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Writing Excuses 5.33: Alpha Readers

Writing Excuses 5.33: Alpha Readers


Key Points: Don't look for a secret backdoor. Do look for and cultivate alpha readers. Alpha readers can read your book while still in draft, and encourage you to make it better. Beta readers, on the other hand, can read your completed work and help you polish it. Alphas should help you write YOUR book, not the book they would have written. Alpha readers need to give you the kind of feedback that is useful for you. Encouragement, ripping, whatever it takes. Beware the proofreader! Fine as beta or gamma, but alpha readers need to take a broader view. You find alpha readers through a process, not magic -- like good friends.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Five, Episode 33, Alpha Readers.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard. And I don't want to read your book.

[Brandon] What do you mean by that, Howard?
[Howard] Well, the pile of things...
[Dan] Besides the principle?
[Howard] The pile of things that I want to read right now is bigger than I am able to read. So, I get requests all the time. Will you look at my comic? Will you read my manuscript? Will you look at my pitch? Whatever. I don't have the time to put into it to do it justice. There are other things that I enjoy more. Now that said, I'm in a writing group where I am alpha readers for Bob Deffendi, Dan Willis, and my brother...
[Brandon] You are alpha readers? You're multiple? [Garbled]
[Howard] I am. There are multiple voices inside my head, and so they all get a vote.

[Brandon] So, this immediately took a direction toward those wanting to send us your books. Thank you, but we can't read them. But let me play devil's advocate here. That person who wants you to read their book... or wants the famous person to read their book may have heard the story that Kevin J. Anderson read Patrick Rothfuss's book when he was unpublished and handed it to his agent, and Patrick Rothfuss therefore got published. So the listener is saying, "Well, I want to make that happen. How can I make that happen?" How you respond to this person, Howard?
[Dan] I'll respond to that person. A book as good as Pat Rothfuss's would have gotten published anyway. You don't need to find a secret backdoor.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, I mean, part of the answer is...
[Howard] Let me address it in a different way. I don't know how Pat approached Kevin J. Anderson, but I'm pretty sure that if you approach Kevin J. Anderson at this point, he doesn't have time. Pat found that window of opportunity and got in. There are people...
[Brandon] I think Pat won Writers of the Future, which is how it happened. Or something like that.
[Dan] Well, that's an entirely different thing.
[Howard] Well. Okay. See. That's not a backdoor at all. If you want me to read your book, sometimes there are things that I need to have done. We'll be talking at a convention, and we'll realize that some sort of business arrangement can be arrived at. That's happened to me in the past. Now, don't come up to me at conventions, please, and say, "Hey, I have this..."
[Dan] Start offering you things?
[Howard] Start offering me things in exchange for reading your book. But as you go to conventions and as you network, you will find that there are people who will be... who are willing to be alpha readers for you, because there is something in turn that you can do for them.

[Brandon] Okay. That's a very good way to put it. I mean, a lot of these things where I see it happening, it happens very organically. Very few authors I know will just read a book that's been sent to them. For the reasons you've explained. I mean, I used to try to do it. I really did. This was when I was much lesser known. Now I get requests like this every day. I can't read a book a day. If I'm going to pass something on to my editor, which I have done before... I did it with Dan's book. It's something I have to really know intimately, and I have to really be familiar with the author as well. I have to know that this is somebody that I can... not just stand up for the book, but stand up and say, "This is an author you really want to have in your stable because they produce consistently. I know this person personally." For me, that's what it takes to get something passed on. Because I feel like I want to help people, I... that's one of the reasons why I teach my class. I teach the class so that I have... one method. Now, you may be saying, "Brandon, I can't get to Provo. There's no way I can take your class." I say, "Yes, I know. I can only do it for a few people."
[Dan] That's why we broadcast 15 minutes worth of that class every week on the Internet.
[Brandon] Yes. [Garbled]

[Howard] One thing to bear in mind as well is that all three of us pretty firmly believe in the principle of paying it forward. We had people help us jumpstart our own careers, and we want to be able to help others. The best way for us to do that is not for us to read every manuscript that is offered to us. Often, what we do is we go to conventions and we talk, we broadcast Writing Excuses, there's all kinds of things that we are able to do and that we love to do and will continue to do. So it's not that we don't want to help, it's that we don't...
[Dan] That's not the most efficient way for us to help.
[Brandon] I will read people's books sometimes if they get published and they want me to try and blurb it. I can do a lot more good blurbing your book than I can putting it into hands, because honestly, the best I can do is to say to my editor, "Hey, this submission that someone sent you? You should pay better attention to this one." I'll tell you guys honestly, he usually doesn't. Not because he doesn't trust me, but because he's busy, overworked, he's got a ton of submissions, and he just forgets.

[Howard] Now we've spent five minutes telling people how not to find three alpha readers who would probably be pretty good alpha readers if they could find them. How do you go about finding good alpha readers who can give you good feedback and help you improve your story so that you have somebody to thank in the afterword?
[Brandon] This is hard. I'm going to tell you this, guys, straight out. Getting good alpha readers and a good writing group are... let me put some definitions here for you. This is how I use them. Writing group is people I workshop my book with week by week sending them chapters. They are considered alpha readers. I have... my alpha readers are my writing group, my editor, and my agent. That is it. Maybe Emily, but she's part of my writing group. My beta readers are people I send the book to in its completed form after my agent has seen it, after my writing group has workshopped it, to see the entire scope of the book and get back to me as just a reader giving feedback would. So I have those two groups. We can talk about both alpha and beta readers. Finding good alphas is really hard. Because alphas have to be able to see the book when it's not in its perfect form and see what you're trying to do with the book. Betas, at least as I view them, are people who see the book in its near complete form and then can read as a reader can. Alphas for me have to react as a writer does, not as a reader.
[Howard] Alphas have to be able to see the diamond in the rough and help you decide where to make the cuts for a beautiful gem. If the beta readers see the diamond in the rough, all they see is the rough. Beta readers are the ones who look at the gem, hold it up under the scrutiny of the little gem glass thing, and find flaws in it.
[Brandon] Here's a great metaphor for it. If you go watch... if you get some DVDs of... 3D animated DVDs, they'll often have cut scenes, or what they call wireframes, early pre-rendered versions of the characters bouncing along. People who are in animation who see these things immediately can imagine how it's going to look on the final screen. They don't see that and say, "Oh, it's crap." Beta readers are the type that would look at it and say, "That's crap, you can't expect to release this." Alpha readers look at it and say, "Oh, his walk is off." Not, "This looks like crap because you haven't added his hair yet." "That bear's walk is off." So finding those people is tough. We'll talk about how to find them and about how to be a good one, after we promo our book of the week.

[Dan] Our book of the week is the Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. It is the second of the Joe Ledger novels. The first one is Patient Zero that we talked about last year, I think. The Dragon Factory follows the same group of kind of paramilitary killers, I suppose, taking down yet another group of insane scientists who are trying to destroy the world. The first one is a zombie novel. Dragon Factory is not. It takes it in an all-new direction. Very cool. I actually liked it much more than Patient Zero, and I recommend it highly. That is The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry.
[Howard] Go out to You can sign up for a 14 day free trial, get the Dragon Factory, or Patient Zero, or any number of other books... one of which will be free for your free trial. Help support the podcast so that we can keep buying doughnuts to feed ourselves.
[Dan] There's a noble cause.

[Brandon] Okay. So Howard, how did you find your alpha readers?
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. I really only have one good alpha reader, and that's Sandra. Because I'll write the script and I'll lay the script out in front of her and it has no pictures in it at all yet. Understand, my scripts don't have any blocking yet. I just have panel boxes and dialogue. I've shown some of you guys the panel boxes and the dialogue. You guys look at it and say, "I don't know what to make of this until I see the pictures." Sandra is enough steeped in the Schlock Mercenary universe that she's got a pretty good idea of what it is I'm going to draw. I'm standing right there with her while she reads it. So my alpha reader process with Sandra is, "Hey, hon, I've got some scripts for you to read." She reads them while I watch her facial expressions. If she looks puzzled, if she looks confused, I've probably done something wrong. If she laughs, then it's awesome. If she thrusts them back at me and says, "I want more right now!" Then I'm in great shape.

[Brandon] Let me give you guys a few things to look for when looking for alpha readers. First off, I'll make the mention that some people don't use them. We talked about this in our podcast on writing groups, you can go listen to that. For some people, having alpha readers just doesn't work. That's not part of the process for them. I find them invaluable. But, some things to look for. Number one, these should be people who can look at the book you're writing, can see what you're trying to do, and give you advice on how to do that. Not give you advice on how to turn the book into something they would like. That is perhaps the hardest thing to find in alpha reader. Even established writers I know who go in writing groups will often say, "Well, I don't like this type of book." Then their comments are all kind of nudging the book toward being a different type of book...
[Howard] A book that they would like.
[Brandon] That's really hard to not do.

[Dan] Well, you have to be careful as well with advice at all from an alpha reader because you are the one who is the writer for your book. You are the one who knows how to fix it. So the advice that I love to get from my alpha readers is, "This works. This doesn't work. This is my reaction to it." Then I can take that information and go, "Okay. If this isn't working, I know how to fix it."
[Howard] Sandra has been... she's been in your writers group. She's in this writers group with me and a few others. She and I talked about the differences. I think that the writers group I'm in right now is sort of a young wine. It needs time to age and mature. Because all of us are still working on being good alpha readers for each other. What I've found is that my role in the writers group is to temper everything that's said so that everybody who's in the writers group keeps on writing. Because fundamentally, for that group of people, that's the most important thing that can happen.
[Brandon] That's point number two. That really is an important point. You need to find alpha readers who give you the type of feedback that is useful for you. Not everybody... the same type of feedback is not going to help every person. Some of you... some people need encouragement in the right way. Some people need to be ripped to shreds. We all say we want to be ripped to shreds, but what we mean is we want to be ripped to shreds in the right way that's helpful to us. Not the way that makes us not write any more. So there is a personality thing. It's really tough, because sometimes you can get along really well as friends, and yet when it comes to critiquing one another's work, it doesn't work because you give feedback in different ways. I've consistently found that I really like being in a writing group with Dan because we are hard on each other, but the things he says make my books better invariably. This is really important to me, to have people in my writing group that are like this, to give feedback in the right type of way. They can call me on my crap. But there are people who call me on my crap who call me on my crap in the wrong way. I'm not even sure how to describe it. It's just that they call me the wrong way, and it immediately turns me into a, "No, you're wrong, and I'm just not going to change this just to spite you." That's just a different method of critiquing.
[Howard] Are those people still in your writing group?
[Brandon] No. These are people that I get out of writing group with.
[Howard] Well, there you go.

[Dan] Yeah. Brandon and I have been in a writing group together more or less for... what is it now, 11 years? 12 years?
[Brandon] Yeah. Oh. Ho, ho. Wow.
[Dan] There's been many people coming and going.
[Howard] That's longer than most people are married.
[Dan] We won't name any names, but there have been some people that were horrible fits for that writing group. Not because they were bad writers, but because they didn't think about writing the same way we did, I guess is a way of putting it. They didn't give the kind of feedback we needed, and frankly, we did not give the kind of feedback that they needed.
[Brandon] We gave bad feedback to certain people.
[Dan] We were... we gave some horrible feedback to some people, including my brother. He's managed to get published in spite of our help.
[Brandon] Yes. Darn it!

[Dan] Curses. Okay. I'm going to throw out one more person to avoid as an alpha reader, at least for me, is the proofreader. Most of us have a friend who reads a lot and says, "Why don't they ever proofread the books? I find spelling errors all the time." Then you say, "Well, I'm writing a book." And they want to read it. That's great for a beta or maybe even a gamma read, but that kind of person is not going to give you, in general, the feedback you need from an alpha. Because they're going to give very nitty-gritty, your grammar is wrong, batteries don't work this way, that kind of stuff. Where what you're looking for in an alpha is a broad how is my character arc? Do you like this plot? Does it make sense?
[Brandon] The best alpha readers... the things that they have done... let me just list off some things that they have done. Way of Kings, if you've read it. My alpha readers in my writing group were able to show me that... when I was doing characters wrong. I loved these characters, everybody loved these characters, and yet the book was not working. I eventually had to rip out, in Way of Kings, Dalinar... half of his personality... and re-focus him and put Adolin in, who's another separate character, to voice a completely different side of the story. To make who he was not schizophrenic, but to make who he was relatable, and to have another person voicing another opinion. This... Adolin is a viewpoint character, he's got like five or six chapters in the book, which is not insignificant... only existed because the writing group kept saying, "I can't get a handle on this character. Every other chapter he seems like he's feeling something different. He feels very inactive, because he's always arguing with himself." That was something I couldn't get without the alpha readers reading it. The alpha readers, my agent and editor will often tell me, "This part of your world is unsubstantial. It needs more work on it." Or they'll say, "This character's distracting from the plot." Elantris... I've talked a lot... I've actually posted on my website deleted scenes where I've cut out a character. You can go read those scenes and say, "Wow, this is what Brandon's agent told him to do." My agent was right. It required removing a character. This is fundamental stuff that's really important. I need people who understand writing in the right way to be able to achieve this.

[Howard] Now see... I can function as an alpha reader. I'm a much better beta reader. I love reading prose and looking at places where... "Boy, that prose right there? That really needs to be punched up. I wanted to feel this way at the end of that sentence, and I can see how you are shaping this. You just haven't wordsmithed that right. It's not that the phrasing, it's not that the wording is awkward, it's that it needs to suck less."
[Dan] Which is an entirely different kind of feedback.
[Howard] It's an entirely different kind. What's funny is that the writing group I'm in now, we will move from discussion of the broad strokes, the character arc, the issues with the setting, issues with world building, underpinnings that are broken, clear into points where, "Wow. This chapter is working great. I love this chapter. I'm now in beta reader mode, this paragraph right here, knock my socks off. I mean, rewrite this paragraph so it does that, because right now it doesn't."

[Brandon] Let me, before we end, we really need to give some advice on how to find these people. We're going a little bit over, but let me give you a few quick pieces of advice. Number one, it's going to be a process. You're not going to just magically find them. Go to some cons and listen to the writing track. Go to the writing track. See if they have any sort of workshopping thing that happens. Try to take a class. Try to find people with similar interests who are also writers. Form a writing group. Even just stand up and say, "I'm forming a writing group. Anybody want to be in one?" You'll form that writing group. Go into it expecting that some of these people are not going to work out for you. Dedicate some time to it, do it for a year and then let it collapse. Take... contact the people who worked really well with you and try and form a new writing group and see if they know anybody. Bring in some new people. Do this as a process across several years.
[Howard] There's Brandon Sanderson's writing group version of Machiavelli's the Prince.
[Dan] Yes. But, it's true. Like we said, Brandon and I have been in a writing group for about 12 years. That's what we've done, is just very slowly refined it and refined it to be what we need it to be.

[Howard] Everybody who's in my current writing group, I met... I say everybody. Okay, not everybody. Two of them I met at local conventions, and the fact that it was a local convention meant that they were also local. I have had long discussions with them about books that we loved and books that we're working on... long before we got together and started doing a writing group. And then, the other people... my brother, a couple of people I've roleplayed with... these are people that I'm familiar with. Even with that, like I said before, the writers group is young wine, it needs to mature, it needs to grow into things. But I think we've got the right people in it, and we're very fortunate in that regard.

[Dan] Let me give as a final note, two quick online resources. First of all, the Nanowrimo website is a fantastic way to find writers. Because it is broken down not only by region, but by state and then by city in a lot of cases. So you can get on there... obviously, it's best in November, which is coming up in... six months...
[Brandon] So close!
[Dan] Even year-round, there's people on there, and you can use it as a way of contacting each other. The other thing is we have our own Reading Excuses which is on in the forums. Scroll down to the bottom, look for Reading Excuses. Which is essentially an online writing group, put together by fans of this podcast. That's another way you can find great writers online and maybe hook up some kind of writing group or alpha readership.

[Brandon] Okay. I'm going to do our writing prompt. If you didn't hear me coughing furiously after Jordo muted my mike, I have a cold still. So I'm going to give you the writing prompt of people who get possessed, catch colds. That's why we catch colds, is any time you have a cold, you're possessed. Go from there.
[Howard] Gesundheit.
[Jordo] [inaudible -- Means all new things?]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: alpha readers, draft, feedback, polish, proofreader, secret backdoor, writing group
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