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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

How to be an Alpha Reader
by Jason R. Peters

When I submit unpublished work to friends, family, writing groups, ex-girlfriends, my landlady, the bartender and my mailman, I’m only interested in one thing:  

Did you keep reading?

But of course you kept reading. You’re my mailman, for Zeus’s sake; you owe me that much.

Wrong. If you kept reading out of obligation, you’ve done us both a disservice: wasting your time on a story you don’t like, and giving me a false impression. Worse, some people assume they must read the whole ten-book series, and because they’re busy, they never read a word. (NOTE: New authors typically should not submit epic series, but that’s another issue.)

Neither is any help. Instead, I implore you:

Read the first sentence.

That’s all. (Still too busy? If you have a television or Facebook account, I don’t believe you!)

Jason, I can’t judge your whole story on just one sentence!

Sure you can. People do it all the time. They decide to see a movie based solely on the preview, pick up a book based on the title and cover, or spend $60 on a videogame they’ve never played. This is comparatively more fair.

But to ease your conscience, don’t judge the whole story. Just the first sentence. Don’t even analyze it in detail. Just consider one thing:

Did it prompt you to read further?

If not, tell me why. You don’t even have to figure out what needs to be fixed, just tell me what you experiencedWere you bored? Confused? Disbelieving? Annoyed?

This is why I don’t accept “I’m unqualified” as an excuse. If you’ve ever liked or disliked a book or movie and could articulate why, you’re qualified. I’m not looking for MFAs. I’m looking for readers.

What if I read past the first sentence?

Cool, I got one thing right; only a million more to go. However, you’re still not obligated to read the whole story. If the first sentence gripped you, try the first paragraph. Still undeterred? Read the first page.

And then, only if you cannot put it down, read the first scene or chapter.

Don’t do me any favors.

If you read my story to the end, it should be because — and only because – you loved it. There's no other reason. This is why ”I’m too busy” is a poor excuse. If you liked it, I’ve given you free entertainment. You can now return the favor by telling me what to improve.

If you didn’t like it, why are you still reading? Stop and tell me why.

This is how editors and agents read unsolicited manuscripts, with one difference: usually, they’ll give the author at least one page in which to hang himself. Properly formatted, this is just 13 lines of text. If these 13 lines don’t astonish, delight and impress, the story goes in the trash and the author gets a form rejection.

The Bottom Line

I am not trying to determine whether you think I should add a scene, remove a character, switch point-of-view, or cut words. That all comes later. (Though if you can tell me now, feel free to do so.) I’m just trying to determine one thing:

Can you put it down?

All other considerations are secondary. When you read my story, my career is on the line, and there is only one wrong answer.

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