The Concierge (Blog)

Stages of Learning

When you’re first learning how to edit, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the learning curve and to wonder when it would be realistic to start charging for your services. The answer is at Stage #3.

  1. You don’t know what you don’t know. (Unconscious incompetence)
  2. You know you don’t know stuff. (Conscious incompetence)
  3. You know stuff. (Conscious competence)
  4. You do stuff. (Unconscious competence)

If you’re not sure what level you’re at, you’re at level 1.

Or, possibly, level 4.

Query Letter Basics

If your author-client is interested in trying to have their novel published by a traditional publisher, you may be asked to look at the author’s query letter (also called a pitch letter). Query letters are easy to get wrong, so here are some tips for making sure your author hits the mark.

The pitch needs to consist of a description of the story, details about the manuscript itself, and a little bit about the author.

  • Who is the main character (or characters)?
  • Why should we care about him/her/them?
  • What is the story about? What is the conflict? What are the stakes?
  • Where does it fit in the market? Does the pitch demonstrate that the author knows the genre?
  • Who is the author?

That’s a lot to do in 300 words or fewer. At the same time, the query letter has to get the attention of people who have fifty-seven other things to do this minute, so the author can’t waste any time on throat-clearing.

The opening paragraph of the query should include the hook – why readers would want to read the book being pitched. A hook isn’t a description of the genre or characters. It’s common for authors to say something like, “My romance has a smart, sarcastic heroine and an unexpected hero.” But that’s not a hook, it’s just a description. A hook is along the lines of:

When single mother Trey Ferguson meets widower Michael Manning, every instinct tells her this is one stray she shouldn’t take in. But with his slow sexy smile and sad brown eyes, how can she resist?

The next paragraph should dig into what the story is about, including its conflict. The author also needs to include the title of the novel, its length and genre, and the fact that the full manuscript is complete. Many times writers try to pitch incomplete novels but unless the author is already an established novelist, an agent or acquisitions editor is going to need to see the complete manuscript to make a decision.

Finally, the author should close with pertinent information about their work as a writer. Other published books should be mentioned (even if they’re not in the genre of the novel being pitching). If the novel is about DEA agents, and the author is a DEA agent, that should be mentioned. If the author has won an important prize or recognition for their writing, that should be mentioned, too. If the author doesn’t have much to say here, they can mention that they’re a member of a writing organization or two, which shows they’re trying to be professional.

(I always found that members of the Romance Writers of America tended to have better romance manuscripts than non-members, probably because the RWA makes an effort to educate members on craft, professional behavior, etc. So that was always a plus in the writer’s column, even if the writer had nothing else).

The author shouldn’t say, “I’ve never been published,” “I don’t know what I’m doing,” “This is my first feeble attempt to get published.” The author should be professional and confident.

The query letter should close with an offer to send the full manuscript and synopsis for the agent or acquisitions editor’s review. It should also include the author’s contact information, including phone number and email address.

Query Letter Must-Haves
In the course of my career as an agent and later as an acquisitions editor, I encountered a number of common mistakes in query letters. Don’t let your author make these!

  • What is the title of the book? People forget to give this!
  • When authors query via email, they need include their actual name in the letter. As an acquisitions editor, I often received emails from addresses like but if the writer didn’t sign her name to her email, I had no idea who was writing to me. Who you are should not be a secret.
  • Check for misspellings, typos, grammar errors, and the like.

Five Approaches That Don’t Work in a Query

  1. Telling about the author and not about the book.
  2. Describing the theme of the book (“it’s about love and hate”) and not the conflict and story (“Joan is trying to escape the law, and Michael is trying to track her down”).
  3. Telling all the nitty-gritty details of who did what (save that for the synopsis).
  4. Sounding defensive or attacking (“I know no one in the liberal media will want to publish my novel about religious faith, so here goes nothing. . . .”)
  5. Using vague generalizations instead of specific information (“Lots of people will be interested in reading this book, because lots of people like mysteries.”)

Don’t Do This!
You’d think after all my years in the biz, I’d know better. But some years ago, I finished writing a mystery and wanted to query it. And here is my terrible, terrible query:

Dear Ms. NAME:
I recently completed an 80,000 word mystery, Second Acts, which I believe is right for YOUR COMPANY.

I’m a professional writer with more than twenty-five nonfiction books published. My most popular book, Dojo Wisdom (Penguin Compass), won an outstanding book award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. My first novel, Then Will Come Night and Darkness, was published by Xenos Books earlier this year. My essays have appeared in many magazines.

As per your guidelines, I’ve attached a brief synopsis and the first three chapters of Second Acts. I would be delighted to send the complete manuscript for your consideration.

Jennifer Lawler

Oh, I cringe even to share that, but I feel the cause is worthy. You can see where I went wrong, can’t you? Where is the information about the actual novel?

I did figure out where I went wrong, and I did sell the novel. But not to the person I sent that query to.

Sample Query
Here’s a query I didn’t screw up. It was for the first romance I’d ever written and it sold:

Dear NAME:
I recently completed a 53,000 word romance, Love by Design, which I believe is right for Avalon.

Tess Ferguson has a weakness: taking in strays. She’s a seamstress who dreams of becoming a fabric designer – but she’s also a single mother with more practical matters on her mind.

When Tess’s sister-slash-boss, Greta, an interior designer, is laid up after knee surgery, Tess must be her go-between with Michael Manning, the sweet, sexy owner of a carpentry business. Tess is attracted to Michael’s calm, quiet strength, but she’s convinced he’s just one more stray destined to cause her trouble.

Michael is drawn to Tess, whom he finds warm, open and likable. But her curiosity and persistence in asking questions he doesn’t want to answer threaten his hard-won peace. By burying himself in his work, he can forget about the shocking death of his wife and unborn son – and the unhappy secret she left him with.

I’m a professional writer with more than twenty-five nonfiction books published. My most popular book, Dojo Wisdom (Penguin Compass), won an outstanding book award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. My first novel, Then Will Come Night and Darkness, was published by Xenos Books earlier this year. My articles and essays have appeared in numerous magazines, such as Family Circle.

As per your guidelines, I’ve attached a brief synopsis and the first three chapters of Love by Design. I would be delighted to send the complete manuscript for your consideration.

Jennifer Lawler

These days, I would probably start with “Tess Ferguson has a weakness…” and include the manuscript details a bit later in the query, but this worked fine. Your author shouldn’t feel that the query letter has to follow a template exactly—just be sure all the relevant information is included, and that the story description will engage the agent’s or editor’s attention (easier said than done, of course!)

Using Partnerships to Expand Your Reach

One way to broaden your marketing reach is to work with other freelancers to mutually market your work. In other words, you can create a more formal relationship than “I’ll send referrals your way if you send referrals mine.”

For example, maybe you and a colleague pitch a client a complete editorial package—you’ll do the developmental edit and your colleague will do the copyedit. A one-time project such as this doesn’t require much risk because you’re not committing your entire career or your entire business to the partnership.

But because they’re so simple, they tend to be casual and informal, which can lead to misunderstandings. Be certain that each partner’s duty on a project is carefully laid out and that all partners communicate regularly with each other.

More complex partnerships are business-oriented, not project-oriented. You and another person with similar or complementary skills decide to go into business together, or you decide to take someone into business with you. But be up front with yourself about how you want this to work. If you want someone to assist you in the business but you want to remain in control, you don’t really want a partnership, you just want a good employee (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Recognize what you want and what you’re willing to give up for it.

If you and another person intend to have equal say in the running of the partnership and/or if you both plan to be part owners of the business, you need to enter into a legal partnership agreement that specifies what each of you provides and what each of you receives. Be clear about this from the beginning to avoid problems later on.

If you’re considering a partnership, spend some time with the potential partner first. If the potential partner is a friend, be especially careful: is it worth losing the friend if the partnership doesn’t work out?

Arrangements should be carefully thought out beforehand. Who will be in control day-to-day? What if the partners disagree on the direction the company is taking? What if the personal circumstances of one partner changes and the partner can no longer (or no longer wants to) continue operating in the same capacity? Circumstances that can dramatically change the nature of a partnership include one of the partners divorcing, having a child, or becoming ill or injured. What will you do if something like this occurs? Have you considered how to dissolve, sell, or terminate the partnership?

Before entering into a legal partnership, try working on one project together to see how it goes. When you participate in this trial run, don’t remain on your best behavior. Try to see how you and your partner handle stress, division of responsibility, and deadlines. Although a lawyer can alert you to potential pitfalls in your plans, you should be the ones making the plans. The attorney should merely formalize the partnership agreement.

At the same time, examine your temperament and honestly assess your personality. Would you make a good partner? In a partnership, the risks and burdens are shared. But being scared that you can’t make it on your own is not a good enough reason to enter into a partnership. If you’re planning to enter a partnership, make sure you have the personality to make it work and that you’re partnering with someone else for the right reasons.

How to Read Like an Editor

Reading Like an Editor

To sharpen your critical skills, learn to read like an editor does (instead of the way a reader does). When you’re a reader, you enter the author’s world. You willingly suspend your disbelief in order to experience this world. That doesn’t mean you won’t notice if an author has made some major mistakes, but it does mean that you’re willing to overlook a few leaps in logic, say, or take on faith that Romeo really does love Juliet despite the fact that they just met twelve minutes ago.

In other words, readers tend to indulge authors. They forgive them for unnecessary prologues and pointless dream sequences and the overuse of adverbs. This is why an author who isn’t necessarily the most gifted writer on the planet can still write books that readers love—they overlook the parts that misfire.

But we can’t do that. Our job is to resist the author. Our job is to invoke our disbelief (for a good cause). We’re not letting unnecessary prologues and pointless dream sequences and the overuse of adverbs get past us. We notice them and take issue with them.

When we read, we need to constantly ask ourselves if the author is effective in telling the story. Here are some basic questions we need to ask as we read:

  1. Is this a type of genre fiction? If so, does it conform to genre requirements/expectations? If it is genre fiction but does not conform to expectations, is the nonconformity a lack of understanding of the genre and the audience, or a deliberate literary effort designed to transform the genre? If the latter, is it effective?
  2. Are there any holes in this piece? For fiction, that would be anything from a missing piece of the plot to lack of character development.
  3. Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable? Are characters consistent in their actions? (If a character wouldn’t steal a quart of milk in Chapter One, but he does in Chapter Five, have convincing motivations occurred that would make this action believable?)
  4. Is the core conflict compelling? (All fiction is, at heart, about conflict.) Or is it the kind of conflict that could be resolved if one character said to another, “You know, I have an evil twin”?
  5. Is the setting effectively conveyed? Here we need to be concerned with more than just visual description. Are there sounds and smells? If it’s summer on page 11 and winter on page 12, is this discrepancy explained?
  6. Does the overall pacing work? For example, if the story is a thriller, is it a fast-paced page-turner?
  7. Is the point-of-view consistent throughout? For example, if the piece is written in first person, does it include only information that the viewpoint character could know?
  8. Does the author provide sufficient backstory to explain the characters’ actions without resorting to info-dumping?
  9. Does the narrative arc reach a satisfying conclusion?
  10. Overall, does the piece work for its intended audience?

That list may seem a little overwhelming at first and you may not know how to answer some of these questions. That’s okay. Keep in mind that if you’re interested on doing DE work in fiction, you’re probably an avid reader. You already know how frustrating it is when you encounter a plot hole or when a character does something not because the character is the kind of person who would do that thing but because the plot demands it. Bring that sensibility to your work as a DE.

Growing Your Developmental Editing Mindset

Beginning developmental editors sometimes ask me how “awful” books make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, and how can we worry about what makes a story “good” when obviously quality doesn’t matter to readers? How do “bad” books make it through the editorial process?

In other words, your existential crisis is common and in fact predictable.

I have a happy message: our work does matter. But being a good DE means understanding a few basic principles. Embracing the answer(s) to this question is the first step on the road to developing a DE mindset.

First, criticism is subjective. Taste is subjective. Two equally competent editors can disagree about what a ms needs; two equally informed readers can have opposite opinions about the quality of a book. This goes back to there being no “right” answer.

Sometimes what we’re seeing in a “bad” book is merely a book that meets its audience’s expectations. If you like novels with dubious characters of ambiguous morality undertaking antisocial actions, a sweet small-town romance is going to be your Kryptonite. To its audience, it may be perfect.

But, okay. Lots of popular stories aren’t well-written, not by anyone’s method of measurement. So, what does that mean for us?

Understanding Readers

I was at a writer’s conference recently, listening to Lee Child talk. He’s a thriller writer well-known for his Jack Reacher series. Each new release always lands on the bestseller lists. He reported that the number one thing readers say to him when they meet him is: “I finished your book.”

Now, you and I may wonder what is significant about that. I “finish”—that is, “finish reading”—a lot of books. I read, easily, two hundred books (novels and nonfiction) a year. Most years more. That doesn’t even include what I read for work.

So, think about those readers for whom finishing the book is an accomplishment. Literally what they are excited about is the book held their attention long enough for them to read it beginning to end.

Politics, luck, and marketing aside, that’s the group that puts books on the bestseller lists. Those are the readers a book has to reach to sell a lot. Not the people like me, who are going to read a bajillion books a year anyway and have expectations shaped by the fact that I know what excellent fiction can do.

I’m not sneering at people for whom finishing a book is a notable achievement. I’m just saying that is a person whose expectations of a novel are vastly different from mine.

Popular doesn’t necessarily equate with “good.” Popular may equate with recognizable storylines told in an entertaining way, or action that moves quickly from start to finish. People always point to Dan Brown as an example of a terrible author who has achieved unmerited success. At the sentence level he is, at best, workmanlike. So people call him a terrible author. But his books carry you from page to page. He’s a good storyteller, but at best a mediocre writer.

In a similar vein: I was reading Michelle Richmond’s The Marriage Pact last year. It was one of those novels that could have used an editor who actually edited—but it was also a bestseller. I didn’t love the book but in the book club I host, I learned that most people were engaged by the premise. They were pulled along by a storyline that included perfectly ordinary main characters doing perfectly ordinary things who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. That kind of thing engages readers. They get to be terrified in a vicarious way. I rolled my eyes and counted all the plot holes. But what feels like a failure of craft to me isn’t necessarily a problem to the vast majority of readers.

This is one reason why I say we have to read widely in genres we want to edit. We have to understand what reader are looking for when they read. Someone reading Agatha Christie-type puzzle mysteries is looking for a different experience from someone reading a Harlequin romance.

Another thing I try to do is look at popular books to see what makes them tick. It’s easy to dismiss these works but they are popular for a reason. So, I challenge myself to find out what that reason is.

That said, we can encourage our authors to improve their craft while still appealing to their audiences. We wouldn’t suggest, for example, that a thriller writer slow down the pace in order to build up the emotional backstory, but we could suggest ways to make the protagonist something other than a cardboard cutout.

Recently a former student asked me to review some edits on a project she was struggling with. “His audience seems to like his work but . . . .” And I knew what she meant. Caricatures rather than characters, scenes stolen directly from popular movies, dialogue I know I’ve heard before. She couldn’t ask the author to rethink everything but I did suggest that she urge the author to dig a little deeper, beyond the most superficial of plot events and characterizations.

In other words, she could point out the most egregious thefts and suggest that the author use plot devices that hadn’t been used ten thousand times before. And just possibly have a female character who wasn’t either a screaming fishwife or a fawning handmaiden.

It turned out that the author was pleased to have some ideas for how to refresh his work. Writing a good story is a difficult business and sometime we forget how hard it is to do well.

Developing a DE mindset means understanding that not all readers like the same things you do or share your pet peeves or are even looking for the same thing from a story that you are. Cultivating this understanding of other readers is one way we can grow our developmental editing skills beyond mere personal opinion.