Monday, September 24, 2018

I know it's English, I recognize the words, but what the hell does it mean?

Is there such a thing as an editor you can hire to help you with a revise or resubmit or help you interpret comments from agents and editors? I've received two revise and resubmits from agents so far (and one editor was also generous enough to give me a lot of comments) on my manuscript. They're helpful comments, insightful, and I can sort of see a pattern emerging BUT it doesn't really help me the revision itself because my main problem is I can't seem to figure out exactly what to do or where to start revising. Does that make sense? I feel like I'm simultaneously overthinking this AND underthinking it. Like, it's super helpful to have feedback that says, eg, "you characters don't know what they want" or "it would be great to see this character and that character be more opposed to each other", but it doesn't really help me figure out how to do this. Also, this is a book that's already been rewritten and edited quite extensively over a few years, and yet it keeps yielding comments like "we're interested BUT we'd like to see x, y, and z". I feel like I need someone to help me craft a revision plan around these comments, one that I can follow. Does such a thing exist?

Your first question about hiring someone to interpret comments is easy: don't do it. It's like hiring someone to figure out why your boyfriend left you. The only thing that matters here is the agent/editor is saying no. Revise and resubmit is not yes.

What you're asking for (it doesn't really help me figure out how to do this) is a checklist or directions on how to fix your ms. There isn't one. Learning how to write a good compelling novel is something you learn by doing. It's the ONLY way you learn. Sure you can pick up some tricks along the way from craft books, and watching the masters at work in their books, but that's the most help you're going to get.

Consider the two examples you've used: "your characters don't know what they want" or "it would be great to see this character and that character be more opposed to each other"

Go back to books you've read and loved. Do you know what the character wants? HOW did you learn it?  How did the author show it? Study books that work to see how yours doesn't.

Study how the writers of your favorite book show conflict. Are there some books where the conflict seems tepid? What is missing from that book?

Often bad, or unsuccessful books are just as illuminating as the good ones. Great authors make it look easy. The big splats show you that it really really isn't.

I can tell you what's wrong in any given book: lack of world building, slow pacing, too much set up, no plot, but the writer is the one who has to build the world, pick up the pace, start the story in the right place, and figure out what's at stake. 

I sense your frustration here. It feels like Yes is so close but just out of reach.

And I'm really sorry to say this again, but there are no short cuts here. You simply have to write your way to a publishable book.

It's clear you've got some serious skills already if you're getting requests.
You're playing JV basketball.
You have to figure out what you need to get to the varsity league.

Start with a reading binge, and your writer's notebook close at hand.
Treat yourself to a new notebook and a new pen if that will give you a sense of starting out fresh. Take cookie breaks.
Take walks.

Feed the kids if they insist, but honestly, letting them figure out how to work the barbeque is a good idea, don't you think?


Kitty said...

Speaking strictly for myself, reading books on writing is not my thing, with one exception: "Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing" is excellent because it is simple and succinct. I keep his book right by my side when writing, but you don't need to buy it. You can read the entire thing, all 1,048 words, here: WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Take Janet's reading binge advice. I've learned more about how to write by reading novels and noticing what I like and don't like.

Good luck, OP!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Your supposed to feed your kids? Is that why my daughter moved to New York? I knew there was something I was missing.

Seriously, I feel for you, OP. I am right there with you in fact. I figured out I can put together a sentence or two. But trying to put together 100K words that ring like a story should, it's a black art. Keep writing.

And yeah, go for a walk, feed the kids, read some great stuff. On my blog, I did a kind of exercise this past month, revisiting several books that stuck with me through the ages. Mostly, I was looking at beginnings, but it was these books that kept creeping up in my sub-conscience over the years. This does help with your own writing.

When you understand why a book sticks with you, it helps as writer to craft your own stories. Our queen really does have this identified with choice and stakes. Your MC should be proactive, make a choice in which the stakes are high (emotionally - it doesn't have to be the world will end - only that their world will change in a way that conflicts with what your MC wants). I went through all my book selections for the last month and identified this - on the side, I wrote queries for each of them as if they were mad libs, filling in MC, choice, stakes, and inciting incident. It helped. I think. We will see. Good luck, OP, Keep writing.

Peggy Larkin said...

OP, I think you might want a Developmental Editor (googling it brings up lots of blogs and samples from said editors). But Janet's advice about the reading binge is great!

Reading, writing, and analyzing fiction are all separate skills, but it's hard to get good at writing without the other two. Analysis is the hardest--knowing not just what works, but WHY and HOW it works (ask me how I know, as an English teacher who is constantly trying to get teenagers to figure it out!). If you're struggling to find useful insights from reading comps or old favorites, you may want to try some literary analysis essays (SparkNotes, even) or a book like How Novels Work or The Elements of Creative Writing.

You may also want to try all of this with short stories, since the really good ones are a perfect, polished microcosm of story, with the characterization and conflict compressed into just a few pages. (Also students whine about them less.)

I've got a very old paperback anthology called "Points of View" that gives each story a paragraph or so of analysis, pointing out where it excels at a particular element, arranged in groups for easy comparison, that might be worth hunting down. I'll go see if I can find the editor's name!

Peggy Larkin said...

Well, would you look at that: revised in the 90s! I may have to treat myself to the new edition... Available on Amazon here.

Timothy Lowe said...

Don Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel" is good, especially the section on character. If you read just one chapter in one writing book, make it that one.

MA Hudson said...

Wow Peggy - that's a great tip. Just had a look at 'Points of View' and will definitely be ordering it!

OP - as well as a reading binge, I recommend getting on with a new book. You've got so close with all those R&R's that your next book is bound to be a winner. Good luck and keep going!

Kitty said...

Thanks, Peggy! I just ordered a copy of that book.

Colin Smith said...

Opie: You say you see a pattern emerging from the two or three pros who have given you feedback. That's more helpful than one outlier agent saying "This doesn't work." I may be off-base here, but it sounds to me like you understand what they're saying, you just don't see it for yourself in your work. They say there needs to be more conflict, but you don't know how you can get more conflict into the plot (unless you throw kale into the mix, and that might not work for your plot, though it did wonders for LIMAMAN VERSUS THE KALE MONSTER FROM POQATUUN).

I presume you had CPs or beta readers look at your novel? If not, maybe pass it around to some objective eyes. See what they say. If you did use CPs/BRs, go back to their notes. Did they point out something that maybe you overlooked?

There's always the possibility (and I say this with the deepest respect and humility) that these agents are looking for something in your novel based on a preference not a fault. I might want a zombie apocalypse in WUTHERING HEIGHTS, but it ain't gonna happen, and it might adversely affect the story. Possibly. Granted, having more than one agent say the same thing is reasonably compelling. But don't forget this is subjective. Maybe the pace is just fine for some agents, just not these...?

Congrats anyway on the feedback. You're doing SOMETHING right, that's for sure! :)

Mister Furkles said...

One of the problems I see in my crit group is lack of tension. One fantasy/science fiction agent said, “Tension on every page.” This may (or may not) be the problem with:

"It would be great to see this character and that character be more opposed to each other"

In a Michael Connolly/Harry Bosch novel, there is tension between each pair of police officers. They are all on the same team trying to solve serial crimes:
Harry and a female detective experience some sexual tension—although they never get together.
Harry and another detective have tension because Harry is obsessive and the other detective is easy going.
Harry and the chief have tension because Harry is a bit loose on rules and the chief is by the book.
Then Harry and the lieutenant are at odds because the lieutenant resents Harry’s private detective work while a part-time department detective.

Tension isn’t about plot but it keeps the reader turning the page. Tension between allies covers the ground where you are giving the reader background information needed later.

Tension on every page.

Brigid said...

It may be helpful to open a fresh draft / new legal pad, and write ALTERNATE UNIVERSE at the top. Sentence one, a wicked little demon pops over to create havoc. The characters can't see it, but he whispers malignant thoughts, makes their train just late enough, thwarts them in every possible way. As you go through each chapter, look for every way he can interfere, and see what that tells you about what the characters want, need, and are working towards. I'm not suggesting you actually write him into your plot, just that you use him as a lens through which to identify what they need. Once you know that, you'll know how to increase tension (by letting him get away with it a bit) and how to shine a light on their inner desires.

Another exercise I found incredibly helpful was from a blog I can't currently find for love or money, in which it looked at the opposition necessary for great conflict and tension. What Character A wants has to be impossible next to Character B getting what they want. The example given was a woman whose grandfather wanted to die at home on his farm, but he was being forced to sell to a big city developer — so her goal was to protect him. Only what the developer wanted wasn't to make money, but to create a housing development for the homeless. He needed the grandfather to leave the farm so hundreds of others could be helped.

Colin Smith said...

... also, on the subject of creating conflict, this doesn't have to be a major blow-out between characters. Conflict can be something as simple as Amazon sending you WRITING WITHOUT WORDS instead of WRITING WITHOUT RULES. Or McDonald's giving you coffee that's way too hot, or giving you a salt packet instead of a sugar packet and you don't notice until it's too late. Even little moments like these can have consequences to your character's mood which can affect decisions and drive the story.

KariV said...

Sounds like you need a developmental editor, OP. They *should* be able to help you with those big picture edits like "Are the characters well drawn?" and "Is there enough conflict?" with some feedback as to how to do it. At the very least you should be able to ask some follow-up questions on the feedback, which you obviously can't do with the agent rejections.

In the meantime, read. Study some craft books. I'm reading "Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict" by Cheryl St. John and am LOVING it so far. It really brings things down to earth with practical advice I can implement throughout my story.

Developmental edits, read, take a break. Maybe writing something new. Come back with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit.

Good luck.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

OP - Sometimes changing the order of events can help ramp up tensions appropriately.

Sometimes, just adding 1-2 lines per chapter re:their obstacles/antagonists to refocus the scene is what you need.

Sometimes, changing up a small detail in one characters backstory can help the confrontation seem inevitable.

Fixing things is tricky until it clicks into place, and then it seems inevitable.

Good luck!

Elissa M said...

I have all kinds of terrific writing books and read other works (in my genre and others) continually. All of this was (and is) useful, but the thing that truly helped me "see" what I needed to see to improve my own writing was joining a good critique group.

Since I live on the edge of nowhere, I had to look online. Because I write speculative fiction, I joined the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. This is not a free group, but it's very reasonably priced. (They offer a free trial to see if it works for you.)

The point is, though I got tons of extremely helpful feedback on my own work, reading and critiquing other writers' work is what truly turned my own writing around. It's a lot easier to analyze something you didn't write, because you have no emotional investment.

I think a big problem for many writers is they know what they intended to say and can't see that it didn't get on the page. Seeing what wasn't working for other writers and communicating that to them in a constructive manner made it far easier for me to see and fix what was wrong in my own writing.

Craig F said...

I am still a fan of critical reading. Find a used copy of a book that struck a cord for you and with your writing.

Read it and liberally use a highlighter while doing so. When you are done marking up pages, go back and take notes.

Work those notes into a whole and keep it near when you edit. Sometimes just making the notes will turn a switch for you.

I do like the "POINTS OF View" that Peggy suggested too. It might give you direction if you can't quite get to the critical reading yourself.

Beth Carpenter said...

I once beta-read a story where a reporter is trying to get MC to tell her story, and it finally happens about 3/4 of the way through. But we readers already know the whole story so there's no surprise, and it falls flat. When I mentioned this, the writer said "Oh, that's what they meant about pacing." So perhaps, OP, a beta reader or critique partner could help point you in the right direction.

Steve Stubbs said...

I know how incredibly time consuming it is to provide feedback, and suspect agents and editors have a file on their hard drive called Boilerplate_feedback_haha.docx

If they sent out carefully considered customized feedback every time they would be out of business. There is an erstwhile for-fee crit service that used to be "legenary" (one editor's word) for charging high prices for a page or two of boilerplate.

Mister Furkles said... "One of the problems I see in my crit group is lack of tension. One fantasy/science fiction agent said, 'Tension on every page.'"

Interesting observation. There is a theory I encountered some time ago in which you build tension, then relieve it, then build it, then relieve it, and then finally build to a climax.

One reason people turn pages is the author keeps raising questions that are not answered until later. There is no reason I should care about the Bill Cosby trial, but I want to know what disposition the court will make of the case. They have kept us all hanging for months to find that one out. Lots of news stories are like that.

The one thing that cannot be a mystery is of course who wins in the end. You might have a time selling what they call "loser stories," although the original cut of the movie ROCKY ends with Sylvester Stallone's character on the mat, beaten and broken. That's a very powerful ending, but they changed it in later cuts. In every other story, as the song goes, "The good guy gets the girl, I wind up dead." The good guy ALWAYS gets the girl, except when he doesn't you won't forget the story - ever.

Julie Weathers said...


When I got the feedback from top dog agent on Far Rider, it was really useful to at last find out what wasn't working. Many agents loved the writing, but the story was off.

I let it sit and started working on Rain Crow. While you're working on something else, the boys in the back also work on things. They figured out how I needed to change Far Rider, but I still had some questions, so I emailed Top Dog and asked him if he could elaborate. He sent me back a couple of pages of suggestions and commentary, but said he couldn't advise exactly what to do because it should be organic.

The boys in the back kept working and I know what I need to do now, when I pick it up again.

Each character's motives should be clear. Sit down and write out a character sheet. Write a little story about their background maybe. While you're writing about them, their motives will become clear or you'll realize you need to work on them.

Don Maass, I think in Writing The Breakout Novel, had an exercise where you write down a character and then write down what would they never do?

I did that with Far Rider and holy cow. It took it to another level.

What would Kaelyn's mother never do?

Betray or hurt her daughter.

Then I had the mother, in an attempt to save her daughter, unwittingly put her in the path of a sociopath who nearly destroys the girl.

I did this with all the characters and it turned the story around.

Take all the comments you've gotten and write them down. Pay the most attention to ones that are similar. One agent may want more description and one may want less. That's when it gets into the subjective realm and you have to take an honest look at your work.

Agents don't send comments if they didn't see something in your work, so be encouraged.

The last time I spoke to an editor, it was going to be $5,000 minimum to go over Rain Crow. Are you prepared for that?

As Janet said, read. Read things that are beautifully written and read dross. You'll pick up patterns. Diana Gabaldon says that you can see every writing secret a writer has by reading their work. It's all there on the page if you study it. She's right.

Good luck. You have a finished work. You're getting feedback. That's much further than many.

KDJames said...

This is one of those posts where I'm sitting on my hands and biting my tongue SO HARD, because I both agree and strongly disagree with Janet. I agree that you learn by doing. There's no substitute for writing and writing and writing (and a similar, if not greater, amount of reading). But that's certainly not the ONLY way to learn to write.

OP, you say you've been writing and editing "quite extensively over a few years" but it sounds like you still don't have a really good grasp of goals and conflict. You absolutely CAN learn that and you don't need a developmental editor to do it. Of course, to Janet's point, then it's up to you to apply that knowledge to your work.

I strongly recommend you buy and read this book by Debra Dixon, GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

The book is short and written in accessible language with clear terms and a ton of examples (you don't need to be a literary scholar to understand this stuff). This isn't about "tricks," it's gaining a basic understanding of essential story elements.

I've had maybe a handful of moments in my writing career that I'd describe as "lightbulb" moments, when I learned something that changed absolutely everything. Attending a seminar where Dixon taught this subject matter was one of them.

Best of luck to you.

BrendaLynn said...

There are rewrites and then there are rewrites. Sometimes we get so close to our work that it’s hard to see our way through it.
I’ve done multiple rewrites, all for craftsmanship, but the one I’m on now is a game changer. An agent suggested a POV change for one of my characters and her advice has radically altered my story for the better. Eureka...slap hand against forehead...I wonder how I could have missed it. I’ve given myself another month to finish this rewrite and I’m excited to see the outcome. I feel like this is the final draft. But then don’t we always?
OP I share your discouragement over what seems to be an enormous task. Keep up the good work. Your eureka moment is on its way.

Peggy Larkin said...

Brigid, is it possible you mean Conflict Lock? (That links to Jennifer Crusie's explanation of it, but she also talks about how conflict works in romance novels between the lovers.)

John Davis Frain said...

A person sure can learn a lot hanging out in this neighborhood. Today is chock full o' good stuff.

After I take a break to feed the kids, I'll go over the second half of the comments. Thank you, everyone.