You dug deep and transformed your Ugly Frog Baby Rough into an Enchanted Unicorn Manuscript ready for submission.
…or at least what you think is an Enchanted Unicorn. But is your story really submission ready? How do you know? I mean, when’s the last time you saw a real-life unicorn charging across your yard? It’s probably been a while. And just like every mother is convinced her Frog Baby is an Enchanted Unicorn, you too (YES, YOU) probably suffer from a lack of objectivity when it comes to assessing your Enchanted Unicorn status.
Is that a tadpole tail I see?
What to do?
To the Bat Signal!
This is the point of the story where you call in your alpha readers to better judge if you really have a submission ready manuscript.
You ask for manuscript critiques geared toward a content edit. Who makes for a good alpha reader? This can get dicey. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a commune of working, professional writers who also happen to write in your particular genre, you’re going to struggle.
Why is this?
Every genre has its own conventions.
And yes, they matter. Yes, you can buck conventions. Rules are meant to be broken, but don’t be an idiot and try to break the rules before you even remotely know what they are.
And readers love to give advice.
And writers are notoriously insecure about their manuscripts and have been known to cling to any and every shred of advice offered with enough confidence.
Hence the pile of dreadful bad habits, not submission ready manuscripts, that fill up my slushpile day after day.
Let’s start with who NOT to ask to be your alpha reader:
Caveat: anyone can read your stories if they want and you’d like them too, but don’t ask for feedback. And if given, let it roll right off your back like water off Frog Baby’s.
- Your mother
- Your grandmother
- Any relative of any kind whatsoever
- A roommate
- A romantic partner
- Anyone you’re crushing on
- Your high school English teacher
- That writer friend you know through Facebook
- A professional writer whose email you dug up from God-knows-where
- An editor at a magazine
- A journalism major
- Any technical writer
But why? They all seemed so helpful when I asked. And only that one lady gave me the weird smile before turning and running.
Exactly. Every one of these readers is inherently flawed but for different reasons. Let’s start at the top.
Your mother, grandmother, or relative of any kind cannot judge if your story is ready for submission.
She loves you. She wants your happiness. She’s used to patting you on the head and telling you what a genius you were when you brought home finger-painted masterpieces that looked more like dog poo on a doormat. When presented with a sad, almost unreadable story, your mother or grandmother or dearest auntie will still pat you on the head and tell you what a genius you are.
And the insecure writer inside of you begging for validation will believe it.
A roommate, romantic partner, or someone you’re crushing on cannot judge the submission readiness of your story.
There’s a dynamic involved in asking someone to read a story for you.
What if your story is terrible? What’s a friend or potential date supposed to say?
No. That’s not allowed. They’re societally obligated to say you’re terrific. And then there’s a wedge of uncomfortableness jammed into your relationship that wasn’t there before. Because now every time they see you coming down the hallway with that eager look on your face, their first thought is, “Oh dear bunnies in a breadbasket no don’t make me read
They’re societally obligated to say you’re terrific. And then there’s a wedge of uncomfortableness jammed into your relationship that wasn’t there before. Because now every time they see you coming down the hallway with that eager look on your face, their first thought is, “Oh dear bunnies in a breadbasket no don’t make me read anymore,” but they’re too polite to run, so they keep walking and trying not to crush your dreams.
Then a day will come when they can’t take it anymore and they burn your laptop with gasoline on the front lawn of your apartment complex.
Not speaking from experience or anything. Just sharing an anecdote from a friend…
Your high school English teacher is also the wrong person to ask.
This seems like a safe bet, right?
What does your teacher do all day?
Grade papers. Deal with students. What do you think your former teacher wants to do at the end of the day? Read more beginner fiction?
She wants to put her feet up, take her bra off, and guzzle a half bottle of Merlot while listening to Pat Benatar.
She also has very strictly ingrained rules of what is and is not acceptable to do with the English language. That voice you love so much? Imagine red pen all over it. Your character who speaks a made-up language you toiled over for months? Gone. Incorrect. C-. How many themes from Beowulf did you incorporate?
That voice you love so much? Imagine red pen all over it. Your character who speaks a made-up language you toiled over for months? Gone. Incorrect. C-. How many themes from Beowulf did you incorporate?
Your character who speaks a made-up language you toiled over for months? Gone. Incorrect. C-. How many themes from Beowulf did you incorporate? Exactly.
Just let the woman drink her Merlot in peace.
A professional writer whose email you scrounged up or an editor at a magazine is not to be asked to alpha read for you for free.
Do you have any idea how busy these folks are?
And do you have any idea how often they’re asked to give feedback for writers they don’t know?
Can you imagine if everywhere you went, strangers were asking you to sacrifice hours out of your day – time you could be spending with your family, having dinner, watching a movie, sleeping, writing your own works – to work for them for free?
No. Leave them alone.
And when submitting to a magazine, don’t ask for feedback.
No one has time for that. If you get feedback, that’s terrific. But asking for it is rude.
Now, you might have caught my little italicized for free there. Most writers and editors will happily take you up on reading your work if you’re willing to pay them the going rate. It won’t be cheap. But their time is valuable. And so is their advice.
A journalist or technical writer? Also a no-no.
The difference between these fields is enormous. At first glance, it may seem that words are words are words. But I challenge you to sit down with a technical journal, a newspaper, and a novel side by side. Compare the sentence structures, verb tenses, use of characterization, voice, and style.
Compare the sentence structures, verb tenses, use of characterization, voice, and style.
Unless they have a background in creative writing, your journalist or technical writer friend may very well be leading you astray. Their natural inclination will be to help you write the way they write because, “Hey, I’m a pro so you should do it like me.”
No. Step away from all of these readers.
You have to find your tribe.
So who’s my tribe?
People who have been taught how to read.
Sounds silly, right?
I know. But being an active reader is a learned skill that comes only with hard work and practice. You need to find other writers who are trained in the same or similar genre as you want to write in, who understand genre conventions and are up to date on your field, and who can give you feedback without offering to rewrite your story.
An active reader can answer these questions:
- Where did I begin to skim?
- Where did I lose interest?
- If I wasn’t reading for a critique, where would I have stopped reading?
- Would I have picked this up on my own?
- Did I believe this part of the story?
- Did I care about this character?
- Could I see what was going to happen next?
- Was I satisfied with the ending?
- Which things, if any, pulled me out of the story?
- What was jarring to my experience as a reader?
- Did I believe in this world?
- Did I get characters confused?
- Was the story interesting?
- Did the story resonate?
- Which parts of the story felt unresolved?
Send your manuscript to this reader for a content read. Even better, send it to two or three alpha readers.
Now go write something else while you wait for your feedback.