The Manuscript, Edit Letters, & Deadlines: Thoughts from an Author/Editor

I originally wrote this post for Adventures in YA Publishing as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes–and just in case it’s useful to my readers here.

Across the Desk: Thoughts from An Author-Editor by Kate Brauning

Hello, Adventurers! It’s Kate Brauning here, and I’m finding myself in an interesting position this year. I’ve worked in publishing for about four years now (still just learning), and as a freelance editor and an editor with first Month9Books and now Entangled Publishing, I’ve worked with a lot of clients on a lot of books. But just this past November, my debut novel released. I’ve been working toward being an author since I was a teen, so this is really a dream come true for me—but it also means I’m on the receiving end of what I’ve been handing out to my clients. Because I’m getting to see across the desk a bit, I’m here to chat about how editors and authors see the same issues.

The Manuscript:

Author:  When my agent first offered me representation, and when the offer for How We Fall came through, I was so nervous. What if they didn’t love my book as much as they said? What if they liked my book, but not me? And what if later on, my book got lost in the shuffle? Of course, I worried through all these things with my critique partners (and my poor agent), and I’ve seen the same fears go around in the writing community. They’re pretty normal concerns—and it’s great for authors when an editor recognizes that and reaches out to help stabilize those concerns. My own editor has made a point to congratulate me on good news and keep up with issues, even though we’re long past edits, and it really helps assure me that they still love my book and they’re working hard to make sure it does the best it can.

Editor: In my experience, an editor will almost never acquire a book he or she doesn’t love. Publishing is a business, but it’s a business that requires passion. We have to advocate so hard and so long for our books, and even read them 6+ times, that it’s not smart business to acquire a book we don’t genuinely love. And it’s not smart business to work with an author we can’t work with, either. We love you and your book, and even if we have other books and authors on our lists, working hard for your book is what we signed up for.

Editorial Letters:

Author: Getting your editorial letter can be exciting and terrifying. It can be tough to hear what needs to be improved in our books—chances are we’ve been through multiple heavy rounds of revisions already. We may even be working a newer project that has grabbed us. Switching back and forth between projects can be tough, and along with handling the editorial letter itself and knowing how to apply the changes our editor is asking for, comes the insecurity of wondering how much our editor could really love the book if it has all these flaws. Positive comments and support are really helpful to us, both in the edit letter and in general, even just to help us know that yes, this part works. (If my editor sends me an encouraging note or tells me something she loves about my book, it makes my day.) Editorial letters can even be confusing, or contain notes that we might agree with, but can’t see how to apply. When revising How We Fall, I had notes I knew how to apply, but it meant I had to make other changes I didn’t know if my editor would like. Beyond being stressful, those edits can raise a lot of questions and tough issues.

Editor: A good editor breaks down both what works and what needs to be sharper in a manuscript. I want my clients to know the positives in the story so they can see why I love it, to help them see the book in a balanced manner, and to help offset how tough it can be to hear what needs to change. But it’s also the editor’s job to point out what needs cleaning up and sharpening. A heavy edit doesn’t mean we don’t like the book or that we think you did a lousy job revising. We’re working hard on your book because we love it. We’re helping you figure out how to get your vision on the page. It’s tough to see your own work objectively—we know that. It can be hard to see your own way out of plot or character issues. And we know you’ve been over this book many times, and it gets harder and harder to tell what’s working and what isn’t. Our focus is on balancing all that out and helping you make this book the best it can be. Because we love it. We’d be doing our jobs poorly and harming both the book and your career if we weren’t honest, so believe the compliments we give you, because we mean them! And if you need clarification or want to discuss ideas, let your editor know. We actually prefer it! We don’t want you floundering and confused. Definitely reply to the edit letter, after you’ve had the chance to think about it. We want to know what you’re thinking about the notes, and if you have questions or if the notes bring up other issues. We’re doing this with you.

Deadlines:

Author: Sometimes I need a good, tight deadline to really make me tackle revisions. If I can dabble at it, it probably won’t get done. My revision rounds for How We Fall were incredibly tight timing, and I basically lived in my book until they were done. And my critique partners and writer friends went through the same thing when their edits came. Sometimes it went just fine and we tackled those revisions and got them sent off on time. But sometimes the deadlines went over a child or spouse’s birthday, or we got sick, or had crises at day jobs. Even more often, we floundered with how to apply the editorial notes, or discovered more that needed to be revised once we dug in. A caffeine-fueled, sleep-deprived stupor doesn’t make for smart, thorough revisions. But can you tell an editor that? Can you ask for an extension, or does that make you a “difficult author”? Should we tough it out, or talk to our editor?

Editor: Deadlines are a necessary part of the publication process, and it can cause problems with production and vendors if we have to move them around too much. However, we know you’re human, and life happens. I don’t know of anyone who would label an author “difficult” if a problem crops up during edits. The earlier you let us know, the better. It’s much easier to adjust earlier on than a few days before your deadline. Honest, upfront communication with your editor is always best. Of course, your editor may say, “sorry, there’s a big immovable reason we need it by X date,” but we’ll usually try to work with you! Rushed edits from a stressed author usually aren’t the author’s best work, and we want those revisions to be solid. The key is to communicate with us. We’ll try to reply in kind, and work out the issue together. It’s what we’re here for!

Communication, really, is one of the biggest things I’ve learned from seeing both sides of the desk. Honest, open communication. Be respectful of your editor’s time, of course, and realize they have other clients they need to be fair to, too, but communicate. Ask the questions you have. Editors sometimes don’t realize what it is you might not know. Get clarification on edits—they’re trusting that if you’re confused, you’ll come back to them. They want you to! Great books take collaboration, and both the author and the editor are in this together, to make that book the best it can be and to help it reach its audience.

How to Fix Flat Scenes

You know the feeling. You’ve been writing along, feeling the gut-punch of creating an awesome scene, and when you take a break and re-read, the scene reads flat. Limp. But you’re a pro, so you know this is probably just because you’re too close to it now, so you let it go and decide to come back later. Maybe you keep writing, maybe you go read a great book or do some research to reset your brain. But when you come back, it still sounds lifeless. There’s a lot of action– someone is in danger, someone revealed something painful, or maybe it’s a fight scene. Whatever scene it is, it’s one you need to really grip your readers and land that blow, but it’s just sitting there, and you know in your gut you didn’t deliver the punch you wanted to.

Don’t ignore that feeling. If you can sense that, you have fantastic instincts. That’s your writer’s brain trying to get your attention, saying “Hey- we’ve got a problem.”

If you think about that for a minute, that will lead us to the answer. A flat scene is one that’s not getting up off the page. It’s just sitting there. It’s not alive, it’s not true-to-life in some element. We’re seeing it through a character’s eyes, but somehow that character’s experience isn’t hitting us. And it should be.

That feeling tells you you’re missing something. But when you know where to look, it can be pretty easy to see what you’re missing.

A character’s experience breaks down into 5 separate things:

Thought– In 1st and 3rd person where we’re very close to the character, a character’s thought is often also exposition. For punchy scenes, blend them better. Use the character’s voice to phrase things, don’t use too much exposition, use thoughts that heighten the tension. Make as much of the exposition thought from the character as you can– this tightens the psychic distance (the distance from the readers to the character’s mind) and gets us right in the middle of things.

Action– Usually this one isn’t the culprit, but make sure things are happening. If it’s not a particularly active scene, don’t let people just sit there. Have them use actions and gestures that heighten tension and show their emotional state. Grip things, rearrange things, pace, throw things, etc. Reaction is a big part of action– most of what we do on a daily basis is reacting to something else, and reactions are powerful things. Use your character’s reactions to show how this is affecting him/her.

Dialogue– Technically dialogue is an action, but it’s a distinct one that often either dominates a scene or gets left out, so it’s separate. Check to make sure you’re not letting it take over the scene; sometimes what’s not said is more impacting. Let us read between the lines. Make sure, too, that you actually do have dialogue in there somewhere. People accuse, demand, and give ultimatums through dialogue. Most escalation happens through dialogue, so make sure that you have it, and that what you have contributes and is the best way to show the detail.

Sensation– We all know to use the senses when we’re writing, so bring us the action through textures, instincts, sounds, detailed sights, scents (which often carry memories), even taste. We can sense something that your character doesn’t, so channel the sensations to us through him.

Emotion– This one often gets the same treatment that dialogue does– way too much or none at all. The most impacting use of emotion is usually brief and powerful. We don’t need long, winding paragraphs that drown us in grief or loneliness. By the time the reader finishes those, the action has paused for so long we’re looking around for something to happen and we’ve lost interest. Basically, we don’t care. Keep it brief, make it deep, move on. But keep it going, too. Come back to how all these actions and dialogue and sensations and thoughts are affecting your character emotionally. We get worn thin. Old wounds get opened up. We become desperate. Sometimes we’ve just had it. Keep the emotional progression of your character advancing; don’t let what they’re feeling sit there. Make it go somewhere.

If a scene feels flat, it’s almost always one of two things- 1) either you’re showing, not telling (a different post) or 2) one or more of the 5 things above is missing from your scene. In all the pages I’ve seen come through slush or edited or written, most often I see emotion and thought being the ones missing or over/underdeveloped.

Check through your scene to see if you’re missing any of those. Use highlighters if you want, and color each one of the five a different color in your scene. See what dominates. See what’s missing or needs boosted. See if any moment carries more than one.

An impacting scene is a dense chemical blend. Miss one element, and it doesn’t affect us like it should. That denseness is important, too– if you’ve got all of those things happening, it’s a lot, but it can’t take forever on the page. Make sensations carry thought. So, combine them. Make action show emotion. Use dialogue to push the action. Get two or more from that list into each moment, and you’ll have something dense and impacting. Your scene won’t be flat; it will get up off the page and have a life of its own. We’ll walk into it, and you’ll have created something we can live in, too.

Need Query/Pages Help?

Happy Saturday, readers!

I made a change to the site today. I’ve had the tab above that says “critiquing services” for quite some time, and last fall, I joined forces with Alex Yuschik, an editor who’s as sharp as she is supportive. My freelance editing has grown enough that we’ve moved it to another site to have cleaner breakdowns of what we offer. If you want to make sure your pages are the best they can be before you query, if your query isn’t landing you requests and you think it may have issues, or if you want constructive, honest feedback on your entire manuscript, let us know! You can still click the “critique services” tab above to go to the new site for my editing, or you can go right to http://kaeditorial.wordpress.com

A bit about K&A:

K & A Editorial is a full-service editorial company for writers intending to have their work published. We do developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, and proofreading. Most of our clients come to us through referrals from literary agencies, publishing houses, and other authors. We’re serious about supporting the writing community, so keep an eye out for charity auctions, pitch contests, and giveaways we participate in—you may win a free critique!

For self-publishing authors: we offer a thorough 5-round editorial package designed to sharpen and polish your story until it’s ready for readers. Please see the whole-manuscript editorial tab on the editorial site for more details.

For writers pursuing traditional publication: we offer critiques of all your submission materials as well as partial and full manuscript critiques. We’ll help you improve your query and pages to catch an agent or editor’s eye. Check us out, and let us know if you have questions!

Have a great weekend, readers!

Prose Tips: the Psychology of the Short Sentence

Intentional sentence construction is vital to good writing.  Knowing what you’re doing with your sentences and why you’re doing it is absolutely essential to making the desired impact on your reader. Writers all have different sentence styles, ranging from sparse and cryptic to long and flowing. I prefer short, punchy sentences in general, with longer, more complicated ones taking the limelight where I want some poetry in my writing or else during more contemplative scenes. No one way is perfect, but shorter sentences can bring a dramatic impact that longer sentences often lack.

Readers subconsciously pause when they see the period in a sentence. This pause can emphasize subtext or emotion nicely. Use shorter sentences and back-load them when you want high emotional impact. Readers will process the sentence for a moment more than they might otherwise.

Long sentences (and long paragraphs) can be tempting to skim. Shorter sentences can help your readers stay engaged, because that briefest of pauses between sentences allows a moment to refocus. Be aware that this refocusing happens, and use it to your advantage.

Shorter sentences prompt readers to keep reading, especially sentences with only a handful of words. Because what they are reading now is so brief, it’s just a fraction easier to be wondering “What happens next?” Lining up all these punchy, short sentences together can speed your reader along and heighten the urge to find out what happens in the next paragraph, the next page, the next chapter. They automatically increase the pace of action scenes, as well.

Short sentences are less likely to contain unnecessary words. Because you’re focusing on paring down the thought to something punchy and brief, it’s easier to see what you can cut. Words and phrases like “that”, “there are/is”, and other word clutter are more likely to be tossed out. Additionally, short sentences have a smaller chance of being confusing than long sentences.

Another benefit of short sentences is the flip-side of the point above- as you write your short sentences, you might not only be separating a long sentence into two sentences; you might be reducing your words and turning your thought into something more concise. Conciseness lends itself to subtext- and subtext is a beautiful thing. People aren’t always transparent in what they say and do, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Narrators can use the subject inherent to a great short sentence to full effect, as well. This treats the reader as if they’re intelligent enough to notice and process the subtext, and it makes your characters deeper and more realistic.

A word of warning: Variety is key here. An entire paragraph of four-word sentences would probably bore the most dedicated reader. Be careful that you feed your reader a variety- no one wants the same meal every day, so mix it up.  Long sentences can be a gorgeous, winding adventure full of voice. Don’t avoid them. Just use long and short sentences in the places where the pacing and subject matter are prime for them.

How do you decide what type of sentence to use for which moment? Do you have a specific style, or do you go with your gut on a case-by-case basis? Tell me what you love about short sentences.

A companion post in praise of the long sentence is in the works.