Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Editorial Letter

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When an author works with a publisher to put out a book, there are a number of steps that happen between that first version of the book that the author hands in and the version that ends up in print.

Most often, the first feedback an author gets on his or her novel comes in the form of an editorial letter. This is a document that lists all the BIG PROBLEMS with the plot and characters. Editorial letters often make authors tremble in fear and anticipation, and, once read, have been known to make authors weep. Why? Because this letter lists problems with the story that the editor is asking the author to rewrite.

But editorial letters are good. They really are. They help make the story better.

Last week when I was in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, I received my editorial letter on King's Folly. I had to go hide in the church bus to read it ASAP. It had been about eight weeks since I'd turned in my book, and I was dying to know what they thought of it.

The editorial letter I received for King's Folly was four pages long. It was broken down by plot threads, characters, and story sections (Part I, Part II, Part III), and gave comments on what my editor felt worked well and what didn't.

As is often the case, especially on the first book in a new series, I have a lot of work to do.

Since King's Folly isn't out yet, I can't share that letter here. But I wanted to give you guys an idea of what a real editorial letter looks like. So I'm going to share my entire letter for By Darkness Hid and the first two pages of the editorial letter for To Darkness Fled. My editor, Jeff Gerke, did not give me an editorial letter for From Darkness Won, nor did I receive one for the book Replication. Every book is different. And the editor's schedule is always a factor. But it's nice when the editor has the time to add this extra step into the editing process. I think it's important.

Please note, By Darkness Hid, which I had originally called Bloodvoices, was in pretty good shape when Jeff Gerke requested the full manuscript. It was the sixth book I'd written. And I had gone through and edited it as well. I felt good about that book when I sent it off. I think that's why my editorial letter was only two pages long.

To Darkness Fled was not in that good of shape when I turned it in. It was my first draft. We were running out of time. And the editorial letter Jeff sent me was thirty-three pages long.

Book one editorial letter: two pages long.
Book two editorial letter: thirty-three pages long.


There are so many things I love about Jeff Gerke's editing style. One of the things he is so great about is starting with positive feedback. He makes you feel good about your book before he rips it to shreds. It's a lovely trait in an editor. Jeff also tends to list things by page number. This saves him time on the line edit. At many publishing houses, different editors might do those two jobs. At Marcher Lord Press back then, Jeff did it all.

Here is page one of the editorial letter for what became By Darkness Hid:

Click here to see a larger version.

And page two of the editorial letter for what became By Darkness Hid:

Click here to see a larger version. Also, I blacked out the only
spoiler for those who haven't read the books.

Here is page one of the thirty-three- page editorial letter for To Darkness Fled:

Click here to see a larger version.

And page two of the thirty-three- page editorial letter for To Darkness Fled:

Click here to see a larger version. And remember... this is only page two of thirty-three!

These pages should give you an idea of what an editorial letter looks like. As I said, each editor does things a little differently. But the point is that they list items that need to be fixed.

How do you, the author, start fixing all this?

I like to read the letter through once or twice, then set it aside and think about it for a few days because there are always a few things that really overwhelm me. And I need to think them over. Depending on the deadline, there may be tears involved. When you've spent 500+ hours writing and rewriting a book, doing a major rewrite in a few weeks can be really stressful. So I think. And I plan. And after a day or three, I sit down and look at the letter again.

I start with the easy things. I print out the editorial letter and treat it like a To Do list. I grab a highlighter and highlight everything that I disagree with, say, pink. Then I open the manuscript, save as "name of my book-rewrite" and get started on the things I'm going to fix—the "Duh!" types of things like:

·         Why did Jax and the other guy take Vrell on foot instead of horseback on their first journey? That makes no sense.

Um, yeah. The noble knights should be on horses. Duh.

When I complete an item, I highlight it a different color, say, orange. Then I move on to the next item. And I work my way through the list. Once I've done all the easy things, I move on to the more difficult ones. And when I've fixed all the things I agree with, I then need to address the other items. How that works depends on how your editor works. With Jeff, since we were working really fast, I might sent him an email about these items, and we'd talk them out. Or, if it's a smaller item, I might put a comment in the rewritten manuscript that says, "I want to leave this as is because..." And then I'd explain. Jeff never fought me on anything. We worked pretty well together. I trusted his skill as an editor. And I only fought him on things that really mattered to me.

It can be scary to disagree with your editor if you don't know him or her very well, but remember, you and your editor are on the same team. You both want to put out a great product. So try to see things from your editor's perspective. I probably agreed with 85-90% of Jeff's suggestions. And Jeff is always a little funny, too, in his edits. I think he knows that laughter makes this process easier.

How about you? Have you ever received an editorial letter? If so, how did you tackle it? If not, what do you think of the pages above? Do you think it would be helpful to get such feedback on your story? Why or why not?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

You Need The Struggle

Stephanie here.

Something I've noticed in my years of interacting with aspiring writers is that universally the process of getting published feels daunting. I've been in that place. It's normal to doubt that being published will ever happen for you. We all do that. And even once you're published, you might wonder if you'll ever be published again.

I've noticed, however, that aspiring writers tend to fall into two categories when they're asking me questions:

Category one:

Why can't I just send in my manuscript to publishers? That would be a lot easier.
Unless you're a personal friend of James Patterson, it's impossible to get published.
My friend self-published on Amazon, and it only took her a week. That's a lot better than putting up with all the waiting agents and editors make you do.

Category two:

What writers conferences are worth attending?
Here's the pitch I've prepare for my story. What do you think of it?
Do you think there's a market for a story about vampire clowns in the old west?
Edits are taking me forever. How long does it take you to edit a book?

Category one writers are all about finding an easier way because getting published just feels too hard. I certainly don't believe everyone needs to be pursuing publication, or that writing is only worthwhile if you sell your manuscript, or that you aren't a real writer unless a publishing house says you are. But I do think there's value in going all out when you're pursuing something hard. 

Which is why this quote stuck out to me:

"All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today." -Pope Paul VI

As a writer, you know that it would be a very boring story indeed if you simply handed your character everything they needed and wanted as soon as they asked for it. With the hard work you put into your stories, you're not only becoming a better writer, but a better person too.

Write on!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Three Ways To Build Characters That We Will Relate To, Love, and Cheer For

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

When Frozen was still in the theater, we took our kids. At age six, McKenna was the perfect age to fall in love with a story, and did she ever. McKenna was instantly obsessed to the point that we sometimes had to initiate rules like, "No talking about Frozen for the next fifteen minutes."

To understand how McKenna's obsession relates to today's topic of crafting characters we identify with, I need to tell you what was happening in our home at that time:

A few weeks before we saw the movie, we had learned that our (then) three-year-old son had epilepsy. One night, dinner was interrupted by Connorwho was sitting across the table from McKennastarting a seizure. We dropped everything to rush him to the hospital, where he had to be sedated before the seizure would stop. A nurse rushed McKenna to another room to distract her with TV, and then we had to call grandparents to come pick her up because Connor was admitted to the hospital for observation.

Over Christmas, we experienced long periods of time where Connor made strange vocal outbursts and didn't seem to know who we were. Once McKenna was supposed to have a friend over, but we ended up back in the ER instead. On Christmas day, present opening was interrupted by yet another seizure. I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the point. Life was confusing, and it revolved around Connor.

So while all her friends walked away from Frozen singing "Let it go" and pretending to have ice powers, McKenna connected deeply with Anna. And as I watch the movie again (and again, and again, and again) with her, it's easy to see why. The parents who are always hovering around Elsa? Anna, off playing by herself, and she doesn't totally understand why? All those closed doors? Of course McKenna related to Anna's character.

McKenna as "coronation day Anna" for Halloween.

How do we do the same thing in our stories? How do we create a character that our readers will recognize themselves in? How do we make those characters not just someone readers can relate to, but also someone from whom they can borrow strength?

Here are three ideas:

Sympathetic situations

I'll keep going with Frozen since most of you have probably seen it and because I feel they did this exceptionally well with the sisters. (If you haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil the ending, so...)

Anna is lonely and there are secrets being kept from her. We know what it's like to be lonely, right? Maybe we even know the hurt of having secrets kept from us. Because of Anna's sympathetic situation, we understand her lapses in judgment like getting engaged to a man she's only known one day.

But Elsa's situation is very sympathetic too. She's also lonely, and there's something about her body that she didn't choose and that she can't control. If Connor were a bit older, I think he would connect very strongly with Elsa because he would recognize the truths of her struggle in his own life.

To borrow from another movie that many of you have probably seen, Guardians of the Galaxy opens with a young boy, our main character, losing his mother to (I'm guessing) cancer. This is a remarkable way to open a sci-fi movie. Instead of just plopping us into the weird, we see something familiar to usif we haven't yet lost someone close to us, we dread the day we doand already we feel deeply connected to Peter. I've yet to make it through that scene without crying.

Apply it to your manuscript: What universal emotion is your character experiencing in the opening of the book? Don't be afraid to make that clear and strong.


A character who makes a sacrifice for someone else instantly wins a reader's love. You can use a character's sacrifice as a way to not only deepen your reader's affection for the character, but also as a way to encourage your reader to live a noble life.

Elsa chooses loneliness because of her love for Anna and her fear of hurting others. That's a great sacrifice for her. On the flip side, when Anna sees that Elsa is about to be killed, she chooses to save her sister instead of herself.

Jill did this beautifully in her medieval fantasy book By Darkness Hid with her main character, Achan. More than anything, Achan wants to marry Gren, but when Gren's safety is at stake, he sets aside his dream of being with her and instead convinces Gren's father to give her in marriage to someone else as a way of protecting her.

Apply it to your manuscript: Does your main character sacrifice something? If not, can they?


In real life, we admire people who work hard for something worthwhile and achieve their goal. We love that in stories too. A character's ability to stick-to-it creates a tight bond with the reader.

Anna sets out by herself to find Elsa. She doesn't let snow, strangers, wolves, cliffs, or even Elsa get in her way. McKenna once told me that she likes Anna because her super power is love, and we see that in the choices Anna makes to achieve her goal.

It's also why we love Samwise from Lord of the Rings, because not only does he stick with the difficult road, he encourages his friend along the way.

Apply it to your manuscript: Do you show your character sticking with something that's hard? Have you made their struggle difficult enough?

Think about one of your favorite characters. Do they have a sympathetic situation? Do they sacrifice something for something greater? When the going gets tough, do they stick with their goal? What's something else about that character that draws you to them?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Revise That Thing

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

A few of you have asked about edits and revisions. Before I get into what I do, I want to point you to Jill's and Stephanie's book, Go Teen Writers: How to turn your first draft into a published book. It's a phenomenal resource. In fact, I use it as my primary reference when I'm mentoring teen writers. I RARELY tell teens to go out and buy a writing book because there are so many free resources on the internet, but this one is worth it. Especially if you're ready to edit.

I won't be getting as detailed here as you can expect the Go Teen Writers book to be, but since I am currently working on revisions, I'm happy to walk you through my process. It's looked a little like this so far:

Using all the resources available to me, I made my book as good as I could make it. Oftentimes we think we're ready for outside feedback when the truth is, we haven't put forth our best effort. Now, feedback can be good at many stages, but for the purposes of editing and revision, you need to pass off your best work if you expect a helpful critique.

Again, this is where the Go Teen Writers book can help you. It will walk you through the basics including questions on point of view, plot, structure, novel tense, world building, theme, and character development. It's hugely beneficial to apply these things to your work BEFORE you ask readers for feedback.

I found educated readers. Note the word educated. I didn't just go out and troll the internet for possible readers. I asked four of my writing friends to read my manuscript and give me their thoughts. I did not want to be processing the thoughts of the masses; just the thoughts of a select few who understand the craft of writing and can help me get better.

If you don't have a writing friend you trust to give you solid feedback, I invite you to introduce yourself in the COMMENTS section of this post and throw out what you're looking for. The Go Teen Writers FB group is great for that sort of thing as well. Say something like, "I'm looking for a critique partner who can give me honest feedback on my first chapter." It's always best to start small and see how you gel as partners before you dump a 100k words on one another.

I processed the feedback I received. It took my beta readers about two weeks to get through my manuscript and get their thoughts to me. Once they did, I had a LOT of information to process. This is how I did it:
  • I made my own list. I read all four emails with a notebook and pen at the ready and I made a list of the things they'd like to see addressed. If more than one reader noted the same thing, I only listed it once. This is how I condense all my feedback into one document.
  • I eliminated some of the suggestions. Every now and then I'd get conflicting feedback. One reader liked something and another reader didn't. This is normal. I had to exercise my best judgment in these situations and that sometimes resulted in scratching off a suggested revision.
I started revising. EVERYONE does this differently. I revise in two layers: major revisions and minor revisions.
  • Major revisions: Based on the feedback of my readers, I had two or three scenes that needed to be reworked. I did those first. Changes like this--BIG CHANGES--always cause a ripple effect in your story. Fixing one scene will demand you adjust other things in your manuscript as well, but that's okay. There's another round of revisions coming.
  • Minor revisions: Next, I opened my manuscript on the computer and started at the very beginning. With my list at my elbow and my readers' feedback fresh in my mind, I moved slowly through my manuscript making the minor revisions as I went. I also paid close attention to the nitty gritty details. Every revision requires you to check your manuscript for continuity. This is a great time to do that.
Sometimes a minor revision turns major and I have to stop what I'm doing and focus more fully on that specific issue. Also, very normal.

Editing a novel is messy and hard to explain to someone who's never been in the thick of it. I'm always amazed when someone knows exactly how many drafts of a manuscript they've completed. Whenever I'm asked that question, I have to guess. I have no idea. After the first draft, subsequent versions of my stories are not counted. I simply do not work in complete drafts like that. I work in word chunks and scenes and things like counting are best left to the math folks.
Now, in my case, this manuscript was destined for my agent. After I finished my revisions, I sent it to her for feedback. And then, guess what? I processed her feedback in much the same way I processed the thoughts of my beta readers. I made a list, eliminating all her verbiage (her compliments, her suggestions, her pretty language) and making it simple for me to read. I am currently revising AGAIN using my two layer method.

So, that's me. That's how I do it. My process isn't the only RIGHT one, but it works for me. The only way you'll know what works for you is to give it a go and keep trying until the process clicks. It will be messy. Be okay with that.

Tell me, friends, where are you on your writing journey? Are you editing or drafting or giving others feedback? How's that going for you?

If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on editing, here you go.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carl Sandburg on Advice

by Jill Williamson

There's a lot of writing advice out there. It can be confusing, and sometimes contradicting. How can you know what is good advice and what is bad?

When I first started writing, I drank advice like water. Any feedback I received, I obeyed. I was so eager to improve, I often edited my voice right out of my stories. Even today, it's sometimes a challenge not to fall back on that bad habit.

Sometimes you hear advice and you just know it's good. It's obvious. It gives you the "Well, duh!" moment. Other times, advice can leave you confused and conflicted. If you can relate to this, keep these things in mind.

1. Wait.
When you get advice on your writing, do nothing. Take a few days or weeks to think it over. Time will give you a better perspective.

2. Ask someone else.
You can't take a poll every time you receive advice you don't like, but asking your critique partners what they think can often give you a better perspective. If one person points out something you disagree with, so what? But if the vast majority of people point out that same thing, you'd be wise to listen.

3. Decide for yourself.
Sure, we all start out confused. And we struggle, learning to show and tell, and all the other writing "rules." But at some point, we've learned the rules. And once we've learned them, we're allowed to break them if we want. We get to the point where we have to trust our gut. That doesn't mean we won't make mistakes. That doesn't mean we no longer need critique partners or editors. And that definitely doesn't mean we should stop learning. I will always make errors and I must continue to learn more and better my craft. But I also trust that I can tell a story. I might not do it like the majority of writers. But I am Jill. And Jill must tell stories her way. So must you. So start trusting yourself!

Do you struggle with knowing which writing advice is correct? How do you deal with this?

(I'm still in Arizona. I likely won't be able to answer comments until the weekend, but please comment anyway!)