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.

On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

image from rebeccaberto.com

The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.

Screw-up Characters and Admirability

An easy way to make a character likeable is to make them competent at their jobs/hobbies/anything really. The common wisdom is that we like characters who are talented.

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Katniss is a pretty obvious example. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she slays, literally, with her bow.

Of course, being competent isn’t the only way to make a character likeable. One of my favorite character types is the screw-up, i.e., the opposite of the competent character. I especially love screw up characters in comedies.

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Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids can’t catch a break. She had my sympathy.

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Community: a whole cast of screw-up characters

Why do I like them. Whether they’re loveable losers, too dumb to live, or can’t catch a break…I want to hug them all, or laugh if not at then with them.

Thinking about this the other day, I wondered how well screw-up characters work outside of comedy. Spoiler: they can work in any genre.

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A compare and contrast in character competency.

Harry Potter, with the notable exception of DADA, isn’t particularly talented at school or magic. However, Harry is courageous, loyal, and good. Oh, and Ron too. Ron’s humor makes him pretty damn likeable.

What I realized, unsurprisingly, was that even though these characters weren’t competent at their “job” there was some big trait to admire. So if I can’t admire a character’s competency, then I admire another trait: their humor, their bravery, the way they’ve overcome their past, etc. Harry Potter serves as a great example of that. Somehow, in thinking about how to write a screw-up character whose shoes a reader may still want to fill, that’s the realization I came to.

However nebulous “likeability” really is, in fiction “likeable” characters are characters we can admire.

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.

Interactive Books

If you who don’t have your finger on the pulse of the publishing industry, you might not know that the industry is currently like a coin flipping in the air, and no one knows just how it will land. With the rise of the ebook, traditional forms of publishing–particularly print publishing–are under attack from all sides, and no one knows what publishing is going to look like in five or ten years.

While some people are using this time to cling to old formats of publishing, others are taking advantage of the disruptive innovation of the ebook to do some really impressive things. Those of you who are interested in what the future of books might be, take note. Interactive books are coming.

In reality, we’ve had interactive books for a while now. I’m sure you can all remember the choose-your-own-adventure books from your childhood or, my personal favorite, those picture books that had little icons on the page that corresponded to noise making buttons on the side. You guys remember those? I sure do.

But with the rise of the ebook and the internet, books have the capability to become far more interactive–and far more high tech–than a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Back in September of 2012, the first installment of The Infinity Ring series was released. The Infinity Ring was published by Scholastic and was their attempt to bring together reading, gaming, and history.  The story follows time travelling kids who have to keep history on track to avoid world catastrophes.

While the book can be read just by itself, readers also have the opportunity to continue the journey of the book online. By going to the internet, readers can play a role-playing game as one of the books main characters. Scholastic, which has previously tapped into the goldmine of the internet through its 39 Clues books in which readers could go online to unlock exclusive bonus content, has long since realized that most kids aren’t satisfied with books alone. They want something more, something they can control and interact with. And with The Infinity Ring, they can do just that.

This, of course, isn’t the only multi-media book experience. J.K.Rowling, who is no less than a queen in the publishing industry, introduced her fans to Pottermore in 2011. Pottermore is meant to be an interactive online companion to the Harry Potter books. While all seven books aren’t up on Pottermore yet, users still can interact with pivotal moments of the first four or five books. They can get wands (mine is pear wood with a phoenix feather core) and get sorted (Gryffindor) and make potions or duel other users to get points for their houses. While a lot of users, myself included, complain that the site has no return value, fans of the Potter books keep going back to the site for the free content that delve deeper and deeper into J.K.Rowling’s fictional world. For die-hard fans of the books, that content is absolutely invaluable.

Of course, both of these are examples of print books with interactive supplemental content. The possibilities are considerably more endless.

I’ll let this Ted Talk explain it all:

Personally, I have a hard time seeing all books going in this direction, but the possibilities are endless and exciting to explore.

Self-care for Writers

I was hanging out with Tricia on Saturday, thinking/complaining about how I’m so inconsistent with how I write. First, I don’t do it often enough. Second, as soon as something’s not fun anymore I give up on it. Third, I don’t even revise what I finish or let me friends comment on it.

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And as any writer will tell you, a writer writes. So that makes me not a real writer…right?

But, here’s the thing. Don’t delude yourself, but don’t be too hard on yourself either. There are always extenuating circumstances, and you need to take a deep breath and decide whether to suck it up and stop making excuses for yourself OR if you need to get help and take care of yourself. You know, mentally.

My happiest writing memory, by far, is sitting at the junior high where I worked a couple of years ago, subbing a teacher’s classes while the students watched a mockumentary about dragons, and working on a brand new novel. It was four hours of fun. Four hours that I hold on to like I’m hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Because beyond those few hours, writing has never been fun for me. It’s a painful, abusive hobby. The only reason I still want to do it is because I have too many characters running around in my head. I want to give them life, but actually doing it feels like rubbing my face against a cheese grater. (If you’re a perfectionist to the extent that I am, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)

Those Platonic hours were the easiest, sunniest writing hours of my life for virtue of the fact that I was in the best place mentally that I’d been in years, and have been in years.

So if anyone is beating themselves up because their dream is to be a writer/artist/whatever, but they just can’t seem to get it together, you have all my commiseration. Rather than repeat over and over that writers write, let’s focus our energies on taking care of ourselves. With that in mind, I’ve created a self-care list for writers.

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech is still one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard.

Learn to recognize shame in order to eliminate it from your thoughts:

Laughter is the best medicine and I don’t care how hackneyed that phrase is, it’s true.


Laugh and cry with Allie Brosh?

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Click on the pic to follow the link

And remember

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.