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Working with a Content Editor

Edited manuscript on desktop

As I come near to completing my first historical romance novel, I find myself feeling a lot like I did at the start of writing mysteries. I’d almost forgotten what that’s like, since after a decade writing the same genre, I know what the plot should look like, what kinds of characters I need, and all kinds of other details. When I finish a book, I’m confident that I’ve done a good job, and know that with the help of a few beta readers, it will be a professional work.

But, with a first novel, it’s not like that at all.

In the beginning, a writer studies what’s expected to be in a book, taking classes and reading craft books from multiple successful writers who all have their own opinions about how things should be done. And they’re all right… for themselves. It takes time to figure out what your own method is. And it’s all too easy to stumble and come up short, meaning readers immediately see things you missed, holes in your plot, characters who don’t ring true, and on and on.

What you need is a second (and probably a third and a fourth) opinion from someone who knows the genre intimately. With my mysteries, that was a critique group. (Actually, I belonged to three or four critique groups before I no longer needed one.) But there are problems with a critique group, one of which is that you’re usually all amateurs. If you get really lucky, you might get into one where there’s an experienced writer who is willing to mentor a bunch of newbies, but that’s rare.

The other problem with critique groups is that, by their nature, they go through a book very slowly. They might meet once a week, or more likely once every other week, or even only once a month. At the meeting, you exchange a chapter, which the members of the group take home with them to review and comment on. At the live meeting, you discuss what was submitted last time, what improvements can be made, where the writer excelled. Since a book is anywhere from twenty to 999 chapters, it can take a year for all of the chapters in your book to go through the critique process. But, when you’re new and don’t have a lot of money to spend, they’re a good way to get feedback on your work and hints and tips on how to be a better writer.

At my age, I thought it was worth the time to pay a professional editor for feedback on my romance novel because I could get the critique of the whole book back in less than a month. This is called a “content” or “developmental” edit, and it isn’t cheap, since they are critiquing story structure which, unlike a copyedit, can’t be automated. Yet. AI is probably going to change a lot of that.

I’d forgotten what it was like to be told your baby is ugly.

Yeah, your first book (and probably several after that one) is like your baby. You’ve spent a long time on it, trying to make it perfect. You’ve invested your soul in it. I worked on my first mystery for five years between outlining, drafting, revising, and editing. And in the end, after having it critiqued a few times, I figured out there was a plot problem that couldn’t be fixed easily. Trust me, it’s painful after all the time and work invested in a book to recognize that it’s what’s called a “trunk novel” or an “under the bed book.” You put it in a drawer and rarely look at it again.

Let me be clear that at no point did my editor say this book was awful or ugly. In fact, she told me it was good, better than a lot of the manuscripts she gets. But she sure made a lot of comments.

At least this isn’t my first rodeo, and so I can be a little more objective about dealing with them than I did the first time. But it’s still painful. I find myself avoiding getting back to the manuscript. And I can’t work on it too long because all those pinpricks add up to needing Advil—or a glass of sherry—to take away the pain. And so, what I thought would take me a couple of weeks to do is taking a whole lot longer, which is frustrating because I need a new release to give my income a boost. To pay for the charge for the content edit.

I know in the end it will all work out. I’ve found some of her comments very useful and on target. I’ve also gotten more comfortable with ignoring some of them because I have to trust myself in some instances. But right now, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t have stuck to mysteries.


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