On Editing

(Sorry, friends! I’ve just moved to a new place, and things have been crazy. But here is the post you were supposed to receive on Monday.)

Several months ago I had a conversation with an editor who had set up her own e-publishing company. As a freelancing editor, I inquired about the company to see if it might be a good place to offer my freelancing services. But the email conversation I ended up having with this editor made it perfectly clear that we would not be a good fit together. Our ideas differed greatly in how we approach a manuscript.

She said that she didn’t like to break up the editing process in rounds. Rather than do a development edit, substantive edit, and then copy edit in individual rounds, their company liked to take care of all the editing in one large “comprehensive” edit, she call it.

And I asked her why she thought it was a good idea to do a copy edit at the same time as a development edit. Wouldn’t many of the words change once the author started putting in the big picture revisions from the development edit?

Her response was something like this: I don’t understand why so many people ask me this. Not much should change throughout the editing process. Unless the editor is rewriting the author’s story, most of it should be the same. It’s the author’s work, and I can’t stand it when editors try to change so much of it. Then it’s not the author’s work anymore. It’s the editor’s.

Now I’ve heard statements like this before from self-published authors. In fact, I have had many self-published authors tell me this is the very reason why they don’t want to be traditionally published—because the work won’t be theirs anymore.

And now I’m going to tell you all the same thing I told that editor and those self-published authors.

Editing is not a bad thing. Lots of edits are not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that the author is a bad writer. Authors are too close to their work to notice even obvious mistakes at times, and all authors need an editor to point those out to them. I’ve been hired to do copy edits on manuscripts that needed serious “big picture” edits, but I wasn’t allowed to say a word because I’d been hired specifically for a copy edit

And it was painful.

As an author providing a product to your reading audience, wouldn’t you want to give them the best product possible?

What happens when one of your character’s personalities changes throughout the book for no reason, and you don’t have an editor there to tell you? What happens when your climax shouldn’t actually be possible because you forgot to foreshadow some important details? Or what if you forgot to resolve one of your minor conflicts?

Editors are there to make your work solid. They’re there to get rid of all the plot holes, character inconsistencies, and other errors. There are so many things to keep straight in a story. A book has LOTS of words in it. Odds are, you will need to change many of them, and that’s okay. Because you should want to strengthen your story. You should want to make it the best it can be, and it’s okay that you can’t do that on your own.

I believe that editing should be done in rounds, working from the big stuff, to the little stuff. Lots of people should read a manuscript and offer feedback, and authors should not be insulted by such critique. Serious writers should want to learn from their mistakes. They should want to become better. They should want to give their audience the best book possible.

I don’t understand why authors would feel like the book isn’t theirs anymore after doing edits. Once an editor or writing group points out those big errors to the author, it’s up to THEM to figure out how to fix it. Essentially, those edits become the author’s edits. The work still ultimately becomes what the author makes it to be.

I don’t know where I would be without my writing group and other readers. They point out embarrassing mistakes that I’m not able to notice for myself. Like not having a plot 30,000 words into my story. Big problem, yes? Needed to change quite a bit of words, yes? Yes. And I did. That was four books ago for me. I’ve since then discovered that I am a plotter. I need to plan out my books before I write them. These days, I start with a plot when I write my stories, and they’re so much better off for it.

Don’t be scared of critique. Be excited to make your book better. Be excited to become a better writer.

Query Writing Advice

There’s lots of advice out there on how to write a query, but I thought I’d throw out my two cents, focusing particularly on the most common mistakes I’ve seen as a slush pile reader and agent’s intern.

The first thing in your query should be your hook, a one to two–sentence paragraph that makes agents/interns/readers want to read the rest of your query. A hook can also be useful in stating what makes your book different from others out there.

Honestly, the hook should be the easiest part of your query. It’s the most interesting or most unique aspect of your manuscript condensed into one or two sentences.

I don’t have time to get permission to use other authors’ hooks, so I’ll give examples of hooks I’ve used in my queries. These queries got me manuscript requests from agents.

Hook example 1: “After spending four years believing herself to be the last half-demon on earth, 19-year-old demon hunter, Seph Morgan, is shocked to find out that she is merely the only female of her race, making her much sought after by demons, half-demons, and humans alike.”

Hook example 2: “In the empire of Rethvan, it is believed that the souls of those who are murdered must wander in endless torment until their deaths are avenged. Seventeen-year-old Jade must set her mother’s soul free by killing the man responsible for her murder, a man she has never laid eyes on: the emperor, her father.”

Not my best work, but you can see how the first hook points out how the story is unique—a half-demon girl is the only female of her entire race. And the second hook clearly points out the main conflict of the story—a girl is seeking revenge for her mother by attempting to kill her father.

Avoid hooks that could apply to lots of already published books.

Bad hook example: “A new boy enters Kayla’s life, and she finds herself instantly drawn to him.”

While I love a good romance, this hook doesn’t tell me how this story is unique. It could be the plot to Twilight or City of Bones or Hush, Hush or a thousand other books. That’s not to say that these books aren’t unique, just that this hook would be a terrible one to use for them because they have so many unique things about them that could be used instead.

The second part of your query is a description of the plot, main conflicts, and other fun details you want to include. In other words, a one to two–paragraph summary of your story that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

Now let me interrupt for a moment to say that some people have a hard time understanding what a main conflict is. It’s NOT a list of the themes found in your manuscript.

Bad summary example: “My novel is a heartwarming tale of friendship and love in which two souls must come together after a hardship has befallen them.”

Ick. I get this one all the time. Drives me nuts. First off, don’t tell me your story is heartwarming. I’ll decide that for myself. Second of all, that’s great that a hardship befalls them, but WHAT IS THE HARDSHIP? That’s the conflict, not that other crap that they listed. I don’t want to know the themes. I want to be able to tell the themes for myself by learning the actual conflicts of the story.

A main conflict is also NOT a description of the world you’ve made up or the creatures you’ve made up or whatever else you’ve made up unless you directly relate these elements to the conflict of the story.

Bad summary example: Welcome to the world of Eldyron, where magic and technology have reached their peaks. Some children ride broomsticks while others ride flying mechanical dragons. Some brandish wands while others use telekinetic devices called spingots.”

Obviously I just made that one up on the spot, but you see the point. It’s great that you’ve made up a new world, but what’s the conflict?! Is there an evil dude planning to use his magic to destroy the world? Is the main character an evil technological mastermind who plans to take control of the world? Whatever the actual conflict is, important people want to know it.

So what is the conflict then? It’s the problem. It’s what makes your story interesting, that thing that keeps everything from being happiness and giggles.

Conflict examples: bad guy trying to take over the world, obtaining revenge, people are disappearing, the class bully, etc.

It’s okay to include minor conflicts as well. It’s all right to describe your characters in more details if you show how their personalities lead to conflict. It’s perfectly fine to include interesting facts so long as they relate directly to the conflicts.

Also, your summary should focus the most time on the most important elements. Don’t spend a whole paragraph talking about the romance if it’s a very minor element. If your story has a strong romantic element, do mention it. A romance is always a conflict, and an exciting one at that.

Don’t forget to include in your summary the word count, title, and genre of your manuscript!

And if you want to see them, here are the summaries I wrote for the two hooks I used earlier.

Summary 1: “At 85,000 words, The Curse of Beauty is the first installment in a young adult fantasy trilogy following the life of Seph Morgan. When her parents were killed by demons, Seph dedicated her life to ridding the world of the nasties that lurk in the night. Having been trained to handle a sword at an early age and being half-demon herself, Seph is more than capable of taking out any demon unlucky enough to cross her path. While Seph appreciates some aspects of being half-demon (enhanced senses and agility, fast healing, impressive strength), others she finds extremely annoying (loneliness and an alluring, flawless beauty exceeding any human’s). For a girl who just wants to do her job and stay under the radar, drawing unwanted attention can be a huge inconvenience, sometimes a dangerous one.

When taken captive by a group of hunters who are neither human nor demon, Seph is furious until she learns something that changes her life. She isn’t the last of her race; she is simply the only female, which puts her hot on the market. Seph’s invited to attend the Jansen, a school that prepares half-demons for their future careers as demon hunters. Life changes dramatically for Seph at the Jansen. Whispers and catcalls follow her wherever she goes. She is now a teaching assistant for the sword training classes—where she deals with delinquent students who would rather check her out than pay attention to her instructions—under the direction of the extremely rude, hot, and mysterious Luke. But unruly boys aren’t Seph’s biggest concern. There’s another person out for her, someone more dangerous than anything Seph has ever fought against, and he won’t stop until he has her. The Curse of Beauty is equal parts action, mystery, and romance.”

Just FYI, that second to last line there, THAT would be the main conflict.

Summary 2: “Getting close to the most protected man in the world seems impossible, but Jade has an advantage that she doesn’t even know about. She has spent her life far from the Imperial City, living in the mountains—where her mother, the emperor’s twelfth wife, has kept them hidden from her father’s abusive habits. But after Jade finds her mother’s dead body and vows to avenge her death, she meets 23-year-old Tyrian, who plans to use her to gain his own political aspirations. He tells Jade about her previously unknown lineage, that as one of the emperor’s eligible children she can compete for the throne, and about his intent to help her do it. Tyrian might be conceited and dealing with his own tortured past, but Jade recognizes in him the same relentless determination that drives her. They both are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Jade has no intention of ruling an empire, but she has no problem using Tyrian. She’ll go with him to the Imperial City and pretend to play this political game to try to win the emperor’s favor. How else is she supposed to get close enough to kill him?

Divine Vengeance is a young adult fantasy that combines the revenge plot of The Count of Monte Cristo with the royal sibling rivalry found in Stardust. Full of romance, political intrigue, adventure, and mystery, the manuscript is complete at 100,000 words. It is a standalone with series potential.”

And lastly, you’ll want to include your author bio in your query. Very little needs to be said about this. If you’ve got writing credentials, include them, if you don’t, don’t lie. It really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a New York Times’ bestselling author looking for a new agent, the big guys really don’t care about your credentials.

So there, now you have no excuse NOT to include the plot of your manuscript in your query.

Jupiter Ascending did NOT fail because…

Jupiter Ascending Movie Cover

…of bad casting. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Sean Bean did a pretty great job considering some of the lines they had to say.

…of poor world building. The different worlds and species were not that bad. The idea of harvesting humans so that a select few could live forever was pretty interesting, if not entirely original. Most of the technology allowed you to suspend your disbelief.

…of the setting. The worlds were visually stunning. The spaceships were unique and interesting.

…it starred a female character. This is so important. Fantasy and Sci-fi shows featuring female leads CAN and WILL be successful, just as soon as the producers can get all the REAL issues taken care of.

And what were the real issues of the movie? Poor storytelling and characterization (I won’t even get into the HORRIBLE romance).

One of the biggest issues with the storytelling and characterization (and one that I see frequently when reading manuscripts) is a lack of proactivity from the main character. Main characters are supposed to DO things, not have things done to them. It’s okay to have an inciting incident that gets the character in the position she needs to be to start being proactive, but for this type of story, the main character needs to be proactive during the majority of the story.

Allow me to give an example of this. Let’s look at Katniss, a female lead who stars in an excellent book and excellent movie. Katniss has a very simple life. She lives under horrible circumstances in district 12, but does she sit around crying “Poor me”? No, she breaks the rules by going through the fence and hunting to provide food for her family. That, my friends, is proactivity. When it’s time for the reaping and Katniss’s sister is chosen to participate in the hunger games, does Katniss cry and bid her sister farewell? No, she freaking volunteers to take her place. Proactivity. In the games, does she just sit around and wait to die? No, she takes care of Peeta and thinks of a way to beat the system. Would you consider Katniss a victim of her circumstances? No, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She is a wonderful proactive character, and that is why she and her story are so fascinating.

So I’ll say it again, characters cannot sit around and simply have things done to them. They have to fight back. They have go out and do things. This makes them interesting.

Now, Jupiter Jones is not proactive. She has things done to her. She’s kidnapped…how many times during the movie? Four? She does what people tell her to do. Caine says stay. Caine says follow me. She has to go with the bad guys. She agrees to marry one of the bad guys, even though she’s sort of his reincarnated mother. Eew. Weird. Who thought that was a good plot element? Was anyone else reminded of the movie Thumbelina? Sure, I’ll marry the toad. Sure, I’ll marry the mole. What the heck?

The only times I can think of when Jupiter actually did something were when she agreed to go with the bad guys to save her family and then when she refused to sign over the rights to the earth to save her family. But that’s it. Two decisions. That’s what Jupiter’s character comes down to.

And THAT’S why Jupiter Ascending failed.

The Bigger Bad Guy

You guys have already heard me talk about how much I love the TV show The Vampire Diaries. Aside from having wonderful and consistent romantic tension, splendid characters, and fantastic plots—all things that are very essential to the makings of a good show—I’ve been able to pinpoint more specifically what makes this show so good.

I’m calling this idea “the bigger bad guy.”

It’s a fantastic device that works well to create well rounded characters, show excellent character development, and help the story get better and better as it continues. (How many times have we been disappointed by a second or third season of a show—or a sequel to a book series—because it wasn’t as good as the first one?) The Vampire Diaries only gets better with each succeeding season—something I can’t really say for any other show.

I’m now going to talk about “the bigger bad guy” and how TVD uses it. *Spoilers may be below up to the third season.

First, take a look at this guy.

Damon

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This is Damon Salvatore, our antagonist for season one of TVD—well part of season one. His brother, Stefan Salvatore, has just moved to Mystic Falls, your average small town. Except, of course, for the fact that there are vampires and other mystical creatures—a very creative town name on the creators’ part, I know. Damon has promised his brother an eternity of misery, so he follows Stefan around to try and make his life hell. At the moment, that mostly includes ruining Stefan’s budding relationship with Elena Gilbert. Oh, and Damon also has a secret agenda to reunite with his one true love, Katherine (Elena’s doppelganger), whom he believes has been stuck in a tomb for 100 years, give or take.

Now check out this chick.

Katherine

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This is Katherine. Turns out, she wasn’t stuck in a tomb. She’s actually been just fine out and about living her life. Damon’s crushed at first, but once he falls in love with Elena (whoops), he moves on. This is when Katherine makes her appearance and starts making it her agenda to make both brothers’ lives miserable. So now Damon is a good guy (most of the time.) He helps Stefan and Elena out as they try to get rid of Katherine.

Now at this point, things are a little harder to follow, so I’ll summarize even more.

Elena gets kidnapped by Rose.

Rose

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Rose assumes that Elena is Katherine (another whoops), which is why she kidnapped her in the first place. Katherine sort of helps to get her back. But before that happens, Rose takes her to this guy.

Elijah

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Elijah needs Katherine as a bargaining chip. You see, his brother Klaus has been holding his brothers and sister as undead hostages in coffins. Rose eventually tries to help the rest of the gang fend off Elijah and provides information on these scary brothers. Turns out that Klaus is even scarier than Elijah.

Klaus

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And eventually Elijah joins the team to try and stop Klaus, who is basically unkillable. Our ultimate bad guy.

Note that there are many other bad guys throughout the TV series. I’m just trying to give you guys a taste of what I’m talking about.

But now on to the main points I’m trying to make. There’s always a bigger bad guy. This enables each episode to be better than the last. Because the stakes are higher (vampire pun intended), and the conflicts are more intense as the bad guys get badder and more powerful.

It’s also fascinating to see characters undergo such change. The bad guys become good guys as their goals align with the good guys’. They don’t always become perfectly good—they still have their fun flaws, but they do change in remarkable ways that are exciting to see.

Now, TVD isn’t the only show out there that’s doing this. Look at Loki’s character in the second Thor movie. Look how he aligns with Thor to face a bigger bad guy. Look at Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These changeable bad guys are everywhere. And look at how much we love them! These are the characters that have the most fan girls—just saying.

Sometimes looking at where characters are going can help you solidify who they need to be at the beginning of your story. This can help with rounding out characters and their development. And it also makes for some interesting plot turns.