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Naomi Hughes @NaomiHughesYA
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I haven't done a writing-advice thread in a while because I was so busy working on my WIP, but now that I'm done, how about a chat on the top 5 developmental issues I see as an editor? 📚🖊️💕✨ #amwriting #amediting #writetip
One of the most common issues I see in manuscripts I edit is that the conflict isn't personal enough to the main character. They're doing their own thing, trouble ~happens~, then they have to avoid, fix, or triumph over the (impersonal) trouble.
The problem there is that the story could be happening to literally anyone. Some stories can make this sort of impersonal plot work, but most of the time, the more personal you can make the conflict the better.
Questions to keep in mind to make the conflict/story more personal: how could this trouble affect the MC in a unique way? What does the conflict mean to them that it wouldn't mean to anyone else? Can you make the stakes more personal--what happens to them if they fail?
Problem number 2 that I frequently see in developmental editing: shallow (or no) character arcs. Usually if your story doesn't change the character, it won't change us. A great growth arc can take a story from "a nice read" to "happy sigh/ugly crying/throwing book at wall."
There are a few types of character arcs. Most common = positive arc: they start out with a flaw or problematic worldview, then the conflict forces them to acknowledge, face, & eventually overcome it (which then allows them to triumph in the external conflict too).
A negative character arc is common with villains and sometimes antihero/antiheroine main characters. Think Anakin Skywalker: the MC starts out "good" but with a weakness or flawed belief, then follows it further and further into darkness until they eventually give in completely.
There's also the flat character arc where the MC themselves don't change or grow, but instead force the world around them to do so. This can be hard to pull off and it needs a powerful story and a powerful MC to anchor it.
Third most common problem I see in manuscripts: a flat villain. I see a lot of "pure evil" varieties where the bad guy/girl likes doing evil just because they're bad. This can very rarely be pulled off well, but more commonly makes a shallow & stereotypical character.
Side note: PLEASE do not use "they're crazy" as a motivation for your bad guy/girl to do evil. That's lazy writing, and advances stereotypes that are harmful for real-world people who have real mental illnesses (which look nothing like the "crazy" that you're writing).
Problem number 4: impersonal stakes. Common writing advice says to make the stakes high, but that doesn't mean your plot should necessarily be "they have to do xyz or the world will blow up!" Those stakes are high but impersonal, which means readers won't connect.
To make your stakes personal, go back to some of what I was talking about with the impersonal-conflict problem; how can these stakes matter to this person *specifically*? How would they affect them in a way they wouldn't affect anyone else?
Example of how to make impersonal stakes more personal: your "high" stakes might be "a bad prince will inherit the kingdom." More personal stakes (w/ a deadline!) might be "if I don't kill the prince before coronation day, he'll have my royal advisor father hung as a traitor."
Bonus advice! Here are some ways to escalate your stakes:
-Give (or tighten) a deadline
-Take away options
-Make things more personal
-Heighten risk
-Make the goal more vital
-Make the goal harder to achieve
Another tip on stakes: try to escalate them once or twice during the story. If they're exactly the same throughout, it can make the plot feel flat and stagnant (and often leads to a "saggy middle" syndrome). Escalation is a great way to recharge a reader's interest!
And the final story problem I see most often: romances where there's nothing really keeping the couple apart, or where they're kept apart by a relatively shallow device (like miscommunication or failure to communicate, in a situation where communication *should* be easy).
There are two basic elements to a romance: conflict (the thing keeping the couple apart) and chemistry (the sparks that pull them together). We need both to be strong to invest us in a romance.
Caveat! There are some stories that feature a couple that's already together, with no will-they-or-won't-they tension. That's fine! In those stories, there is no romantic conflict, just relationship dynamics (which can *have* conflict, but don't have to drive the plot).
Things to think about to help you strengthen a romantic conflict: why can't/shouldn't this couple get together? Can there be an external plot-related reason (like, they're enemies), as well as internal issues that must be overcome (lack of trust, bad history, etc.)?
That's it for writing advice today, but here's an update on my editing schedule! 😊
-I'm booking into January for full manuscript jobs
-I have availability for query and synopsis critiques 1-2 weeks out
📣✨📚 A few weeks ago, I talked about some of the most common issues I see at the developmental-editing level. Today, let's chat about the most common problems I see at the next stage of editing: scene craft! 🖊️
Scene craft is something that you can definitely build into your manuscript from draft 1. It's all about keeping the reader riveted at the scene-by-scene level, even if nothing Big is happening.
After the big developmental issues are taken care of, the next round of editing (at least for me) focuses on the story at a more granular level: scenes. Does each scene push at least one element of the plot forward? Can any be combined for greater effect? Cut entirely?
The number-one most common problem I see at the scene level is the unnecessary prologue. Types include: bait-and-switch, start in Evil Guy's POV, de-escalation, misrepresentation, and backstory frontload.
Bait-and-switch prologues start out w/ someone who's NOT a main POV character. We either like them & are then disappointed when they vanish, or we don't vibe with them and stop reading immediately b/c we don't want to spend a book with them.
As for prologues that start out in the bad guy's POV...I usually recommend against them. They tend to be a somewhat lazy characterization shortcut (see, Evil Dude is doing evil things! He's the villain!), and also a bad 1st impression & turnoff for readers.
De-escalation prologues start with BIG ACTION/EVERYONE'S DYING OMG, and then chapter 1 is all "let me take you back to six months ago, when life was totally normal." This tends to feel gimmicky & can annoy readers, & usually de-escalates tension rather than building it.
Backstory frontload (& world-building frontload in SFF) commonly happens in prologues but can also happen in the early chapters of any story. We don't need to know everything about characters & the world to invest in the right-now conflict.
Alternatives to frontloading your manuscript w/ backstory or world-building: salt it in at points where it can have an immediate effect on some right-now conflict, or at least help set a relevant tone for the scene at hand. This keeps your story from getting bogged down w/ info.
Ex: instead of devoting a prologue to the night the curse was laid 16 years ago, start w/ your MC dealing with its aftermath present-day. Running late, he chops through a maze of briars. This curse isn't only evil, it's also annoying, he thinks. Salt in a sentence of backstory.
Problem 2 I see most often at the scene level: scenes that don't change anything. These are stagnant. Neither the main conflict nor any of the subplots (including character growth) evolve in them. Every scene needs to change at least one important story arc, for better or worse.
Problem 3 I see at the scene level: "and thens." One of my favorite rules of writing says each scene should connect to the next w/ either "but" or "therefore," NOT "and then." This will provide a strong chain of cause-&-effect/action-&-consequence, not disconnected events.
The but/therefore rule made my own writing SO MUCH better. It'll tighten your pacing, build tension, keep the reader hooked. Here's a link where its creators (the South Park writers) talk about it:…
Problem 4 at the scene level: the POV character has no goal. Sometimes they're even just observing and narrating, contributing no action (of whatever sort) of their own. That's disengaging for readers.
In most cases, the POV character should always have some sort of goal in each scene. Get information, sneak somewhere, etc. I talk a lot about characters needing to have agency for the big-picture story, but they need it at the small-scale level too.
If your story has multiple POVs and you're having a tough time deciding who should be the POV for which scene, a good rule of thumb is that whoever has the most at stake in that scene or is changed the most by it should be its narrator.
Last problem I see most frequently at the scene level: weak or nonexistent hooks. Hooks are events, lines of interiority, dialogue, plot twists, reminders of dangling story questions, just about anything you put at the very end of a scene/chapter to push readers to keep reading.
Hooks can be a HUGE tool to make your story feel addictive and un-put-downable. Used wrong, or if you use the exact same kind too frequently, or get too gimmicky (ie, arbitrary or quickly-resolved plot twists), they can work against you though.
That's it for today, but if you want to dig more deeply into scene craft, here's an advice thread I did on that a while back:
📣💕📚 Editing update! My current openings for full manuscript jobs:
-1-2 edit letters in December
-1-2 Full Manuscript Critiques in January
-1 Full Manuscript Critique OR edit letter in February
🖊️📘I also have availability to do smaller critiques (queries, synopses, first-chapter partials) within about 1-2 weeks.…
Okay, time for the final installment of my big ol' editing thread. Let's talk about line edits! That final and nit-pickiest round of edits before your manuscript goes to the proofreader.
Line edits are about polishing sentences, smoothing paragraph transitions, clearing out cluttered dialogue, and sharpening hooks that lead a reader into and out of a scene. If that sounds like it takes a long does. As an editor, I line edit at a rate of about 10pg/hour.
Line editing definitely needs to be done after all other editing--developmental, scene, any and all big-picture stuff--is finished. Otherwise you'll waste a ton of time polishing sentences that will just end up getting cut or rewritten later.
As a freelance editor, one question I get sometimes is: do I need to hire a line editor? Answer: it depends. If you're self-publishing, definitely!! If you're looking to query &/or nab a traditional book deal, though, hiring a line editor is typically an unnecessary expense.
Let's talk about a few of the most common problems I spot when I'm line editing. First: filter words. This is you telling us what your MC sees, hears, feels, etc. about a scene instead of showing the scene for itself. "He saw the bird" rather than "The bird darted overhead."
Filter words aren't all automatically evil. Sometimes they can be handy for, say, a quick, voice-y bit of interiority. "Then she saw the wolf." Etc.
But if overused, filter words tend to distance readers from a story and keep us from having an immersive experience. Ask yourself, does this filter word add impact? Or would I get more mileage out of a stronger, more creative verb? "I saw the house" vs "The house loomed ahead."
Another tip I give frequently at the line editing stage: keep an eye out for repetitive sentence structure. This is my favorite way to illustrate that:
Sentence by sentence, your story forms a rhythm, a beat, its own special song. The words are the lyrics. Sentence structure is the melody. Staccato? Long, sustained chords? Your choice will have a big impact on how the reader experiences that moment, that emotion.
Sentence structure can be a very useful tool for showing (rather than telling) your character's mental state as well as imposing a subtle tone on a scene or story. Short, punchy sentences are great for tense moments and big action, for example.
Another line editing issue I see a lot (and am sometimes guilty of myself!) are forced metaphors. I love me a good metaphor, but keep in mind they have to actually make sense, set the tone, and also hopefully give the reader some new insight.
Dialogue tags! They're crafty little suckers. Here's my go-to tip:
-If it's a way of speaking (said, shouted, sang, etc.), it's formatted as a tag. "Go away," he whispered.
-If it's NOT a way of speaking (frowned, coughed, blinked), then it's a new sentence. "Go away." He sighed.
If you need eyes on your YA or MG story or your adult SFF, let me know! I'm currently booking critiques for January, and I have 1-2 openings in late December where I could do an edit letter (inexpensive big-picture feedback).
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