Writing Excuses 5.33: Alpha Readers

It’s time to talk about alpha readers, and we start with a caveat from Howard: “I don’t want to read your book.” Let’s face it, we here at Writing Excuses might be great alpha readers, but we’re not YOUR alpha readers. We can’t be your back-door to fame and fortune as a genre fiction writer. The good news? There are good alpha readers out there waiting for you. You just need to know how to find them.

We talk about conventions a bit, those places that are full of genre-fiction lovers who might be able to help. We talk about Brandon’s writing group (his alpha readers) and how his agent and editor are actually beta readers. This contrast illustrates the sort of things you should be looking for in an alpha reader. We talk about Howard’s alpha reader (Sandra) and how she has to look at a script with no pictures, no blocking, and no dialog tags and figure out whether or not it’s going to work. This illustrates how she’s a genius and Howard’s just a hack.

Brandon and Dan also cover what they do not want in alpha readers — poor delivery of criticism and proof-reading topping the list.

And then we finally get around to some tricks for building a solid stable of alpha readers. It’s not something you’re going to pull off overnight.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dragon Factory: The Joe Ledger Novels, Book 2 by Jonathan Mayberry, narrated by Ray Porter.

Writing Prompt: Any time you’ve caught cold you’re actually being possessed. Gesundheit.

Loud Howard: brought to you by a too-close microphone. Jordo did his best to fix this in post, but we don’t record on multiple channels so there’s only so much that can be done on our budget.

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44 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.33: Alpha Readers”

  1. I had horrible luck with alpha readers. I think my first manuscript is the unabridged/true version of the Necronomicon and all my alphas just go mad after reading it and don’t want to speak of it ever again.

    All I get is silence.

    Mind you, a few folks have been nice enough to respond, but the silence is still unbearable.


    Broken ego…..

  2. Something I’ve been considering is when it makes sense to show a work to people. I never thought of letting anyone see it before doing a second draft to do find the worst plot holes/dropped plots/etc and clean that up to make sure it’s what I envisioned and not what I actually wrote. Do you guys think it’s a certain time into a writer’s learning curve it makes sense to let others read it after the first pass, or is that part of the whole “some writers don’t need or want alpha readers” thing?

  3. So Alpha readers are the diamond miners, Betas are the jewelers?

    As for the writing prompt, that’s pretty close to the old wives’ tale that explains the “bless you” phrase for expressing sympathy when someone sneezes. It was, as I recall, believed that a sneeze was the physical manifestation of a person’s soul fleeing their body to escape the illness. Granting a hasty blessing strengthened the bond between soul and body (or something – I don’t understand Christian metaphysics at the best of times) and restored the soul to the body. Brandon’s writing prompt is a reasonable corollary – it certainly explains why one’s soul would want to flee.

    And Rafael, I’d be willing to risk it, if you’re interested. I’m already fairly insane, so there’s less of a risk of my going insane than the rest of your attempted alpha readers. Of course, I don’t even know what genre you’re writing, so I may back out when I find that out.

  4. You mention a writting group called ‘reading excuses’ in the podcast, I don’t see a link to that anywhere can you post a url? Also Rafael if your looking for alpha readers I’d be willing to give it a try too given my insanity meter is, atleast I suspect it to be so, maxed. Anyways if anyone can recommend other reading groups please do so as I’m a fairly new writter and could use some feedback on my works. Thanks, Telrika.

  5. Horray! The stars have aligned! This is a timely podcast.
    I’m self-publishing an urban fantasy novel in the next two months. I’ve contracted the art design (cover and interior sketches) and interior design already, the graphic designer a popular award-winning freelancer. He recommended an editor friend, but I’m hesitant. Freelance editors? The notion of paying some stranger a few thousand dollars to a) be an alpha reader b) do whatever editors do. I really don’t have an inkling as to what they do. I’ve read extensively on the subject, even remember Eoin Colfer describing his editing experience with Artemis Fowl, his editor recasting the entire book. So, I’m wondering, what do you guys think about freelance editors? Is it a crapshoot? Like, publishing houses have invested interests in matching editors with writers, correct? I know Amanda Hocking didn’t bother with editors early on, and I doubt she does now, despite her claims (I’ve read her latest error-rife book). I’ve rewritten the book a dozens times over, waiting months between each rewrite, and copyedited it innumerable times through. I like how it reads. So . . . no alpha reader, no editor?! Am I . . . nuts to be even considering such a thing, especially when considering the art/design costs.

  6. PS Could you give us a few names of authors who don’t use alpha readers? I don’t think Stephen King uses such readers, outside his family, that is. I wonder if Joe Hill is his alpha reader nowadays, like Tabitha used to be.

  7. @Rashkavar

    Thank you for the offer. I usually write speculative fiction, but my first book is commercial fiction so it may not be up your alley. I sort of gave up on it as being to short for publication (a measly 54k words). I’m hoping my second book (UF) will be better and stronger.

    As they often say on the program, don’t expect your first, second or even your fifth (or is it fifteenth) book to be good enough to be published.

  8. Thanks for the podcast guys! I’m still fairly new to being in a writing group and it took me a couple months to get out of proofreader mode and actually say something in my critiques that was potentially useful.

    @ John

    go to timewastersguide.com and become a member. It’s really easy to sign up and it’s free. Once you’re logged in look towards the bottom of the screen are two menus. One is writing group which is mostly for questions about writing, there’s also a spot to post writing prompt pieces. The next menu, Reading Excuses, is where you can post your work for critiques. The first thread on that page is Email list + submission dates. You’ll want to go in there and post a comment that you’re interested in joining the group. Silk runs the group and she’ll need to know you’re joining before you post anything.

  9. So cons are a great place to form a writing group, eh?

    Are you saying that many good writing groups work long-distance? Or should you specifically be looking for people at these cons who live near to you?

  10. At this point my eldest daughter is my Alpha Reader. I am lucky to have her, as she is smarter than I am and she is good at pointing out small things that I sometimes fail to see like POV errors or the occasional inconsistency with tense or forgotten quote mark. That said, it would be nice to have a few more Alpha readers or even a reading group. However as was stated in this podcast, they are not easy to come by. Conventions would be nice, but are currently out of my reach as I just don’t have the time or the money to attend them. I have posted the first two chapters of my current work in progress hoping to receive some honest feed back, but so far all I’ve received is some praise from a few online friends that is good for feeding my ego, does nothing to help my writing. I would greatly appreciate it if some of the Writing Excuses fans could read what I have posted online and give me some constructive criticism. In return I would be happy to return the favor. For the site link just click my name.

    Thank you,

  11. for the writing prompt gesundheit. Sunden could be translated to mean Atone or repent. and gesund or gesundheit (all related words) is more of a health well wishing. so its kind of funny that you would have some sort of possession with your health mixed with the word gesundheit.
    just figured you would like to know your being actually quite clever with linguistic-al word play

  12. Just out of curiosity: Who thinks Dan would read my manuscript if I printed it on bacon?

  13. Thanks for paying it forward, guys, though I do wish I could take Brandon’s class.

    Overall, I prefer on-line critique groups to face-to-face groups, and not just because it’s easier as far as scheduling. Face to face groups can be very intense, you’re on the spot, you have a smaller pool of people so there’s less chance of finding simpatico critiquers. On the other hand, you don’t get to hear people’s voices when they like something with an on-line critique group and you don’t get discussions going, which are fun.

    Con workshops are good, too; they’re a great way to get feedback from a professional. Though one pro told me that, while short story writers needed the networking, she didn’t recommend workshops for novelists; she’d seen too many beginners bring new first chapters to a workshop, but they never wrote the rest of the novels – the workshop feedback had become the only goal.

    Sad to say, I’ve experienced the “No, you’re wrong and I’m not going to change it just to spite you” with a critiquer who did have some points I needed to consider, but had said so in such a “How could you be so stupid?” tone of voice, it was very difficult for me to use his advice. I managed, but I had to put it aside for a while (in his defense, the workshop had been going for hours and I was the last one and he was tired).

    Some of the worst critiques I’ve ever received have been from very talented writers just starting out – they’ve published a few short stories, maybe even a debut novel, but are still finding their own voice and, yes, they’ll want to re-write your book their own way. Heck, I’m doing heavy revisions of a first draft, and I’ve told people they really don’t want me critiquing for them right now. :-)

  14. Critters.org is also good. I’ve only done short stories, but most of those have gotten 20+ critiques. Gave me a great idea of what was working/wasn’t working.

    My writing group is long-distance, via Skype, and I really like Skype now.

    I used to polish, polish, polish before I let anyone read something, only to realize I have a much harder time cutting a scene that needs to go if I spent four hours revising it to perfection.

    @Roland — I’d definitely have someone else read it. I’m always amazed at what other people see/catch. I wrote a story once where I mentioned someone adding temper to clay — the sand or broken bits of pottery that help give it elasticity. I’m familiar with this (hurray archaeology!) and didn’t think twice about it. Everyone who read it asked me why my protag had anger issues. Oops. I’ve never tried a freelance editor, as I figure I can find other writers to read it for free, and it only costs reading manuscripts in turn (which makes me a better writer — everyone wins).

    @Anyone — Wouldn’t having alphas read it a chapter at a time make it harder to look at the big picture? Just thinking too hard.

  15. With regards to my proffered “gesundheit,” folks, I really AM that clever. I know some of the mythos surrounding the things we say when we sneeze, and decided to riff on that.

    I also decided not to explain the joke. If you got it, congratulations! You’re clever too. :-)

  16. @Mark VanTassel

    No. First of all, you’d have to A: have a humongous piece of bacon, B: a really short manuscript and/or C: really tiny print. Second of all, it’s BACON. Who examines their bacon for stuff written on it before eating it?

  17. That’s funny about Adolin, he’s my brother’s favorite character from Way of Kings. I am torn between Dalinar and Jasnah on that front. Great podcast. I have a trusted alpha and a couple beta readers, and that is after a year’s worth of work.

  18. The Dalinar/Adolin thing makes one thing a lot more clear: in those chapters there are some mid-section viewpoint shifts from Adolin to Dalinar or vice versa. I don’t mean after the 3 dots indicating a different subchapter or whatever – like from one paragraph to the next in what seems like the same viewpoint.

    When reading I first thought that Brandon was trying a new technique and I found it interesting, though I wondered why he never did the same thing in the other stories. Mystery solved, but it definitely works as a way to keep the reader as confused as Dalinar must be with his hallucinations. I’ll chalk that one up as an “error” in revision that works for other reasons.

    While discussing WoK, well, let’s just say that I am very impressed by how Jasnah was written. Brandon writes atheists well.

  19. Thanks for the podcast on this! It was helpful and enlightening, if not very encouraging. I’ve been looking for alpha readers with little success. So far I have one, but he is not particularly consistent. But, I trust his judgment. He doesn’t write himself, though, so I don’t get the benefit of reciprocating. I’m glad to hear others have the same trouble.

    @Ronald – I would not publish anything without getting some feedback. I started reading a self-published novel recently, I won’t divulge the author’s name. I could not keep reading, though I may eventually finish just because I am stubborn that way. But, I could not help thinking the entire time, “This is a good writer in desperate need of a good editor.”

  20. Duke, I’m not aware of any mid-scene POV changes between Adolin and Dalinar. If you find any, please point them out via email or via Brandon’s typos thread on TWG.

  21. Woah dude of all the podcasts these guys have done. Way of the mark on this one. Who does Howard think he is? Robert Kirkman? Really arrogant, won’t be listening anymore.

  22. @Stacy: What exactly seemed off the mark to you? I mean, aside from the arrogance. I embrace that, right along with false humility and an inflated sense of self-importance. I am, after all, an artist.

  23. I retract my viewpoint comment. I re-read the section that I was talking about earlier, which is the first Adolin/Dalinar chapter in the book. Chapter 12.

    This sort of thing is what got me on my first read-through:

    “Dalinar’s frown deepened. He never had liked Wit, and picking on Renarin was a sure way to raise his ire.”

    This reads like a Dalinar viewpoint to me, and it is the next sentence reminds us that we’re in Adolin’s.

    “Adolin could understand that, but Wit was almost always good-natured with Renarin.”

    It’s clearly Adolin’s viewpoint, so I was wrong. There are other examples of the same thing throughout, but this one was between locations 3996 and 4017 on my Kindle.

    I think what threw me was that Adolin and Dalinar both share a lot of information about how they view each other’s thoughts, fooling me into thinking that I’m in a new viewpoint.

    It’s completely my bad.

  24. Oooh … I think I might be one of those proofreading friends. I suppose it doesn’t help that I work as a newspaper copy-editor. If I had my way I’d end up converting my friends novels to AP style (note the spaces before and after the ellipses up there).

    Is it a bad idea to have an alpha reader also be a beta reader? And have any of you ever told your writing group what the overarching plot of the book, so that they understand where the book is going? I feel like it would help in some ways and hurt in other (they might forgive things they shouldn’t because they know why you put in some unnecessary bit).

  25. That is certainly something a writer has to be careful about—one character interpreting another character’s thoughts when there may not be a good reason for him to be able to do so. In this case I think Adolin’s interpretation is warranted.

  26. @Dylan: I wouldn’t hesitate to communicate the general theme and genre of the book to my alpha readers, in much the same way a well-written back-cover blurb would, but I wouldn’t go as far as to provide a synopsis that included plot twists, reveals, or the actual ending.

    I find it way too useful to be able to ask the alpha readers questions like “what do you think is going to happen next?” or perhaps “how did this scene make you feel about this character?” Their responses would be heavily colored if they knew too much about what was coming later.

  27. For me, the best alpha readers ask questions rather than point out flaws. If something needs to be fleshed out, they ask questions about the origin of an idea. If a character has acted in a manner outside of what could reasonably be anticipated, my favorite alphas ask about the motivation. It both communicates that something was not fully explained while prompting me to firm up the concept in my own head before attempting to rewrite it.

  28. It’s been my experience that alpha readers are good for the beginning of books. Writing groups as well. The first few chapters where you really want to hook the reader. I think it depends on how often you meet and what your writing pace is. I average 10-15k per week when in writing mode. When I’m all finished with revisions I will generally show the first few chapters to a writing group to get feedback. I have one real alpha reader and that is a family member who reads it chapter by chapter. I do have a handful of beta readers that get to see the (semi) finished product.

    If you were in a writing group that was very active (2-3 times a week) or were only able to write less than 5k a week then I think it would be very feasible to have a writing group look at your work chapter by chapter. Just my thoughts.

  29. Oh, my god, fireflyz, you write 10-15k per week? That means you can write a novel in a month or a month and a half.

    @Howard, in one episode, you guys said that Stephenie Meyer, Dan Brown, and J.K. Rowling are not good writers. My question is: how can we tell if someone is a good writer? What are we looking for in the writing? Those writers all have editors so their grammar, punctuations and mechanics are correct. So we can’t go by those to identify good/bad writing.

    More important, as a writer, can we identify those good or bad qualities in our own writing and learn to improve them? A lot of people say if you read a good piece of writing, you know it, but that doesn’t help me to figure out how to improve my own writing.

  30. @Johnny, this is pretty much off topic, haha.
    I write Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat. Sun. Basically coinciding with times that I’m home from work and my fiance is busy. I started off writing Stephen King’s 2k words a day, but that doesn’t work for me. What if you’re in the middle of a chapter or the words are just flowing and you’re “in the zone”? Now I write a chapter ever writing session. It could be 1500 words (rare) or it could be 2500 (usually) to 5000(again rare). Anyway, I won’t stop until I’ve written a chapter.

    My last novel which is being considered by a few agents I wrote in 7 weeks and it was 140k. Mind you, I revised it down to 125k and that took almost as long as writing it. Also, that was when I was in between jobs so I was writing a lot more.

    My current work I started three weeks ago and is a little over 30k. I should have it done by the end of May at the latest. I also work from a farily strong outline and discovery write the chapters within the framework of the outline. I think if I were purely discovery writing my output would be lower.

    I’m going through this because I think a lot of people have a misconception that writing will take forever. It won’t. Some will write faster than others, sure, but if you put the time in it won’t take as long. I think shooting for a chapter a writing session is much more realistic for people rather than writing towards a target number of words. And as always, quantity doesn’t always guarantee quality (but it will get you to quality faster).

  31. @Johnny

    Yeah, I know what you mean. ‘Way of Kings’ and ‘I am not a serial killer’ blew my mind when I read them. There were odd bits that I didn’t quite agree with, but overall they were solid, amazing books. But unless I go through page by page, or notice things on re-reads, knowing that they’re good doesn’t help me to fully dissect why they’re good.

    Nor does knowing what and how Dan or Brandon did something necessarily translate to what or how I should do it. “OK, if I want this book to be great, I need a magic system called Hurricaneglow, the bad guys are body-snatching demons, the hero is a retired general with a sociopathic son…” is not the kind of lesson you should be taking from those books.

    There are resources online, and there’s a book called ‘Elements of style’ by Strunk and White.

    Also… Rowling’s not a good writer? Aside from my own personal fondness for the Potter books, Stephen King thinks she’s good. So that suggests that ‘good writing’ is a little subjective, although there are still base elements, common things. I think.

    Like the Twilight books have WAY too much purple prose.

  32. I just want to point out something John Brown mentioned at LTUE in reference to “bad writing”: there’s crap and then there’s not being in the audience. Just because you thought a book was bad, does not mean it was a bad book–it could just mean the book wasn’t for you.

  33. I’m revising the Wikipedia article “Beta reader” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_reader), which considered the author to be the “alpha reader” and anyone else pre-publication a “beta reader”. I would like to quote from this post, but only with your permission.

    My comments on the previous version of the page are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Beta_reader#alpha_vs._beta .

    My draft version of the page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Thnidu/sandbox

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