Why Developmental?

Do you need a developmental (also known as structural) edit?

Well, my short answer is YES. Whether you’re a first time novelist or a seasoned author. Always yes. Here’s why.

  • You don’t want to get to your final editing stage or beta reading stage before realizing there are huge plot holes or characterization problems.
  • It’s too hard to see gaps, inconsistencies, or points that just don’t make sense when you’re the one who wrote it, unless you leave it alone for about five years and then read it with fresh eyes.
  • While friends and family can give you feedback, most people aren’t used to reading critically. Finding the problems and seeing ways to fix them is a skill that just doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, and hasn’t been practiced. If friends or relatives who read your manuscript do see issues, it’s often completely foreign to them to know how to pinpoint the source, let alone come up with and effectively communicate ideas for improvement.
  • On a related note, friends have a hard time being objective. They’re likely to read your work and think, “Wow! You wrote all this! It’s like a real book! It has a plot and characters and so many words! I could never do that—good job!” They’re not reading it with the same eyes as they would read a book they picked up at the library. And even if your friend has that ability, it can be hard to know how to express those opinions without the fear of hurting your feelings or making a ton of work for you. Or maybe they’re just not confident in their opinions. It’s intimidating to think of how much work has gone into writing this and then have to say, “Well, the whole second half kind of fell apart,” especially if they don’t feel like they have a clear idea of how to fix it. Nobody wants to crush an author’s dreams.
  • Your manuscript will be a whole lot easier to line edit if it’s already structurally sound. It’s distracting to try to edit a manuscript that has major problems. I have a hard time not pointing out the issues I notice, but if I do then I know the author will have to make major revisions, which will end up necessitating another full or partial line edit before the final proofread, which will cost you more.

So what exactly is a developmental edit? Well, you could think of it as serious alpha reading. And alpha comes before beta.

Different editors all do it a little differently, but mine consists of two parts. As I read your manuscript I make comments in the document itself—mostly asking questions that come to my mind or pointing out glaring inconsistencies. I also write up a 6- to 10-page critique describing the strengths and weaknesses I see in each chapter. I try to be detailed and clear so you know what works and what doesn’t and why, and I make suggestions on how to resolve each issue. After the chapter-by-chapter feedback I summarize the strengths and weaknesses of your plot, conflict, characterization, themes, dialogue, setting, and narrative voice, followed by a list of the issues I see as your top priority in revising.

Here are some examples of the kind of comments you might find in a developmental critique. (These are comments I’ve made to several writers, and issues I’ve seen in a lot of self-published novels, so if any of my authors are reading this, don’t think I’m calling you out!)

  • Your main character comes off as fairly self-centered. Give him some more likable qualities. Maybe he could joke around with another character, or have something he really loves to show a more joyful or dedicated part of his personality.
  • Spread out your character’s backstory. It slows down the action when it’s all in one place and nothing is really happening.
  • Make sure to show emotions instead of just telling them. We can infer those emotions for ourselves, and readers will be more drawn in by little gestures and changes in tone of voice than they would be by the narration simply stating how the character feels.
  • Great job on your dialogue. It flows naturally; it’s snappy but not unbelievable, and it moves the story along while developing characters.
  • The romance jumps a little too suddenly from friendship to intense love. Show that progression with one or two more scenes of romantic tension.
  • Give a little more internal rationale for this character’s decisions, especially when he {fill in bad decision here}. I see where you’re going with it, but readers won’t sympathize with him enough if we’re just mad at him.
  • This scene doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose. If you love it, try adding a conversation that moves the plot or relationship forward, or shorten it drastically. Otherwise you might need to take it out and add that little bit of info into the next scene.
  • I love the description of the city. It’s fascinating but not too long.
  • Your readers are left in the dark a little too long about {insert important plot point here}. It gets frustrating to not know if we’re supposed to understand what’s going on, or if the protagonist doesn’t know what’s going on either.
  • Excellent plot twist—not what I saw coming at all, and it deepens the suspense so well.
  • Condense these two chapters into one. There’s too much time spent describing {whatever}, and we really don’t need that much detail about their breakfast. Just jump back into the action.

Even though as a writer you may find the feedback hard to swallow at first—thinking of all the work you’ve already put into it and seeing how far you still have to go (or fuming that anybody would say such heinous things about your baby)—you’ll be so much happier with the end result. You’ll also find that many of the revisions are easier than you’d expect. It’s amazing how just a few tweaks can make a character more likable or a situation more believable.

I also emphasize that I’m always available during revision for clarification, brainstorming, or general complaining about the woes of writing. Because I’m really not here to be mean, and I am so excited to see a manuscript improve.

Grammar, Uncategorized

Leaving the Past in the Past Perfect

Most novels are written in simple past tense. This may seem obvious and straightforward enough, but it can really confuse writers when they start referring to events that happened before the current action of the story. Most flashbacks and quick references to an earlier time–whether it’s ten years ago or earlier that same morning–need to be written in past perfect tense. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do that.

Simple past tense is “did.” It’s essentially used for the present tense of your story.

  • We did some jumping jacks.
  • I went to the store.
  • “Let’s go,” she said.
  • He woke up.
  • We tasted the ice cream.
  • They climbed into the truck.

Simple past tense is used for most of the story, but since it’s really the present tense for your current action—what’s happening in the “now” of your story, if it happened before the “now,” it needs to be in past perfect.

Past perfect is “had done.” You can think of it as past past tense.

  • She had already made her bed.
  • We’d gone on a trip the week before.
  • I hadn’t fixed the car yet.
  • He’d told me his cat was sick.
  • They’d had a huge party.

As you can see, this tense gives you the feeling of “before then.” When you read “He’d told me his cat was sick,” you know it means he’d already told me, or he’d told me before.

So for example, if it’s the morning after an earthquake, things that are currently happening are past simple, while any references to the earthquake the night before will be in past perfect.

  • As I cleaned up the debris, I couldn’t help but remember how loud everything had been and how panicked I’d felt. I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear had been so intense that I’d just frozen, taking in everything around me and etching it indelibly in my memory.

If you left out the past perfect, it would be confusing: “I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear was so intense that I just froze” would mean that the fear and the freezing were happening at the current moment, during the cleaning up of the debris.

This is not to say that anything happening that day will be in past simple, because if it starts talking about something that happened before the cleaning up moment, that will also be in past perfect.

  • Earlier that morning, my mom had told me that there probably wouldn’t be any more aftershocks, but I still startled and braced myself against any sudden noise or movement. I didn’t even care that Trent had called me a baby. It was a perfectly logical reaction.

Short flashbacks should be put in past perfect as well. If it’s a longer flashback, you can sometimes transition into simple past as long as you make it clear when you’re coming back out of the flashback.

  • Stacy hadn’t always been this way. She remembered that in elementary school she had been quick to make friends. One day in fourth grade, she’d seen the smallest kid in class being picked on and hadn’t even thought twice about it: she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys. Then she’d introduced herself to Timmy, and from then on they’d been inseparable.

Note that in “she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys,” the “had” can refer to “marched up” and “told,” so it doesn’t need to be repeated to make it the correct tense.

If this flashback had gone on any longer, I probably would have switched to simple past to make it easier to read (past perfect can feel cumbersome if it continues more than a couple paragraphs) and to free up the past perfect for going even farther into the past if necessary.

One trick to remember is that if the character would say it in past tense, the narration should say it in past perfect. In the example above, Stacy might say, “I wasn’t always this way, you know.” But because it’s in her past and the book is already written in past tense, it translates in the narration to “Stacy hadn’t always been this way.” (Of course, it’s a whole different situation if you’re writing in present tense, but I’m not going into that now.)

Hopefully this is helpful, because this tends to be one of the biggest problems I see with new writers. Sometimes it’s not a big deal, but forgetting to use past perfect tense for previous action has the potential to really confuse readers.

So leave the past in the past perfect, and the present in the past.

Because THAT’S not confusing at all.

Characterization, dialogue, Uncategorized

Give Me a Beat

In high school, I took a drama class in directing. It was really cool, and one of the main things I remember from it is marking up a script with stage directions and beats. A beat is a moment when something changes: the dynamic shifts; a character’s emotion amps up or down; a character realizes something or changes her mind. Any moment where the tone needed to change had to be marked so we could decide how the character would portray that change–with a pause, a look, or a gesture, for example.

Dialogue in novels definitely needs these beats as well. When I started informally editing for my sister, the only word I could think of to describe these pauses, changes, or actions was “beat,” as it’s used in scripts. Later I found out that this term is indeed used to describe it for prose as well. When I edit, I’ll comment something like “add a pause here,” “describe his tone,” “pause for gesture,” or simply, “beat.” These moments are essential because they guide readers through the dialogue and bring the characters and their emotions to life.

There are a few ways to add a beat when it’s needed. If this is hard for you as a writer, I’d suggest either acting it out (go ahead, make faces and whisper to yourself as you stare at your computer screen) or imagining what it would look like in a movie, down to the tiny details of facial expression and movement.

The Em Dash

Consider the difference between this line of dialogue:

“I know you don’t want to go. Wait a minute, do you want to go?”

And this one:

“I know you don’t want to—wait a minute, do you want to go?”

The em dash provides a definite stop, a clear moment when the character realizes something and the whole line of thinking takes a turn.

Em dashes are handy for characters interrupting themselves as in that example, and interrupting others, as in this one:

“You’ve never even said that you cared—”

“No, I’ve told you plenty of times. You just weren’t listening.”

Or for a change of tone or gesture to interrupt the dialogue:

“She told me that he left her”—Molly’s brow furrowed as she shook her head—“but I just can’t believe it.”

That example incorporates both of the next two beat possibilities: expressions and gestures.

Facial Expressions

His face was incredulous as he listened to my story. “That can’t be right,” he began.

“I know—it shouldn’t be,” I agreed, my eyes widening. “But that’s what happened, I swear.”


“Who are you taking to the dance?” I asked hopefully.

A slow grin spread over his face. “Oh,” he said, and the way he looked at me made me blush. “I have a pretty good idea…”

Gestures and movement

“When I got home, the house was—silent,” I said, swallowing. “Creepy silent.” His hand touched my arm to prompt me to continue. “So I started searching each room.” I felt my hands start to shake as I forced myself to relive those moments.


Narrating thoughts:

“Hey,” he insisted, and his expression made me wonder if he was going to try to touch me again. “It’s okay.”

Inserting thoughts into narration:

“Sure, you can come with us.” Did she know how snobby she sounded? “But you might not be able to keep up.”

Direct thoughts:

“We’ll just be a couple minutes.” Unless we find something really interesting. “You go ahead without us.”

Silence and Looks

Sometimes we just need a little break from a monologue, a second for the characters and the reader to absorb something before they’re ready to move on. In the following example, it’s broken up with a look and silence:

“I didn’t mean to flip the switch, but Ryan was so sure that it would make a difference. We honestly had no idea that it would cause such a huge reaction.” I glanced at Matt, but he didn’t say anything. “I don’t know, maybe we just shouldn’t have gone into the chamber in the first place.”  

Or you can do it with just silence:

“So that’s why I just can’t bring myself to go to the beach anymore.” I paused for a moment. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.”

Or just a look:

“Why don’t you ever answer my questions?” I demanded, but he just looked at me. “Fine!” I exploded. “Just forget it.

However you choose to do it, just remember that a huge chunk of communication is nonverbal. Use your beats well and dialogue will flow realistically and feel more human.


Weaving Your Backstory

I’ve been doing some scouting lately. Have you checked out Kindle Scout? It’s a platform for authors to submit their work and have other readers nominate it to be published. So I’ve been perusing book covers and titles, blurbs and first chapters. It’s made me wish I could contact many of the authors to give them feedback and suggestions, because so many of them have potential but probably won’t be nominated.

The most common problem I’ve been seeing is the ever-so-distracting attempt to shove the whole backstory into the first chapter.

I can see why it might be tempting, but…


Backstory is crucial. Every made-up world, every magic system, every family or group of friends needs to come from somewhere and have a history. Each character should have one, even minor characters. I don’t say this lightly, as if these backstories will just burst forth from your brain fully formed. It can take a crazy amount of work—thinking, imagining, writing, changing, thinking some more—to craft these backstories, fit them all together, make up a history of an entire civilization or decide what the dynamic of a high school will look like. To determine the mix of personality and life experiences that will form your characters. An author has to know their characters—especially their main characters—inside and out.

For the moment, I’m going to assume that you have your character and world backgrounds figured out already and just need to determine how to weave that into your story. If your character is fleshed out in your mind, their personality and life experiences will come through naturally, without being shoved unceremoniously in readers’ faces within the first few pages.

The first chapter is your opportunity to grab readers by telling a mini story. That inciting incident, that moment when things change and the character realizes something isn’t right. Such an incident shouldn’t be marred with meandering explanations and memories. Just show me what happens, and be sure to use plenty of dialogue and character interaction as much as possible.

If your inciting incident is a car crash, I don’t want any backstory other than little hints. The kind of car Mary drives might tell me a bit about her monetary or family situation; her destination might tell me whether she works or what she does for fun; any passengers might indicate her closest connections. Some dialogue can certainly tell me what she’s dealing with right now. So Sally can be driving her two daughters to soccer practice in her minivan, arguing about whether or not the oldest can go on a date. Look how much we’ve learned about her! They could even mention the divorce (oh no, Mary and Ted are going through a divorce). That’s a whole family dynamic that was just set up without a useless beginning scene at home where Mary is folding laundry and pondering her rough marriage, her daughters’ needs, and her own upbringing. I don’t tend to care about people when they’re just folding laundry and thinking. Or driving and thinking. Or when the initial action is constantly interrupted with explanations about who people are and how they all fit together. Show that quickly or show it later, but don’t mar that first chapter. We know your characters have interesting backstories to share with us, but there are better ways and better places to do it.

So, how can you weave that backstory in without distracting or boring your readers?

1. First, create curiosity. No matter how you’re going to share backstory, you need to make your readers care about it first; otherwise it feels like an intrusion. Don’t jar readers or take chances with their attention span by interrupting yourself for no reason. If Paul is going in to give his boss bad news, I don’t want to get stuck waiting for that tense moment while I read about the conversation he had with his wife that morning, unless I have some reason to be curious about it. Make me ask a question, and then answer it with some backstory. This can easily be achieved by introducing that memory with a hint of why it’s important.  Maybe he hopes that his boss won’t confirm the accusations his wife was throwing around. What? She was accusing someone? What does it have to do with his boss? You’ve just given a reason for a flashback or brief explanation of the argument.

Or how about, instead of giving me a history of Lacy’s turbulent childhood while she’s staring out a window thinking about it, you have her meet someone and shy away from shaking their hand because human touch is too traumatic for her? Now I want to know why, and you can tell me a little bit about it. But just a little for now. Save a lot of it to be sprinkled into the story where it fits naturally. If you’ve created curiosity, then you have a little niche for a brief explanation. But before summarizing anything within the narration, consider whether it can be done through memories or dialogue instead.

2. Flashbacks, memories, or dreams. All I’m going to say about dreams is: be sure not to overuse it. It can feel like a cop out, like you couldn’t figure out a better way to tell the story. Of course, if the dream is the story—as in, someone discovers they can see the future in their dreams—that’s a different matter. But just throwing a dream in to show a character’s angst can be frustrating to read. Just think about how much you enjoy listening to other people tell you their dreams (unless I’m the only one tends to zone out?).

If it’s been introduced right, a memory flashback can be a great device. It can be put in the middle of a scene or be its own scene. It can be set off clearly by using italics, or introduced by using the past perfect tense {PLEASE use the past perfect tense. If you’re already writing in past tense and are going farther in the past, it’s non-negotiable if you want readers to follow you: “I stared at him, wondering why he hadn’t been nicer earlier this morning.” Or “Rob’s face fell, remembering yesterday’s lunch. They’d been having a great time, until she’d confessed everything.” This can be challenging, especially because once you’re into the flashback, you can switch back to the simple past tense. I like this Grammar Girl explanation, if you need more guidance in this area.}

3. Tell through dialogue: My favorite. One of my most common questions for writers when an explanation is getting too long is, “Can this be explained in dialogue?” It is so much more interesting to read a character telling their story to someone else, with the other person’s reactions, than to just read it straight in the narration. For one thing, dialogue breaks it up and makes it less daunting for your patient-deficient readers. (I have been known to skip descriptions and go straight to the next bit of dialogue when reading.) I want to see how people interact, because that’s what moves relationships and personalities. I want to hear how a character will describe their experiences and how they were affected by them, and I really want to hear how their friend, family member, new acquaintance, or love interest will respond. This is how relationships deepen. Think about how often this tactic is used in movies. It’s ready-made conversation meat, and it moves the plot forward.

Dialogue like this should be done carefully, with plenty of small pauses to indicate tone of voice, changing emotions, facial expressions, and reactions from the listener. Avoid long monologues; those aren’t a whole lot better than narrative info dumps, and they don’t utilize the emotions of both characters. The speaker can hesitate or swallow. The listener can interject. Either can look away, close their eyes, scowl, grin, or take the other’s hand. In a way, these reactions can guide readers’ reactions, the way music in a movie guides our reactions and expectations.

Be aware of the balance you strike between real-to-life dialogue and too-perfect storytelling within the dialogue. Obviously we don’t want to read a story told the way most people would actually tell it in real life: “So he called and he was like, ‘hey, should we go to dinner?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, where do you want to go?’ and he was like, ‘I dunno, I haven’t had pizza in awhile, that sounds kind of good.’ I was kind of like, ugh, that doesn’t sound good, but I totally wanted to go out with him, so that’s what we’re doing.” Unless of course you want your character to sound like a ditzy teenager, but even then, I think most people would go nuts reading this. (Even though we really do talk like that…and not just the teenagers.) But at the same time, it doesn’t feel realistic to read a character telling a story exactly how the narration would tell it: “Ben called me a while ago and asked, ‘Hey, should we go to dinner?’ I tried not to let him hear the thrill in my voice as I nonchalantly responded, ‘Yeah, where do you want to go?’” People definitely don’t tell stories that way. It needs to be somewhere in the middle.

Backstory can be included in dialogue and interactions without someone coming right out and telling their story, as well. A character’s gut reaction to events or unfiltered dialogue will give an alert reader just as much information as if they’d shared an experience, and can feel more natural.

I’m convinced that the way backstory is revealed—whether dumped awkwardly in the middle of a chapter or naturally woven into the action and interactions–can make or break a story.  Give plenty of thought to how you’ll do it, try different tactics, and get feedback from others. Skilled backstory weaving will spice up and deepen your characters, making them relatable and unforgettable for readers.




What’s My Motivation (for reading your book)?

children-1822474_1920How do you decide what stays and what goes when you sit down to make revisions? Better yet, how do you decide what to write in the first place? I’d suggest asking yourself what is going to pull readers into and then through your book. While a great cover, a compelling blurb, a recommendation from a friend, or a fascinating first chapter might get someone to start reading—pulling them into your book—there are elements that need to be present in every chapter to give readers the curiosity that will pull them through your book.

Curiosity drives people to turn another page, to stay up late reading, to think about the characters even when they’re not reading. Readers should have enough uncertainty presented to them to ask themselves questions: What happens next? How will they deal with that? Who is this person really? How will they get past this obstacle? Why did she do that? How will he get over this? Keep readers satisfied with small answers along the way (and be sure to always keep the reader up to speed), but keep them plowing forward to find answers to the bigger questions. Let the questions shift and change along the way, but never answer all of them until the last page.

I believe that curiosity = conflict + compassion. Their conflicts, our compassion.

When you think about the Harry Potter series, for example, what are the conflicts that drive us through the books? The overarching conflict is good wizards versus evil wizards. We feel compassion for the good side because of their sacrifices, their nobility, their innocence, their friendships, and the often overpowering odds. We even feel compassion for them because of their weaknesses and inner struggles. The smaller conflicts that drive us through each individual scene also provide us with feelings of compassion for Harry and his friends. He’s seeking answers about his past, for the missed opportunities of family. He’s marked as the “chosen one,” which gives him great potential but also alienates him from others and attracts unwanted attention. Ron and Hermione have their own personal conflicts as well, making us interested in them. Ron’s happy but poor family; Hermione’s amazing magic and logic skills but lack of social skills (at least in the beginning). Small romances and humor sprinkled throughout the story humanize our protagonists even more. The mysteries about the past, the magic, and the enemy become more complex as the story progresses, but each book reveals a little more as well. It’s satisfying to learn a little more (my favorites are book 3 where we learn so much about James and his friends and book 6 where we learn Voldemort’s secrets), but that knowledge always comes with more questions—until the very end of the last book. J.K. Rowling has some serious storytelling skills.

As a reader, I feel the strongest pull to continue reading when I have a healthy dose of compassion for a character in the midst of a compelling conflict. When both elements are present, that curiosity can be manifest in fear, excitement, fascination, hope, and anticipation. Conflict causes dissatisfaction in a reader, a good itch see it through and find out how it resolves. We love conflict in books because we know we’ll be satisfied by its resolution. We don’t like conflict so much in real life because we’re not assured of its eventual conclusion. (This is why unexpected cliffhangers can be so frustrating. It’s too close to real life, not knowing how long you’ll have to wait for the problem to be fixed.) But we love the adrenaline and uncertainty that comes with a good conflict in a book—the mixture of fear and hope we feel when a problem seems impossible but we know it will get taken care of. The more critical the problem feels to the character personally, the better.

To engender compassion, invest the time to make your characters relatable. Ask yourself questions about them. Give them backstories (more on this to come in a later blog post). Most of these backstories don’t need to make it into the book, but they need to exist in your mind. Give your characters strengths and weaknesses. Even the bad guys. Know what motivates them. Make them human. And then make sure your conflict is ever-present. If a scene has no conflict or tension—even underlying tension—it won’t be compelling. While a reader does need a respite at times, some comic relief, it should never go long enough that we start to forget why we were worried in the first place. A litmus test for any scene, conversation, chapter, description, or storyline might be: does it move the conflict or develop the character? If it doesn’t do either, get rid of it or fix it.

Ask yourself what the purpose of each scene is. What changes as a result of the scene?

  • Compassion: A relationship deepens. {She reveals a little more about herself, bringing them closer as a couple.}
  • Compassion: A character’s viewpoint shifts. {He learns the reason his father was such a jerk all those years, shifting his opinion of his father.}
  • Conflict: A clue is presented that will aid in the pursuit of answers. {Even if it’s not yet identified as a clue—maybe the neighbor mentions that his dog went missing last week.}
  • Conflict: The main characters have a disagreement. {This could also cause a shift in our feelings of compassion for one or both characters.}
  • Compassion and Conflict: A character experiences inner turmoil. {Should she marry out of a sense of duty or for love?}
  • Compassion and Conflict: Someone blows up over a minor issue. {Maybe a comment touched a nerve and she overreacted. This causes conflict and opens up an opportunity to share some backstory to deepen her character by explaining what happened when she was little to make her so sensitive to the subject.}

These are the moments that move readers through your book. The overarching story may tie it all together, but it’s these small moments that turn characters into humans and keep readers turning pages to find out what comes next.

Sometimes, even if a scene is only meant to fulfill one of these purposes (compassion or conflict), if it’s too lacking in the other, it still won’t be doing its job. So a fight scene with a ton of action and excitement might feel too long or too detailed if we’re not catching glimpses of the human spark in the midst of it—someone showing concern, loyalty, or weakness, for example. Or if a scene is mainly meant for character development but it’s too full of a backstory info dump or the characters are too content in it, with no hint of the tension that’s driving the story, the feeling of urgency subsides and you’re in danger of making your readers start skimming.

This is where beta readers and editors can be a huge help. Listen to their suggestions and be willing to put the problem spots they point out to the test. Is each scene pulling its weight to drive readers through the story with plenty of compassion and curiosity?  There’s nothing more satisfying for a reader than to finish a book feeling as though they’ve been on an exciting and meaningful journey with someone they connect with and care about.