Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Alpha Readers, Beta Readers, and Writing Groups (or: How I Got Published, Part 7)

Happy Tuesday ya’ll! It’s time for another #HIGP post, and this one’s all about getting outside help.

I mentioned last week that an essential part of my revision process is getting input from other people. “What people?” you may ask. Well, lemme tell you. Today I’m going to talk about the three main types of readers I’ve had for my stuff, and Duskfall in particular: Alpha Readers, Beta Readers, and Writing Groups.

Alpha Readers

Alpha Readers are, basically, the very first people who will look at my manuscript besides yours truly. Personally, I like Alpha Readers to point out global issues about my manuscript: are there gaping holes in the plot? do character motivations, actions, and decisions make sense? does the magic system make sense, or is it over/underexplained? do characters change drastically halfway through the novel? did you see the twists coming, or did they seem completely out of the blue (in a bad way)? These are the sorts of questions I prep my ARs with, because, if I don’t, I tend to get feedback that focuses more on grammar and typos than actual story issues.

Because I’m looking for specific issues with story and craft, I generally have a few requirements for ARs:
  1. Some experience in story/plot/characters is essential. This does not mean, however, that they have to be fellow writers. They can be phenomenal readers, not have written a scrap, and still be very effective at helping me recognize where my manuscript is going wrong.
  2. They have to be able to give honest feedback. Family members, for the most part, do not perform very well as ARs.* Professionals, or people very experienced at giving writing feedback, are usually ideal in this scenario, but they aren’t the only people who can give honest feedback. You may have a close friend, someone in your writing group, a classmate, or someone you’ve met online whose honest opinion you respect. That’s what you’re looking for.
  3. Variety. If I have an epic fantasy manuscript, I don’t necessarily want three epic fantasy authors to be my ARs. I find it helps far more to have maybe one epic fantasy person as an AR, and to look in other genres, or even look for non-writers (keeping in mind #1, of course), to fill some of the other slots.

I think between 3-5 ARs is kind of the ideal number for me. More than that and the feedback gets a bit overwhelming, and less than that doesn’t seem quite diverse enough.

I mentioned in my last post that I actually don’t pay attention to a large percentage of the feedback I receive (I usually only take from 10-50% of the feedback, depending on the source), and that is as true for ARs as it is for anyone else. I take their feedback a bit more seriously, so I think for ARs the percentage is closer to 30-50%, but I still need to be judicious about what I do and do not consider. It’s still my story, after all.

Basically, Alpha Readers are my first line of defense for my manuscript. They are people I trust, who have experience in story and character, and who can be honest with me.**

Beta Readers

Beta Readers, at least for me, perform a very different role than Alpha Readers. Beta Readers are the second group of people to whom I send my manuscript for feedback, and my goals with them are different. While I ask many of the same questions I asked my Alpha Readers, I make things a bit more specific here, particularly regarding the magic system, setting, prose, pacing, etc. I’m also a bit more open to grammatical/typographical stuff at this stage, although it still isn’t super helpful to me.***

My requirements for Beta Readers are a lot less stringent, too. While having a couple people who are very experienced is writing, plot, character, etc. is still helpful, my main objective is variety. I view Beta Readers as more of a focus group, a sampling of different types of people who can give me different perspectives on my manuscript. I usually draw on a number of different friends for BRs, and I have significantly more BRs than I do ARs—anywhere from five to twenty. Family members are more kosher here, too; their potential bias is less dangerous at this stage, and can sometimes even be helpful, even for just a slight ego boost :-).

Because the sampling is so much wider, I usually take less feedback from my Beta Readers seriously, percentage-wise—around 0-30% (yes, sometimes I don't take any of someone's feedback, and that's totally fine), again depending on the person.

Writing Groups

While Alpha and Beta Readers are related—two different stages in a similar process—Writing Groups are an entirely different thing. A Writing Group, basically, is a group of writers who get together periodically to critique one another’s work. I’ve been involved in four or five writing groups, more than that if you count the critique groups I had during my MFA program, so I’ve got some experience on a number of levels in this area.

For some people, WGs are fantastic. They’re motivational (you basically have “deadlines” you need to keep, and that peer pressure can force some great productivity), they’re helpful (they are, in one sense, a group of Alpha Readers giving you feedback), and they’re a great way to network.

All of this is true for me, especially in the beginning. My first writing group was a part of Brandon Sanderson’s SF/F writing course at BYU, and having a deadline was probably the single most helpful thing that writing group did for me. A close second were the people I met in the group—I’m still friends with most of them, and still hang out with a few of them at writing conferences and conventions (and one of them in particular was instrumental in getting my agent to look at Duskfall—but more about that in a later post).

That first writing group taught me some other things, too: that I’m a discovery writer, for one, and that discovery writing doesn’t always go super well with submitting work to a writing group, or at least not in the way I submitted it that first time around. Because of the whole deadline thing, many people who participate in writing groups submit stuff they have just wrote, often without revising it at all (or at least that’s how I did it that first time). That’s not as much an issue for outliners, because they already have their story planned out. For discovery writers like me, however, that can be problematic; I’m already making up the story as I go along, and the feedback I get from WGs can often make me want to change my writing in mid-manuscript, which isn’t the best strategy for me to write my novel.

I’ve also tried submitting work to a WG that’s on it’s second revision (where I’ve fixed a lot of the holes I knew were there): I’ve already written the first draft, and I’ll revise the portion I’m submitting before I give it to the group. That works infinitely better for me—it lets me get out the kinks in the first draft and get a better idea of where I want the story to go, so I’m not so malleable and easily distracted when I get critiques.

So, some tips for writing groups, based on my experience:
  1. The person being critiqued should not defend their work. In fact, it’s best if they not speak at all while being critiqued, and instead just focus on taking notes. If someone didn’t get something about your work, there’s no point in explaining it—they didn’t get it. That means take their input, think about how you can write it better, and go do that thing!
  2. People should generally be courteous about giving their feedback—if they are insulting you as a person or as a writer, they don’t belong in a writing group. If they’re insulting your writing, that’s less problematic—their critiques can still be helpful—but still uncool on their part. If they’re giving you harsh and honest feedback, that’s fantastic, and you should accept it with gratitude that someone is willing to be honest with you. Trust me, we all need harsh feedback every once in a while.
  3. Depending on whether you’re a discovery writer or an outliner, I’d suggest you think seriously about what you’ll be submitting to your group, whether it’s first-draft stuff or revised stuff (if even slightly revised).
  4. Diversify your writing group—again, if everyone’s a straight white single dude from 23-29 years old writing space opera, your critiques won’t be as, um, holistic as they could be. So it’s good to include different types of people and different types of writers, if possible, to maximize the experience.

If you’d like more tips on Writing Groups, check out the Writing Excuses Podcast. I’ll link to a couple great episodes here, but they actually have a lot of great episodes on just about everything I’m talking about here and then some, so if you want more information, that’s the first place I’d send you.

So What About Duskfall?

I actually tried all three of these things at some point in the process as I wrote DF.

The very very first draft of DF was my project for Brandon Sanderson’s class, so that went through that first writing group as well as one or two others. Some of those writing group experiences were better than others. That first one was great because, as I mentioned earlier, it taught me about deadlines and introduced me to some really cool people that became fast friends. Later groups were helpful in teaching me how I wrote (mainly that I’m a discovery writer), helping me define what I wanted to do with later drafts of DF, and of course helping me retain friendships as well as make new ones.

I had a professional thriller writer, a creative nonfiction writer, and my wife as Alpha Readers for DF after I’d finished my second first draft (I never finished that first first draft that went through the writing groups). Their feedback was phenomenal, and I’m really happy with the draft that emerged because of their suggestions.

A few months later I sent DF out to some Beta Readers consisting of some close family members and about a dozen of my friends. Each one of them had something unique to contribute, and helped DF develop in their own way.


Here’s what’s important for me: I need outside feedback in order for my writing to progress. If I want to be better, I need people to tell me what I’m doing wrong, because I can rarely catch that stuff on my own. Alpha Readers, Beta Readers, and Writing Groups are the best ways I’ve found to do that, and I definitely think I’m a better writer because of it. I plan to continue using them, and to continue getting better—hopefully!

Oh, and next week I’m going to talk about something a bit different in this series: education, and why it is (and isn’t) important in the process of getting published. So, there’s that to look forward to :-).

* Of course, there are exceptions to this, my wife being one of them. My wife has a reputation for being brutally honest, at work, in life in general, and in our marriage, too—that’s one of the things I love about her. She was one of my Alpha Readers for DF, and she was extremely effective. That said, however, I personally would never have any family member other than my wife as an AR—and certainly no more than one family member as an AR at any given time.

** I imagine that from this point on my Alpha Readers will actually just consist of my agent, my editor, and perhaps my wife and/or one other trusted friend. They’re exactly the type of people whose feedback I’m looking for, and they do it professionally, so it should work out pretty well.

*** Actually, what I usually do is have sort of two stages of Beta Readers (I guess you could call them “Beta Readers” and “Delta” or “Gamma Readers” or something, but I don’t. Just Beta Readers.): the first is the stage I describe above, but the second is a lot more focused on sentence-level stuff: grammar, typos, spelling, etc.

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