The Concierge (Blog)

Using a Query Letter to Identify Developmental Problems in a Manuscript

One of the first things that acquisitions editors and literary agents learn in their jobs is to use the query letter to evaluate a manuscript. AEs and lit agents are looking for cues that a project is or isn’t right for them. In my career, I’ve worked as both an AE and a lit agent. I quickly learned that queries also show the developmental weaknesses in a ms. Now, as a dev editor, I find that by reading an author’s query letter, I can frequently spot potential ms problems. Having these cues before I start work editing the ms makes my job a lot easier.

And that’s what I want to show you how to do—spot developmental problems as they appear in a query so that you have an easier time of identifying them in the ms itself.

Download the document to see my commentary on several different query letters: Using Queries for DE Purposes

And don’t forget, my class on using clues like this to help you edit–DE Detective–starts April 1, 2019. For more information, click here.

Oh, and The Club Ed Guide to Starting and Running a (Profitable!) Freelance Editing Business is now out! Find it here.

Genre: Some Thoughts on Satire

In my post “Unpacking Your Assumptions about Fiction,” I mentioned how some of our assumptions about fiction don’t always hold, and I gave an example of the anti-hero of a comic novel. Which made me remember a conversation I recently had with a colleague about editing satire.

The Message Matters Most

Said colleague pointed out that satire is not edited like other types of fiction and that he thought the most important difference was that in satire, the satirical message (agenda/score to settle/axe to grind) is the main focus, rather than the characters and plot. Then he said, “If my assumption is correct about satirical fiction, how do we evaluate character development, conflict, goals, pacing, plot, setting, etc.? What are the genre expectations?”

This is a great question. I only wish I knew the answer. Well, I do know the answer, and the answer is “it depends.” I recognize that’s not terribly helpful, so I have rummaged around in my brain in order to produce some further thoughts (otherwise this would be a very short blog post). Here they are.

First, let me say that I agree with the original assumption, that the message in this case is more important than the character. Think of Arthur Dent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Candide, the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, and so on. We don’t remember specific details of character and beyond broad strokes (tilting at windmills, encounters with Lilliputians) we don’t remember much about plots. We do remember the message.

Any type of humor can be a challenge to edit from a developmental standpoint, but satire is a very different animal from other types of fiction where we typically care about things like plot plausibility and character development. Satire, unlike comic or humorous writing, doesn’t have to be funny, of course, but it usually is. So it’s important to consider this element. Authors sometimes think they are funnier than they actually are.

Avoiding Sermons

In satire the message is the thing and the characters and plot events serve as vehicles of that message. But that still doesn’t mean the author can stop everything in order to let the main character declaim for forty-seven pages. Satire works best when it uses subtext, exaggeration, and contrast to make the point. Sermonizing is too on-the-nose. Think in terms of show versus tell: we want to see the characters and plot in action to prove whatever point the author is trying to make, not listen to them talking about it. (This is a common mistake whenever writers privilege the message.)

And while the plot events and characters’ actions might be ridiculous and implausible, their emotions and thought processes still need to be identifiably human—we need to be able to see ourselves in the characters.

Character Still Matters – But Only to Serve the Message

What passes for character development in satire is often for the main character to begin as a naive waif who is thrust into the buffeting winds of life and learns whatever the message is. Some authors make the mistake of starting off with a cynical, jaded protagonist. But if the character has already decided life is meaningless and has rejected all moral and religious structures, why does it matter that capitalism is dehumanizing or that war is hell?

The satire becomes sharper if the main character is some kind of sunny Pollyanna—this allows for contrast and hyperbole. It also allows the pretense to be stripped away. Whatever the character decides to do about what they’ve learned (including doing nothing), the point is that the character is used to illustrate the message.

One Message at a Time

I would also say that the premise or situation also needs to be very clear. The author needs to tackle one message, not fifteen. Muddying the waters is death to satire. (Which is why it’s easier to do at a shorter length.)

The author also needs to have an unusual, different, fresh take on the issue in question; we already know war is hell. This is where the hyperbole and show-don’t-tell elements are so crucially important.

Other than that, though, it’s very tricky to get into specifics about what a satire should or shouldn’t do—but I hope this helps a little.

Getting ready to do editorial work for publishers

I’m frequently asked for help by editors trying to get established as freelancers. Not surprisingly, many people want to know how to get editorial projects from publishers, as obviously this could be a good source of ongoing work.

So when I received the following question, at first I thought of it as a “how to get work from publishers” question:

“I was wondering if you could give me a little guidance about contacting publishers to put me on a list for editing jobs. My concern is that I don’t have enough experience (that’s pretty much my concern all the time these days) and I’m not sure the best way to spin my background to look appealing enough to a publisher. Any advice there would be greatly appreciated.”

But when I started to answer this question, I realized it wasn’t really about how to get work from publishers (“send an LOI!”). It was about not feeling ready to get work from publishers.

And that’s a different thing. The writer says, “I’m concerned I don’t have enough experience” and “I’m not sure the best way to spin my background.” Both of these things are about self-assessment in the context of the demands of the marketplace.

In other words, maybe the editor isn’t ready. But how would she know?

That’s where learning how to evaluate your own abilities makes all the difference. It allows you to connect the dots between what you can offer and the work you want to do. If there’s a big disconnect between the two (“I’ve never read a novel” but “I want to edit fiction”) then it doesn’t matter how you spin the items on your resume, you’re highly unlikely to land a contract with a publisher.

But if you can narrow the gap (“I’ve edited a ton of fiction for satisfied indie clients” and “I’d like to edit fiction for you”) then you’re more likely to get the kind of response you’re looking for.

So, what experience do you have? What classes have you taken, what manuscripts have you edited, how many clients have produced successful revisions based on your edits?

Now, compare that to what a publisher is looking for in an editor. You can use your imagination for this—you can guess that a publisher is looking for someone who has the skill to effectively edit (whether copyediting or developmental editing) manuscripts in the genres they publish (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, whatever), won’t blow the release date by being three months behind on the edit, and won’t annoy the author so much she takes her project and goes somewhere else with it.

And you can supplement that imaginary effort by checking out job ads to see what other skills and experiences are valued (for an academic publisher this might be an advanced degree; a specialist publisher may look for industry knowledge).

Then you compare the “what publishers are looking for” list with your “what I can offer ” list and see where the intersections are. If you can’t find any, then consider what steps you need to take next to make some.

My two-week mini-class, “Evaluating Your Effectiveness as an Editor,” starts Monday, January 21, 2019. It’s a new online class that meets asynchronously (you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time).

You’ll learn how to assess your own work using self-assessment tools, ask colleagues to share effective practices, and solicit feedback from clients. You’ll also learn how to read an author’s revision for clues to your own effectiveness.

Click for more information.

Unpacking Your Assumptions about Fiction

If you’ve ever taken a class from me, you know that I have a pathological hatred of using questions in editorial queries. By this I mean asking questions like, “What is Joe’s motivation?” where you are, or think you are, asking the author to address the problem of Joe’s lack of motivation.

Use statements instead of questions

I discourage such queries because they do not provide the author with enough guidance. It is fairly common for authors to respond to such questions by engaging in a conversation with the editor, either in the queries or by email, which is inefficient and usually doesn’t produce any greater insight for either author or editor than stating the problem in the first place would have.

To avoid the conversation, you just make your questions into statements. “What is Joe’s motivation?” becomes, for example, “Consider stating Joe’s motivation here.” But avoiding unnecessary back-and-forth with the author is only one reason why using statements is important. By taking a moment to turn this question into a statement, you can gain greater insight into the problem. Maybe it isn’t that the author needs to state Joe’s motivation here. Maybe the problem is actually that Joe’s motivation isn’t sufficient to the demands of his actions.

In other words, if Joe forgot his wallet at the corner market, he might flag a cab and go back to get it. If Joe dropped a quarter on the floor of the corner market, he’s not going to spend the money on a cab to go back to get it. The motivation is not sufficient, unless it’s a very special quarter.

Or maybe the problem is that Joe’s characterization and his motivation don’t match. Just because his boss said an unkind word to him doesn’t mean any ordinary person would hire a hit man to take care of the problem. But if Joe has, then the author needs to characterize him in such a way that this is clearly something he would do. In this case, “Consider stating Joe’s motivation” isn’t the answer. The answer is, the author needs to characterize Joe in such a way that we can believe his boss saying an unkind word to him would motivate him to hire the hit man.

All of these are different aspects of the situation that won’t be revealed if you merely rely on the question, “What is Joe’s motivation?” to do the editorial work for you.

Becoming a better editor

This is why I often say that turning questions into statements helps you become a better editor; you learn more about the problem because you’re digging deeper into it. But now I also want to talk about another reason to stop using questions in the queries. This is about unpacking your assumptions about stories and how they’re told.

At some point in your editorial career, you shift from doing novice work, where you don’t always notice what’s going wrong, to what I call “practitioner,” which means you are competently able to identify most developmental problems mss typically have and provide some suggestions for ways that authors can address these problems. But to move from practitioner to expert, you have to do more than understand the application of technique. You have to have a theory, a framework for your decision-making.

Figuring out your framework

By focusing on making statements in your editorial queries, you begin to unpack your assumptions about what literature is, what makes a story good, and so on. I often recommend using the three-party query template to provide sufficient guidance to the author:

  1. Identify the developmental problem
  2. Explain why it’s a developmental problem for this ms
  3. Suggest a potential solution.

Each element is important, but it’s #2 that makes developmental editing an art that no computer will ever be able to do better than you can. We can say “use fewer adverbs” (and so can a computer) but until we can say why that matters for this particular ms, we’re just repeating writerly wisdom we’ve heard from other people.

You have to make that knowledge your own, and the way you do that is to test your assumptions. What is your theory of literature? How does fiction work? What makes it successful?  What does successful even mean? How is this different from what makes it good?

And the way you test your assumptions about fiction is to state them.

Let’s look at “Joe’s motivation isn’t clear here” again. Once you make that statement, you can test it for accuracy. Is it true that Joe’s motivation isn’t clear? Or is it just that Joe’s motivation is insufficient for the task at hand?

Once you’ve decided that it’s accurate, you can further test your assumptions: Why does it matter for this ms that Joe’s motivation isn’t clear? You might say, “Readers will lose interest in a character when they don’t understand why characters do the things they do.”

So far, so good. We can say that, yes, we have given up on stories where we don’t understand the reasons why characters do the things they do. So, one of our assumptions about stories is that characters should have rational, understandable motivations for their actions (even if people in real life often don’t). As readers, we care about the causes of things. This helps us make sense of the world. It’s how we establish meaning. So this is a perfectly valid assumption.

Let’s look at the “readers will lose interest” end of this statement. It implies that readers have certain expectations of characters and that for readers to engage with those characters, to invest time in them, they have to understand them. Establishing motivation is a means authors use to help readers understand character. This is an important part of the framework of the assumption we’re making (the assumption being that it is better to show character motivation than not to show character motivation).

An example

Once we’ve established these assumptions, we can also see that they are, in fact, assumptions and not givens or hard-and-fast rules like purple is spelled p-u-r-p-l-e. If, for example, an author is trying to show that we do actions and then make up a story to explain them afterward, “Show Joe’s motivation here” isn’t the right guidance.

Recently, I was re-reading Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic, a comic fantasy, in which the main character, Rincewind, is something of an anti-hero. His main goal in life is to avoid anything distasteful, unpleasant, and/or painful—so of course all kinds of dramatic and interesting things happen to him, which he hates.

Every now and then, though, he does something brave, gritting his teeth the entire time. He never knows why he does these brave things. If we were to say, “Show Rincewind’s motivation here,” we would be misunderstanding how to apply the principle of “Readers want to know why characters do the things they do.”

In this case, the comedy of the story is because Rincewind has no volition, no goal; he is acted upon and not acting. He is a plaything of fate and he truly resents it—as do we all. So we identify with him not because we are told his motivations but because we feel his essential humanity. In the story, it may be implied that fate is the reason why Rincewind sometimes does brave things to save other people, but we as readers know it is because he is human. There is no need for the author to state this anywhere.

By unpacking your assumptions about story, you will learn when to apply various frameworks to the mss you are editing, which will help you help the author write their story to the best of their ability.

Helping Authors Fix Perspective Problems

When our authors write stories with perspective problems, generally they’re in for a long haul during the revision process. An author who can’t “see” the head-hopping (jumping from one character’s perspective to another’s within a scene) they’re doing needs a lot of sentence-level handholding to get it right.

Steps to Take

Since a big perspective problem like head-hopping is generally the province of a beginning writer, the story is likely to have other big dev problems as well, so you’ll need to be sure you prioritize your edits and not try to do too much at once. Overwhelming the author will lead to a less-than-satisfactory revision.

If serious time and/or budget constraints limit what you can do, I have found that the judicious addition of scene breaks can sometimes help the reader through some of the head-hopping without getting lost. (Yes, I have literally done this when there has been no better option!)

Dealing with Superficial Approaches

More nuanced perspective problems can be just as challenging and time-consuming to edit. For example, suppose your author is using limited/close third person but is staying on the top level—showing only the superficial aspects of character. This can be an effective approach if the author is skilled at communicating subtext through the choice of details.

But if not, the author ends up with a story that sounds like a robot wrote it. You’ll either have to help the author learn to create subtext or show them how to move deeper into close third. Subtext is probably harder to teach but showing how to recast the ms in close third could require your edits and the author’s revision on every page, so it’s no laughing matter, either.

One Overall Solution

When dealing with perspective problems, one compromise I often make is to do a close edit on a chapter or a few chapters and suggest the author use that as a model going forward. Sometimes I will revise a chapter myself, then have the author try revising another chapter and get my feedback before continuing the revision. Sometimes a coaching approach will work better than a true developmental edit.

Avoiding “Here’s How I Would Write it” as an Editor

In making editorial suggestions, editors sometimes drift into “here’s how I would write it” territory, which is something I discourage. Authors don’t care what you would have done. They want to learn what they can do that will make their manuscript better.

What “Here’s How I Would Write It” Means

First, let me quickly say here that providing solutions to manuscript problems is not by itself saying, “Here’s how I would write it.” What I mean by “here’s how I would write it” is imposing your own preferences on the manuscript or trying to prove your knowledge by making suggestions that don’t materially improve the ms.

For example, if you’re uninterested in bull riding and the protagonist of the novel you’re editing is on the rodeo circuit, it’s not okay to say, “To solve the problem with setting, move the story to Manhattan and make the protagonist a book editor.”

Showing off your knowledge is a type of “here’s how I would write it.” I’ve seen editors remark things like, “These kinds of cars can travel four hundred miles on one charge! Maybe you should work that into your story.” Uh, why? If these kinds of cars can travel four hundred miles on one charge and the author has them going six hundred miles on one charge, then it would be fair to include a fact-checking query. But a query just to display your knowledge is not okay.

Look to the Manuscript for Solutions

To be sure that our suggestions are not “you’re doing it wrong—here’s the way I would have written this book,” we have to be sure our suggestions are supported by the ms—in fact, it’s ideal if the solutions can be situated in the ms itself: [AU: Move this explanation to Chapter One] or [AU: Since Nicola is a magician, consider having her perform a card trick here.]

Of course, sometimes we do have to make up a solution—there really isn’t anything in the ms as it’s currently written that solves the problem. But we can almost always find elements in the ms to use. Often it’s just a matter of having the author bring them out more.

If an editor’s suggestions are along the lines of: [AU: This historical novel about Anne Boleyn would be so much more interesting if you turned all the characters into aliens and moved the action to Neptune] then of course the author is going to be annoyed. But for the most part as long as suggestions are rooted in the ms itself, authors may or may not agree with them and may or may not follow them but they’re not likely to feel you’re trying to get them to write the story the way you would have written it.

I find that if I’m absolutely convinced that one answer is the only answer, that’s a sign that I’m trying to write the story the way I would have written it. When I can see several possibilities, that’s more likely to be my objective editorial eye.

Offering Solutions to Developmental Problems

When we write editorial queries for the author, we need to identify what the problem is and why it’s a problem for the manuscript—in other words, we can’t just slap generic slogans on a manuscript (“Use fewer adverbs!”) and think that’s editing.

Effective Editorial Guidance

Part of the editorial guidance we need to offer in an editorial query is a potential solution. It’s important to get in the habit of stating the solution even when you think it’s obvious (delete the digression, fix the timeline, reconcile the inconsistency). What’s obvious to you may not be obvious at all to the author.

It isn’t enough to say, “I don’t understand Joe’s motivation.” (Or, worse, “What is Joe’s motivation here?”) That’s critique and it has its place but it’s not development. We also have to show the author how to fix the problem. Showing the author how to fix the problem is not taking over the author’s role. We’re not actually rewriting anything and we’re not requiring the author to follow our advice.

The author may misunderstand the problem if we don’t provide concrete solutions. For example, if I feel readers will need to know specifically what the character’s goal and motivation is but I don’t specifically state that, the author may think “Readers don’t have enough information about the protagonist” means “describe what she looks like and where she lives.”

Solutions Shouldn’t Create More Problems

When you offer a solution, it’s important to take as much time and space as you need to provide sufficient guidance and to consider potential problems that could arise from the author taking your suggestion.

For example, if you want the author to provide more details of world-building, what kind of details are needed? How can the author accomplish this without stopping the story in order to deliver exposition? Where and how could the information be placed in the story?

If you want to suggest that the author create a scene showing something (Joe breaking up with Marilyn, for example), you need to identify where that scene would go. Then you would need to figure out if doing so would create follow-on problems. If a scene is added showing the breakup, then maybe a scene where Joe describes the breakup would need to be revised (since the reader will already be aware of the information).

This isn’t just so you can help the author solve the problem but so that you can see when you’re asking the author to do the impossible or even just the entirely unrealistic.

Know Your Author

It’s important to consider your author’s abilities when you’re proposing solutions. A beginning author is probably going to need simpler solutions than a more experienced author. As I mentioned above, our solutions can contain the seeds for creating a whole new host of problems, so it’s important to consider that ahead of time.

An experienced author who has written several novels usually does not need as much hand-holding as a beginning author does. If you tell an experienced author, “There’s a lot of exposition in Chapter One,” they are likely to know what you mean and not need to have everything spelled out. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give suggested solutions but it does mean you have to present yourself as more of a partner and less of a teacher.

When working with a beginning writer, you might explain more: [AU: Info-dumping is too much exposition (telling) in one lump. This interferes with the pacing of your story and can make your reader lose interest. Readers rarely need as much backstory as you think. A good rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what she needs to know to follow along, and only when she needs to know it. For the scene below, I’ve highlighted areas where information could be cut without affecting the story at all.]

An experienced author would know what info-dumping is and would probably find such an extensive comment overkill. That said, it’s always better to err on the side of overexplaining versus underexplaining—“Yeah, yeah, I get it” is preferable to “I have no idea what any of this means or what I should do or how I can fix this disaster!!!”

When working with a more experienced author, it’s often more helpful to share your experience of reading the manuscript rather than trying to teach the author: [AU: In Chapter One, I found myself losing interest at the digression about the life cycle of moths. I felt you had too much exposition there. And you can cut back on the description of how an entomologist is trained. I’ve highlighted the parts you could delete without affecting the overall story.]

You’re still providing guidance (the specific pieces of info-dumping that can be deleted) but you’re not overdoing the explanation. Be careful not to let reining in your explanations turn your dev edit into a critique, however. The author still needs to know what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and how to solve it.

Unless you know the author very well, humor is almost never appreciated: “There you go again, yakking away! Put a muzzle on it!” can seem light-hearted to you, but to an author who has poured her heart and soul into her work, it can seem dismissive and cold. Even if you do know the author very well, it’s probably better to stick with neutrally phrased comments.

Getting Acquainted

Getting to know your author does not require five phone calls and three lengthy email exchanges. Just ask a few cogent questions before you get started, and you’ll have a good sense of your author’s experience:

  1. Ask if the author is previously published. An experienced nonfiction author may make some amateur mistakes in a novel but is probably accustomed to getting editorial feedback and won’t be intimidated by it. But someone who has never had so much as a letter to the editor published is best treated as a beginner.
  2. If the author is previously published, find out in what way. If the author has had novels published by major publishers, they’re more likely to be experienced with the editorial process versus someone who has simply self-published (not always, of course, but usually).
  3. Ask what the author thinks their strengths and weaknesses are and find out if they have any particular concerns about the novel. This will help you gauge the author’s familiarity with common development issues and the terms we use to describe them.
  4. Use your own judgment. Review a few chapters of the manuscript before you start. You’ll probably be able to judge the author’s skill level from the first fifty pages. (Some editors recommend looking at later chapters because the first three chapters have often been workshopped and may not bear any resemblance to the latter part of the manuscript.)


How Developmental Problems Connect to Each Other

When you’re editing fiction, you’ll find that many developmental problems are interrelated:

  • An insufficient conflict can be connected with unclear character motivation (or lack of motivation) to do something or achieve something (a goal). If the protagonist doesn’t have a goal, they can’t really come into conflict with another character who has a different goal. And if the protagonist doesn’t have a goal, they aren’t going to be thwarted in pursuit of it.
  • Info-dumping and flashbacks almost always create pacing problems and interfere with forward momentum. They can be connected with starting the story in the wrong place or focusing on the wrong story elements.
  • Head-hopping can connect with lack of character development and unclear motivation. The author doesn’t stay long enough with one character to go deep into that character’s perspective.

If you can identify the source of the problem (there is no conflict because the protagonist has no story goal), not just the problem itself (there is no conflict), you’re more likely to be able to help the author solve it and to suggest realistic methods for addressing the difficulty.

It also helps to understand how an author trying to avoid some problems can create others:

  • A problem with world-building may be the result of the author trying too hard to avoid info-dumping, with the result being there’s no context for the story.
  • Unnecessary scenes and digressions may be the result of the author trying too hard to show, not tell. Sometimes we just need the author to say, “It was raining” rather than have characters converse about the rain and experience the drops of wetness on their skin. This is where many “As you know, Bob” conversations arise.
  • Lifeless description can be the result of the author trying to create setting (world-building) but not connecting it to character development.
  • The author tries to adhere to genre conventions by imposing plot twists on the characters rather than having actions and reactions arise naturally from who the characters are and what they want.

These are among the most common, although you’ll surely encounter many more in your work. The key is to try to be as analytical as possible about what is causing the problem, not just focusing on identifying what the problem is. Even if the author rejects your suggested solution, the fact that you understand what is causing the problem helps the author immensely in understanding his or her own work and gives you more credibility (“My editor really knew what she was talking about!”)

Also bear in mind that you can, and should, relate your findings in connection to the audience so that your comments and suggestions do not come across as just you expressing your personal preference. For example, you could use, “Your audience is unlikely to stick with you for forty pages of backstory at the beginning. . . .” rather than “You have too much backstory at the beginning.”

Book proposal basics

For nonfiction authors pursuing traditional publication, they will have to start with a book proposal. This is like a business plan for a nonfiction book. It “sells” an agent or acquisitions editor on the book and convinces them to invest in it. It also helps the author create a roadmap for what they will do as they write and promote the book. For self-publishing authors, writing a book proposal first will help them figure out what they need to do to stand out from the crowd.

Elements of a Book Proposal

Essentially, a book proposal contains these sections:

  • Overview: a narrative section that describes the book and how it will be written, with details such as length, illustrations, and special features.
  • About the Author: a full description of who the author is and why they’re the right person to write this book.
  • Marketing/Promotion: a section that defines the proposed book’s audience and outlines the author’s plans for promoting the book, including special marketing hooks/ideas. This should contain action items that the author plans to do (promote the book on their blog, keynote at relevant events) and suggestions for publicity that a publisher wouldn’t automatically know about.
  • Competition: a comparison section that describe how the book is similar to – and different from – other books that have already been published. If there has never been a book like this one, that’s a very bad sign. This section should include titles that are fairly recent and have sold well.
  • Chapter Outline: a description of each chapter of the book, usually a couple of paragraphs per chapter. Bullet points help get material across quickly.
  • Sample Chapter(s): one or two full chapters showcasing the author’s writing and the subject of the proposed book.

Some agents and acquisitions editors may want to see a slightly different presentation, which the author can easily accomplish by varying the final format according to specific needs, which can usually be found on their websites.

The author needs to remember that the proposal will be seen by agents and editors who have hundreds of other query letters, manuscripts, and book proposals piled in their email inboxes. They often have assistants screen the pile first. The goal should be to hook them – overworked agents and editors and underpaid assistants – with a well-polished, well-thought out proposal.