In one of my writing groups, a fellow writer confided that she knew her novel had problems with the plot, but she just wasn’t sure how to identify or fix the problems. The weekly reviews of her chapters were helping her with other writing issues, but not with her plotting problems.
This made perfect sense to me. It was also a clear illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of a conventional writing group. Each week, as many as five members upload submissions of roughly 2500 words (about 12 pages in a printed book) to be read and critiqued by the group. The group typically provides excellent feedback on each submission. However, plotting, especially for a novel, is something that spans many submissions over many weeks. With such an extended timespan, it’s unlikely that everyone in the group will have read (or remember) every submission, so it’s difficult for a writing group to gain traction on structural problems for longer works.
Upon questioning the writer further, I determined that 1) she had some powerful, emotional events going on in her novel that weren’t being foreshadowed effectively, and 2) she’d already completed the first draft, which had fifty chapters.
“What you need,” I said, “is an alpha review.”
She looked at me blankly. “What’s that?”
A Digression Into the Software Realm
In my day job (the one that still pays most of the bills), I’m a software architect. Which is basically a fancy way of saying that I build large and complicated web applications that people actually use for complex things. Building quality software is hard (which is why they pay me what I like to be paid). Interestingly, there are things that we do in the software domain that can also be adapted for writing.
With software, alpha testing is done to verify that a product is ready to ship. The purpose is basically to verify that the software works as it is supposed to. This generally takes the form of verifying that the software meets a defined list of requirements. After all, the software was built to meet those requirements, so it should be possible to verify that it actually does the things it’s supposed to.
But alpha testing doesn’t answer the question: How will end users (customers) react to the software?
With beta testing, users are asked to try out the software. The goal is to find out how well it works for them as customers, and where the product fails them. Based on user input, significant changes may be made polish up a product before it’s released.
Alpha testing and beta testing are two distinct software production activities that can be lifted up with only minor changes and incorporated into writing processes where appropriate.
Back to the Writing Realm
OK, so alpha testing and beta testing are two activities that can be useful for writers. In the writing realm, we’ll call them alpha reviews and beta reviews. Most writers have heard of beta reviews (although they generally have no idea how to run one effectively; note to self — a good topic for a future blog entry). But this alpha review thing, what’s that?
When a writer has a story that they feel isn’t working in fundamental ways, but they’re too close to it to figure out what’s wrong, it’s time for an alpha review.
The goal of the alpha review is to provide structural, not editorial, advice on how to fix a story. How well does it fit a three-act structure? Do the stakes drive the story properly? Does the story come to a logical and satisfying conclusion? Are aspects of the story properly foreshadowed before they’re used in critical turning points? Are the character motivations and actions believable? Does the world building properly support the story?
In an alpha review, the focus is solely on the bones of the story. Typos should go unnoticed. Grammar problems can be ignored. Infodumps should pass by unremarked. It’s all about plot and structure.
Since the writer knows the story has problems, it’s generally advisable to send it to just one or two trusted individuals. A writer doesn’t need lots of opinions, just a couple of ruthlessly objective perspectives from highly competent, genre-aware reviewers to help guide them in correcting the story.
It’s also important for writers to understand what they’re asking someone to do when they approach them to do an alpha review. You’re asking them to read a story that’s broken. This isn’t fun. You’re asking them to analyze the story and tell you why it’s not working. This is hard. Some people even get paid for this. But you’re probably not paying them. So you’re asking them to do real work, for free, in order to help you out with something that might eventually make you some money. You should be very, very, very nice to them.
This is also why you generally only ask a few trusted people to do an alpha review. Because it’s a big, big favor when they do it for you.
And what a writer gets from an alpha review is a detailed analysis of the story’s problems. Much of it will be bad news because, hey, the story is broken. And the writer needs to use the analysis in a constructive way to improve the story, which may require significant changes. Painful changes
So, that’s an alpha review. How does a beta review differ from an alpha review?
An alpha review typically leverages a small number of hand-picked reviewers to provide perspectives on structural/plotting issues. A beta review goes out to between five and ten readers to provide perspectives on how well the story works for readers. The alpha review is for a story with known flaws, to gain insight into how to fix those flaws. The beta review is for a story that the writer believes is ready to be published, to determine how well it works for the intended audience.
Because of the complexity of software development, there’s a lot of focus on the processes involved in creating software. I’ve been consistently surprised by how many practices I’ve lifted from the software development field to help me in my writing. Alpha reviews have been just one such technique, and one that I hope will prove useful to my fellow writers.