Last year, I was blessed with having my entire manuscript professionally critiqued by Sally Bradley, and the experience was profoundly eye-opening. The weaknesses in my plot and characterization were so completely hidden from me that I guesstimate it would have taken me at least a year to figure out what I learned from Sally in a few months. If not for her pointing out areas to improve, I’d still be wrenching on my novel in utter darkness.
I’m such a fan of Sally’s work, and professional critiquing in general, that I decided to invite Sally to my cyber living room to visit for awhile and share her insights and wisdom.
First, let me tell you about Sally’s background.
Sally Bradley has worked for two Christian publishers, writing sales and marketing materials, sorting through the slush pile, and proofreading and editing fiction. She has a BA in English and a love for perfecting novels, whether it’s her own work or the work of others. Sally is a judge in fiction-writing contests and is a member of ACFW, The Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), and the Christian Editor Network. She’s a work-at-home mother of three and is married to a pastor who moonlights as a small-town cop. Working with Christian fiction combines her love of stories with her desire to help others grow closer to God.
Many writers, like me, struggle with needing help with their manuscripts, but not knowing where to go for answers. How are you able to help writers become better storytellers?
As a writer, it’s often hard to see where we’re failing our readers. We’re too close to the story; when we’ve failed to include key details on the paper, our subconscious fills in the gap. If our characters are too bristly, we shrug, thinking everyone will love our babies like we do. And we don’t want to admit that scenes and phrases that made our eyes shine when we wrote them might not be best for this story.
The beauty of working with an editor is that they see your story through fresh eyes, and since they understand how fiction works and can dissect various elements of a story, they can see the potential in your book that you have yet to find. They can suggest a plot development that never occurred to you or link parts of the story together in a way that will deepen the theme or the characters.
My goal as an editor is to not only find ways to make the story better but to teach the writer certain aspects of fiction-writing that they may not understand. I want to complete a project knowing that I improved the story and the skill level of the writer.
How did you become an editor?
My original goal was to become a writer only, but looking back I believe God wanted me to be an editor too.
Straight from college, I worked for Tyndale House Publishers. I created the sales sheets the entire staff used to sell every new product. The editorial department sent me information on a new book, and I’d create a short book blurb, an author bio, a list of potential markets, things like that. That was a great foundation for learning how to interest a potential reader or book buyer.
I left Tyndale when my husband and I moved out of state for him to attend seminary. The church that ran the seminary started a small fiction publishing company, and I proofread and edited a number of books as well as sorted through the slush pile there. Sadly the company no longer exists because they had no sales or marketing department. It’s awfully hard for people to buy a book they don’t know exists.
I left that job to have my first child, and my goal at that point was to become a published novelist. I spent the next six years writing and studying the craft. I spent almost half a year studying how to write a synopsis and proposal, and the proposal I wrote garnered an offer of representation from two reputable agents.
About that same time, I began to consider opening my own freelancing business. A friend from church asked me to read over an essay for grad school applications. She was having a hard time getting it down to the right word count, and I showed her a number of changes that made it concise and below word count. It was at that point that I realized how much I loved words and that this was a job I needed to do.
My friend got into her dream grad school, by the way.
If you had to list five of the most common writing mistakes that you see in the manuscripts you’ve critiqued, what would they be?
1. Starting too early—This kills any chances of a book selling. An agent or editor doesn’t have time to read through your manuscript until they find the proper starting point. If you start your story too early, you get a no really fast.
2. Telling instead of showing—telling isn’t evil; there is a time and a place for it, but it’s never the main action of the story. Fiction readers want to experience the story happening right in front of them through dialogue and action. They don’t want to have it summarized as if they were hearing about it from another person. Think of it this way—would you rather watch a movie or hear about it from someone else?
3. Underdeveloped scenes and plots—I don’t know whether typing makes a scene seem longer than it is, but I often see scenes that hit only the high notes from beginning to end. A character gets maybe a sentence or two to react to some horrible news; there’s no time to take it in, process it, and react the way people really do. When something reads flat and you can’t quite put a finger on it, consider that you might be skipping key sequences in your character’s reactions and thoughts.
Along those same lines, stories can move too quickly. Something happens, and no one reacts to it. What we would expect a normal person to do is skipped. This goes back to the writer already having a preconceived plot in mind rather than focusing on the character being believable and well-developed.
4. Poor grammar and punctuation—The English language is difficult, but a writer needs to have a reasonable grasp on spelling, grammar, and basic punctuation.
Make sure you know how to use commas and periods. Make a list of words you struggle with, whether it’s the proper use of lie versus lay or words like bear and bare, and tape it to your computer. Buy an English grammar book and read it a little each day. Over time you’ll improve, and it won’t be that horribly painful. Promise.
5. Dialogue and action only—Beginning novelists often make the mistake of putting on paper only what we can tell about people through senses—the words they say, the movements they make, the way they look. But what makes a character, in particular a Point of View character, come to life on that page is getting inside their heads and hearing what they really think, experiencing their knee-jerk reactions.
If all we ever know about someone are the words that come out of their mouths or the way they move their hands and smile, we’re maybe getting half of who they are. How often do people say something when they really think the opposite? How often do people smile when inside they’re dying? Get the inside of your POV character on the paper, and they suddenly become flesh and blood.
Very often, a writer’s life includes learning to accept rejection from agents and or editors. For the writer who has received rejection, after rejection, after rejection, to proposals they’ve submitted, what advice would you offer?
First, realize everyone gets rejected, even multi-published authors. Sometimes an idea just isn’t right for that house. Rejection doesn’t mean your book is awful.
Second, realize rejections can help you grow as a writer and get you to that first sale. If you’re getting form-letter rejections, you might need to better develop some novel-writing techniques, things like Point of View, showing, or even plotting. Read well-written fiction only. Study books on character development, description, or setting.
When you become a stronger writer, you’ll start to get personalized rejection letters. That’s huge! Be excited and pay attention to what those letters say. If they give you suggestions for fixing the manuscript, chances are you should follow that advice. Editors and agents don’t have time to give personal rejection letters and only do it for something that came quite close, something they thought might sell with work.
So consider what they’re saying. If they’re a reputable agent or editor, chances are they’re correct. Treat that advice as if they’ve bought the book and do what they say.
Lastly, realize that even when that book reads just like other published novels, it still has to be a fit for what houses are looking for. It’s not enough to write a quality novel—a publisher has to need the type of story you’ve written.
At this point, you’ve got to trust God to do what’s best for you and your story. If you’re still getting no’s, then trust that God knows what He’s doing—or not doing—for you.
At what point in a writer’s career should they consider having their manuscript professionally edited or critiqued?
I think there are a few stages.
If you’re a new writer, it can be a great help to work with a freelance editor. You don’t have to submit your entire book; you don’t even have to submit half the book. Submitting the first four or five chapters or the first 5,000 words or the first thirty pages may be enough for an editor to show you how to use certain techniques in a way that will improve your writing. It can move you several steps up the ladder quickly.
Once you’ve improved and believe you have a salable story or a unique idea, you may want to consider getting an edit or critique of the entire book.
Keep in mind that many freelance editors will customize a certain type of edit to fit your needs. Maybe you just want a professional to tell you if the plot works. You can find someone to do that. If you want a thorough line-by-line edit, you can find someone to do that as well.
If you’ve done all you can and you’re ready to submit to an agent or editor, you may want a professional edit just to make sure there isn’t something you’re missing. But I’d do this after having some test readers (other than your mom, siblings, and cousins) read the book for you. Their fee tends to be quite nice.
If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau and don’t know where to go from there, find a good editor to work with. They can often help you reach that next level of writing or find whatever it is that is keeping you in Rejectionville.
I think a writer can use the services of an editor almost like a personalized writing service. Any time you work with an editor, what you need to work on most is what is going to come out of that edit. If you go into the project ready to learn instead of looking for an ego-stroking, you’ll become a better writer.
When I initially started talking with professional editors, I wasn’t aware of the differences between a professional critique and a professional edit. Can you explain the difference?
Sharon, you’re correct in that terms can differ. If you’re talking to editors, it’s good to find out how they define their services.
Since each editor has their own twist on the words, I’ll give my definitions of the two. A critique is an overall view. When I do a critique, I’m looking at the overall plot and structure of the novel. Is the plot believable and laid out properly? Are the characters believable? Do we start in the right place? Is the ending satisfying? How is the setting used? A critique deals more with the big picture.
An edit, on the other hand, can go into much more detail. It can be line-by-line, taking a thorough look at word choice and trimming unnecessary words. Depending on the editor, it can still include everything in a critique.
Also, what is a substantive edit, and is it the same as a line by line edit?
Again, that varies based on the editor. A substantive edit in fiction tends to focus on the overall view of the story, checking for problems with the plot or structure, any problems with the characters, with the continuity of the story, things like that. It’s typically the first type of editing done.
A line edit isn’t necessary until the story is solid and the writer is ready to perfect word choice. Then it’s time to go through the story line by line and delete unnecessary words, find typos and misspellings, check that the heroine’s eyes are always green and that no one’s name changed on page 232. It focuses on the actual words and makes sure that everything is correct, clear, and ready for an editor/agent or is ready to be proofread before printing.
What books would you recommend to writers who are learning or brushing up on their writing craft skills?
There are so many good ones out there! I love Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. It helps the writer pull the plot out of who the characters are. If you’re a character-driven novelist, this will help you sharpen your plot. If you’re a plot-driven novelist, this will help you create real people.
James Scott Bell has two good books—Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-Editing. I think Plot and Structure is a great starting point for all novelists.
Donald Maass is well-known for his book Writing the Breakout Novel and the workbook by the same title. He recently released a new book called The Fire Within. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m sure it’s well worth reading.
If you’re looking for books to help you write tightly, I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King and The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman. Both are excellent.
Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are two general writing favorites.
Sally, thank you for being a guest on my blog today. Before you go, could you tell us the title or author of a book that made you laugh?
Rene Gutteridge is great for comedy fiction. I’ve enjoyed her Boo series and Occupational Hazards series.
I think the funniest book I’ve ever read, though, was Meredith Efken’s Sahm I Am. It’s the emails of a group of stay-at-home moms. I don’t like to read stories about moms (that’s my day job, you know?) so I didn’t expect to enjoy the book, but this one was literally laugh-out-loud funny.
Sharon, thanks for having me on your blog.
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