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 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.


November 2, 2015

On the Basics: Approaching Holiday Season Brings Recurring Question: To “Gift” or Not to Gift Clients?

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

As the end of the year creeps up (or rushes at) us, it’s time to think about whether and how to show appreciation to our clients for keeping us in work and in — I hope — good shape financially.

I’m a firm believer in doing something around the holiday season to let clients know that I appreciate their business. This isn’t bribery; it’s a thank-you gesture and, to me, a genuine one. I know that my clients could go elsewhere and hire someone else — a freelancer who is cheaper, better known to them, or more persuasive than I am — and I’m glad they don’t. I enjoy working with them and want them to know that I don’t take their business for granted. I do my best to convey that throughout the year, but a holiday thank-you gift is a formal way of doing so, and a classic gesture of appreciation.

There’s another advantage to giving clients thank-you gifts: Sending a gift, no matter how modest, is a great way to remind someone that you exist and are available for new projects. Every time this topic comes up in discussions among colleagues, at least one person says that sending a thank-you gift (or vacation alert!) results in at least one client getting in touch to say something like, “What great timing — your gift reminded me that we could use you for such-and-such a project” or “Thank you so much for the gift and, by the way, this made me realize that we have a project for you.”

I don’t send thank-you gifts to past clients who haven’t sent me any work in the current year — but a holiday card certainly doesn’t go amiss, and often generates a similar positive response.

I keep my client gifts simple and inexpensive; something practical that won’t spoil, but isn’t extravagant. That’s for a couple of reasons. For one, some clients aren’t allowed to accept gifts at all, or gifts above a given value. For another, extravagance doesn’t feel appropriate or comfortable — and isn’t affordable.

Some colleagues send food — Rich Adin often gets his logo made into chocolate bars! — but I stay away from edible gifts because they don’t last and I don’t know if clients have allergies, although I do sometimes include packets of coffee or tea with mugs. In earlier years, I’d scour craft fairs throughout the year for purple mugs and use those for client gifts; in recent years, I’ve aimed for something more professional while being equally “me.” I’ve worked with a local colleague who has a promotions business to find items that can be imprinted with my name, logo, and website URL, as well as my phone number and/or e-mail address if they’ll fit. The only disadvantage of that approach is that the minimum number for an order might be far more than you need, but you can always use the extras the following year, or — especially if you purchased wisely and not holiday-centrically — in other ways throughout the new year — to new or prospective clients, to valued colleagues, even to friends and family (after all, they can be good sources of referrals for new business).

I’ve sent ceramic coffee mugs (purple, of course), travel mugs for hot and cold beverages, calendars, candles with holders, and similar items as holiday thank-you gifts. I’ve also done certificates for “Valued Client” and “Client of the Year.” With every gift, I enclose a personalized note, a pen with my name and contact information on it, and my business card.

Timing for client gifts can be a challenge. Many of us are especially busy with both work and family obligations from November through December, and fitting client gifts into your time and budget isn’t always easy — it isn’t just choosing and ordering the gift(s), but signing the cards, and doing the packaging and shipping. I always start with great intentions of getting mine in the mail by mid-December (or even around Thanksgiving, for the fit with thankfulness), but don’t always manage to fulfill those intentions. Instead, I often send my client gifts in early January as new year’s greetings and wishes. No one seems to find that off-putting, and some clients have said it’s a welcome way to start the new year.

Clients aren’t the only ones who might be on your gift list. You might be thinking about gifts for friends and colleagues — or even yourself — as the holiday season approaches. If so, here are a few suggestions, some of which are, admittedly, self-serving.

  • Copies of “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer,” a booklet I’ve written and produced to help colleagues get a better start on freelance success. While it’s primarily aimed at writers, much of the information is useful to anyone in the publishing or editorial field, from editors and proofreaders to indexers, photographers, website developers, graphic artists/designers, desktop publishers, and more.
  • A gift certificate for registration for the 11th annual Communication Central conference, coming up in the fall of 2016. The cost of registration should be the same as for 2015 ($225–$350 for both days, depending on whether you are a subscriber to this blog, member of a collegial professional organization, or previous attendee, and when you register), and hotel rates are usually around $125/night.
  • Fun and/or practical gifts for editorial professionals, such as:

• mugs with grammar and punctuation rules from the BBC (, among others;

• the newest versions of various style manuals;

• my “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business” booklet and other useful publications from the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA)

• subscriptions to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers magazines, or Copyediting newsletter;

• the new edition of Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace;

• subscriptions to online style manuals and updates;

• memberships in or registration for events hosted by professional associations, such as the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), EFA, Society for Technical Communication (STC), National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE), etc.;

• work-related jewelry, such as earrings or necklaces made using Scrabble keys and miniature versions of style manuals;

• a pair of so-called editor’s pants;

• grammar books or refresher courses; and

• gift access to EditTools, PerfectIt, and Editor’s ToolKit PLUS 2014 for greater editing efficiency and productivity.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

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