The Blessing (and the Curse) of the Alpha Reader | Author Denise Grover Swank The Blessing (and the Curse) of the Alpha Reader | Author Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

The Blessing (and the Curse) of the Alpha Reader

Hi, I’m Denise and I use alpha readers.

Now some of you are saying “What? What is she talking about? WTF is an alpha reader?” and others are now looking down your nose with contempt. No real writer uses alpha readers.

And a few of you, some who are too ashamed to admit it, are nodding your head and whispering “I do too.”

What is an alpha reader?

An alpha reader is a person who reads your book while it’s in first draft.

Okay, I’m going to let a few of you get yourselves back together before I continue on, because some of you would rather face a firing squad than show people your first draft. And guess what? That’s okay.

Just like some people use detailed outlines, snowflake methods, or whatever else people use to intricately plot out their books, others just “pants” it and go. I fall somewhere in the middle, which if I had to guess, I think most writers do too. If someone tried to force me to use an an outline you would find me laying on the floor next to my computer throwing a temper tantrum in frustration. The rigidness of an outline is like a cork to my creativity. It forces it into a one way trickle and my imagination doesn’t work that way. Some of my best writing, both technique and plot, comes from knowing where the scene starts and a “hope” of where it ends. I set my characters in their places and let them go.

If you told an outliner to do this, they’d probably break out into a spontaneous case of Ebola.

So now you’re saying, “Yeah, that’s awesome Denise, but I thought this was about alpha readers.” And you would be so right.

It’s widely accepted that people write in different ways (see above) so why is it so hard to accept that writers have readers at different stages?

I use alpha readers, in the very beginning to see what they think. Do they like the characters? Do they like the set up? Basically, it’s to give me positive (or negative) reinforcement. Nothing spurs you on like someone telling you that they love what you just wrote.

Towards the middle, the alpha reader needs to be flexible and unafraid to raise concerns. Its not unusual for me to send out chapters to alpha readers with notes like:*
Oh yeah, I’m introducing a new character named Jeb three chapters back when the velociraptor jumps out of the jungle, but not until I do revisions. He’s a hunter with some magical skills and a mysterious past. So when you see Jeb mentioned, you’ll know it’s him.
You know how that vampire kicked Jessica’s ass? Well, I’m changing it so that Marcus rushes in and saves her. But I’ll fix that in revisions.
This whole subplot with Marlena trying to infiltrate the werewolf lair isn’t working out so well, I’m going to take it out in revisions, so I won’t mention it in the rest of the book.
* Actual plot notes not used. Feel free to borrow.

Notice a trend here? I’m often throwing changes at my readers and telling them to deal with it. (And also putting it off until revisions.) Your alpha reader needs to be able to handle this kind of “stress.”

Your alpha reader needs to be honest, because if they aren’t honest, they are worthless to you. (Yes, that deserved italics AND bold and possibly repeating.)

**If your alpha readers aren’t honest they are WORTHLESS.**

There, I feel better.

In Chosen, I had Will figuring out details sooner than I wanted but I didn’t want him to look stupid; he was a smart guy, so I wrote him figuring out clues. But my alpha reader Brandy pointed out that it was too big a leap for him, she didn’t see it happening. Her comment saved me some MAJOR rewrites because she was right. It was too big of a leap for him. When I am writing first draft, I usually have trouble turning the story off in my head. It’s always there. (Which explains the daze you will often find me in.) I am living this story 24/7 and it’s all so obvious to me. It helps to get that outside opinion.

In Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes, I have a plot and two subplots. I was constantly asking my alpha readers if they felt something was lacking, if things were working. Did something need to appear sooner?

At the end, I was asking things like Is this too big an info dump? Do you have enough information about fill in the blank? Was the end too long? Too short? Satisfying? Boring?

I finished Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes on a Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday morning I sent them a long email with concerns I had, my thoughts about those concerns and asked for their input. When I start editing in a few weeks, I’ll be several steps ahead of the game.

Now you’re thinking, “Wow! Who wouldn’t want an alpha reader?”

Here’s where I explain the curse. Your readers are sometimes reading utter crap. This weekend I sent a chapter with the header “the last half of this chapter isn’t working” I knew it, they knew it, some had suggestions about what wasn’t working, Kristi simply said “I wasn’t feeling it.” Even though it’s tough to get criticism, it’s also good to get confirmation that it really isn’t working.

This weekend I wrote dialogue explaining information about the mystery. I struggled with what to expose, if it was enough or too soon. I wrote and rewrote, so by the end I mostly had straight dialogue, very few tags. Why put those tags in if I was changing it five minutes later? My alpha readers end up reading this “script,” without the tags, because I wanted my alpha readers opinions: Did this work? You are sometimes sending sub par writing just to make sure you are getting the plot.

Which brings me to the main reason I use alpha readers. I tell my alphas that there will be times my writing SUCKS, ignore that, as hard as it is to send. And some days it’s HARD. The only thing that let’s me press send is knowing that they know I am capable of writing; they’re just not seeing it in this email. Their job is to look at story, plot and characters. And to tell me that they love it.

But only if they mean it.

Do YOU use alpha readers? Had you ever heard of them before?

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