One arrow pointed in an opposite direction with text: How to Make Our Characters Move Forward

Editor Victoria Mixon states that our story’s Climax is “The Point” of our story. Whatever confrontation, revelation, redemption, growth, realization, etc. happens in the Climax is often the reason we decided to write the story back when it was just a twinkle in our muse’s eye. *smile*

The events of the Climax also create the story’s premise. If our Climax requires our character to confront the bad guy, the premise is an extension of that:

  • The character must learn to overcome their fears to confront…
  • The character must gather allies to confront…
  • The character must grow into a worthy hero to confront…

However, before the story beat of the Climax, our characters have just experienced the Black Moment/Crisis beat, and they’ve given up. How do we get them from point A to point B?

Kicking Off the Story Climax

I’ve mentioned before that the Climax is a different beat from the others because rather than falling at a certain page or word count, it takes up most of our Act Three.

Personally, I see the Climax starting at the point when our characters recommit to the story goals, when they give up giving up. *smile* When our characters recommit to the story goals, that’s usually the sign to begin the race to the finish, taking care of all the henchmen and obstacles along the way to the big showdown.

But what makes our characters recommit? They’ve just symbolically died and had their failures shoved into their faces. Why are they getting up again?

Can a Character Move Forward “Just Because”?

It can be tempting to make a character “just do it” and not worry about why or how they have the motivation to move forward. In our own lives, we’re often looking for a magic wand to help us change.

Many use New Year’s Day as a superficial motivator for starting an exercise program. Others might have really good intentions to stop smoking or another bad habit.

However, we also know from real life that the majority of those efforts fail. Change is hard, and good intentions often aren’t enough to force us to stick with the work to change ourselves.

So in our stories, change will feel more tangible and real (and lasting) if there’s a trigger. Just like how in real life, an ultimatum might help us follow through on those good intentions, our characters will often do better if we trigger their change by forcing them into a corner and giving them no choice.

The Key to Satisfying Change

In some stories, our characters might go through a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending). However, the most common style of story involves a positive arc, where our characters succeed with the story goals.

On some level, positive arc stories are inspirational for readers. They show us how change is possible, how change can lead to happiness and success, and how we’re stronger than we think.

These ideas often form one or more of the themes of our stories. We see characters rise to the occasion and do something they didn’t think they could do. Or we see them willing to try something they were never willing to do before. That courage and willingness to try is heroism.

When readers want to be inspired by heroes, they’re looking for stories where characters stand up to obstacles, dig deep within themselves to find courage, and recommit to the story goals despite everything working against them.

Even in flat or negative arc stories, readers can still be satisfied by characters who try. The point is that the characters have goals that they’re committed to.

Either way, Act Three is all about that journey. Readers want to see characters recommitting to the story goals and trying to succeed.

How Can We Force a Character to Recommit?

Characters don’t have to recommit to the story goals all at once. The Climax is filled with obstacles, each causing our characters to question whether they can succeed or stay the course.

Each obstacle can also provide an opportunity to show how our characters’ commitment strengthens and grows. We can start off with a trigger to get them to recommit and then build on their determination throughout the Climax.

Characters might recommit for many reasons, such as:

Higher Stakes:

The stakes (consequences) of giving up might be worse than they expected. For example, failing to stop the villain might lead to endangering someone’s life or a lost job or a ruined relationship.

Stronger Antagonist:

The antagonist might force or manipulate them into a corner. For example, a villain might force a fight-or-die battle.

No Other Options:

The options the characters thought were going to work are taken away. For example, their escape route might become blocked.

Caught in the Setting:

Related to above, the setting might not allow the characters to avoid a confrontation. For example, the character might be stuck on a plane with the villain.

Ticking Clock:

A deadline can force characters to make decisions about how to proceed. For example, a character might need to forget planning and just act now to avert disaster (think of a romantic comedies where the hero runs through the airport to express their love before the heroine’s flight leaves).

New Hope:

Characters might learn something that reignites their hope. For example, they might learn their beliefs were false.

Reminder of Goals:

Sometimes our characters only need a reminder of their goals or motivations. For example, a sidekick or mentor might give our character a verbal kick in the pants.

Courage in the Face of Failure Is Heroic

Whatever triggers our characters to get back into the game, there’s an element of courage at play. They’ve already failed to some extent with the Black Moment/Crisis, so they know how easily they can fail again.

That they move forward despite those risks makes them characters we admire or are inspired by. They’re facing their fear and deciding they’d rather fail by trying than by not trying at all. They’re refusing to let their fears or their circumstances stop them.

We can all relate to that kind of courage, that kind of choice. That courage makes them heroic, even if they don’t get their happy ending. *smile*

Have you read books missing a trigger for the characters to recommit? Does that affect your impression of the story or character? Could your characters’ reasons for moving forward be strengthened? Can you think of other ways we can trigger our characters to recommit to the story goals? Do you make your characters face obstacles that force them to find courage?

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Revision Technique: Why Did You Do That?

by Jami Gold on April 28, 2015

in Writing Stuff

A knight chess piece on a board with text: Can You Justify Your Writing Choices?

The other week, I talked about how to find the right editor for us: the right kind with the right strengths and the right style. At the end of that series, I pointed out how one of the most important considerations is that we trust our editor.

There’s a reason I emphasized that point over and over. And that reason ties in to how we draft, revise, and edit—whether we use paid professional help or not.

Sometimes the best way to improve our writing is to have to justify the choices we’ve made. Having to justify our choices ensures that everything on the page is intentional.

Being Intentional with Our Writing

Everything we write should be intentional—the words we use, the events we emphasize, the emotions we evoke, the themes we build, etc. But there are many ways our writing might not match our intentions.

We might discover that we have…:

  • Failed to Get Our Thoughts on the Page: Before we can accurately capture the story in our head, we have to know what we intend to convey.
  • Unintended Themes: Themes are created through several elements, which can conflict or create themes opposite from our intentions.
  • Unintended Subtext: Broken subtext can undermine our intended themes, premise, or characterizations.
  • Mismatched Emotions: Over- or under-playing characters’ emotions changes the reader’s impression of them, which might not match our intentions.
  • Mismatched Emphasis: Different writing techniques emphasize (or de-emphasize) story events, so we should match the writing style to the intended emphasis (i.e., showing requires more words, which then results in a stronger emphasis).

Do We Know Our Intentions?

It’s easy to receive feedback that conflicts. One beta reader might love something another reader hates. Or maybe one reader tells us to cut something that another beta reader thinks is important.

Or worse, we might get feedback that sounds good, but also receive other feedback that sounds good too. Yet neither of those options are quite the story we wanted to tell. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better.

In cases where feedback is confusing or doesn’t feel right, it’s important for us to know our intentions. Our intentions for a story, character, or scene can be the rudder steering us straight through the chaos of revisions and edits.

If we know what we intended, we only have to figure out which advice and feedback will help us get to where we want to go. And that’s a far better situation than following every piece of advice that “sounds good.”

The Difference Trust Makes

When We Don’t Have Trust…

When we receive feedback from beta readers, critique partners, or editors that we don’t trust, our default response to each suggestion might be “No, unless you give me a reason to listen.”

In other words, when we don’t trust that the person giving us feedback truly understands our goals for our story, it’s much easier to dismiss their feedback—no matter how good it is.

  • If they question why a character does abc, we might delete that comment and scoff: “It was right there on the previous page. You must have missed it.”
  • If they point out a potential problem with a story beat, we might ignore the comment and grumble: “They’re trying to change my story to something it’s not.”

Now, maybe we’re absolutely in the right. Maybe we have a reason for not trusting their feedback. *smile*

Or maybe, we’re far too quick at thinking our intentions made it onto the page, and in truth, we could have made something clearer. Yet our lack of trust in the feedback can prevent us from questioning ourselves.

When We Do Have Trust…

On the other hand, when we trust the person giving us feedback—when we trust that they get our story and our voice—our default response to every suggestion might be “Yes, unless I can come up with a reason to disagree.”

In other words, when we trust our editor (or beta reader or critique partner), we’re more likely to listen and take the time to justify our choices.

That justification often comes back to thinking about our intentions. Did we have a reason for writing abc that way? Did we mean to do xyz?

When we trust the person giving us feedback, if we can’t justify our decisions for writing it a certain way, we’re far more likely to take their suggestions. That means when we work with those who have earned our trust, we’ll be far less likely to be lazy with our revising and editing.

Using Trusted Feedback to Be More Intentional

No matter how much we try to be intentional when we draft stories, lazy writing will always sneak in:

  • We might use vague words like big, good, thing, etc. *raises hand*
  • We might shortchange a character’s motivation or emotional response.
  • We might hand-wave away a plot hole, etc.

We often need feedback from others to call us on those weaknesses in our writing. Their comments can keep our lazy-brain from getting away with less-than-stellar prose. However, we’re also more likely to listen to feedback if we trust the source.

When we trust the comments enough to spend the time seeing if we can justify the writing on the page, we’ll end up with stronger, more intentional writing. We’re more likely to dig deeper:

  • With feedback about a section where our character is unlikable:
    Did we have a reason for including it, or was this just what popped into our head first? Is that reason important, or should we cut this section? Can we fulfill that reason and get rid of the unlikable bits at the same time?
  • With feedback about a plot hole:
    Is this the way the story really needs to play out? Can we come up with better motivations for our characters? Would more or deeper stakes help?
  • With feedback about a cliché:
    What are we trying to say here? How can we write it fresher? Or is it better to simply cut the line?

That’s hard work. It’s far easier to just say that something is “good enough.”

Forcing ourselves out of lazy-brain mode takes energy. Sometimes we might have the mental strength to take every comment and suggestion in feedback seriously, but sometimes we won’t.

In those cases, we might need a reason to take feedback seriously enough to put in the time and energy to revise and edit right. Trusting the feedback we’ve received can make that difference.

Are We Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?

If we don’t have a source of trusted feedback, we can fake it. All we need to do is push ourselves to ensure that we have a justification for every issue we receive feedback on. Even if we think the answer is obvious, or even if we think the feedback is stupid, we can still push ourselves to take the time and make sure.

When our writing is at its best, every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, plot event, story beat, and subtextual cue will be intentional. But our lazy-brain can trick us into slapdash writing.

We often need a kick in the pants to force us to question our choices and make sure they match our intentions. Trusted feedback—where our default response is to assume they’re right unless we can justify our choices—or forcing ourselves to take untrusted feedback seriously, can be just the kick we need. *smile*

Do you catch yourself doing lazy-brain writing sometimes? Does feedback help you find those issues, or do you have other techniques for fixing them? Do you have a default assumption about feedback, from assuming it’s right to assuming it’s wrong? What flips that default response for you? Is it trust or something else?

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What Kind of Advice Works for You?

by Jami Gold on April 23, 2015

in Random Musings

Drawing of happy and sad masks with text: What Advice Do You Need?

I often point out how there’s no “one right way.” There’s no one right way to brainstorm, draft, or edit our book. There’s no one right way to query or publish our books. And there’s no one right way to market or promote our books.

We can probably all think of several ways that don’t work—ever. Constant “buy my book” tweets? That definitely doesn’t work. Ditto for just whining about wanting to write a book but never actually putting in the time to do it. *smile*

But there are often several paths that do lead to success. Plotting our story in advance and writing by the seat of our pants can both work. Traditional publishing and self-publishing can both work. Trying to appeal to new readers and focusing on our current readers can both work.

Sometimes we might have better luck with one method over another, but that doesn’t make the other method wrong. The question for which way we should go isn’t about right or wrong but about which way works best for our processes, personality, goals, etc.

The Two Kinds of Encouragement Advice

The same spectrum applies to encouragement advice. We often see two kinds of encouragement in the writing world:

Pushy Advice:

  • “Get your butt in the chair and just do it.”
  • “Writing is hard. No one cares about your excuses.”
  • “Want to be a success? Suck it up and learn (grammar, marketing, entrepreneurship, etc.).”

Sympathetic Advice:

  • “Writer’s block sucks. Maybe try something different to see if that helps you brainstorm.”
  • “10 Ideas to Promote Your Book without Feeling Like a Desperate Loser”
  • “You can do it! I believe in you!”

Both types of advice can be useful and helpful to people. Neither are wrong.

However, depending on our situation, our mindset, or our mental health, the non-helpful (to us) kind of advice can actually be harmful (to us). And it’s important that we understand ourselves enough to recognize the difference.

How Advice Can Be Harmful

If we’re procrastinating or not working as hard as we could, pushy advice might be just the kick in the pants we need. Or if we’re being whiny about everything we need to learn or about rejections or bad reviews, pushy advice might be a needed reality check.

However, if we’re already working hard and running ourselves ragged, pushy advice might force us into burnout or sickness. Or if we’re already feeling bad about ourselves, pushy advice can make us beat ourselves up even more.

On the other hand, if we’re not in a strong mental or physical state, sympathetic advice lets us know we’re not alone. Or if we’re already doing everything we can, sympathetic advice can assure us that it’s okay to cut ourselves a break once in a while.

Yet at the same time, if we’re procrastinating or letting our fears hold us back, sympathetic advice can enable our excuses. Or if we’re looking for a reason to avoid learning how to edit (or whatever), sympathetic advice might convince us that we don’t need to stretch beyond our comfort zone.

We Need Balance between the Types of Advice

Both kinds of advice can be helpful or harmful, depending on our situation. And only we know what that is.

No one else can tell us what our goals should be. No one else can tell us what our priorities should be. No one else can tell us our budget, our comfort zones, our personality, or our strengths or weaknesses.

The kind of advice we need might change from hour to hour or project to project. We might need a kick in the pants to get us going in the morning and then need sympathetic advice when we get to a hard scene in our story later that afternoon. Or we might need pushy advice about self-editing and sympathetic advice about paying for an editor.

Others don’t know what we need. The tweeted advice that doesn’t work for us might work for others. The blog post that makes us feel bad might be just what others need.

That mismatch is not on the tweeter or the blog post author. They’re trying to help, and if we were in a different place, it might even help us. The mismatch is on us. So what can we do?

We Can Recognize Our Needs and Be Kind to Ourselves

A couple of weeks ago, Chuck Wendig tweeted a lot of pushy advice. When called on it, he then followed up with a post about the flipside of that advice. (Warning: language at those links)

In his sympathetic advice post, he pointed out that we have to be kind to ourselves, but that doesn’t mean giving in or appeasing our excuses:

“Kindness is about understanding one’s limitations but still encouraging growth. It’s like physical or mental therapy — kindness to your bum knee isn’t just letting the leg atrophy and accepting you’ll never use it again. … Kindness is leaving it alone until it heals enough that you can move it. Kindness is pushing a little bit here and there until that knee can move again. Or until you can compensate. Kindness isn’t giving up, but rather, believing that you can do it — and then taking action to make it so.”

We can push ourselves and yet have compassion for falling short. We can strive for success and yet forgive our failures.

Most importantly, we can recognize what type of advice we need right now and let only that type of advice into our sphere of awareness. We can give ourselves permission to ignore the advice that won’t be helpful (and might even be harmful). We don’t have to give that unhelpful advice space inside our heads.

Being kind to ourselves is about being aware of our situation and letting only the right type of advice—for us—into our senses. Being kind is about being aware of the lies we tell ourselves and calling out those lies.

As I said in that post about how to tell a lie or an excuse:

“If someone offered me a million dollars to prove that lie wasn’t true, could I do it?”

The fine line between giving in to our excuses or being kind to ourselves is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. Ditto for the line between wanting more for ourselves and being kind about the effort it takes. Add in advice that’s outright harmful to us with our current situation, and it’s near-impossible to find the right balance.

We need to act as bouncer for our brain and let only the good advice (whatever that means for us this minute) inside. See advice that isn’t good for us right now? We can bookmark it if we think might be useful later, but we don’t have to listen to it this very minute.

As Chuck said, we can be understanding about our limitations and still encourage growth. We have enough negativity in the world to deal with, and we don’t need to give advice that isn’t helpful to us a platform in our thoughts. We don’t have to let anyone else guilt or shame us for our situation, choices, or priorities.

Instead, be kind…to yourself. *smile*

Do you find pushy advice helpful sometimes? And is sympathetic advice helpful to you sometimes as well? Does one type work better on you more often? Are you able to recognize which type of advice you need and filter out the unhelpful type? Do you have other suggestions about how to be kind to ourselves with the right kind of advice?

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Color variations of a single shade with text: In Search of Our Perfect Editor...

I wasn’t planning on doing another post about picking editors, but a couple of great comments and questions brought up a few more issues I want to touch on. *smile*

Last week, we talked about the different kinds of editing and editors. Whether or not we pay a professional editor for all the different steps of editing, it’s good to understand the stages so we can ensure that we’re checking for potential issues in the right order.

We also talked about how to evaluate editors. I emphasized that finding the right editor for us is a very subjective process, so we can’t simply copy the choices of another author.

Today I want to dig deeper into some of the variations we might encounter when evaluating editors. By understanding these variations, we might better be able to find our perfect match. *smile*

We Each Need Different Strengths from Our Editors

An editor’s strengths are composed of many skills. And the skills an editor possesses are like the facets of a gem.

Any cut diamond will have facets defining the whole, but certain percentages will balance out in different ways for different purposes. The facet design of a round brilliant-cut diamond works for many jewelry settings, while the facets of a heart-shaped diamond are necessary for other settings.

Similarly, we might need an editor stronger in certain areas than another author. Our knowledge, genre, story, voice, and strengths and weaknesses create a “setting” that will work best with bigger “facets”—strengths—of certain editorial skills.

The Many Skills of an Editor

As we mentioned last week, editors have different skills as far as the type of editing they’re good at. Some focus on the big picture, some look at the nitty-gritty details, and some split the difference by focusing on the details to affect the big picture.

However, beyond that obvious difference, all editors also need other skills, such as:

A Keen Eye for Issues:

Every editor of any type must first be able to find the issues in our work. Duh.

Going back to our diamond analogy, I’d consider this the main facet of our editor’s skills. If they can’t find issues, they’re not doing us a whole lot of good.

The importance of this facet is why we can learn a lot by comparing sample edits from different editors. If we could see all the issues in our work, we wouldn’t need editors. By comparing sample edits, we can reach a better understanding of where those issues are and which editor is good at finding most of them in our work.

An Understanding of Issues and Their Causes:

Every editor should be able to identify (at least to some extent) the cause of an issue.

  • Developmental editors need to understand story structure, character and theme development, pacing, etc.
  • Line editors need to have a good handle on how to make our words flow and create the most impact, etc.
  • Copy editors need to know grammar rules, word usage, etc.

Most authors would think this facet fairly important, but others might not. For example, some authors might not need their line editor to explain why a sentence is clunky. All they need is their editor to point out where the wording is awkward, and the author would take it from there.

The author’s strength would make this facet of an editor’s skills less important. When we’re evaluating editors and we come across one who doesn’t seem to dig deep enough, it might be because there’s a mismatch between their focus and what we need as far as understanding the cause of an issue.

A Knowledge of Potential Solutions:

Related to the above fact, some authors need their editors to be able to give suggestions of how to fix a problem, while some don’t. For example, some developmental editors might not have ideas for how to make a character more likable. They’d only be able to point out that the character was unlikable and maybe some of the phrases or sections that caused the impression.

Other developmental editors would be able to point out most of the phrases causing that impression (so the author could tweak or delete them), as well as be able to give other ideas for how to increase the character’s likability. Either editor could be a good match for certain authors.

Our needs in this regard can vary with each issue. Depending on our strengths and weaknesses, we might need more help fixing some issues than others. With some types of issues, I have the *head slap* moment when something is pointed out, and I fix it without a problem. For other types of issues, I want to see examples because I can’t figure out how to fix it without the extra help. *smile*

When we’re evaluating editors, we can look at the types of comments they leave to see how strong this facet is among their skills. Do their comments include suggested fixes? At least for the areas we have weaknesses?

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only a question of whether they’re a good match for our needs.

An Ability to Communicate:

Continuing with the variations of skills, some editors might be great at finding issues, knowing the cause of the issue, and having suggestions for how to fix the issue. However, are they good at communicating all that to the author?

Some editors’ comments will be all business, and some will include kudos or jokes. Some will be blunt, and some will couch their suggestions in disclaimers. Some will be a stickler for rules, and some will judge based on their own feel of our story, voice, or genre.

Again, there’s no right or wrong. Some of us want an editor who’s more gentle, and others of us don’t care as long as the majority of the issues are found.

When we’re evaluating editors, we can look at their comments to see if their communication style works for us. An editor might be great with all the other facets, but if their fixes don’t mesh with our voice and story goals or if they’re too harsh for our taste, they’re not going to be a good match.

Can We Really Find a Perfect Match?

Nothing is ever going to be perfect-perfect, including our editors. They won’t find 100% of issues. They won’t be able to explain every gut instinct. They won’t give suggested solutions for every issue. And they won’t be able to communicate so perfectly that they feel like our mental twin all the time.

Just like any other relationship or partnership, the “perfect” match requires compromise. And this again is why the perfect editor for someone else might not be the perfect editor for us.

My “must haves” are different from your “must haves.” Or put another way, my neuroses and pet peeves are different from your neuroses and pet peeves. *snicker*

So we look for an editor that’s strongest in the areas we need. One who’s good at meeting our needs most of the time. One who makes mistakes in areas that we can ignore or not worry about.

The only question is whether they’re “perfect enough” for us to trust. If we trust them with our work, to meet our needs, to make our writing the best it can be, etc., that is perfect.

We’ll Trust Our Editor When…

As we discussed last time as part of my final thoughts (or not-so-final thoughts *grin*), the most important consideration is whether we trust our editor. We want to trust that our editor will meet our needs, whether that’s finding our story’s issues or giving suggestions on how to fix our story’s issues.

And our needs are going to be different from any other author’s needs. This is why it’s so hard to find the right editor for us.

We can ask for recommendations. We can look at the acknowledgements section of books (but that won’t tell us whether or not the author followed the editor’s advice, especially for self-published authors). Or we can talk to editors with a good reputation.

But none of that will tell us whether the editor would be a good match for us and our needs. As I mentioned in the comments of the last post, knowing the name of someone’s editor provides a name for Step One: Gather Names, and that’s it.

It’s far more important to find an editor who meets our needs than one who meets the needs of one of our friends or a big-name author. It’s only by feeling that our needs are met that we’ll truly be able to feel that they’re our partner and trust them with our work.

If we trust our editor, our default response to every suggestion will be “Yes, unless I can come up with a reason to disagree.” If we don’t trust our editor, our default response will be “No, unless you give me a reason to listen.”

That’s a big difference. And understanding our needs for how to build that trust is just another reason why finding the right editor for us is so important and yet so subjective. *smile*

Can you think of other facets of general skills an editor might have? Do you know what facets are most important for you? Do you know which ones are less important for you? If you’ve found an editor who’s perfect for you, how well do they match your needs? Do you agree about the importance of trust?

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Yellow star with text: How to Rate Potential Editors

Last time we talked about how to know what type of editing we need for our strengths and weaknesses. Depending on our situation, we might be able to find others to help us, such as beta readers, family, or friends. Other times we might be able to exchange our strengths for editing services from others.

I’ve traded my developmental editing skills for developmental edits and copyedits on some of my stories. Those trades cost me time but have greatly helped my wallet. *smile*

However, we might not have others to turn to for favors, or we might not have skills to trade. (Don’t be too quick to count yourself out in having worthwhile skills though. Any strengths we have might be good for trades, online workshops, coaching, etc. which could all reduce our expenses.)

Obviously, when we do need to open our wallet, we want to make sure that we’re spending our money on quality editing for our needs. Not only do we want our editor to know what they’re doing, but we also want their edits to fit with our story, our voice, and our weaknesses.

Let’s see if we can come up with tips, questions, and processes that will help us evaluate editors for our needs. (And hang on, as this is a monster of a post!) With luck, we’ll all be able to find the right editor for us. *smile*

How to Find Potential Editors

Step One: Gather Names

As soon as I decided to self-publish, I started keeping my eyes open for potential editors, and I saved links for every editor I came across.

I collected names, links, and/or email addresses from:

  • friends who edited,
  • recommendations from friends or on social media,
  • editors of award nominees,
  • answers on forum posts about editors, etc.

By the time I was ready for editing, I’d collected over 100 names across all the different types of editing. (Yes, I’m an over-achieving perfectionist who goes overboard on projects. I wouldn’t recommend trying to imitate my approach. *smile*)

This thorough approach meant I had plenty of possibilities to choose from, however. Going back to my post about the need to pick two choices from the list of fast, cheap, and good, the more potential editors we have to choose from, the more likely we’ll be able to find an editor who’s good and within our budget. The cost is our time for the next step.

Step Two: Research

Once we have our list of possibilities, we need to research further to start eliminating names. We can check an editor’s website for our first pass of deciding whether they’d be a good fit for us.

We might eliminate names from our list due to issues with:

  • typos on their website
  • their personality (their editing goals don’t match ours)
  • the type of editor (an editing stage we don’t need)
  • their policies (full payment upfront, no clean-writing discount, no sample edits, etc.)
  • scheduling (they’re not taking new clients, etc.)
  • their prices (seem out of line from others)

After we complete our initial “rejections,” we can dig deeper. We can check their services to see if what they offer really matches what we need. (Remember that editing titles aren’t absolute, and many editors call themselves one kind of editor but are actually stronger in another area.)

We can look through their recommendations or testimonials and see if we know any of their clients to ask for more insight or examples of their edits. We can do a search on their name and the word editor to see if any other links show up with more information. Or we could ask around on writing forums to see if any members are familiar with their work.

Step 3: Make Contact with Potential Editors

With our final list of potentials, we can start making contact. I had a developmental editor lined up already, so I started out searching for a line editor. I emailed a handful at the top of my list with an introduction: my genre, that I was writing a series (so they knew I was looking for a long-term partnership), and how I’d heard of them.

Then I started the questions… *smile* Again, I’m uber-over-achieving in this regard, but I had a whole list of questions that I customized based on what I couldn’t answer from their website.

The questions included:

  • What’s your typical turnaround time?
  • Do you have preferred genres? (I also made sure they’d be okay with my stories’ heat levels.)
  • How do you provide feedback? (Avoid editors who make changes directly in the manuscript without using MS Word’s Track Changes or comment functions, as it’s a pain to figure out what they changed to see if you agree with the edits.)
  • What are your biggest strengths as an editor?
  • When would you be available for an X words story?

Then I closed with a note about how I was attaching the first chapter of my story in hopes that they were open to demonstrating their editing style on at least a few of the pages. Finally, I asked what they’d charge for an edit on that full story (as they’d now seen my writing to decide on a clean-writing discount or not).

I gave every editor the same pages. In other words, I didn’t update the sample after getting a few suggestions from an editor. The point here is to not only see whether they’re a good fit for our voice, but also to compare one editor to another. We can learn a lot by what editors do—or don’t—point out.

Some of the editors flat-out told me they didn’t do sample edits or weren’t available. Those were easy to eliminate.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I consider sample edits essential for line edits and copyedits. For line editors, one of the most important considerations is whether an editor is a good match for our voice. For copyeditors, we want to be assured that they know grammar rules, etc.

By eliminating a couple of editors at a time and then emailing the next one on the list until I found the perfect match, I was able to see a lot of sample edits. I quickly realized two things: far too many of the editors were unqualified (grammar errors or general sloppiness) and many editors don’t use the “right” title.

Evaluating an Editor’s Strengths

As I mentioned last time, about half the editors I contacted about line editing came back with sample edits that focused instead on copyedits. Now maybe they just thought my prose didn’t need changes for flow or tightening (*snort*), or maybe line editing isn’t actually their strength.

To give you an idea of how to tell an editor’s focus from a sample edit, I’m going to share some paraphrased comments I received from my editors at different points in the editing process for my freebie short story, Unintended Guardian. Evaluating an editor’s comments or suggestions in a sample edit can help us identify an editor’s strengths.

Developmental Editing

Note how these comments get deep into motivations, emotions, and characterization. Along with the bullet points I mentioned last time, these are signs of developmental edits.

  • “I don’t understand her thoughts on what’s happening. I think it might be because we don’t know her default attitude. This would probably just take a couple sentences here and there to fix.”
  • “Feels like we need some visceral bodily reaction here to add emotion. I like the metaphor, but I find I’m wondering what she’s feeling.”

Line Editing

Note how these comments get into reading flow, clarity, tightening, and stronger writing. These are great signs of line edits. (Also note how these comments get into the nitty-gritty of how we word things. That’s why we need our line editor to be in tune with our voice.)

  • “I feel like her words should directly follow this. See what you think of the new arrangement.”
  • “This wording is a little awkward, and I would add a sentence or two showing her decision.”
  • “You can cut this. We know it already.”
  • “This almost goes without saying. Could you use a more descriptive adverb, or better yet, phrase?”

Copy Editing

Note how these comments get into tense, comma, word choice, and grammar issues. These are all signs of copy edits.

  • “Insert had.”
  • “You could cut this and insert a comma.”
  • “This is an unusual word for the context.”
  • “This like should be as if or as though.”

The Skills Matter, Not the Title

We shouldn’t eliminate an editor who’s using an imprecise title for themselves as long as we’re clear on what they can do for us and their skills meet our needs. Many editors have skills that overlap.

My line editor also gives a ton of copyediting suggestions and a few developmental suggestions too (such as pointing out where motivations need to be more fleshed out). So the lines connecting what an editor’s skills are with the titles that define them are very gray and wavy. A perceived mismatch isn’t a reason to “reject” an editor.

The Skills Matter, Not the Price (Sort of…)

Obviously, an editor’s price matters if we can’t afford them. (Although I’d suggest that it doesn’t hurt to ask if we qualify for clean-writing discounts, or if there are other ways to save money.) But in my experience, a high price doesn’t automatically equal good quality, and a low price doesn’t automatically equal poor quality.

Among the editors who impressed me, prices ranged from:
$5 per 1000 words to $20 per 1000 words.

Among the editors with questionable grammar, prices ranged from:
$3 per 1000 words to $50 per 1000 words.

Point made: Price isn’t connected to quality—good or bad. *smile*

Do We Know Enough to Evaluate an Editor?

So I keep talking about sample edits here, but there’s a very big elephant sitting on our manuscript pages that we need to discuss. If we look at those comments above, we’ll see that we need to have strong writing skills to know if a potential editor’s suggestions are right or wrong.

There’s a big difference in how easily we can trust an editor depending on whether we know if they’re right or not. When we get notes back from an editor, do we do a *head slap* for missing something we know? Or do we think “Huh. I didn’t know that, but I guess they must be right”?

The former situation makes it easy to evaluate sample edits and know who really has the skills and who’s full of it. The former situation makes it easy to develop a relationship with our editor based on trust. The former situation makes it easy to “accept” 90% or more of our editor’s suggestions and know they were the right thing for the story.

The latter situation—when we don’t know how to improve our writing or we don’t know the rules (and we don’t take the time to Google and verify or fully understand the rule)—makes everything harder. We won’t be able to tell which editors are good or bad, and we won’t be able to build a trusting relationship with the editor we choose. That’s a tragedy.

That’s why—unless we have unlimited money to pay an editor to mentor and teach us everything we need to know—we shouldn’t pursue editing and publication until we’ve strengthened our own skills.

Evaluating a Sample Edit

Once we receive a few sample edits, we can start comparing to learn more about each editor’s strengths. For example:

  • Does one editor suggest a change and note the reason why (“Webster’s calls for this to be one word and not hyphenated.”), while another editor doesn’t mention it?
  • Does one editor suggest changes that mess up our voice?
  • Do editors make opposite suggestions? (I had one editor tell me to put something in quotes and another editor point to a Chicago Manual of Style rule that it should be capitalized and italicized.)
  • Does one editor make positive comments that make it seem like they get our voice, story, and writing style?
  • Does one editor point out more issues that are truly helpful or insightful?

Notice that some of those questions are objective (quoting rules), and some are subjective (voice, etc.). Yet even on the objective side, we might not need (or want) an editor who’s a rule-stickler.

Either way, that kind of analysis can tell us a lot about an editor’s skill set and/or what they tend to notice. I’m terrible with hyphenation, so I knew I needed a copyeditor who would notice those errors. I cut my writing teeth at the feet of two editors who showed me the possibilities of great line editing, and I was starved for more than just a copyedit.

Other writers will have different goals, priorities, and weaknesses to fill in. I love my editors, but they wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for others. The right match for us is extremely subjective.

The Details: Keeping Track

Because I’m ridiculously organized, I created a spreadsheet to keep track of all the editors on my short list. My spreadsheet included:

  • all their contact information,
  • pricing and availability,
  • notes about recommendations, clients, and genres, and
  • notes about the sample edits.

The Details: Grading Each Editor

Then I gave each editor a grade based on how good of a match they’d be for me. (i.e., I’m not sharing this spreadsheet because it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. *smile*)

That last column with my notes on the sample edits was the basis of the grade. That column included notes such as:

  • D: Copy edit only, didn’t agree with most changes
  • C: More copy than line, and not sure about many grammar aspects
  • B: Mix of line and copy, but some of the comments broke my voice
  • A: Good mix of line and copy suggestions, agreed with most

By the time all the sample edits were returned, I had several A-grade editors to choose from. I made my final choice based on which editor was best for my voice, was spot on with all of her rule-based suggestions, was available, and charged a fair price (she charges by the hour, so my clean-writing discount was built into the price).

What Questions Don’t Matter?

We might see advice about other ways we can evaluate an editor, but much of this advice is inaccurate or doesn’t matter in most cases.

Myth: The Best Editors Are Also Writers

False. As writers, we know that novel writing and query and blurb writing are very different skills. Multiply that by a thousand and we might understand why editing skills are often unrelated to writing skills.

Even if they are published authors, their own writing quality doesn’t indicate their editing skills, as writer-editors can’t edit themselves any more than the rest of us. Their writing quality might say more about their editor’s skills than their own editing skills.

Myth: The Best Editors Are Not Writers

False. Whether or not someone edits as their full-time job doesn’t necessarily reflect their skills.

No matter how good I become at developmental editing, I wouldn’t give up writing. Editors can like—and be good at—more than one thing.

Myth: An Editor’s Process Determines Their Quality

False. Some of you might have seen the debate on my Facebook post about whether or not editors who started making comments on their first read-through were “sloppy.”

Just as plotters and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) can both write clean and strong stories, editors who make comments on their first read and those who do an overview read-through first can both give insightful and complete edits.

In fact, most editors I know make comments on their first read-through because their fresh eyes are better at catching issues. They don’t want to forget any concerns by waiting for their second pass to make their notes.

As I mentioned on Facebook, editors who make comments on a first read should probably do a second pass to see if their questions, concerns, suggestions, etc. change once they know the story. (If they left inappropriate comments in, that would be sloppy.) But there’s no reason for them to not make a note when they notice a problem. Only the quality of the final edit they return to the author matters.

Final Thoughts

All of these tips, lists, and myths come down to one thing:

Do you trust your editor?

If you need your editor to be an author (or not be an author) for you to trust them, then it matters to you. If you need your editor to follow a certain process for you to trust them, then it matters to you.

Conversely, if you don’t need your editor to be in tune with your voice to trust their suggestions, then that tip doesn’t matter to you. Or if you don’t need your editor to know grammar rules to be able to trust their judgment, then that tip doesn’t matter to you.

An editor—especially for self-published authors—is a partner and not an authority-from-on-high. The best partnership often comes down to finding an editor that we can trust.

Those A-grade editors on my list were all people that I would trust with my work. If we don’t trust an editor enough to “accept” most of their suggestions, the edit is a waste of money.

The details of an edit are just sausage-making. Only the quality of the edit for the author matters. And hopefully, this post will help us find that perfect match. *smile*

Do you have suggestions for where else to look for potential editors? What do you look for in an editor? Do you have any questions about these evaluation tips? Do you have other tips to share? Do you agree that it’s most important to find an editor we can trust?

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