Tag Archives: editing

Independent Author’s Toolbag: Alpha and Beta Readers

One of the biggest fears that I face as an author is the dread of wondering what people will think. The reaction of family and friends is one thing… but what about people you don’t know who are going to pick up the book in a store or glance at it on kindle? For that matter, how do you go through and make certain that the plot, characters, and other issues are iron-tight?

My solution, and what many authors do, is make use of alpha and beta readers. It’s a common use in the gaming industry, though I’m certain authors have used the technique long before they borrowed (okay, stole) the term from the gamers.

Basically, your first readable copy (or maybe second or third, depends on how you feel about it) goes to your alpha readers. This is normally a small number of people. These people should be picked from people you know as filling several key catagories: Critical Thinking/Reading Skills, Honesty, and Timeliness. You may laugh at some of them… until you’re trying to get that nerdy friend of yours to explain why the opening scene feels ‘a little funky’ after they’ve had the book in their hands for over a year. Critical Thinking/Reading is essential in an Alpha, they have to understand what you wrote and they have to be able to think about what you’re doing and then tell you what they thought about it. If you’re interested in Independent Publishing, time is a serious factor here. Traditional Authors have years to get books out, independent authors need to feed the voracious appetite of their readers… else be forgotten as those readers go elsewhere. You don’t need an alpha reader who sugarcoats their opinions or, worse, is too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you the truth. One of my favorite alpha readers has straight up told me before when he thought what I wrote was crap. I disagreed, but I’ll admit he had good points and his comments made me reevaluate what I was doing as a writer. I’m grateful that I have alphas like him who can tell me when they don’t like something.

After I get all my feedback from the alphas, that’s when I go back through and do the serious edits. Often I’ll spend hours discussing some of the changes I’ve thought about… sometimes I’ll be talked out of some of those edits, other times, I’ll do them in spite of what the feedback says. There have been times where I’ll write two or three versions of a scene and run them past certain readers trying to get it just right.

Beta readers are the next step. Once you have the final draft, you send it out to a larger audience. These, for me, are often friends or acquaintances that I trust to give me overall opinions on the work as a whole and maybe some more focused opinions on individual items or characters. If I’m featuring some science/technical aspect that I’m not certain about and one of my betas is an expert (or at least knows more than me) I’ll run it past them during the alpha stage. Beta readers are a spectrum of a general audience. They can include genre readers, but also out-of-genre readers. If I’ve written something with a target audience, those beta readers from that audience are the main voices I want to hear. The responses from all my beta readers are often used to make final tweaks. If a scene didn’t have the emotional draw that I wanted or if a character wasn’t memorable enough, then I go back and tweak a bit more.

The key thing you get from your beta readers is an overall evaluation of the quality of your work. Ideally, your work is publishable by the time it gets to them, but their reactions to it are the key to understanding how ready it really is… and how great a story it is. If you get frantic phone calls at 2 AM because a reader couldn’t put it down, that’s a good sign. If you have to prod, nudge, and heckle your beta readers to get so much as a thumbs up or down, that’s a bad sign.  I’ve had both happen (on the same novel no less).  The big thing is to get an honest appreciation of your story and to adapt it and improve it as a result.

Independent Author’s Toolbag: Editing

If you’re an independent author like me, when you get to the point where you’ve finished your manuscript, you need to start editing. This really gives you three options: self editing, getting someone to help, or hiring a professional. Each of these has some positive and negative aspects, and I’ll do a rundown of my own experiences therein. I cannot overstate the importance of editing, both for formatting and for appearance. Nothing turns off readers faster than poor grammar and misspellings.

First off, self editing. Self Editing is just what it sounds like, going through your manuscript and doing a line edit for grammar, punctuation, and flow. Most of this is simple stuff, but sometimes, you may have to stop and look up specifics on how the mechanisms work and to make sure you’re using things correctly. There are a couple major issues with self editing. The first one is that you, as the author, are probably not the best person to do this. A tendency for most people is to see what they expect to see. What that means is when you look at something you wrote, you know what you wrote and therefore might miss a typo or will understand something that will be confusing for someone else. The second issue with self editing, especially if this is your only method of editing, is that without outside influence, issues with the flow or structure of your work will not receive outside attention. It is difficult to improve these kinds of problems when you may not even realize that they are there. In the positive, self editing allows you to improve your writing through discovering issues with word use and other bad habits. In addition, self editing is cheap. For those looking to save money, this is one place where that can serve as a trade-off. However, you may find you’ll have to do multiple series of edits to make sure you clean up your manuscript. There are a few tools to mitigate some of the issues and maximize the positives. The first is reading your text aloud as you go through. This will often allow you to notice issues with grammar and word choice. Why this works is complicated, but basically you use a different part of your brain when reading aloud. It’s also a great method to see if your dialog is wooden. Another method is, oddly enough, reading sections of your book in reverse order. Note, I don’t say read the sentence backwards, but start at the end and read paragraphs out of order. This disjoints the experience and allows your brain to focus on the individual sections rather than putting the whole into a story.

The second method is getting a friend or someone else to help out. Note, if your ‘someone’ is a professional editor, that’s a different can of worms which I’ll address later. This method is great if you have a friend or family member (or even a fan) who has a mind for nitpicking details. This method is good for a few reasons. First off, a fresh set of eyes may catch details that you would miss. Also, if the person finds some section confusing, then you probably need to go do some edits. It is also a great method for seeing if the story flows well and if it hooks the reader. If your friend can’t put it down and finishes it quickly, that’s a great sign. On the downsides this method is rarely foolproof. No matter how helpful the person might feel, this will probably not be their priority. You may have to wait weeks or even months for them to finish their review. Also, depending on their background, your friend may miss certain issues, especially the kind of things such a pacing and scene tones which can change a good book into a great book. Lastly, sometimes these kinds of arrangements can go sour or can strain a friendship. There are a couple of methods to improve your results in this style of editing your manuscript. The first is to take a step back and realize that any criticisms are not attacks on you… they’re attempts to help you improve your story. Unless of course, they are attacks on you, in which case you should politely tell your editor that their assistance is no longer required. The next method, is to be sure you find the right kind of help. Writing groups are good places for authors to network, and some authors are more than willing to exchange manuscripts. Editing someone else’s manuscript is also a great way to learn about your own writing issues and can give you a different perspective on the editing process.

The last method is to hire a professional editor. This is often a task that can seem daunting, but can have the biggest payoff. There are a number of freelance copyeditors and editors who will look your manuscript over for reasonable rates. The first issue here is cost. If you don’t have the money to pay an editor, then this probably won’t work out for you. However, I view this as an investment. Find a good editor and they are professionally inclined to clean up the issues… because it’s not just your work at that point… they put their professional name behind it as well. The other issue here is making certain you find the right editor. Talk with other independent authors. Many times they have experiences with various editors and can give you info on the ones they liked to work with.

Hopefully this helps you in editing your manuscript. Remember, editing is an investment (of time or money) to make your story better and more palatable to readers.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming

Due to unforeseen circumstances, there was no Wednesday and Friday posts last week.  Posts are back on and look here for a few extra posts this week!  Also, I was interviewed by Shiny Book Review last week, and the interview will be coming soon there.  They’ve got an awesome site, you should check them out anyway.   In other news, edits are continuing with The Fallen Race and Echoes of the High Kings, though, because of those unforeseen circumstances, their release may be delayed somewhat.  The next Renegades book, will be coming by the end of the month.  Thanks for checking back, and like I said, keep looking here for new posts!