Friday, December 27, 2013

The Top Five Things My Editor Taught Me

This post first ran on Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Have you ever felt damned by a cold inward stare as you try to write to the tsk, tsk tsk of your inner critic? Time and time again we hear that working with a developmental editor can replace that destructive little devil with a constructive inner guru. Here's testimony from one such client. Please welcome guest author Donna Galanti!

We may write alone, but we can’t get published alone. A developmental editor can help you see the power in your story as well as improve your own self-editing. Here are the top five things my editor has taught me:

1. Backstory’s purpose is to motivate your characters for the story they are in now. Weave it into your story organically by slipping through portals like sense memories, pictures, setting, or unique phrases. Include only backstory that deepens the character’s story goal and/or reveals character. Continuity words like never, always, still, and another suggest your character's world before the opening of this story. Example: My dog ran away again. Things revealed or discovered, such as items in a purse or pocket, can suggest backstory without needing to break for a flashback.

2. Know your genre. Rid yourself of prose ADD by knowing the elements of your genre and exhibiting them from the opening pages to the end. Read bestsellers in your genre to reinforce its elements. Knowing what kind of story you are telling will reveal the book’s premise or “reason to be.” How to find that? Fill in the blanks: ____________leads to___________. Example: Facing problems together leads to healing.

3. Zero in on emotional turning points. Aim for concision everywhere else but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader's sense of story movement. As things go from good to bad or bad to worse, what does your character learn about himself, and how has he changed? Example: A daughter risks losing her mother, realizes that she will not always be cared for, and now sees herself as more than just a dependent. Turning point! Now, choose powerful words to end that scene and let the impact resonate across the white space.

4. Craft your inciting incident with care. This event upsets your main character’s equilibrium and arouses his desire to restore balance—and creates a bond with the reader by arousing her curiosity as to whether the protagonist can achieve his goal. Not sure? Ask yourself, “what is the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist?” This can reveal to you his deepest desire, and point you toward his story goal. In turn, this will help you construct an inciting incident which carries the story through to the end–and provides the tension for readers to keep turning the pages.

Example from my novel, A Human Element:  
When Laura Armstrong's loved ones are murdered one by one, her unique powers lead her to the site of a crashed meteorite. There she meets Ben Fieldstone, who seeks answers about his parents' death the night the meteorite struck. The connection between the two seems to lie with the madman who haunts Laura's dreams. Can Ben and Laura stop him before he fulfills his promise to kill her next?
The inciting incident can't be the death of Laura's loved ones alone, because that wouldn't raise the question that ties her to Ben. You must aim the reader toward your intended conclusion so the ending satisfies.

5. Increase tension to make your book a page-turner. Building tension involves raising stakes, manipulating pacing, and raising questions (Why is he getting so drunk? How can he go on now that his family is murdered?). A sudden wind, a rising stench, or a jarring noise can be a portent of doom while ramping up suspense. As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The same can be said for tension-filled writing: it's our job as writers to manipulate atmosphere and pace to the best possible advantage.

Donna Galanti has worked on several creative projects with developmental editor Kathryn Craft of Writing-Partner to find the power in her stories.

What words of wisdom does a writing mentor whisper into your ear as you write?


Donna Galanti is an International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Author of the suspense novel, A Human Element and the short story collection The Dark Inside. She is a member of the ITW Debut Author Program social media team, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. She is also a first-reader for the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. Connect with her on GoodReads, Facebook, and at her website.

26 comments:

  1. Donna, Thanks for the honing tips.

    At times, when I get in a groove of writing brilliance, my muse will peer out the window, take in the horizon, and mutter, "Such a pity about darlings and all . . ."

    I'm glad for the reminder.

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  2. Nice post, Donna! And you are so blessed to have such a wonderful editor in Kathryn. Amazing what one can teach, no? Kudos to you both!

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  3. What's the worst thing that can that can happen to my protagonist? He/she gets to be my protagonist.

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  4. Hey Susan, thanks for your kind words! I'm sure Donna will stop in and address comments at some point today.

    Donna, thanks for sharing your experiences here today. I think so many writers think of working with an independent editor as a money suck that's necessary to polish their manuscript—when really it is a valuable investment in your ongoing education as a writer.

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  5. Terrific points! An author absolutely needs qualified people to read over her work. There are so many things we miss because the entire story (and every draft of it) is in our head. We can't recognize when we are not making sense, leaving out important information, omitting words, etc. I'm truly grateful for my critique group.

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  6. Hi everyone! I'm thrilled to be on this wonderful blog and share what my amazing editor has taught me - and continues to.

    I agree with Kathryn, that paying an editor may be costly but is part of our writing career education. Working with an editor not only improves our work but teaches US how to improve our work as well. I see a vast improvement in my own self-editing now and this boosts my confidence as a writer. "The more you know" and all that!

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  7. Dear IndyWriterGirl, how wonderful for you that you have a valuable critique group. This brings up a good point - that there are many avenues we can take to improve our work. Editors, peers, critique groups, and beta readers.

    Working with an editor has allowed me to break down the process of my writing and focus on specific areas at a time. For example when I begin revisions it helps to run through the manuscript for specific areas at a time, otherwise it is too overwhelming. First, I read it once through as a beta reader then do individual passes for such things as dialogue, character arcs, echo words, emotional turning points, etc. For me, breaking it down this way makes revisions of "the beast" much more easy to tame. :)

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  8. Oh Alison and Christopher, I am chuckling here as I too love to kill my darlings and put my characters through the wringer.

    Love this motto: "What's the worst thing that can that can happen to my protagonist? He/she gets to be my protagonist." True!

    I think, Kathryn my editor, would chuckle too and agree with this about my characters!

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  9. Good advice, Donna. I would say that writing is all about the characters, but clearly there are other elements that have to come into play. But mostly it's the characters that readers identify with.

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  10. Hi Helen, I agree! Characters make the book. A story to me is all about the characters; who they are, what drives them, what happens to them, and how they deal with it. I need to be endeared to them. I can forgive a lot in a book if I love the characters. :)

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  11. Wonderful post. I love the fact that you stressed how complementary this kind of writer/editor relationship can be. I am newer at developmental editing than Kathryn, but I can see how the process benefits both sides. In analyzing a client's story for what works and what doesn't I learn a bit about my own writing.

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  12. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil, Donna!

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  13. One bit of advice commonly given at workshops is, "Put your heroine up a tree and shoot at her." You have to keep raising the stakes, and it's wonderful if you have someone, be it an editor or critique group to make sure you're not wandering about too long in the happy places

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  14. Speaking as a mentor -- and, yes, mentors also need mentors when they write -- I particularly appreciate these points.

    It has been said that almost anybody can write a book. Yes, but putting words on paper, even in some logical order, does not alone create great (or even good) reading. So much more must happen to transform those words into a compelling story.

    Welcome, Donna. It's lovely having you here.

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  15. Linda and Dani, thanks so much for the welcome! I was thrilled when Kathryn asked me to guest post here. We both laugh as the biggest thing that has stuck with me from Kathryn's mentoring is "to let our words resonate". I keep it in a side dish as I write and edit now. I'm painfully aware now of looking for ways to re-arrange my sentences better so I can end them with the strongest word in the reader's mind.

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  16. Terry, great advice indeed! We do need other "eyes" on our work to show us how we may have wandered off the story's path and guide us back to upping the stakes so we don't languish in "happy places."

    For who wants to read about happy people doing happy things living in a happy world? To me, that would not offer an emotionally satisfying reader experience. Oh, writer, bring me to the depths of despair with a character, make it seem like his desires will never be fulfilled - then show him how him how to get it all back, or lead him to transformation and peace.

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  17. Great post, Donna. I can almost hear Kathryn giving advice... ;-D

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  18. Another thing I should mention here that I am still learning is the art of going "slow" in editing and and looking at every word I have written.

    Each word in a story or novel should have meaning. It's all valuable real estate space. I love to write fast and the editing process used to be painful to me until I learned to enjoy it. The peeling back the layers of the story to add more richness to it. The saying aloud of the words to hear their cadence. The questioning of each sentence placement.

    It's a back and forth dance that keeps building until you can't possibly dredge anymore hidden within the story to make it shine - and then you do!

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  19. Helen, Donna, I'm glad you mentioned the importance of characters. Readers don't grow attached to a plot. They don't root for a plot to succeed in attaining its desire or achieving its goals. Characters drive the story and while yes, a tight plot and sound structure are necessary, they are nothing without the personalities to breathe life into them. Ray Bradbury said, and I paraphrase, that plot is the footprints left in the snow after the character has raced by on their way to their destination. Plot (story) is what happens to characters.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!! And Kathryn, Donna, you are both WONDERFUL! :)

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  20. Great writing tips. There's nothing that can bog a story down more than backstory dumps.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  21. Joe, thanks for the Bradbury paraphrase...he had so much to teach through his work. Many of his short stories and longer works have stayed with me for decades - and it was the characters I remember.

    Morgan, I can relate to back story dumps. Writing it in the beginning is a great way to brainstorm - but then cut it out and use that copy to weave in later. And I love to cut!

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  22. Great advice! I'm editing a manuscript I'd written some time ago, and had put aside. I can't believe how much backstory I grabbed an entire chunk and put it on the bottom, so that I can take bits and pieces and sprinkle it throughout.

    Thank goodness for computers!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  23. Morgan, it's amazing what is revealed to us when we step back from a manuscript for some time and then re-visit it. Glad you came back to yours and can breathe new life into it- and sprinkle that backstory. :)

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  24. Item 3 particularly grabs me. The emotional elemental is so crucial in engaging the novel reader; and powerful, well-chosen words pull her into the scene as at least an observer if not a participant. I love revisiting this post, Donna. It's a keeper. :-)

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  26. Linda, I agree honing in on those emotional turning points is right up there as a top focus we can use to make our scenes - and stories - stronger. I've been guilty of burying a turning point in my scenes and had to peel away the layers to recognize it. Readers want that emotional satisfaction of reaching that turning point if they've spent all this time traveling your character's road - so let's make sure we give it to them! Glad this post is a keeper for you, Linda.

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