working hard, or hardly workin’?

My first draft (finished about 9/2015) clocked in at 160k, which was ridiculous. I edited, revised, tightened up yadda yadda.

Second draft (finished 1/2016) clocked in at 103k, which was much better. The average range for a sci-fi/ fantasy is between 100-115k … although I’ve read estimates elsewhere than put it at 90-120k. Regardless, for a first book in a series, the advice is to keep it on the lower end of that range.

I began submitting it chapter-by-chapter to the writing group I found in January. At the end of January, the revisions were complete, and I printed it off and mailed it out to my three beta readers in early Feb. Then I set my own copy aside for a bit and waited for my beta readers to respond.

February ended, March began. I sent out feelers. They said they’d read it, enjoyed it, and would be sending it to me with notes shortly.

As the end of March crept near, I sent out feelers to my beta readers again. Two promised they’d read it and loved it, and they were now just “finalizing” the last of their second read-through notes. One temporized and equivocated when asked about it; offering explanations of what they’d been up to lately, and telling me the first chapter was “really good,” but nothing concrete or in-depth. I suspect that one hasn’t actually read it.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about my book. I was on schedule, and both my writing group and my beta readers were giving good responses with no big structural changes advised. I even started to research literary agents, thinking that at this rate, I could be querying by June.

I arranged coffee with a writerly friend of mine just to catch up, and during our conversation I admitted to some worry at the lack of real feedback. I feel bad because my beta readers are volunteering to do this on their own time, so I have no place to demand or press them for speed: They are doing me a huge favor.

I’m also having minor concerns about the writing group feedback, which I vented about, too. There aren’t many sci-fi readers or writers in the group, and it shows in the responses. There are a few (I think two or three) who do write sci-fi/ fantasy, but I feel iffy about their feedback. It falls into one of four categories:

  • Suggestions on formatting/ font
  • Nitpick on typos, grammar, and spelling
  • Enjoy it, keep writing
  • Actual writing critique, but focused less on substance and more on “voice”.

The last one is so hard to explain, but basically, I feel like some of the writing advice isn’t about how I can improve my plot structure or character development, but is basically suggestions about how to make my writing sound like theirs. I’m not sure if this is me being resistant to advice, but I just feel weird about some of the suggestions.

Like, there’s one guy who was freaking out about how I need to describe the gestures/ movements of my characters in each scene. I say “freaking out,” because of his behavior. I am an expressive talker. I’ve had people tell me I should be an actor, to which I respond with a lot of laughter because I have stage fright like hella. But in a small group of people that I’m comfortable with, I do well. I tend to gesture with my hands when I talk and selectively exaggerate my facial expressions slightly to amplify a reaction or mood.

So the guy who thinks I should include more in-depth descriptions of movements, gestures, and facial expressions kept interrupting me (and other writers) as I was speaking/ responding to other writers in order to point out my expressiveness. I’d do an emphatic hand chop to illustrate something I’d said, or raise my eyebrows in mild surprise and purse my lips in a moue of disagreement at someone else’s assessment of a submission, and he would interrupt whoever was speaking to say, “See! See, like that! See how expressive she is! If you could just capture that, just put that in your characters!”

He wasn’t just saying this to me, either. He was saying this to everyone, using me (real life me, not my writing style) as the example. It was super awkward. I felt very self-conscious and hyper-aware of my communication habits.

I did read his submission, btw, and it’s funny because I’d littered his submission with notes about cutting irrelevant descriptions. I felt irritated by all the in-depth descriptions of his characters’ movements — jittering legs, gurgling stomachs, bile swallowed back down and burning the throat, butts wiggling as the copygirl bends over the file cabinet, suspicious sneers, gesticulating hands, and on and on and on. It was too much. Not my style.

Obviously, some people like that style (both to read and write). That’s fine, but it’s just not my writing style. When he pushes me to write more about how the characters facial expressions and hand gestures look during any given scene, I feel less like he’s giving me advice on the structure, pacing, and characterizations of my book and more like he just really likes his style and is (subconsciously?) trying to “improve” the failures in other people’s submissions by suggesting his stylistic choices.

Overall, writing group is not offering the type of feedback I hoped for (plot, pacing, structure, etc). Still, once I discount the font/ formatting/ red-pen edits, the compliment/ no feedback responses, there’s usually one or two thought-provoking bits of feedback.

I know the stereotype about writers who think they’re too good for editing, but I love feedback and edits. I crave them. It’s one of the reasons I want to go traditional publishing — I want an editor who will work with me, push me to be the best writer I can be.

Anyway, so my coffee-shop friend offered to read my first chapter and give me broad/ outline feedback in exchange for me sewing a zipper on their sweatshirt. A week later, we met up again, and coffee-shop friend has like three extremely useful suggestions on in-world vocabulary terms, pacing and structure, and characterization. Like, hands-down the best feedback I’ve gotten thus far. I love it.

The following week, I finally got a half-notated manuscript back from one of my beta readers, and was able to talk with them a little about their overall impressions and any questions left hanging after finishing it. Now there are just two beta drafts out there.

So I’ve gone back to the drawing board with edits, but now I feel like a fool because I’d listened to the compliments/ lack of structural feedback and figured it meant I was ready to move onto the next step. Now I’m realizing I was too eager to get moving on that bit of the process, and I still have quite a bit of revising and polishing to do.

Man, I wish I already had an agent and editor. This is balls.