Feedback and Revisions – The Long, Challenging, and Rewarding Process of Writing a Novel
Reclaiming Mni Sota is ready. The cover has been designed. The interior, and all its words, has been laid out. The release date is set for October 10, 2023. But it took a long time to get here and there were a lot of ups and downs along the way. Today, I want to share some of that process with you. I want to share with you every time I reached out to someone for feedback in order to revise and improve the manuscript. This does not include my own self-editing, only those occurrences in which I received an outside view of my story. If you are one of those people, thank you very much. I sincerely appreciate all the feedback—critical and supportive—that helped make my idea into a novel.
In doing so, I’m also going to share two critical, challenging moments during the development of this story. These were difficult moments, but they weren’t bad moments. Each one helped push the story beyond its limits at the time. I am sharing them with you to give the full scope of what it means to create something of this nature—to create Reclaiming Mni Sota: An Alternate History of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. What it becomes is yet to be determined.
July 2018 – Workshop Critique (Augsburg MFA Program)
The first time I received feedback on this story was during the second residency of my MFA program at Augsburg University. At the time it was only a story, about twenty pages long. Each member of the workshop—fellow students of mine—read the story and then discussed it amongst each other while I looked on. Then, they allowed me to ask them questions. This was very important and helpful feedback that provided me the direction I needed to expand the narrative from a short story to a novel.
October 2018 – Mentor Feedback (Augsburg MFA Program)
By this time I had started to expand the story by providing backgrounds for the two main characters. As a part of my MFA Program, I submitted the new, longer story to my MFA Mentor for feedback. My mentor was extremely critical of the story and my writing. Although the story I submitted was thirty pages long, he/she could not comment past page sixteen. By then end of the story, my Mentor left the following statement:
Your goal is to present Ojibwe/Dakota stories to general audiences in this region. That brings up real issues of cultural appropriation that your text fails to resolve. Sections of this text were offensive. You need to build your writing skills, but someone else’s culture is not the place to learn. My advice is to stop trying to tell stories you think you know, and start trying to write fiction – the story of things you don’t know, probably about yourself.
Finally, I cannot be your advisor if you decide to continue to write Ojibwe and Dakota stories from this perspective. Think about what you want and let me know.
That was tough to take. That was really tough to take. But it wasn’t a bad thing. It was, in fact, a great thing. This criticism—this ultimatum—pushed me and this story beyond anything it could be otherwise making it into the story that it is today. First, it created a sense of urgency that allowed me to become challenged in a way I hadn’t before. Second, it helped me better understand the intricacies of being a storyteller. It helped me critically examine my own viewpoint and how that viewpoint colors my manner of storytelling. It helped me ask questions that I otherwise may not have asked.
November 2020 – Beta Readers
When I graduated from my MFA Program in July 2019, I didn’t have a manuscript yet. I had a short story with a few long chapters of character background preceding it. I spent the next year moving beyond character background and creating a novel with a plot, conflict, and resolution. I called The Land of Sky-Tinted Waters. It was at this time, in November 2020, that I reached out to beta readers. Beta readers are the most wonderful people in the world. They are folks who agree, freely, to read and provide feedback on an unpublished manuscript. I was lucky enough to find about ten or twelve people gracious enough to do this. Each of them read the manuscript and, by February 2021, provided useful feedback about the story and characters. I put all that feedback together and used it to work on a full revision of the manuscript.
I’m going to share the feedback of one of the beta readers to give you an impression of how vulnerable writers are during this part of the writing process. Here’s what one beta reader returned to me:
Here are my comments for the text of your book until page 66. Unfortunately, I find myself unable to keep reading past that point because the character of Randolph got on my nerves and I developed an extremely strong dislike for him.
He/she went on, of course, describing just how unlikeable the character was. Like before, this criticism was hard to take. But looking back, it was necessary. It helped me reexamine Randolph’s character in a more full and complete way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was hurt when I read this, but it truly helped push the story forward.
July 2021 – Polishing the first 50 pages
In the summer of 2021, after thoroughly revising the manuscript based on the feedback of beta readers, I hired someone to help me with the query process. This is the process of writing a query letter (essentially a cover letter) and synopsis, while also identifying potential agents to represent me and my manuscript in the search for a publisher. This included providing critical feedback on the first fifty pages of the manuscript. That’s because, when submitting to agents and publishers, most of them require the submission of the first 5 – 50 pages…so, it must be clean and polished. The person I hired did a wonderful job of evaluating the first fifty pages and then helped me revise them until they were as strong and clear as they could be.
August 2021 – Sensitivity Reader
Because one of my main characters is Ojibwe, and because I included quite a lot of information in the novel about Ojibwe history, culture, and language, I was aware that it would have been wise to hire a sensitivity reader. To this point, I had avoided it because of the additional expense, however, it could no longer be avoided. A sensitivity reader is someone with intricate knowledge and experience regarding a specific culture or history. In this case, Ojibwe. The sensitivity reader carefully reviewed the manuscript looking for errors I made in respect to the Ojibwe language and traditions. He/she was especially helpful by pointing out discrepancies in various Ojibwe dialects. He/she was also able to point out certain cultural aspects that were so specific, no amount of reading would have allowed me to correct them myself. I am incredibly grateful to my sensitivity reader and I’m so proud of how he/she helped make this a better story that more fully and accurately represents the Ojibwe experience.
May 2022 – Structural Edit
I put my manuscript on submission for about six months but it did not find an agent or publisher. Because of that, I decided to hire a professional editor, something I was hoping to avoid because of the expense involved. When I did reach out to an editor, I hired them for what’s called a Structural Edit. This is a little bit cheaper than a developmental edit because it does not include any inline edits or comments. However, it did include a fifteen page report about the plot, setting, and characters of the manuscript. It also provided a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of everything that was working and everything that was not. The structural edit, though difficult to accept after already doing so much work on the manuscript, provided some very useful and specific feedback. I used that feedback to write yet another revision of the manuscript. I completed that revision in September 2022.
October 2022 – Follow-up Read
Although I was confident in my revision following the structural edit, I decided it was best to hire a professional to review and evaluate my new revised manuscript. I wasn’t thrilled about yet another expense, but there was simply no way, using my own biased judgment, I could be sure the story was ready for the world without an objective, professional viewpoint. And so, I rehired the person who helped me polish the first fifty pages. This person, like before, did a great job of reviewing the revision and provided me with the feedback I needed to put the final touches on the manuscript while also giving me confidence that it was ready for publication.
February 2023 – Proofreading
The final, final touches. Proofreading. In this case, I relied upon the generosity and intelligence of my sister Rachelle. Rachelle has helped me with each one of my novels and she did not disappoint here. She provided a full proofread of the manuscript, pointing out things such as missing words, timeline discrepancies, and grammatical errors. With her feedback, I was able to finalize the manuscript and move it on to the design stage. From this point on I will be receiving no more feedback on what the manuscript could be. I will only be receiving honest reviews and opinions about what the novel is.
Writing a novel is a challenging endeavor that cannot be done alone. It requires commitment, perseverance, an open mind, and the helpful guidance of many contributing partners. Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ve done everything I can, and I sincerely hope you enjoy, and also learn from, Reclaiming Mni Sota.
What if Minnesota was Mni Sota Makoce, a Native held and governed land?
A creative re-imagining of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, Reclaiming Mni Sota is an eye-opening portrayal of one of America’s most tragic, regrettable events. Told through dual narratives from each side of the conflict, Reclaiming Mni Sota confronts America’s history of settler-colonialism while illuminating the personal stories and heartrending choices that men and women, white and Native, were forced to make. Based on real events told through descriptive detail and fully developed characters, Reclaiming Mni Sota reveals the truth of our history while connecting it to the present and asking readers to question how things could have been different.
One thought on “Feedback and Revisions – The Long, Challenging, and Rewarding Process of Writing a Novel”
Thank you for sharing your journey! It’s helpful for writers to see how long the process is, and how many set backs can come up. But the point is not to give up, but keep soldiering on! It’s also helpful for readers to see and appreciate the work that goes into a great story!