Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Good Alpha Reader Should Be Prized Above Cookies

Yesterday I mentioned my Alpha Reader, and how we disagreed on the interpretation of the end of that video clip I analyzed on Tuesday. Our tastes don't jive one hundred percent. Maybe seventy-five percent and the rest of the time, we're at ninety-degree angles.

And this is part of why she is such a great Alpha Reader. She can see and understand what I'm trying to do, but she also comes at it from a different angle so she can show me things I can't see.

We've known each other online for about twenty years (met on the old GEnie network) and have never met in person. I think I posted something about Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda, and she replied "I cried my eyes out over Rupert of Hentzau!" and we were fast friends. She's an experienced and generous writer, who mentors dozens of others while struggling to keep at her own work and look after her family.

She's so busy, but she has never once begged off reading something of mine. She's always been a cheerleader, and if necessary a nudge. And what's really cool is that she can set me back on the right track without reading much of the work at all. A lot of the time I just post a snippet on a forum where we both are members, and she finds it and gives me exactly the direction I need.

Often she will just say "looks like you nailed it" or something like that, but many conversations between me and the Alpha Reader go thusly:

AR: Good pace, I think you're close, but I just didn't like the part about the fish.
Me: The fish? But that part's the whole reason I'm writing this! I mean, everything else is just an excuse to write the fish part.
AR: I'm sure it's just me.
Me: (pondering in concern) Hmm. I wonder. Are you a fan of Great Fish Bestseller? Or Fishy Tales Sitcom?
AR: Oh, no. The book jacket turned me off on Great Fish Bestseller, and I just couldn't get into Fishy Tales.
Me: Then that's probably it. I love both of those, and I know you don't like things so scaley. Not that this is scaly, but I suppose it is underneath.
AR: See, it is just me! ... But you know, it would probably work for me if it was a Dolphin.
Me: You know, I like dophins, but I just couldn't make it work. Dophins breathe air, and I can't find a way to get air into the scene without throwing it off.... Maybe I'll just rearrange the whole book in this other way so that the fish shows up later and has more context.
AR: That sounds great.
Me: (after some cogitating) You know what would really work? A porpoise! It's actually perfect. Much better than a fish. It has all of these things that fit my theme and tone, especially the need for air!
AR: (with no hint of sarcasm) That's brilliant! I never would have thought of that!

Okay, this doesn't just happen sometimes, it happens, like, every time. I should learn.

To find a really good alpha reader like this takes time and patience. You need someone who knows more than you do, at least about your biggest blind spots, but you also need someone who knows you and your goals - who trusts that maybe you DO want the fish. And of course, they probably need to be a fellow writer, who understands that fragile "early draft" time when you hadn't quite got your vision fixed down, and can be easily thrown off.

The only way you are going to find such a person is by exchanging manuscripts with a lot of beta readers. After a while, you find you build the relationship you need with some of them, and you can get useful info out of fragments and bouncing ideas off them.

No comments: