Full Metal Edit: How I learned to stop copyediting and love the critique

[Editor’s note:  Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak!]5871413651_5cb7d14c5a_o


Some years back, long before I started working as an editor, my wife became a writer. Though there was certainly a part of me that thought this was a flight of fancy at the time and that she wasn’t serious about it (spoiler: I was wrong), I was very much curious to see her work.

Her response was something akin to, “Hell no,” but possibly less polite than that. My wife knows me well, and she knew exactly what would happen.

You see, my background is in academics. I spent years doing research and working on advanced degrees. While I grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, the writing I knew as an adult (stop snickering, I hear you) was the sort you’d find in scientific journals.

But I was persistent, and eventually, she relented. What happened next was precisely what she’d feared. I started marking things like sentence fragments and other grammar that didn’t meet some standard I had in my head. I was copyediting when what she wanted was a critique. This is not what she, her story, or our marriage needed at the time.

It took a while (and a few smacks with a two-by-four studded with rusty nails), but she eventually helped me learn to look past the grammar and see the story. Without having gone through that process, I never would have gotten into editing. Even after I started, I still had to fight that impulse when doing developmental edits, and the ones I did early on took far longer than they should have and certainly caused undue stress for the authors I worked with as a result.

Editing Stages

I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about the different stages of editing, hopefully helping you understand the editing process better and perhaps putting you on the path to giving better critiques to other authors. Bear in mind that these are generalizations, not absolutes, and that different people may refer to them by different names.

A developmental edit looks at big picture issues: things like GMC, characterization, conflict and adhesion between characters, plot structure, and overall pacing. In the wake of a developmental edit, entire story threads could be changed or removed. Character motivations or flaws might be rewritten. Entire scenes could be moved, removed, changed dramatically, or added. In a perfect world, all the heavy changes happen here. But it is often the case that changes beget other changes down the line. Also, at least for me, there comes a point where it becomes a challenge to clearly envision what the story will look like after those changes are made. Sometimes things that should be obvious can be missed until after the dust settles a bit. It may also be the case that an issue can’t be addressed until the author makes some changes. This is often the case with ending sequences, because I don’t know how an author might choose to resolve various things.

A line edit is all about the details and more focused on the language, drilling down into individual scenes. Is POV clearly established? Should POV be deeper? Do characters react to stimuli appropriately? Do scenes flow well one into the next? Do conversations drift back and forth between multiple topics or simply drag on too long? Is it clear who is speaking? Could the end of each scene or chapter be stronger so we keep the reader from putting the book down? Are there words/phrases that are repeated too frequently or are used in multiple POVs inappropriately? Is appropriate character movement present?

Keep in mind that if an issue that would normally be discussed in line edits is pervasive throughout the manuscript, an editor may bring it up during developmental edits and give the author a chance to address the issue, which can save a ton of time later on. For instance, if characters never have internal reactions to stimuli/events (and I see that frequently) that should be brought up in a developmental edit. If it is only a problem occasionally, it can wait, so the author can focus on bigger issues.

A copyedit focuses almost entirely on language: clarity, readability, grammar, spelling, etc. That doesn’t mean a good copyeditor (and they are worth their weight in gold) won’t identify some of the issues above, but their focus should be on the language and continuity, sentence by sentence. Copyeditors are like a safety net. They get paid to see the things others have read five times and never spotted. A good copyeditor understands and respects voice and will refrain from sacrificing voice on the altar of grammar provided clarity is not an issue.

Being a Better Critique Partner

In my eyes, a critique is very similar to a developmental edit, the primary difference being the nature of the relationship between the writer and the person providing the critique. The reason I wanted to go through this was so that you could keep it in mind the next time you are asked to give a critique. Try not to focus on the language. Nitpicking over things like word choice is premature if the entire scene needs to be cut or moved.

Instead, do your best to look at the big picture. Do you like the characters? Do they behave in ways that make sense? Is there enough conflict? Is the plot interesting and does it have some element (or combined elements in some way) that makes it original? Does the story bog down in places? Those are the things that your critique partner probably needs to know in order to make the story the best it can be, not whether they have sentence fragments or they used a semi-colon incorrectly.

Applying Feedback

Give careful consideration to the feedback you receive, even if you disagree. Have you not conveyed something clearly enough? Are there ideas in your head that haven’t made it onto the page? Pay special attention to anything you hear from multiple people.

One last thing to note: not all feedback is necessarily right for your story. Know what your vision of the story is. Understand what you want the story to be. Don’t be afraid to filter out feedback that doesn’t fit that vision. If the feedback identifies a problem but the proposed solution doesn’t work for you, consider alternate ways to attack the problem instead.

Then you will be happy, your critique partner will be happy, and there will be no need for rusty nails.

When Harry Met Newton: Newton’s Laws of Storytelling

[Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak.]6417813593_fcb7f4855a_o

Most people know that Sir Isaac Newton was a mathematician and natural philosopher and that he is credited with defining gravity in mathematical terms, but did you know he was also a fine editor? Ok, well, maybe not, but if you take a look at Newton’s Laws of Motion you might be surprised just how relevant they are to great storytelling.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

Newton’s first law describes the concept of inertia. It tells us that objects at rest (or in motion) will stay that way unless some outside force interferes.

Many novels begin with a picture of what the main character’s life is like before the story proper begins. We get a sense of who they are and what they want out of life. Then, something happens to shake up their world, often referred to as an inciting incident. From the perspective of character growth, the character is stagnant and going nowhere, or stuck on a path, meandering inevitably toward some fate. This is inertia! The inciting incident is an external force that upsets the equilibrium of the character. Cool, right?

There are a number of turning points that most stories share, like a midpoint and a black moment. What is happening to your characters in your stories at those points? Are the forces acting upon them sufficient to change the course they are on at that point in the story?

Keep in mind that for storytelling purposes, the force acting on the character doesn’t have to be external. Maybe it’s a change in their thinking, as is often the case with black moments. Maybe it is them overcoming whatever their flaw happens to be and realizing they need to take a different course of action. One of my favorite lines ever comes from When Harry Met Sally, when Harry says, “…when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” That realization was an extremely powerful force in the life of Harry Burns.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

The second law is probably the most difficult to relate to storytelling, but it’s worth doing because the idea, like the law itself, is quite powerful. Basically, you have to consider all forces acting on an object. From above, we know an object in motion tends to stay that way, but common sense dictates that if we shove a box across the floor it won’t keep going indefinitely. The reason it stops is because in addition to the shove we gave it, other forces are acting on the box, like gravity and friction. The same is true of your story.

Why do so many books and movies have some form of time pressure, a proverbial ticking clock that defines a point at which something bad will happen?  Why do books on storytelling say that the stakes should increase as the story progresses or the hazards a character faces should become more and more dire? Why do editors tell you to end a scene or chapter with a question of some kind? The answer is friction.

Friction, in this context, is a tendency for your reader to stop turning to the next page and put the book down. Of course this tendency varies from reader to reader but I urge you to think of friction as a universal force that you can not be rid of. What you can do is continually propel your story forward with enough force, enough momentum, to overcome that friction so your story, and your reader, don’t come to a grinding halt.

Use ticking clocks if appropriate. Increase stakes. Cut back things that don’t seem important and are bogging down the momentum. And once something becomes inevitable in your story, like a character makes an important decision, drive toward it and don’t become sidetracked. Harry wants the rest of his life to start as soon as possible, not five chapters from now (unless five chapters from now is as soon as possible and he’s fighting desperately for that outcome the whole way).

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

Everyone has heard this one in some form, such as, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This relates back to the blog post I inflicted upon you last month where I wrote about doing harm to characters.

For our purposes, this law refers to balance between good and evil in a story, between dire perils and daring escapes, between the relative strength of protagonist and antagonist, obstacle and happy ending. As I said in the comments section of last month’s post, if you have a weak antagonist, there isn’t enough for the protagonist to push back against, which can create big problems with suspension of disbelief and leave your story feeling flat.

If you have a fantasy story where the protagonist transforms into the avatar of a god at the end to smite the bad guys, the character had better have suffered tremendously at the hands of the antagonist along the way and that antagonist had better do a better job of embodying evil than Snidely Whiplash or Ultron (seriously, what a waste of James Spader’s talents, “No strings” commercial aside).

Not every story has to be galaxy-spanning, either. This applies to “small” stories too. I think it’s fair to say that the ending of When Harry Met Sally, that two people who are so different should fall in love, is improbable. But look at how much they have to go through to make it to that point, all the challenges they have to navigate. They face incredible obstacles before finding happiness together, and that’s what makes it work when they finally do.

“I Never Studied Law”

Maybe Newton wasn’t an editor, but I do find it fascinating that the ways in which we define the physical world can have such interesting parallels to the worlds we create inside our own minds. Even if you, like a certain wise-cracking rabbit, “never studied law,” I hope Newton’s Laws give you something to ponder as you write or revise your next project and you don’t leave your reader hanging.

Take the Hypocritic Oath

DO HARMCathy’s note: here’s another winner from our newest editor, Lewis! 🙂

If you’ve watched medical or police procedurals, you’ve probably encountered the Hippocratic Oath, associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates—that’s four syllables, Bill & Ted fans, four—at some point. The oath is often summarized as “do no harm” though those words are not part of the oath itself.

Today, I’d like to introduce a different oath, one for authors and storytellers.

I shall call it the Hypocritic Oath, which states:  “Do Harm.”

Think about it. A book where nothing bad ever happened to characters wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Do you want to read a book with no barriers to success of the main character(s)? A book with no conflict?

Ok, so why “hypocritic”?

Because as an author, you do all these terrible things to your characters, introduce obstacle after obstacle into their path, so they can overcome them. You know they are going to overcome them (unless you’re the kind of crazy-popular author who can get away with writing themselves into a corner before killing everyone).

It’s all about balance.

The more spectacular you want your ending to be, the more triumphant your hero(ine), and the larger the scale of the story, the greater the obstacles there should be, and the more pain and suffering and sacrifice your characters should endure before they achieve victory.

So I am here today to give you permission, as I often have with authors, to Do Harm.

Let’s get started.

Repeat after me:

I promise…to do horrible things…to my characters. To fill their lives…with pain…and misery…to torture them…at every turn…and to never…ever…make anything easy.

So, what now? Should you drop meteors on your main character’s head in the first scene? Well, I suppose you could, if you want your story (or your character) to be very short.

In many stories, the stakes increase as the story progresses.

This is an easy way to build tension. There might also be an added element of time pressure that comes increasingly into play, like the bus your character is on that can’t slow down without exploding might be running out of fuel. Ok, seriously subconscious, why do Keanu movies keep popping up in this blog post?

There should also be a natural order to the challenges you present.

I’m going to pick on the wisest of sages for a moment, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mr. Yankovic’s ability to devise dastardly doings is unparalleled. But sometimes, for comic effect, he likes to screw up the order of escalation. There are a couple of great examples in the song “Virus Alert” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood. If the titular virus has melted your face off of your skull, is limiting your iPod to only being able to play songs by Jethro Tull really much of a concern? Probably not. Similarly, if a rift in spacetime had been torn open, would we really be concerned about litter caused by Twinkie wrappers?

When you are crafting a story, the circumstances should become progressively more challenging as the stakes and pressure increase. Aligning these factors can really help keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.

But if the order is off, the pacing probably will be too.

Now that you’ve been officially indoctrinated into the Order of Hypocrites (OOH), we should talk about two of the greatest enemies of the Order, “almost” and “nearly”. Ever have a character nearly get hit by a car or almost get shot? If you have, ask yourself why that happened.

Why did that car/shot/meteor miss the intended target? Were you subconsciously avoiding inflicting harm (breaking the oath you just took and condemning you to an eternity eating shards of broken glass)? Were you perhaps afraid that if your character were injured you wouldn’t know how to deal with that? If the answer to either of those was “yes” then you are injecting yourself into the story, which should be avoided.

Most importantly, if the character had been injured at that point, would it make the story better? Would it add tension and help with pacing? Does the character need something else to overcome at that moment?

Story structure can vary, but in most stories, a series of Bad Things will befall our intrepid heroes after the midpoint, escalating in intensity toward the point where all their hopes and dreams seem to have been flushed down the toilet with all those Twinkie wrappers. One of the many things that Donald Maass talks about in his various books and workshops is taking a situation and making it more difficult.

Here’s an exercise.

Take a look at one of your own scenes. What’s the situation? How can you make the circumstances worse? Once you have an idea, how can you make it even worse than that?

Have fun with it. Get creative. But do make sure the complication you introduce is organic to the story and doesn’t feel forced, you know, like Keanu starring in The Watcher.



Introducing our new editor, Lewis Pollak

Lewis photoRock Your Writing is growing! We’re bringing on a new editor, the fantastic Lewis Pollak. He’s an experienced developmental and line editor, working with Entangled Publishing during its explosive growth in the past few years. I’ve worked with him, myself, and can vouch for his editorial prowess. (The guy’s got a gift!)

I’ll let him tell you a bit more about himself, in his own words. Welcome, Lewis!

Danger: Puns ahead. You have been warned.

Hey there, all you folks out in Writerland. Cathy asked me to write a blog post introducing myself, but before I do that, let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to be joining the team at Rock Your Writing. Cathy and I have known each other for several years now, and I am excited about bringing a new element to the team so that we can all serve you better. The best part is, I get to do more of what I love: editing.

I have worn quite a few hats over the years, from med student to game designer to Toyota salesman. Oh, and Realtor. Not to mention husband, father, and general layabout. Editor is definitely a favorite. The thing about being an editor that appeals to me is that I have the chance to shape stories and help make them better. If all I was interested in was nitpicking stuff to death, I could just write reviews.

Speaking of which, I’ve always been puzzled by book, movie, and game reviews. Why do so many reviewers insist on telling me whether or not they like the thing they are writing about? Frankly, I don’t care if they like it or not. I won’t even go into the number of reviews I have seen where the reviewer clearly doesn’t even like the genre of work and then criticizes it for being exactly what it purported itself to be. As a person trying to make a purchasing decision, I want a review to help me figure out if I’m going to like it and whether it is going to be a good purchase for me. It’s all about me, right?

For most of the editors I have spoken to, the same holds true for them when they are reviewing a proposal. They want not only to love it, but to be in love with it. Wanting to be in love with a story makes a certain amount of sense if you have to go into an editorial meeting and convince others in the room that a particular project should be acquired. I suppose that’s one reason I don’t particularly care for being involved in acquisitions.

As a freelance editor, it doesn’t matter to me if I like a book when I am asked to edit it, any more than I care whether a reviewer likes a product.  When I am editing a book, it isn’t about me at all. It’s all about the story and making it the best story it can possibly be, whether the author hopes it will be a bestseller or it is the book of their heart and a story they simply need to tell. So what if “Planet of the Grapes” doesn’t have a market? If that’s the story that keeps you awake at night, you must believe me when I say I won’t be wining about it.

Wine puns… Sorry, but I did warn you.

You see, I know that when I begin working on a story, the object before me is a precious thing, even if it doesn’t look like it yet. Just as nature requires incredible amounts of heat and pressure to create diamonds, I have great respect for the blood, the sweat, the heart and soul that each author puts into their work. And every single time I take on a project, I am humbled to find myself in the remarkable position of having people share their work with me. Like a gemcutter, an editor can help bring out the best shape in a story, give it facets, and polish it until it sparkles, but none of that would be possible without the astonishing amount of effort that goes into the not-so-simple act of putting those words down on (digital) paper.

When I have done my part, it is my hope that two things are true: that the story is better for having gone through the process and that it is still a story the author wants to tell. That last part is of critical importance to me. I can come up with the best ideas in the world to make a story better, but if it no longer remains a story that the author wants to tell, if the characters no longer feel like theirs, then those ideas are worthless to the author. Being told by an author that they love the direction a story is taking, that they have renewed excitement for working on it—those are the greatest compliments I will ever receive.

Above all, I get to work with talented people, participate in the creative process alongside them, and help them progress toward completion, knowing I had a hand in making their work better. And I can do all that without having to tell an author that the thing they have worked so hard to create isn’t good enough because I’m not in love with it, needing to convince anyone it should be published, or worrying about whether post-apocalyptic varietals are hot right now.


5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂