The difference between Alpha, Beta and Advance Reader Copies

Alpha vs Beta Reader

With the rise of the Indie Authors/Publishers, a lot of old conventions are being subverted. Sometimes this has been for the better, and sometimes it makes me want to beat someone to death with a thong. (If you’re not an Aussie, that’s less kinky than it sounds). On the other hand, there are things common in the Indie sphere that are just plain wrong. Take the confusion about what constitutes Alpha, Beta and Advance Copy Readers.

There appears to be a general lack of understanding in the community as to the difference between the Alpha and Beta stages. Alpha and Beta readers are groups of people you trust to give you feedback on your unpublished work. Often after having signed an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). 

Alpha Readers

Your Alpha’s receive a few chapters at a time and give the writer back a basic, low-level, common sense analysis. They don’t expect a polished work, but it needs to be readable. Alpha’s proof-as-you-go. Not every author uses Alpha Readers, but they are gaining popularity in the publishing-for-profit arena (I’ll get to that in another post). The Alpha process works as a semi-professional edit, as multiple people review your work for next to no cost. If you are using a program like Google Documents, you can even make editing suggestions that an author can then accept or reject.

When I get involved in an Alpha round, about 90% of my feedback comprises the following four comments.

  1. Show don’t tell.
  2. Clumsy: Rework this sentence.
  3. You’ve changed tense/PoV without warning.
  4. Repetitive: you’ve used the word X too many times in the same sentence/paragraph/page

The Alpha doesn’t have to like your work, but they need to have the skills necessary to correct/improve it. These readers can’t always give feedback on metaplot, pick up inconsistencies in style, theme, or naming as they may not see the whole of the story. Feedback at this stage will be about characters acting inconsistently, scenes not making sense, and sections that need more/less explanation. Alpha readers may catch something that readers could find problematic or downright challenging.

When the Alpha feedback comes in, you can do the edits and corrections needed to progress your work to Beta level. The result should be a coherent work without too many glaring grammatical or spelling errors.

Beta Readers

The Beta expects to receive a work where the author is happy with the structure, pace, and balance of the book. The Beta group acts as impartial eyes to find those errors that will sink your story, the things that no Alpha can see. It’s a good idea to have readers from different backgrounds, different interests, and of different sexes. I always recommend you include someone who isn’t a fan/reader of your genre.

The Beta stage can flag problems with metaplot, pacing, and logical flaws (including plot holes). Sometimes an insightful comment can trigger a significant re-write. Inconsistent characters, unexpected changes in point of view (head hopping), and insufficient variation in character voice should all be identified at this point.

Some more complex (and devastating if you take it personally) advice you receive from a Beta reader might be

    • Drop a chapter or scene that doesn’t progress the story;
    • Merge multiple characters into one;
    • Cut or expand large areas of your work;
    • Speed up (usually by cutting words) certain sections;
    • Slow down (usually by adding emotion and description) certain sections;
  • Address a lack of rising tension;        

ARC (Advance Reader Copy)

The ARC you send out should be fully proofed and ready to publish and is fair game for both positive and negative reviews. People talk about ARC Teams, but the person you send your ARC to isn’t always on your side. ARC readers don’t give you feedback towards your final draft as that should already be in their trembling hands. ARC is NOT part of the editing process, but one of the most important marketing steps as these pre-release reviews are often the ones you can add to your final cover.

Beating Writer’s Block

One of the biggest issues you see in writing groups is the mysterious ailment we call writer’s block.

When people talk about writer’s block it can be code for any of the following fears

  • I can’t get motivated;
  • I’m completely out of ideas;
  • I need more sleep/exercise;
  • I’m afraid my work isn’t good enough;
  • I hate my current WIP.

The underlying pathology determines which ‘cure’ will work best for you. So, let’s look at them.

I can’t get motivated.

Writing isn’t about motivation, it’s about self-discipline. Some days the words will flow. Some days they’ll be buried deep and a figurative glacier and you’ll have to hack them out individually. If you only write on the good days, you’ll be lucky to get anything written. If you write every day, regardless of your muses presence you’ll get into the habit. Habit beats inspiration every day of the week.

I’m completely out of ideas.

Read a book, see a movie, go watch the locals in their native habitat. There are ideas ready for the taking everywhere. Even garbage literature is a potential source of inspiration. Just imagine how much better your version could be.

Some quick and easy solutions are

  • Do some exercise, it can clear the mind and get those creative juices flowing;
  • Read something in a similar genre;
  • Listen to music that evokes the same feelings/themes you are going for;
  • Re-read what you’ve already written to recapture the tone/voice you have already set.


I’m afraid my work isn’t good enough.

Now we’re getting to the tricky ones. I could answer glibly and say things will get better the more you write, but there is a real psychological weight behind these thoughts. This isn’t an issue that’s easily resolved, and even the greats suffer from imposter syndrome. Maybe your work isn’t good enough. Maybe it is. You’ll never know until you get it out there to an audience. Sure it can always be better, but there comes a point where you have to let it go as ‘good enough’. It can never be perfect, and we need to accept that or go mad.

You also have to accept that some people won’t like your work. Ignore them, they are not your audience. Instead, focus on the people who like your work, they are your audience moving forward and they will be the people who encourage others to pick up your work. Keep in mind people declaring ‘I don’t like your book’ is meaningless. If they point out legitimate structural or grammatical issues, then that is constructive criticism. Maybe your work isn’t good enough, but unless you keep writing (and learning) it won’t get better.

A good trick is to write letters to your critics, then burn them. I’m not sure what you do with the letters afterwards though. (Yes, that was a joke. Please do not set fire to critics, they are almost people too).

I hate my current WIP.

That one is a doozy. You only have two options. Abandonment or perseverance. Only you can now if that unfinished work will become an unnamable horror lurking in your WIP folder. The thing you can not name lest its name invokes feelings of existential dread. Okay, maybe that’s too Poe, but you get the idea. Sometimes it’s easier just to forge ahead, even if you are reduced to writing by the numbers just to get the damned thing done.

To summarise.

There is no writer’s block, just fear getting in the way of you finishing your story. Fear is universal to the human experience and no one will think less of you for experiencing it. The important thing is how you face your fear. If writing is your passion, then you will overcome your writer’s block and keep going. It won’t be easy, and won’t necessarily make the fear vanish, but you’ll learn to continue despite it.

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ― Frank HerbertDune

7 Writer Secrets (that may ruin your work)

There is no silver bullet, and some of the advice out there can do more harm than good.

You’ve seen the headlines 5 tricks to improve your manuscript or…

  • 7 secrets for successful writers
  • 10 steps to a best-selling novel
  • 9 songs of madness to bring forth the Elder Gods. (okay maybe not that one)

Be a WriterPost after post (and course after course) appears telling you the inside edge, the best method, the secret process, and some of them, maybe even most of them, may very well have some merit. But when does the quest to have the most marketable book detract from the quality of your story? Yes, there are certain tricks on timing and structure that can help (especially if you want to write to the formula so prevalent in YA and various genres). Yes, conforming to these can help you sell books. But that begs the question, am I writing to sell books, or to tell a story?

Like it or not, as an aspiring writer you are a potential consumer. In today’s blogosphere, there’s a legion of unpublished souls, the greatest potential army of quill-wielding warriors in history, only an electronic step away from being published. That’s a big potential audience, a big market that a lot of people have been tapping into. It feels like there is a lot more money in telling people how to write than in actually writing.

Now I’m not saying you should skimp on the basic structure and craft of the written word. If every sentence starts with He/She, that needs to be fixed. Your format, spelling, and font, need to be consistent. Grammer is essential, typos should be rooted out, and excessive repetition of words should be fixed with a bit of creativity and possibly a thesaurus. You should have a single PoV per scene, you should have a recognisable protagonist or two, and a not-excessive number of secondary characters.

There is so much writing advice out there, and most of it can be great, but nothing is one-size-fits-all. So MY one-size-fits-all advice is this, once you master the basics, once you are comfortable in your own skin and know your own story, then seek out the experts in the genre you want to write, and see what they say. When you do, pick only a handful of sources and even then you have to be careful that you don’t mix in advice that actually works against you. Find a style, perfect that style, and remember that not everyone’s advice will be right for you.

When your slow burn story gets trimmed to fit in the rising conflict necessary to adhere to the YA template, you have to stop to consider if this actually adds to your story. If you cut every adverb, twist every instance of passive voice, and shave every description to deliver a leaner, meaner, manuscript… you need to look at what you lost in the process. You also have to consider whether to write for the market or if you need to change your target market to match what you have written.

Reach OutOf course, there are some suggestions that do work for everyone

  • Reach out and connect with your fellow writers
  • Get Beta Readers
  • Read widely (not just in the same genre) and often
  • No work is ever perfected, it’s simply abandoned



Originally published on

What are the basics of novel structure?

The structure of a novel isn’t simply industry convention, it taps into psychological behind how we understand a story.

A novel starts at 40,000 words or more in length. For some people that seems daunting while for others the struggle is to keep their word count manageable. Writing a novel is like having children, it seems a great idea before you start, but then comes the hard work. One thing you can do to reduce that work is to write to the expected novel structure. (I’m talking technical construction here, not genre plot expectations). Nearly every successful novel has most of these elements of structure the majority having all. It takes a skilled writer to abandon convention without creating a total mess.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the simplest structural breakdown, commonly known as the 3 Act Structure (see also Monomyth and Hero’s Journey). Rare stories start at the end and work their way backwards. But, that’s just shuffling the order in which the acts are encountered and takes both a skilled author and a forgiving reader. Short stories and novellas can be written to a different structure, with serial novellas often missing the third act and ending on a cliff-hanger.

The beginning (Setup) is where you make your readers care about your story, the world you built, and the characters they find in it. The first act takes up 25% (or less) of your words. Be wary of excessive exposition and telling, not showing.

  • Hook the reader so they keep reading;
  • Ask the questions that generate interest in your setting;
  • Introduce the significant characters;
  • Inciting Incident;
  • Begin the main plot.

The end (Resolution) is the mirror opposite of the setup. This act is the culmination of all the elements of your story. The final act again takes up 25% (or less) of your words.

  • Answer any outstanding questions about your world;
  • Make sure significant characters have completed their arcs;
  • Conclude the main plot;
  • Make sure the reader finishes your book satisfied.

The middle of the story should be self-explanatory. It is called the Rising Action as it is a sequence of action/reaction scenes that ratchet up the tension in your story so that the reader is invested by the time you move into the final act. The middle of your work is where sub-plots are born and die. Expand on the details of your world and flesh out your characters. Where the beginning has to have hooks to attract the reader, and the end has to satisfy their needs, the middle is where your readers fall in love with your work. It is the meat of your story where your characters gain the knowledge/skills they need to resolve their situation.

  • (optional) starts with a call to action;
  • Give depth to your characters;
  • Flesh out the main plot;
  • The turning point in your story;
  • Add sub-plot (that may or may not get resolved);
  • Add conflict/obstacles of increasing difficulty;
  • Increase the tension to prepare for the final act.

Here is a basic (Google Doc) structure spreadsheet you can use for reference. You should be able to see how the 3 Acts fit together.

Disclaimer: If you are a pantser you may think structure is a straitjacket that restricts creativity. There are lots of processes (snowflake method etc.) that almost ignore structure. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but it often means that a work will need to go through multiple drafts for clarity. I recall a quote from a popular author (it may have been Stephen King) that they paid absolutely no heed to structure, but on examining their work it’s obvious they adhere to the structure (acts, turning points, beats) with textbook precision. They didn’t care about structure because it was something they did without realising. Most of us aren’t that lucky.