Writers almost always come to me confused about what “editing,” in all of its various forms, means. And it is confusing, no? What are the differences and what does one need and how do you know when to utilize which kind?
Add to that the explosion of editors out there today, and often, it’s tough to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So, let’s back up a minute.
Let’s say that up until now, you’ve done everything right. You’re serious about your craft. You’ve written, read how-to books, joined a class or workshop, written some more. You’ve revised your manuscript, and surely now it’s ready to go.
Maybe . . .
So you query fifty agents, and form rejections return with abandon. Perhaps you receive a few rejections with personalized responses. If so, rejoice! Agents are so inundated with manuscripts that for one to actually respond with a personal note, he had to really see something that really grabbed him.
But all the no votes caused you to realize that the work isn’t actually ready.
Far worse was to have decided to self-publish in the first place, without testing whether your manuscript was ready to go. So many new writers just jump in here, and what gets published is simply a hot mess—which they realize far down the road . . .
Not to say this can’t work out. NY Times Bestselling Author Mary B. Morrison came to me nearly two decades ago, after she’d self-published Soul Mates Dissipate. But she knew something wasn’t quite right with it, even though she was marketing it like crazy and selling books.
After her initial shock with the edit and critique (as she is fond of saying, “The manuscript came back dripping in blood”), she buckled down and learned all of the skills she didn’t know existed. And based on the revision, got a 3-book 6-figure Traditional-publishing deal.
And therein lies the key: She learned all of the skill she didn’t know existed.
It’s really tough on the outside to know what you don’t know.
And you can learn these things from classes, writers’ workshops, books, etc. But only to a point. Because where you learn the very most, at the deepest level, is working one-on-one with a great developmental editor.
And we’re not talking comma placement, or grammar, or spelling, or syntax, etc., etc. Although of course that’s part of it. But that copy-editing part (which the aforementioned consists of) comprises merely a drop in the bucket of what real editing actually is.
The 5 Essential Elements of Great Fiction (which a great developmental editor can teach you):
* CHARACTERIZATION. Are the characters real, flesh-and-bone, multi-sided people? Does the reader know them once the story has taken off? Or simply know about them? Do they interact in believable ways, or are they over the top, destroying verisimilitude? Does the main character grow and evolve without being a leopard who changes its spots? Does he drive the plot, or just react to events?
How you create those characters on the page—or fail to—determines whether you have a successful novel.
* Does the PLOT hold together? This is more than just is it plausible (that is a requirement), but do we have a definable arc of the storyline? This is a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s also much more than that. It’s the structure of the story through which the character traverses, filled with major Acts, which begin and end with major plot points, and a clothesline of more minor plot points driving the story along.
Does one chapter flow into the next, building to a climax, making for a satisfying read? Does the book “fit” together? I.e., is it all of one piece? Or does the plotline fizzle and sag, or leave huge holes that are never bridged?
Does the plot effectively influence the characters?
* Does the PACING fit the storyline? Different genres require different pacing, and it helps to work with an editor who understands the market and the genre in which you’re writing.
Pacing is manipulated in a host of ways, and to accomplish it effectively requires all of the skills that go into structure and scenes.
* Have you CREATED this story? Or have you told it?
Of course you created it, right? You saw it play out in your head like a movie and you wrote down just what you saw . .
Which reads like a film script.
Oh-so-many tools and skills go into creating effective scenes on the page. You’ve all heard Show Don’t Tell enough times to want to beat over the head the next person who says it.
But the funny thing—writers invariably tell me they never really grasped it until seeing my edit and critique of their own work. It’s one of those terms that remains nebulous, just out of reach, until someone who has these skills and can teach them to you, well, does so. The door opens. The light shines. The world of writing has just spread before you, in all of its magnificent glory.
* Does the LANGUAGE sing through YOUR VOICE?
Talk about an obtuse one. Not the language part so much, because as with anything, you get better by doing it. Your language itself improves. And again, I’m not talking so much about punctuation, grammar, syntax, etc., but the way you string words together. This becomes at some point your very own sound. And the further you go, your own voice emerges.
Now, no editor can teach you “voice.” But what a great developmental editor does is to help uncover the muck and mire that’s burying your voice under mountains of verbiage and slime. She shows you where you have beautiful moments, for you to study, to let more and more out into the light. In other words, a great editor helps you hone that voice until it is truly uniquely yours.
What an editor’s job is not is to rewrite the book for you. Or to force you into a way with your words that’s not you. A great editor’s job is to listen for and hear your music, under all the clanking brass. To help you weave all the various instruments into a symphony that is, again, uniquely yours.
It’s a fine line. Walked by both writer and editor.
A book is truly more than the sum of its own parts. It’s its own entity—a new being born from the loins of the writer, directed by the ethereal hand of the editor, coming together as if by magic and fairy dust. To fashion a great book one must make sure all of the individual elements work together in a synergy of words and emotions, painting pictures and evoking senses in order to put the reader smack dab into the stormy seas onto which the story sails.
And takes an experienced editor’s hand to lead you through, teaching every step of the way.