Should You Mention Using Freelance Editors and Hiring an Editor

Today’s question about hiring an editor and mentioning using freelance editors from Zoe is a quick one:

If a writer decides to have an MS professionally edited by a reputable editor known in the biz (I dunno, think freelance editors like Alan Rinzler or a Lisa Rector perhaps), should the writer ever mention it in the query? How do I go about hiring an editor?

freelance editors, hiring an editor, book editor, manuscript editor, freelance novel editor
Hiring an editor is a great way to get a second set of eyes on your project, but do freelance editors belong in your query letter?

It’s totally up to you whether you choose to mention hiring an editor in your query letter. There are a few thoughts that spring to mind for me when I read in a query that a manuscript has been worked on by freelance editors. (Note: I have worked as a freelance editor for the past five years, but this answer is largely colored by my five years as a literary agent.)

Agent Reactions to Freelance Editors

On the good end of the spectrum, I think: Oh, great! This writer is used to working with someone else in an editorial capacity and has probably had to revise this manuscript quite a bit. They may be more savvy that some others in my slush about the whole process. I’m about to read a polished piece of fiction.

On the not so good, these are the thoughts that can also come up: Freelance editors always improve a manuscript, but how much did this one improve and, more importantly, at what level did it start? Did the writer hire an editor to put some professional polish on the project, or because it had gotten rejected all over the place and they needed serious help? Does this writer belong to a critique group or do they rely solely on freelance editors?

I know that lots of writers work with freelance editors. There are pros and cons to this, as well as to mentioning it in your query. (You can read some more freelance editor thoughts from me here.)

Hiring an Editor, But Make Sure It’s the Right Editor

If you’ve managed to work with big name freelance editors, my ears might perk up, of course. The bigger the name of your editor, the more selective they can afford to be. They tend to vet their projects and pick the most promising writers to work with. But this is not always the case. So while a freelance editor’s name may trigger good associations for me, or lift my hopes, it’s not going to be the deciding factor in whether I want to represent you or not.

It always comes down to the work. And, in the back of my mind, I always want to know that you have arrived at your work in large part because of your own writing craft. So if you have used or continue to use a freelance editor, I will want to know about it at some point, whether it’s in the query or later, as we’re discussing representation. I’ll want to make sure that you actually have the chops to create a great, skillful manuscript on your own, as well.

If you’re thinking about hiring an editor, let me make my case for my editing services. Learn more about my services now that I’m on the other side of the desk and helping writers toward their goals every day.

July Critique Connection

People were such fans of my Critique Connection post in April that I wanted to give new readers a shot at it and existing readers who didn’t find their love connection more space to find possibilities. I’m thinking of turning this into a semi-regular thing.

Remember, finding the right critique partner is like dating. Don’t try one or two and decide that critique isn’t for you or that you don’t benefit from feedback. I just went to Utah and saw the kind of passionate, supportive writing community they have there. I’m more convinced than ever before that a critique group is the secret of writers whose work is above and beyond the rest.

So keep trying. Try to find good critique partners here, try other online resources, try writing classes at your local university or bookstore, get creative. People still post on my April Critique Connection, so I’m sure there’s still interest.

If you want a critique partner: write down your name, the age range you write for (picture book, chapter book, MG, YA, etc.), your genre and anything else you want to say about your story, the word count, your email address so that prospective partners can contact you (I suggest typing it like this: mary at kidlit dot com, instead of mary@kidlit.com, so you don’t make yourself a spam target.) You can also tell people a little about how you like to work. Do you like to exchange chapters? Read full manuscripts? Do you give notes? Do you want to Skype? It’s up to you to work out communication style, critique frequency, and other rules with your new partner.

People who’ve posted on the April Critique Connection thread recently: You may want to repost your listing here to keep it most current.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve made any critique connections from April, and any other thoughts you might have. Then cruise the comments and see if your next critique partner isn’t listing themselves, ready to read your work!

What a Great Critique Group or Partner Means

In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I encouraged readers to find a critique partner, I wanted to focus on the qualities of a great critique group or partner. This was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

critique group, find a critique partner
A great critique group will give you constructive, insightful feedback without prescribing what to do or what to try.

The Importance of Critique and Revision

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

The Qualities of a Great Critique Group or Partner

Remember that if you want to find a critique partner, you have to be a critique partner. So what does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Get and Give Constructive, Insightful Feedback That’s Not Prescriptive

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says,

If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.

Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger. So as you’re on the hunt to find a critique partner, keep these qualities in mind — both in terms of what they should bring to you, and what you should bring to them.

Look for a Balance of Skill Levels and Personalities

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a critique partner who’s a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

“It’s Good” Is Never Helpful

Finally, the worst thing your writing critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

Ready to invest in an expert set of eyes? My book editing services will build on the work of your critique group.

Critique Connection

A comment from Marybk on my last post reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to do again. It can be hard to find critique partners who are focused on learning, growing, and who also write in the same area as you do. I’ve always wanted to make sure my readers have access to critique partners if they need them.

A fair number of critique relationships these days happen online. Partners exchange manuscripts, give notes, talk on the phone or on email. It often takes several tries with several partners to get a good and mutually constructive relationship going. You want to look for someone who knows what they’re talking about, that can articulate not only what doesn’t work in a piece of writing but why, you want someone you can get along with, and someone whose writing you think is good and that you wouldn’t mind reading over and over.

I can’t guarantee that I can facilitate match-made-in-kidlit-heaven-style critique partners for everyone, but I did want to make sure you guys who are looking for crit partners had a venue to post. I have all of your questions from the last few days in mind and will get back to writing regular posts soon, but for now, let me make this a personals board for the critique-partner-less.

POST IN THE COMMENTS ON THIS ENTRY ONLY IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A CRITIQUE PARTNER. Put your genre (fantasy, paranormal, realistic, etc.) and your audience (picture book, MG, YA, etc.) and what you want to work on (a complete manuscript of XX,000 words, a partial, a query, etc.). Let’s see if we can’t make any matches here. The worst that can happen is you could share your work with someone, get some notes, and decide it’s not a fit.

ETA: If you see anyone here that you think might be a good fit, leave a comment with your email address or a way to get in touch with you. I can’t look through the comments and match people up, you should take the lead if you think anybody’s stuff sounds good to you. Use this as a personals board! Lots of people are looking for critique partners… now reach out to each other and try to connect and run with it!

Publishing Business Chat: Who Am I Writing For?

I got an excellent question from a reader about the publishing business. This is actually something I wanted to post about myself, because it’s a frustrating disconnect about the whole getting-published process. There’s also stuff here about critique groups and writing for an audience.

publishing business, writing for an audience
Friends and family may love the words you’re cranking out, but will they pass muster with professionals in the publishing business?

The Question

I have been satisfied with the vast majority of my MS (YA Paranormal Mystery Romance) for many weeks and my “critique group” (mostly avid readers not writers) feels the same. My struggle is this: Who am I writing for?

My critique group, all readers who spend actual money to buy actual books, all have (gasp!) individual tastes! Their feelings about my MS are very much tied to their personalities, educational level, interests, etc. My friend who adores TWILIGHT loves the funny voice and the beginning and insists that TWILIGHT started out slow and so did HARRY POTTER. My English professor friend with a Master’s could take or leave the funny teen voice but prefers the vivid descriptive prose. My young adult niece finds the voice a tad grating and the beginning a bit slow but adores the entire rest of the book. My brainy teenage niece, in contrast, likes the funny voice of the first chapter and says the rest isn’t her genre but her friends like that sort of thing.

I feel torn. At the end of the day, not all writers have Masters Degrees in English. How do I resolve that when my readers like what I am pretty sure agents would reject?

Professional Readers are the Gatekeepers in the Publishing Business

Here’s the thing. Before your book can get into the hands of casual or even very experienced readers like the friends in your critique group, it has to get through the gates of PROFESSIONAL readers in the publishing business. First, agents, then, editors, the editors’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the sales team. Once all those readers who read professionally and with an eye toward the marketplace love your book, only then will you get a publishing contract. Then your publisher will pitch and win over the professional readers who work at bookstores and who will stock your books on shelves for those hobby readers to finally get them.

Ideally, you should be writing for an audience that’s your end user: teens (or adults who read YA, of course). However, to get to those teens in the first place, you’re going to have to volley over lots and lots and lots of people who AREN’T casual readers at all. And those are the people you’re going to have to impress years before your book comes out. So, even if your end user, the reader or teen, doesn’t have a Master’s degree in English, the people who decide whether or not that teen or reader is ever going to see your book often will.

The Importance of an Experienced, Objective Critique Group

I urge you, seriously, to get a critique group of other writers. Writers who are not friends and especially not family. (What are they going to say? That it sucks, to your face?) Not only is yours not a critique group (If they don’t write, what are YOU critiquing? We learn as much about our own writing when we critique the work of others as when our work gets critiqued.) but you might be doing yourself a disservice by getting feedback from people who aren’t intimate with the writing craft. If you can swing it, get feedback from people who have some connection to the publishing business — like they’re contracted to be published or already published. You learn and grow by putting yourself in a challenging situation. Writing for an audience of readers-but-not-writers sounds like you are being easy on yourself, sorry to say.

Don’t Rely on the Feedback of Laypeople

That’s why I’m skeptical of sites like Authonomy (Yes, the site is run by HarperCollins but the majority of people who gather and comment there are laypeople and not editors or people connected with the publishing business). So what happens there? Writers post manuscripts. Hobby readers go on there and rave about these manuscripts. Then the writers who produced those manuscripts query me and give me “blurbs” from people who loved them on Authonomy. When I see that, I ask the writer, in my head, “So what? Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is talking. Great.”

Let me put it another way. I know nothing about cars. That’s why I’m in trouble if I ever go car shopping again. If you show me a car and it’s shiny enough, and has a sunroof, I’ll think it’s good. Only someone who knows what happens under the hood will be able to tell me whether it’s actually a lemon or not. A person who doesn’t know all of the complexities of writing a novel can usually be won over without much effort. It’s easy to impress the easily-impressed. Don’t stunt your own growth.

When you hire me as your freelance book editor, you’re investing in an objective set of eyes that will give you constructive, actionable feedback on your work.

Workshop Submission #8

Here’s a submission from Tricia. Here’s what she had to say:

Does too much happen too soon? Is there enough detail or too much? What (if possible) turns you off and would stop you from reading more?

Let’s take a look at the material. First, without my notes, then, with.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

The first line here is distracting. We get a fact that sort of grounds us in the story — there’s a voice in Jeremiah’s head — but then we’re whisked off to a character introduction and some facts. Starting with the voice also raises a lot of questions. What does the voice sound like? Is it normal to hear voices in this world? If she was a messenger, why didn’t she just TELL him things instead of scratching him and gaining control? Or is this how messengers and the gods operate? Also, instead of hearing about a voice and hearing about the commands its giving (telling), I’d love to see some actual dialogue.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

The transition here is a bit jarring. And we still don’t quite hear the voice ourselves, even though it seems like it’s pretty insistent. I’m not quite grounded here. If there’s a door to dungeons, why wouldn’t it have a lock? Or is he standing at some other door? I seem to think that underground air is stagnant, not breezy. I’m also losing Jeremiah’s interiority a bit with these descriptions. Instead of saying the remote, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase,” try something like (and I’m not trying to be prescriptive, I’m just trying to provide an example to illustrate a point) something like, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase directly in front of him.” This a) grounds the reader (he is standing in front of a staircase), b) puts the focus on Jeremiah, c) implies action (that he is about to go down this staircase).

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Be careful of narrating around your action instead of narrating your action. What do I mean here? As with above, you said, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase.” What was really going on, however, was that Jeremiah was either about to go down the staircase or actually going down the staircase. But the description of the staircase only vaguely implied the action going on there. Here, again, we have, “Some came out of the shadows.” But it isn’t until the sentence after that we find out that Jeremiah is in the dungeons and getting spooked by the monsters. Don’t be afraid to give us pieces of simple narrative, like, “Jeremiah descended to the first level of the dungeons” to keep us apprised of what’s going on. When you say something like, “Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows,” you could be talking vaguely, theoretically, in general about these dungeons. Instead, you’re trying to say that Jeremiah is already in the dungeons. Transitions us through the action more directly. I do like the physical detail of “Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck.” We get into his body a little bit. You might want a comma between “torch” and “the” in the penultimate sentence here.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

This comes out of nowhere. We have no idea he’s even in the scribe guild or what it means to him, so we can’t really feel the high stakes of him possibly getting thrown out. Don’t tack it on like this or it won’t seem significant. Also, my biggest overall issue with this is we get all action and no motivation. A great place to say, “He was going to the dungeons to free Lord Dennison’s prisoner” would be with a command from the messenger in the first paragraph or so. We need to know WHY he’s going down into the dungeon. It’s more important than the fact that he is. Otherwise, we don’t care about it. Or we think he’s an idiot for putting himself in danger when we can’t figure out a good reason for him to be there. Motivate your character so that every time we see them in action, we know why. BEFORE we see them actually in action. That will give you maximum opportunity for stakes and tension. If we know what they want and why they want it, we start to actually get invested in whether or not they’ll get it.

***

My advice here would be to really narrate the story. Don’t hop from image to image and moment to moment. A big part of storytelling is knowing when to guide the reader. Give us a motivation, then show us a bunch of action. Tell us what the character is doing, then show him doing it. There’s a huge balance between actually giving us information we need to know and letting the story unfold. Here, tip it back a little more to the informational side. The reader will thank you because they’ll know what’s going on from moment to moment.

And that wraps us up for workshops. It seems like a lot of you found this a very useful exercise. Like I’ve said many times, it helps to see pieces that are in process, not just polished pieces that win contests. I think a lot of you have also come around to realizations about your own work from critiquing the work of others. That’s a very valuable skill and one of the reasons that critique groups are so valuable. You really hone your editorial eye that way and, one day, after a lot of work, that’ll translate to seeing your own stuff as objectively as possible.

I know some of you who submitted didn’t get chosen for critique. I wanted a diverse sample so that I could make a variety of points. My decisions weren’t based on the quality of the samples but on what I could say about each one. For some, I had more to say, so those are the ones I chose.

Because of the time this took, I don’t know when I’ll be able to offer another critique scenario, but it will be sometime this year, so do stay tuned. Now, I’ll be posting questions and answers, articles, and otherwise going back to normal on the blog.

Workshop Submission #7

Today’s workshop comes from Beth. Here’s what she had to say about her submission:

Wondering if it is too vague? Also transitions to new paragraphs seem rough? Blurts of information then off to another idea… too many thought streams without fully delving into the ideas presented?

And here’s the material! Once again, I’ll put the submission without commentary first, then post it again with comments.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

There’s a lot of telling here. I’d much rather SEE how these twins became enemies (and I’m not quite sure what KIND of enemies. Are they psychologically cruel to each other in a realistic sense or will one of them be wearing a mask and a cape?) than being told about it. That takes the impact of this shift in relationship away. “Our roles shifted” is dry. Then we’re introduced to a lot of people and it’s disorienting. Again, the focus in this paragraph, the first one your reader sees, isn’t on the main character but the sister. That’s fine, but that establishes some distance from the main character right off the bat.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

Reverse the order of the first sentence so we know we’re driving and where we’re driving to before we see the forest, otherwise we’re disoriented. I don’t know if I’m reading something wrong but I have no idea what “The wind blowing limbs toward me and the back skyward” means… “And THEN back skyward”? Typo? Also, I don’t know how someone can “hear” someone’s thoughts. Maybe another verb here. Good characterization of the mother/daughter relationship, though.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

Lots of info here. I’m not really sure that the leash sentence is the clearest. “Masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities” is a little bit of elevated diction and caught the eye as not fitting in. Again, “keeping us at constant odds with each other” is telling. We don’t see it in their relationship yet, we’re just told about it. You could try and convey this with dialogue.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Good tension of “something killed that part of her,” I hope we see this element at play again, but it’s also telling. What we do get pretty clearly so far is what “like me” means and the beckoning of the forest, so that’s good, but we’re not getting a lot of sense of the character, other than her curiosity and how alone she feels within her family sometimes. More thoughts, feelings, physical experience could really put us closer into her head. The transition between Divinia in the last paragraph and Mother in this one is the most jarring yet, so smooth it out a bit. Also, a nitpick: “Mother” is capitalized when used like a proper noun, ie: “Mother called me in to dinner.” When it is used as a noun, it is lowercase, ie: “My mother called me in to dinner.” or “That’s what mothers and daughters do.” I see this little error A LOT A LOT A LOT.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

This is a little bit all-over-the-place. I’d rather move the story forward in the present moment than hear about mom’s childhood at Uncle Red’s. And, again, this is telling. When you TELL us about danger and misery, the stakes are lower than when you show it to us. This is good writing, technically, but it feels like the tension you’re creating here is forced. Show us images that let us see the tragedy for ourselves. A happy family portrait hung in cobwebs, a frayed tear cutting the canvas in half. Dry vines snaking across a child’s playroom. Whatever. Let us make up our own minds, through what images you give us, that something is wrong here. If we just hear about it in such a distant, summarizing style, it won’t impact us as much. I hope the story actually starts and they get to the house soon.

***

I hope this workshop was useful for you. I think there’s some good, atmospheric writing here, but I’m curious to see what you all think about the tension and distance and summary we’re given.

When running a workshop in person or online, you always get a feel for the group and how they interact with each other. Sometimes there are problems. Other times, the workshop is fruitful and helpful and kind. I have to say that you all have impressed me so much. Not only does the writer get comments from me in the entry, but each submission has garnered over 20 comments from readers that provide additional perspective, questions, advice and support.

This has been working out better than I could’ve hoped! Thank you all for that.

Workshop Submission #6

This is a submission from Livia Blackburne, for her YA fantasy.

Here’s what she has to say:

I’ve had this project reviewed by several agents/editors, and the feedback has mostly been positive. I still think though, that it’s missing something. While nobody found anything glaringly wrong with it, I don’t think it would stand out in a crowd. I’ve thought about adding more sensory detail, although I worry about seeming artificial or overdoing it.

Ah, the familiar situation of “I know it’s good but people still aren’t nibbling.” Somebody asked me to print the material in its entirety at the top, then dissect, so here’s that format. Let me know if it works better for you. Here’s the material!

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Good first line. Lots of tension. Then it gets disorienting. Kyra is crouching somewhere… on a ledge. Is it night? Is it a city? Why is she crouching? I wish I’d been more grounded. The tension dies with “She supposed it was a distant possibility.” Why open with something really dramatic like “Maybe James wanted her dead” only to deflate it and admit that it’s a “distant possibility” only? That takes all the drama out of it. The tension drains further with “She was in no danger here.” So now there’s no danger, she’s just jumping. That’s not nearly as exciting.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

The voice in this section is an issue for me. Also an issue is the lack of motivation. Why is she jumping? Jumping for jumping’s sake is nowhere near as exciting as… jumping to save someone from a burning building… jumping to save YOURSELF from a burning building… jumping on the last car of the last train out of the station for the night… whatever. So, voice. “Alighted” doesn’t seem to fit the tone here, though it’s a great word. “Her senses alert,” “had caused any disturbance,” “allowed herself the luxury” “ponder her new theory” all feel dry to me, voiceless, like something from a police blotter, a scientific journal or a women’s magazine. “Ponder” especially. You use “building” and “buildings” in this paragraph. Is there anything else you could use for word variety? “But the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago” is clunky with the two instances of “as” and doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue.

There’s still no tension because a) we already know she’s in no danger, b) there’s still no danger, so I don’t know why she “allowed herself the luxury,” since it doesn’t seem like anything is threatening her thinking time here. In the first paragraph, you also said “she did not let the thought interrupt her jump” but now you have her pause and think. So one minute she can’t think, the next minute she settles in for a think? That seems a bit contradictory.

Finally, a total nitpick: why would you be “softening” your body for landing? Don’t you want your muscles tense and ready? Softening your body in mid-jump just makes me picture her landing like a wet bag of sand and totally collapsing.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

“The aloof stranger” doesn’t fit the tone and is dry. It’d be much easier to say “… figure out James’ motives…” and then tag him as aloof later, rather than this, because I had no idea who you were talking about at first. “Not surprising” is dry voice again. “No surprise,” for example, sounds more colloquial. “Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of” is dry again, and vague. “Request” is a dry, business-y word. I like the voice on “He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay.” That’s good tension there! Then we lose it again with “amount” and “offered,” which are dry, so is “someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt.” A lot of your sentences are a bit wordy, to the point where the reader loses steam while reading them.

By this point in the sample, I also would want to know how Kyra fits into this whole thing. Is she the thief? Seems like it.

***

Livia’s experience is very common. As an agent, some of what I see is downright bad. Some of what I see is very, very good, and then I reach out to the writer. Most of what I see is… meh. It’s not glaringly bad, nor is it amazing. How do you, as a writer, get out of this “technically fine but not mind-blowing” zone?

Voice. Here, we get a lot of dry language. It doesn’t have style to it, or attitude. It doesn’t have emotion running like a current through it. Lots of these words lack energy. They seem like they’d belong in a periodical or in a business memo. How can this story be told with more style and careful word choice? I’d also tell the author to work on her wordiness and the clutter in her sentences. A lot of what she says can be said more simply and more cleanly, for much better overall effect. In short: loosen up. Read the manuscript aloud. Where does the voice start to drone on? Where does it pick up? Where does it lack emotion?

Speaking of emotion, we could have more of Kyra’s interiority here. We get some of her thoughts, but what about her emotions? Her experiences, both sensory and otherwise? The description of the setting seems rather drab… it doesn’t seem to be colored through the lenses of a character’s eyes. Think… how would Kyra see this cityscape? What would SHE, in this moment, notice about it?

The number one reason some writers make it and others don’t is voice. The scenario here is intriguing enough, even though you could definitely amp up the tension and remove those phrases about no danger that undercut your stakes, but it’ll be the voice that really makes or breaks the execution of this idea.

Workshop Submission #5

This is a submission from Brian Higginson, for his work, KARL.

Here’s what Brian has to say:

I’m trying to inject some tension and sense of unease about what will happen. Is it too heavy handed? Also, the boy Karl is 8 at this point – does it need to be stated earlier? And what about the dialogue? Does it work? It’s set in England. Is this a problem?

And here’s the material!

***

Afterwards, everyone kept telling Karl it wasn’t his fault, what happened to his dad. But who do you blame if it’s not your fault? Couldn’t blame his dad.

I feel like I’m coming upon something in the middle of it. Like I’m walking into a conversation. It’s sort of jarring, which I think is helped along by the fragmented sentence. Also, it’s “afterward,” not the colloquial “afterwards.” But we do get something that happened and some tension right away.

The day before the soccer game, they were all at the train station in Manchester. Karl’s mum was going to Wales for a conference. She bent down and zipped his coat right to the top. She held his face in both hands and kissed him.

He liked that.

Now we’re getting grounded in a time and place. As the writer mentions, Karl is 8 years old here, so the details of the mother zipping his coat up seem age-appropriate. Since this is a third person narrator and somewhat removed, you could also mention what kind of conference so we get more context for the mom.

Months and years later when he woke sweating in the night, from the fear and loneliness of it all, that’s what he cried out for more than anything. Her hands on his cheeks; her kiss on his brow. His mother. Mein mutter.

Red flag! This has gone from an early middle grade (because of the very young protagonist) to a work of adult fiction. Why? In children’s books, the action is confined to a relatively small space of time (a school year) and the character is experiencing the story very immediately. In adult books about childhood, the adult narrator is telling a story that happens during childhood but they’re looking back on it from a place of experience. True kidlit that’s on shelves today lacks that kind of “looking back on it” feeling, since a lot of kids don’t have that perspective of life experience. You never see a 16 year-old reflecting on their 15th year with nostalgia and thinking “if only I knew then what I know now,” etc. Kids don’t have those self-reflective tendencies that crop up as we age. I’m starting to wonder a) how old the Karl narrator is in “real life” and b) how many years of childhood this manuscript is planning to cover.

“I’ll bring you back something nice for your birthday,” she said.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Now she was hugging Hans, Karl’s dad.

Auf weidershen,” she said, then: “Enjoy the game.”

Nothing about the dialogue pops out at me. It seems pretty pedestrian. While that’s not bad for a beginning, it’s not ideal, either. This is the equivalent of small talk with a little backstory (re: the birthday) worked in. That doesn’t make for riveting reading.

She turned back to Karl, with a look of mock seriousness on her face.

“Look after Daddy won’t you?” she said. “And make sure he behaves himself. Promise?”

“I promise,” said Karl.

It was a joke, he knew that.

But later it wasn’t the joke he remembered, only the broken promise.

There’s a bit of dry language here that wouldn’t come naturally to a true 8 year-old perspective (“mock seriousness”) but there’s also some melodrama (“only the broken promise”). Still, this returns us to the tension of the story as we know it so far — what happens to the dad.

The tinny, garbled sound of the tannoy on the station platform announced Cara’s train – at least it must have been her train because she picked up her suitcase. Karl couldn’t understand a word: though he remembered the harsh, metallic sound of it in the dreams and nightmares that were to come.

Again, this faraway perspective of Karl (however old he is “now”) looking back on this scene distances us incredibly from the kid Karl who we’re supposed to be bonding with. It gives this scene an echoy, dreamy feeling, as intended, but that also makes it more difficult to grasp on to something in this scene and emote. I also don’t know why the writer called special attention to the fact that Karl isn’t sure it’s her train. Isn’t it? Or will this detail become important later? If it’s not, don’t mention it… it raises unnecessary questions.

Suddenly Karl’s mother seemed to be vanishing before his eyes. As he looked at her smiling down at him with her suitcase in her hand, it was as if she was at the end of a long tunnel. Karl was convinced at that moment that he would never see her again.

This mixes the tension and, as a result, dilutes it. We’re supposed to be focusing on Karl’s dad in this ominous bit of scene, but now he’s worrying about his mom. Which is it? Be careful of ruining the effect by dividing our focus. (This is a note for the whole beginning actually. He starts talking about his dad, then he’s talking about how much he loves his mom. Then there are danger signals for dad again, then back to mom. Focus.) And we do still feel distant. If you use the same analogy of the long tunnel, that’s actually how the reader feels when we’re looking at the character of Karl. We’ve gotten little interiority (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations that happen in the moment or as a reaction to the moment) from him so far.

***

The thing I want to ask the author here is — what perspective is this story told from? From Karl, the kid’s? Or from an adult Karl, looking back on his childhood? The thoughts and feelings an adult has about their childhood will be interesting to one group of people and one group of people only: adults. That’s where these types of stories are shelved in the bookstore. They are not kidlit.

If you want to write a children’s books, first, raise Karl’s age. This seems like a heavy story. Readers want main characters who are one or two years older than they are, so right now, you’d be targeting 6 to 8 year olds. That doens’t seem appropriate. Make Karl 12 or 13 to get the middle grade audience, or 15-17 for the YA audience. And tell the story through his experience of it IN THE MOMENT, not looking back from adulthood. Really get into Karl’s head then and there.

Even if Karl “right now” is 16 and looking back on when he’s 8, that’s still splitting your audience. You’ll always be alienating half of them. Eight year-olds won’t want to read about 16 y.o. Karl because that’s far outside their experience. Sixteen year-olds will think 8 y.o. Karl’s experience is babyish. That’s why you don’t see books with a wide age gap between characters in kidlit, because kids like to read about characters who are close to their own age. Where would booksellers shelve a book with both an 8 y.o. and a 16 y.o. version of your character? MG? Then you lose YA readers. YA? Then you lose MG. Bookstores won’t build a special shelf just for you.

So pick one age, bring the reader close to it and really delve into that person — at that age — and their experience of the story.

If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re writing an adult book with a retrospective on childhood instead of a children’s book.