Many of you are already familiar with the term “Beta reader”. The Alpha reader is the flip side to that coin, as Laura Christensen explains in her post, which is worth a read. Beta readers, as you know, help authors refine their work by identifying where things aren’t working, clumsy language, and various other problems in a manuscript. Alpha readers also help authors, but their focus is more specifically on the story, plot, and characterization. Alpha readers are the first readers: they provide the first feedback to an author on whether a story is working.
Whenever possible, I try to use a combined Alpha/Beta approach to getting feedback on my writing. I like a first response to help me figure out problems with my story, the story’s structure, and the characters. And then I like to get a second sounding to help me further refine once I’ve got the structure to my liking. I’ve read of some authors who take that even further and hand off later drafts to Gamma readers. That’s pretty thorough, and I’m sure their manuscripts are all the better for the extra attention. And all of this, of course, is before the story sees the eyes of an editor.
Reading the post left me feeling more than a little guilty. Apparently there are folks out there, like Laura Christensen, who volunteer for Alpha and Beta reading gigs simply because they like reading, or like a particular author. But make no mistake: the role of an Alpha or Beta reader is work. And more often than not, when an author is looking for Alphas and Betas, they’re looking for free labor.
Many writers compensate turning to the writing community itself and offering a little tit-for-tat, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. You Alpha/Beta read my manuscript, I’ll Alpha/Beta read yours. This is the very foundational ethos of such critique-centric communities as Critters.org. That critique site and others have been very successful in helping writers, but it can work just as well to reach out through the blogs of fellow writers.
I’ve done this. I’ve gotten some great feedback from readers both Alpha and Beta, and that’s helped me tremendously as an author. Fellow writer-bloggers like Jo Eberhardt, T.S. Bazelli, Anthony Collins and others have provided some great feedback. In fact, the best feedback I get is from fellow writers, and it’s because of the help and efforts of folks like these that I was so confident that “Story of G” was so much better than my prior novelette “PFTETD”.
But in return, I have been a terrible Alpha/Beta reader. Not that my feedback was bad – y0u’d have to ask those I’ve read for an answer to that – but because of the timeliness, or lack thereof, of my feedback. I’m a sloooooooooooooooooooooow Alpha/Beta reader. Mostly this is because of the various time-constraints I live under. Free time? I just don’t have that much. And when Ido have free time? Well, you may have noticed, if you follow this blog, that I’m not the world’s most prolific writer. So when I get free time, I like to spend it writing, whenever possible. And so it is that I find myself rarely able to complete a manuscript as part of an Alpha/Beta read during the time-frame that any other rational observer might call reasonable.
It’s going to be a while before I’ll have need of the services of an Alpha or Beta reader. A first draft of “Book of M” is at least a year away, best-case scenario, and I haven’t even started on any short stories or novelettes. But when that time comes, I’m hesitant to ask for help again. I’ve done a terrible job of returning the favor on those who’ve helped me with Alpha and Beta reading so far, given that the majority of my willing readers have been fellow writers. And don’t feel I can really ask their help again, when I’ve not fulfilled my end of the bargain. And for the foreseeable future, at least, I’m confident this will continue to be the case. I’m not going to have sufficient free time to read for others any time soon. If I can’t do it for others, I’ve no right to ask others to do for me.
On the flip-side… I’m no Mary Robinette Kowal, either. I’m not a published author. I haven’t won any awards. I don’t have fans. When it comes to my writing, I’m of an unproven quality. As such, there aren’t too many who are lining up to read my unpolished manuscripts and provide feedback for free. And I don’t expect there to be, lacking as I am in bona fides.
I can’t pay back Alpha and Beta reads with in-kind services. I can’t pay with money. And I can’t count on legions of fans to turn up a healthy handful who are willing to risk my bad rough draft prose to help me produce better fiction simply because they like me. So, where does that leave me, and my writing?
The quality of my writing, unfortunately, will almost certainly suffer for the want of good feedback. But that’s just how it is, I suppose. Nothing of value comes free. But when it comes to the cost of good feedback from Alpha and Beta readers, it’s a cost that I just can’t afford. Without it, my writing will likely stagnate, even if my productivity does not.
Someday. Always someday.
Someday maybe I’ll have more time to write, to be more productive. Someday, maybe I’ll have more time to pay back those worthies who alpha or beta read my work with reads of their work in kind. Someday, maybe my writing will actually be of good, publishable quality. Someday, maybe I can try to make a career as a writer work.