Usin’ and Abusin’

I have long and loud lauded the glories and contributions of beta readers. Beta readers get a sneak peak at our baby before it’s left on some agent’s front porch, and they tell us what makes it a lovely and/or ugly little baby. Then we can beautify our babe a bit more in the hope that someone will pick that little darling up and take it in out of the cold.

But for some of us, that’s not enough. We need even more hand-holding than that. And those long suffering hand-holders are more like our doulas, helping us push that ugly newborn out in the first place.

That’s right, I’m talking about alpha readers. Not every writer needs them. But for those of us who do, they are an absolute god-send. My half-formed protolizard fetal story ideas would probably never make it into first draft form without my alpha reader. (She also is my best friend and we constantly make each other’s husbands jealous. My cousin thinks we are secretly lesbian lovers. This relationship has all sorts of benefits.)

Alpha readers are different from beta readers in that they get the blow-by-blow of the writing process. Alpha readers hang with their writers every step of the way, offering suggestions, asking insightful questions, and kicking your rear into gear when you slack off. And then when you’re all done with that first draft, they usually double up as a beta reader, too. All alpha readers have their own style, but here are the uses I make of my literary slave best buddy who I’d never ever abuse.

Brainstorming There is something about pinging ideas off of a like-minded buddy that just gets my creative juices flowing. She’s pretty much my muse. I usually come into these sessions with something I’m excited about. If I can get her excited about it, too, I know we may be onto something.

Outlining/Story-boarding Or however you do it. I tend to write out a long-winded list of points that my alpha reader then tears into like a shark into a tuna. This is where having an alpha reader is most beneficial for me. She chews that outline to bits and then spits it back at me, demanding more. She wants the details. And heaven help me, I don’t have them. So I’d better get them. Before my fingers ever touch the keyboard, she makes me think through every subplot, every relationship, every side character, and every motivation and reaction. Which saves me huge amounts of fuss and worry later on when I start writing.

Researching I have seriously dragged my alpha reader out into the woods with me in full elfy-garb to cook slabs of raw meat over an open fire that we built without the benefit of a hatchet. I also made her slap me. Not all alpha readers will spend the night shivering with you in your bishop’s tree house. But my alpha reader is pretty much the cat’s meow.

Writing Alpha reader involvement varies from person to person. My alpha is with me every step of the way. We write together daily (or mostly daily, anyway- I have a really pathetic internet connection) and so we know exactly what the other is working on at all times. That really keeps my nose to the grindstone. If I’m bored writing, I know my alpha reader is bored hearing about it. And my beta readers will be bored reading about it. And agents won’t get past the first sentence.

Fixing the Cheesy/Boring/Cliche/Etc. Poop You’ve Just Written Just because you’ve written it doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. Or even that you can recognize it. Probably about every week, if not more, my poor alpha reader gets some whiny message about how So-and-so’s golden hair sparkling in the sunshine just isn’t working out and I don’t know why, and then she has to pull my butt out of the emo chair and help me shovel the poo. (Actually, my issues are more along the lines of “Should I KILL So-and-so in such-and-such a way, or some other way?” Because So-and-so must die.) This isn’t usually something that happens in the end. This is a boots-on-the-ground emergency clean-up crew. Whatever I wrote yesterday was plain garbage, so it’s the alpha reader’s job to talk me through the fixin’s today. I don’t know how many emails I’ve sent my beta reader titled “Is this weird?” Or stupid. Or boring. Or whatever the adjective of the day is. And I can always count on her giving me her honest reaction.

Then and only then do my beta readers get a steaming hot mess shoveled out into their inboxes. (Now all my beta readers are wondering what the heck my poor alpha reader has to put up with.)

So how does one pick up a suitable alpha reader? Just poke around! Make friends on the internet. Meet other writers in your community. Join a critique group and sort through the pickin’s there. I found my alpha reader at church. It’s important to have an alpha reader that you can be completely honest with (because things will get messy) and who can be completely honest with you (because things will get messy).

Once you have a solid working relationship with your alpha reader, it’s like having a second brain rattling around your skull. And, I don’t care what the doctors say, that can only be a good thing.


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