The Power of the Editor

June 13, 2022 § 26 Comments

By Cathy Shields

Forty years ago, while taking a college course in children’s literature, I set out to write a children’s book. But my career as an elementary school teacher interfered, and my publishing dreams evaporated. When I became a mother of a child with a disability, the next twenty years blurred the boundaries between order and chaos.

By the time I took another creative writing class, my children were teenagers, and I was in my late forties. The teacher wielded his pen like a sword, a grizzled old guy who yelled at students when they couldn’t explain where to place a comma in a sentence. Still, he walked around the room cajoling us with, ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about my chaotic life. The idea for my book jelled with a theme which revolved around raising a child with disabilities.

I joined writing groups to help develop my skills; I learned about first, second, and third persons; first, second and third drafts, how to identify weak verbs, how to self-edit, how to revise, and the differences between passive and active voice. Fast forward another two years. I attended my first writing conference, ready to query my manuscript. I met an editor who taught the craft of memoir. After I described my book, she told me the next step should be a developmental edit.

I did not yet understand what an editor could do and, unwilling to make the financial commitment, I relied on my writing groups and scores of beta readers for feedback on whether my book was ready before I began researching agents. Responses bounced between form rejections and silence. After fifty queries, I got one request for a full manuscript and within two weeks, a rejection.

Would I ever get my book published? I thought my story about how I faced an internal struggle to accept my child with intellectual disabilities, had universal interest. The theme: learning acceptance. I had fought my child’s diagnoses until I gradually came to the realization that my daughter did not need to change, I did. Perhaps I had revised the story so many times that I had become shortsighted. Maybe it was time to find an editor.

The one I found appreciated the story I was trying to tell, and with her help, I revised and sent out a new round of queries. A well-known press showed interest; I had a request for the full manuscript. I am still astounded that I emailed them to get more insight into the rejection.

Their response?

Too much reporting about doctors and specialists.

I sought out a new editor. This time I asked writer friends for recommendations. The person I chose, Monica, taught creative writing at a university and had published a memoir about a difficult subject, the imminent death of her baby. Although her editing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get my book published, I believed her insight could add a new perspective to the narrative arc of my story.

Two weeks later, I received the revised manuscript. The sculpting almost made me cry. The opening scene disappeared; the one everyone told me had to remain for my hook, the one where the doctor labels my child profoundly retarded.

In her editorial notes, she wrote: Don’t give the whole story away in the first chapter.

She moved scenes and pointed out where I needed to build scenes or add dialogue, but she hadn’t twisted my voice into her own words. What she had done was fiddle with structure. That’s when I finally understood the power of a good editor. Monica was the surgeon, I, the intern. She taught me what to cut away to repair and restructure.

I sent out the newly edited version in my next batch of queries, surprised when I received multiple requests for the full-length manuscript. None of this would have happened without my writing community, the previous editors, my beta readers, and the editor with eagle eyes. Last week, I signed a contract to have my memoir, The Shape of Normal, published with Vine Leaves Press. The book will be out in the fall of 2023.

___

Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir THE SHAPE OF NORMAL A Mother’s Journey from Disbelief to Acceptance, (Vine Leaves Press 2023), Catherine explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her stories have appeared in Mother Magazine, 50 Give or Take, Kaleidoscope, Uncomfortable Revolution, Write City, and Manifest-Station, and her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. She resides in Miami, Florida with her husband who she’s been married to forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. She blogs at www.cathyshieldswriter.com or you can follow her on Instagram @cathyshieldswriter.

Lighting the Path: Getting the Best from Your Beta Readers

February 10, 2022 § 38 Comments

By Heidi Croot

Author photo of Heidi Croot

They’ll respond with a quick “yes” because they’ll want to please you.

Then the inevitable panic will bloom in their eyes. A vigorous throat clearing across the phone line. A dust-up of confusion in their email.

“Um, what is a beta reader supposed to do exactly?”

Of the eighteen people I asked to test-read my memoir manuscript—fellow writers, psychotherapists, friends, and family members (including my aunts and uncle who appear frequently in its pages…read about that here)—only three knew from experience what they were saying yes to.

The rest needed help. And I was eager to provide it, knowing the more they gained clarity and confidence, the more I stood to reap constructive insights.

Hence the “Beta Reader Guidelines,” a one-pager I developed to guide willing but inexperienced people in what to notice and mention as they turn my pages.

Below, my template, which I offer to Brevity Blog readers and fellow striving writers to adapt and use as you see fit, with my heartfelt good wishes for the success of your writing project.

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity blog, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi at twitter.com/heidicroot.


What is the Role of a Beta Reader?

Thank you for helping me work out the kinks and make the book better!

First thing to know…

This page is meant to offer a menu of suggestions, in the event you’ve never been a beta reader before and are unsure how to proceed. Pick and choose what resonates or go entirely your own way.

Second thing to know: please respond by…

…a month after receipt. If this is not possible, please let me know quickly so I can find a replacement.

The best way you can help…

  1. Be a finder, not a fixer. The beta reader’s job is to highlight problem areas (nothing is sacred); the writer’s job is to fix them (but by all means, share ideas if they occur).
  2. Be honest and straightforward. A useful technique is to offer feedback in the form of questions.
  3. Pay attention to your body as you read: it will signal enjoyment or frustration.
  4. Choose how to send me your feedback: You can a) mark up pages in the manuscript; b) use an online revision tool; c) write a note with your comments and page numbers; or d) call or zoom.

Mechanical problems

As you read, please mark where…

  • you have to read something twice to get it
  • the dialogue doesn’t sound natural
  • the facts are wrong (e.g. dates, timelines, behaviour theory)
  • something is repeated, redundant, contradictory, sloppy
  • you notice continuity problems (e.g. inconsistencies in how people, places, beliefs are described)

Gut reactions

As you read, please mark where…

  • your attention stalls, you’re bored, you’re skimming pages (because it’s saggy and dull; you’re asking why is this section even in here; you’ve lost that “what’s going to happen next” feeling)
  • you’re especially engaged by a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter: it stands out, you laughed or cried
  • you feel a spike of annoyance, such as when something…
    • is hinted at, or dangled, but you’re made to wait too long
    • doesn’t seem to fit with what has gone before; e.g. is out of character
    • is misleading
    • lacks fair-mindedness; e.g. is unnecessarily judgmental

Your thoughts about the narrator

  • What is her prime goal? Do you have a good sense of what she wants and fears early enough in the book?
  • Why do you trust or distrust the narrator?
  • What makes you like or dislike the narrator?
  • Over the course of the book, how does she change, how does she grow, what does she learn?
  • Is her “voice” (tone, style, use of language, personality) consistent throughout?

Overall…

  • What is your big-picture impression of the book?
  • Did the first chapter “hook” you; i.e. make you want to keep reading?
  • Did the last chapter satisfy you?
  • Did the book show you something new, did you have an “aha” moment, do you think about certain things in a different way?
  • Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve read?
  • Would you recommend the book to a friend (i.e. someone who enjoys memoir)?

I appreciate your time and look forward to your feedback!

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