Handing your manuscript to a fiction editor can feel intimidating.
Of course, if you’re working with a quality editor, you trust that they are capable at their job, won’t judge you as a writer or a person, and will treat your work with respect. But what exactly will they be looking for as they turn through your carefully crafted pages? Knowing what questions your fiction editor will ask can ease anxiety and know what to expect when you get a developmental note back. Additionally, you can anticipate and fix potential problem areas before the hand off.
Here are eight questions every good fiction editor will ask as they sit down to work:
Question #1: Does This Book Follow Genre Guidelines While Remaining Fresh and Interesting?
If you’re writing fiction, your book will probably fall into a specific genre or sub-genre. It might even be an amalgamation of more than one genre, like a romantic horror novel or a detective novel set in the Old West. Regardless of your book’s genre, it will need to do two things simultaneously.
First, your book will need to follow genre guidelines in some way. Some genres have more strict guidelines than others, but all genres will have some level of expectation involved. Even if you’re writing in a more loosely defined genre — such as literary, surreal, or absurdist fiction — certain stylistic and structural guidelines are going to dictate where you can and cannot go in your narrative.
This is important for a couple reasons. It helps the reader feel more secure and comfortable immersing themselves in your storyworld. Investment in a narrative requires a level of trust that the author knows what their doing, and one of the best ways to establish your credibility is to stick (at least to some degree) to established genre guidelines. Adherence to genre is also important for getting your book acquired. Manuscripts that are otherwise brilliant are frequently passed over because the publisher “wouldn’t be able to effectively market it.” As fraught with controversy as the idea of categorizing art is, the unfortunate truth is that putting a label on your manuscript will help it sell.
On the other end of the spectrum, your book will also need to defy expectations and be fresh and interesting. Your editor will keep a look out for plots, characters, settings or even word choice that comes across as predictable or cliche. Falling into a trope or relying too much on archetypes are hazards every fiction writer will face. A good editor will be able to flag these and make sure you are taking the path less trodden.
Question #2: Where Are The Plot Holes?
Plot holes are dangerous, not only to the story but also to the credibility of the author. Stumbling across an unexplained, contradictory, or coincidental plot point in the middle of a book (or worse, at the end) can trip up a reader, causing them to doubt the author’s ability to tell a solid story. And as any bookworm knows, it’s very hard for an author to regain trust once the suspension of disbelief has snapped.
That said, every story of a certain length will have plot holes, whether that’s your 300-page novel or the latest summer blockbuster superhero movie. It’s just a fact of life. So when your editor inevitably points out that the logic behind a scene is fuzzy or that a character’s motivation doesn’t quite follow, don’t be upset or embarrassed. It’s nothing they haven’t seen before, and more often than not, all that’s needed to fix it is a new perspective.
Question #3: Is The Main Character Supposed To Be The Main Character?
One of the most shocking things a fiction editor can tell their writer is: “I don’t think your main character should be your main character.” But during a developmental edit, absolutely everything is under scrutiny, even the main character.
If your editor suggests changing the main character, it could encompass anything from switching their name or gender to making an interesting side character the protagonist instead. For example, you could write the story from the perspective of the frequent coffee shop patron, but why not write it from the perspective of the barista behind the counter? The kind and quality of interaction with the plot will change from character to character, and it could be that the most interesting perspective is one you haven’t yet explored.
Question #4: Which Point Of View Offers The Best Immersion In Your Storyworld?
Similarly to the last question on perspective, your editor might have some cool ideas about how to switch up the point of view. Often, it’s instinctive for writers to take on a distant omniscient third-person POV, reminiscent of the classics we all read in high school. After all, if Dickens or Tolkien used it, why shouldn’t you?
Well, it turns out that distant omniscient third is not the POV of choice anymore, as instinctual as it might be. It can come across as cold and uninterested, or even untrustworthy. It might be that a close limited first-person POV works better for your story, adding an immediate and visceral element to your work. There are even some successful books that relay their plot through second-person POVs, an unconventional choice that might give your book the punch it needs to stand out on the slush pile.
It’s your editor’s job to make sure these out-of-the-box questions get asked. That way, you can be sure every aspect of your manuscript is intentional and finely-tuned to give the best reading experience.
Question #5: Does The Story Start And End Where It’s Supposed To?
Many of us might think that long prologues and verbose beginnings are an indication of good literature (again, think Dickens or Tolkien). These days, however — unless you’re writing high fantasy — this really isn’t the best course of action when attempting to hook a reader. That said, dropping a reader into the middle of a plot without any kind of explanation has it’s own drawbacks, leading to confusion or frustration and necessitating tedious amounts of backstory later on. First impressions are important, so it’s crucial to achieve that balance between easing a reader into the story world without boring them.
Endings can be similarly tricky. Some writers will end a book abruptly, which can throw readers off and leave them feeling betrayed. After investing so much time in a story, they will want a generous wrap-up (or at least a well-crafted cliffhanger). That said, endings that take too long could make readers put the book down with pages still unread. Meting out information at the right pace and in the right portions will be a good editor’s forte, and they will be able to make sure your book begins and ends at exactly the right place.
Question #6: Are You Calling Your Book By Its True Name?
Every book has a “true name,” a title that just works when you hear it. It’s happened time and time again. “Yes,” you say. “That’s it.” Could you imagine Harper Lee’s book being called anything but To Kill A Mockingbird? Ernest Hemingway almost published The Sun Also Rises under the title Fiesta. Faulkner wanted The Sound and the Fury to be called Twilight.Of course, finding this true name for your manuscript is a tricky and time-consuming process, and will require lots of title brainstorming and an open mind.
Industry tip: As an acquisitions editor, I can safely say that 90% of the time, the publisher is going to want to change the title of the manuscript they acquire.
There could be any number of reasons for this: the title needs to fit more snugly into their front list, it should be more obviously geared toward a specific demographic, or it simply could be more aesthetically pleasing. Regardless, crafting your title with the help of an editor who knows the industry will give it a better chance of sticking through the acquisitions process.
Question #7: What Are Three Recent Books That This Reminds Me Of, And Are They Selling Well?
If your editor is serious about helping you get your book published, they will do some research on comp titles after finishing your manuscript. This should be included in any comprehensive editing package, and you should definitely request it if it isn’t originally included.
Comp titles are books in the same genre, published within the past three or four years, by a publisher of similar size to the one you would be submitting to. Using industry platforms that aggregate sales data, and editor discover how well these comp titles have sold. Being able to present a potential publisher with some impressive stats for similar books will not only make your book more appealing, it will show them that you understand the industry and understand that book publishing is, first and foremost, a business.
Question #8: Where Do We Go From Here?
By the time they get to the last page of your manuscript, your editor will have a pretty good idea of what is necessary to get your book to the next level. If you’ve handed in a first draft, chances are there are still a few heavy copyedits in your future. If you’ve been self-editing your manuscript meticulously for years and are only now handing an editor a polished fifth draft, you might be only a light edit away from the submission process.
If your editor decides that more editing is necessary, don’t feel bad! Every editing plan is different for every editor. This is never an indication of your abilities as a writer or an indictment of your self-editing skills. In fact, often when an editor requests a second or third draft, it is because they have confidence and believe in your manuscript and want to make sure it gets as much TLC as possible before getting sent into the world.
These eight questions are just a sample of the kind of structural and logistical considerations your fiction editor will have when helping you develop your book. However, knowing these ahead of time will not only help you anticipate any potentially startling or intimidating editorial queries, but will also give you some preliminary guidelines if you’re hoping to self-edit a draft yourself.
Are you a writer looking for your next step in the publication process? Whether that’s editing your manuscript, helping you put together a proposal package, or making sure your personal brand is strong enough to attract publishers, I’m here to help! Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website for more information.