An American Editor

March 1, 2017

Copyediting and Line Editing Series Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Series fiction is a boon for everyone in the publishing chain. Authors have a ready market for their work; independent editors can get repeat work from a single client; publishers have a steady flow of sellable material; readers get their fiction appetites regularly fed.

That combination is why I favor series fiction in my editing business. For independent copyeditors and line editors who may be looking to add series fiction to their roster of services, here are the main factors to consider.

Style sheets

The most important part of editing a series is building a comprehensive style sheet. While this is also true for standalone novels, it’s crucial for series to ensure continuity and consistency between volumes. Months or years may pass between editing each volume, especially if the author is writing and sending them for editing one at a time. Also, different editors might work on different volumes. In both situations, a style sheet constitutes the series’ connective tissue.

Editors working directly with indie authors are free to design style sheets according to their own parameters meshed with the author’s needs. An excellent quartet of essays on what to include on style sheets, and why these items need to be included, was presented here by the previous Thinking Fiction contributor, Amy Schneider. See Part I: General Style, Part II: Characters, Part III: Locations, and Part IV: Timeline.

When editors subcontract to publishers, they must follow the house’s lead on style sheets. The instructions could be as simple as to include character names in alphabetical order and follow Chicago Manual of Style, or as complex as to fill in a fancy-formatted template just so, for characters, places, timeline, and special terms.

Any time editors are hired to work on a series volume later in sequence than volume 1, it’s important to confirm with the indie author or the publisher’s production coordinator whether the editor is expected to make a new style sheet for each new volume or consolidate new material into the style sheet established for the previous volume(s) so that one sheet travels with the series.

Single vs. batch manuscripts

Publisher-provided series usually come to the editor one book at a time with long intervals in between. Series from indie authors, however, may come as either single books or a multivolume batch. While one-at-a-time is most common, batches may come when an author wrote an epic and decided to break it into volumes, or planned from the start to write a trilogy but wanted to complete the whole work before editing.

It’s easier and more efficient to edit a series as a unit than as single books spread out over time, but doing them all in one shot takes a big bite out of the calendar — a downside for editors who like or need to keep a diverse cycle going, but a plus for editors who like tackling large projects. Psychologically, immersion in one world and one author’s style can become grinding without a break. On the other hand, immersion may make the editor aware of slight nuances that change a character or story from what was previously described.

Even if such immersion is desired, editors need to be careful about putting an entire series into one contract. It makes sense to do so on the surface, because in essence the job is one really big novel instead of X number of individual novels, and the style sheet is created once instead of multiple times. But over the extended period of a series job, the risk runs higher than with standalone novels that difficulties might arise, such as:

  • the editor or author might have a change of circumstance and be unable to fulfill their end of the agreement;
  • the editor might recognize too late that they underestimated the scope of work, or the author might dramatically change the scope as the series develops, forcing the contract to be renegotiated and the editor to possibly lose the balance of the project if it gets appreciably more expensive or complex;
  • one party might become dissatisfied with the other’s personality, or the material, partway through and want to bail out.

Editors who haven’t prepared for such possibilities in the contract can get trapped in a bad deal for a long time, making it wise to have a lawyer review the contract before anyone signs. If nothing else, in an all-in-one contract, the editor should make certain there’s an escape clause after each volume.

I prefer to contract for volume 1 separately, then negotiate a rate or service change for the balance of the series after its qualities are understood. That opens the door to losing the subsequent volumes because the author and I can’t agree on what needs to be adjusted, but I’m more comfortable with that risk than those associated with an all-in-one contract. Usually by the time we’re done with volume 1, we’ve established a rapport that allows successful negotiation. When in doubt, I’ll treat each volume as a standalone novel and make a deal for them individually.

Series basics

Each volume in a fiction series must be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a character(s) struggling to resolve one or more conflicts. At the same time, each volume must advance an overarching story or theme that evolves during the series and is resolved at series end. In effect, a series author is writing two books simultaneously, for as many volumes as the series runs.

Some beginning authors believe that ending a volume on a cliffhanger will inspire readers to rush to the next volume to find out what happens. More often than not, this backfires, and frustrated readers feel cheated and may not continue with the series. The trick is to leave just enough of the overarching story unresolved in each book to draw readers onward. But the episode covered in a volume must conclude satisfactorily before the next one begins, even if the next episode opens immediately afterward in the timeline. In this regard, series novels follow the same pattern as series TV shows.

A major challenge in writing any fiction is determining how much backstory to include. The goal is to provide enough information to keep readers oriented, and the action and characters in context, without overloading the narrative with an “info dump.” In series fiction, however, the backstory not only has to be provided in the right measure to begin with, but then must be reiterated in subsequent volumes to a different degree. Ideally, readers start with volume 1 when it comes out and eagerly await the next one, and don’t need refreshers as they continue through the series. In reality, readers might discover a series at volume 4, so they must be given enough backstory to understand the basics of what’s going on, without the author having to set up the scenario all over again.

Broadly, volume 1 should establish the premise and key characters for the series, and subsequent volumes should unfold new developments and show character growth. All volumes should refer back to the first with a light touch wherever understanding the new story depends on knowledge of what came before. Some series authors open each volume with a preface covering the previous volumes, but that can get cumbersome after the second or third book and is not commonly done. Other authors may write a prequel to an existing series and provide full backstory for an established audience hungry for more detail.

Tough spots

A tricky situation is when an editor gets volume 2 from an indie author who has already self-published volume 1, and no style sheet comes with the volume 2 manuscript. This might happen if the author didn’t use a professional editor the first time, or if the author wants to switch editors and the original editor didn’t create a style sheet for the job. For the new editor to make the new volume consistent with the first, they need a copy of volume 1 as part of the job and to build extra time into the quote because every style point will need to be backtracked to create the style sheet for the book in hand and any that follow.

It helps the editor to read all volumes of the story that came before, to best understand what’s happening in the new volume — but somebody has to pay for the time it takes to do so. That somebody should be the client, not the editor, so the editor has to factor extra reading time into their quote. It’s less critical to read previous volumes when working for publishers who are on the ball with style sheets, and whose pay rate is low and schedule is tight, because the existing style sheet should have most of the information the editor needs to do the job without becoming upside-down financially. With novels by inexperienced indie authors, though, the backstory can aid an editor in doing their job well so the author will come back for more.

Sometimes what starts out as a standalone novel expands into a series. An editor might work with an indie author on the single title then be contacted later for an unexpected volume 2. Having done a detailed style sheet for the original project will pay the editor back when responding to the second opportunity. If their schedule can’t accommodate the new book, then they’ve at least made life easier for the editor who takes their place. That won’t fill the first editor’s wallet but will reflect positively on their reputation, and maybe bring back the author for volume 3 or lead to future referrals.

Author fatigue

It’s not safe to assume that editing a series will get easier with each volume. Sometimes authors get fatigued from thinking up new stories inside a fixed scenario, or bored by the whole thing, and the quality of their work may deteriorate instead of improve as they push on. Marketplace pressure also can influence an author, in that readers just want more of the same thing while the author itches to stretch in a new direction, or is obliged to turn out the next volume in less time than they need to write it well.

Most copyeditors and line editors aren’t involved in an author’s content angst, but if they’ve been working with the same indie author since volume 1, then they’ve probably established a personal relationship and care about the author’s growth and the series’ success. To help that relationship happen and help authors avoid fatigue before it starts, editors can suggest at the beginning of the series that the author plan a finite number of volumes and outline the primary plot of each one within the plot of the whole. That simple guideline can both direct the author’s energies and allow the editor to raise relevant questions during the series’ progress to help the author stay on task while being creative.

Editing series fiction can be both challenging and rewarding, especially for editors who themselves are series readers. From that habit they know how a series can thrive or pall, or vacillate in its quality, and be motivated to help authors start strong and continually improve. The bonding potential with authors adds a richness to the experience. When the business and technical sides are carefully arranged, then the creative side can bloom to mutual satisfaction and result in a series that delights the reading public and earns income for everyone in the publishing chain.

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 or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

August 24, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Categories of Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Independent editors can help independent novelists reach their publishing goals by factoring book categories into their editorial approach. Most of us are familiar with these categories from shopping at online or physical bookstores, where titles are separated into fiction and nonfiction then arranged by category, which make it easier for customers to browse and retailers to sell. Categories also help publishers and agents sort through submissions.

Independent editors, who usually see novels prior to submission, can use categories in two ways. At the proposal stage, an editor’s knowledge of categories allows quick screening of prospective clients; for instance, an editor who favors Literary novels may decline a Thriller. At the editing stage, category knowledge influences the nature of the work. Romance and Science Fiction, for example, emphasize different story elements and are written in different styles. Readers of each category expect to see those elements and styles underneath the author’s unique voice. If a novel deviates too far from category norms, it may flounder in the marketplace. Editors can help prevent that by querying anything in the manuscript that doesn’t fit the category the author is writing for.

The value of category knowledge

Understanding categories lets editors help clients align their publishing desires with their skills. For example, a first-time author writing a Thriller may present a draft too verbose for their target readers. If the editor helps them recognize that, then they’ll be more open to the cuts and tightening of a substantive or developmental edit than the simple copy edit they requested. Conversely, a skilled storyteller planning to self-publish might only need a copy edit to polish the writing, but they’re aiming the book at the Suspense market when it’s actually a quest story suited for Fantasy. If the editor makes the author aware of the difference, then the author will appreciate content tweaks and suggestions to better suit the book to category. Or, they’ll know to redirect their promotional efforts toward the right audience.

A common vocabulary

Fiction categories are guidelines for publishing in the same way editorial style books are guidelines for language. They provide a vocabulary that editors can share with their clients to help them along their publishing journey.

Vocabulary-sharing starts when an author seeks editorial help for, say, a Thriller. The novel might in fact be a Mystery or Romantic Suspense, but the editor won’t know that until they’ve read some or all of the work. So requesting a sample or the complete manuscript is an appropriate first response. It gives the editor an informed basis for making a decision and, if positive, building a proposal. Once both parties are speaking the same language, they can advance to working together, or move on.

Category types

Both editor and author need to know that fiction falls into two broad categories: Commercial and Literary. The distinction is neatly put by publishing guru Nathan Bransford, who describes Commercial as having “out-in-the-world” plotting and Literary as having “in-the-mind plotting” (for elaboration see his essay, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?”).

The terms “Literary” and “Commercial” distinguish between story types and styles on a macro level. They are not rigid terms—Literary novels can be commercially successful, and Commercial novels can have the qualities Literary is known for: meticulously crafted prose that touches upon universal themes and draws readers deep into character and place for an enriching drama. The point is to channel books from manuscript through publication with best chance for success, and Literary/Commercial is the first subdivision.

Genre conventions

Whether Commercial or Literary, all novels must have a beginning, middle, and end, with a central challenge that the main character is compelled to overcome, resulting in some internal or external change. Editing for that central challenge comes first, followed by fine-tuning for genre.

Commercial novels subdivide into genres with characteristic conventions. These vary between publisher and industry sector (as do the terms “genre” and “category”) and often nest inside each other. But they have enough commonality to be useful to editors and their clients. A sampling of the variation is shown in the links following this interpretation.


Romantic stories may occur in any category of novel, but what makes a book a Romance is its focus on one couple’s relationship, plus an ending that must be either “happily ever after” or “happy for now.” Within those parameters almost anything goes. Romance has so many subgenres now that there’s something for almost every taste, though for some subgenres and publishers, the story must be written from a specific viewpoint, such as first person. In Romance, editors watch for sidetracking plots, implausibility, and pacing that gets bogged down by description.


Erotica covers the territory between Romance and pornography. A new term is coming into use, Romantica, for erotic novels that meet Romance’s one-couple-relationship and happy-ending criteria via frequent, graphic sex. Erotica in general, despite its explicitness and openness to alternative lifestyles and values, still has boundaries. Editors handling Erotica need to familiarize themselves with what practices are taboo and discuss them with the author if any appear in the book.


Mystery and Crime are often lumped together but differ in main elements. Mystery is a whodunit, often a puzzle, whereas Crime may cover broader ground. In both the storyline must feature a crime (usually murder) and its resolution. Crime novels tend to be dark in tone and revolve around police procedure, forensics, and violence, with subgenres featuring private investigators and rogue detectives. Mysteries commonly feature amateur sleuths, and the crime usually occurs offstage. These stories, especially the subgenre Cozy Mystery, are lighter in tone and focus on a troupe of characters and a lovingly evoked setting. All crime-based novels are difficult to construct and take much detail work to be credible. Editors must watch for technical inaccuracies (especially involving guns) and pacing that reveals too much too soon or too late.


Suspense and Thriller emphasize danger and breathless page turning. They might involve a crime but often focus on preventing or escaping one. Suspense leans toward psychological drama, and Thrillers tend to be action-oriented with big stakes. Popular works in these categories favor a lean, noun-and-verb writing style, so verbosity is a common writing fault that editors need to address, along with plausibility.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Supernatural

Collectively these genres fall under Speculative Fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart, but simplistically Science Fiction is based on known scientific principle and logical extrapolation thereof; and Fantasy is based on magic, often involving beings that can’t exist (fairies, dragons, and the like). Horror/Supernatural covers the gray areas in between, but if pushed will fall under Fantasy. These genres subdivide into more variations than Romance—no surprise for works of unlimited imagination.

In Spec Fiction editors need to watch for problems with world-building. Even if the story is set on a different planet or millennia in the future, the world still has its own laws of physics. Beginning authors may cut corners and just tell an Earth story against an alien or supernatural backdrop. Convincing worlds have their own vocabularies, cultures, and environments, even if based on Earth. Tracking world details makes for extensive style sheets, so editing this type of novel may take longer than others.


The line defining “historical” used to be drawn at World War II; however, that leaves 70 years for “contemporary” fiction to cover, so some publishers are redrawing the line or inventing new subgenres (e.g., Vintage) to cover the 1950s through 1980s. Regardless, in a Historical novel the period drives the characters and defines the setting and action, and factual accuracy is imperative. That means more fact checking for editors (who must resist the urge to replicate the author’s research, unless that’s in the scope of work). As with Spec Fiction, building style sheets is an important part of editing Historical Fiction.

Chick Lit/Women’s

Women’s Fiction has emerged as a deeper, more literary exploration of life and relationships than Romance allows, and Chick Lit has followed as a sassier version for younger women. Editing these mainly contemporary stories is as much about tone as anything else.


This category emphasizes personal faith. Depending on which faith is involved, there may be limitations on vocabulary (no profanity), sex (offstage or within heterosexual marriage only), or violence (forbidden, or else story focus on the psychological effects). The faith may fall within an established church or be a personal odyssey. Editors might need to bone up on the idioms and practices of a particular faith in order to catch the nuances in this type of work.

Western/Men’s Adventure

Typically, Western novels are historical, because most take place in the decades when the American West was explored and settled. They feature men, guns, horses, land, and storylines wherein justice prevails. Fact checking and style sheet building may be big time-consumers on these books, depending on what facet of Western history the author is covering. Men’s Adventure is similar in flavor but set in other places and times.

Young Adult/New Adult/Middle Grade/Children’s

Novels for youth can embrace any subject. The main difference between subgenres is the presence and/or degree of sex, vice, and violence, and the progatonist’s age. Broadly, Young Adult: high school; New Adult: college and first job; Middle Grade: junior high; Children’s: preadolescence. Authors have to be careful about “dumbing down” their language for young readers, so editors can assist with age-appropriate words and straightforward sentences.


General Fiction can be considered a catchall for novels that may sell better unlabeled. This includes Hybrid novels, which combine two more or standard genres or subgenres (e.g., futuristic vampire romance mystery) without one dominating enough to place it in an established slot. Such novels have become more common since the advent of self-publishing, where genres are more subdivided and flexible than in traditional publishing. They’re the easiest to edit because they lack conventions.

Sample alternative definitions

A win–win arrangement

Editors with category knowledge on top of writing-craft knowledge can help authors in a meaningful way. The benefit is mutual: An editor’s proposal personally tailored to an author’s publishing goals is likelier to win the job than one focusing only on the manuscript in a vacuum; and an editorial approach that guides authors in honing their novels for category is likelier to earn happy, published clients who come back with their next book.

Carolyn Haley 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 or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

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