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Monday, March 25, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Prologues, Hooks, Setups, Inciting Incidents





Over the last several months I've been reviewing story structure off and on as I try to brainstorm and "percolate" my next novel and finish revising my current one. I've already broken down and talked about the basic approach to story structure in the post "What to Outline When Starting a Story." But since there are different approaches and story structures and more elements than I covered in there, I'm revisiting the topic with more specificity.

The elements in here aren't my own, but they have my own spin and explanations. This post's take on story structure is influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid. You'll find that a lot of story structure resources have the same points and elements, but may call them different things or approach them in different ways. What matters most is that you understand the concepts and ideas, not what you call them (and in the writing community, some terms are used very ambiguously).

None of these things are 100% black and white--there are grays and there are variations--but you'll find that most successful stories have this structure or some rendition of it. And whether you like to plot or discover your story, whether you write intentionally or subconsciously, you'll probably hit a lot of these elements by the time your story is finished, so this isn't meant to restrict you, but help enhance your storytelling.

I'll be referring to Spider-verse as an example, because I love it, it recently won an Academy Award, and I've watched it four times over the months I've been reviewing story structure. You'll see how it fits, and varies, from the structure. Also worth noting is that while it is not the most mind-blowing story, the creators completely nailed everything they approached.

Here are the elements I'm going to hit:

(Prologue)
Hook
Setup
Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")
Pinch Point
Midpoint
Pinch Point 2
Plot Point 2
Climax
Resolution/Denouement
(Epilogue)

This varies somewhat from the others (and is a combination of them), so I hope that doesn't offend anyone, but it's how I like to think of it. 😉

I'll also be taking the heroes through these stages (I've heard them attributed to the Hero's Journey plot structure, but I'm not sure that's where they originated):

Orphan
Wanderer
Warrior
Martyr

And I'll be including character arcs and themes and talking about escalating stakes and costs. So let's get started with the beginning! (Cause apparently it's too much awesome to fit in one post! 😎)


Beginning (or "Exposition")

The following elements are in the beginning of the story, what Fretag's Pyramid refers to as "exposition"--I don't recommend using that term because it makes it sound like you can write a bunch of info-dumps. 😂 (Spoiler: you can't 🤷‍♀️)

Prologue (not always present)



I was going to say this was "optional," but that's not the right way to look at prologues. Listen, some stories need prologues, some DO NOT need prologues, and some can actually work either way.

People are hecka confused about what prologues are, how they actually function, and how to even write a good one. I strongly believe the primary, all-encompassing purpose of a prologue is to make promises to the audience. That is the main function of a prologue. There are different kinds of promises you can make and different kinds of ways to make them. If you haven't read my post and plan on using prologues in your writing, I strongly recommend you check out "How Prologues Actually Function & 6 Types to Consider"

In Spider-verse

In Spider-verse, the prologue is at the very beginning, where Peter Parker tells the audience who he is and what it's like being Spider-man.

Type: Informational

- an informational prologue functions by making promises to the audience via giving information

Note: This can't come across as a stale info-dump, which is why you'll see in here the prologue is also infused with the appropriate voice and tone to be entertaining.

Notice that this prologue also gets everyone on the same page by offering a quick recap of Spider-man and his origin story. It also bridges Peter Parker's past story to the story we are about to watch.

But most importantly, it makes promises to the audience--like every good prologue should. And the promises work as hooks, which brings me to the next element.

(Worth mentioning is that this prologue also relates to the dual draw, alternate POV, and even touches the theatrical types of prologues.)

Hooks


I decided to make the term plural, because today, you really need more than one hook. Hooks are lines, concepts, elements--whatever--that pull the audience in. Often this is done by making promises. (The terms can overlap, but technically aren't the exact same thing.)

Hooks primarily function by getting the audience to look forward in some way, so they are anticipating what comes next in the story (which relates to tension). There are a lot of ways you can infuse your story with hooks, so I won't lay them all out here, but I have some helps in "5 Tricks that Help with Hooks."

Hooks should be included throughout your novel, but they are vital to open with. You may even open directly with The Hook™ (the concept that the audience came for). But hooks should be in the very beginning, which is why I'm including it as part of story structure itself.

In Spider-verse


Most of the hooks in Spider-verse come from the prologue. You might be thinking, "Really? But it was just information we already know!" Stick with me. This is exactly why they work as hooks.

Almost always, by the time the audience has sat down in a movie theater or picked up a book, they know something about the story, even if it's minimal. For books we have the back cover copy. For movies, we have trailers. You can absolutely create hooks by playing with the relationship of the back cover copy with the opening pages (or, since back cover copies are often written later, by keeping that in mind).

Unless you are blind (haven't seen trailers, posters, or any promotional material, or talked to anyone), you know Spider-verse has more than one "Spider-man" in it, which is why the prologue has so many hooks--we know that everything Peter Parker is saying is about to change. "I love being Spider-man." "I'm the one and only Spider-man." In other words, it creates a lot of contrast and carries contradictions, which is one approach that almost always works for writing hooks in the beginning of a story: using contrasts or opposites. Contrasts and opposites immediately draw attention and beg the audience to stick around for the story--because they are wondering how those contradictions are going to fit together.

Other hooks include elements of humor (dancing, Christmas music, a popsicle) and the promise of simply getting a good Spider-man story. Even before the prologue, we get teasers of a glitching world and the comic book style of animation--all hooks.

Note: In the Seven Point Plot Structure, the term "hook" is used to encompass the whole story's setup. I don't like it used that way because I don't believe everything in the beginning functions as a hook, and it makes the term "hook" more ambiguous. Open with a hook and get the setup going.

Setup



This is often the most difficult part of the story to write, because you have to convey a lot without being boring or killing the pacing. (FYI, whether or not you have a prologue, you still need a hook in the opening, but then you should continue using hooks to help tighten pacing.)

In the setup, you are essentially grounding the audience: Who is this story about? Where is this story taking place? When is it taking place? What's normal?

And the last one is important, because I'd argue that one of the primary purposes of the setup is to convey a sense of normalcy to the audience (because everything is about to change).

The setup will introduce us to the main character's arc ("arc" refers to how a character grows or changes) by showing how the character is now, which means it also usually nods to the theme, because those two elements are almost always tied together.

If you are writing speculative fiction, you may be explaining magic systems and worldbuilding elements in this section as well. 

In Spider-verse

The setup conveys all these things:

Protagonist: Miles

Setting: Modern day, New York

State of normalcy: Miles is a teenager who lives with his parents, likes graffiti, and is attending a new school where he doesn't feel he fits in. His father is pushing him. Spider-man regularly saves people in New York (as shown on the news). Classes at the new school are intense.

Key characters introduced: Mom and Dad, Gwen, Uncle Aaron, Spider-man (already introduced in the prologue), and we even get a cameo of a villain, Olivia

Character arc introduced: Miles wants to quit his new school, is dealing with everyone's expectations of him, and doesn't know what he wants to do with his life.

Theme introduced: This is directly related to the arc. The primary theme of Spider-verse is to get back up (in other words, not quit). Notice how this is also introduced in a contrasting way in the prologue, where Peter Parker says directly that he always gets back up. Peter knows who he is, what he likes to do ("I love being Spider-man,") and how he is going to live his life.

Foreshadowing: In Miles's class, we see Olivia talking about other universes. When Uncle Aaron takes Miles somewhere to put up his graffiti, Miles asks, "How do you know about this place?" and Aaron answers, "I did an engineering job down here"--alluding to working for the villain. People are talking about earthquakes happening in New York.

Character traits, abilities, and wants: Miles does graffiti art and is apparently pretty good at it. He's also smart enough to go to this new school and get "100%" on his test. But what he wants is to flunk out and return to his old life and not deal with others' expectations. These are important elements. His skills make him likeable and a want/desire/goal gives a sense of direction to the story so it isn't stagnant--it still has a sense of progression.

It's important to know that while you are conveying a sense of normalcy, what's on the page (or screen) needs to be moving the story forward. This means that we don't need a play by play of your protagonist waking up, showering, eating breakfast, sitting through each and every class, etc. (though that is all one reason why those beginnings are so cliche). Notice that we don't get a play by play of every moment of Miles's day; we get a montage, which in novels, is the equivalent of summary.


Orphan State


At the beginning of the story, the protagonist is often in an "orphan" state. This may be literal (Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Peter Parker (both his parents are dead), Frodo (lives with his uncle), or a zillion other protags with no mom and/or dad), or it may be figurative--they may be removed from their parents, isolated from friends, or emotionally distant in some way.

In Spider-verse

While Miles has both parents, he is an "orphan" in the sense that he has become somewhat emotionally distant from his dad and literally distant by attending a new boarding school. He's been disconnected from his past friends, and he feels like he doesn't fit in.

Plot Point 1


This is often called the "inciting incident." But like other terms, there is some disagreement on what and when the "inciting incident" is, though putting it here with plot point one is most common. However, there are others who argue they are two different things, on a more micro-level. (Curse you ambiguous writing terms in the community!! 😡👎) But like I said in the beginning of this article, what matters is not so much what you call it, but that you understand it.

This is the moment where something enters the story and critically changes the protagonist's direction; it's when the story moves from setting up to reaction, from "exposition" to "rising action" if you like Freytag's pyramid, from beginning to middle, from intro to significant conflict. In a Hero's Journey story, this is the "call to action." However you want to think of it, it is the moment that disrupts the established normalcy and sends the protagonist in a new direction.

The inciting incident/plot point one may happen in an instant or it may take place over several scenes.

In Spider-verse

This is the moment where Miles gets bit by the spider. It changes everything. We leave the setup and enter the rising action. He can't go back to the "established normal." And he's going to have to react to all the changes.

In other words, we are leaving the beginning, and starting the middle.



Monday, March 18, 2019

How to Punctuate Dialogue




I usually don't do posts on punctuation, because I figure it's something that anyone can simply look up, but lately I've been running into quite a bit of dialogue that has been punctuated improperly, which is really no surprise, because when you are learning to write dialogue, punctuating is super confusing.

Let's start with the most basic and then move on to the most complicated.

Dialogue is usually made of two parts: the dialogue, and the dialogue tag.

"I'm hungry," (<-- dialogue) Micki said. (<-- dialogue tag)

The dialogue tag tells us who said it and (sometimes) how.

Sometimes dialogue will have no tags because who is saying it is implied. This is the easiest type to punctuate.

Dialogue with No Tags

- Simply put whatever is said in quotations.

Examples:

"Please pass the water."
"Go to your room!"
"Are you staying for dinner?"
"First I want to go biking. After that, let's go fishing. If we have time still, let's go hiking."

*Note: Inside the quotations, always treat capitalization like you would normally.


Dialogue with Tags Coming After a Complete Sentence (Or Intentional Fragment)

When dialogue would ordinarily end in a period:

This is the next simplest.

- If you end the dialogue with a complete sentence that would ordinarily end in a period, put a comma instead, then the dialogue tag, then the period.

Examples:

"I'm setting up an aquarium," Jen said.
"Can you pick up some eggs? I have to bake cookies for the fundraiser," Pat said.
"Shut up! I can't listen to you for another second," Steve yelled.

*Note: If you are ending the dialogue on an intentional sentence fragment, you would do the same thing.

"There were bears. Huge bears," Tanner explained.
"No one can stand her. Ugly. Mean. A monster," he said.
"Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica," he said.

*Note: If you are not ending on a proper name, lower case who is saying it (he said, she said, they said, the man said, etc.) 


When the dialogue ends in a question mark:

- Put the question mark inside the quotation, then the dialogue tag.

Examples:

"Did he love you?" her father asked.
"Would Wednesday work for the meeting?" she asked.
"It's my sister's birthday this Saturday. Do you want to come to the party?" Emma said.


When the dialogue ends in an exclamation point: 

- Put the exclamation point inside the quotation, then the dialogue tag.

Examples:

"I hate you!" Carry said.
"Shut up! Shut up!" Sean yelled.
"Someone's hurt. Hurry!" she said.


Dialogue with Tags Coming First

This is done more rarely, but here is how you would punctuate it.

- Use a comma between the tag and the dialogue. End the dialogue punctuating how you would normally.

Examples:

Timmy asked, "Will it hurt?"
Mom said, "I've already cleaned the entire house."
Dad said, "Don't back talk me!"
She said, "I don't have a lot of time. Could we reschedule?"


*Note the slight difference in "sound" and beat when the dialogue tag comes first.

*Note that since the dialogue tag starts the sentence, the first letter will always be capitalized  (She said, He said, Her mom said, Timmy said, The man said).


Dialogue with Tags in the Middle

With tags after a complete sentence or intentional sentence fragment

- Punctuate it according to the second section, then start the next line of dialogue, punctuating it like the first section.

Examples:

"I'm so cold," Rupert complained. "I can't wait for summer."
"What's your favorite color?" her sister asked. "I like blue."
"I love him!" she said. "You can't change my mind!"
"Bears. Beets," Jim said. "Battlestar Galactica."


With tags technically coming before the next sentence

- Alternatively, the middle tag can be attached to the next sentence.

Examples:

"I'm so cold." Rupert said, "I can't wait for summer."
"What's your favorite color?" Her sister said, "I like blue."
"I love him!" She said, "You can't change my mind!"

*Again, note there is technically a slight variation in sound and beat:

"I'm so cold." / Rupert said, "I can't wait for summer."
vs.
"I'm so cold," Rupert said. / "I can't wait for summer."


*Watch out for attaching the tag to the wrong sentence.

Wrong: "What's your favorite color?" Her sister asked, "I like blue."

"I like blue" can't be "asked." It's not a question.

Correct:  "What's your favorite color?" Her sister said, "I like blue."

(This is why I changed it in the example.)


With tags interrupting a sentence

Maybe you want the tag coming in the middle of a dialogue sentence.

- Use commas to separate the tag from the spoken dialogue.

Examples:

"All I was wondering," she said, "was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats," Tiff said, "and steals!"
"After practice," her dad said, "let's get ice cream."

*Notice that having the tag split a sentence alters the beat with an extra pause. This can sometimes be used to convey hesitancy (perhaps in the first example) or emphasis (in the second example).

Keep in mind that all the lines of dialogue here are complete sentences:

"All I was wondering was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats, and steals."
"After practice, let's get ice cream."

So you should not tag them as if they are complete sentences.

Wrong:
"All I was wondering," she said. "Was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats." Tiff said, "And steals!"
"After practice," her dad said. "Let's get ice cream."

Always look at the sentence(s) in the dialogue and where you are placing the tag to determine how to punctuate them.


Dialogue with Action Implying the Speaker

You can often imply the speaker with action. Keep in mind that this is implying NOT tagging.

- The action and the dialogue are two separate things, so they should be punctuated as two separate things. Punctuate the dialogue as if there is no tag. Write the character's action as you normally would.

Examples:

"Do you need help?" David smiled. [dialogue. action.]
"Hurry!" Nick opened the car door. [dialogue. action.]
She closed the envelope. "It's the only letter he wrote me." [action. dialogue.]
"I'm exhausted." She put on her pajamas. "I want to sleep a full week." [dialogue. action. dialogue.]


WRONG:
"Do you need help?" he smiled.
"Hurry up," Nick opened the door.
She closed the envelope, "It's the only letter he wrote me."
"I'm exhausted," she put on her pajamas, "I want to sleep a full week."

These aren't tags because they do not "speak." You cannot "smile" a spoken sentence. You can smile while speaking a sentence, but you cannot smile a spoken sentence.


Attaching the action to a tag

Alternatively, you can attach the action to a tag, using both a tag and an action.

Examples:

"Do you need help?" David asked, smiling. [dialogue, tag with action]
"Hurry!" Nick yelled and opened the door. [dialogue, tag with action]
She said while very slowly closing the envelope, "It's the only letter he wrote me." [tag with action, dialogue]
"I'm exhausted," she said and put on her pajamas. "I want to sleep a full week." [dialogue, tag with action. dialogue.]

For more advanced tips on this, you can see my post "5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue."


Action Interrupting a Dialogue Sentence

Sometimes you may want action to come in the middle of a dialogue sentence. But here's the problem. It's not a dialogue tag.

- Use em dashes to set off the action outside of the quotes. Don't use commas within the quotes near the interruption.

Examples:

"You said"--she wrenched open the car door--"that she would be safe!"
"Next time you go blabbing about our secrets"--he kicked a rock--"you'll be put in isolation."


Dialogue and Paragraphs

- Every time there is a new speaker, start a new paragraph.

Example:

"You said they would be safe," Lance said. "You said you could defend them!"
"I thought I could! But I didn't know they could wield magic," Ellie said.
"They were our last hope."
"At least I tried to help. Some people around here have done nothing," she said pointedly.
Lance glared.

- If one speaker is speaking for multiple paragraphs, delete the closing quote of their previous paragraph and start the next with another quotation mark. It feels counterintuitive, but that's the rule.

Example:

"You said they would be safe," Lance said. "You said you could defend them!"
"I thought I could! But I didn't know they could wield magic," Ellie said.
"They were our last hope."
"At least I tried to help. Some people around here have done nothing," she said pointedly.
Lance glared."Nothing?" he asked. "You think I've done nothing? I guess I haven't then.
"I guess getting intel from the enemies was nothing.
"I guess locating the chosen ones was nothing.
"I guess sacrificing time that could be spent with my own children is nothing.
"You had one job to do.
"But maybe to you, it was nothing."
Ellie was speechless. 
Typically writers reserve this sort of thing for long paragraphs but my example still proves the point.


Internal Dialogue/Thoughts

At some point you'll probably have internal dialogue (or maybe better put . . . monologue), or in other words, your character's direct thoughts.

- Never put these in quotes. Not double quotes. Not single quotes. Since they aren't being spoken, they should be in italics (in some styles, this is underlined, but you can almost never go wrong with italics). However, handle tags the same way you would in spoken dialogue.

Examples:

I can't believe she did that to me, George thought.
I can't do this anymore! Monica thought.
Please, please let this work, Jasper silently prayed. I can't mess this up again.
If I see him at school tomorrow, she thought, then I will confront him.

In some speculative fiction, you may have characters who can communicate via thoughts. These should also be in italics, not quotes.

Example:

There is danger out there, Saphira thought to him.
Don't worry. I'll be careful. Eragon strapped on his boots.

If you have any dialogue questions, feel free to ask.

* This is based on U.S. English

Monday, March 11, 2019

How to Write Excellent Introspection



Nothing can quite kill a story's pacing like a big hunk of introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info-dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character's thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. Often beginning writers put in whole paragraphs or even pages of introspection in addition to info-dumps--killing the pacing and readers' interests even more. Some writing instructors will tell you that you shouldn't spend more than 20% of the novel in a character's thoughts. But yet in some successful stories, this rule is completely disregarded.

I admit I can be a sucker for a good chunk of introspection. I just love character depth. So how do you master introspection so that it makes your writing stronger, not weaker? Well, here are some tips.

Less is More

Because beginning writers usually also love character depth and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close with their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening. It's a great way to annoy or bore your audience. What usually happens, is that the writer--because she or he is the writer--already feels a strong connection to her characters, and in an effort to get the audience to feel and see what she does with her characters, she thinks that writing more is the answer.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character for themselves--you don't need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

Have you ever sat next to someone at a social gathering, maybe a wedding, who will not stop talking about himself, even when you've said multiple times you are trying to leave? That happened to me a few months ago. I literally said I needed to leave, but he just kept going on and on.

You think I'm looking forward to talking to that person ever again?

No way! I'm going to try to avoid him.

To get your audience interested in your character's interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character's point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story's opening. (Rare types of stories can break this rule though.)

Look Forward, not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something--something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

It can be very important to have a character think back on something. But since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it's often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. (Yes, you've heard me talk about this before.) The past can't change (unless you shift context). But the future is something we can only guess at. And having your character think forward on something can create anticipation, tension, hooks, fear, dread, or hope, and then makes the audience want to read more to see what happens.

It's not necessarily bad to look back, but it's problematic if you only or almost only ever look back, and not forward. Ideally, if your character is going to look backward, see if you can connect it to something that is forward--how a past experience is going to effect an upcoming one, how a past experience makes the character fearful or hopeful of a future one.

Make it Intriguing

A chunk of introspection can hold the audience's attention if it's intriguing in some way. This means that the character's thought can't simply be a recap of something the audience already knows or read. Introspection needs to have a reason to be in the story, which usually means it needs to bring something new to the table.

While it's common for introspection to take away from tension, because it takes away immediacy, when used well, it can actually add tension, through your character's interpretation, perspective, and predictions. If your character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does--that can kick up tension.

At the beginning I talked about how introspection can come from the writer trying to create character depth. Character depth can be intriguing--but only if it's something new or unusual. Rehashing what a character thinks for a full paragraph is boring if we already know what the character is naturally thinking. Rehashing isn't depth. It's repetition. To achieve more depth, you need to peel back your character's layers to reach something deeper--an inner motive, thought, or feeling. And it should be interesting. If your character appears happy that her best friend threw a birthday party for her, but when we go into her mind, she's fuming--that's interesting. To add depth, we want to peel to answer why she's fuming and then why she's pretending to happy even though she is fuming.

Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about the theme's final answers without having considered the questions, it's more likely to be boring. But if they are legitimately questioning something moral, ethical, thematic, or intellectual, that can stir the reader's own mind, which makes it interesting.

Introspection can be intriguing when the character brings a new interpretation, or new context, to the story. For example, having the protagonist think back to some small talk he had with an unassuming taxi driver can be really boring. But reading about Sherlock's interpretations of that exchange can be mega interesting. Why? Because he brings so much new context to the table. His introspection appeals to our intellect.

If you need to have your character think back for a bit, one way to keep it interesting is to have them change the context and interpretation of what they are thinking back on. That gives us an interesting way to interpret the past event and it gives us more character.

Entertaining

You can get away with a bit of introspection if it's entertaining. If your character has an interesting voice or worldview, audiences won't have a problem sitting through her introspection. Lemony Snicket is a great example of this. He can write a whole paragraph about his thoughts an driver licenses, and it's so entertaining that we love it. We like to hear the way he thinks and his voice.

In closing, when working with passages of introspection, make sure it adds value to the story, instead of taking value away.


 Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal

Hey everyone, I was recently given a copy of Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal from the publisher (thank you so much, Maria!)

If you've followed my blog over the years, you probably know I'm a very slow writer. 😅 But I love to include others' writing approaches on here, such as when I had my friend Paul do this post on how to publish yearly.

Write Your Book in a Flash is a little different in that it's intended to help you create a non-fiction business book. Heck, I've had a few people suggest I turn some of my blog posts into non-fiction books over the years. . . . maybe this book will help me decide. 🙃

Written by an award-winning journalist and ghostwriter, this book shows business executives, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders how to get focused fast, so you can write your book without tearing your hair out.

If this sounds interesting to you, check out the book here.  Or visit the TCK Publishing's website.

See you guys next week!
 

Monday, March 4, 2019

How I Write an Editorial Letter or Critique Letter



Hey friends!

As a lot of you know, I work as an editor and part of the job is writing editorial letters or critique letters. This may not be included in all types of editing (such as copyediting), but it plays an important role with content or developmental or substantive edits or manuscript evaluations (depending on the definition of each of those, because you will find variations within the writing industry). If you don't know what any of those edits are, relax. The letter is essentially what it sounds like, a document full of feedback from the editor.

There are a lot of editors in the world and each one likely has his or her own approach to editing. Today I want to share mine.

I always do an editorial letter for a content edit (which is about what the story is) and I often do one for a line edit (which is how the story is told). So let's get started.

First, when reading through the manuscript, I keep another document open to take notes on anything that I suspect might need to be in the editorial letter. Depending on how deep of an edit and what kind of edit the author wants, I may also be putting in comments on the actual manuscript for specific parts of the story. I watch for repeating problems (and repeating strengths).

My advice: If you're an editor, make sure you are paying attention to the writer's strengths in addition to weaknesses.

Some people have the school of thought that the only helpful feedback is negative feedback. But I strongly, strongly believe in also giving positive feedback. Only giving negative feedback gives the writer a skewed perspective of their work.



With that said, there are a few occasions where I might give only negative feedback--such as a piece that has already been edited multiple times and is already at a professional level and just needs some tightening up.

For more on my take on positive feedback, you can see my post, "The Real Reason You Need to Give Positive Feedback."

Once I've finished reading through the manuscript and taken notes, I usually go back and look at the (email) conversation I had with the writer about what they wanted. For example, if one writer told me they were worried they had problems with info-dumps, I would double check to make sure I took notes on that. At this point, I may email the writer and ask any follow-up questions I have.

Now it's time for the letter.

Some editors believe in being brutal in their honesty.

I don't.

It's not that I'm sugar-coating, it's that I don't believe being "brutally honest" is the most accurate or helpful form of communication. True, refined communication comes from being honest and clear without becoming antagonistic. After all, as the editor, I'm on the writer's side. I'm helping them.

So I like to address the positives and negatives as clearly as possible.




Depending on how long and comprehensive the letter is, it can be rather overwhelming to the writer initially. This is because I'm speaking to an entire manuscript in one document. Some writers may want to read through it bits at a time.

The shortest critique letter I've done for a novel was 4.2k words. Most I've done are between 9k and 11k.

Every letter I write is written to that specific writer. I don't use generic paragraphs that I copy and paste into the document. I might have similar sentences or similar greeting passages that I've tweaked, but overall, I'm writing fresh.

Now, it's important to know that this doesn't mean that editors who copy and paste certain paragraphs in are bad. They might be explaining the exact same thing to multiple writers. The reason I don't need to do this, is because if I need to explain something generally, I usually have an article on my site I can send them to. This means I can use those for reference and then in the letter talk about how that article applies specifically to their story.

In the letter, I almost always make sure I address these elements: setting, character, plot, and theme. I usually add "treatment" as well (how the story is told on the page); even if it's a straight up content edit, I still like to address things generally, like chosen viewpoint, under that category.

I also usually include these other things: arcs, pacing, conflict, audience appeal, and emotional appeals.

For more of what I may include in each edit, you can simply look at my editing site.



In the letter, I typically like to separate the "strengths" from the "concerns"--mainly because this was how I was taught, and I think it's easier on the writer, because they know what to expect.

Worth noting is that the "concerns" almost always take up more space than the "strengths" because they naturally require more explaining.

Now, here is a short sample letter (remember how I said these can go up to 11k words or more? Yeah, I'm not going to post a full sample in here because of that). It's a conglomerate of actual paragraphs I've written that I tweaked or repurposed into a sample letter.

Sample Editorial Letter or Critique Letter


Betty,

Thanks for choosing me to do a content and line edit on your manuscript! Through all of my notes and comments, please remember that this is your story, not mine, so ultimately your choices should be yours, and the story should reflect your vision. I also try to watch for ways the author can take their writing to the next level in general. These are things that you may want to work on in this particular story, or they may be things you decide to work on in future projects. The feedback is rather comprehensive, which can sometimes be overwhelming to people. Remember, it’s impossible to fix everything at once. That's why we call them “drafts.” 

Strengths:


Setting and Worldbuilding

This was great overall. One of the things I noticed in particular is that you did a really good job of balancing the feelings of wonder and wish-fulfillment (which are important in most fantasy stories), with the feelings of horror and darkness, which makes each one feel more powerful because of the contrast. Like probably most people, I’ve heard of amulets before, but this was hands down the best I’ve ever seen anyone do with the concept. During the trip to the enchanted forest, you really captured the wonder and awe of that landscape. 

You brought a sense of history and culture to both our world and the fantasy world, and you did all this while keeping the pacing perfect. 

I also really appreciated that you found ways in the plot to allow the protagonist to experience different “set pieces” and worldbuilding elements, like having him go to the satyrs' temple, so that as a reader, I could know and experience what that was like. . . .  


Characters

Throughout the novel, I got a good sense of the characters, even the side characters. The details and the information you told about them were choice and specific. You took time to individualize them and really consider how they would view the world.

You also did a good job of considering the sorts of relationships these characters would have, and then conveyed that well. 

[Usually I'll go through and talk specifically abut which characters I thought were strongest]


Plot

I really feel like the strongest part of the plot of this book, is the beginning. Everything in the beginning felt so on point, which I was impressed with because for most writers the beginning is usually the most difficult part to write. I liked how I was introduced to all the characters and I cared about them. I got a good sense of Joseph’s typical day-to-day life, the difficulties he was dealing with, which prepared me for the big change that came with the first plot point.

How the romance between Joseph and Olivia developed was just about perfect. Once I got further into the story, I had some problems, mainly with the middle, which I'll talk about more below, but I loved how Joseph was slowly turning into a werewolf but was forbidden from telling her. . . .


Dialogue

You have a gift (whether natural or obtained) for writing conversations. I felt like almost every conversation I read had what I call “dialogue circuitry”—where the characters’ lines are building off each other’s, instead of simply responding and reacting to each other. I marked some of these, but there were so many great instances that I stopped. There was some really clever dialogue.


Concerns:


Characters

Even though I enjoyed aspects of the characters and appreciated how you took time to individualize them, I had a problem with a few.

Joseph – While I thought some of the aspects of Joseph were cool and interesting, other parts were lacking. Even though he was technically the main character, he didn’t really seem to function as a main character, more of just a viewpoint character. It felt like Marcus was really the main character to me. So Joseph is going to need some work to take this book to the next level. 

I also felt like he acted younger than his age throughout the novel. I know it would require some reworking, but I’m actually wondering if he should be aged down. . . .

Melanie – Melanie felt like a caricature to me rather than a character. Caricatures are actually okay if you are writing a sort of “unreality” story, where the story has its own boundaries and realms of what is acceptable reality (think Series of Unfortunate Events or Matilda). But the thing is, Melanie was too exaggerated in comparison to the rest of the cast, and it didn't fit the tone of the story. Maybe look at making her feel a bit more human—in fact, playing with that contrast might actually make her more interesting to work with.


Plot

Denouement - The denouement felt too quick. The battle felt like it suddenly ended, and then we were suddenly repairing things. As a reader, I felt like I needed a smoother transition. Even though I talked a lot about cutting elsewhere, the denouement is where I think you could add more words.

Usually the denouement takes time to validate changes that happened over the course of the story. The love interests get married. We see proof the world is better now that the villain has been vanquished. The hero gets to live in peace. That sort of thing.

I also felt like the epilogue didn’t contribute much to the story. . . .

Context and Subtext

Once Joseph was beginning his transformation, I was feeling more and more of a need for more context and that need continued out through the rest of the book. This is a fairly common problem and can stem from a few different things, such as trying to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule too religiously, trying to create tension, or trying to turn context into subtext. 

Context is different than subtext. Context is the information the audience needs in order to follow and understand the story. For example, I didn’t know enough about Clans Werewolves to understand why it was a bad thing if Joseph turned into that kind. I marked spots that I didn’t have enough info or understanding. A lack of context leads to the story and its elements feeling vague. Vagueness is a problem because when the story is vague, the audience doesn’t feel tension. It might sound like it should be the opposite—by withholding information, we make the audience want to keep reading it to get it (which relates more to subtext)—but if the audience doesn’t have enough context, they can’t follow and understand the dynamics of the story well enough to feel any tension, because they don’t have a firm enough grasp on it to anticipate what’s going to happen. 

Rather than rewriting and re-explaining everything I mean, I have some articles that will explain this all in more depth that would probably be worth studying to get what I’m saying:


Info-dumps

This is a common problem. Info-dumps are paragraphs of information dumped into the story to help the audience understand what is going on. They can be about anything—characters, items, but most commonly in speculative fiction, they are about something magical or otherworldly. It’s better to only tell the audience what they absolutely need to know about the subject and to hand out the information a bit at a time so they aren’t getting a huge chunk of exposition. The information should be weaved into the story. The story shouldn’t come to a halt to deliver the information to the audience. 



I hope you now have a lot of ideas of how to take this story and your writing to the next level. If I missed anything you would like me to address or if you have questions, please feel free to email me.

September

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I have not always categorized my feedback with headings, but it's something I've started doing more often because it's easier for the writer to navigate. It's not unusual for me to use bullet points in feedback, especially when I have multiple "little" things.

But I love editing writers' novels! 

Hope this post has been helpful to you in some way.

You can also learn more about my editing approaches at FawkesEditing.com