When is your novel done? In truth? You can literally be writing the same manuscript over and over for years because no novel is ever perfect. Additionally, there is no one way to tell your story, so you might be tempted to make changes and try something different.
You will be there forever at this rate!
There comes a point when you have to let it go and move on to the next stage. Sometimes that’s publication and sometimes the next stage is when you show your book to someone else.
If you feel that you’re not quite there yet, this is totally understandable. Many writers are perfectionists, yet there’s no such thing as a perfect novel or memoir.
So, what’s your best option?
If you’re not a member of a writing group, it’s worth finding a good one – you can do this online. Beta readers are another option.
You can also try out an opening chapters developmental edit. This would allow you to get feedback on a manageable proportion of your book for an affordable price. You can also take some of the advice and apply it to later sections of your novel.
When dialogue is great, it can be terrific, keeping readers or audiences on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the verbal sparring of Bogart and Bacall, the wisecracking characters of 1930s films, or dramatic courtroom exchanges in A Few Good Men, dialogue can spark and enthral. It’s not just true of films or plays either – there are plenty of novels with powerful dialogue. But there are also times when dialogue ruins scenes
But here’s the problem – dialogue can be a little too seductive. Or to be more exact, writers who are rather too fond of their characters can sometimes find it difficult to know how much is too much.
The problems with dialogue are numerous and linked to different issues. For example, writers who find their characters springing spontaneously to life, like Athena from her father’s head, might feel they spend a good part of their time just reporting what their characters are seeing. It’s like taking dictation. Sometimes it’s like being possessed as you struggle to keep up with what your characters are saying and doing. Your fingers fly over the keyboard and you’re hoping they’ll slow down.
When characters won’t stop talking
Characters like this can have a real spark because they haven’t been consciously constructed or built from the ground up. They have not been sketched out on paper but appear to emerge from the writer’s subconscious. They can be unpredictable, obstructive, overly chatty (or the opposite). They can pull the plot way off track. They have their own opinions that can supersede the author’s.
If they are chatty, their dialogue can go on longer than necessary, and if they’re the amusing type, the author may find them entertaining. However, this can have a detrimental effect on the pacing and plot. Amusing dialogue scenes can only go on so long. Dialogue scenes should usually serve a purpose.
If the author has two characters like this in the same scene, the situation can become more unmanageable. Cutting back these scenes is pretty much an example of murdering your darlings. The scenes might seem to be full of life, but a novel is not episodic. There should be a plot, and it should keep on moving. It shouldn’t be paused frequently for a chat break.
When dialogue destroys your atmosphere
Where this can become an even bigger issue is when there’s a conflict between the tone of the dialogue and the genre of the novel or its overall atmosphere.
For example, if you want a dark, foreboding atmosphere to hang over the narrative, too much witty repartee is going to blow it out of the water. Think horror novels or dark thrillers. The dialogue becomes tone-deaf.
It would work in a witty chic-lit novel, but there are other narratives where you really need to reign it in. You particularly don’t want it at wrong moments in the plot, where it interrupts the story or delays important events. Too much of this and your reader may bail out completely.
When dialogue makes scenes too ‘loud’
Another issue I’ve seen in manuscripts is that dialogue can actually amplify the volume in scenes where you want a quieter and possibly more introspective atmosphere. Sometimes, instead of dialogue, indirect speech is really better. There are other reasons why you might choose to use indirect speech, but volume is one. Another is that too much speech which has a low information to wordcount ratio buries important details. You don’t want the most important details of the speech to be hidden among less important chat.
While people can drone on in real life, you have to be a bit more ruthless with characters. Novels, like films and plays, are artificial constructs. They are not a realistic representation of life. The scenes are edited, with toilet breaks and other mundanities usually left out. The same should be true of speech. You don’t have to be puritanical about it and only include the absolutely most relevant dialogue, but you do have to weigh the length and tone of your dialogue against the surrounding narrative.
When dialogue slows the pace
While dialogue often produces shorter lines and paragraphs down a page, which leads to the reader turning the page faster, it can also be draining to read if it goes on too long. This is particularly true if it doesn’t have an important purpose. The reader isn’t reading to eavesdrop on people, they want to see what happens to the characters and follow the plot to the end. When dialogue works really well it can boost the pace, but when it doesn’t it can slow the pace to a crawl.
A novel that is heavy on dialogue is going to have a different tone from one that has much less. This doesn’t mean that the first is wrong – it could be a feature of the novel. But it does have an impact on tone and volume, though there are other factors like the personalities of the character and the genre that also have to be factored in.
So, you’ve been working on your novel or memoir and now you’re wondering when is the best time for a developmental edit. Maybe you’re even wondering if you need a developmental edit. In fact, that is the best starting point for this topic.
Let’s check your writing background and circumstances.
Let’s take a look at your background and current circumstances. Have a look at these questions:
Are you a beginner writer working on your first piece of writing?
Do you have any experience of writing groups, workshops, or courses?
Have you already had feedback on your writing from anyone likely to give you an honest assessment?
Are you in a hurry to boost your writing skills as opposed to taking your time to learn your craft?
Are you intending to publish your work yourself?
Do you hope to make a career or at least a side gig out of writing?
I could have listed other questions, but I think this is a good starting point. Beginner writers don’t necessarily need to get a developmental edit on a rougher draft unless they are determined to shorten their learning time, they have the money, are aiming to publish themselves, and don’t have access to writing groups and other feedback. However, I’m not someone who believes people should be wasting their money on unnecessary services or services they are not yet ready for. So, let’s dig deeper.
Let’s assume you are working on your first book – either a novel or memoir. Perhaps you don’t have access to a local writing group and you’re not comfortable engaging with online writing communities. Maybe you’ve tried to join some but you’ve just never found the right one. Or maybe you’re just shy and hate participating and you prefer to share your work in a more controlled situation.
Developmental editing and manuscript critiques are still not your first option. There are times when they could be, but a beta read or working with a trustworthy critique partner might be a better cost-effective start. However, if you’ve not had much luck with beta readers, you might be reluctant to go down that path again. Nevertheless, it could still be worth your while looking for like-minded people online who are interested in your genre, are knowledgeable about it, and reliable enough to give you constructive feedback.
But, for whatever reason, maybe this has not worked out for you or you just don’t want to go down that route. I get it – writers can be introverts. And like creative people in general, they can be wary of sharing their work.
When you need feedback
However, sooner or later, you need feedback. For one thing, bad habits can become engrained and it can become difficult to shake them off. But you also want to know:
Is my work good enough?
Would anyone want to read it?
Might an agent be interested?
What can I do better? Where can I improve?
I have worked with quite a few beginner writers. In those instances, a developmental edit was useful for them because my prices at the time were lower. Some of them said I was cheaper than a writing course. But I did look on it to some degree as coaching mixed with developmental editing. The aim was to boost their skillset (and their manuscripts) to a whole new level.
But you don’t have to go for a full developmental edit to do this. You don’t even need to opt for a manuscript critique, which is cheaper but usually deals with an entire book. There are some editors, like myself, who offer opening chapters packages. I offer 15,000 words currently for £150 (or 10,000 for £115*). It’s a flat rate, so you always know what you’re paying. There are no extra costs. From a price perspective it’s more affordable, but it also means a newer writer doesn’t feel as overwhelmed by information and track comments right through the entire manuscript. It allows you to learn with less material.
Some of the things an opening chapters edit will deal with
Your opening hook – do you grab the reader (and why it’s important to do so).
Do your writing style and tone fit the book’s genre (you’d be surprised what can impact this).
Your main character – are they well fleshed out and someone the reader will want to champion for an entire book?
What are your main character’s goals, aspirations at the beginning of the story? What do they want?
Narrative viewpoint(s) – does your point of view choice work in your narrative’s best interests?
Do you have an antagonist or antagonistic force? Who/what is blocking your main character’s goals?
If you have an antagonist, are they a fleshed-out credible character or a two-dimensional baddie with no redeeming features?
How soon does your plot begin? (Hint: it should start pretty soon.)
If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, do you have a lot of worldbuilding at the outset? (Watch out – this is a pace killer and could leave your reader bailing out before the story is underway.)
Character hierarchy – how many characters do you have, and how many are main characters, secondary, minor, etc? (Remember, the more time you give to minor and secondary characters, the less time you have for the main characters.)
The emotional and psychological dominoes – if something good or bad happens to your character, they should not forget about it by the next chapter. This is a generalisation, but if someone has had a bad experience in real life, it reverberates for days, weeks, even years. (This will be the subject of another post.)
Location: does your novel have a strong sense of place? (Location is more important to some stories than others.)
Do you have either too much or too little dialogue? Do you use dialogue to tell the reader things in a way that’s maybe too obvious and clunky? Is your dialogue the right tone for the scenes?
Do all your characters sound alike? (Do any of them have their own particular speech patterns?)
Is your dialogue correctly formattted? (I’ve seen some odd stuff in my time!)
Pacing – how well does your story move? Too fast? Too slow? The same speed all the way through?
How does your paragraph formatting affect your pacing? (This is a topic I’ll address in a future blog post.)
Are you using unnecessary transition scenes when you could just opt for a jump cut instead?
Your plot structure – even though I only assess the first 15,000 words, I can also give you an idea of what you should be aiming for later on. Especially if you include a synopsis that helps outline the middle and end of your book.
Themes and subjects the opening chapters address – for example, it might be a coming of age story about a young LGBT teen and the challenges they face.
These are only a few of the things that might get looked at in an opening chapters edit. It partly depends on the individual manuscript and the author’s strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t worry, all writers have their weaknesses!
What you get with an opening chapters edit
So, how does all this look in terms of what you get for your £150?
An editorial letter that usually runs to at least a few thousand words.
Track comments in the margins of your manuscript.
A reading list that addresses editorial suggestions and helps you develop your skillset further.
Where relevant, I might include a book map or visual material but not all manuscripts need this.
Email support – I respond to your queries about the edit and will review a small number of short sample rewrites at no extra cost.
A discount on a later manuscript critique or full developmental edit.
The beauty of an opening chapters edit is that it’s not overwhelming, either from the point of view of time, amount of information to consume, or price.
This is also a fast service – you can get your feedback a few days after your booking time.
You also don’t pay the full amount up front. If I’m booked up, you can pay £50 to book a time, £50 when you send me the manuscript (just before I start), and then £50 within 15 days of completion. If I’m not booked up, you can pay half in advance and half on completion.
When is the best time for a developmental edit? Whenever you’re ready! But don’t forget you have writing group and beta reader options first.
There’s a problem I’ve encountered with a number of my developmental editing clients. You know what it is? Maybe you can tell from the title of this post. Yep, you guessed it, they paid for a copyedit or proofread of their novel or memoir and only then sent their manuscript to me.
I think there are a number of reasons:
Writers don’t always know the correct order of editing (which I deal with below).
They got a copyedit/proofread but it was later suggested they need a critique. Ouch! Money wasted.
They published the book (without a critique) and then needed to pull it to improve it.
The copyeditor/proofreader wasn’t honest about the type of editing that was needed.
The copyeditor/proofreader was honest but the client ignored it for any number of reasons.
I’ve also noticed that some clients are sending me formatted books that are still early on in their development. This can sometimes make the editing a little more difficult. It’s best to send manuscripts with double-spaced text, but some people are sending single-spaced documents that already look like ebooks. Not so much space to leave margin comments.
Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?
Developmental editing requires rewriting parts of the book. You might have to restructure the book, change parts of the plot, delete scenes or chapters. If you have the book copyedited first, you’ve totally wasted your money because you’re going to have to have the book edited again, once the developmental editing is complete.
Here is the editorial timeline:
Critique partners/writing groups/beta readers.
Professional beta readers if you choose to use this service.
Developmental editor – either a critique or a full developmental edit.
Proofreading is the final stage to check everything is correct and spelling and formatting is consistent, etc.
You don’t have to go through every layer of editing here. You could choose the following:
Writing group/critique partners
This would be cheaper though it wouldn’t be as detailed. Still, if you’re on a budget, it’s worth bearing in mind.
There is absolutely no point in paying for copyediting and proofreading when you’re still working on the plot and bigger picture issues.
Seriously folks, don’t do this. Some of my writers have completely wasted time and money on copyeditors and/or proofreaders. Indie publishing already has costs. Don’t make it more expensive than is necessary. You want the best book you can deliver to readers, but you also don’t want to get ripped off in the process.