I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Taking interesting concepts and dropping complex characters into fantastical worlds is my jam. I also raise dairy goats and herd cats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. Welcome to the adventure.
Hey! You might have heard that I launched a brand-new author website focused on my upcoming works. I just wanted to let you know that, whether you’re seeing this in email or via WordPress Reader, I’ll be transferring your subscription to see my blog posts over there, since that’s where I’ll be.
I’ll be honest I’m not entirely sure how this whole thing works, but it should just mean you’ll still get my posts, just from rkbrainerd.
If you’re not into that, please feel free to unsubscribe, or just let me know to take your name off the list!
Otherwise, just note that my posts may look like they come from another place going forward 🙂
Okay! So! I am both excited and proud to announce that I’ve made the decision to self-publish my alt-history romantic urban fantasy series, which starts with JAGGED EMERALD CITY.
This has been such an interesting journey. At the beginning of the year, making this decision would have resulted in me fighting this lingering sense of “I gave up” on traditional publishing, that it just got “too hard” or I got “too impatient.” But this past six months has been such a discovery of realizing I don’t want to publish my Obsidian Divide series traditionally.
Why? Let me tell you:
I have way too many ideas about covers and formatting and everything else that giving up that control is hard to swallow. I knew I’d make peace with it. But if I don’t have to, why?
I… don’t actually know how the series ends. It could go a multitude of ways, and this series is so much an exploration of this world and these characters. Traditional publishing would balk at that to begin with, let alone having to cram this into “traditional” storytelling structure is just… icky. Again, if I don’t have to, why would I?
This story is really personal. Yeah, yeah, I know, join the club. But there’s so much about mental health and trauma and dealing with crap that makes the story… not as tight as it “should be” but is really a bedrock of what it is.
So I’ve come to this glorious, freeing realization: I don’t want to cram my story into what’s expected or needed for the kind of publishing that I’d originally been aiming for. I can choose my covers. I can figure it out as I go. This series can be whatever it ends up being.
Do I need to hire experts (editors, designers, etc) so that I can be sure this isn’t just a hubris-filled exercise? Absolutely.
But in the teeter-totter relationship between “art” and “business” that is writing, this is where this series needs to sit. With more of the art and flexibility in there, and less of the concerns of business.
If the series flops [because it’s too weird or slow-build or whatever various issues that may conflict with what kind of structure sells]? Okay. Bring it. 🙂 This isn’t going to make or break my career and at least I’m doing something instead of just waiting around forever.
I made this romantic alt-history fantasy story my way and that’s how it needs to be.
(Don’t get me wrong, the reality of dealing with that will suck, but I’m on a high of confidence right now, don’t ruin it.)
I have books in the future that may be more right for traditional publishing. (I have a duo-logy in mind right now that I’ll probably position that way.) Because I am not one story, I am not one method, and this is all a journey to figure out what works for me as an artist and author.
Self-doubt will have it’s time later. Right now, I smile towards the future for the first time in a long time [and prepare to hire a copyeditor, cover designer, re-do my website, learn formatting, figure out how to get my book to readers through Amazon/B&N/Kobo/Apple/Google/Ingram Spark/etc, get my newsletter going, my social media plan nailed down, contact reviewers, buy ISBNs… and I’m sure there’s more to that list].
I’m so freaking excited.
Since I’m really doing this now, I’ve officially launched my own self-hosted website. RKBrainerd.com is going to be where I am from now on. This is a little sad to be moving on from awakedragon.wordpress.com, but it’s also really awesome. I feel like I’m leveling up into my next form. I hope you’ll go and check out my new website (which looking freaking spectacular, if I do say so myself). Also, if you’re interested, I did start a sign-up where you can get first look alerts directly in your inbox so you don’t miss anything.
Interested in reading this alt-history romantic urban fantasy that’s long and messy and seductive? You can subscribe here, and I’ll be rolling out sneak peaks, gifts, and goodies as I nail down a timeline.
So I’m sitting here thinking in circles and decided it might be more productive to get my thoughts out about this.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that I’ll need to self-publish my Obsidian Divide series if I ever want it to be out in the world. I’ve received about 22 form rejections from agents so far, and queried over double that; I imagine I won’t hear from them because of the non-response model.
As far as I understand, because there’s no constructive feedback, this means I need to redo my query. It’s not capturing the imagination. But I’m being honest, while staying away from critical self moping at the same time, I don’t think the query is the problem.
I think my manuscript is too off and simultaneously not unique enough for traditional publishing (at least how publishing stands right now). Despite endless hours on TVTropes and having been a fantasy-romance reader for my whole life, I don’t understand the tropes enough to break them cleverly. Or at least when I wrote this I didn’t. The book is big and complicated; it’s basically got three plots that take up a lot of room, each interesting in their own right but it’s a lot of paper. There’s nothing snappy about it as a selling point… or I just don’t know how to tease out those points, either way.
I’d like to think it steadily pulls you under, weaving a spell and sinking into hearts that resonate with what I’m saying. It grows on you. Maybe like mold.
BUT ANYWAY. Further strikes against it: the manuscript is set in Galicia, Spain, and publishing wants are leaning away from Western-setting fantasy right now (which is completely legitimate), and while I think my book is cool in a post-dystopian greenpunk kind of way, I don’t think it’s a strong enough element. It’s too young/angsty to nicely fit into adult fantasy, but too long for YA and it’s not a coming of age story. And the worst strike of all: it’s not a standalone. It completes its arc, but it definitely sets up for more. If I’m being honest I’m not entirely sure how the series will actually end. It could go a bunch of ways, and conceivably for years. But publishing is a risk-averse industry, and buying a series from a debut author is definitely in the risky category.
I know my book is good. For people who like what I like. For as much as I can make it. And that’s the problem; I want a partner in this industry who will push me so I can continue to grow, and in order for that to happen, they have to care about what I’m writing. And likes are subjective. It’s possible I just haven’t found the right agent that it clicks with—but the next step is selling the book, and publishing is still risk-averse and finicky.
So. Where does this leave me.
There’s abandoning it for writing another book, but then what the hell was all this work for? Sure, yes, I learned a lot. But I already did the abandon-the-first-book-I-ever-wrote thing (did y’all know I have a YA dragon shifter series gathering dust somewhere? Anyway). Besides, I’m already working on writing another book; it’s really a question of focusing a majority of my energy on Book Two or something that’s more of a standalone.
There’s always rewrite this manuscript… again. But I’ve been working on this book for almost 10 freaking years (though the first several not seriously) and I don’t want to do it again. And anyway, I like what it is now.
Which brings me back to self-publishing. An intimidating idea that is slowly growing on me, though I need to get over the “self publishing is giving up” idea. I’m a needy person who wants feedback and to be recognized. Striking out on my own without that strains the self confidence.
I figure, there are three big real factors to this decision:
Getting the book conceivably as perfect as I can
Getting the book in front of people
Bonus factor: avoiding burnout
As for getting the book into its best form, hiring editors is fairly straightforward and will just mean time researching the right ones and money on my part. Do-able.
Somewhere between that and getting the book in front of people means hiring a book cover designer and, more broadly, probably a website/brand redesign to get my author brand to a strong, recognizable place because I’ve got a million stories inside of me and my career is not just one book. Again, research and money, doable.
Getting the book in front of people… well. I’ve been consuming information on book marketing for years, so I’ve got an idea on where to start. It’s something that I’d need to do for traditional publishing anyway. Contact reviewers. Build a newsletter list. Grow my social media following. Find my fans and help them do their thing.
It’s just a lot. Depression and ADHD like to pull me into a hole or the fog a lot. That doesn’t exactly work with being consistent and keeping a strong presence. I don’t want it all to live or die based on me (back to that partner thing I was talking about); I don’t want my writing career to be forced to depend on my erratic brain. Ha.
If I’m being honest, I have another hangup about shouting into the void. There’s this lingering sense of bUT I WanT To BE SpeCIAL that I cannot seem to beat into submission. But I’ll probably never quite get rid of that. If I’m clever I can redirect that energy into finding the right people who will enjoy my books.
Anyway, this has been cathartic. I know what I need to do, I’m just grumbling my way through the rest of my reservations. I told myself I would “Tolkein-goal” myself before I switched gears (Tolkein-goal: he had 86 rejections before publishing, so I’ll wait until I get 86 before I move on), but it’s beginning to feel tiresome and a waste to send queries when it’s unlikely I’ll get specific feedback and I’m pretty sure I know the real issue.
Plus, I was willing to give up control in a lot of things (as you do for traditional publishing) as far as cover design, marketing, trajectory of the books, etc—but I have so many ideas, it would amazing to have control over it all.
I’ve just got to gather the courage and confidence to do this on my own and weather the bad times.
Wish me luck?
NOTE: I’m actually about to leave on a three-week trip hiking through Spain with my mom. It’s apparently quite the soul searching adventure for people who have been on the Camino de Santiago before. (Additionally, I will end up where my fantasy city in The Obsidian Divide series is located which I am so stoked about.) I’ll write a post about it when I get back, and hey, maybe it’ll be the thing I need to trust myself enough to get all this off the ground!
I’m coming down to the last few edits on my Work In Progress before I’ll declare this ecopunk fantasy romance manuscript about life after trauma good to go. If you’ve been following my journey, you’ll know that I embarked upon a beta-reading journey, including a second pass that I just finished up, which really pushed my skills and this story to the next level.
Some of these final edits are aggravatingly more complicated than they look at first glance. “Give more personal details in the introductory scene” is fairly straightforward, but “clarify momentum after [particular plot point]” became a weird brain-bend where I had to subtly alter several scenes. It got easy to lose track of what I’d changed and when (though was a pleasant surprise later when I’d remember to change a section and realize I’d already done it and wow doesn’t it look nice).
When I get lost in the details, I tend to fall back on one particular method to get my head clear and let creativity run free. This is something I call “sandboxing.” I can’t remember when I first heard the term, but the gist is this:
Sandboxing: opening up a completely new document (or Scrivener page) and experimenting with the scene/chapter/what-have-you without worrying about the consequences of what you’re changing, because, well, you’re just playing around and it’s not the actual manuscript. You’re just “playing in the sand” to see what happens.
Because sometimes that intimidating blank page is actually a help.
For example, I recently took a scene in a library between my main character and another primary character, and tried to see if I could highlight some worldbuilding information while playing up the flirt. By the end I was pretty proud of myself for weaving it all together.
… only to realize a day later that I’d already meshed this worldbuilding information in another scene, and in a better way that empowers my main character and lowered the word-count a bit by replacing a superfluous scene.
Whoops. Redundant work, there.
So now it’s back to the drawing board for that library scene. The great thing is, I discovered a new way for the characters to interact that choreographs tension, which I’m going to hopefully still use no matter what details actually end up in the scene. This is a weird turning-point moment that I feel could really be more if I can just do it right, so trying to keep an open mind about where it goes.
I think this will be the last structural edit, after which I’ll do a final pass for line edits and see if I can lower my overall word count. As much as I want to go straight to querying, I should—sigh—at least do one copyediting pass. Especially considering my wordcount is still in the upper 120s and I sometimes have a passive-voice problem.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I could literally spend the rest of my life editing this book and never get it out in the world, so I’m doing my best to stay out of the “art is never finished” trap. Sandboxing is a method that unfortunately can last for as long or as little time as you want it to, so I’m thinking of giving myself deadlines so I don’t get lost in the woods of my mind again.
Tomorrow will be the 1st of March. So let’s say I have a week to figure out this “library scene.” (Maybe that seems overkill, but I am trying to be kind to myself while working full time and remodeling a house. Time is scarce and I am le tired.)
Then, the final three weeks of March to get through copyedits?
Here’s to starting up querying by April 1st, 2022, friends!
Let me know about your journey and where you’re at! I’m also really curious how long it’s taken others to get through the copyedit stage.
You know that feeling when you’ve quoted a phrase for years, but then something happens that gives you a much deeper understanding of it?
If you’ve kept up with me here or on Instagram, you may have seen me talk about my adventure with beta-reading over the last year or so (holy crap it’s been that long how did that happen). If not, to catch you up in a sentence, I made structural changes to my current WIP due to the initial round of beta-reading feedback, and wanted another set of eyeballs to make sure I hadn’t completely missed the mark. (If you want to read about my experiment, can read about it here.)
That second-round feedback has returned over the past couple months, and I’m starting the final round of revisions before querying.
How do I know this will be the final round?
The manuscript is far from perfect, it’s true. It’s been an incredible learning process to re-envision this story, and to embark on a thorough beta-reading journey to help me see my blind spots for this story. I honestly think I’m a better storyteller than I was even a few months ago. But the reality is, I’m never going to please everyone. No matter what I do, there will be readers who dislike parts of my story (or the whole thing).
But instead of torturing myself trying to please everyone, or falling into a continuous loop of I’m better now let’s try one more time, or throwing up my hands in defeat, I found a whole new meaning in this quote:
Thus my initial question. Because it hit me, that barring a few clarification points I’m fixing, feedback is telling me that most of what I want to show in this story is coming through.
Yes, a few years from now, I’ll probably know how to do it better. Yes, there’s always another reader, another perspective, another opinion to help me see the story in a new light.
But what’s the point if the story is never going to actually be in the world?
People are enjoying my story. They’re wanting more.
And THAT is the whole point.
So, my manuscript is ready for the next step. Or maybe more accurately, I’m ready for the next step. I’m happy with what my story is saying, I’m content with its flaws, and it’s time to “abandon” this phase for the next.
But it made me wonder if others have experienced this: knowing that a “flaw” exists in their story and keeping it anyway. I’m sure someone with better skills will disagree with me, but I even think that addressing my manuscripts “flaws” might end up fundamentally changing parts of the story in a way I would hate.
So, in case anyone is interested and just for fun, I thought I’d share what I’m intentionally leaving in my manuscript and why. There are about three main things.
The beginning is slow to build.
Weeeell. That’s because I’m telling a really big story. The ironic thing is I initially started this manuscript with the deliberate challenge of never telling the reader anything until they absolutely needed it. As my betas can probably attest, I seriously hang on to the mystery for a while. But there is still a lot of set up for this story.
That’s not to say I’m spending paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition. More that the character has to make things happen in a situation where she has very little control, with a lot of different factors, and it takes a minute to get that momentum going.
This problem actually came up after the first round of beta-reading, and I have thoroughly changed or taken out as much as I possibly can without taking out subplots entirely. If I end up going the traditional publishing route, I will probably have to fight about keeping some of those subplots in there, but I have all of them for a reason. I will challenge them to find a subplot that can be removed without fundamentally changing the story. (Caveat: yes, I will be doing one more pass to see what else I can condense or change.)
This leads to number 2.
There are a lot of threads to this story.
This and the above go hand in hand. I have a lot of elements in this story. Surviving trauma. Dealing with heavy-handed, even abusive parents. Negotiating friendship as you drift apart. Found family, and acceptance. Carving your own path in the world. Finding unintended consequences when you do.
I think the trick here is to weave these all together in an engaging way. Because, the point is, as long as you keep the reader reading. I think I… mostly succeed, and I’m working on tightening this up and pulling these together in this last revision.
Again, a shoutout to all my beta-readers who are forcing me (they’re not forcing; you know what I mean) to push myself and rethink what I can.
My main character is both childish and mature
I know that’s a complaint in the YA community, that the teenagers act like adults. (My book isn’t YA, to be clear, though there’s a lot of coming-of-age elements.) My MC is like 20. She’s going to make reckless decisions where we as readers can see the consequences coming a mile away. She’s also the product of trauma, which can regress someone at times. But, hand in hand with that, there’s a maturity that comes from being forced to grow up quickly. She’s also very self aware and book-smart.
So. All of this is to say I’ve made things really hard on myself and have given her a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder that’s constantly at odds with a weary cynicism. At this point, whenever someone says they can’t quite get a sense of her age, my response is “yes.”
I can hear the rebuttals already. Yes, the reader has to be grounded or they’ll get confused and won’t enjoy the story. I’m tweaking a couple things here and there to hopefully get this across better. And it’s true I’ve probably invested a little too much of myself in this character to see her clearly.
But I’m okay with that. 😉
Because my manuscript will never be “finished.” I’ve done all I can with the skillset and perspective I have now. So, I’m going to abandon it to the world, and come what may, good and bad.
So. Your thoughts? Tell me I’m not alone in intentionally keeping these “flaws”!
Caveat: I’m a huge proponent of each writer using or discarding writing advice as fits THEM, and only THEM, so the following info doesn’t work for you, please delete from brain.
That being said, I want to share my process on how I recently took a 160k word manuscript to 126k without killing myself or the heart of the story. I’m a character writer. I love immersing myself into places and relationships, and playing out heart stories within epic worlds and situations. That can lead to a lot of extra words that aren’t always the most plot-relevant. It can slow down the story a lot. So, if you’re like me, and struggle with some massive word counts, I hope this will help you find some tools of your own.
True to my own colors, this post is pretty long, so buckle up, folks. I’ve added a bunch of gifs to make it more fun.
Background: I’ve probably talked this to death by now, but in 2018 the press originally set to publish my Obsidian Divide series and I amicably split. After that, I decided to completely rewrite the manuscript by myself, because I’d developed a lot as a writer in the three years since the manuscript originally went under contract. I ripped things out and rewrote them A LOT, and at the end of it, discovered my word count shot through the roof to 160,000 words. Haaaaaaa.
I’d like to try to go the traditional route of publishing with this novel, and I knew 160k words is high enough that agents might dismiss it outright without even reading it. As I initially thought the manuscript would be Young Adult in category, I knew I needed to get the word count down to around 100,000. So, taking out 50-60k words. Without killing my story in the process.
If you follow me on Instagram you might have already seen some of how I tackled the huge-workcount issue. I’ve posted about it in Stories about it if you’d prefer to see it in that form. But I discuss it more in depth below.
To get a top-down view of what I had to work with, I wrote an outline of all chapters and scenes of the manuscript, with a sentence or two describing each.
I also exported the manuscript into Word (I had been working in Scrivner) to get a page count. Then I divided the words I need to cut (working with a goal of 100k, that was 50-60k) by the total number of pages (543) to get how many words per needed to be cut per page. This ended up being 93-110 words per page (60/543=110ish, 50/543=93ish). Cutting 93-110 word per page sounds a lot less intimidating than cutting 50-60k words (which is an entire Middle Grade book, just FYI).
Seeing the manuscript via a top-down outline, I could highlight which scenes were not directly integral to the plot. Or, said in another way, which ones didn’t really build on the last scene or lead into the next. This was pretty enlightening. Then I knew what I could cut.
Now understanding I needed to cut 93-110 words per page, I could use it as a goal as I focused more minutely on cleaning up sentences. Tackling passive-voice problems builds up to a surprising amount of words.
HOW IT EVOLVED
Cutting is always difficult one way or another. The per-page cuts were more straightforward, though tedious. Did that sentence absolutely need to be there or was there a shorter way to say it? How many times did I really need to use “was” in a sentence, good lord? Did the inner monologue have to be that long? How do I make this description shorter, snappier? (The positive note to that is, I learned to take a much closer look at my sentence structure, a lesson that I can already tell is filtered into my drafting skills.)
Cutting entire scenes or sections was difficult in a scarier way. I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t see the story without it, or loved the scene, even though my outline told me it wasn’t necessary.
So, I started out by simply experimenting with removing it. To see how the story looked and how it felt. (I don’t ever totally delete anything, and just cut and put all my cut scenes into a designated folder.)
In the end, I think I ended up keeping all of the cuts. Because. When I got used to seeing how it looked, and I got over the “nOOOOOooo my baby,” it became clear why I loved those scenes. Maybe it was simply what the scene represented. Maybe it was just this one particular vivid image. Maybe I just liked the portrayal of a specific thing.
Once I understood that, I could creatively address how to keep the smaller piece I loved by fitting into scenes the story actually needed. In some instances it was as simple as merging a couple paragraphs to a crucial scene so I could still have that particular conversation/description/etc that I wanted to keep, but without needing all the words setting up for that particular moment.
I originally had this scene where my main character proves her usefulness, and it’s a shift from “new character is naive in a new world” to “oh actually maybe she’s kinda badass??” It’s wasn’t necessarily important to the plot, but it was important for character development. I realized after some brain bending that I could fit the MC “helping” into a different plot-and-worldbuliding relevant scene. The initial scene didn’t need to be it’s whole thing. Doing this helped pick up the pace of the story in the middle.
In another scene that actually was important for plot reasons, I figured out how to reimagine it completely. I needed blackmail for one of my villains to use against the MC (so this one thing could happen, which lead to the other thing). Instead of creating that blackmail literally on page, I realized I could pull something from backstory (a flip of the show don’t tell rule). Even better, this backstory-blackmail ended up fleshing out a secondary character’s motivations and intentions that I’d been struggling with. It was one of those sublime everything-sliding-into-place moments. But I would have never realized it without pushing myself to streamline, cut word-count, and really focus on what the plot needed.
Some scenes I did end up just cutting. Most of those ended up being character pieces that weren’t attached to anything else, or filler scenes of conversations or worldbuilding explanations that weren’t, ultimately, that important. The one I remember the most was a funny and poignant scene conversation between two characters talking about life and trauma. While I was very sad to remove it in the moment, with distance I see the story works better without it (AND, silver lining, now I have an entry for my “deleted scenes” folder that I can share with someday-fans of the story who are just as thirsty for these character interactions as I am).
Something else interesting happened as I learned to how to mercilessly cut for Story. I grew impatient with every scene that didn’t inspire me or stand out. Once I decided the impatience wasn’t just because I had to read the thing for the 1000th time, I started “sandboxing.”
Sandboxing is taking a scene and starting from scratch. I think this worked for two reasons. One, there’s that trick about rewriting a scene without looking at the old one, and the parts you remember are the parts that are important. But some of it was being able to reimagine how the scene could go without being stuck in the initial rewrite. Actually, I wrote about utilizing something like this before.
This process ended up being tricky, because sometimes the revised scenes ended up longer than the original scene. There was definitely some up and down with the word-count during that. But I was able to deepen what I really wanted in the story, which led to more ideas about what else could be changed.
And wow, I’ve been carrying on for a while here, so let me bring this thing to a close.
A few months into this process I realized that my manuscript could fit as Adult in category, and maybe actually should be Adult considering where I want to take the book and series. Which is very convenient, as Adult sci-fi and fantasy can be closer to 120k words, instead of 100k. Also convenient I decided this as I hit 125k and wondered how on earth I’d be cutting it any lower.
After some up and down word counts again, I’m at 126k words right now. I would like to get to 120k, but I decided I needed some outside help. I fell back in love with my story through rewriting so much of it, which is awesome, but also complicates keeping a clear perspective.
Thus, my beta-reading adventures have begun. If you’re curious, I’ve talked about some beta-reading culture problems here and how I attempted to address that here.
I hope this was helpful to y’all out there, or that it sparked some ideas on how to handle your own #wordcountproblems. I’m curious — have you had to cut a major amount of words from your manuscript before, and how did you do it?
We’ll be back, folks, in a month or two with the results of my second round of beta-reading! And then. Hopefully. Like actually querying.
I hope everyone is being kind to yourselves and taking time to feed your creative soul, whether that’s a nap, binge-reading, or taking a break. Talk soon!
I’ll be honest. I’m not very good at seeking feedback for my writing. I don’t like sharing things as I write them. I want to sit on it and polish it for a million years before it even sees the light of day. I’ve sent manuscripts to family members and close friends to ask what they think— and while this can be great for certain things (alpha reads, self-confidence, etc)— I’ve never gone beyond that comfort zone.
So, now having finished a serious revision, and in the mind to push myself, I wanted to do something broader and more critical. I also wanted to be organized and structured about it. As I’ve talked about previously, I’m a soft marshmallow when it comes to criticism, and I wanted to guide feedback in a way that would be helpful and not crushing.
This is what I did.
I started by setting up a Google Form and:
Created a series of questions that would cover what I needed answered about the manuscript, based off my own interest and of suggestions I found by researching.
Most questions I kept broad, but I did add specific details of the story to direct what I’m looking for.
And hey, if anyone is interested, I can totally write them out!
I made a list of people to send the manuscript to and asked them.
Trusted friends and family, along with, yes, fellow writers, inside and outside the genre I’m writing.
Part of the problem in my previous hesitant attempts at beta-reading was that I didn’t get enough variety and quantity of perspectives. Yes, this was due to not wanting influences that could be negative. I’d hoped to structure the questions so there was less possibility of that.
I sent the manuscript, with an overview of what I was looking for but not the specific questions, and how to access the form with the questions once they’d finished reading.
*Five months later*
Well, to start with, it turns out that asking people to respond in such a complex way was a bit too much to ask. Out of 15 people that I ultimately sent the manuscript to (over the course of several months), 5 have read it, and 0 have used the form.
(I’m still trying to decide if a 1/3 read rate is indicating something bad, or if people are just busy, which is totally legitimate.)
Most of them responded by sending back the manuscript with comments in-document and an overall thoughts letter, which I think is pretty typical in the world of beta-reading. The ones that said they’d go back to fill out the form… haven’t as of yet. People have lives beyond being my reading minions, that’s *dramatic sigh* fine I guess.
After a while, I simply followed up with them and asked some questions to compare and contrast with the comments I’d gotten from others. For example: “Hey do you think the beginning is slow?”
(The answer, by the way, is 4 out of 5 say yes. Ooops.)
Now it’s looking like I’m doing a second round of beta-reading. Because apparently I can’t stop torturing myself with the idea of perfection. Which I KNOW will never happen, because art is subjective and skills improve and perspectives are fluid and GAH why am I doing this to myself.
But I made some pretty big changes, including rearranging the first half quite a bit and rewriting a few chapters, and don’t I need perspective on that now to make sure I changed it in the right direction?
Anyway, moving on.
Despite getting really good feedback, and comments that helped me identify weaknesses I could then improve, I’m feeling more insecure about it than last time. Maybe before I was in a high of denial on how vulnerable this made me? I thought I’d get to hide behind data and my Google Form, and somehow disconnect feedback from the reality of receiving criticism on my manuscript child?
That’s not to say I didn’t receive positive comments. I got a lot of positive feedback, and everyone who’s responded said I met the ultimate test: they want to read more.
Am I going to try to use my Google Form again? Eh. I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably still put it out there as an option, but put the questions upfront, like in the body of the email I send with the document attached.
And yes, I know I need to put a limit on myself on how many times I do this. I can’t revise this thing forever. I want to get it actually into the world. And I need to get a move on, so that I can stop realizing six months later “Oh, I’ve improved as an writer, let’s change some things up!”
It feels close. I think the manuscript is almost there. Even if that means just forcing myself to stawwwwwp.
Until next time! I think my next post will be on how I cut over 30k words from my manuscript. I talked about it on my Instagram Stories a while ago, but I think it would be neat to revisit and write out the process. And hey, it might even help somebody.
So as I delve into my first actually serious attempt at utilizing beta-reading, I wanted to talk about a particular problem I’ve noticed in the writing community. Maybe saying it’s a ‘problem’ is too inflammatory. But bear with me for a second.
Beta reading is someone’s amazing dedication of time to look over another’s writing and give feedback. Writers tend to be a my-art-is-my-child bunch, so this is an important step in fixing any issues that the writer may have not seen being so close to their story. From everything from sharing with close friends to swapping read-for-read with strangers on the internet, beta reading is a fairly well ingrained idea in writing culture.
But it really bugs me when someone sends out their manuscript to be beta-read, and the response just crushes their soul.
Caveat: I’m well aware that some amount of negative reaction is normal when receiving criticism, especially when we’re talking my-story-is-my-baby writers. (*cough* me *cough*)
Especially when one writer is reading another writer’s work, it’s very easy to tell someone what to change and how. But I think it was Neil Gaiman who said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Art is subjective. It’s intrinsic and instinctive, and easily warped by influence. And I’m starting to wonder if the role of the beta reader is actually that well understood.
So here’s my premise:
A beta-readers job is not to tell somehow how to write something. Their job is to highlight their reactions to the author in an as unfiltered way as possible. Armed with that data, the writer can then figure out how to solve it, if they want to solve it, in their way. “I got bored here” or “this is fascinating!” or “this is the place I took my first break from reading” is actionable information that tells the author how the story pacing is going. Maybe there’s too much info-dumping. Maybe some scenes need to be moved to later. Maybe one person thought one thing and another thought the opposite, so the issue can be relegated to “you can’t please everyone.” The point is, it’s all up to the author and no one else.
(Of course this is all different if a writer asks for advice on how to change something. But that’s straying into the role of a critique partner, which is different.)
Maybe this is just me finally getting with the program of the rest of the world, who already knows about these pitfalls and what to do about it, but it felt like a significant realization to me. And I think it also explains why I’ve always half-assed the beta-reading stage before. I’m a soft marshmallow soul and I think it would be too easy to be tied into knots and warp my own creative spirit with the wrong influence.
The second part of my premise: I think this problem is partially on the writer. Handing over a manuscript with a “tell me what you think!” is going to cause a variety of responses. Readers may not even know what to say. Particularly if the reader isn’t used to that particular genre or style. While a lot can be gotten out of that, I think it’s really easy to fall into a pit of unhelpful or even harmful feedback.
It’s up to the writer knowing and asking for what they need.
Which brings this whole conversation to now (and about me again, sorry). After finishing up the revision process I talked about last time, I decided to buckle up and do this beta-reading thing for real. In an organized and structured fashion. Which means actually knowing what I need and guiding the eyeballs on my words to give me actionable feedback. So, I built a strategy with everything I’ve just talked about in mind.
Once feedback comes back, I’ll be writing another post on, you know, if this actually works or if I’m just being self-important. But the basics of my strategy are… actually pretty simple and obvious now that I think about it.
I comprised a bunch of questions based off recommendations and research.
I made a list of about a dozen trusted people.
I sent the manuscript and questions with an outline of what I’m looking for to said people.
The set up was actually the fun part, which I’ll go into detail next time. Mostly I just used Google Sheets and Google Forms… with some personalization. But I’m strangely proud of myself for the whole thing. It’s probably silly. But we’ll see what happens when it all comes together!
For now I wait. Until then, what are your thoughts? How about your experiences with beta-reading — either reading or sending a manuscript to be read?
I read somewhere that revising is actually completely different from editing. Editing, they said (and I wish I could remember where I read this), was taking what was there and making it better; revising was totally reimagining what was written. I think they said something to the likes of, if you’re not rewriting 60% of the book, it’s not revisions.
I’ve understood this idea theoretically, less practically. But after last year I think I have a more hands-on understanding.
(Caveat: this, like all writing advice, you have to take with a grain of salt. I used to be a serious pantser, which made this advice make sense for me because I had to write the book before I understand what the book is, then go back and make it all work together. This may not be the best advice for you. It’s also not a rule. Just something to ponder in your revision journey.)
Throughout most of 2019, I rewrote a manuscript that I’ve been working on for years. (This is the one that was picked up by a small press for a while without publication.) I talk about the beginning of this rewrite here, and my success using Google docs here. As mentioned, I changed a lot in the manuscript. I went deeper. Interrogated my plot and character decisions. Threw away anything that didn’t make me excited.
(Then I sort of fell off the face of the blog-planet there but we’ll just ignore that. Blame bad depression episode and #because2020)
Usually I started by taking a section I didn’t totally love, created a new file, and then free-wrote, started in a totally new place, or really anything different to try to change things up. Most of time, I ended up hitting on something better. Or maybe it was something that could be merged with the original scene in a way that brought out what I was really trying to say.
During this whole process I specifically did not look at word count. I’m wordy and I knew that if I paid attention to how far over I was, I’d just be paralyzed. When I finally had the manuscript is one piece and fairly coherent, then I finally looked at my word count.
And realized I needed to take out about 40k-50k words to be within publishable limits. THAT amount of extra wordiness I was not expecting, and I entered a whole new phase in the manuscript revision process that was more intensive and time-consuming than I expected. So 2020 became the year of “is this scene really needed” and “how do I say that but short.” (If you’re interested, I really got into Instagram stories and you can watch more of a play-by-play of what I did here, though the first several slides are just pictures of computers and coffee. Hm. Maybe I should turn all that into a blog post.)
In narrowing down the amount of words, I was able to clarify the main thread of the story, too — which also meant it wasn’t the end of the rewrites. The last fourth of the book I pretty much completely threw out and redid. And I’ve rewritten my opening scene and last chapter about a hundred times now.
Throughout all of this, I have changed more than I thought I ever would. I figured the “redo 60% of the book” was more a guideline and not a rule. And I’ve found that I’ve probably either lightly or totally redone probably closer to 80% of the book. But this wasn’t all at once, and not all of it was drastic. I still believe the core of the story is there. The heart of the story may even be better, in fact. My craft as a writer has improved a lot since the manuscript was held in contract, and even more since I completed it, closer to year 2015. Most scenes had to go through an update process now that my skills have improved.
I think what I’m trying to say overall is that don’t be afraid to change things. Sometimes our first instinct about a scene is right, sometimes it’s wrong. I had to get very critical in order to start cutting or changing scenes (and when I say cutting, I mean copied nicely into another file, I rarely ever totally delete anything). And you know what, my manuscript is so much freaking better because of it.
And I know that instinctive fear a lot of us have, to change anything drastically or cut a scene we love or even shift tone, when it might change too much. It’s okay. You can always go back. Even the act of just trying something new may bring to light something you didn’t even know to think about. So. If you take anything from this. Don’t be afraid to try new ways of writing something!
My hope is, going forward, that I’ll get better and faster at this whole revisions thing, and it won’t really take this long every time! This was really my first endeavor into *this* kind of serious revising. There was some pitfalls, then depression, and then 2020 — it took longer than expected, but I learned a lot.
It continues to surprise me, how much I still have to learn. I suppose that’s a silly thing to say. But it’s so exciting. I think I have a decent understanding of something, and then find out there’s so much more to know. To learn. To experience.
ANYWAY. At this moment, my manuscript is out for some initial beta-reads. Right before the holidays, I hit a bit of a wall. I think I still need to take out about 10k words, and I definitely wasn’t seeing the story clearly anymore to know what I could take out, or what needs to be done. So I decided to get feedback on the manuscript as a whole, to guide me on the (hopefully) final changes to this manuscript. I’ll be talking beta-reading here soon.
While I wait for feedback to return, I’ve been reading, working on other writing pieces, and, hopefully, I’ll be getting back into the habit of blogging.
Welcome to my UNTITLED series, where I get overly personal, melodramatic, and attempt to rage my way into self growth.
Well, I started this post a few days ago feeling fired up to actually do something instead of just talking about it. I’ve been much clearer headed and settled since coming back from Costa Rica, probably due to vacationing and feeling inspired and what I talked about in my last post.
That being said, I’m afraid I’m starting to fall into a familiar feeling: apathy. It’s usually the beginning of a mental health cycle for me, one involving depression and everything else. There’s probably no real reason for it besides yay mental health, though perhaps it’s in reaction to going back to normal life.
Since I’m trying to spin everything in a positive light, I’ve decided to look at this as practice accomplishing goals when I just feel like a numb zombie. It might even help, as I tend to be hyper-logical when I’m apathetic (even if my logic is often flawed). Apathy is usually the step before my negative-spirals, so it will be interesting when that hits.
ANYWAY. Let’s get into my three idea/ideals I talked about before and how I’m going to implement them. In case you need a reminder, they are:
At the end of my life I want to leave something that will benefit those who come after me in a way that’s healing, joyful, and constructive.
Take responsibility and find meaning in my place in the ecosystem.
Always be learning.
Also, I think I’ve whittled down the main barriers in the way of accomplishing these: paralysis, depression, and direction. Or maybe the third one there is the tool for how to get over the first two.
So, thinking about direction. What’s that saying about how each journey starts with one step? I think I need to start small. Not only because I get overwhelmed and paralyzed, but so that I can start building a foundation and get an idea of where tf I’m trying to go.
So. I had one idea basically fall in my lap. A coworker of mine sent me a class on Regenerative Agriculture, which basically fits into all of my Idea/Ideals: I’d be learning about ecological repair. And with my paralysis issues, I often need a kick in the pants to keep up something, which is why I love taking classes.
Unfortunately I just checked and classes have already started. Whelp. Guess I’ll be doing that one sometime later down the line…
In the same subject vein, I found an environmentally-focused podcast called “Sustainable World Radio.” I actually stumbled upon the first episode (How Mushrooms Can Save the World) a while ago and it was fantastic. It’s apparently been running since 2008, and still putting out episodes (as of Dec. 2019 anyway).
I originally started listening to podcasts because of [peer pressure and] Print Run Podcast (if you’re a writer and don’t listen to PRP, you should. Erik and Laura are funny, snarky, intelligent, and I leave every episode feeling like I’m more knowledgeable, know what’s going on with the publishing world, and how to apply it all to my writing). Sustainable World Radio came to me by way of googling environmental podcasts in one of hyper-focused moods about a year ago.
Just looking over episode titles, there’s a ton to learn (and it’s free, so, yeah). My work often has me sitting and doing mindless tasks for hours at a time, which is perfect podcast time (and I don’t lose my sanity, so bonus). That being said, I definitely have to be in a particular mind-set to be able to listen and absorb. My brain also has a habit of just deleting motivation or my ability to focus; that’s when externally-driven structure and goals are really helpful.
But I’m going to work to listen to this podcast more. There is too much free, fascinating information for me not to be taking advantage of it, even outside the world of environmentalism.
It’s a start.
I’d also like to pair this with something actionable, something I’m physically doing. This one will be more difficult for as I’m really good at sitting by myself absorbing information, not so much the applying it part. We’ll get there.
But anyway, I think this means volunteering. I talked a little bit about my all-or-nothing brain in my last post, and I’ve fallen into a similar trap here. I’ve always been so (probably selfishly) focused on getting a job in some environmentally-focused manner that all I do is apply for jobs (and, if you know anything about the PNW, everybody wants that, so, yeah). But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do anything. And if I eventually want to do something like run a nonprofit or clean up the world or whatever, I have to actually get experience in, you know, doing that. It can’t just be academic stuff in ma brain.
I am very easily exhausted and need a lot of down-time or get burned out, so I haven’t really volunteered since I was in college. I really, really don’t want to burn myself out; it’ll then be back to square one with all of this. So I’ll need to be really intentional about recovery time.
(Guh. I’m so tired of managing myself already. Why can’t I just do things without physical/mental consequences. Actually I’ll probably get more into that in a later post. ANYWAY.)
Since I am a super introvert who is connected to no one and nothing, this will require a lot of Googling to find volunteer opportunities in the area.
So far I’ve found a politically-focused environmental group of some sort, a park-building project, and a local watershed advisory council. I’m sure there are a ton that are into the city as well, but I think I’d rather stay very local first.
Anyway, I’ve reached out to all of these now to see about volunteering or projects or meetings that they have. There’s my small step for now. We’ll see how this goes.