Working With an Editor (parts 1-5)

The difference between professional critiques and those by fellow writers sharing the trenches with you are important.  Fellow writers in groups or with whom you swap chapters or manuscripts are often motivated by the promise of receiving a critique in return.  The natural state of most writers is to want to receive feedback on their own writing rather than give feedback on someone else’s.  For most writers, giving feedback is the cost you pay to get feedback. Which means that most of the feedback you get from fellow writers could be tainted by the expectation of something in return.

John Berkowitz
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I've been asked by CC to post all five parts of a five-week journey I undertook this last fall, in which I took the plunge and hired a professional editor. Originally appearing on my blog in five parts (Working With an Editor — part 1part 2part 3part 4, & part 5), it is here presented in it's entirety.  If you find yourself falling asleep along the way (it was never meant to be read in one sitting), and prefer to consume it in small bites, please use the links above. Enjoy!

John Berkowitz

Working With an Editor - part 1

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In the past I have had many readers critique my children’s book manuscript.  Most of these have been fellow writers — either chapter-by-chapter in a critique group or as a whole by beta readers or critique partners.  Sprinkled in there were a handful of professional critiques won in contests, on just my query or the first few pages of my manuscript.

The difference between professional critiques and those by fellow writers sharing the trenches with you are important.  Fellow writers in groups or with whom you swap chapters or manuscripts are often motivated by the promise of receiving a critique in return.  The natural state of most writers is to want to receive feedback on their own writing rather than give feedback on someone else’s.  For most writers, giving feedback is the cost you pay to get feedback. Which means that most of the feedback you get from fellow writers could be tainted by the expectation of something in return.

Not so with an editor you pay.  An editor already knows they’re going to get paid before they begin reading.  They don’t have to impress you with how much they like your book to get something.  Editors don’t have an agenda. They’re professionals doing a job.

Also, finding a fellow writer who is willing to read and give detailed feedback on your entire manuscript is hard. Which means you’re often forced to settle for whoever offers. Which means you get a lot of readers who don’t really know your genre or your audience. If they don’t read books similar to yours, they’re not going to recognize the common tropes or get the jokes.  They won’t know when you’ve broken the standard conventions of the genre, or strayed too close to something already written.

Professional editors, however, are different.  They make their living by understanding the market.  In some cases, they specialize, in which case they know even more about the genres they represent.  Also, depending on the editor, you can pay for specific types of editorial services.  Typically, these include Proofreading, Copy Editing, and Developmental Editing.

  • PROOFREADING looks for formatting, spelling, and grammar issues, as well as typos and missing words, but does not usually focus on the big picture.
  • COPY EDITING focuses on awkward sentences, rough transitions, repetition and clarity.  Sometimes this type of editing will include fact-checking and overall consistency.
  • DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING includes overall feedback on plot, structure, character, pacing, dialogue, world-building and writing style, in an overall critique letter.  This type of editing will not catch typos or grammar mistakes.

Some editors may offer all of these or individual packages.  Which means that prices will vary.  Read the fine print.  There are editors for pretty much every price range.  I’ve gotten quotes from under $200 to close to $2,000.  With more expensive editors you usually get more of a commitment — more back-and-forth, multiple passes, all levels of editing.  A relationship.  With the least expensive editors, you get a single pass, one type of editing.

As with any service you pay for, do your research.  Ask questions.  Look for testimonials (or complaints). Stalk them on Twitter. If they freelance, find out what their day job is.  Their level of experience.  If they are worth their salt, they will take a cursory look at your manuscript and consult with you before charging you a dime; giveyou an opportunity to tell if they are a good fit.  I did all of these things when I hired my editor.  

In Part 2 I’ll discuss the reasons I chose the editor I chose and how the consultation went.


Working With an Editor - part 2

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In Part 1 I discussed the pros and cons of hiring a professional editor for your novel manuscript, and my personal experience in choosing one for myself.  In Part 2 I’ll show you what you can expect from different kinds of editing services.

The muses aligned or the planets favored us (or insert your own supernatural reason) and the same day we hired a professional editor for my daughter’s and my middle grade manuscript, we won a free first-ten-pages critique through a contest.  In this case, the critique came from a past winner of #PitchWars, who had a manuscript good enough to be chosen by a mentor and who then went through the intense revision process that is the hallmark of that event.  So while he is not strictly an editing professional, he is certainly an experienced one.  And, because it was through a contest and not a manuscript swap between peers, he was not looking for reciprocation the way a fellow writer in a critique group might. Because this critique only covered 10 total pages, the comments drilled down to word level.  This is the kind of critique you may get with a Copy Edit.  Below is a screen grab from the middle of those ten pages, with comments from my #PitchWars editor:

Editer1

In this case my editor requested the pages in a Word document, in proper manuscript format.  This works well, because the comments and edits can be tracked, as you see above. Others prefer the online Google Docs, which have similar tools, however with Google Docs, you can see the edits live as they come in, and respond with comments and questions of your own.  A third option, Dropbox, is the best of both worlds, as you can share a link to a Word document in your Dropbox, and your editor can open that same document in his or her Dropbox.  This arrangement also allows for instant gratification and back-and-forth.  I prefer the Dropbox method, because ultimately the manuscript is going to need to be in Word, and I don’t want to have to copy and reformat the whole thing if I don’t have to.  But any of these methods will get the job done.

For the professional edit I chose a developmental editor, because our manuscript was well polished from a grammar and spelling standpoint, and it had already been read by scores of beta readers and critique partners, so I was confident the vast majority of the typos were cleaned up.  Likewise, I felt confident that line-by-line issues, such as awkward transitions, confusing sentences, and inconsistencies had been resolved.  What I paid for was a Developmental Edit, which covers  plot, structure, character, pacing, dialogue, world-building and writing style, presented in an overall critique letter, rather than line-by-line or even chapter-by-chapter breakdowns.

I chose Write On Editing, for their experience, their age-group focus, and their reasonable price.  I was ultimately won over by their fast and friendly replies and willingness to answer questions.  In fact, before offering a price or contract, Michelle invited us to send her the whole manuscript so she could read it and tell us which level of editing would be the best fit for us.  She recommended the least expensive option, and even worked with us on the price. Here are some of the comments we received after about two weeks:

Plot:

You have a wonderful story line in THE LAST PRINCESS…. (a full paragraph detailing the things that Michelle liked and what worked).

There are a few points that I feel you might want to address however.

Cat seems to immediately accept that she will become the next princess without too much internal examination or obsessing about what that means for her, her future, or her family. A bit more internal dialogue would help readers to connect with that new-found responsibility. Also, what is Cat expecting to actually do as a Princess? She makes vague statements about wanting to unify the fae but what does that actually entail?

Cat’s time at Squirrel Scout camp is so much fun! The pranks were pretty funny and it was a great way for her to meet Hunter and learn new skills too. That said, pranking usually goes both ways at camp. Can her group plot or even prank other groups in what they think is retaliation? I would imagine these girls would be speculating nonstop about who was messing with them, but that line of thought seems pretty non-existent.

World Building:

Much as I like the plot, I feel like this is one of the weakest areas in THE LAST PRINCESS. I honestly have no idea what time of year the story is taking place. At the start, Cat is working on home school projects but shortly afterwards she is going away to camp for a week. Is school just getting out before summer? Giving more details about the timing will help the reader to place themselves more firmly in the contexts of your character’s lives.

Another facet I wasn’t too sure on was the family’s booth at the Rockford Fair. While reading, I was distracted trying to figure out if it was located in a travelling or permanent fairground. I think it’s the latter, but if so, how does that work? Fairs typically last for a short period only. Consider changing it to a small shop in a tourist type town that might have a carnival aspect (I kept imaging Coney Island, to be honest). Think about what makes it unique or special and why people come to visit.

Character Development:

Cat’s Mom: One of my main concerns is the unevenness of this character. I like where she ends up, but I was quite confused with her character for most of the novel. Cat emphasizes the fact that her mom expects her to be “little miss perfect” by getting good grades and avoiding things like fairy tales but I didn’t see much beyond those two points. In fact, she has her join Squirrel Scouts which seems the opposite of being success-minded since they go hiking and get dirty etc. (unless you incorporate something how she thinks it will give her leadership skills or something). And it doesn’t really match with her actions either. I couldn’t understand how a mom who runs a booth selling flowers and pottery at a fair would be so preoccupied with perfection, as she seemed quite hippy-ish. You might be able to keep the details as is, but make the mom a bit more OCD regarding Cat’s activities. She already is concerned about school work but you could add in scenes of her carefully scheduling out Cat’s every minute between scouts, soccer, school, and helping with the shop, for example.

Michelle rounded out her critique letter with a number of random thoughts:

– How did Thomas get over the mumps so fast? Wouldn’t he be quite weak after leaving the hospital, yet their mother takes the family out to dinner that night.

– On p.77 Cat tells us why she thinks her family is more poor than usual. Instead of telling your reader all at once, could this be broken up and inserted in little snippets throughout so it gradually builds?

Finally, the editing package included a 45 minute Skype or phone conversation, where I can ask questions and get feedback on possible solutions to some of these issues.  To get the most out of this, I’ve started a list of questions to ask, and will continue to add to it right up until the scheduled time for our call.

In Part 3 I’ll discuss how I plan to make the most out of these critiques, and how several of the comments led to ideas on how to fix the issues.


Working With an Editor - part 3

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Since receiving feedback from my editor, I have been thinking about her various comments and suggestions for about a week, now.

I had expected that by the time I sat down to write this post I would have already had my 45 minute phone call with her. However we were not able to schedule it until early next month.  So instead of sharing that discussion with you, let me share my list of questions (so far) which I plan to ask her:

  • Do you think I should change the name of the book?  Is the name boring, off-putting, or less enticing than it could be?
  • Did you see anything in the premise or early pages that would turn an agent off?
  • What advice can you give me on fixing the main character’s mom?
  • Would you categorize this book as Contemporary Fantasy or Magical Realism?
  • Should I mention in the query that I co-wrote this book with my 16yo daughter?  I’ve been told definitely yes, and definitely no.
  • Is the hint of romance too creepy? (She’s 12, he’s 15)
  • Are my comps* okay? What books would you recommend as possible comps?
  • Do I need more people of color?
  • Should I use fake names for real things — Carrie Mae Cosmetics instead of Mary Kay, for example?  Am I in trouble if I use real names and misrepresent them?

I may come up with more questions, and if I do I will share them, along with my editor’s answers, next week.  In the mean time, I have already made notes and scribbled ideas for solutions to several of the issues she raised, so I’ll talk about those, too.


* “Comps” is short to comparisons, which means the books — or movies, games or other pop-culture — you would compare your book to.  Such as: “TV’s Grimm for kids,” or “Alice in Wonderland meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Working With and Editor - part 4

Michelle Millet

If other freelance editors are like Michelle Millet of Write On Editing, the writing community is in good hands.

Not only did Michelle offer me exactly the level of feedback I needed for my project, but her turn-around was remarkable.  I already outlined how and why I chose Michelle from all of the other freelance editors out there, and some of the feedback she gave. But the best part of the whole experience was the follow-up phone call, which was part of the editing package.

First of all, I was nervous.  I’d paid for this call and I’m not going to be able to afford to pay for another, so I was nervous about getting all of my questions answered.  But I was also nervous because someone I trusted was going to tell me to my face (well, to my ear) what was broken about my book.  Unlike advice from beta readers or friends and family, when you pay hard-earned money for a professional critique, it is not easy to dismiss if you don’t happen to agree with it.*

I had no need to worry. Michelle was friendly, well-prepared, and had a slew of questions of her own. We methodically went down her list of items she felt needed work, and was happy to listen to my reasons for why I had made the choices I’d made. This was not me making excuses; it was a conversation about my book.  That was something I’d never really experienced before.  With the beta readers and critique partners I’ve interacted with, there is little back-and-forth.  I’ve gotten some outstanding advice, but sometimes you’ve simply explained something poorly or not emphasized something well enough, and your reader fails to get an important point.  These are the times when you feel perfectly justified ignoring certain advice, because you know what you’re written is right, maybe just not clear. On my call with Michelle, I was able to discuss such instances, and found in many cases she agreed with me — “It’s okay to leave that in, then, just as long as you make this other thing more clear in the beginning.” Or, “Oh, that makes perfect sense, now that you point that out.  Maybe you should add in a bit of clarification so the reader gets what you intended.”  With advice I’ve gotten in the past, I’ve had to live with comments that simply say “Cut that thing because it doesn’t make sense,” and having to decide whether or not to accept or reject that advice.

Believe me — this is better.

Our 45 minute call stretched to an hour and a half (your results may vary). She was not willing to end the call until I had asked every question I could think of — several not precisely related to her critique.  Such as query etiquette or career advice.  Did this bargain-priced editing experience find everything wrong with my manuscript? Was it a silver bullet?  I won’t know until I study the extensive notes I took along with her comments, and dive into the revision process.  I will be making several substantial changes.  Because I went with a less expensive editor, I am not getting a second read-through after my revision (unless I pay again). That’s a big advantage with the more expensive, more thorough package deals out there.  Like me, you have to weigh your priorities.  For me, it was find an editor that fit my very limited budget, or do without altogether.

I highly recommend Michelle and Write On Editing.  They have many different packages available, depending on the kind and level of feedback you’re looking for. And more broadly, if you can afford it, I highly recommend hiring an editor in general. If you do, I hope your experience is as satisfying as mine has been. You know what to look for, now.


*This is not to say you can’t dismiss the advice of a professional editor.  You certainly can, and I would even say in some cases you should.  But it is like throwing away money, so it’s harder to do.


Working With an Editor - part 5

Dark and Story Night

This is where we start the actual “editing” part of the writer/editor relationship. During our phone call, I took extensive notes. Because while I had my editor’s edit letter — which  was efficiently organized by plot, pacing, world building, character development, and writing style — it was during our phone call that she was able to elaborate and we had time to discuss possible solutions.

In the past I have done several major revisions to this full manuscript, including a Revise and Resubmit for an interested agent.  In those cases, many of the changes were global and required that I trace each thread through all of the chapters, keeping a careful eye on consistency.  In most cases, several of these threads were in effect simultaneously — such as changing my main character’s motivation throughout while also adding a new source of tension.  Or I may have cut a major scene altogether which was referenced a number of places later on, while at the same time adding a new scene elsewhere to replace some of the missing elements.  This required a lot of planning and outlining.  All of the changes had to work in concert, so everything I revised had to be part of this master plan.

Not so much, this time. The changes my editor suggested were all specific and fairly contained.  Which, to my unending delight, means I can tackle each of them in turn. For example, my favorite suggestion is to change the setting for the novel.  Not every setting, but the main setting, where the key action takes place.

Most of the scenes take place at home, at summer camp, at a sleep-over, etc.  There is a scene at soccer practice, another at the mall, yet another at a restaurant.  None of these have to change, or not much. But the main action takes place at the family business — a booth at a local craft fair and farmer’s market, where the family spends their weekends and makes their living.  This is where the story starts, where the inciting incident happens, where the villain makes his moves, and where the climax takes place.  Aside from the family’s booth, several other important characters also reside at the fair, and our hero learns about her destiny and works toward her goal by visiting — sometimes secretly — these other characters.  It’s important that there are lots of people and activity.  But in my ongoing efforts to streamline the beginning of the book and strip out every superfluous word or sentence, my descriptions of the scenery fall a bit flat.  There is no real sense of “place.”  And no weather or seasons.  It’s just a backdrop.

I immediately saw what she was talking about, and based on our conversation I settled on a brand new setting.  Before, the book took place in the made-up town of Rockford, in no particular state — or even region — of the United States.  I thought it might be good to let my readers imagine the story took place near their own town.  Now, it’s going to take place in Rockford Harbor, Maine.  This is still a made-up town (which my editor and I agree is best, since I’ve never been to Maine, and would never be able to accurately describe a real place).  It is on the southern coast of Maine (near the real towns of Rockport and Rocklin).  Specifically, it will take place on the Ferry Beach Boardwalk and Pier, which is modeled after the real Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

Old Orchard Beachvtm7100E8F0275D763EE

This is where the family business will be — on the boardwalk, tucked in among the amusement rides and crab shacks.  And the old lady who tells our hero her destiny will have her shop at the end of the pier.  There will be the sounds of rides and arcade games, the smell of the ocean and lobster rolls, crying seagulls will fly overhead, and there will be tourists and sand everywhere.  It will snow in winter when business is slow, and the crowds will come when school lets out for the summer.  My setting will come alive.

And I can go through the book, scene-by-scene and revise the settings where needed, leaving many of them — home, mall, restaurant, camp — exactly the same.  Then when I’m satisfied with these changes, I can move on to the next item on the list.

I’m in no hurry.  Eager, but not rushed.  First I need to research the Old Orchard Beach Pier, as well as the state of Maine. It needs to feel real, especially to people who have been to these places. But I am more excited about this change than any other I have made so far.  Because without having to alter the story (much), I will be adding a rich, new layer that will be evident from the very first sentence, and will give readers a whole new reason to want to turn the page.


If you found this post insightful, helpful, or even mildly amusing, please check out my blog here: https://johnrberkowitz.wordpress.com/

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