An oldie but a goodie that bears (frequent) repeating:
Writers have a tendency to spend more time and energy revising their first chapters than any other part of their novels. Why? Because in the publishing industry, first impressions matter. Whether you’re writing an agent query, the first paragraph of your novel, or introducing yourself—and your work—to an industry professional on Twitter, you only get one chance to make that first impression.
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward with your agent query and/or novel is to hire a freelance editor. Critique partners and beta readers are invaluable—and if you have a good CP in your life, you’re that much closer to perfecting your work. However, freelance editors—like agents and house editors—are industry professionals. Not only do we have a comprehensive understanding of what agents and editors are looking for, we also make our living based on our unique ability to read constructively and analytically, and to subsequently be able to communicate feedback, insight, and any outstanding or unresolved issues clearly and effectively. Our job is to not only help identify these issues, but also to help you find a way to resolve them.
One of my clients—let’s call him Tom—is a prolific writer. Before hiring me, Tom wrote dozens of novels—all of which he’d queried with agents, some of which had earned partial requests and one or two fulls, but none had ever garnered him an offer of representation. To hear him tell it, he resisted hiring a freelance editor for over a decade because it seemed to him a failing of sorts; hiring a freelance editor was an indication, in Tom’s mind, that he was not a good enough writer to succeed, period. He finally hired me out of sheer frustration—his most recent manuscript had received dozens of full manuscript requests from agents, all of whom he deeply admired, but each time, the novel was ultimately rejected.
Upon reading both his query letter and manuscript, I discovered two issues right away: the first was that the query letter and manuscript did not match one another. The query was quite well-written, but it did not accurately convey the tone and plot of his manuscript—a common error which most often results in precisely what Tom had recently experienced; agents loved the idea of the novel presented in the query, but the manuscript itself did not fulfill the expectations set forth in the query. The second problem was that the manuscript needed to be edited and revised. Though technically clean and grammatically correct, Tom’s manuscript contained several plot and consistency issues that needed to be resolved. Unfortunately, Tom had sent his manuscript out too soon and, based on that initial first impression, some of his most sought-after agents were no longer an option for him.
Over the next couple of months, I worked with Tom to revise his novel. Throughout the process, he often told me that he’d known some of the issues I pointed out existed in his work, but he hadn’t been able to put his finger on the root of the issue precisely enough to revise it effectively. And, though a few of his CPs had pointed out some of the issues as well, they hadn’t been able to help him figure out a way to change the story in a way that felt organic to Tom’s own personal writing and narrative style, while also resolving the problem. By the time we finished working together, Tom felt more confident about the quality of his work (and his promise as a writer in general) than he ever had before. Shortly after sending out his completed, polished manuscript, he received several requests for the full. This time, within a few short months, Tom had his first ever offer of representation.
I’m not saying that every writer who hires a freelance editor will come away from the experience with an agent and a book deal—although many have. Instead, I’ll stress that a good freelance editor can be an invaluable tool in helping you to identify, and fix, any extant problems in your novel, not to mention aiding you in perfecting story and craft on a line-by-line level. We are here to provide you with perspective, to make your novel the best version of itself it can be. Simply put, our job is to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward, that your writing makes the best possible first impression.
In the workshop I lead this past weekend, Hook Them with Your First Ten Pages, we discussed how to make an excellent first impression within the first ten pages of our novels. We discussed the importance of establishing the correct tone, capturing our reader’s attention, and ensuring the quality of our writing in those opening pages reflects the literary integrity exhibited throughout. Whether your goal is to pique the interest of your dream agent in a query letter, or to ensure your introductory chapters are engaging enough to keep your reader reading, the importance of making a good, impactful first impression is paramount in the publishing industry. And with a freelance editor’s help, you just may find that this ever-elusive, excellent first impression is finally and definitively within your grasp.
A very big ‘Thank You’ to Samantha Fountain for inviting me to participate in her massively successful #PitchToPublication twitter campaign as one of many talented editors. (As a side note, good luck to everyone involved as both writers and editors!) I was fortunate enough to give a small interview (see below) to Samantha that is also live on her blog. Go check it out and get involved! Also, for more information on how to get involved with the #PitchToPublication campaign, check out this blog post that explains everything!
Q. How did you become a freelance editor?
For years, I worked at Simon & Schuster, where I edited and acquired CB, MG, tween, and YA novels. I loved my job but between all of the in-house meetings, financial paperwork, contract negotiations, agent/author lunches, etc., the limited time I actually had to edit needed to be done on my own time. Now that I’m full-time freelance, I get to concentrate on my favorite part of the job: edit, and help authors to make their novels the best they can be!
Q. Do you have a general philosophy for how you approach your editing work?
Editing is a collaborative process. My job is to help you identify and solve any existing problems in your novel, and ask questions/suggest possible improvements that will allow you to take your novel to the next level. I have found the most successful way to communicate my insights to authors is equal parts honesty and compassion, and by providing support while also challenging my clients to reach higher and work harder.
Q. What are the most common mistakes you see in new writers work?
It is very difficult for a writer (new and experienced alike) to know where to begin his or her story. Often times, the beginning of the story is where the author is figuring out what he or she is writing, or where he or she is heading with plot. Therefore, I often see novels that begin too far away from the inciting incident.
I also see many instances wherein writers describe events (many times, transition scenes like walking to the car, getting from place to place) that are unnecessary to the plot and can, therefore, be easily cut.
Q. What’s the one thing most novelists don’t understand about the art of revision?
That it takes time, and dedication. I think many novelists would prefer to slap a band-aid fix over a serious issue and call it a day (when I first started writing, I know I did!). As writers, we get out of a novel what we put into it.
Q. What’s one easy thing every writer can do right now to make themselves a better writer?
Read voraciously and without guilt. Read as many books as you can, as often as possible. If you’re not taking writing classes, or in a writing workshop, reading can be just as valuable a teaching tool if you pay enough attention.
Q. What kind of entries are you looking for in your Pitch to Publication query box?
My specialty is YA, MG, tween. I also love NA and literary fiction. Fairy tales of any kind, and novels that have any sort of magical or fantastical element, always lure me. No matter what genre or age, voice is the single most important factor for me. If the voice is strong and compelling, I am often willing to overlook existing plot problems because I know those are fixable.
Q. What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
Q. How do you take your caffeine?
Dark roast coffee with a little milk or cream. More like rocket fuel than not.