How and why I use online alpha-readers while writing novels.

I decided to repost the first three chapters of Kiss Me Twice so that they are in the clear and not password protected. From here on out, the chapters will be locked behind a password, starting with chapter 4, but you can just ask me for it through the form at the end of chapter 3.

So, why do I do it this way?

Password protection means that I don’t blow my 1st publication rights. I am able to tell an editor exactly how many people read the novel and also control how many people read it. For me, there are usually about fifty people who read all the way to the end. Ten of those will actually comment. Posting the first three chapters counts as a teaser and doesn’t hurt 1st publication rights. Note: I would not post the first three chapters, in the clear, of a book under contract without my editor’s okay.

So why do it at all?

I like having people read along. For 20 years, I worked in live theater and have become used to being directly engaged with an audience while working. The only time I go into the neurotic writer zone of self-doubt is when I’m not getting feedback. This doesn’t work for everybody, clearly, but for me knowing how a chapter plays helps keep me focused.

How does it work?

I’m very, very specific about the types of feedback I want at this stage of the game. I only want big picture things about how the story plays and don’t want any line-specific notes. In fact, I tend to get cranky about them because I’m posting raw drafts. We’re lucky if I spell-check them. This is because, with my own writing process, thinking about mistakes in the language will make me self-conscious and slow me down.

So I ask my readers to tell me:

  1. What bores you
  2. What confuses you
  3. What don’t you believe
  4. What’s cool? (So I don’t accidentally “fix” it.)

I enjoy stream-of-conciousness reactions as well, because that tells me how the story is playing. Talking to me about sentence level stuff at this point is like going to a rehearsal and saying, “Your actors aren’t in costume.” I know that.

I stay two chapters ahead of my readers. So to post chapter 1, I have to finish chapter 3. I’ve found that, for me, this gives me the best amount of flexibility. As I write, I often realize that I need to go back and plant something for the chapter that I’m currently working on. Often, that winds up being about two chapters prior to where I am. Anymore than that, and the audience is likely to have forgotten so I’ll have to plant a reminder for them anyway.

It also means that if I get feedback on chapter 2 that makes it clear that it is misfiring structurally, then I haven’t committed too many words down the wrong path. It makes the course corrections easier and usually not as severe. I don’t know if this would work if I weren’t an outliner. Having my endgoal in sight lets me know if the audience reaction is desirable or not.

It works as a carrot. Knowing that I get to post and get immediate pats on the back, will sometimes push me to finish a chapter that I’m otherwise stalling on. It’s like a treat.

I make changes as I go. But I still have to hit my word count. Otherwise, I would spend the entire time just tweaking the stuff I’ve already written. Largely, I only worry about the places where people were confused. The places where they were bored are pacing issues and I’ll deal with those after I’ve written the whole thing. Confusion issues can usually be fixed in just a couple of sentences, so I’ll do that, post the changes, and see if the next person to read gets hung up in the same spot.

Depending on the inevitability issue, I may or my not address it. Sometimes, I wait to see if other people have the same problem. Sometimes I flag it to fix later. Sometimes, it’s easy so I just fix it then.

When I have a completed draft, I make a language pass. Now, I go through and look for sentence-level stuff because I have the whole structure down so I know what needs to be polished and what should just be cut. I also look at pacing as I go through it.

I give the novel to beta readers. The problem with having people read along as I go is that the pacing is off for them because they have to wait between installments. That’s not how someone would read the book normally, so I give the book to a select group of beta-readers who do have permission to flag language issues, in addition to structural issues.

After that it goes to my agent and editor, and I ignore it for awhile. Whew. It’s only a brief reprieve, but a welcome one.

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7 thoughts on “How and why I use online alpha-readers while writing novels.”

  1. I hadn’t discovered the ability to password protect blog entries until I saw you use this technique. I’m definitely going to try that in the future (once I get clearance from my agent). I might not post as I go, as I fear the distraction responses might generate, but this is a great way to do it. Thanks for the idea!

    1. McNair Academic High School, Jersey City chapter is sonnsoripg Quote of the Day to celebrate Reading Month during the month of March. Faculty, students, staff are submitting favorite quotes from books that they have enjoyed reading. Quotes are read in the morning as part of the daily announcements and then posted on the bulletin board in the Library.

  2. i prefer to have alpha readers that work in much the same way for similar reasons. (i got my start as a storyteller by running RPGs.) good to see i’m not the only one. 🙂

  3. Thank you for the blog post Mary. I’ve been discussing and debating this with my wife, who is my only alpha reader as yet. Going through the process with her is good, but reading what you do as an established author helps tremendously. (I’ll be playing catch up on the chapters you’ve posted once I get through this nanowrimo thing and feel like I can breath.)

  4. That’s pretty much how I wrote the Magic University books, except I did it with a closed LiveJournal community and so didn’t post teaser chapters to recruit readers. Writing a four book series that had a lot of world building it was so important to have lots of eyes on it telling me what I forgot about or needed to explain.

  5. Normally, I would lecture you on the amazingly insecure nature of internet passwords, but hackers aren’t going to break into anything that won’t net them any money. If (when) you become a #1 NYT bestseller, selling early drafts of your books before release may become profitable, at which point you won’t be able to protect online drafts.

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