extent…” type questions requiring 0-10 rating answers.

Beta Reading Benefits

Now that I’m a couple of months in to the process, the benefits of beta reading are abundantly clear. They include:

  • Additional proofing (even though that wasn’t the original intention)
  • Understanding the different ways people engage with characters, story, language, and themes
  • As trends emerge, identifying potential areas for revision
  • Gathering commentary and data that may be relevant in conversations with agents, editors, and publishers
  • Getting the satisfaction of people enjoying reading what you’ve written!

I will publish a ‘Part Two’ on this subject once I’ve received and analysed the feedback from my beta readers. In the meantime, what about you? Do you enlist the help of beta readers? How have you approached the process in the past? Will you do things differently next time? What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned from beta reading? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Writing and Publishing

False Summits: Raising My Writing Ambitions

Everyone has a good book in them. It’s probably fair to say that most people who’ve heard that saying, and have repeated it to others, believe it to be true. At the very least they

Everyone has a good book in them.

It’s probably fair to say that most people who’ve heard that saying, and have repeated it to others, believe it to be true. At the very least they want to believe that it could be true.

I’ve counted myself amongst them since at least early adulthood. The question of whether or not I could write a book (never mind a compelling novel worth reading) has often nudged its way through the crowd from the back of my mind. Ideas have come and gone, and inevitably some have been better than others. A mythic fantasy concept occupied my imagination for a while until I had to concede my inability to wrestle the dragon-populated plot into anything resembling an arc. I might re-visit it one day as a children’s story. There was also a sprawling historical fiction epic, loosely biographical, set in Iron Age Britain around the time of the Roman invasion. I became immersed in the research for it for months, but was defeated in the end by the hordes of characters and the complexity of their relationships.

There are different schools of thought about the validity of the aphorism. For instance, everyone has a good book in them…

“…but it doesn’t do any good until you pry it out.” Jodi Picoult

Encouraging, yet cautionary and realistic about the difficulty of the task.

Alternatively, everyone has a good book in them…

“…but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Christopher Hitchens

More realistic still. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Some would take that as good advice and beat an honourable retreat. Others might take it as a challenge and want to pick up the gauntlet, even if only to answer their own nagging question. As I did.

The premise for Avarice of Empire, and the catalyst for all the research that went into the book, came to me courtesy of a little serendipity on 3rd May 2015.

Monuments to the ‘glorious dead’ of 19th century regiments, and the part they played in battles around the British Empire, are a common feature in places of worship all over the United Kingdom. More often than not they focus on the officer class to the exclusion of the men of the ranks. “…to his memory in token of their regard by his brother officers…” is a wording convention that crops up frequently.

However, on that Sunday morning nearly nine years ago, it was Canterbury’s magnificent cathedral that happened to be providing a welcome refuge from pouring rain. The unique phrase “…by the hand of an assassin…” made me stop and pay attention to one particular stone tablet as I walked along the south aisle. The memorial was dedicated to a Captain Charles Agnew of the 16th Lancers. It mentioned Egypt and a date in March 1873. I felt sure an interesting story was waiting to be discovered.

About a year went by before I started investigating Charles Agnew’s life and death in any meaningful kind of way, and it was another six months until I began writing.

I was very clear about my goal and its parameters from the outset. I wanted to tell Charles Agnew’s story in the form of biographical historical fiction. I wanted the novel to be sweeping in its scope, and I was determined its historical accuracy would be able to stand up to scrutiny.

But that was as far as my ambition went at the time. Just write the book. There was never a timescale or any serious thought of what might happen afterwards. Although the story was always going round in my head, and I never doubted I’d finish it eventually, for a long time making progress on the research and writing only happened sporadically between other priorities.

An important piece of the research puzzle early on was a group photograph held in the British Library’s archive. A copy of it has been my Macbook’s wallpaper ever since. Writing that scene, which takes place in Bangalore a little over half way through the novel, was a significant milestone.

If you’re someone who shares my love of walking in wild places, especially in the Scottish Highlands, you’ll know what it is to be teased by false summits. What you think is your goal heaves into view, but when you get there you realise there’s much more climbing still to do. The photograph in Bangalore was a bit like that. Getting past it bolstered my confidence that reaching the end was achievable, and raised my writing ambitions higher. It was no longer just about finishing the book. My goal became getting the book published, and for as many people as possible to read about Charles Agnew.

Other important waypoints soon followed: the word count going over 100,000; developing the scenes that relate most directly to the Canterbury memorial; and of course the final full stop at the end of final sentence. My ambitions were emboldened further with each one. Since completing the manuscript for Avarice of Empire in November 2023, I’ve organised a phase of beta reading and begun querying literary agents.

The metaphorical summit of publication (and all that follows) is still some distance away, and I’m realistic about how long it may take to reach, but that’s no reason to limit my ambitions. Research is already well underway for two sequels and a tangential fourth story.


If you’re an author, whatever stage of your writing life you may be in, please do share in the comments below how your ambitions for your work have changed over time.

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