So, you have a story you want to tell. You’ve been thinking about it for years. It would make a perfect novel. When you finally get round to putting it down on paper, you’ll know exactly what the characters are like, you’ll know how they interact, and you’ll already know how it ends. All that’s required is the time needed to sit down and write it. Plus motivation and lack of distractions.
But is your novel really as well planned as you think? Are you sure you understand your characters, let alone how they interact with one another? Is that ending really credible? Have you ever thought about the structure of your story? Do you understand how story structure works? If you’ve never written a story, let alone a novel, you’re already in trouble.
When you finally write your story, you might force your characters to do exactly what you’ve imagined all those years, forgetting that characters on the page must be organic. They must be natural and credible and as close to real people as it’s possible to get. If you turn them into puppets, performing at your will, readers will know, and they will lose interest.
And those plot twists might not work out the way you thought. Perhaps they happen too early, or too late. And when you finally show your story to others, the ending doesn’t work at all. But if you’ve spent years imagining all the details in your head, the danger is you’re so attached to your unwritten ideal of a novel that you won’t make any compromises.
The characters, the locations, and the plot must be just so. It’s what you’ve planned. You thought it out. You thought about it on your way to work, soaking in the bath, or lying in bed at night. And when you finally write your story, then show it to others, you might resist the best of advice. Because you have an ideal story in your head, which is ideal to you, which plays out like a film, except that you don’t really understand how films are structured either.
Don’t take too long to start your novel
The purpose of this blog post is to warn you not to spend too much time thinking about your story. The longer you leave it, the harder it can be to make the sacrifices necessary to bring it into the world in a decent shape.
If you insist that the ending must be so because that’s what you planned all those years ago, you’ve already lost. Endings should be a natural consequence of the plot and characterisation, the final domino falling into place. With novels, things rarely go to plan. Those characters you thought would get on, only do so because you force them to. It’s perfectly clear to any reader that they’re incompatible and their relationship makes no sense. The ending comes out of the blue because you didn’t want your readers to guess the twist, and you never learned about foreshadowing. Meanwhile, your poor beta readers think the twist makes no sense.
There’s no point creating the perfect novel in your head, that book you’ll write one day… you know, that day when you finally have the time. The longer you put it off, the harder it’s going to be. And that little ego voice that says you don’t need to learn about characterisation, structure, foreshadowing and so on… that little voice is not your friend.
It’s time to bite the bullet. By all means start plotting it out on paper. Write up character studies. But don’t run the risk of spending too much time plotting on paper or your enthusiasm will be spent before you write a first draft.
Don’t spend years dreaming about your novel. Don’t become so attached to all those characters and plans that you sabotage a good idea because you let it set in stone. And don’t spend too long plotting it out on paper. Learn your craft, be prepared for your characters to surprise you, and don’t count on that ending working. Always be open to new ideas, new characters, and new twists. Your novel should be an adventure for you as much as the reader.
So, let me say it again: don’t take too long to start your novel. Stop dreaming and start writing.
Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? I’m a fully trained member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Check out my services page.
When you’re researching a novel location, and trying to familiarise yourself with your setting, immerse yourself in imagery/photos as well as textual information. Then try and do some location word sketches. Set time aside for this, dig deep into your location, write as much detail as you like, and keep it all in a file. Don’t write it directly into your novel. Just dip into the file when you need to flesh out your setting more.
So many panelled walls, some painted grey-blue, some stencilled, or decorated with rich wallpapers. Centuries-old paintings hang in gilt frames, fading tapestries depict country pursuits, and baroque clocks sit on ornate mantelpieces. French windows stand open, revealing the lush green foliage of the park beyond.
In the bedrooms are richly dressed testers, or beautiful ottoman beds in alcoves behind damask drapes. Sometimes the fabric is faded with age, other times it’s vibrant, full of colour. The bed linen is crisp and white, embroidered, and the flowered counterpanes are pale yellow or blue, or a rich red damask.
In the linen room, huge presses are thrown open to reveal shelves of neatly folded fabric. On a large table, napkins are tied in bundles with pink ribbon.
One inhabitant of a chateau remembers the linen room of his childhood, the “damp, steamy, oddly fragrant odour” and the “dance of the flat irons which the women stood right on the glowing coals in the hearth, then snatched up and held near their cheek to test the temperature.”
On Saturdays, the linen was changed, and the same day, a clockmaker came to wind up all the clocks in the house. “Tracing a circle on the dial with his finger to start the hands moving, he would then set the pendulum swinging steadily, then the chimes which seemed to mark the breathing of time. He brought life back into the rooms as he passed through them….”
On the dining room table there’s Venetian glass, silver gilt cutlery, and Sèvres porcelain plates, and there’s memories too of the great dinners of past years: “Cream soup, fish, a variety of poultry – turkey, guinea-fowl or chicken – followed by roasts with vegetables, then well-chosen sweets… The wines, chilled or at perfect room temperature, were served by the butler, who murmured the name and year of the vintage to each guest….”
In the wine cellars bottles are covered in cobwebs, yellow labels peeling at the corners. In the grounds, statues rise up among the greenery, and topiary animals populate a garden zoo. Ornamental lakes reflect the stone and brick of a French Renaissance house, and water spouts from the mouth of a stone dolphin. At night, the chateau is lit up, golden in the darkness, chandeliers glittering through the windows. And in winter, while the Christmas preparations are underway, snow lies like icing sugar across the lawns, hedges, balustrades, and stone staircases.
And everywhere in the house, in every room, flowers from the garden, fresh or dried, elaborately arranged on mantelpieces and tables. And walking sticks and shooting sticks stand in a corner of a hallway, and the library is stocked from floor to ceiling and the fire crackles in the hearth, and a labrador lies sleeping on the stairs, and the clocks tick on, tick on, down the years….
Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? Check out my services page.
In this Whitbread-shortlisted biography by Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith is shown to be a woman who never found true happiness. Condemned by her own psychology to seek out inappropriate and often unavailable women, she never had a relationship that lasted longer than a few years. An almost life-long alcoholic, Highsmith’s happiest moments came from writing. She was misanthropic, lonely, shy, often hiding behind her curtain of black hair. But she was a brilliant writer, unappreciated in her own country, the United States, where publishers were obsessed with the categorisation of fiction. Highsmith’s fiction, like the woman herself, defied categorisation.
As Andrew Wilson elegantly illustrates in Beautiful Shadow, the writer’s problems began early in life, in her family circumstances. Her biological father was almost unknown to her, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather (who gave her the Highsmith name.) The Oedipal complex is given a twist here since the young girl had an intense love for her mother, and a desire to kill her stepfather. Highsmith’s difficult love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, lay at the root of her problems with women, as Highsmith herself recognised:
“I am married to my mother I shall never wed another.”
Her mother, meanwhile, could see the teenage Highsmith was not “normal” and at one point advised her to “straighten up and fly right.”
Although her sexuality was not clear-cut, Highsmith on the whole preferred women, but she constantly engaged in fantasy relationships with unavailable heterosexual women, or became involved with difficult or controlling partners.
Patricia Highsmith’s feelings about herself as a woman were complicated by the fact that she saw herself at times as having a male identity. Although very beautiful, she had a tendency to dress slightly butch, softening it with a necklace or lipstick. Her fellow students at the all-female Barnard College thought she seemed “dashing.” She was certainly promiscuous, successfully luring both straight and non-heterosexual women into her bed.
For a time, during a relationship with a man she hoped to marry, she underwent analysis, in the hopes of turning herself heterosexual. Her biographer records this well, setting it within the context of psychoanalytic attitudes of the period. As Wilson points out, the therapist’s interpretation of Highsmith’s case was “laughably simplistic and over-dependent on Freudian theory.” Not only that, such practitioners failed to recognise that Freud did not believe in “curing” homosexuals, but instead in counselling them into accepting their sexuality. Pat’s therapist recommended group therapy alongside married women with latent homosexual tendencies. Writing in her diary, Highsmith mused:
“Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.”
Needless to say, the therapy proved useless.
Highsmith was a passionate diarist. She left countless “cahiers,” her notebook/diaries which Wilson had access to. These cahiers go back to her youth. Consequently, the biography is very detailed, and the reader gets the impression that Wilson’s book could have been double or triple the size. One of the frustrating things is the inability to go into greater detail about individual episodes. This is not Wilson’s fault though, because he’s dealing with a huge volume of information. But it would be fascinating to read more of Highsmith’s words directly and perhaps it might be possible in some other book in the future. On the other hand, because of the density of information, it would be possible to read this biography a second time and get even more out of it, particularly if read in conjunction with her work, which Wilson analyses.
Highsmith’s cahiers are a vital insight into her personal life, her psychology, and her mindset as a writer. From them, Wilson has been able to construct how Strangers on a Train came into being and where her most famous character, Ripley, came from. Something else that becomes obvious is the way she used her infatuations with women in her work. Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (now Carol) was inspired by a woman, Kathleen Senn, who walked into the toy department of Bloomingdale’s where the twenty-seven-year-old Highsmith was working temporarily. Highsmith was immediately smitten with Senn but never met her again. However, she later tracked the woman down to her address and saw her in a car as it backed out the driveway and headed towards her. Writing about it later in her diary, Highsmith said:
“For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too, as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of gaining complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s attentions?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.”
Kathleen Senn became the unsuspecting muse who inspired The Price of Salt, a book remarkable for its happy ending, something not previously seen in lesbian literature in the 1950s. In spite of the fact that Highsmith never had any contact with Senn, Wilson managed to track down the woman’s surviving relatives, and he brings out the other more poignant side of this brief encounter. What Highsmith never knew is that the glamorous, sophisticated older woman she encountered in Bloomingdale’s had a history of mental health problems. Sometime before the publication of The Price of Salt, Senn walked into her garage, closed the door, and switched on the engine of her car, never knowing the part she’d played in literary history.
Throughout her life, Highsmith would use the women around her, lovers or women admired from afar, as her muses. In spite of this, Highsmith was considered by some to be a misogynist. Andrew Wilson, though, shows the difficulties in such an easy reading of Highsmith’s character. The women in Pat’s life lived in the shadow of her mother. Highsmith was a shy, lonely character, and her behaviour at times could be misinterpreted. There’s no question she was a difficult human being to be around. But she had her admirers as well as her detractors. Some people had a better understanding of her nature. She was a brutally honest person, which didn’t always serve her well, though some admired her for it. Her political opinions were hard to define. Some could be termed left-wing liberal, whereas others veered to the right, and included anti-Semitic tendencies as well as a virulent hatred of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
Highsmith spent a great deal of her adulthood in Europe. In exile, she watched in horror as the U.S. went into various conflicts, and her visits back to America often served to confirm her opinion that the country had lost its way. She saw it as a modern-day Roman Empire, and her criticisms wove their way into her fiction.
Highsmith wasn’t a popular writer in America during her lifetime. The irony is the way she’s been embraced there since her death. Wilson believes Highsmith was a writer ahead of her time. Her books, which some have seen as evil and immoral, don’t tread an easy path. She was more interested in psychopaths than do-gooders, and these psychopaths were often the viewpoint characters, drawing the reader into their amoral worlds.
In spite of this, she was a gentle person in real life and a pacifist. Generally, she preferred animals to people and had a life-long love of cats and snails. Wilson documents how Highsmith smuggled her pet snails into France under her breasts. Snails and cats are somehow fitting companions for this misanthropic woman. Her love of animals would take a comic dark turn in some of her short stories, where animals got their revenge on humans, particularly in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder.
For those wishing to track down her publications, especially the short story collections, there’s a list of her books at the beginning of the biography. Wilson does not ignore the significance of her short stories, summarising their plots and analysing them along with the novels.
He’s also managed to get some quite revealing information from some of Highsmith’s lovers, as well as those who worked with her. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t set Highsmith within a heterosexist reading of human sexuality or gender. He clearly has enormous sympathy and respect for “Pat” even as he depicts her, warts and all.
What is the difference between a manuscript critique and a full developmental edit? What can you expect from each service and which might be best for your circumstances?
Developmental editing focuses on the so-called “big picture” elements of a book – the plot, characterisation, theme, structure and so on. Just to confuse things further, it’s also known as content editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s the first step in professional editing, often preceded by writing group feedback and beta readers.
When a writer wants their manuscript critiqued, they’re still in the process of polishing their overall story. Copyediting focuses on language, grammar, punctuation, consistency (including the use of a style guide), and legal issues like copyright law, trademark law, and libel issues. And that’s just a few of the things a copyeditor will deal with.
By the time you get to a proofreader, most of the errors should be gone.
Of course, not everyone can afford one round of editing, let alone several.
So, what are the benefits of a developmental edit or manuscript critique? An editor brings fresh eyes to the entire manuscript. They can see what’s there, not what the writer thinks is there. During rewrites, it’s all too easy for a writer to remove things by accident. Writers also have a different picture of what’s on the page. They can fill in the gaps. An editor’s job is to point out those gaps so they can be plugged before the book is published.
What’s a developmental edit?
You should expect the following in a full developmental edit:
An editorial letter
A copy of your manuscript with track comments or commentary/corrections/suggestions in the margins
I’m going to deal with the manuscript commentary first. What should you expect there?
Track commenting or other editorial input in the submitted manuscript
These comments deal with both macro and micro issues
The macro (big picture) issues are likely to be further addressed in the accompanying editorial letter
The micro issues are usually not important enough for the editorial letter unless they represent a repeating problem – in which case they become a macro issue.
Some editors also offer some level of line editing in the manuscript, but there’s a limit to how much is useful since the writer is likely to rewrite their book
Some level of line editing can be used as a sample of what to do, as a coaching service, teaching the writer how to handle a particular issue in their next draft
At its best, a good DE can offer constructive critique beyond the manuscript in question – it should also offer advice that can be carried over into the writer’s next book
So, what about the accompanying editorial letter? Bearing in mind this is a full developmental edit and not a manuscript critique (which I address further down), the letter doesn’t have to carry the weight of the entire editorial commentary.
The editorial letter should acknowledge early on that the author is under no obligation to follow all the suggestions made by the editor
Editorial letters often contain the proviso that the editor may have misread certain things and to disregard any suggestions that may result
If the writer has asked the editor to check out certain issues they’re concerned about, the editor will address those questions somewhere in the editorial letter (and possibly the manuscript itself)
In general, the letter should focus on the overarching issues and address the main points
It should provide a clear roadmap for revision
It should not consist of a long list of disconnected problems and no overall solutions
The editor should be looking for the smallest number of solutions that fix the largest number of problems
The letter (and the track commenting in the manuscript) should address things the writer does well – since writers often don’t understand their own strengths, let alone how such skills can be used in other parts of their manuscript)
Some editors also include supplementary material like diagrams, book maps, or a style guide.
A DE should be a workable plan the writer can understand and implement. It should also be a plan that has anticipated the fallout that occurs when you start making changes. Making one significant change alone can set off a chain reaction throughout the manuscript. Imagine making several changes!
That’s the kind of thing an editor should anticipate. An editor never knows what suggestions the writer will take on board, and what will be rejected, so this is not a science. However, I’ll offer up examples of what I call fallout or the domino effect.
In a novel I wrote, I later figured out (through doing a critique of my own manuscript) that a viewpoint change would solve numerous problems.
It allowed me to get closer to the characters even though I’d moved from first to third
My main modern character no longer had to know what happened in the past
Switching to third allowed a more immediate experience of the past, including moments of tension – previously many events had been recorded in diaries or letters
And of course, people in real life self-censor in diaries and letters, especially in the past, so written personal accounts are not the best means to represent the more intimate facts of a character’s life
Moving to third allowed easier point of view shifts, including within chapters, which then allowed me to tightly weave the historic backstory with the modern story
And that led to serious restructuring where material became more evenly distributed throughout the manuscript
This also helped pace and other problems
The point is that one suggestion can have multiple effects on a manuscript. And not necessarily in a good way. Which is why an editor needs to consider the possible knock-on effects of their suggestions.
On the other hand, if an editor can come up with core solutions that solve multiple problems, it leads to a clearer plan of action. The downside for the writer, at least in some instances, is a more substantial rewrite than they’d hoped for. However, if your central plot is solid, and your characters are vibrant, you already have solid foundations for the next draft.
So let’s look at the more abbreviated manuscript critique service.
What can you expect in a manuscript critique?
First of all, there’s no track commenting or editing of the manuscript. This means that the editorial letter has to carry the full weight of the feedback.
Although manuscript critique services are cheaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean the editorial letter is shorter. Prices have more to do with the amount of work involved and the time it takes to complete it. Authors on a budget might also request an abbreviated service. This option includes an edit of a portion of the manuscript or even a triage edit. The latter focuses on the main problems and lets the smaller issues slide.
So, with a manuscript critique you should expect the following:
It should come with the usual acknowledgement that you don’t have to take all the advice it contains
If you’ve communicated concerns about your manuscript – maybe you’re worried your characters aren’t fleshed out enough – the editor should address these concerns somewhere in the letter
The editorial letter may follow a template structure, dealing with different topics such as plot, theme, character, etc, each under different headings. This is also true of a DE letter
Not all critique letters follow a template structure – I had one where the editor spent the first part of the letter addressing my concerns, and then the second half addressing her own, which she listed in chronological order rather than under subject headings. So she started at the beginning of my manuscript and worked her way to the end
The letter should deal with the big issues and some of the medium level issues at least. But it’s less likely to deal with very small problems in the manuscript unless they follow a pattern
A good manuscript critique should be able to assess the current state of your manuscript and offer advice on how to improve it
As for the length of the editorial letter, this will vary according to the needs of your manuscript, the working practices of the editor and the size and extent of the critique you purchased.
Also, listing issues and problems separately without an overarching plan can lead to a longer letter that isn’t necessarily as helpful as one that focuses on the central issues. So, the length of the letter is not a sign of how useful it will be or the quality of the service.
How to deal with a critique or DE
So, how should a writer handle editorial feedback?
I’ve been on the end of an editorial letter myself. I can confirm that there’s a lot to take on board. Inevitably, a full DE has even more information to digest.
As an aside, one of my tutors claimed she’d never met a writer who’d read all the way through the track commenting in their manuscript before they started revising. My first thought was that’s exactly what I would do as a writer. I’d want to see the bigger picture with the feedback before I started revising. But how useful it would be might relate to whether a novel is written in chronological order. If scenes appear out of sequence, the editor’s commentary at the end might matter more for rewriting the beginning. In a chronological narrative, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much.
But whether you have an editorial letter or full DE, don’t be surprised if you need weeks to digest it. Some comments and information might hit you first – especially those you’re more resistant to. There might be gems buried in the letter that you initially miss. You need to read the letter more than once. Then you can put it away for a while before returning to it. This is especially true if you don’t like the feedback.
Good editorial feedback should be what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. The latter is simply a waste of money.
Some editors will include a time frame in which you can send them questions or request clarification. After that, you have to pay them for more consultation time. There are some who will not include much aftercare.
I think for less experienced authors, aftercare is important. But it does eat into an editor’s schedule.
A full developmental edit can take around four to six weeks depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript. The editor has to read the manuscript several times. They make notes, add track commenting, draw up and organise the editorial letter, etc, and check they haven’t missed anything.
Which service is best for your needs?
If you’re intending to send your manuscript to an agent, then you don’t need a full developmental edit. Of course, you might want one, but you don’t need it. Technically, you don’t need a manuscript critique either. Agents don’t expect to see perfect novels landing in their inboxes. However, many authors do choose to have some level of manuscript critique. You can opt for abbreviated versions that focus on the main issues while letting the small stuff slide.
If you’re submitting to agents and getting knockbacks, it’s worth having a manuscript critique. That way you can see what should be done to improve your book. Then you can revise and continue submitting.
If you reach the end of the line with agents or the traditional publishing industry, you still have the option of the indie route.
Indie authors most benefit from a full developmental edit. However, the service is sadly beyond the reach of most price-wise. However, it’s worth keeping an eye out for special deals and newer editors who probably won’t charge as much. I’ve listed good DE courses below so you know what to look for in an editor’s training.
Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory – Liminal Pages
Developmental Editing: In Practice – Liminal Pages
Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction – Author-Editor Clinic
Developmental Editing of Fiction – Beginning, Editorial Freelancers Association
Developmental Editing of Fiction – Intermediate, EFA
Developmental Editing of Fiction – Advanced, EFA
It’s worth point out that the Author-Editor Clinic course offers trainee editors the opportunity to write a manuscript critique letter in their final assignment and have it reviewed by the course tutor. However, it’s optional and not obligatory.
The EFA Advanced DE course focuses on a full developmental edit with an editorial letter and track commenting in the manuscript. This is a very intensive course and the final edit and letter are reviewed by the course tutor.
Want to try an opening chapters developmental edit?