The Beta Read Saga: #1 Bury or Boldly Leap

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash

What is this about? Over the next while, as I work with my beta readers to do some major self-editing of my manuscript-in-progress, I’ll be blogging about the adventure. This first post is longish, but it explains where I’ve been on this already-wild writing journey. How I came to the point of either burying the whole project or taking the chance of boldly leaping outward (quaking with terror) and asking for help from some amazing beta readers. I choose to leap. Here goes!

I’ve been working on a book manuscript for a year and a half. It started out as a 3 or 4-page handout for potential editing clients to let them know what sorts of editing I do and to help them determine what kind of editing they need. It would provide them with a list of basic questions to help them analyze whether their manuscript is ready for editing or whether it needs more self-editing and would guide them to the kinds of help they can get from a self-editing team of beta-readers and other assistants.

But that little handout ballooned to 10,000 words and a lot of related topics snuck into it. So I thought to myself, maybe it’s time for me to write a book. The book I wish I’d had when I started out writing and then editing. A compilation of research I’ve done on writing, self-editing, and editing, along with my personal experiences and my own take on these topics. Great idea, eh? Or, maybe not so much?

After all, there are already loads of books on these topics. What could I offer that would be unique and helpful? Let’s see. Maybe …

  • Narrow down my audience to new writers of two main types: first, young people who dream of being writers, and second, older people who wanted to write when they were young but life got in their way, yet they’re still young at heart and have time now to follow their writing dreams.
  • Create three distinct parts: starting the writing adventure; self-editing with a team of helpers; working with an editor.
  • Use a layout with narrow sub-topics that readers can dip into according to their personal needs, rather than having to wade through the whole book.
  • Within those sub-topics, use a simple, yet comprehensive, step-by-step checklist approach.

Okay, those all make sense. But are they unique enough to dump onto the writing world yet another book on these topics?

What, oh what, could I do that would be truly unique? A chat with a friend on a sunny summer day at a beachside coffee shop evolved into a wild idea: Weave a fictional story through the nonfiction parts of the book. An adventure story, from the era of Viking raids on Irish monasteries, that would relate to and illustrate the various nonfiction chapters. Sure, why not? That’s a popular historical period these days. Lots of books, movies, TV series to draw inspiration from. Fun to write. And yes, a unique approach. What could be easier?

So I dove in. The story research was fun. I already had the nonfiction material more or less developed; I just needed to organize it and weave in the story. Which would have been great, except that …

  • Writing a wild adventure story turned out to be harder than I expected. My writing experience, after all, is mostly nonfiction with a bit of creative nonfiction along the way.
  • It turns out reading and editing fiction and even teaching it (all of which I enjoy) is a lot different from writing it myself. A lot different. Well-meaning fiction writers kept telling me I’d have it done in no time flat. That writing fiction is easy. The characters will show you the way. Just scrawl the story down as it flows easily from your imagination, then edit it, slip it in between the nonfiction chapters, and voila! Ha. Really?
  • I already knew from experience that writing fiction isn’t that easy. The fiction writing I have edited (and my efforts with NaNoWriMo) prove that, so whatever made me think combining fiction and nonfiction would be easy? The sunshine at that beach cafe must have made me a wee bit crazy! It turns out that weaving together fiction and nonfiction in a book is trickier than it sounds. Maybe there’s a good reason there aren’t books like this already, eh?
  • Life kept getting in the way. There’s my full-time business doing tutoring and editing; keeping up with my other writing interests and activities; family time and responsibilities (hubby, five grown children, their partners, and a dozen or so grandkids); family health issues; and all life’s unpredictable twists and turns. Do I really have loads of time and energy to take on this new writing adventure? Or at least squeeze it into spare moments, many of them far enough apart that I keep losing track of the flow of the story? Not so much.

To be honest, I began to dread the whole idea of this project. Whatever had possessed me to start in the first place? After a year and a half, I was ready to chuck the whole manuscript in the garbage (or, rather, delete the entire contents of the folder on my computer). But I’d put so much effort into it. What to do? I knew it needed a lot of work—especially the fiction parts. Well, maybe I could:

  • Just chuck out the fiction. Easy. (But then, so much for being unique. Sniffle.)
  • Forget the whole book idea. Yes! I could divide the nonfiction parts into workbooks or handouts and use them at workshops. I like doing workshops. I’d still be helping writers. And maybe I could still publish the nonfiction parts of the book and sell it from the back of the room? Hmmm?
  • I could divide the nonfiction parts up even further and use them for blog posts. That would be easy, and I’d have enough blog posts to last for a couple years to come. That appeals to the lazy side of my nature. Not to mention (shamefacedly) that I haven’t been keeping up my blog like I should. Oh my.

Or … maybe I could take a deep breath and put the whole manuscript, messy as it is, out into the world of writers, and humbly ask for beta readers who might give me a hand. Imagine that—following my own advice in the manuscript. Now that’s a unique idea, eh? In other words:

BURY IT or BOLDLY LEAP!

I leapt. Terrified. I even put together some basic documents: a detailed Table of Contents, summaries of each chapter, a list of questions about the manuscript for readers to respond to, a full proposal just in case someone wanted the whole picture without having to read the full manuscript. A couple of friends had promised long ago they would beta read my manuscript, but would they really want to when they realized what a disaster I’d created? Would anyone else step up? Would the responses verify that I should bury the whole thing? Would beta readers find anything redeemable?

Writers are amazing people. Turns out they’ve “been there, done that.” They understand the dreams and fears, the moments of exhilarating adventure, and the tumbles into the depths of despair. A dozen writers signed up for the challenge, several willing to read the whole manuscript. And the responses have begun to arrive. They’ve been honest. There’s a lot I need to do. Maybe I even need to make some major changes in direction. But they’ve been encouraging, too. They see lots of bright spots. Lots and lots of bright spots, in fact. So maybe I can finish this project. With help. Thank you so much.

This will be a much longer journey than I expected. But that’s okay. I’m getting excited about the challenge, even though I’m still pretty terrified. I believe that the bones of the project are strong and will support it, in whatever way it ends up being fleshed out. I love adventurous journeys. I love trying new things. I’m fine with experimenting, trying out different paths. I can do this.

And I am a writer. Yes, I am. I think and dream with my pen and journal and with my keyboard and writing software. It’s how I figure life out. How I figure out the writing journey itself. I think that is true of many writers. So I will leap. Blog this adventure for all the world to see. I look forward to your input about where I’m going with this project. I want to hear about your journey, your experiences, your writing adventures, too.

To quote C.S. Lewis at the end of The Last Battle:

Onward and upward!

Why not check out the entire series of my Beta Read Saga? Here are the links:

https://normajhill.com/2020/02/14/the-beta-read-saga-1-bury-or-boldly-leap/
https://normajhill.com/2020/02/23/the-beta-read-saga-2-am-i-a-real-writer/
https://normajhill.com/2020/03/01/the-beta-read-saga-3-takes-one-to-know-one-confessions/
https://normajhill.com/2020/03/07/beta-read-saga-4-good-stuff-happy-dance/
https://normajhill.com/2020/03/15/beta-read-saga-5-covid19-writers-retreat/

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