I’ve been working with a editor to bring Red and Black up to snuff for publication this summer. But before I even considered hiring a professional, I hit up my friends and colleagues for feedback. The reasons behind this were simple. For one thing, it was free. Secondly, I didn’t want my editor to spend her time fixing problems that I could have either done on my own, or with a little help from my friends.
If you’re looking to publish, I’d highly recommend seeking outside feedback first. The key is finding out which type of readers are right for you and your project. For Red and Black, I utilized three types of first readers: alpha readers, beta readers, and a writing group.
Alpha readers are the first people that you allow to see your book, as it’s being written. So as you might expect, for me, this took place waaay back during the early drafting of Red and Black. My reader, in this case, was my husband (thanks, Love!), and he didn’t do much “reading” at all, as I read the first several chapters aloud to him. Fortunately for him, it wasn’t rough draft quality. I had gone through each chapter and cleaned things up a bit, but it was certainly a long ways away from being done.
Because of the rough quality of my work during this phase, I wasn’t looking for an in depth critique. Instead, I was looking for a sympathetic ear to let me know whether or not things were working, and if there were any red flags. And sure, maybe that “sympathetic” part makes me thin skinned, but I was still in the process of writing the book, and therefore in a more vulnerable state than usual.
Other writers do alpha readers a little differently. Sci-fi/Fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal actually distributes her works in progress to readers, via patreon, which feels incredibly brave for me.
Regardless of how you do it, alpha readers are people who see your story during the early phases, and are good if you want to get a general idea on whether you missed the mark or not. Feedback received by alpha readers can be very helpful when planning out the rest of your book.
Beta readers are people who read your finished manuscript, and provide more detailed feedback. By the time Red and Black got to my beta readers, it had already been through some serious editing and yours should too. Yes, your mileage may vary as far as how much work you want to put into the book before your beta readers see it, but let me tell you as someone who’s been on the other side of the fence. Reading through a draft that’s clearly had little to no editing is fucking tedious. Your beta readers are doing you a favor by reading your work, so at the very least, clean up the shit you already know how to take care of.
As for the level of feedback provided by Beta Readers, it’s going to depend the individual. Some of my Beta readers provide detailed suggestions in the text itself. Some of my Beta readers don’t write down any feedback at all, but read the entire book, and then patiently sit there while I pepper them with questions. Some Beta readers focus on things like spelling/grammar/style, while others are drawn towards larger issues such as character arcs, and the overall plot of the novel. If you are only looking for a certain type of feedback, do yourself a favor and communicate this in advance. After all, there’s no point in asking a colleague to check your grammar, if they almost flunked out of high school English.
Personally, I like getting a wide variety of feedback, so I chose to send out my books to as wide a range as beta readers as I can. If that sounds scary to you, then you might have a bigger problem then just finding a beta reader. After all, if you’re lucky, eventually your book will be devoured by a wide variety of people. Why not get practice now? If you’re still nervous about the idea, sending your work out to readers in phases, might prove to be helpful. Start with a couple people that you trust the most, and move on from there.
When it comes to choosing your beta readers, I’d recommend looking beyond other writers. Sure, having writers as beta readers is great, as they’re likely to give you more in depth responses, but seeking out people who tend to read books in, or close to, your genre, is also a good idea. After all, those are the people you’re going to want to be attracting as readers. Isn’t it a good idea to get their feedback? A lot of professional writers (Brandon Sanderson, for example) actually use some of their readers like this, which has always struck me as a great idea.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. First alpha and beta readers, and now you expect me to join a whole group? What’s next, going outside!? Fear not my fellow introverts, joining a writing group doesn’t have to be intimidating, nor does it need to involve leaving the house.
While I was working on Red and Black, I was fortunate enough to be part of a writing group. Writing groups come with a great feeling of reciprocity and community. Beta and alpha readers, for all their benefits, can feel as little one sided, as their main task is helping your book get better. With writing groups, on the other hand, you’re not only having your work reviewed, but commenting on other people’s work, so everyone benefits.
All writing groups are different. Some are online, while others met in person. My group met every two or three months, and used googlehangouts. At each session, we’d discussed a section from two writers’ work. There were four people total, meaning you didn’t have to wait to long too have your work discussed. Red and Black, due to it’s length, ended up being discussed over the course of three different sessions.
The feedback I got from my Writing Group was invaluable.They sort of served as a step in between an alpha and beta reader, as they read a draft as it was going through in depth revisions. The comments they made greatly shaped the developing draft and I’m convinced that Red and Black would have been a very different book had I not had the benefit of their feedback.
Of course, I’ve also heard my fair share of horror stories when it comes to writing groups. Stories of people who weren’t critical as much as cruel, and writers that lacked the maturity to take honest feedback. So perhaps one good thing to check for before choosing a writing group is to make sure the other people aren’t dicks. Also, your writing group is more likely to be successful if all members have similar goals, or are writing in similar genres. In my writing group, for example, we were all writing speculative fiction. I wouldn’t have been comfortable critiquing a picture book, or a memoir.
So those are the three types of first readers I encountered while writing Red and Black. I know I’m getting repetitive here, but I highly recommend seeking out feedback from others, if you’re looking to have your work published. I’m a firm believer that as writers, sometimes we’re too close to a book to notice its flaws. Sometimes we even miss out on hidden strengths. Looking outside of ourselves can help us find these hidden facets in our writing. So don’t be shy! Share your work.
This post is part of the new Author-in-Training Project, where I document my path to publishing Red and Black, and the lessons I’ve learned on the way. Please click on the Author-in-Training tag for more posts.