Assisted Writing

At some point yesterday I realized I’m writing with a slight handicap right now. You see, for the last two books I have had a silent collaborator. He wasn’t just my first reader for the Pixie series, he was actively plotting, shaping, and helping me. I am really missing that, but this book he can’t help with in the same way.

So what is the difference between collaborator, first reader, beta reader, alpha, and all those other jargon terms we throw around from time to time? In my case, I’m lucky enough to not write solo all the time. I’ve never tried to write with a co-author, but I think I have described before the process my First Reader and I worked out where I sent him my progress every thousand words or so.

So why first reader? Well, that’s my affectionate internet term for him, but most writers don’t live with theirs. Your first reader would be someone who thinks like you do, who is in tune with you well enough to be able to read your roughest work, see what you are trying to do, and point you in the right direction when you go astray. Also known as an alpha reader.

A collaborator is a little more than that. They will help with planning, plotting, character development, and world building. The trick here is to be able to pull together in harness, because if you aren’t on the same page it can quickly devolve into arguing over where the story is going and who the characters really are. A co-author is someone to whom an outline or partially finished work is given to complete. This is sometimes also used by a publisher to train a new writer, with mixed results, I suspect. I think it would be a difficult thing to step into a partnership with all the preparation of a blind date.

Beta readers come after the story is complete. Well, at any rate, after the first draft is done. Chosen for their knowledge of genre and willingness to be brutally honest, they are to be fed and cared for nicely, as you want them to stick around and help. Usually these are fans who go above and beyond the call of duty, or fellow writers who will expect you to return the favor as soon as you can.

Note that none of these are editors. They may partly fill a role that an editor might, but in general all of them see the manuscript raw, before an editor does. You might find some or all of them in a writing group, but then again, you might not. Writing as part of a group, I have found, can be a challenge all it’s own. Not everyone in the group will have matching abilities, which means critique might not be particularly helpful. You must learn to be judicious about who you listen to, and when.

Writing groups, and perhaps the alpha reader, and definitely the collaborator, all give you someone to be accountable to. It’s easy to say: I’m going to write 70k words in six weeks, at a rate of 1750 a day, but if you don’t tell anyone, who will know if you slack off? Or who will give you a high-five when you double or triple that goal on a good day?

No writer is all alone. I’m not alone, even if it does feel really odd to be over 10K words into a novel without showing it to my First Reader. He’s my evil muse, my ‘unnamed conspirator’ as Amanda calls him, and I feel like I’m working high above the circus floor without a net. This is good for me, right? I need to be able to walk on my own fingertips through a story. But dangit… I miss that creative back-and-forth.

What interactions do you the writer seek out? Or are you a lone wolf?


12 thoughts on “Assisted Writing

  1. I’ve got a great group of beta readers. Good enough that I let them see stuff in a much more raw version than I ever thought I’d let anyone see.

    The trick is to find a few people who like your stuff and will _usefully_ critique it. My husband loves my writing, but he hasn’t ever analyzed fiction, and really isn’t very helpful when he tries.

    I generally snippet the rough draft, 3-4K words at a time, and collect comments on each section. I like the back-and-forth comments I get. Sarah has been doing the same her with a few of hers, as she writes them. I prefer to have the whole draft done first, but it’s otherwise about the same process.

    A cheer leader squad (even when they tell me my characters are acting massively stupid, and I’ve misspelled a major character’s name again) really does help me write.

    1. Yes, and we talked about it today, and it wasn’t that he didn’t WANT to help, it was just that he isn’t familiar with this series. We’re working on that 🙂

      1. Some times a reader who isn’t familiar with the series can let you know that you aren’t giving enough background for a new reader.

  2. I’m a lone wolf. I need to sit down and write, period, no people reading “over my shoulder” as it were until I’m more-or-less finished with draft and then let it sit for a while. I suspect it’s a bit of a carryover from the non-fic, where I had to “go it alone,” in part because my academic Alpha Reader burned me a few times. (AAR had/ has difficulties with scheduling projects. The Statute of Limitations prohibits my saying anything more at this time. 🙂 )

    1. I’m just spoiled this way. Although I’m doing most of the writing part alone, just a bit of character development (teen boys, alien as they are to me) with him.

  3. I have done RP ‘scenarios’ where i let people play in my world for a bit in order to work the kinks out…

  4. I’v worked full collaboration both successfully and not-so-well, have worked with groups and less-formal arrangements, and just about everything BUT a “pure” beta reader (and even there I skate close to the edge, as I was living in the same house as the editor on some projects — I was getting active edits as opposed to beta-reads, so ….)

    Right now I’m thinking of my situation as working with an occasional contributor: a former co-author (we have a story in an anthology that was published via Meisha Merlin lo those many ago…) with whom I exchange ideas in a very early phase of writing, and who will probably agree to do some beta-level reads later on. Works for us, for now.

  5. I definitely draft alone. For my first book I had one somewhat taciturn beta reader and a proofreader. For the second, I had four betas, but I was very “finished.” One of my betas also proofed it.

    I have a writing buddy, but we very much discuss motivation and craft. And assign deadlines.

  6. Lone Wolf- No choice in the matter; similar to when I worked. I was always trying to develop a team with others. Ended up figuring out how to get it done by myself. Started writing, had friends, wife that expressed interest in writing, I tried the well if you and I and quickly found myself outstanding in my field. Now, its write, set aside, write something else, come back and read fresh and correct. I did do something that I don’t think will work though recently.
    On a friends Facebook page, a extremely Liberal started bombing her every time she posted something he could disagree with. I countered with facts. As soon as a fact came up. He quit bombing until the next time. He claims to have a masters degree in political science and wrote a children’s book. I challenged him to meet me on the Baen Fantasy contest. Each submit a story to the Facebook host and she would determine which was worthy to send to Baen. So, I may get an alpha or beta reader for that story anyway. Not that I expect him to submit anything. Even Bull Shannon had three working brain cells.

    1. I don’t show my stuff to my husband because he always gets ideas. And mostly I’m not wanting ideas, I want to find out what he thinks of *my* story.

      But lately I’ve been thinking that if we started out writing *our* story, or if we started with his ideas and world and plot that it might actually work really well. So I’m thinking that maybe there is a directional element to collaborations and maybe just because two people don’t work well one direction, doesn’t mean they might not work well the other direction.

      Or something.

  7. I am, perforce, a lone wolf. Because I’m a hermit and don’t have any friends. And my family won’t read my stuff. Sister: Sex, ick. Wife: don’t like your politics. Und so weiter. I do have an alpha reader, whom I met back in the OWW days and who has read the whole of the Dolly stories and considers herself Dolly’s godmother. But she has a busy writing career of her own and, while she does read diligently everything I send her — even bugs me when I’m slow sending new chapters — and comments. But we can’t get into the weeds and details. Which might be a good thing, because back-and-forth on line crits is time-consuming.

    But I sometimes wish I wasn’t writing in total isolation and could rip a page out of the typewriter and toss it across the room — figuratively speaking.


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