Friday, January 4, 2013

Countdown to a Book 4: Developmental Editing

For eight years I wrote, submitted, and improved upon what will in January 2014 be my debut novel, The Art of Falling. When I was offered representation in December 2011, Katie Shea (Donald Maass Literary Agency) suggested another two rounds of developmental edits. When it was sold to Sourcebooks in September 2012, I received notes for a further developmental edit.

People have asked me if I’m just changing words around at this point to suit the taste of others. Is it really possible, after all these years, that I am making it better?

My answer is yes, it is still getting better. The project is maturing in ways that my vision, unaided, may not have supported. Here are three late-in-the-game changes that substantially improved the manuscript:

Cutting. At the request of my agent (and with the editorial help of Janice Gable Bashman), I brought the word count down from 98,000 to Katie’s suggested 85,000 words. This length was more saleable for a debut women’s fiction title, she said. When I despaired that I couldn’t budge it lower than 86,500, I went through and checked for uses of the words “even” and “just”—and “even” though I’m a developmental editor already sensitized to their overuse, I was able to cut an additional 1100 words. At this length concision itself—in my novel, as in a poem—began to work its own special magic.

 • Moving a large emotional turning point into the middle of the book. Katie loved the way so many story arcs came to such a satisfying conclusion in my novel. But they did so in a row, at the end, bam-bam-bam. As a reader awaiting these, Katie started to feel detached from my protagonist through the middle. Was there a turning point I could move up? I immediately identified the right one, which allowed another to move up as well. The middle now had more emotional punch.

Clarifying the timeline. The opening of my book raises two story questions—what caused this dancer to part from the penthouse balcony, and what will she do to recreate her life from a point of zero movement. A challenge in interweaving the resulting dual timelines is that the intrusion of one can make it difficult to track time in the other. How long has it been since we were in the last segment of current story—an hour? A week? A month? Shana, my Sourcebooks editor, asked that I embed clues to clarify the timeline. In a separate note, she said she’d lost track of my character’s bruising, mentioned at the start and then abandoned. I have now created a timeline of bruising to ground the reader in both the story chronology and my character’s physical recovery, layering another colorful thread into the project.

Although I’m thrilled at the further development of my book, I do not want to downplay the fact that traditionally published authors must indeed care about pleasing their editors. While mine have been responsive in our ongoing collaboration, I now work for them. They purchased the rights to this work, paid me an advance, and are investing in the cover design, publicity plan, production, and distribution. For these perks I am more than happy to continue to create the best possible product.

Just catching up? Here are links to the other posts in this series:
Countdown to a Book 1: Joining Hands
Countdown to a Book 2: Pitching
Countdown to a Book 3: Getting My Agent

Next: Countdown to a Book 5: All About Image

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her article, "The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing," co-written with Janice Gable Bashman, is in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Her monthly series, "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. Her essay Memoir of a Book Deal tells the larger story while also serving as a primer on story structures. To follow her writing please "Like" her Facebook Author Page. She follows back most writers on Twitter.


  1. A great reminder of the value that other experienced eyes can bring to our work. Even a writer who is an excellent editor needs another editor (or two, or three). And truly amazing that you could cut a thousand words by taking out "even" and "just".

  2. Good for you Kathryn. You seemed to have made the most of an extended collaboration with your editors without sacrificing what was important to you.

    I think concision can be overdone, as with anything else in writing. Readers, particularly in some genres, favor "big reads" and more complex subplots and by-stories. It's a dance we do with editors, publishers, and readers to both give them what they want and what we want.

  3. Thanks for sharing your journey, Kathryn. I love it when a good editor helps shape a story and make it better. I treasure the editors I have worked with.

  4. My favorite part of this post is the idea of physical timelines. So powerful! Can't wait to read the book, Kathryn! I love this series, too. So useful for other writers.

  5. Elle: Believe me, no one was more shocked than I!

    Larry: Thanks. And certainly you are right, that some genres and stories require a bit of sprawl. My journey with this novel taught me a lot about the more subtle ways we reiterate, such as scenes with overlapping goals, that just aren't necessary.

    Maryann: No one has experienced a true writing high until they've worked with a fine editor. I'm glad you have also had this experience!

  6. Dani: And to think it almost didn't happen! An agent once told me she'd never heard a publisher say "Oh drat, it would have been so much better if this book had gotten to me last year!" Even with current events tie-ins literature often benefits from added thought. In this world of crank-em-out books, it's worth remembering that our work can benefit from taking our time.

  7. Great post Kathryn - all of your hard work and perseverance paid off, and you created a wonderful novel. I'm so honored to have played a part in helping you on your path to publication.

  8. Janice thanks so much for stopping in and representing part of my valued team!

  9. Kathryn, you've explained so well why even editors need editors. It's next to impossible for editors who are also writers to wear both hats. One of them simply won't fit. Your being open to the input of other professionals says a lot about you as a writer. Your attachment to your story is properly balanced with your desire to create a great read. Excellent post. I can hardly wait to read the book.

  10. Kathryn, (had to re-write this comment!) a great snapshot of your publishing journey - that still continues once you obtain an agent.

    This area you worked on really resonated with me: Moving a large emotional turning point into the middle of the book. The middle now had more emotional punch.

    And I think your post shall inspire many who are stuck on how to breathe new life into their novel - and that it can always be improved on. There are always new layers to be found.

    I say this as I am in the thick of this now! My middle grade novel has been through many agent submissions, had the full read by many agents, been rejected, and received much valuable feedback that's been incorporated and guess what? With all these changes, I'm still motivated to work on it with new ideas!

    Folks, should realize that submitting to agents is a learning process. As you know, working on your novel for 8 years. If writers can understand and appreciate this, then they can improve on their writing with each rejection, each criticism, each feedback received.

    Do I wish I had done all the work on my book that I've done this year on my novel before submitting to one agent? Yes! But, I didnt have the knowledge then that I needed and I wouldnt know how to make it better! And there will always be new agents to submit to. We need to slow down and do the hard work to make the book the best it can be.

    Thanks for your continued insight and knowledge on the road to publication! (and your amazing developmental edits too!)

  11. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Linda. But take your patience pill—"Countdown to a Book" has a year to go!

  12. Hey Donna, thanks for your comment and sharing your experience. If you can screw your head on the right way, everything is a learning experience that will season you for the road ahead. Publishing is a school of hard knocks to be sure, so you might as well celebrate each tough lesson, right?

  13. This has been a fabulous journey to follow and so inspiring. It's sometimes discouraging watching the ethos of crank-em-out taking over. I probably say this too often, but we're not asking readers for their money, we're asking for time that can never be gotten back. That's quite a responsibility and it's been a joy following your journey of respect for the readers and your own work.

    Your comment about working for the publisher now touches on something that's very strong in the indie movement. There seems to be a lot of anger and resentment that going with a traditional publisher takes away their rights, their freedoms, and their artistic identity. I've always felt that it takes a strong team to turn out a good book with lasting power. As with anything worth having, that comes with a price. In the current environment, writers either pay that price up front and out of pocket, or pay the price by assigning rights. Are you comfortable with the IP ownership of your work? It certainly sounds as if it's been a wise choice.

    Thank you for sharing this journey. Writers don't often get a chance to follow the journey of a traditionally published book.

  14. Cyd: Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and thanks for coming along for the ride!

    I was wondering if anyone was going to bring up that statement about selling rights‚ as I too find the topic most volatile these days. The new version of "wanting it all" seems to be wanting the support of a pro publishing team but not agreeing to assign rights.

    One thing I've learned through my editing, though: you can change an awful lot about a book and it will still have your DNA all over it. I've heard of authors digging their feet in and fighting their publishers on the dumbest things, including a whole lot of things they never should have bothered with.

    The way I see it is that this book would not exist without me. If a publishing professional says something has to go for the book to be a success—although this is theoretical, since it hasn't yet happened—it's gone. My book is 85,000 words and if a few dozen of them get axed, hey—there are a lot more great ones where those came from!

  15. True, Kathryn, pacing and last minute development are everything. I thought I'd finished plotting my last novel. Then I wrote its synopsis. (It's always a good thing to write the synopsis at the very start, I've found, rather than later.) Then I read a great novel by Paul Adams - which keeps the suspense going until the very last page.

    And I realized that I'd lost the pace far too soon. (Hasty revision!)

    It's never too late to start again...

  16. I have no problems with getting a word count down, but lots of problems getting it higher. Great ideas you received for fixing the sagging middle.

  17. John, thanks for reading, and I look forward to your new posts here at The Blood-Red Pencil. Yes, in today's riptide-paced e-publishing world, one of the very best pieces of advice before hitting "publish" is SLOW DOWN and check again! Of course traditional publishing comes with its own built in snail's pace, so no problems there!

  18. Morgan, that sounds like a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Or at the very least, right brain creative and left brain editing. We all struggle for balance!


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