Sunday, May 23, 2010

Alphas & Betas & Editing

This is about alpha and beta readers, not werewolves. Rarr! Sorry. It's also about all the fixin' that needs to be done before a book appears on the shelves.

Nobody writes perfect, golden prose on their first draft. Or even their second or third. I could be wrong...but I doubt it.

Every writer's different on how they approach these things, but it's fairly common to have some sort of feedback during the writing process. An objective pair of eyes can catch inconsistencies and let you know whether what you've written A) makes any sense and B) if you're entertaining. I use two alpha readers who look at each chapter as it's finished and one beta reader who looks at the whole novel only. These three people all look at the book before my agent or editor sees it.

So hey, shout-outs to my alphas, Alan and Tawnya: They catch all sorts of good stuff and let me know when I've made a factual error. For example: "Kevin, blue spruce trees don't grow in Europe. Dumbass."

Calling me a dumbass wasn't really part of the original comment—I simply felt like one. And I'm grateful to my alpha reader for checking on these things. I should have taken the time to research that, but I was probably in a character/plot groove and didn't want to pause to make sure I named the right species of tree. A good alpha reader will call you on stuff like that, and it's hard to find good alphas. Who'd want to read a novel in spastic spoonfuls, sometimes weeks apart, and nitpick instead of simply enjoying the story? Such people are a rare breed.

My beta reader, Andrea, is my Politically Correct filter. (Sometimes I put things in there just to set her off. It's funny when she gets into a snit.) She also finds inconsistencies in tone that occasionally creep in during the course of writing, and she suggests that I flesh out a character here or maybe leave out something there. Since she reads the whole book in a sitting or two, she spots larger issues rather than tiny ones.

After the alphas and beta are finished and I've made changes according to their suggestions, I send it off to my agent, who may/may not have plenty to say (there was a lot for Hounded, but he had me deliver Hexed to Del Rey as is) and only then do I deliver it to my editor. This means my editor is probably seeing my fourth or fifth draft, but I go ahead and call it my "first" draft in terms of my computer files.

Then we go back and forth with changes until she says heck, this is pretty good, I'll accept this. At that point everybody takes a few minutes for a happy dance. To give you an idea of quantity, there were five rounds of changes for Hounded, only three for Hexed.

But wait! We're not finished! Next the copy editor gets hold of it and lays down some Grammar Fu with a green pencil. He/she will also catch lots of factual issues, ask great questions, point out inconsistencies, and I can make changes there as necessary.

After that it goes to typesetting, and the only changes I can make then are minor spelling/punctuation doodads. Inserting/deleting passages is probably not a good idea at this point, because it costs money.

Finally, it's finished. Only after months of work will it go out to the general public. The author's name is on the cover so he/she gets all the credit, but quite a few people are involved with any publication. (I didn't even mention the cover artist and all the people in marketing and publicity. That'll be a blog for another day.) So to my alphas and beta and my agent & editor(s), thank you, and cheers.


  1. Man, I recently lost my favorite Alpha reader and I can not tell you how hard it has been to find a replacement who does what I need them to do and can keep up with my writing! (I can turn out two chapters a day when I'm really in the groove.) But I thought I was alone in sending out chapters-as-they-are-finished to an alpha reader! You're the first person I've heard of who admits to doing this too!

    I didn't realize how much I relied on that alpha reader until I lost him, though. It definitely slows down my process not having that immediate response/feedback as I move forward.

  2. You are so lucky to have these readers. Living overseas and moving around a lot means I don't have any. It sure makes it hard for me to edit everything myself.

  3. Amalia—I might be unusual. ;-) But I do know that some other writers over at Absolute Write use alphas and betas in the same way. So you and I are not alone—it happens!

    Ted—maybe email will work? That's what I do with my readers. It's all email attachments, and then they email their comments back. So far, so good—maybe that would be a way to go with some of your acquaintances in various places 'round the world.