Staying up inordinately late seems to be a new habit. (Be assured that it’s being formed out of necessity and not will.) Wednesday night, after having dinner with some Canadian friends, I had a long conference with Tracy Erickson concerning my final edit of a recently finished short story. If you’ve ever been to a book signing at Powell’s or scanned the comments on an author’s Facebook page (including mine), chances are you’ve run into him. Tracy has a keen eye for what a story is lacking and isn’t afraid to tell you. He’s the kind of alpha reader that I searched high and low for. (Tracy, don’t let that go to your head. :P)
When I finished my YA fantasy I found myself in a scary place. I had a manuscript in need of critique and no Alpha readers. I’d never edited a manuscript. How was I to know the difference between what I thought was terrible and what actually was terrible? Left to my own devices, I probably would’ve tossed 75% of the manuscript.
I sent it my writing group, and their critiques were wonderful (as always), but I needed more than three opinions on it. To be more specific, I needed opinions from people who hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. I couldn’t expect my writing group to be objective about my worldbuilding when they know all the bits I cut out. Yes, I could’ve hired an editor. However, there’s no way I was going to be able to afford it. (I work two jobs so I can afford to live with my mother.) Besides, my legion of friends were more than willing. Perfect! So, I sent my manuscript to a couple dozen friends and eagerly awaited their constructive criticism.
I know some of you are groaning right now, and you’re right. It’s far from a perfect plan. But in their defense, most of them followed through.
In my experience, new Alpha readers fall into three categories:
1. Plot Nazi
2. Church Lady
3. “I’m an illusionist!”
Lets start at the bottom. The third category is the vanishing category. They are the friends that are really excited to read the story, but as soon as they receive the manuscript, the excitement disappears like an airplane on a David Copperfield special. There were a few people that misjudged the time commitment this was, or life happened and they just never got around to it...
Regardless of the reason, I never heard back from them and I’m ok with that. I understand why they didn’t do it and I still love them. I’m just not going to send them further manuscripts.
The second category is where a lot of my friends fall. They have good things to say, however it’s usually a variation of “I really liked it” or “you’re so talented. I wish I could write a book like that.” That’s great, but it doesn’t help improve the manuscript. Call me crazy, but I can’t honestly believe that my manuscript is perfect after one cursory edit. A few of them did point out a few misplaced words and the occasional confusing passage. However, in all, it’s not enough to make me eager to seek out their help in the future. (Sorry guys)
The first category is the most precious and rare. This is where Tracy and my writing group fall. They scrutinize every paragraph for any imperfection. They catch mistakes and oversights that, for one reason or another, I missed in my first pass and they’re not afraid to tell me when a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole chapter needs to be tossed. When something works, they give me a high five and I do a happy dance.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I cater my writing to please my Plot Nazis. I don’t. Rather, I meditate on their comments. What can I say? I’m Japanese. It’s in my nature to do so. We’re genetically and culturally predisposed to seek out perfection in everything we do. If we do something wrong, we want to know why so we can fix it and prevent it from happening again. If we do something right, we want to know why so we can do it every time.
To phrase it in a more Zen-like manner, we yearn for wisdom with every breath.
The wisdom I extracted from these breaths was not only a greater understanding of my friends and who I can count on for what, but a greater understanding of my writing. I’m starting to see the difference between what I think is wrong and what actually is. I’m getting better at identifying a darling that needs to be killed and one that needs to be preserved at all costs. And when I have a specific problem, I know who to turn to in order to find the solution.
Thank you, Tracy, for being the Plot Nazi I needed in the middle of the night.
(That, you can let go to your head) :)