Group discussion

Being Vulnerable: Sharing Your Manuscript in a Writing Workshop

For the last year or so, I have been working on a novel. Like many aspiring novelists, I have made progress in fits and starts, sometimes writing many pages in a sitting and other times not touching the manuscript for weeks at a time. Slowly and sometimes painfully, I have completed a little more than half the story.

Until a few weeks ago, I had not shared any chapters of my novel with anyone. Several people knew that I was working on a story, and I had shared the basic plot with them, but I didn’t want to share anything that I had written.

I am a big believer in the value of allowing other people to read and edit your work. Without question, every writer needs an editor. The more complex the writing, the more value a writer receives from allowing someone else to review and comment on their work. I give drafts of all my nonfiction work to my wife to read, and the final product is always better after hearing her feedback.

But there’s something about writing fiction that makes it so much harder to let others see the work in progress. I think it’s because we are much more vulnerable when writing fiction. Rejecting our story is not merely a rejection of our ideas, it’s a rejection of us as an author and as a person.

Despite my reluctance in sharing my writing, I knew that having others review my novel was a good thing, so I joined a fiction writing workshop. The workshop operates like most others in that you submit a portion of your work to the group, and the group provides feedback, both collectively and individually.

While I joined this workshop voluntarily, I still felt great trepidation about it. When the first few responses to my work were posted ahead of the group conversation, I opened the documents with nothing less than abject fear. What if they hated it? What if they laughed at me?

Much to my surprise, I was not voted out of the group. The feedback was incredibly valuable, and each person had taken the time and care to explain how they had reacted to the manuscript and what they noticed about the craft. I came away with encouragement that I was not an awful author, and I received some specific ideas for revision.

Equally valuable was the time I spent reviewing and providing feedback on the other authors’ stories. The process of carefully considering what I was reading and providing useful feedback gave me many ideas to help improve my own writing.

The author Brené Brown says, “No vulnerability, no creativity.” A writing workshop is the perfect place for writers to put this axiom into action. Giving up your writing to others—being vulnerable to their feedback—is the key to sparking the creativity that is essential to good writing.

angel dancing on a mountain top

Sanderson and His Three Editors

Have you ever wondered how an epic fantasy novel is edited?

Rhythm of War is Brandon Sanderson’s fourth entry in a planned ten-book series called the Stormlight Archive. As part of the book’s campaign, Sanderson released a YouTube video that gives an inside look at how editors take on epic fantasy.

Rhythm of War has three editors: Devi Pillai, publisher at Tor and VP at Macmillan; Peter Ahlstrom, Sanderson’s personal editorial director; and Karen Ahlstrom, Sanderson’s personal continuity editor. These three people work in tandem with the author to read and edit the five drafts it usually takes Sanderson to finish a book.

Devi, who has worked with big publishers for over twenty years, begins by reading Sanderson’s manuscript three times: first as a fan, second with note-taking, and third with an editorial letter in mind—that’s over three thousand pages for one book! A standard editorial letter follows, and Peter later compiles every piece of suggestion and delivers it to Sanderson.

Peter’s job goes beyond the traditional scope of an editor. He not only serves as a second set of eyes for the manuscript, but he also collects all the commentary from the alpha- and beta-readers. Sanderson is very specific in how the information comes to him; when it comes to Microsoft Word, he prefers not to have commentary in the left-hand margins, so Peter annotates every piece of advice into paragraphs with numeration that refers to a separate Word doc.

Part of the reason for this specific type of documentation is because Rhythm of War (and most of Sanderson’s other books) has between thirty and fifty beta readers providing commentary—a luxury that most manuscripts don’t have. Beta reading is a process that is unique to Sanderson’s team. Beta readers offer early opinions on Sanderson’s manuscripts. When Sanderson asked Devi if other authors have beta readers, she responded, “you are an exception in how you use your beta readers … I don’t think anyone has the setup that you have in terms of using a beta reader, and having the whole group, and having Peter and all of that set up so you have it as streamlined.”

Beta reading isn’t like your typical galley or ARC. Sanderson believes it’s like having a test audience, and he’s surprised more authors don’t do it. “Movies and videogames and commercials and everybody, they all show things to test audiences and get feedback before it goes live. But a lot of writers I’ve noticed don’t.” The feedback from the betas is siphoned, and Peter delivers it to Sanderson if enough people bring attention to a certain aspect of the book.

Then there’s Karen’s job. She is the wiki keeper—she keeps track of timelines, characters, descriptions (i.e. making sure Sanderson doesn’t give blue eyes to a character who had brown eyes in the previous book), etc. An entire read-through of the manuscript is dedicated to assigning Spren (the nature spirits that inhabit the world of the Stormlight Archive). With this being the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive and planning six more, there’s a lot of information to keep track of. Karen also keeps Sanderson aware of flashbacks, dates, and times (especially when multiple scenes occur on the same day). She even gives advice on Sanderson’s world-naming by clearing up pronunciation issues and ensuring there aren’t any similarities with other universes.

Rhythm of War is undoubtedly a daunting task for its editors, and maybe even more so for the author. Like any author-editor relationship, there is bound to be some push and pull when it comes to the editing process. But Sanderson notes that he trusts his editors and agrees with roughly 70 to 80 percent of the comments that come his way. The editors and his beta readers help make the books just as much as Sanderson does. Sanderson knows that when enough people say the book is not working, then they are probably right.

You can find the full discussion on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel. For anyone interested in becoming an editor, this is how fantasy best sellers are made.