Alpha Readers & Critique Partners

Hello humans!

Today, I’m going to address how I handle Alpha Readers and Critique Partners. To avoid any semantic arguments with myself, these are my definitions.

Alpha Readers: These are the people I send first draft work to, in order to see how they feel about the story, and bounce ideas, plot points, and twists off of them.

Critique Partner: This is a fellow writer whose writing and critique styles mesh with mine. We try to encourage, give feedback, and generally check in with one another.

I have two alpha readers, and I’ve known both of them for a LONG time. Like, 8-12 years long. I’ve been told it’s weird to refer to time lengths in human gestational periods anymore, but that’s 9-16 full-term singleton larvae?! That’s so many!

My alpha readers are two of my best friends, and they give me support and encouragement, as well as super-early reader feedback. I send them pieces of my work, including my first three chapters, and they tell me what they think, what they like, and if the chapters make them excited about reading the rest. I get a lot of influence from these two, believe me. (E.g. One loves puns, one hates them, and I enjoy both reactions immensely.) Alpha readers are great for world-building as well. If I can’t explain the world to these two, then I don’t have any business writing in that world yet.

My critique partner is pretty fabulous too! And Hella fast- I usually get feedback on my work in a few days, max. We check in on one another from week to week, which is a good timeline for us. Some do more, some do less. A critique partner should help with structure, tense, character development, identifying plot elements and lack-of-elements (HOLES), continuity… All sorts of things that you might miss on a first draft. Plus! Critique partners know how difficult and soul-devouring writing can be.

In my opinion, having both alpha readers and critique partners is important to the writing process. Maybe some people can get by without them, but I definitely don’t recommend it. Having this small support system for my writing makes me feel much more confident and competent, and fuels me to improve my work.

Do the thing. Find good humans.

-ARG

First, Write Three Chapters

This is a method that I’ve started implementing in the past year.

Before I’ll commit to any story, I write the first three chapters. Why? Why do this before you outline, before you know how the story’s going to play? This sounds a lot like pantsing. I swear, why did you write a post on outlining if you were just gonna write a bunch of chapters without it?

OK OK OK, devil’s advo-alpin. Time to chill. Lemme ‘splain.

Writing the first three (or so) chapters helps me in a number of ways.

  1. You can get feedback from critique partners, or alpha readers. If you’re bouncing ideas off of people, it helps to have these chapters as a basis to start off. Sure, this could be done with an outline or discussion, but I find that my outlines are messy, and my discussions are messier.
  2. You find the voice for the story. In a recent horror story, I started writing it in first person. After the first 20 or so pages, I realized that third person limited would allow a reader some emotional distance as these horrific (horror-fic!) things occurred. If you’re writing with the wrong perspective, these chapters can help you figure that out earlier rather than later.
  3. You get to know the characters. Sometimes, the way you expect your characters to be can be a little different from how you end up writing them in practice. If you have to make changes to your plot due to character manifestation, catching it before the first draft is hella nice.
  4. You find out if you straight-up hate actually writing the story. It’s one thing if there’s a routine that you’re forcing yourself into, but if you hate what you’re writing that’s a great reason to move on. If you don’t enjoy writing the three chapters, I sure as hell don’t recommend continuing on that story.

If this doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Every human is different! But always give yourself permission to write, even if it’s not perfect, or won’t make it into the final draft. Perfection is one of those myths, like the holy grail or polite martians. They’re all jerks.

Happy Drafting!

-ARG

The Outlining Process

I’m working on an outline now- generally. Right this second, I’m doing b-loggy things, but my current project is in the outline phase.

I did not remember how much work it is. I suppose I should have- but because it’s been a while since I did proper novel outline, I largely felt like rolling on the floor whining. (No one can prove I actually did though. I’ve had all those videos destroyed.)

Before I even start outlining, I start by writing the first (or any) three chapters of the story. I’ll write a post on this later, but it’s really important to figuring out the general themes, voices, important characters, and eventual length.

After I’ve written those first chapters, I follow these steps.

  1. Spend a BUNCH of hours thinking about the story, talking about the story, and daydreaming about the story.
  2. Open a word document. Remember that a blank screen is not very helpful for outlining novels. Ask roommate for notecards at midnight. Wait for him to get up and answer the door.
  3. Cut notecards in half (if you’re stingy, like me). Write down all the plot points you can think of on these. Crazy emotional points, awesome conflicts, and twists- those get their own little cards. I had thirty or so (correction: 36). Depending on how long your story will be, there could be more or less.
  4. Throw them on the ground! You’re going to pick them up, read them, and put them in an order that makes sense to your story. This can take a while. You might come up with more ideas on the way, or necessary side plots- That’s fine! Just add more cards.
  5. Once you’ve got a good order, look for natural chapter breaks. I’ve seen some authors recommend color coordination for their characters/plots during this phase- like dotting each card with a marker. I didn’t do this, but mostly because I don’t have markers. Maybe I’ll try it next time.
  6. Those cards you can’t get to fit? I very sadly looked over my outcast card, and put it in the recycling. It is OK not to use every idea. Hell, it’s OK not to use half your ideas. It’s your book. Do your thing.
  7. TAKE A PICTURE!! I sent these pictures to a couple humans (roommate, friend, some poor sap who gave me his number), although this was just to annoy them. I like the faces they make. Plus, it helps to remind me of the chapter-breaks when I have to pick up the cards to keep the house-creatures from messing with them.
  8. Now put the cards into a document. I write down all the stuff on the card, and then add notes and thoughts to each one. Sometimes there’s a bunch, sometimes there’s not. Shrug your shoulders to demonstrate that you don’t give any UFOs.
  9. Go through each part of your outline, and think carefully over the scenes that should be in there. This is just an outline, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you find plot holes, address them here (or at least acknowledge them!).

There! That’s my process for creating a story outline. An outline serves as a guide for the first draft (at least in this case), and can be particularly helpful when your emotional state differs drastically from the one in the story- just skip ahead and write a different one.

I hope this was a helpful, human-friendly post. If you have questions, ping me! I’ll attempt to be helpful. Alas, I must return to my own outlining.

Happy Outlining!

-ARG