Business for writers is a complicated topic, and so far we have covered several things, mostly related to writing, with brief notes on writer’s block (not allowed) and self-editing (does not work), but there is a step we must cover before we move on to the next step, which is editing.

There are a couple of things every author needs to know about editing:  first, there are several types and each editor calls them by different names. What it really comes down to is a process that has four main steps, although there can be other smaller steps under these.

They are, by the names I call them: developmental editing, content edits, line edits, and proofreading or copy editing. I’ll explain what all of them mean in my next post.

Here is the kicker: if you are paying an editor, the more steps they do for you or walk you through, the more expensive their services are. It makes sense, right? The more work you do, the more you get paid. Editors do not, in general, work for free, although some may trade services with you if you do something they need like book cover design or marketing. Barter is often the author and freelancer’s best friend, but either way, you are paying them with either money or time.

And the first step in the process is one that publishers, in general, do not do. If your work is still in the developmental stage, they aren’t going to accept it. Sometimes an agent will look at it if you are going a more traditional route for publishing. But they will not shop your manuscript around until it is out of this phase.

In fact, some authors going the traditional route will hire a freelance editor do all of the above steps before they even show their work to an agent or publishing house editor. The reason? The more polished your manuscript, the more likely it is to get published as long as your idea is also good.

The good news is that you don’t always have to hire someone to do the first step, the developmental edit. Usually, this step addresses issues in the manuscript you can deal with yourself or with a close group of friends or fellow writers who can help you perfect your craft.

There are also books, programs, classes, and software that can help you address these issues. So what are developmental editing, re-writing, and revision and what can you do to fix it yourself and save lots of money?

Plot and Structure

Here is the deal. A doctor does not become a doctor by visiting a doctor, and then thinking, “hey, I can do better than that” and opening a practice without going to school or studying. You do not write good novels by reading novels and saying “hey, I can do better than that” and writing one without some education and studying.

The truth is, you may or may not be able to write better than the hack who wrote that book you just read, but you need to understand that contrary to popular belief there are rules when it comes to writing. You can break the rules when there is a good reason to do so, just like Dr. House can prescribe something off the wall for symptoms because he recognizes the rare disease the patient has.

That is the exception though. Most of the time, writers and medical professionals follow a formula and a diagnostic process to determine what is wrong with their patient of the book they are working on, and they use a process to fix it that coincides with what is wrong.

For a novel, short story, or any work of fiction, you must have certain elements for a plot to work no matter what genre you are writing.

The Inciting Incident: This is the point where the story starts. Everyday life was happening, and then something new and unexpected happens. That can be good (romance) or bad (thriller, horror), but it alters what is normal for your main character or characters in some way. In my novel Stray Ally, the inciting incident occurs when a body falls from a freeway overpass and strikes the protagonist’s windshield. 

The Goal: Your main character must have something they need or want, and that is their goal. If you have a series of books, that is great, but the character in each book must have their own goal and must strive to reach it in that particular book. There can certainly be an overall plot for the series, and there should be, but each book must have a plot that stands on its own.

The Obstacle: Something is standing in the way of your character reaching their goal. This is usually the antagonist, and it can be a person, a place (some extremely difficult terrain), circumstances, (their arm is stuck in a crevasse when they are out rock climbing), or even fear or some other emotional obstacle within themselves. There can even be more than one obstacle, but one of them should be primary over the others.

The Dark Moment: Also known from time to time as the “pit of despair” this is the moment when your character is at their lowest: all hope is lost, and it seems like they will be defeated and will never reach their goal. This moment creates the tension of the book and is the moment the reader should be most invested in the character.

The Big Idea: This is the turning point. The main character finds the one thing, whether that is courage within themselves or some other tool that helps them achieve their goal, and uses it to turn things around.

The Resolution: We need to wrap up and answer the questions that have been asked earlier in the story. This is the point where the reader must feel that things are resolved, at least for now. All the loose ends and hanging questions must be tied up. In the case of a series, you can leave some overarching questions unanswered, as long as you make it clear the reader that more answers lie ahead, that your hero’s journey is not over.

These things must also all occur with the right pacing. You will lose your reader if you slow down at the wrong places or speed up when they really want to see all the detail of a scene. This is a really basic overview of plot structure, and you can discover more through books like Story Engineering or Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need which outline two different yet very similar methods to structure your story and pace it correctly.

If your story does not have all of these elements, it is not done yet. You can pay an editor to point these things out for you and help you correct them in the developmental editing phase, but with some education and time spent re-writing you can fix them yourself.

Characterization

This is the development of your characters, and this is something you can also learn and work on yourself to an extent.

This can be accomplished by asking yourself a few simple questions about your character:

What is their primary strength? What is the area where they are strongest and therefore different from those around them? This can range from a super power to simply being able to notice details no one else can. In the case of the television show Dexter, his super power was The Code his father taught him when it came to who to kill. In Breaking Bad, Walt was a great chemist.

What is their greatest weakness? Often the character’s greatest weakness is related to their greatest strength. Kryptonite is Superman’s weakness, pride was Walt’s in Breaking Bad, and The Code Dexter followed was often just as much a weakness as a strength.

Why should we care? If your character has a weakness and a strength, but we do not care about them at all, it does not matter. We won’t want to read about them. The key? We must know the story behind both their strength and their weakness, and we must empathize with it. Inspiring empathy is a delicate matter and is an entire book on its own.

Dialogue

I encourage writers to read their work out loud whenever possible, or have it read to them using a program like Natural Reader or another speech to text program.

The reason is you can hear wrong wording and phrasing in your work that you cannot “see.” This allows you to fix it before you even send it to an editor. However, this is especially important with dialogue. You can hear how your characters sound when they speak and determine if they speak in a way that sets them apart. If they do not, it is time to revise your dialogue.

Writing dialogue is not easy, and again is an entire book or discussion on its own. Some simple tips:

Write dialogue at a coffee shop, or at least study it there. You can have headphones in so you do not look like a creeper, but listen to those around you. What words do they use and not use? How do they structure their sentences?

Don’t copy the um’s, ah’s, and lengthy pauses. Those do not translate well to writing (or to any form of fiction) but copy the overall style of natural conversation.

Use dialect and cute phrases sparingly. First, it is hard to write and distracts the reader. And often in real conversation a dialect or accent is difficult to understand and results in a lot of “what?” and repeated sentences. This just reads horribly in a book, and you don’t want your reader re-reading the last sentence and saying “what?”. You want to pull them forward in the story.

Work on your dialogue. Insert emotion. Avoid the overuse of dialogue tags besides said, and cut every adverb if possible. The more quickly it moves, the better it resonates within the story, and the quicker a reader speeds through it while understanding it, the better.

Repeated Words and Phrases

You as a writer tend to repeat certain words and phrases. For a certain period of time, they become your favorites and you use them over and over. There are also common words that nearly every writer uses excessively or in the wrong places. When you are re-writing, search and destroy these words. Here is a partial list:

  • That
  • Rather
  • Very
  • Little (as in a little hungry. Either he was hungry or he wasn’t)
  • Pretty (as in pretty much, pretty small, pretty large)

Also, search for commonly misused words, and make sure you are using them properly, like their vs. there, to vs. too vs. two, etc.

The more you catch these things yourself the less your editor has to do, and the less you have to pay them.

The Second Draft

The second draft is you re-writing and clarifying your story. It is not a full on edit. It is simply fixing things like plot, pacing, characterization, and dialogue. You can help yourself by learning more through books, classes, writer’s conferences, and other means.

You can also join critique groups and have beta readers, although we will briefly discuss those in our next post. They don’t work for everyone, and there are some guidelines you should follow.

Here, really, is the point of this post: you should never show your first draft to an editor, agent, or most of the time to another human being. Most first drafts are crap, and they should be. As we discussed previously, you should write your first draft quickly.

You must re-write. At least a second draft, but sometimes more. You need to revise, listen to your work, pay attention to plot, characterization, dialogue, and those words you repeat all the time.

Finally, once you have gone through this phase of the production process, you need to show your work to someone else. Every good work is created with a team, and now is the time to start reaching out to the professionals who will help you along the way.

Are you at a place in your publishing journey where you need to hire an editor, or even just need a consultant on your story? Click here to hire me.