The Concierge (Blog)

Using Maps to Edit Setting

One way to help authors to nail down concrete details of their setting is to sketch a rough map of the various places characters go in the story.

What a Map Can Show

Such a map helps me see logical inconsistencies in the layout of an author’s setting: if the poor side of town is north of the railroad tracks, what are all the multimillion dollar mansions doing there? It also helps me correct problems like the auto shop and the Baptist church both occupy the same corner of 10th and Main.

Often the information in the ms is so vague I don’t know where various elements go. Is the grocery store near the bank? I don’t know. How far is everything from everything else? I don’t know.

It’s not that readers necessarily need to know these things (the story events should make sense to the reader without having to refer to a map) but this is a clue that the setting is not as concrete as it could be. Instead of creating a story world and having a character interact with it, the author is shoving the character into various locations without any regard for how those locations relate to the overall setting.

When you detect a character being shoved around like a chess piece in this way, look closer and you are likely to find related developmental problems, such as lack of clear goals, motivations, and conflicts.

The Setting Sketch

When I see a problem with setting, I often ask the author to consider doing a type of character sketch for the setting. This might include questions like:

  • how old is the town a character is living in
  • how diverse are the residents (and in what ways)
  • what is the town famous for
  • what is the climate like
  • what do residents love and hate about it

These “setting sketches” can help the author go beyond visually describing a setting and can help them create a setting that feels like a real place.

Setting and the Five Senses

Authors often visualize their stories as if they were movies unreeling in front of them. This is unfortunate because it often means they focus heavily on the visual, when the world of narrative offers so much more!

Namely, the other four senses.

Using the FIVE Senses

Sight alone does not make a reader feel immersed in a story. When authors do this, it often makes the setting feel as if it were merely a backdrop to the unfolding story events and not an actual place that characters interact with.

My basic rule of thumb, and a place to start, is that every page of the ms should have a sense other than sight on it. Bells should jingle and trash cans reek. Skin should prickle and mouths should pucker.

Often the challenge is that authors don’t have the vocabulary for or language of the senses, so it can be helpful to provide resources for them. has some great resources on describing all five senses. Here’s one.

We can also encourage the author to show the characters reacting to their senses: “The stench of putrefying flesh turned my stomach” versus “It smelled disgusting.” This is a matter of showing the character in the setting, not just posing in front of it.

Edit Setting for Variety

The setting of a novel consists of multiple elements, big and small, that nest inside each other.

The Russian Nesting Doll of Settings

We might show this hierarchy of settings like so:

  • Milky Way galaxy
  • Earth
  • North America
  • United States
  • New Mexico
  • Santa Fe
  • San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16
  • the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16

If you think about it, the micro setting of “the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16” implies the existence of all of the other settings–Santa Fe, the United States. And of course we can get even more micro than this: the sofa in the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16, and so on.

Each of these settings has certain characteristics: Santa Fe is different from Roswell, New Mexico is different from Vermont, the United States is different from the Philippines.

How the various settings that go in to the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16 are dealt with depends on the story (and by no means do all of them need to be named in order to provide context for the setting), but typically it will improve the story if the author moves at least some of the action out of the living room.

Exploring the Story World

Authors often get focused on micro settings at the expense of the macro setting. In other words, the living room ends up being the character’s entire world, when in fact the character has an actual entire world to interact with.

In some cases it makes sense for the story to take place in the living room. Most of the time, though, the story would be more engaging if the author provided greater variety in the setting. Letting a character explore and interact with the story world brings both character and setting alive.

Just as a movie set only in one location at only one time of day can feel one-note (not as a universal rule, but typically), so too can a novel where most story events take place in the same location, especially if the characters are constantly doing the same thing in that setting. I would say that in novels, the number one setting for conversations is around a table while the characters are eating.

Certainly characters may be expected to eat and certainly tables are conducive to having conversation around but after a while all the meals blur into one, at least for the reader if not for the characters. Moving some of these conversations to other locations will help the story feel more vivid.

Therefore, part of our job is to play location scout: “AU: Consider moving this conversation to the park/gym/International Space Station.”

It’s even better if these locations reflect character traits: the bowling enthusiast could have a conversation at the bowling alley, the swimmer at the pool, the hiker on the trail.

Unlike a movie, asking the author to have the characters attend a wedding, go to the beach, or play billiards at the snooker hall does not cost extra.

Turning some of these conversations into other kinds of plot events would also be a good idea, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Setting problems: lack of concrete locations

Writers often use setting like a painted backdrop to their stories, rather than as an integral element of their storytelling. As DEs, we can help them make the setting come to life.

If we think of Wuthering Heights, we think of the Yorkshire moors. When we think of Moby Dick, it’s a whaler on the Atlantic Ocean. My Antonia = the Nebraska prairie. In each case, the same story could not be told in another setting.

Not all stories need to be as closely identified with their settings: a cozy mystery could take place in small-town Oklahoma about as easily as it could be set in small-town Ohio. But readers need to feel as if the events are taking place somewhere.

Make Setting Concrete

One of the most common setting problems I encounter when I’m editing is what I like to call the undisclosed location. The author drops the reader into the middle of the action in some unnamed locale and the story unfolds without our ever knowing where, exactly, it’s unfolding.

So, I have to encourage the author to name the setting early on. A vague “college town in the Midwest” is not the same as Ames, Iowa. Even if the setting is made up, it needs to have a name and a location. If the setting is based on a true-life location, I help the author figure out how to make deliberate choices about how fictionalized the setting will be.

Elements to Fictionalize

For example, despite the disclaimer you see in front of every published novel (some version of “Names, characters, locations and events are all products of the author’s imagination”), most writers set their stories in real places: Los Angeles, Oahu, Paris. When they do, readers expect them to get the main elements right: Los Angeles has about four million people, Oahu is an island, Paris has a lot of French-speaking residents.

But some elements may need to be fictionalized: the address where the protagonist works, the name of the restaurant that burns down. This helps preserve the illusion of reality: readers may know that 261 Hudson Street is an apartment building, not an insurance company headquarters, and the discrepancy of having the protagonist show up there to go to work is likely to pop readers out of the story. Or they know that the Chipotle on 23rd Street is in fact still standing so hearing about how it went up in flames is a reminder that they are reading fiction.

If what is happening in a specific location and who is causing it would tend to suggest criminal or unethical actions, I often recommend that authors fictionalize these elements, not because they will get into legal trouble if they don’t but that some readers have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. If an author shows a child pornography ring being run out of the local Pizza Hut, someone, somewhere will be phoning in a crime tip to the local police.

(Same with characters: back when a crotchety old lady ran the Raven Bookstore where I lived and sometimes set my stories, I did not call it the Raven Bookstore and I moved the crotchety old lady to another location so she wouldn’t recognize herself.)

On the other hand, sometimes authors go too far and won’t even let their characters get a cup of coffee from Starbucks, so I assure them that Starbucks won’t mind the ordinary consumption of their goods, even if it is a fictional character drinking the latte.

6 Tips for Working with Book Publisher or Packager Clients

I’ve worked with a number of book publisher and book packager clients over the years and I’ve found a few basic rules help ensure that I complete each project satisfactorily. You may find them helpful, too.

#1. Understand your role. If an author has asked whether the plot entertains you and you tell them they have a lot of misspelled words, you may be right but you’ve failed at the job. By the same token, if a publishing company has hired you to copyedit a manuscript, they are not asking you to weigh in on the cover design or suggest that a change of setting would be a good idea.

#2. Ask questions. Early in my career I felt certain that professional editors knew all the answers ahead of time and to ask the client questions would reveal that I was inexperienced. Now, it is true that some questions will reveal your inexperience (“What do you mean by ‘editorial query’?”) but experience has taught me that questions about tools and processes are often necessary: what is the house style, do I send the ms directly to the author once I’ve edited it, do you have a standard style sheet, what other supplemental documentation do you need, etc. If these questions aren’t answered during the on-boarding process, I will collect them and set up a phone conversation with the person who hired me (or send an email, if that is their preference) before I begin the edit.

#3. Set expectations. You’re a freelancer, not a staffer, so you have to make sure that your expectations and the client’s expectations are in line. If they expect umpteen status conferences, the time that will require has to be included in your project quote. If they want you to shepherd the project from author’s final draft to production, you need to know that so you can schedule the time (and charge accordingly).

#4. No is a full sentence. This is related to #3. If you agreed to do one round of copyediting on a manuscript, and you have delivered your copyedit, you do not also have to review the author’s revision, proof the galleys, or any other task someone decides to heap on your plate. That said, some ways of saying no are more fruitful than others:

  • “This was not what we agreed to but I can do it for an additional fee of $x.”
  • “You told me that I could use any style sheet I preferred (see your email below) so that’s what I did, but in future I would be happy to use the house style sheet.”

#5. Respect your client. Setting boundaries, which is what both #3 and #4 are about, can help ensure that both you and the client are happy. But to set boundaries most effectively, it helps if you start from a place of respect: you want to work with this client and you are willing to be flexible. You are merely saying that once the edit has begun, the rules can’t change. Respect also means that the company publishes work you can be proud of. When I ran a romance imprint, I had a lot of people who wanted to get editorial work from me despite that fact that they didn’t read romance or (and they would literally tell me this) respect the genre. I had zero interest in hiring anyone with this perspective and found it annoying that they would waste my time.

#6. Work with people who value your work versus trying to convince them of your value. Most publishers understand that value of the editorial process, but I do encounter publishers and packagers from time to time who are merely paying lip service to the process. They just want to grind the work out and typically they don’t want to pay very much for it. I don’t waste my time trying to talk them out of paying $20 an hour for development. I move on. (And so should you.)

Working with publishers versus indie clients

Editors often want to freelance for book publishers and packagers as a way to have reliable clients who provide ongoing work. But there are some differences in working directly for the client (as with an indie author) and working for a publisher.

When I’m doing a developmental edit for a book publisher, I usually have a much more extensive familiarity with the acquisitions editor than with the author, so while I’m careful to keep my queries and comments neutral and polite, as far as I’m concerned, authors come and go. It’s the acquisitions editor I have to keep happy. I make sure I understand what the AE wants, how this book fits in with a series (if it does), what it’s supposed to accomplish, who its audience is intended to be, and so on.

I rarely have any opportunity to have a conversation with the author about how the project came about or what they are trying to achieve with it, though I will usually be part of an introductory phone call where we hash out logistics. There’s little personal connection and I generally have almost no sense of what the author is like in “real” life. I don’t have to have that to do the editing job. It helps, but it’s not imperative.

However, over the years a fair amount of my editing work has come from individual clients—people who are working on book proposals, novel manuscripts, memoirs, you name it. They’re trying to make their work commercially salable, but they’re also (usually) trying to achieve a vision for the project. They have a dream of what the book is going to be, and they want me to help them achieve it. They don’t want an uncredited coauthor, they want a mentor. My job is equal parts offering information from my experience, providing feedback on their project, and holding their hand.

In every case, you have to edit the project you have according to the expectations of the audience and the client. You can’t make it the project you wish you had or the story you would have written. Editing is not about being right, or proving that you’re right, but about helping your client create a ms that matches their vision and appeals to its audience.

When you work for a publisher, you’re usually freer to make changes to a manuscript and to suggest revisions to ensure the ms adheres to the publisher’s expectations, whereas if you’re working directly with the author, your goal is to help the author create the most polished work they are capable of creating, which is another thing altogether.

For example, if you’re editing a romance for a publisher, you can insist that the development of the love relationship must take center stage (that’s what a romance is, after all!) and show the author various ways this might be accomplished. If the author doesn’t find a way to meet these requirements, the publisher can cancel the book. Everyone involved in the process understands this, so everyone (ideally) works together to accomplish the goals.

That’s not the case when the author is your direct client. You can suggest, as a consultant, that romance readers will expect the love relationship to take center stage, and you can offer ideas for how such a revision can be accomplished, but you’re in no position to insist on anything. That’s not your role.

In general (this is not always the case), an indie author will need more hand-holding and less criticism. If they wanted to deal with gate-keepers, they’d be pursuing traditional publication. So you can’t act like a gate-keeper. You have to be their cheerleader and their teammate.

One question I’m often asked is, “If you’re editing for a publisher, can you phrase queries to say something like, ‘The publisher has asked that you overhaul x and y’? Or would the publisher have already communicated that to the author?”

This question is more complex than it may first appear. It will sound strange but you can’t actually assume the AE has read the full ms very closely. So, you can’t assume that the AE knows more about the project than you do. (The reason this happens is authors can be contracted for several books and the AE just passed the second one in the series off to you; or they can be contracted based on a proposal, but not the full ms and the full ms is just passed along to you; or the AE can have a crunch of deadlines, etc., so that a particular ms may not get much attention.)

In general, though, you and the AE will decide before you start your edit what the main issues you’ll need to address are. Sometimes the AE will have a list of things for you to attend to but most often you’ll work this out together.

What that means is that what you (the DE) say in your revision letter is what the AE/publisher will enforce as the standard for manuscript acceptance. That doesn’t mean the author can’t decide to reject an edit or can’t solve a problem in a different way or anything like that. It does mean that if the author hasn’t delivered a satisfactory revision, and it can be shown that they did not follow the revision letter, then the contract can be vacated. This is made clear to the author during the contracting process (and is almost always a clause in the contract—a “satisfactory revision” being one that basically meets the guidance you give in the revision letter.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to dump everything into the revision letter. On the contrary, you need to focus on those most crucial items that, if addressed, would greatly improve the ms. It does mean that you have to be sure that you’re clearly addressing each of the main dev issues in the revision letter.

The author is going to know that publication is contingent on a successful revision so you don’t need to state that. At the same time, the author also knows they have some leeway in how they do the revision. Occasionally the AE will decide (or you and the AE will decide together) that some items are deal-breakers. Those are items that allow no wiggle room. The author must address them or the book is doomed. You do need to call these out in the revision letter.

Generally, but not always, these are items the AE and the author already have agreed about, so you just remind the AU of that: “As you and AE agreed, the ms needs to be rewritten in the third person . . . .”

Sometimes you may discover things that were not discussed with the author ahead of time but which are important enough to be deal-breakers. You should discuss those with the AE before you deliver the edit and work out, with the AE, the language you’ll use in the revision letter: “Author, during my edit, I reached the conclusion that the part where you kill off the main character and let his dog tell the rest of the story does not work as well as you had hoped. I talked to AE and we agreed that this does need to change before publication. . . .”

If the nonnegotiables have been discussed ahead of time then you just remind the author that they “need to” make a certain change (as opposed to “consider making”). If the author returns a revision without the necessary changes, you will want to make sure the AE’s got your back before you say anything, then get the right language from the AE. For example, you would ask, “AE, you mentioned that the dog’s perspective has to go. The author is pushing back. Is this something I need to insist on?”

If it’s not a deal-breaker but the AE would really like to see the change, you would say something like that: “AE would really like to see Brenda take actions that would distinguish her from a mushroom so I’ve indicated places throughout where she could be shown doing something other than hiding under a log . . . .” (Perhaps more diplomatically stated than that.)

We would rarely just say “the publisher requires/insists” although sometimes the AE may ask us to do so. (That’s actually more common in NF than in fiction.)

One caveat: in the interests of not insulting people if you don’t have to, never ask the AE if they actually read the ms or how closely they read it or express surprise that they didn’t notice a glaring problem that you’ve spotted. You don’t want to put the AE on the spot or make the AE feel criticized (that’s not your role; you’re not their supervisor). I’m merely suggesting that you shouldn’t assume the AE has carefully read the ms. If you spot a big problem but the AE hasn’t mentioned it, don’t assume, “Well, if the AE wanted me to fix it they would have said so.” Maybe, maybe not.

When I’m working directly for the author and I’ve established a friendly rapport with them, I’ll be a little more relaxed in my approach, but I’m always mindful that a manuscript is a precious child to the author and just as you wouldn’t make fun of the bug eyes on someone’s kid, you don’t use their manuscript as a source of levity, even if you’re sure the author will find your remarks as hilarious as you do.

With an indie author, I usually have a conversation before I begin the edit where I find out the author’s purpose. This helps guide my edit. What is the ms intended to do? If it’s an inspirational novel, it should have an uplifting message. If it’s a romance, it must have a happily-ever-after.

I always ask for any supporting material the author has, such as a query letter (sent to an agent if the author is seeking traditional publication), book blurb (the brief description found on the back cover of a book or in the online catalog for it), and/or chapter summary/synopsis. These supplemental materials can alert me to a disconnect between what the author thinks they have and what they actually do have.

Consider the Client (Working with Publishers)

As a teacher of developmental editing, I want students to get comfortable with being able to advise big solutions to big problems. Often this is the best way to truly help an author produce superior work. It is also an invaluable method for stepping back to see the big picture (a poorly constructed conflict, for example) versus focusing on minor details (the author uses too many dialogue tags). The first is a failure of storytelling; the second is merely a housekeeping detail.

But when editing for the big picture, you have to consider the client. When I’m working for book publishers, they have almost always scheduled a book for production (and this includes getting marketing and promotion lined up) by the time it gets to me. I have a limited amount of time to produce my edit and the author has a limited amount of time to produce a revision. I have to consider these constraints in my suggestions. I may very well think that story was ill-conceived and poorly executed and that it needs to be completely reconsidered starting from page 1.

But the author cannot do this in the time they have. Most publishers only allow a month or two for this revision; most authors have other jobs/obligations and cannot devote more than a few hours a day to the process. And if I’m the cause of an author missing a deadline, even if the AE in theory agrees with me about the ms’s problems, I’m never going to work for that company again.

So I’m unlikely to tell such an author to rewrite her first-person ms in third, since that’s a fairly massive undertaking to do right. But if this is a coaching client committed to exploring her process, then that may be exactly what I recommend.

If I can’t use my big solution, I don’t just abandon the problem. I try to see if a smaller solution will work. For example, I once edited a novel with a first-person narrator who was in her head too much. A shift to third POV often solves this, but the author didn’t have time to revise that extensively. I did suggest the protagonist adopt a cat so she could have someone to say these things out loud to. Turning an interior monologue into some snappy patter at least gave the story a feeling of movement (and made the character more relatable).

I’m no fan of prologues (I feel these are a lazy way to work backstory into a novel) but for one ms, I had the author chop the first three chapters, then write a brief prologue to show the backstory rather than trying to figure out a way to make it more integrated into the forward action. It was a gimmicky solution to the problem, in my opinion, but the most realistic one.

So, while I am all in favor of picking the solution that will solve the most problems in the most elegant way, I’m also a realist: sometimes we need to come up with a shortcut.

Beta reading as training for DE

Many self-publishing authors look for beta readers to give them perspective on their novels before they go to a professional editor for further help. An author doesn’t need a developmental editor to say the whole storyline is implausible and they yawned from beginning to end. Any reader of fiction can probably relay that information.

Doing a few beta reads is a great way to get a sense of the kinds of problems you’ll encounter as a dev editor, and it will give you some insight into author-editor relationships. It’s a low-risk way to dip your toes in the water.

If you’re interested in doing fiction development for a career, try volunteering as a beta on a few projects. You’ll soon learn if it’s for you!

What’s the Difference?

A beta reader is generally just reporting their experience as a reader – “I thought too many events were implausible” – whereas in development, we try to give more guidance than that based on an informed opinion. That is, we understand how fiction works, how to solve problems that arise, and otherwise have professional expertise that sets us apart from readers who simply enjoy reading.

Often, beta readers are discouraged from trying to offer such guidance as without experience and training it’s easy to send an author down the wrong road or to simply not understand what an author is trying to accomplish. So, instead of trying to solve the problems in the manuscript, your goal is to find them and (for your purposes, not the author’s) try to figure out what’s causing them.

Doing beta reads can be a good way to sharpen your skills and even to start building a clientele. People who trust your beta reads will be more likely to be willing to pay you to do a dev edit.

To become a beta reader, hang out on Twitter and look for #amwriting hashtags. Many of these authors will be interested in finding beta readers. There are also beta reader groups like Writers Helping Writers on Facebook.

Building Your Editing Business

Finding clients as a newer editor is a challenge. Where do you start? I suggest you begin by asking yourself a few questions.

Decide Who You Are as an Editor

  1. What is your purpose? Mine is to help women find a way to tell their stories.
  2. What kinds of clients does your purpose suggest you should target? I target women who are transitioning from nonfiction to fiction or creative nonfiction.
  3. What do you want from your business? I want to work on interesting manuscripts written by professionals who can pay professional fees.
  4. What kinds of clients does your “what I want from my business” answer suggest you should target? For me, people who are already professionals and who see the value of editorial help.
  5. What is your area of specialization and why? Me: teaching women nonfiction writers to write romance because this is where my skills and experience lie and it is what people ask me to do.

Inventory What You Already Know

  1. What is your overall business goal?
  2. What are some overall marketing strategies you could use to get clients?
  3. What are some skills and experiences you have that might help potential clients solve a problem?
  4. What are five or ten things you can do in the next two months to give yourself some additional editing experience?
  5. Who are some people you could get to know who could help you build your business?
  6. What types of services are you offering/planning to offer potential clients?

Put It Together

  1. Who are your target clients and where are they likely to be found?
  2. What is one thing you can do this week to network with colleagues and/or potential clients?
  3. Identify an indirect way of finding clients (such as teaching a class) that appeals to you. What are some steps you need to take to get the ball rolling?





2021 Course Catalog Has Arrived!

Club Ed readers have overwhelmingly asked for more instructor-led classes, so 2021 will include a whole bunch of offerings. The catalog through May 2021 has been added here and you can also see it below.

Instructor-led classes for new and aspiring developmental editors

Instructor-led classes are held within a specified time period. They feature weekly assignments to practice your skills and individual instructor feedback on your work. All course materials are accessed from the online classroom.

Online discussions allow you and your fellow students to ask the instructor questions and to toss around ideas. These discussions are held asynchronously (read and post as you have availability); you do not need to be anywhere at any particular time in order to participate, although assignments will need to be submitted by the deadlines provided in the course materials.

If you have any questions about any of the classes, please email the Resort Director: