Thursday, March 24, 2011

When a Novel's Prescription Calls for an Alpha Reader

Diagnosis: My manuscript has the I'm-stuck bug.

Here are the culture samples in a petri dish:

It all began with a novel (pun intended) idea.
Two years ago, on a road trip west of the Pecos River, in the middle of the scorching Chihuahuan Desert, I set out to research information for a completely different book idea. I was going to write the next big YA paranormal literary wonder.

Except when I walked into the Sul Ross museum, merely to gather historical facts about mercury mines in the area, I was captivated by the historical ambiance of west Texas.

I'd wondered off from my chaperoning hubby, and ended up inside a well-preserved pioneer chuck wagon. I spent the next two hours *hearing* the story of a young woman on a wagon journey westward. No, there wasn't a tour guide in the wagon. I was alone. Well, all alone, except for the voices in my head.

This young woman was seventeen, and she shared with me the joys and hardships of her journeying pioneer life, including Native Americans (mostly good experiences, despite what I'd been taught in history books), starvation and dehydration threats, the heroic Buffalo Soldiers, outlaws, the joys of family gatherings around a campfire, love, loss, friendship & new beginnings.

It was a whirlwind of information; I could barely keep up with my pencil and notebook. I witnessed scenes, met characters, and felt their emotions. It was one of those, "Oh my!" moments I'd always heard authors and writers talk about.

We spent ten history-packed days in west Texas. When we left Alpine, I knew how my book would begin, progress and end. I immediately began writing on the ten hour drive home. I wrote feverishly for one and a half years, and then, BAM! I stopped, just like that. I'd run into a brick wall--some sort of funky writer's block.

I'd worked my tail off to carry a storyline, and an elaborate group of characters along the lower Old San Antonio road by wagon (and my keyboard). I'd landed the main characters on the other side of the story's climax, and then, something interesting happened.

It wasn't that I didn't like my story, but the characters began to do as they pleased. I was no longer content with the outcome of the story, nor did I want the story to come to an end. My remedy for the I'm stuck-bug, was to close the document. It's been 6 months since I last worked on the book.

I expressed my concerns on the wonderful online community of She Writes last week, and a fellow writer suggested I pick a couple of well-trusted Alpha Readers. I think it may be what a novel doctor would prescribe.

I opened the 80,000-word document last week, and decided it was time to treat the symptoms. I've chosen one Alpha reader so far (although, she hasn't a clue, yet!) and I may ask one more to go through the pages for story readability. Does it flow? Make sense? Are there big holes in the plot arc? Is there a plot arc? Are my characters believable, genuine and likable? Does the reader have an emotional connection with characters? Is there rising and falling action? Does it keep the reader turning the page? Is the voice authentic?

I'll take the prescribed dose of a couple of good Alpha readers, and I'll finish the manuscript. I've got bestseller lists to make, right?


  1. Having fresh eyes look over my work always helps me. Good luck! :)

  2. Thanks for your comment Samantha! I agree. I've got two readers selected.

  3. I have a question about Alpha readers. I'm not sure if I know what one is. Is an Alpha reader just a second set of eyes, maybe a friend or someone to count on? Or is it someone who you hire to critique your writing?

  4. Debbie, "a second pair of eyes" is a good description. Actually, the author of the work can be the Alpha reader, but since I felt (at the time) so estranged from the novel, finding a reader that would read the content, like I would, to make sure it worked, flowed, made sense, that kind thing, would help me.

    An Alpha reader doesn't really worry about editing or errors, but focuses on plot issues, is there an arc? are there holes? are the characters true to life? Editing comes later. It can be a good friend, a spouse or someone you trust with your work.

    Stephen King always has his wife, Tabitha, read his books first before anyone else looks at them. She tells him if they "work" or not. Then if they get her approval, he sits down and redrafts for edits. She would be his Alpha reader.

    Does that help? Hope so! Thanks for commenting. :))