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Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 12th, 2010, 9:04 pm
by Icy
My WIP should be finished the first re-write in a few weeks and I'd love to hand it off to an alpha reader at that stage. What kind of qualities does a good alpha reader have? I'm guessing loves to read as a start, but what else is important?

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 12th, 2010, 9:38 pm
by Elizabeth Poole
I am one of my writer-friends alpha readers, so I can give you what is going through my mind, and what you might want in an alpha reader.

This is all my opinion, and experience, so your mileage may vary.

Your alpha reader's first job is to be your cheerleader. It's not their job to point out every little typo you have made, or depending on what sort of writer you are, to even ask you leading questions about the "possible meaning of Aunt Sally's green hat" and stuff like that. You might not yet know yourself, and get distracted by something you just came up with off the top off the top of your head.

As an alpha reader, I try to give my friend encouragement. When she's worried that her story is crap (it never is), when she's thinking about taking up knitting instead, I give her encouragement, and tell her specifically what I am enjoying about the book. It's not that I hold her hand through the writing process, but I am the sane voice of reassurance when she has doubts.

Also, if she runs into a problem, or can't seem to figure out what happens next, I can give suggestions. I am more removed from the material than she is, yet I know just as much about what is going on with the plot and characters, so I can point out where she might go. Just recently, she wasn't sure what to do directly before her climax. She knew how the book would end, and knew she needed a few more events to occur, but she felt like she was missing something. Because I had read right along with her, I could give specific feedback, and reminded her that she still has a subplot dangling. She immediately realized what I meant, wrapped up the subplot, and the book practically wrote itself afterwards.

I can give her a gentle nudge to keep writing if she slacks off, or as I suspect, just knowing that I am waiting for my email of her latest chapters is good motivation to continue.

Your alpha reader should be your friend, I think. It should be someone who loves your work, and reads your genre consistently. I have friend who really don't like urban fantasy, but likes my books. However, they can read it at their leisure. Your alpha reader, to be really effective, should be current on your WIP, so if they aren't excited about your book because of genre issues, you might want them to be a Beta reader instead.

One of the most important aspects of an alpha reader is for them to be able to recognize that your first draft is just that: a first draft. It's very hard when someone has read your first draft, and complains when you make major changes because they "liked it the other way". Not that you shouldn't listen to feedback, but some people, once they read something, that is the way it is. If you change a secondary character, for example, in your second draft, and they can't get over it while reading over your edits, then either a) they should only be an alpha reader and never a beta, or b) they aren't a good fit as an alpha for you. I would lean towards b, because one of the really awesome things about alpha readers is they are one of the best beta readers when you're in your second or third draft. They can help you figure out what didn't work, and how to change it, because they are almost as familiar with your story as you are. Actually, I even help my writer friend brainstorm and develop her book, as she does with me, so I already know some of her characters before she starts to write.

Obviously, as an alpha reader, I cannot judge certain elements for her. Like if the mystery was surprising enough, or if the plot twist was unexpected, because I usually know about those things ahead of time. But that's okay, that's what Beta readers are there for!

It bears mentioning that neither of us intentionally set out for me to be her alpha reader. She was writing a book, and offered to send me her progress. I gleefully accepted. Lucky for the both of us, I realized early on that my job was not to critique or direct her story, but to simply read along with her. And throw her cookies when she stumbles.

You might already have the beginnings of an alpha reader. Are there any friends who are genuinely interested in the progress of your novels? Do they ask specific questions? Are they already a beta reader?

Oh, and it’s my opinion that blood relatives and spouses are not good alpha material. They might read along with your progress, but I imagine it would be difficult to receive the sort of feedback from someone you are related to (your mom, your sister, your best aunt Bertha) that an slight more unbiased alpha reader can give. But that is just my experience with my loving, yet so not alpha or beta material family.

Good luck! Feel free to continue to post about your progress!

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 12th, 2010, 9:57 pm
by Icy

Wow, that's a really helpful reply but your post has made me realise I haven't asked what might be an even more fundamental question:

"What's the difference between and alpha and a beta reader?"

I was thinking the alpha reader was just the first person I gave the book to after I'd finished the whole thing and the first (obvious) rewrites. However, it sounds like you and your alpha reader have been involved in each other's novels from the begining.

I was too scared to tell anyone (apart from spouse and parents/siblings) that I was even writing a book until I had at least finished the damn thing and I wasn't going to let MrIcy (spouse) read it (he's good at negative but not positive feedback), so perhaps I've missed the opportunity.

MrIcy might end up as the first beta reader anyway (as we don't have a lot of reading friends). What advice should I give him on how to do it productively?

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 12th, 2010, 10:04 pm
by Holly
Icy wrote:My WIP should be finished the first re-write in a few weeks and I'd love to hand it off to an alpha reader at that stage. What kind of qualities does a good alpha reader have? I'm guessing loves to read as a start, but what else is important?
That kind of depends on you and your level of confidence.

I value two things: honesty and knowledge about the craft of writing.

I don't need pats on the back. I need someone who will say, "You know, your fifteen-year-old guy talks like a forty-year-old man," or "This page really drags -- you ought to cut half of it," or "People just wouldn't act like that in that situation."

I also value someone who knows how to write -- who can point out structural problems, grammar snafus, or other issues with the craft of writing.

The more readers, the better. It's good if you can find a professional to look at your manuscript. People who aren't even writers can be great readers if they will flat out tell you what they think.

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 12th, 2010, 10:05 pm
by Holly
You might also look at online critique websites.

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 15th, 2010, 9:30 am
by Elizabeth Poole
An Alpha reader is someone who reads your book as you are writing it.

A Beta reader is someone who reads your book after you have written. Some people hand the bok off as soon as they are done writing it. Personally, I prefer to wait until I have done the first round of revision, especially if I will be changing the plot or story around. This way, I don't have Beta's telling me about things I already know I need to fix.

For my Beta readers, I like a varitey of feedback. I give it to certain people with certain aspects in mind. If you have a friend who's great with editing and grammer, ask them to focus on grammar, spelling, and punctation. If you have a friend who is really good at pinpointing where a plot saggs, ask them to read it with that in mind. Basically, you want them to reader your book critically, looking for where the plot sags, where the character's don't act in character. Orson Scott Card has a great section on Beta readers in his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy book.

I hope this was a little closer to what you were looking for.

Good luck!

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 15th, 2010, 10:34 am
by StayPositive
The discussion on alpha and beta readers is interesting. In computing the alpha testers will test to destruction and the app may need to be heavily rewritten. Beta testers are usually finding the smaller problems and hiccups.

Back in the day (yes, I did work in newspapers many years ago) the companies I worked for had brilliant (read brutal) sub-editors who could send you back to the keyboard with ringing ears but also a very clear idea of what needed to be fixed. The editors would apply a final polish.

My understanding of book publishing is from a European perspective and seems to work like this:

alpha reader looks at the nuts and bolts that may require considerable rewriting:
- characters: necessary (or deadends), believability in plots and subplots (strong one minute, weak the next), consistency (name changes double checked etc)
- plot: holes or unresolved storylines, continuity,

Extensive rewrites go back to alpha readers.

beta readers look at the pace and flow of the story following the rewrites:
- tone of voice overall and for each character
- grammar after copy and paste bonanzas
- facts the height of the Eiffel Tower may never have been mentioned in early drafts

If everything and everyone works well there shouldn't need to be extensive rewrites after the beta readings. (He says hopefully.)

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 15th, 2010, 12:08 pm
by JohnB
This is great. I didn't understand the difference between alpha and beta readers either -- I thought the terms were used interchangeably. Silly me.

I myself wouldn't want an alpha reader for the same reasons Elizabeth mentioned. I also don't know where every little thing is going, and don't want anyone but my characters to steer.

Whoever is the first person to read your manuscript, I hope you find a good one: one who can give you constructive feedback couched in positive terms. Many of us authors have enough doubt already built-in, and we don't need any additional doubt from outside. My college-age son was my first reader, and he did a wonderful job, though I can't help but feel he held back on the negative comments. I appreciate his concern for my emotional well-being, but a writer needs the whole picture....

The best reader for you can be hard to find. When you finally have your reader make sure you treasure them.

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 16th, 2010, 6:55 pm
by E McD
GREAT THREAD!!! I learned something new! :)

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 16th, 2010, 7:48 pm
by polymath
My first reading panelists are the ones who I task with the big picture issues that I've so easily overlooked from intimately knowing a story. I don't tell them to look for special points, just send it and see what they have to say. It's up to me to decipher their comments. I like their perspectives to be uncontaminated by my creative vision that misses making it on the page. I want their perspective as readers, real readers' reactions.

Ideally, as a first reader, I like to focus on the big picture too. What I comment on are craft, story, and voice. Already mentioned previously by posters, voice, as an example. I'm not looking at line level concerns, but big picture qualities that are at odds sufficiently to push or pull me in directions other than what I perceive are intended. For example, a first person narrator's voice in modern, formal Standard Spoken English who's an uneducated colonial era rustic kicks me around viciously. The grammar is too good. There's little or no dialect or idiom of the time, place, and situation.

A third person narrator's voice overlaying a central character's voice doesn't have to be an overt voice, but when it is I like for it to take a stand, make a point, and follow through. A covert third person narrator's voice I don't want intruding on depicting a central character's voice. Subtler aspects of voice including tone, tenor, mood, and register overall are other areas I look at.

Other things I look for in a first read in terms of craft, are flexibility of facility with the mechanical standards of writing, things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Not to comment on them in depth, but to see if those features gibe with the story overall. That goes to voice and story too, too formal or too casual for the theme, topic, or characters, for example.

Story and craft, I'm looking at the several structural attributes of plot, like causation, tension, and antagonism. and their subset attributes of cause and effect, empathy/sympathy and suspense, and the antagonism forces of problem and purpose in increasing opposition up until the moment of climax. I'm looking for outcome increasing in doubt right up to climax, and I'm looking for increasing knowledge of what's really going on right up to climax. That's the three hallmarks of a climax as I know them, the moment when outcome is most in doubt, forces in contention are in greatest opposition, and all salient information is known.

I'm looking for untimely defusing or resolving of conflicts; credibility, magnitude, and logical progressions of conflicts, and keeping an outcome in doubt until the bitter end.

I'm looking for three major crises that drive the plot, an inciting crisis, a tragic crisis, and a resolving crisis. Between the crises, I'm looking for timely progress toward addressing focused conflicts with not too easily overcome obstacles posing setbacks or letdowns or complications hampering or outright preventing successful progress.

I'm looking for an empathy connection with a milieu, idea, character, and event, emphasis on one, in an opening that's not spoiled as the story unfolds.

I'm looking for timely and artfully posed suspense questions that keep my eyes on the page, that are timely and artfully delayed in answering.

I'm looking for anagnorisis--recognition or revelation or discovery of the true state of circumstances--and periptia--sudden, unexpected reversal of circumstances. Anagnorisis and peripetia are the identities as I know them of turns and twists in a plot, in crises, in rising action, in falling action, and in resolution.

I'm looking for a change in an ending, a static or dynamic change, that's an unequivocal, irrevocable transformation of a milieu, idea, character, or event.

I'm looking for a salient theme, topic, moral, and message. I want to know the point of the story, the central conflict the purpose, the milieu, idea, character, or event, the meaning.

That's pretty much my checklist for the big picture.

Re: Who's the best person to be an alpha reader?

Posted: February 17th, 2010, 12:50 am
by Simpatico
I have to disagree with the notion that an alpha reader’s main duty is to act as a cheerleader. Of course, that may be your personal requirement for an alpha reader, but I’ve been an alpha reader for others and I could never do that. Nor would I ever want that from an alpha reader.

The writers I deal with don’t need ego strokes or esteem boosts. They need to know if what they’re doing is working in an attempt to forestall problems down the road and lessen their rewrite workload.

As an alpha reader, I usually point out structural problems or looming characterization problems (since I realize it’s a first draft, I’ll usually give my thoughts on a character as a READER to help them know if they’re hitting their mark or not. Often, the characters at this point are malleable and possibly even vague. My input, hopefully, saves them time as they progress. If there are issues with their characterization, they have an eye open for it and it lessens the workload in re-writes.)

Also, fiction writing is about emotion so I often try to tell them what I’m feeling as I receive their pieces. And, as I said, point out any big flaws or problems I perceive.

Of course, if they feel down about the piece or need encouragement (as we all do sometimes) I give them honest positive feedback. But I think it does them a disservice to tell them their story’s great (or they’re great or whatever) if you don’t actually feel it is.

But I think most writers who have been doing this a while (or, at least the ones I know) know that such feelings are part and parcel of being a writer, and are often temporary.