Monday, March 30, 2015

Revising Your Novel: What You (or your Editor) Should Look For

As a reviewer for Chick Lit Central and a reader/editor for a major New York literary agency, I read about 6-10 self-published or unpublished manuscripts a month (I just got another one as I sat typing this out). They all need work – even the ones written by current agency clients. That’s what I’m here for – to bring those manuscripts to a higher level. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than when my boss tells me k that a book I worked on sold, was released to great reviews, or was accepted by the publisher as part of a contract.

On the flip side, it’s frustrating to read a self-published novel (which may even have been written by an acquaintance) that thanks an editor on the acknowledgements page, but still has glaring errors in structure or story. Unlike many readers, I can forgive a few typos – to err is human, blah blah blah. And I know it’s not cheap to hire a freelance editor, and if you’re investing nearly a thousand dollars to make your manuscript shine, I really hope you’re getting your money’s worth. And if the plot points are confusing, the plot itself is routine, the characters are superficial or predictable, or there’s not a good balance between scene work and internal narrative, then the story doesn’t work. You wasted your money on an editor who might have a keen eye for typos, but can’t tell if a scene doesn’t forward story.

How can you tell whether the freelance editor you’re considering is the right person to take your book to the next level? There are no easy answers, because editing is very subjective. A story that doesn’t work for one agent or publisher might leap off the page for someone else. But in general, there are a few important factors to consider:

Does the editor have agent or publisher recommendations? Agents and editors read dozens of manuscripts a month, and they know what it takes to get a good story to the point where it’s sellable. If you’ve gotten a kind rejection from your dream agent, it wouldn’t hurt to write and ask if there’s a freelance editor that she or her clients have worked with. While it’s okay to get recommendations from other writers, sometimes they are not the best judges of an editor’s work. They might recommend an editor based on a personal relationship or chemistry, or how flattering the editor was about their book. Of course you want to work with a nice person who genuinely likes your story, but it’s not helpful if the editor isn’t knowledgeable enough to help you take it apart and put it back together.

Will the editor read the first several chapters for free and let you know exactly what the book needs? Many writers hire an editor at the point when they believe they are just a “polish and proofread” away. (There are many that advertise for beta readers at this point, too.) Truthfully, though, most manuscripts still need help with plot and plot points even when their writers think they are almost perfect. You want to hire the editor who is honest with you. An editor who returns your first several chapters with some comments about sentence structure or commas, without noting the way you’ve set up your story, is not going to be able to help you with the bigger issues.

Does the editor specialize in a few genres, or is she a “jill of all trades?” Not everyone can know all the tropes of all the types of stories out there. Hire someone who is well-versed in your genre, who can name several favorite authors in the genre and knows the players in it. Yes, some story rules are universal no matter what type of story you’re telling, but when it comes to writing, it’s the specifics that will trip you up.

Does your editor respond promptly to emails? Does he seem to have a realistic idea of how long the project will take? Does he offer a contract? All these questions point to the professionalism by which the editor approaches your work. You’re taking your novel seriously; you want an editor who takes his job seriously, too.

Finally, here’s a quick checklist for developmental editing that can be used by the writer to examine her own work. This is what an editor worth his salt will be looking at when evaluating the first few chapters:

What’s the story about? Does it encompass the most important event in the protagonist’s life? Is the plot dynamic? Does it feel contemporary? Is it a new twist on a tried-and-true conflict? Does it make me wonder “Why hasn’t anyone written this before?” Does the plot imply action or a lot of hand-wringing? Can I tell what the narrative question is?

What can I tell about the main character? Does personality shine through? Does she have a goal, or is there something specific she’s working toward? Is she someone readers will be able to identify with? Does she have a mix of likeable traits and flaws?

Does the first scene strongly set the stage for what’s to come? Do I know the main character, what’s at stake, genre and tone? Do I want to read more? Can I infer the setting, including time period?

What’s the narrative voice like? Does it match tone and genre? Is it natural? Does it disappear into the story and character, or does it stand out for the wrong reasons?

Does the dialogue work? Is it appropriate for the characters? Does it have subtext (not “on the nose”)? Does the writer leave out everyday expressions and observations that don’t forward plot or add character?

How do the scenes work? Are they a good balance of thoughts, dialogue, action and description? Does each scene forward plot and/or reveal character? Is it clear exactly what’s going on? Is there a nice mix of short and longer scenes? Does the pace fit the genre and story?

Looking at the first few chapters gives the editor a strong sense of how much and what type of editing the novel will need. Of course, these chapters almost always tend to be the best in the book, and it’s possible an editor will find the book needs a lot more help as the novel progresses.

But note there’s nothing in here about word choice, grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. A poorly plotted novel without any spelling mistakes is still just a poorly plotted novel. Find an editor who concentrates on the questions above, and knows how to get a novel to that point.
For information about my editorial services, please check out my blog post here.

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