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Alpha Level Support

Photo by Flickr user klndonnelly

A couple of days ago, Gabriela Pereira wrote an amazing article [2] detailing a more entrepreneurial approach to an MFA. (If you missed it, I highly recommend you go back and read it now. I’ll wait.)

Gabriela’s third point was about community, where she made the point that “the four components of a writer’s circle of trust are critique, accountability, support, and advice.”

I read that sentence and my reaction was an exuberant: YES!

The Circle of Trust

Gabriela went on to explain that although many writers think about critique partners when they talk about their writing careers, the other parts of the writing circle are equally as important. Unfortunately, she didn’t expound on specifically what she meant by the component of ‘support’–or, perhaps, fortunately, as that’s the element I’d like to talk about today.

Support, to me, is about encouragement. I’ve written about the importance of encouragement before [3], but I really feel that it can’t be overstated. And so I’d like to share a brief story about the first person who really encouraged me in my writing career.

Encouraged for the Very First Time

I had an exceptional English teacher in tenth grade. He was a big proponent of teaching creative writing, and would shoehorn it in between spelling tests and literary criticism at every opportunity. Towards the end of the year, he had every person in the class write an opening sentence on a piece of paper. Those pieces of paper were put in a hat, and we each drew one randomly. We had one day to write a 500 word short story starting with our randomly-selected opening line.

I drew an opening line written by one of the stoners in the class—an uncomfortably detailed first-person description of waking up and needing to vomit. (Which may well have been how the student in question was feeling at the time, considering his earlier preoccupation with making himself dizzy by watching the fan spin overhead.)  There was absolutely nothing about the opening line that appealed to me. I put off writing my story as long as I possible. Finally, at 11pm that night, I turned on my C64 computer, loaded up a word processing program, and started to write.

I finished at 5am. My story was just over 5000 words long, and I knew it was brilliant. (Disclaimer: I was 15. It probably wasn’t.) I wrote about a man who woke up in hospital (vomiting due to a reaction to the anaesthetic) and found himself in the wrong body—a female one. He’d been in an accident, and had needed a full-body transplant. The only body available belonged to a fifteen-year-old girl whose mother had sold her body (literally) in order to get enough money for the rest of their family to survive comfortably. The story dealt with sexism, poverty, and a whole range of other ideas that I couldn’t have even put into words at that age.

When I got my story back from my teacher it was covered with exclamation marks and ticks–with a giant A+ on the top of the first page in scarlet ink, along with a note suggesting that I consider a career as a writer.

When Gabriela mentioned ‘support’, those hastily scrawled words from my teacher where the first things that sprang to mind. Now, possibly she meant financial support, or more practical day-to-day support. I don’t know. (Although I absolutely hope she chimes in with an answer!) But, to me, the support of someone telling me that my work is good–that I deserve to be a writer–is an essential part of the writing process when I’m stuck in the quagmire of doubt and fighting Imposter Syndrome.

And that’s why I’m a big proponent of the use of Alpha Readers.

What the Dickens is an alpha reader?

When I send my work to a beta reader, what I’m looking for is a general critique of what works and what doesn’t–I’m looking for helpful critique and a window into whether the words I’ve got on the page encompass the story I’ve got in my mind. Critique partners and beta readers are a vital part of the writing process, helping take our manuscripts from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

When I send my work to an alpha reader, on the other hand, what I’m looking for is encouragement. I’m looking for someone to read my work and tell me it’s fantastic, amazing, enthralling, the best thing they’ve ever read, and could they please read some more of it immediately, if not sooner.

There is nothing critical about an alpha read–it’s a celebration of potential. As such, I go to my alpha reader when I feel stuck or disillusioned while writing my first draft, not when I’ve completed three revisions and am actively trying to make my work better. I often joke that my alpha reader would think my shopping list worthy of a Man Booker prize, but there are times during the hard slog of first draft writing when that level of enthusiastic support is an invaluable part of my circle of trust.

Do you have an alpha reader you go to for support when you’re in the midst of writing a draft? Do you have a different term for your support person? Who was the first person to encourage you to be a writer?


About Jo Eberhardt [4]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.