An American Editor

April 8, 2019

Storycraft for Novelists and Their Editors: Resources to Help Authors Get It Right

By Carolyn Haley

Most of the clients in my editing business are indie authors. The majority of them are “newbies” who have completed their first novels and are not sure what to do next.

Without exception, these authors have terrific story ideas. Almost without exception, their stories are weakly executed, and have a low chance for the commercial success the authors desire. My challenge is to figure out what editorial service to offer these writers so I can support both their goals and my business in a win-win arrangement.

Developmental editing is the obvious choice for weak manuscripts. However, it isn’t always the correct editorial service to propose. This might be because of author preference — they don’t want that service or can’t afford it — or because of mine: I’m not a great developmental editor and don’t enjoy that work. Because I am more of a mechanic than a concept person, my best skill is helping writers polish their completed novels through line or copy editing. When a developmental edit is appropriate but not a viable option, I propose a manuscript evaluation. That gives authors the constructive, broad-view feedback they want without my having to edit a manuscript that will probably be rewritten.

A manuscript evaluation is also significantly less expensive than a developmental edit, and therefore more accessible to more prospective clients. If all goes well, I usually get their revised — and much improved — novels back for line or copy editing.

With manuscript evaluations, I always include three book suggestions for authors to study while they’re awaiting my delivery. The combination of service plus resources helps guide their revisions and results in better works.

The big three

There are so many how-to-write guides out there, in print and electronic form, that reading any of them can help authors hone their skills in composition and storycraft. Rather than just tell a prospect “go do your homework,” though, I specify the books that have impressed me the most and that give, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck:

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

2) On Writing by Stephen King

3) Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Each book is worth reading on its own. As a set, they are mutually supportive and profoundly educational, especially for authors early in their novel-writing endeavors.

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer

This is a master class in a paperback. More so than any other how-to guide I’ve ever seen, Techniques breaks down storywriting into its most basic nuts and bolts, then shows how to assemble them into a compelling tale. Although first published in 1960s, when many novelists were learning their craft through writing short stories and selling them to a thriving magazine market, the techniques remain applicable to writing novels in today’s very different world. The skills are universal and timeless, and Swain makes them comprehensible.

Reading the entire book in one gulp can be overwhelming, though. This book is best considered a textbook, as it covers material on par with a college course. Indeed, Swain was a teacher, and he comes across as an enthusiastic and savvy professor who inspires his class. It’s definitely a volume to acquire for a home library. My own copy is defaced by highlighted passages, dog-eared pages, and embedded paper clips. I reread it every few years to keep the knowledge fresh in my mind.

Swain’s foundation concept is the motivation-reaction unit. It’s a creative interpretation of physics, in that something happens, then something happens in response to it, in a progressive chain (and then … and then … and then …).

The cause-effect relationship escalates through a story, driving character and plot, creating tension, and leading to resolution. Many writers, upon seeing a story parsed in motivation-reaction terms, have slapped themselves upside the head for failing to miss what suddenly becomes obvious. When they review their novels in this context, they find it easier to identify areas that aren’t working and understand how to fix them.

2) On Writing

Stephen King is one of the elite contemporary novelists who has become a household name. His advice, one would expect, is worth paying attention to for novelists with commercial ambitions. You don’t have to a horror writer like King to benefit from his insights.

I agree. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide. To emphasize that point, it is subtitled A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend it as a counterbalance to Techniques of the Selling Writer. While Swain’s book is almost ruthlessly mechanical, King’s book is intensely personal. (Technical, nonetheless: He would zap me for using so many adverbs!)

It’s relaxing to read On Writing after Techniques, but at the same time, the former allows the lessons of the latter to sink in. The two combined illustrate how novel-writing is both an art and a craft, and underscore a crucial concept that artists in any medium need to learn: You must know the rules before you can break them.

King expands on this idea, saying, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

This is important to understand if you are writing a novel (or advising the author of one). What I value most about King’s book is how he takes the tools itemized by Swain and puts them into a context most writers can relate to. He also subdues any intimidation that Swain’s how-to book might trigger and supports an author’s right — and need — to experiment, explore, tell the truth, be themself.

He doesn’t do this by dissing technical skills or commercial intentions. Rather, he helps writers understand and organize their toolkits as a means of telling their stories honestly and with passion, for optimal reader response.

King is exceptionally good at helping people distinguish between good advice and B.S. As part of this, he provides guidelines on whom to listen to, and when, which is critical for authors when they emerge from writing a draft to expose their work to readers, then honing their work for publication. Novel-writing is both an intellectual and emotional process, and King understands and describes this dual aspect beautifully. Newbie authors who feel insecure about themselves as artists can gain confidence about their chosen path while absorbing and using the skills they need to move forward as craftspeople and businesspeople.

The first time I read On Writing, I almost inhaled the whole book in one gasp. In later revisits, I skip King’s personal story and focus on his clinical advice. I strongly recommend that other writers do the same.

3) Characters & Viewpoint

Orson Scott Card, an icon in science fiction and fantasy, discusses stories as a whole in this book — even though the title suggests the content is limited to characters and viewpoints. The essence of his presentation is that all characters and viewpoints (along with plots, dialogues, settings, styles — everything about writing a novel) need a framework to define them, both for writing and for audience expectation.

“Forget about publishing genres for a moment,” he instructs, turning attention to “four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”

He calls these factors the “M.I.C.E. quotient,” which stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. This element is the book’s key takeaway, beyond its excellent analysis and advice about the title subjects.

A Milieu novel is about the world a story is set in, most commonly involving the protagonist leaving a familiar environment, entering a strange new one, then returning home after life-changing adventures. An Idea story covers a big concept, usually opening with a question and closing when the question is answered. A Character story is about what somebody goes through that transforms their life. An Event story covers something major that happens and how the character(s) deals with it.

Any novel can combine these elements, and most do. Defining the dominant M.I.C.E. characteristic helps authors set up and deliver upon what story promise readers expect them to fulfill. The broad strokes of M.I.C.E. lead to the fine points of genre categorization — a common area of confusion when authors try to market their books.

(Side note: Card covers the M.I.C.E. quotient in another book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Both were written as contributor volumes to different Writer’s Digest fiction-writing series.)

Same points, different angles

All three of these reference books address the same points from different angles. The authors agree that successful novels engross readers in story while giving them truths they can understand and identify with. Specific techniques build suspense, draw character, and evoke time and place. Artistry isn’t magic; it needs skill to connect people and ideas. Put it all together right, and both writer and reader enjoy a mutual, yet individual, great experience.

For these reasons, I recommend that editors of fiction read the same books. Editors who themselves write novels can benefit from their author and editor perspectives; editors who don’t write fiction can gain a better idea of what their author clients go through, and how they are slanting, or might slant, their work.

Many other books address the myriad aspects of writing fiction, not to mention writing in general. Each one I’ve read has added to my knowledge and understanding, as both an editor and a writer. The trio recommended here packs a lot of helpful information into easy-to-read and easy-to-understand packages.

Most important on the business side, all of my clients who have studied these books have enjoyed huge leaps forward in their progress toward publication.

Let us know what books have been helpful to you in either guiding aspiring authors or enhancing your own writing craft.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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