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9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

I regularly see social media posts from aspiring fiction authors looking for tips on writing their first novel. But there is more to writing than just writing. At least, according to Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot - Stephen King

I’ve been reading Christian fiction for over twenty years.

I’ve seen trends come and trends go, which means I’ve got a good feel for the genre and have learned what publishers buy.

And I’ve been working as a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction for the last seven years, which means I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, good and bad, and have learned something about the craft of writing from each one. I’ve attended conferences featuring speakers such as James Scott Bell, Michael Hauge, and Damon Suede. I’ve undertaken online training courses from the Christian PEN, Author Accelerator, and Lawson Writer’s Academy, and I’ve completed a hands-on immersion course with international speaker and writing coach Margie Lawson.

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing craft and dozens more books on book marketing. Each has contributed to my understanding of how to write, edit, publish and market books in this new world. A world where aspiring authors don’t need an agent and a big-name publisher. A world where authors can self-publish without the stigma of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I’ve learned a thing or two.

So here are my nine keys to writing your first novel. Or your tenth.

1. Understand Genre

Publishers publish by genre, booksellers organise their stores by genre, and readers read by genre. Your book has a better chance of succeeding if you understand what genre it is, and meet the expectations of readers of that genre. For example, a romance novel has to have a happy ending in which the hero and heroine are together. If he dies at the end, it’s not a romance novel.

Yes, authors do can do genre mashups (Amish Vampires in Space springs to mind), but even that adheres to the expectations of each of the constituent genres (I think. I don’t read vampire novels, so don’t know how it stacks up against them).

Understand your genre, and write to the norms of that genre.

2. Write What You Love

If you love trashy romance, write romance novels. Don’t write highbrow literary fiction with beautiful language but where nothing much happens. Don’t write gung-ho action adventure novels in which the hero fights his way through innumerable blockages in order to reach his goal and get the girl. Conversely, if you read literary fiction, don’t write Amish romance because someone tells you that’s what sells.

Write what you love for two reasons. If you’re writing in a genre you love to read, you’ll know the conventions of the genre and what the reader is looking for. And your writing will flow better because it’s something you want to write (unlike so many of those creative writing assignments in school).

3. Read what you write

Read in your genre. Read outside your genre.

Read old books. Read new books.

Read novels which have won awards, and try to work out why they won. Read award-winning novels as judged by industry professionals (e.g. the Christy Awards), by writers (e.g. the Carol Awards) and by readers (e.g. the INSPY Awards). Read the Christian novels I review on my author website.

4. Study the Big Picture

The big picture element of writing is the relationship between plot and story and structure and characterisation. Most craft books focus on one or two of these aspects, but the more I read, the more I come to believe that you can’t look at any one of these in isolation. They all need to be considered as you’re writing your first novel.

Here are some books I recommend which examine these big picture elements:

5. Study the Technical Craft of Fiction

You also need to understand the basics of modern fiction. Yes, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were great writers, and you can look to them for insight into the big picture elements. But don’t try and emulate the way they wrote.

Novel writing has changed a lot in the two hundred years since Austen was first published. Writing your first novel in Jane Austen’s style won’t win you many fans. Even novels from the 1990’s might be too old-fashioned in terms of style to be of benefit in terms of their technical writing craft. (Although they will still be of benefit in terms of the big picture elements.)

The modern writer needs to understand:

  • Point of View
  • Showing not telling
  • Scene and sequel

For advice on these issues, try:

6. Understand the Mechanics of English

There is no point in knowing how to craft a great novel if you don’t have the technical writing skills to get it on the page so people can read and understand it. Christian editor (and founder of The Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network) Kathy Ide calls this the PUGS: Punctuation, (word) Usage, Grammar and Spelling. There is nothing worse than picking up a novel which is hard to read because the author doesn’t understand how to order words in a sentence for maximum reader impact.

For advice on actual writing, I recommend:

7. Join a Community

You’ll learn as much from your fellow writers as you will from books, so join a community of writers. This could be online (e.g. Facebook groups such as Australasian Christian Writers). It could be a formal organisation (e.g. Romance Writers of America or Australia or New Zealand, American Christian Fiction Writers or Omega Writers or New Zealand Christian Writers). It could be a Christian group or a general market group. It could be for fiction writers or all writers. Just find a group, join it, participate, and learn.

8. Write

You can study too much. It was true when Ecclesiastes was written and it is true today. Study, but ensure you get words down on paper as well. Or get pixels on a computer screen.

9. Learn to Self-Edit

Yes, I’m a freelance editor so you’d think I’d have a vested interest in people not editing their own work, to give me more to do. But correcting simple mistakes the author could have corrected for themselves isn’t much fun, and means I might get too focussed on correcting commas and hyphens at the expense of more fundamental questions of plot and style. And anyway, the cleaner the manuscript in terms of writing mechanics, the cheaper the edit.

Tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help with the most technical side of this self-editing, identifying things like passive voice and overused words and commonly misused words.

But you need a human to pick up that your heroine’s hair colour changes three times without her ever visiting a hairdresser, or that there is headhopping in Chapter Four or that you have a nasty habit of structuring every sentence the same or that your mute minor character actually had a couple of lines before she miraculously started talking again.

For advice on how to self-edit your novel, I recommend:

Do you have any questions about writing? Ask in the comments.

Finally …

This is my last post for 2018. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family, and will be back on Wednesday 9 January. I wish you all the best for a blessed Christmas and a happy and productive 2019!

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character have to be Likeable?

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character Have to be Likeable?

I often see writers discussing whether their characters have to be likeable. Obviously not all characters have to be likeable: the role of the antagonist is often to be unlikeable. But what about our main character? Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice?

Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice? Click To Tweet

In my manuscript assessments, I often refer to James Scot Bell’s LOCK elements of a novel. It says that in order to fulfill reader expectations, every plot has to have:

  • Lead
  • Opposition
  • Conflict
  • Knockout

The Lead has to be a character readers can bond with, and there are four ways writers can create this bond. The Lead needs to be a character we can identify with, someone we care about, someone who is likeable, and someone facing an emotional struggle.

But does the Lead have to be likeable?

Not necessarily. Michael Hague says writers (and screenwriters) need to create characters readers can engage with emotionally, and creating a likeable character is one way to achieve that aim. But characters don’t have to be likeable if they have other qualities that will engage the reader (or viewer). For instance, a character could be someone we feel sympathy for, or someone who we worry about because they are facing some kind of physical, financial, or emotional threat.

Bell agrees. He says:

Not all Leads are likeable, of course. When rendering a negative Lead (someone who does things we don’t like), substitute power. Characters who have power over their world and other characters—because of charm, intelligence, or competence in their field—fascinate.

Hague agrees:

Powerful heroes hold a fascination for an audience and elicit empathy on an almost fantasy level.

Hague cites four forms of power:

  • Power over other people
  • Power to do what needs to be done
  • Power to express one’s feelings
  • Superpowers

Well, I guess that explains Lex Luthor, The Joker, and other cartoon evildoers. They might not be likeable … but there is something compelling, something fascinating, about even the most unlikeable characters. The same could be said for popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

So, no, your characters don’t have to be likeable. They can be crazed, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

But does this mean you can make your main character unlikeable?

That depends on your genre and target reader.

I read a lot of romance, and I believe romance demands likeable characters.

There are two essential factors in a a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America):

  • The novel must focus on a central love story.
  • The novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a happy-ever-after ending).

I find that I have to like both the hero and the heroine in order to believe in that central love story, and to want the characters to have that required happy-ever-after ending. Give me two likeable characters, even characters who appear to be polar opposites, and I’ll be wanting them to get together from the moment they meet.

But give me a whining female lead, and I wonder what the hero sees in her. The same for stupid women—I like my heroines to be intelligent. I don’t do lazy. Or angry, or focusing on career over family and relationships (that’s a valid life choice for some women. But not women who want to be heroines in romance novels).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an equal opportunity hater. I also don’t like whining men (yeah, yeah. Men don’t whine. Except when they do). I don’t like stupid men, lazy men, or men with anger issues, or men who are focused on their careers more than their families and relationships.

Male characters like that make me wonder why the female is pursuing him. Grow some self-respect, ditch this guy, and find a good Christian man who values you for who you are. Yes, it’s so much easier to make these judgments with fictional characters than in real life.

Of course, if neither character is likeable, then I’m inclined to think they deserve each other and abandon the book.

So in romance novels, I insist on likeable characters.

What about other genres?

Likeability might matter less in genres where the focus is less on the likeability of the main character and more on his or her skills.

For example, in a legal thriller, we want to see a competent lawyer, someone who will use his or her legal skills to best the evildoer in court. The same often holds true in other suspense genres: medical thriller (think of the TV show, House), thrillers, or police procedurals. We’re less concerned with whether the main character is likeable in the traditional sense, and more with whether justice will be served through the action of the (unlikeable) main character.

Likeability takes second place to ability.

We can respect a competent main character even if they aren’t necessarily likeable.

But there are limits. I remember reading one speculative thriller, the first in a series of four. I gave up about halfway through the first book when I realised the too-stupid-to-live character wasn’t going to die a fast, horrible death. No. She was being set up to be the main character across the whole series.

I prefer to read about characters who are likeable. I also like to read novels with a low body count, and where it’s easy to tell the goodies from the evildoers. But that is more a reflection of my personal reading preferences rather than a you-must-create-likeable-characters rule.

It might also be that many writers choose to create a likeable character who we feel sympathy towards because she is facing some kind of threat—ticking all three of Hauge’s boxes, and all four of Bell’s elements. It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that’s what sells.

Do our characters have to be likeable? It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that's what sells #WriteTip Click To Tweet

What do you think? Do you prefer to read about likeable characters? What exceptions can you think of?

Dear Editor - How long should my novel be? Word Count in fiction

Dear Editor | How Long Should my Novel Be?

How long should a novel be? This is a common question from first-time authors. Unfortunately, the answer is often vague: it depends.

First, let’s discuss the way we measure the length of a novel.

It was too difficult to count words in the days before word processors with an automatic word count feature, so manuscript length was measured in pages. One page, typed double-spaced and with a ½ inch (1.27cm) indent at the beginning of each paragraph was counted as 250 words. A writer aiming to write 1,000 words a day would therefore write around four pages, and a novel was somewhere between 300 and 400 pages.

The same holds true today: the novels you see in the bookstore or library are usually somewhere between 300 and 400 pages, which is approximately 75,000 to 100,000 words.

What If my Word Count is Shorter?

Sure, some novels are shorter than 75,000 words, depending on genre and the target age of the reader. But if we’re talking about a novel written for adults, then a shorter manuscript might not be classified as a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America classifies Nebula Award submissions into four categories based on word count:

  • Short story: under 7,500
  • Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500
  • Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000
  • Novel: over 40,000

American Christian Fiction Writers classify a novella as between 15,000 and 45,000 words, and a short novel as 45,000 to 70,000 words. Short novels are often category romance (see below). Publishers rarely publish a novella as a stand-alone story, but they may be published as part of a collection, or as the introduction to a new series.

Stories can go shorter: flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines) is between 100 and 1,000 words. And a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble.

What If my Word Count is Longer?

Manuscripts can go longer. Novels over 110,000 words are generally classed as epics or sagas, and are usually from well-known authors such as George RR Martin or JK Rowling. Publishers are more likely to take a risk on a long novel from an author with a track history of solid sales. Having a novel that is part of a series may help, as the publisher knows they will get some sell-through sales.

But consider: does the novel need to be this long?

A high word count may mean the author needs to do more editing. Or it may be a factor of genre. Or it may be that the author didn’t realize publishers (and readers) do have expectations around word count.

If you have a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. Many of the 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words. Their stories could have benefited from stronger editing.

Word Count Depends on Genre

Certain genres require more words. Science fiction and fantasy novels often require a large amount of worldbuilding—introducing the reader to the world the author has created, introducing the people which inhabit the world and their cultures and customs, and (sometimes) explaining the science and technology. This information must be shown, not told, and showing almost always takes more words than telling.

Historical fiction also requires a degree of worldbuilding to bring the reader into the setting—and the further removed that time and place is from our own, the more information the author is going to have to give the reader in order to immerse the reader in the setting. Again, this information must be shown, not told.

In contrast, a contemporary romance or mystery novel requires less in the way of explaining the setting. Readers live in the modern world, and we don’t need to be shown what an iPhone is or does. Equally, familiar historical settings (e.g. Regency England or Civil War America) need little introduction. Readers often know these settings as well as or better than the authors.

Typical word counts for common genres are:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words)
  • Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words
  • Crime: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words
  • Historical fiction: 80,000 to 110,000 words
  • Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Romance: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Rom-com: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words
  • Suspense: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Thriller: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Women’s fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words

For more information, check out:

Word Count Depends on Target Age

Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 70,000 words, but the word count is flexible (especially in science fiction or fantasy).

Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words. For lower middle grade readers (ages 7 to 10), aim for the lower end of this range. You can go higher for upper middle grade.

Picture books for children are almost always 32 pages and around 500 words.

What Do I Do if my Book is Too Long?

Edit.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises that authors should cut around 10% of their word count in their second revision, as this will make the writing tighter and improve pace. I find I have no trouble cutting 10% of the word count in many novels I edit. If this thought scares you, here are some books which might help:

But this assumes the basic structure of your novel is sound. Reedsy says:

Most of the time, an overly long word count is a symptom of major plot or pacing problems in a novel — issues that need to be solved during the revision process.

A manuscript assessment is a great way to identify major plot or pacing problems. Or work with a critique partner or beta reader. They can help you identify plot or pacing issues that could reduce the word count.

Publishing

If you’re planning to submit to a traditional publisher, then it’s in your best interest to ensure your word count is consistent with publisher (and reader) expectations, which means abiding by the word counts above.

If you are planning to self-publish, then your word count could be shorter or longer than these guidelines. Yes, there are exceptions. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is 305,000 words. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is 240,000 words.

However, don’t plan on being the exception. As Chuck Sambuchino says at Writers Digest:

Aiming to be the exception is setting yourself up for disappointment.

A lot of self-published authors write short fiction—it’s quicker to write, which enables them to publish more books. Many authors self-publish longer books, because they can.

Whether you’re writing short, on target, or long, make sure your writing is top-notch. Be ruthless. Tighten your sentences. Cut anything that doesn’t advance the story or deepen characterization.

Don’t self-publish a bloated 150,000-word saga just because you can.

How long is your work-in-progress? Does your word count fit within these guidelines?

Dear Editor: Deity Pronouns - Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Deity Pronouns?

This question has recently been raised in one of the (many) Facebook groups I’m a member of. This group happened to be a Christian reader group, but it’s a question that seemingly flummoxes readers and writers alike.

Do we need to capitalize personal pronouns when referring to God?

Style manuals refer to pronouns such as He, His, Him, and Your when referring to God as deity pronouns.

I was taught that we capitalize deity pronouns as a matter of respect and honour (dubious, as I’ll show below). I was also taught that we use double quotation marks for speech (still true), single quotation marks for speech (now considered dated), and to add a comma where I’d add a pause if reading aloud (not true, and a topic probably best left for another blog post).

The Facebook group’s answers unhelpfully ranged from “Yes, always” to “No, never” with a healthy sprinkling of “Sometimes” and “It depends”. Several respondents based their answers based on the practice in their Bibles … which were equally inconsistent (for those who are interested, compare the New International Version with the New American Standard Bible).

Surely there is an answer. That’s why we have style guides!

What is a style guide?

Most publishers have a style guide: a set of rules governing how they treat a range of editing questions including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Editors will follow the guidelines of one (or more) of these style guides in editing or proofreading a manuscript and may also create a style sheet explaining the spelling or treatment of words specific to that manuscript to ensure correctness and consistency.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the two most commonly used style guides in the USA, with the other being AP (Associated Press). As a broad generalization, CMOS is more commonly used for fiction, and AP is more common in journalism. Non-fiction publishers may follow CMOS or may use a genre-specific style guide.

CMOS says (8.95):

Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.

So that’s one vote for not capitalizing deity pronouns … but the author can decide.

The New Oxford Style Manual (NOSM)

The New Oxford Style Manual is one of the major UK style manuals and incorporates New Hart’s Rules (the UK equivalent of Elements of Style by Strunk & White). The NOSM (like CMOS) grew out of the need for the Oxford University Press to have a consistent view on style for their publishing business.

NOSM says (p97):

Use lower case for pronouns referring to God where the reference is clear, unless the author specifies otherwise.

That’s another vote for lowercasing deity pronouns unless the author prefers capitalization.

The Australian Style Manual (ASM)

The Style Manual is the official style manual used by the Australian government, as well as many Australian publishers and authors. New Zealand publishers may also use it, as although it’s not new (2002), it’s considerably newer than the local equivalent, which is 1995). It’s also shorter and easier to read than CMOS! ASM says (p127):

In the past, the capital letter assigned to God was often extended to the attendant pronouns … but this is now less common.

That’s a non-answer. We don’t want to know what’s common or uncommon. We want to know what’s right!

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (CWMS)

Zondervan (publishers of the New International Version of the Bible) recognize that the major style guides don’t address many of the style issues raised by those writing for a Christian audience, so they publish their own style guide (written by Robert Hudson). Many Christian publishers use CWMS, either alone or in conjunction with another style guide such as CMOS.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style says (p145):

Most publishers, religious and general, use the lowercase style … to conform to the two most popular versions of the Bible (the bestselling New International Version and the historically dominant King James Version).

That’s another vote for telling us what people do. Helpful. Not.

It might be worth pointing out that Zondervan publish the NIV. Zondervan are owned by HarperCollins, who also publish the New King James Version, which also lowercases these “deity pronouns”.

CWMS points out that (despite popular belief) we don’t capitalize as a way to show respect or honour. After all, we capitalize God and Satan, yet only one deserves our honour.

In addition, there is no true historical precedent for capitalizing. Capitalization became trendy when lots of Nouns were being Capitalized for Emphasis (a trend which rightly disturbed grammarians). William Tyndale (translator of one of the earliest English Bibles) didn’t consistently capitalize God, let alone He or Him (or he or him), and neither Hebrew nor Greek distinguishes between lowercase and capital letters the way English does, so the original Scriptures provide no guidance.

What CWMS does say is this:

[Capitalizing] gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of irrelevance to modern readers.

That’s worth thinking about—no one wants to their work to be considered dated or irrelevant.

A fiction author may therefore consider it appropriate to use He and Him in a historical novel. That may well the case, but the “rule” shouldn’t hold true for all historical fiction. It would appear odd for Jesus to refer to himself as “Me” in a biblical novel at the same time as his enemies were referring to him (Him?) as “You”.

CWMS goes on to point out that capitalization can be confusing for younger readers (who were never taught that deity pronouns should be capitalised). Also, using capitals could imply emphasis where none was intended.

Summary

Yes, the major style guides prefer that personal pronouns referring to God are not capitalized. But they also allow for author (or publisher) preference.

So if you (or your client) wants to capitalize He and Him, You and Your, then they can. My preference would be only to capitalize the pronouns referring to God in historical fiction where capitalization was consistent with the time setting (e.g. for novels set in Victorian England, but not Roman Israel).

The most important factor in any editing decision is consistency.

We can refer to Jesus as He or he, Him or him, but we must choose one and apply that style choice consistently. Neither He nor he is incorrect but using He and he is definitely wrong.

What do you think? Do you capitalize deity pronouns? Why or why not?

Giving feedback on a beta read

Dear Editor | How Do I Give Critical Feedback on a Beta Read?

It’s an awkward situation. An author friend has asked you to beta-read their book, and you agreed. But it needs work. What do you say when giving feedback?

Here are four possible approaches to giving feedback:

    • Be complimentary
    • Be clueless
    • Be complimentary and critical
    • Be critical

Be Complimentary

Personally, I don’t think being complimentary is a great idea. The point of a beta read is to find what needs improving in the story—and there is always something that can be improved. It doesn’t serve the writer or future paying readers if the beta reader only gives positive feedback … even if that’s what the writer wants. A writer has to be teachable, and someone who only wants compliments but no criticism isn’t teachable. And you’re not helping the writer grow if you only share the good news.

Be Clueless

I had one situation where an author approached me to review their book (I also have a book review blog. It helps me stay up-to-date with trends in Christian fiction). The story showed potential, but the editing was beyond awful—to the point where the novel was actually difficult to read.

I went back to the author and said they appeared to have sent me the unedited version, not the final version. I’d be happy to review the final version, but this version had too many errors for me to read and review fairly, because I’d have to mention the errors in my review.

I’m a freelance editor. It’s going to reflect badly on my editing skills if I give a stellar review to a book with obvious plot, character, or editing issues. Anyway, I never heard back from the author. I can only guess this was the final published version (edited or not). I suppose I could have offered the author my editing services, but I don’t want to give the impression I review books as a way of soliciting editing work. Because I don’t. (But if you want to hire me, email me via the About page.)

Be Complimentary and Critical

One piece of advice I often see is to use the compliment sandwich when giving feedback:

  • Say something nice
  • Give feedback on something that can be improved
  • Say something else nice

I’ve heard this is the approach used by Toastmasters: when giving feedback, members have to find two things the speaker has done well for every suggestion for improvement. Employee performance reviews often take this approach.

I’ve found two potential issues with this approach:
  1. The person may hear (or read) the compliment at the beginning of the feedback and the compliment at the end, but discard the critical feedback in the middle of the sandwich. That pretty much misses the point of giving feedback.
  2. The compliment can come across as patronising: if I say you know how to write a grammatically correct sentence, you’re likely to think that’s a compliment for the sake of giving a compliment. After all, can’t everyone write a grammatically correct sentence? Actually, no. At least, not based on some of the books I’ve read.
As a result, I don’t use the compliment sandwich.

As a freelance editor, clients are paying me to help them improve their manuscripts. It’s not good use of my time or my clients’ money for me to spend twice as much time telling them what they’re doing well as I spend telling them what needs to improve.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t use the compliment sandwich in beta reading. It might be the best approach for you, depending on your relationship with the author in question.

Be Critical

You might think this is easy for me to say. After all, I’m an editor. People are paying me to make their writing better—to criticise. And I’m a reviewer. Publishers offer me ebooks so I can provide an honest review.

But it’s not that easy.

I’m told some freelance editors hesitate to criticise, hesitate to “bite the hand that feeds them.” (I missed that memo.)

I also know from experience that when some authors say “honest review”, they mean “complimentary review”. I’ve seen authors ask for honest reviews, checked out the Kindle sample, and realised the last thing they want is an honest review*. Sure, they need one. But they don’t want one.

*For example, the “authors” who can’t write a grammatically correct sentence.

But this is where we get to the nuts and bolts of the question: how do you give critical feedback on a beta read?

This partly depends on how the author sees a beta read.

Some authors use beta readers as first readers, to identify and iron out developmental issues such as plot and characterisation issues. Other authors use beta readers after the book has been edited, to act as unpaid proofreaders, or first reviewers.

Neither approach is wrong—or right.

But it might help to know which approach the author has taken before offering feedback. If the author is using beta readers to test an early version of the manuscript, then my view is that any and all feedback should be welcome. But the feedback should focus on the big picture:

  • Is there a clear story question?
  • Is there a clear three-act (or four-act, or six-stage) structure?
  • Is there a clear character arc, including character goals, motivation, and conflict?
  • Does the novel meet genre expectations?
  • Does the author use point of view correctly?
  • Does the author show rather than telling?
  • Are there any recurring writing issues the author should be aware of?

For example, provide a manuscript assessment service (a form of paid beta read). I often receive manuscripts where the writing is solid, but the main character has no clear goal, there is no clear structure, there is a lot of repetition, and the author consistently gets the punctuation of dialogue wrong.

But it’s not all bad: this is all fixable. I can see the potential for a plot, a structure, and a clear character GMC, but they are hidden behind excessive repetition.

If the book you’ve beta read is an early version, then the author should be expecting feedback on these basic issues. As a reader, you should expect the writing to need work—it hasn’t been line edited or copyedited, so it will need work.

But what if you’re not the first reader? What if you know the book has already been edited, and it’s still not stellar?

This is where giving feedback gets difficult.

Is the fault with the writing or with the editing?

If you’re beta reading an edited book, you have to ask: is the problem with the writing or with the editing? Or both?

It could be that the author didn’t know what kind of editing the novel needed, so hired the wrong kind of editor. It could be that the author hired the cheapest editor (who proofread when the novel needed a line editor).

Or it could be that the author hired an excellent editor, then ignored the editor’s feedback. I’ve had this happen. I’ve copyedited or proofread books where I’ve given the author advice on how to improve the book, and they’ve chosen to ignore me.

If an author is self-publishing, the editing is the author’s responsibility. They write the book. They select the editor. They choose whether to accept or reject the editor’s advice.

(Traditional publishing is another matter. The author is under contract, and the publisher won’t publish a novel that doesn’t meet their standards. That might mean the author has to allow changes they don’t agree with.)

So it’s important to know whether you’re a first reader or a last reader before you give feedback, so you can concentrate on the right things.

Giving Feedback

Here are my tips for giving feedback:

State Your Assumptions

If you’re assuming the manuscript hasn’t been edited, say so. It’s kinder than saying it hasn’t been edited well (even if that’s what you think). Then cite specific examples and sources of areas that need editing, so the author knows this isn’t you being mean. It’s you sharing knowledge.

Be Clear

Giving feedback is not a time for obfuscation or eregious advice. Say what you mean, and say it clearly.

Cite Sources

If you’re giving feedback on a technical craft issue (e.g. plot, structure, characterisation, or point of view), then cite the source of your advice. Where possible, quote from a relevant craft book from a recognised author or publisher (e.g. James Scott Bell or Writer’s Digest) rather than random blog posts or Pinterest pins (which might be wrong … like that “101 alternatives to ‘said'” pin).

Cite Examples

If there were parts of the manuscript which puzzled you e.g you couldn’t tell which character was speaking, or you didn’t understand something, then cite the exact example. It doesn’t help the author if you say you didn’t understand some things. It does help if you quote specific sentences and say what you didn’t understand.

Focus on the Writing

Critiquing a manuscript is just that. Critiquing a manuscript. Critique the writing, but do not critique the writer (which is one of the reasons I don’t edit non-fiction—it’s a lot easier to stick to critiquing the writing in fiction!

Finally …

Finally (or first), remind the author that all professional writers go through an extensive revision and editing process. It’s only the amateur who thinks a novel can be written in two weeks, and published the next. Seeking feedback from trusted advisors is an important and necessary part of being a professional writer.

The author friend who asked you to beta read is already several steps ahead of the pack. They’ve completed a manuscript. They’ve asked for feedback. Now they need to assess that feedback (from you, and from others), and incorporate the best feedback into their manuscript.

I hope that helps! What questions or suggestions do you have about beta-reading?

Seven Works Creators Can't Copyright—And Why Not

Copyright for Writers | Seven Works Creators Can’t Copyright

Over the last four weeks, I’ve covered various aspects of copyright and copyright law:

This week I’m discussing seven works creators can’t copyright—and why not.

Note: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. You get legal advice by consulting a lawyer qualified in the specific legal area, and licensed to practice in your location. There are common principles in international copyright law, but the application of those principles does vary by jurisdiction.

Copyright law is a branch of intellectual property (IP) law, which applies internationally. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (part of the United Nations) defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind”, and divides IP into five types:

  • Copyright
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Industrial designs
  • Geographic indicators

Copyright is covered internationally under the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, while patents, trademarks, and industrial designs are covered under the 1883 Paris Convention for the Protection of Intellectual Property.

These four types of works are protected under other forms of intellectual property law, and therefore can’t be copyrighted:

Patents

Patents protect inventions and machines, from the invention of the light bulb (one of Thomas  Edison’s many patents) to nanotechnology. A patent is a generally a new way of doing something, or a new technical solution to a problem. Patent applications are dealt with by specialist patent attorneys.

Patents must offer workable solutions. The idea of a perpetual motion machine has been around for centuries, but no one has yet invented and patented such a machine. Equally, the warp drive or faster-than-light engine is a staple of science fiction, but has yet to be invented.

Trademarks

Trademarks inform consumers the product or service comes from a particular company. For example, Nike manufactures footwear and clothing with the “swoosh” design. Coca-Cola manufactures drinks with the “dynamic ribbon device”.

Trademark law also includes service marks, which identifies and protects the provider of a service.

Industrial Designs

Industrial designs can also be protected by intellectual property law, including shape, colour, patterns, lines, features, or the ornamental or aesthetic aspect. Note that not all designs are protected. Many fashion designs are not protected, as they are not deemed sufficiently original. (This explains how chain stores can get away with selling cheap mass-produced copies of designer clothes).

Geographic Indicators

Geographic indicators inform consumers the product comes from a particular place, and the “qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin“. For example, champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. Otherwise it’s sparkling wine.

What Else Can’t be Copyrighted?

Section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Act states:

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression … In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.

To be able to be protected by copyright, something must be:

  • Original
  • Tangible (i.e. written or recorded in a form that can be copied)

Copyright is therefore limited to the tangible expression of original works. This excludes ideas, titles and names, and recipes (among other things).

Ideas

Ideas can’t be copyrighted because they are not tangible. And they may not be original—how can we know if they are not written down?

As the US Copyright Office says:

You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.

Titles and Names

Titles and names (e.g. character names or pen names) aren’t subject to copyright. They are considered too short to be original.

However, you may be able to trademark a series title or a character name if you can show an original and unique use. For example, you might be able to trademark a unique word or phrase in a custom font, but you can’t trademark a word in common usage in your genre and expect to be able to enforce it.

Recipes

Have you ever visited Pinterest looking for a recipe? You find what looks like a good recipe and click through to the website, where you have to wade through what seems like the blogger’s entire life story before you get to the good stuff: the list of ingredients and the instructions.

Bloggers do this because the list of ingredients isn’t subject to copyright. Even the instructions are only subject to copyright if there is something creative about them (e.g. saying “cream the butter and the sugar” isn’t deemed creative, but posting a photograph or a video of creaming the butter and the sugar is).

What is subject to copyright is the blogger’s life story, and the accompanying photographs, which is why a Pinterest recipe is so much more than a recipe.

Conclusion

Copyright protects the author’s expression, but not the underlying facts, ideas, or theories, no matter now novel those may be … what counts is not quality or novelty but only that the work be original.
(Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, 4.5)

These aren’t the only seven works creators can’t copyright, but I think they are the most common. If you want to find out more, then click here to read Works Not Covered by Copyright from the US Copyright Office.

Copyright for Writers: Using Images in Blog Posts (Legally)

Copyright for Writers: Using Images in Blog Posts

Images in blog posts can be a great way to break up the text and make the reading experience more user friendly. But we can’t just use any images in blog posts.

(Note: This is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer. I’ve never played one on TV. This is my interpretation of the doctrine of fair use, based on my reading of the Chicago Manual of Style, and blog posts written by lawyers. Caveat Emptor.)

Using Images Online

Many people will tell you that you can copy and use any image you find online. Others will tell you certain images or photographs are copyright-free.

They are wrong, as some bloggers have discovered at great cost.

All images on the internet are copyright.

Even photographs of old paintings. The paintings themselves are no longer under copyright, but the photographs are. Using these images without permission is a breach of copyright, in the same way as pirating a book or a movie is a breach of copyright.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property. It means the creator of a piece of content owns that content (apart from exceptions like a work for hire arrangement, which means your employer probably owns the copyright to any content you produce as a part of your normal employee duties).

As a blogger and writer, you want people to respect your copyright rights. You don’t want to find someone has pirated your ebook, plagiarised your paperback, or copied your blog post verbatim.

So it’s only fair that you need to respect the copyright rights of other creators—writers, illustrators, photographers, anyone who creates copyrighted material and shares it online or in real life.

This means you need to make sure you have the right to use any and all images.

Images You Can Use on Blog Posts

Your Own Photographs

If you took the photograph, you own the copyright, and you’re usually safe to use the picture. The exception might be if you’re using a picture of a famous building—some buildings are trademarked and can’t be reproduced commercially (e.g. on a book cover) without permission.

For example, the London Eye can be included as part of a skyline shot, but can’t be the main focus pf the photo. Nor can you use photographs taken from inside the Eye without permission. And while photographs of the Eiffel Tower in daytime are permissible, photographs of the nightly illuminations are not—they are copyrighted.

Note that you have to take the photo yourself in order to own the copyright and the right to use the picture. If a monkey takes a photo on your camera, the monkey may own the copyright on the image (Seriously. The court case is ongoing).

Photos You Own

You can use photos taken by someone else, but for which you have purchased the rights. If you plan to use the image commercially (e.g. on a book cover), make sure your contract includes commercial rights (and check the number of copies, and whether it includes Print on Demand). If the photo includes a model, make sure the photographer has the correct model release form.

Rights to photographs taken by someone else may be exclusive—or not. An exclusive right means the photographer can’t sell that image to anyone else. Non-exclusive rights may mean “your” cover image shows up on other books.

Free Photos from Stock Sites

You can find free photos at sites like Canva, MorgueBay, Pixabay and Unsplash. These sites use a Creative Commons 0 (zero) licence, which means:

you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer

Other sites might require you to ask permission and/or provide attribution to the photographer and/or site. Check what acknowledgement is required the first time you use a new site, and get it right.

Canva has a list of 73 sites offering free photos. As an added bonus, they’ve ranked the sites in terms of the size of the gallery, searchability, and whether attribution is required.

Photos from Paid Stock Sites

There are many stock photography sites offering a range of images, at a range of prices. Most stock sites will allow you to download a watermarked version of the image for free, but you shouldn’t use this version for your blog post. When it comes to blog posts, you need to ensure you get the official version, the one with no watermarks.

Charges for photos vary by site, and depend on the size of the photo, and the intended use. A book cover needs a high-resolution photo, and needs a commercial licence that covers all formats of the book, and a large number of copies. A blog post only needs a low-resolution photo (which is quicker to load).

Most paid stock sites charge per download, and some charge more for better-quality photos. Some sites offer credits or bundles, with the unit cost decreasing the more you buy. Some sites operate on a subscription model.

StoryBlocks.com

I use StoryBlocks.com, which costs USD 99 for an unlimited annual subscription (there is also a USD 49 subscription which allows you to download five images a month). Their selection isn’t as big as some of the more expensive sites, and they don’t have many images that would be suitable for book covers. But it’s a great resource for images for blog posts or memes.

StoryBlocks offer a 100% royalty free worldwide licence in perpetuity, and $20,000 in indemnification coverage. Click here to view their full licence agreement.

Lightstock

I also use Lightstock—it’s great for cheese-free Christian images. It is a paid site, but you can sign up to their email newsletter and they’ll send you a link to their free download of the week. This is a cost-effective way of building up a library of photos suitable for Bible memes or photos to accompany devotional posts. The only catch is we all get the same free photo each week—there is no choice. But it’s free (unless you want to pay as you go or subscribe), and the images are beautiful.

The Fair Use Exception to Copyright Law

The doctrine of fair use is entrenched in copyright law, and does allow copyrighted content to be used under certain conditions. For example, it’s acceptable to quote from another author’s work or reproduce small amounts of graphic or pictorial material for the purposes of review or criticism.

The same fair use exceptions apply for images as they do for written content. But the application is a little different. I can’t copy someone else’s book cover. But I might be able to purchase the same photo from a stock photo site, which will mean our covers have a similar look. Yes, this is why big publishers spend big bucks on customised photo shoots for book covers.

Quote from The Space Between Words

I can (and do) use thumbnail images book covers in memes. I consider this fair use, as I’m promoting their book. If an author or publisher didn’t want me to promote their books, I would stop. (But that would be short-sighted: user-generated content is considered a sign of social proof, and many major brands actively solicit and promote user-generated content).

Do you use images on your blog posts? Where do you obtain your images?

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice: Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice? Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice?

There are many “rules” to writing good fiction. One of them is to keep backstory to the back of the story—specifically, don’t use any backstory in the first fifty pages.

Is this a good writing tip, or more bad writing advice? Don’t we need to introduce our characters to the reader at the beginning of the story? Don’t we need to give enough of their personal character history to enable the reader to understand what’s going on?

As with many pieces of writing advice, the answer is yes. And no. Or no, and yes, depending on which way you prefer to look at the issue.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is anything that happens before our story begins. The reader doesn’t need to know the character’s entire life history … although the author does. Yes, the reader needs to know some of the character’s personal history. The trick with writing great fiction is understanding what the reader needs to know, and when.

One of the first writing craft books I read was How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark. One of the quotes I copied was this:

Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Do not write hundreds of pages explaining… why the characters are living the way they are when the story begins, or what past events made the characters into people who would have that story.

I thought this was ridiculous. Surely no author would be so … so … stupid? So naive?

But by some strange quirk of fate, the very next novel I read had exactly this problem. I’m not going to embarrass the author by naming them, or telling you the title, or even the genre. I don’t remember much about the story. What I do remember is that whenever a new character was introduced, the author took the opportunity to share that character’s life story.

And the story of how their parents met and married.

And sometimes even the story of how their grandparents met and married, and how many children they had, and when, and where, and why, and …

And none of this information had any relevance to the story at hand. It was well written. It was interesting. But it was irrelevant to the present story (which is probably why I’ve forgotten the basics of the actual story).

Yes, some authors have a problem with backstory.

That’s not to say you can’t use backstory at the beginning of a novel. You can introduce some backstory. In fact, you have to use introduce some backstory to give the reader an understanding of your main character’s goals and motivations, which influence their central internal and external conflicts. You may need to use backstory to give your reader a reason to care about your character.

But flip-flopping between the past and the present at the beginning of the story can leave you with a novel that confuses readers. Instead, ensure your opening clarifies:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • Why does s/he want that?
  • When is this story set?
  • Where is this story set?

And answer these questions in the present timeline of the story.

Lay out actions in sequential order. Don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader .
– Janalyn Voigt, via WordServeWaterCooler.com

In Media Res

The use of backstory often relates to a common writing issue: new writers often start their story in the wrong place. Novels should start in media res—in the middle of the thing.

Your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, where the plot kicks in.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 2

But characters don’t emerge fully formed on the page. They have personal histories, just like real people. They have likes and dislikes, just like real people. Some of that is directly relevant to the novel’s plot, and some is not. But without the backstory, there is no present story.

Your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral”. He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 3

Your character has a backstory.

In fact, all your characters have their own backstory, and that backstory is what influences their lives in the present (or in whatever “present” your novel is set, whether that’s the past, the present, or the future).

As a writer, you need to know this backstory. You need to know what has formed your protagonist and antagonist into the characters you are writing. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends you do write three story-specific backstory scenes. But these aren’t included in the final manuscript. The information in the scenes might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

Margie Lawson uses the illustration of a pane of glass. Imagine writing all your backstory on a large pane of glass, them dropping the glass so it smashes into slivers. Then pick up those slivers, one at a time, and insert them into your story.

A sliver at a time. Not the entire window. At the time when it best serves the story to reveal that information.

An Example of Good Backstory

I’ve recently read A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. Much of the first chapter is backstory, but it’s written well and integrated into the present scene (well, the novel’s present. It’s historical fiction). Here’s an example:

They lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone walk-up that had once been a prestigious building, but had fallen on hard times in recent decades. Much like her own family.

Just two sentences, but a lot of backstory. What do we learn?

  • The setting—where the point of view character lives (a brownstone walk-up in Greenwich Village, New York).
  • A brief description that hints rather than tells—once prestigious hints the building is in a state of disrepair without telling us about the peeling paint or the chipped bricks.
  • A sliver of backstory—her own family has fallen on hard times.
  • A hint at timing—the problem goes back decades.

Clever. Very clever.

It’s also shown in the voice of the character, not the voice of the author.

This paragraph illustrates that we can—and even should—use backstory in the beginning of the story. But we need to sliver it in, not dump it. The author could then have gone on to describe exactly how the family fell on hard times—and she does. But not here, because it’s not relevant to the story at this point.

So here are four tips for writing backstory:

  • Know the backstory of your main characters.
  • Know how their backstory contributes to the present story.
  • Include only what is relevant to the story.
  • Include backstory as slivers.

What tips or questions do you have about backstory?

Introducing Write!

Introducing Write! (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Introducing Write!

You know how you sometimes read product reviews where the influencer got given a free copy of the product, and they keep it a couple of weeks and maybe use it a couple of times, then write a glowing five star review?

This is not that kind of review.

I was offered a free copy of Write! to trial and see if I’d like to write a review. I liked the idea of the product, so I agreed. But I’ve taken a little longer to review Write! Ten months, and I’ve been using Write! constantly in that time.

Write is a minimalist online text editor (what we used to call a word processor back when I started using computers).

Write! is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s easy to learn, simple to use, and the autosave facility with online backup makes it almost impossible to lose your documents.

First, a bit of background. I’ve been using Microsoft Word since around 1993. My employer at the time sent my team on a two-day training course, so I’ve always been confident with the basic and more advanced features of Word, including performing mail merges and creating and using style sheets. Word later introduced features like Track Changes, which have been invaluable in my editing work.

If those are features you are looking for, then stick with Word. Write! is not for you.

Word is great for letters and reports. But it has a lot of extra functionality which means it doesn’t play nice with the kind of lightweight machine I like to use when I travel or write away from home. Light in weight, and light in functionality. So I wanted a matching lightweight word processor I could use away from home.

When I started writing, everyone said Scrivener was the best programme to use. There was the notecard feature. The ability to compile ebook and print files. The drag-and-drop feature which means you can move scenes easily.

I bought Scrivener. I bought the expensive training programme. But I’m not a Scrivener convert. The fancy ideas which sold me on the concept are all things I can do in Word using Styles. (Well, except for compiling print and ebook files. But I can do that for free through Draft2Digital.) Maybe Word isn’t as efficient as in Scrivener, but Word doesn’t have the Scrivener learning curve. It beat me.

If you’ve learned Scrivener and love it, then stick with Scrivener. Write! is not for you.

But I still wanted a simple word processing programme I could use when I’m out and about. Something easy to learn that I could use on my very basic travel PC. (A cheap 32GB tablet-with-clunky-keyboard that replaced my Microsoft Surface, which had Microsoft Office … but no memory left to download Scrivener or store files).

I didn’t want to use Google Docs, because I often want to write somewhere with no internet connection. That helps me not be distracted by Facebook and endless cat memes. I also wanted a product where the letters appear on screen as fast as I type them … not my experience with Google Docs.

So when I was offered a review copy of Write! I was keen to try it out.

The first test was simple: could I load it on my machine?

Yes. I have Write! loaded on the world’s cheapest and ugliest Microsoft tablet. If it loads on this, it should load on anything.

Is Write! easy to use?

Yes. It uses the same keyboard commands as Word and other word processors, which makes them easy to remember (e.g. Ctrl-B or Cmd-B for Bold text).

That was a real plus for me. I don’t want to have to learn another programme. Write! is perfect for me, because it uses the commands I already use automatically.

Basic Formatting

Write! also has basic formatting tools:

  • Cut, copy, and paste
  • Left, centre, and right alignment
  • Bold, italic, underline, and strikethrough font
  • Heading and subhead styles

You can’t customise the heading and subhead styles in Write! the way you can in Word or WordPress, but that doesn’t matter—I see this as a drafting tool, not a publishing tool. An H2 heading in Write! will convert to the customised H2 heading in Word or WordPress. That’s all I need it to do.

SpellCheck

Write! has a basic spellchecker. It’s not as sophisticated as the Word spellchecker (no grammar), but I find the Word spellcheck isn’t right all the time, especially not when it comes to whether a word should have a hyphen or not. And I’m not interested in a grammar checker. I don’t want my computer to question my artistic decision to start a sentence with a conjunction, split an infinitive, or use a sentence fragment.

Autosave

Write! is cloud-based, and everything automatically saves to the hard drive, and to the cloud (when the machine has internet access). Each document is therefore available on all the PCs you have Write! installed on. The screens even look the same, unlike with Windows Online (where I’d lose files because I couldn’t remember where I’d saved it, or Windows “accidentally” saved it to the wrong place).

The fact all files are automatically saved is a big plus for me. Yes, yes, I know Word has an autosave function. But it doesn’t always work (says the sad voice of experience).

Additional Features

Write! also has some additional features which are both simple and useful. There is a focus mode, which lowlights everything except the paragraph you are working on:

Screenshot from Write!

You can also collapse and expand headings to make it easier to navigate through a long document:

Screenshot from Write!
With heading collapsed …

 

… and with headings expanded.

And there is that (optional) handy little side bar on the right which highlights the part of the document you are currently working on.

Can you use Write! for long documents, like a manuscript for a novel?

Yes, as long as you use the H1 and H2 styles to separate out the different scenes or chapters. But you have to do that in Word or Scrivener anyway … I haven’t used Write! for anything longer than 30,000 words. This is mostly because I found that while my H1 and H2 headings translate from Write! into Word, the reverse wasn’t true.

And yes, there is an export function: you can export from Write! to html, docx, pdf, txt, and other file types.

Can you use Write! for multiple documents?

Yes. I routinely keep all my draft blog posts open. You can click into a single document using the header bar, or use Ctrl-Tab to move through all the open documents.

Is there a Mac version?

Yes. Write! is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Is Write! free?

No. But at $24.95 for a lifetime licence, it’s a lot cheaper than many of the alternatives (and there is no requirement to upgrade to get the premium features, as with some “free” apps), and a lot cheaper than, say, Scrivener turned out to be. It’s user-friendly and there are regular upgrades. And you can get 10% off by signing up to their newsletter.

Write! also has an automatic affiliate scheme. The scheme pays a 20% commission, with a minimum payment of $20. (Yes, this post uses affiliate links. Here’s the direct link: www.writeapp.co).

Over the last year, I’ve used Write! to write the first drafts of almost all my book reviews and other blog posts. I can draft the post wherever I am, then paste my draft directly into WordPress. Write! brings across the basic formatting (e.g Bold, H2), which makes it quick and easy to format and publish a blog post.

No, Write! won’t replace Word for editing long documents. But it’s a great alternative for drafting, and it’s simple to learn and use. So if you’re looking for a simple word processor with basic features that can be used online and offline, Write! might be what you’re looking for.

Me? I use it all the time, and I love it.

Thanks to WriteApp for providing a free licence for Write!

Do you have any questions about Write?

How long will it take to edit my novel? And how much will it cost?

Dear Editor | How Long Will it Take to Edit my Novel (And How Much Will It Cost)?

(And How Much Will it Cost?)

This is another question from a Facebook group. An author asked how long it would take her to edit her 80,000-word novel before sending it to a professional editor.

My answer? It depends.

It depends on two things:

  • What level of editing you are doing.
  • The state of the manuscript

The Level of Editing

I discussed the different levels of editing in my recent blog post, Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?. As a general guide:

  • Developmental editing takes longer than copyediting
  • Line editing takes longer than copyediting
  • Copyediting takes longer than proofreading

It takes me around four hours to read an 80,000-word novel when I’m reading for pleasure. It can take me up to twice as long if I’m reading as part of a Manuscript Assessment, as I’ll be taking detailed notes as I read. It can then take me another four hours to draft the editorial letter, run spellcheck, and proofread the letter before sending.

Actual on-the-page editing will take much longer. It can take me anywhere from 20 to 80 hours to edit an 80,000-word manuscript (depending on whether the manuscript requires line editing or copyediting).

How long it takes me will depend on how good the writing was to begin with, and how much time, effort, and knowledge the author has spent revising and self-editing. That could be anything from 20 to 200 hours. Hint: the more time you spend, the less time it will take a professional editor.

If my sample edit indicates the edit is going to take more longer than 40 hours, I will suggest the author start with a manuscript assessment and undertake more self-editing before engaging me or any other professional editor.

State of the Manuscript

Some authors have an excellent grasp of the basics of punctuation and grammar. Some do not. I’ve had manuscripts submitted for editing that range from almost publication standard to almost unreadable. It doesn’t matter how great your story is, how original your plot, how compelling your characters if you can’t use words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes to get that plot and those characters across to the reader.

I’ve heard writers say they don’t need to know basic grammar, how to punctuate dialogue, or how to correctly use a comma. Their editor will fix that.

Well, yes. But that will make the editing a lot more expensive than it could be.

It also means you’re not giving your editor the chance to do the best job possible—if your editor is focussing on correcting misplaced commas, and trying to work out who is talking so your dialogue is punctuated correctly, then your editor might miss more important errors.

The other problem with submitting a messy manuscript is that the editor might do the work you’ve asked for (e.g copyediting), without realising the manuscript actually isn’t ready for copyediting because one of the main characters has a personality transplant at the halfway point, the pacing is inconsistent, the climax falls fifty pages too early, and the final resolution relies on an eye-rolling “coincidence”.

Don’t be that author. Make sure your manuscript is ready for copyediting before submitting it for copyediting. The best way to do that is to use beta readers, or pay a freelance editor for a manuscript assessment.

How Much Will it Cost to Edit My Novel?

If copyediting an 80,000-word novel will take between 20 and 40 hours, then how much will it cost to edit my novel?

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a schedule of average fees charged by member editors. Editing fees range from $30/hour to $60/hour, depending on the level of editing required. I pitch my fees in the middle of this range, and don’t differentiate between the types of editing. My time isn’t worth any less just because I’m doing a less complex level of editing.

Editors may quote for a project based on a per page rate (a standard editorial page is 250 words), a per 1,000 words rate, or by the hour. But at the end of the day, they all charge by the hour—even those who quote a single rate for a full manuscript.

Remember, while this standard hourly rate might sound high, freelance editors are self-employed. Freelance editors don’t get paid for eight hours a day, or 40 hours a week—they only get paid for chargeable hours, which means they aren’t paid for administration or marketing time. Editors don’t get paid vacation, paid sick leave, or benefits such as retirement savings contributions, or medical insurance. Editors have to pay for dictionaries, style guides, software, computers, and an internet connection.

Those expenses all come out of the hourly rate.

Actual actual hourly earnings may be half their hourly rate or less. Editing is mentally straining, which means many editors are only able to spend five hours a day editing without starting to miss errors.

So if an editor estimates your 80,000-word novel will take them 20 hours to copyedit, the quote will be somewhere between $600 and $1,200, depending on their standard hourly rate. A longer manuscript will cost more.

A manuscript that needs more work will cost more.

The best way to keep your editing costs down is to present your editor with a clean manuscript with no basic writing errors. This means:

  • Writing in scenes.
  • Showing, not telling.
  • Using point of view correctly.
  • Use interior monologue correctly.

If you’re not sure what these terms mean, you’re probably not ready for copyediting. Instead, begin with a manuscript assessment that will reinforce what you’re doing well, and show you how to correct what you’re not doing well.

Or leave a comment, and I’ll cover your question in a future blog post.