Developmental Editing

  • How to order the stories in a collection

    How to order the stories in a collection.
    How to order the stories in a collection

    How do you order the stories in a short story collection? What kind of strategy should you be using? Time to get out a pen and paper!

    The reason this subject is dear to me right now is based on two things:

    • I am currently trying to put together my own collection of stories that have been previously published in various journals and online sites
    • I am currently engaged in a daily short story read – which will run either for a month or, if I keep it up, for an entire year

    So, I’m going to break this down into different parts.

    Let’s start with my own collection. I have a choice between literary, magical realism, and genre fiction. The first two go together. The second two might go together depending on which particular stories I choose.

    But all three don’t go together.

    There’s too big a jump in atmosphere, style, etc. And one thing I don’t want is to introduce disruption or speed bumps for the reader.

    I decided to read through the rough manuscript from start to finish. I wasn’t trying to figure out the order at this point so much as what didn’t belong.

    Sure enough, there was one story that didn’t seem to fit with the others. I had already removed some others, so it was a matter of refining it further. This did not decide the order, but it did give me an idea of what will fit and what won’t.

    I will probably go through this process a few times just to keep checking. Especially since there are one or two stories still to be added.

    In terms of fitting in, it’s not about whether it’s good enough. It’s whether it just seems out of place. Stories that aren’t good enough shouldn’t be included in the first place.

    Of course, one temptation is to mix the best stories with some fillers – that way you can save some of the other best stories for another collection, along with more fillers. This might work if you’re prioritising publication over quality.

    If you’re playing a slightly longer game, you can add and remove stories over time, until you feel you’ve reached the ideal mix. This means not committing to publication too soon. You might still have some new stories that will fit in better.

    One important thing to remember about a short story collection is that it’s like a calling card for the rest of your writing.

    Of course, the rest of your writing might also be shorter fiction. Alice Munroe is famous for her short fiction. And writers who excel at the short story don’t necessarily do as well with novels.

    So, while a short story collection could act as a calling card for your novel, it might just be an introduction to more of your shorter fiction.

    Short story collections are hard to publish via the traditional route. This is where indie publishing is a great option. But as an indie writer, you also have to decide on what to include, and the order in which the stories will appear.

    And you might find yourself perplexed by the options – what to include, plus the order.

    Do you start off with the best story? The title story?

    And now that we’re talking about titles, do you name the collection after the best story in the book?

    Or do you take a title from the collection that best illustrates any themes in the book?

    Or maybe you have a title that isn’t referencing a story at all.

    Even there, the title should in some way reflect what the book is about. Are the stories in a particular genre? Are they love stories? Science fiction stories? Are they stories all set on Mars? Are they steampunk tales? Do they all centre on the same theme?

    Unless you have a definite title in mind early on, you might want to put the title problem aside while you deal with the final list of works and the order in which they appear.

    So, what’s the best order?

    One thing you can do is look at the choices made in other books. During my daily short story challenge, I looked at order choices, and sometimes it’s interesting and other times it’s not helpful at all.

    For writers whose work has been released as an entire collection, the stories might be arranged in chronological order. The Elizabeth Bowen collection I recently purchased, which runs to 880 pages, is arranged from First Stories, to The Twenties, The Thirties, The War Years, and Post-War Stories.

    I’ve seen other collected works with chronological ordering. But for a first-time collection, this is not your best option. Though, if like Bowen your writing covers a long period of time, there might be a reason to do it.

    Then again, she’s famous and her reputation was well-established before the collected stories were published.

    So, what about other authors and collections?

    In an edition of Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald, the title story is the first in the collection. The second story in the collection is a pre-Gatsby story and one of his best, so it can be said that this book gets off to a strong start. Which is exactly what you want in a collection.

    If a reader starts at the beginning, you want to wow them from the start. Especially if they’re sampling your book on Kindle (the opening pages) or in a bookstore.

    In Alice Munroe’s Runaway, the first story is the title story of the book. But in Barbara Gowdy’s classic collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story is the second last in the book. It’s also the most memorable and was made into a film.

    In Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, the title story is the first in the book. It also benefits from having been adapted to the screen. It’s a famous story further boosted by a famous and classic film.

    In Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection, the title story is the very last one in the book.

    While Tanith Lee’s classic feminist fairy tale collection, Red as Blood, has the title story as number two in the list.

    Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection, which includes The Company of Wolves, starts with the title story. Meanwhile, The Company of Wolves is second last, showing again that collections benefit from strong endings.

    Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others has the title story (later filmed as Arrival) as number three in the contents list.

    Back to Tanith Lee and the title story in The Gorgon is the first story in the book. And in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, the title story comes first again.

    And so it goes on.

    I found other Tanith Lee collections where the title story came first.

    And others where the title of the book did not match any story. And this is not unusual either. Sometimes a title comes from a quote or is meant to represent in some way the theme of the collection.

    In Women as Demons, there is no story of that name in the book, but the first story is The Demoness. Which is the nearest to the collection’s title.

    In Anna Gavalda’s I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere – no story comes close to the book’s title.

    So, using a pre-existing story title is a popular choice. It’s also common for that story to kick off the collection or be close to the beginning. It can also be close to the end.

    This then brings us to the overall structure of a collection.

    In a novel, you want a powerful opening, a strong middle, and a memorable end. A collection should work the same way. The final stories should leave the reader wanting more. The middle shouldn’t flag. But you can include quieter stories in the places in between – just don’t have a bunch of them together, dragging down the pace.

    Besides, you should be choosing the best stories anyway. This can include much shorter fiction.

    This then brings us to the problem of readers ignoring the chosen order of a collection.

    I admit that I’m one of those readers. I study the contents list and choose on the basis of intriguing title, or length.

    I’m particularly likely to pick a shorter story if I have less time, am feeling tired, or I’m just getting to know a writer.

    If I know I really like a writer’s work, then I’ll tackle the longer stories. Of course, this is something of a generalisation. However, it does introduce a wild card into the ordering of the stories.

    You just don’t know what the reader will start with. But you do know if they’re sampling on Kindle, they will be looking at the opening pages. So, you absolutely want those to perform well. Likewise, with any book, you want a powerful ending.

    What about grouping together stories that are very similar? This could work really well – you could even divide your collection into sections, like the parts of a book. However, if they’re too similar, putting them together will lead to monotony.

    And putting stories that are very different back to back could work very well, or be too disruptive.

    When you’re experimenting with the order, try reading stories together to see how they bounce off one another. Play around with the order. And get some beta readers or friends to give you feedback.

    Ultimately, there is no right way to go about it, but there are some basics to keep in mind.

    It’s common to name the collection after a story in the book, but not absolutely necessary. You can come up with an alternative and even better title that fits in with the overall themes.

    You want your collection to get off to a great start. At the very least the first two to three stories should be very strong. Likewise the final stories. You also need a strong middle. Include your best stories, but they also have to be the stories that best fit the collection.

    If you find quite a few of your stories follow a theme, this will give you some ideas for the overall title or even the order of the stories.

    Also, if you have strong stories with a shorter word count, they can be a great introduction to new readers who are dipping into your collection for the first time.

    Another thing worth remembering is to focus more on previously published stories. This is because new stories should usually be sent out to magazines or online sites first.

    If you can get your stories published at a journal or magazine, you can use this as PR for your later collection. You can also use newer stories you’re just getting published in magazines to promote an existing collection – via the author bio that comes with your story.

    If you want a second opinion on what to include or the order of stories in the collection, feel free to contact me to discuss your project.

    Other blog posts that might be of interest:

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?

  • When is your novel done?

    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.

    An opening chapters edit would help with:

    • Your opening hook
    • Your characterisation
    • Whether your protagonist has goals that might face obstacles during the book
    • Your plot
    • Assessing whether you have too much worldbuilding at the outset
    • Whether the tone of your prose matches your genre
    • Assessing your dialogue
    • Checking whether you’ve chosen the best point of view
    • Look at your theme(s) and topic
    • Whether the structure of the opening chapters works to the book’s advantage
    • Your paragraphing
    • Your pacing

    Feedback on these issues and more can give you an invaluable insight into where your book is now. It also helps you understand whether there’s still a lot of work to do.

    If you want to try an opening chapters edit that will give you a detailed report and margin comments in as little as 7 days, feel free to check out the relevant service page and email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com.

  • When dialogue ruins your scenes

    When dialogue ruins your scenes
    When dialogue ruins your scenes

    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 enthrall.

    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 Because 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 saying.

    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’ve 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).

    Such characters 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 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 the 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 the 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

    Dialogue often produces shorter lines and paragraphs down a page. This leads to the reader turning the page faster. While that is good for pace, it can also be draining to read if it goes on too long.

    This is particularly true if the dialogue 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 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.


    Other examples of when dialogue ruins scenes

    Fictional dialogue is a huge topic. Certainly, it’s too complex to cover in one blog post. But these are some of the other occasions when dialogue can ruin your scenes:

    • Using clunky dialogue to convey information to the reader. There are more subtle ways to convey the information you want your reader to know. 
    • Related to the previous point – some writers are using blocks of dialogue as massive info dumps, with no interruptions or pauses that you might expect in real-life speech.
    • Long speeches that are never interrupted by other characters.
    • Incorrect dialogue formatting – one author client even had an editor incorrectly format all the dialogue in her novel which I then had to undo.
    • Dialogue where everyone in the same scene sounds exactly the same. Readers struggle to tell one character from another.
    • Overly formal dialogue that doesn’t match real-life speech patterns. For example, some writers make upper-class speech oddly stilted.

    Dialogue is a skill you can master

    There’s much more that could be listed here. But one important thing to remember is that most human communication is non-verbal. And this is often getting missed. Those little pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and body language can reveal a lot. Check out The Emotion Thesaurus for how to convey non-verbal cues.

    If you really want to learn from the best, screenwriters and dramatists are a great place to start. Some of them are more realistic than others, but there’s plenty of great material to learn from.

    Most of all, don’t worry if your dialogue isn’t quite there yet. It’s something you can refine over multiple drafts.

    And if you think it’s not your strong point right now, remember not to get bogged down in negative thinking. Because when you tell yourself you’re not good at something, it can block you from doing better.

    Those other people who are great at dialogue – who knows how long it took them to get there!


    Want to try a free sample edit?

    I’m offering a free sample edit of 2,000 words at the moment. It’s only available for fiction or memoir. It has to be a longer work like a novella or novel. The sample edit does not cover short stories or non-fiction articles and writing. You can contact me at: karen@indiecateditorial.com


    Other IndieCat posts you might find useful

    Social media blockers

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    How to order the stories in a collection

    Why your book cover design matters

  • When is the best time for a developmental edit?

     

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    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 at 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.

    Opening chapters edit – affordable, fast, detailed

    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. 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 upfront. If I’m booked up, you can pay in three installments, though the payment period is very short owing to the express delivery time. 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.

    You can also try my FREE sample edit if you want to see what a developmental edit looks like.