By: Dr. Dawn Field
Editor’s Note: In Dawn’s post, Who Checks If…, she gave us this reminder, “You need a friendly reader who also knows a lot about the craft of writing. A good developmental editor offers you an objective eye, is a special kind of coach who can help you up your writing game, and in the best cases, turns into a huge fan.”
So, now you’ve decided to talk to that developmental editor. What might that conversation sound like?
Your First Conversation with a Developmental Editor
Sometimes the best way to understand things is to talk them out – this is often true when talking about your writing with a developmental editor.
What might you learn about your book and how it reads if you go to a developmental editor? Will it be confirmation of what you already know – or new things?
This dialogue between a developmental editor and a first-time book author is a continuation of the broader discussion of what can a developmental editor do for you?
Although this is an amalgam of conversations I’ve had with authors, and it might seem artificial, but authors, including myself, often use the form, didactic dialogue, to reinforce a point.
So, you’ve finished your first book. Congrats!
Yes, I’m really pleased. I’ve been working on it forever, and I’m not sure if it’s any good. I started it on a lark one year in NaNoWriMo, and it was terrible. But the story stuck with me and kind of grew. I just had to go back to it again. It’s been years now, but I think I got it.(It’s okay to take as long as you like. A book can be like raising a child.)
Well, I’m happy to read it and give detailed feedback.
Yes, that would be great. I’ve had friends read it and like it, but I’d like to see what an editor says. I want to self-publish it.(The more feedback you get all along the way, the better.)
Do you want me to read it all the way through, or we do it piece by piece?
How would the latter work?
I call it a serial read. You send a scene or a chapter, and I give you feedback. You can then take as long as you like to get me the next piece. If you want to make changes, feel free. If you are ready to send the next bit do.
Oh, that’s like a serial publication – Poe and many other famous writers did that when magazines were in their heyday, didn’t they! I would love that because then I know at each point if I’ve kept your attention.
Yes, exactly. I will look in detail at the structure, which is the best way to think about and larger-scale edits you might want to make.
I know nothing about novel structure. I’ve just been carrying around this story for ages, and I wrote it down.
Well, from the first page you sent me, it seems you know a lot about the story. You start with a stellar opening in medias res, in the thick of the action, with a girl working in a field being attacked by an alien ship!
Yes, that’s the twist on the genre. She is an alien, but a slave brought by the invaders from another star system. At least that’s what she thinks.
Hmmm. It seems like you’ve given this a lot of thought. So, she is your lead character?
Yes, she’s the lead, but there are two storylines. Of course, there is her story, but also the captain of the alien ship. He wants her dead.
I wanted to write a coming of age story about a special girl. She lives in a horrible world after aliens landed and took over the earth.
Don’t say any more. I see you don’t yet have a book synopsis, a summary, or a teaser, or I’d refer to it now and ask you a bunch of questions. That can come later. But right now, you have a choice about how much you tell me about your story. You can either tell me the basics of the story, and I use that as a roadmap for the read, or you can tell me nothing, and you see if I get what you meant. (This is the difference between what I call a ‘cold read’ and an ‘in-the-know’ read.)
Oh. Well, I just mean to tell you that it’s a very horrible world and the point is that she wants to help fix it – and what she does is the story.
Ah, so you are writing YA in the dystopian genre. That’s great. It is a real growth area. That’s what you read most? (It’s great to know what kind of book you are writing and best if you read lots of similar books, so you know what readers expect. More experimental books are fine too, just know you won’t have a pre-defined audience.)
Yes, somehow, I got into that niche back in high school and really enjoyed it. So, I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read. It is ten years later, but better late than never.
Super. You have a great idea of what’s on the shelf, what readers are used to, and what might be novel to them.
Maybe. Well, I hope so.
Did you write it with a 3 Act Structure in mind? (Most traditional novels incorporate a clear beginning, middle and ending patterning.)
Ah…no. I don’t really know any theory of writing. Should I have?
Well, if it’s a traditional novel, yes, if it’s more experimental, you have more leeway.
I wanted it to be a page-turner like the books I read.
Okay, that sounds like 3 Act Structure. Let me ask you a question. What happens at your midpoint?
Do you mean the middle of the book?
Yes, I see your book is 70k long, which is a great length for a novel, especially YA. So what happens around word 35k? (Novels general start around the 50k word mark, with novellas being more like 30k, and YA books are generally shorter than adult books.)
Um…let me think.
Just open your draft, and let’s take a look.
Oh! It’s the moment she finally realizes she is human, after all. Oh, I gave away the twist!
That is genius. See? You are doing a classic story structure exceptionally well! (The midpoint in classic story structure is when the ‘beginning ends and the end begins.’ It is where books can “sag” if you aren’t careful. It’s often where the lead character switches from passive to active or has a self-revelation. James Scott Bell suggests in his book that you write your book from ‘the middle out.’)
But how? I’ve never been trained! I don’t know it!
You apparently do! You read a lot, which can mean that you have absorbed the structure intuitively. That is great. It means you are likely to have absorbed a lot of other great devices as well. (This is the key reason to read, read, read, read if you want to write.)
I guess we will find out. I’m really looking forward to sending you my first chapter. (Developmental edits might seem scary, but they should be fun and an in-depth learning experience.)
Superb. You sound like a pro. Your style is also very good. I don’t think I’ll have much to comment on if you write the whole book as well as this first page.
I’ll just be looking at story structure and substance – the best kind of developmental read.
Do you use cliff hangers?
Yes, at the end of most chapters. (Now is the time to talk lots of book craft.)
Terrific. I can’t wait to get started. (Developmental editors love a great read as much as any reader.)
A Developmental Edit
If you are looking to see how you are doing with story structure and substance, you can’t do better than to go to a developmental editor who specializes in your kind of book.
A good developmental editor will try to help you make your story more of what you want it to be, while also pointing out if aspects of writing craft could be used to help you hone your message and heighten your story's impact. Click To Tweet
Most of all, remember, developmental editors, want to love your book as much as you do.
Is It Time for Your Conversation with a Developmental Editor?
If you think you are ready for a profession developmental edit or merely want to talk about the process and craft of writing, contact Dawn a firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio: Dr. Dawn Field
Dawn Field is a book lover and scientist interested in what makes great writing.
She is the founder of Unity in Writing, LLC where she writes about writing, language and science and loves giving feedback and brainstorming with authors as a developmental editor.
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