If you have been following the series, welcome back! Today we are going to discuss one of my favorite elements of the series: enlisting alpha readers.
Although writing is, at heart, a solitary endeavor, every writer needs the feedback of others. In order for this feedback to be helpful, it must be genuine, truthful, and gently spoken. We writers have sensitive skins, after all. The best way to obtain this kind of feedback is through a system of alpha and (later) beta readers.
Alpha readers are the first people to see your finished, as-polished-as-you-can-get-it story. Polishing is important, because these readers are not intended to read your first, second, or even third draft. Their sole purpose is to give you feedback on the story, to tell you about whether or not it has the spark of life that makes it finished.
I’ve found the best alpha readers to be supportive friends who are genuinely interested in your writing. Currently, I am lucky to have three of these, and I find that to be just enough. When recruiting your alpha readers, you want people who will tell you hard truths, but speak them to you gently. These people need to be bold enough to tell you where your story needs work and kind enough to tell this to you in a way that doesn’t hurt too much. (There will always be some pain; make your peace with that now. After all, it’s better for your friend to tell you that your story needs work than for an editor or reader to reject that story because it needs work.)
Once you have a handful of victims… I mean, friends… who are willing to do you this necessary service, make sure to give them a few simple guidelines. Don’t underestimate the importance of the words “few” and “simple”. Too many guidelines, and the readers will get lost. Also, your alpha readers are not often industry professionals, so you want them to spot easy things. I ask my alpha readers to write on the manuscript I provide for them (which I print out, because I process better on paper), marking where they got bored, where their attention drifted off, or where they found something they simply didn’t like. I also ask them to point out the elements they do like, so I don’t accidentally dispose of those elements during the revision process. I make this request in a thank you letter that I put at the very front of the manuscript, which I provide for each readers in a personal three-ring binder.
After my readers return the manuscripts, I offer to take them out for coffee (or pizza, or wine, depending upon their individual preferences), and I ask them to tell me about the book. Of course, since they are my friends, this is only part of the conversation, but I want to make sure they know that I appreciate their time and energy (hence the treat) and value their opinions (hence the discussion). Somewhere in the middle of our time together, I ask them what they thought about the story over all, then I let them lead the conversation where they will, only asking for clarification or prompting the conversation when it stalls. I make sure not to rush through this part, but I don’t linger here, either. After all, I could talk about my book for longer than anyone else, and I don’t want to turn this experience into a chore for those who are helping me.
Once I receive my alpha reader’s manuscripts, I read all of the comments, consider each one carefully, and note those that I’m going to use on my master revision copy. After all of my revisions are made and the story is once again as close to perfect as I can get it, I repeat this process with a larger, different group of beta readers. If I’ve written my story well, the feedback of my beta readers with require minimal tweaking of the manuscript, and soon I have a polished product ready to submit to the publisher.
Although this step in the process may seem simple, I urge you not to overlook it. Potential agents and editors have a lot of submissions to work through, and one of the easiest ways to make your work stand out to them is by submitting a nearly-flawless manuscript.
Do you use alpha and/or beta readers in your writing process? If so, what kind of results have you had? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.
As promised above, here's the complete list of what to do with your story idea:
1. Write down everything you know about the story idea. Keep writing until you can’t think of anything to add. (Read more here.)
2. When you’re not writing, work on your social media platform. Develop your on-line presence authentically, in a way that is genuine. (Read more here.)
3. Go back to your idea. Organize everything you wrote in step one into something with structure and shape. Turn that collection of ideas into a plan and begin your first draft. (Read more here.)
4. Start a website. A blog is good because it gives readers a taste of your writing, but if you feel that you can’t commit to a blog, then you need to have a website at the very least. (Read more here.)
5. Edit your first draft. Complete this step as often as necessary. (Read more here.)
6. Start an e-mail list. (Read more here.)
7. Enlist alpha readers who will give you story feedback.
8. Once your book is as polished as you can get it, enlist someone else to edit it.
9. Decide how you want to publish (indie or traditional) and study the process. Learning the necessary details will save you a lot of time and, potentially, a lot of money in the long run.
10. Start the next story!