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Editing Workshop Part 3: Big Picture Editing Lessons from the Slush Pile


shutterstock_131060561As promised, in today’s post I’d like to focus on developmental editing. Naturally, no two novels will have exactly the same problems to tackle. So since I can’t offer specific advice for your story, I went through our slush pile notes to look for patterns. Based on 2013 submissions to date, here are the most common “big picture” issues that made a story NOT work:

The first 25-50 pages are stellar, then the story starts to unravel. By “unravel,” I’m referring to a slew of possible problems (pacing issues, characters become clichés, story feels boring, voice falters, etc.). But the take-away is this: writers often spend a disproportionate amount of time editing and polishing the beginning of their novel. On one hand, that’s great—those are the pages that will hook your future agent, editor, or the readers who buy your book. Do spend a lot of time on your opening pages; just don’t lose steam on the rest of the novel. Slush piles are full of novels with fabulous beginnings—it’s faulty middles or ends that keep them from breaking out.

The author’s message drowns out the story. This problem is related to both voice and theme. Have you ever read a novel and felt like the author was thumping you over the head with a lesson? In nonfiction, having a see-through message or thesis is often the point. But as a fiction reader, even if it’s a message you agree with (I think we should do more to prevent global warming—absolutely!), you will likely be turned off when the author’s agenda shows through. Readers want to discover the meaning behind a story on their own. This is especially important for adults writing for kids, and one of the top reasons agents turn down MG & YA submissions is that they sound too didactic or pedagogical. MG & YA readers spend all day in a classroom—the last thing they want in a novel is to hear their teacher’s voice echoing through! Keep the focus on the characters and their story.

Narratives in a multiple POV story are unequal. When it’s done well readers have no idea how difficult this technique is because they’re so engrossed in the story. But when the different narrative threads are not of equal strength, the problem is immediately obvious and disappointing. Here’s an example: in a romance novel with alternating POV, the heroine’s story is absolutely gripping and the voice is spot-on; then we get to the hero’s voice and it feels phony or flat. Some writers have a hard time writing characters of the opposite sex; for others, this is actually easier. Or it may be that the writer has a clearer vision of a particular character than the others. Readers will end up skipping the weaker sections to get back to the more compelling narrative.  A similar situation can occur when you have a love triangle—it’s tough to make all the sides of the triangle strong, but readers have to care about each of the characters (even when they’re ultimately rooting for just two of them) or there will be less at stake.

May this give you some good food for thought. Happy editing!