DoaCK Developmental Editing, Part 3

This is a three-part post regarding the developmental editing I got for my first novel through Steve, the Novel DoctorPart 1. Part 2.

This is Steve’s reply to my reply.  I included excerpts from mine to give context.

…In either case, it seems that the bulk of the marketing and advertising falls on the author’s shoulders which then seems to make the idea of self publishing all the more appealing. Except then there is the battle to rise above the huge amount of noise.

Just a note – marketing has always been something that lands most squarely on the authors’ shoulders. Yes, publishing houses have marketing budgets to help launch a new book/author, but unless they’re projecting huge sales, that budget is tiny. In this “new world” of social marketing, it’s truer than ever that authors have a lot of hard work ahead of them. That’s just the reality of trying to become noticed when there are literally thousands of books competing for the same eyes/ears/reviews/sales.

…Of course, I fantasized you’d say I was the greatest thing since sliced bread and tell me you knew just the right agent, but instead I’ve got my worst-case scenario: I need to put in dozens of hours (at least) to get it ready to approach agents, then the silly process of trying to actually get published, all for the pittance offered.

If you want me to tell you you’re a crappy writer, I can do that. But that would be a stretch. I know it’s frustrating to be caught somewhere in the middle, but the truth is, that’s where most authors are – both successful ones and those who don’t sell a single book. The number of truly awful authors is bigger than that of truly great ones, but most of us are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Of course, all of that is subjective, so what some editors/agents/publishers say is “middle of the road” could be “top of the heap” to others. Yeah. I know. More mud to slog through. In some ways I wish this were easier to assess – but then again, that would mean no space for surprises or outliers.

…I’m now convinced I’m not the right guy to do erotica, but I’ve only had the one reader that ‘specialized’ in that sort of reading (she was the one that said it was too much or too little). As mentioned elsewhere, I plan on (assuming I move forward) substantially upping the romance of the first sex scene, but don’t intend to add erotica back when doing so.

I can certainly look at that if you like. I’m more concerned with the overall “flow” of the plot regarding the romance and sex, though. It’s a bigger picture issue than merely adding more scenes. It’s about the slow build, I suppose, rather than plugging scenes in to hit some kind of nebulous quota.

…As one of Seacay’s hobbies is reading, I would expect he would attempt to adhere to a lot of things you are describing, so I believe that the changes you are suggesting will allow me to maintain the goal I set out to achieve.

I gathered this was the conceit, but still had to wonder if it might be more compelling with the past tense approach. It still has that immediacy and intimacy of first person, but without the occasionally clumsy present tense issues.

…I want to show some sort of transformation for her, though, because as I reveal later in this book and emphasize in later books, she has very little interest in sex with anyone, but particularly men. I felt it was important to show why she would be willing to consider trying to get her man, but I do agree it could be put further off in the story.

Yes. Sometimes when the backstory comes too soon, it steals some of that wonderful “wondering” that readers do while they read. It’s all a balancing act, of course, and knowing when to reveal something about a character is one of the trickiest parts of writing. But it’s worth careful review in the revision process because it’s often the difference between a compelling read and a benign one.

I agree with the ‘show vs tell’ issue, but often need some help in specifically addressing instances. I certainly ‘tell’ a lot, but I feel it is necessary to move the story along. Based on comments from you and other readers, my conclusion is much of my ‘telling’ is acceptable, so I need specific instances (like the one you point out above).

Yes. Telling is fine and necessary in fiction. But the most compelling sections tend to be those show, so more show will mean more engagement.

The way I wrote the original sex scene there was lots of graphic, fluid filled sex. I think I cut too much, or rather, didn’t adequately replace the fluids with something else. I’ve been working on converting the novel to a screenplay (as if I didn’t already have enough distractions already 😉 and have been looking at each key scene (I consider that one of the most key) and realized that, as written, there is essentially no way any reasonable reader (or viewer) would think these two people had got unrecoverably hooked on one another.


…If, as seems to be the growing consensus, stories written with this goal in mind are not ‘interesting’, then it is probably best for me to set these aside. I understand the general draw of ‘coming of age’ stories as they allow for the traditional angst, mistakes and dumbdumbs, but my whole goal is/was to write something after that point.

I certainly understand that. And there are successful novels with similar “super-hero” protagonists. I’m fine with that. I just like to point out things that stand out to me as “opportunities” for the author. In this case, the opportunity was to make Seacay a bit more relatable, despite his obvious skill and experience. It’s when we stumble that we most seem human, so that’s sort of the point I was making. Still, you need to trust your gut ultimately so it’s a book you enjoy.

…Considering myself a likely ‘conscienceless killer’, just an unproven one, I model Seacay after myself regarding the damn chick flicks (ever watch ‘Courage Under Fire’? Who knew a movie about war and blowing shit up was a chick flick; that happened to be the first movie I watched with my now wife and still acutely remember the pain of holding in the tears while we watched the damn thing).

Point taken. Yes, the ol’ “choked up” rather than tears. I actually liked that Seacay had this “chick flick” issue. I just mentioned it because I wanted to be sure you are being consistent with his character. Again, it works. But maybe you need him to acknowledge even more directly that while he’s emotionless on the job, and perhaps in relationships (apart from Isabel), for some reason he’s unable to put up the wall when watching those movies. You sort of address this – but I think having him acknowledge that disconnect could go a long way toward erasing any “is this consistent?” questions in the minds of readers.

I guess I would need some specific pointers where I need to shift from telling to showing. I understand your point, but have read quite a few authors that I like and respect and they often will tell just to move things along. I would rather ‘dwell’ on the plot points I think are important than invest a lot of time (mine and the readers) on what I consider points not germane.

I have found that a good “showing” scene makes up for a whole host of telling scenes meant to move something along. Think about the goal of the scene – is it to describe a job in detail? Then use your telling as much as needed. But if it’s to reveal something about a character, it seems to me there would be benefit in zooming in close to a “showing” scene and leaving space for the reader to play a role.

…Still, when I go around depending on a needle gun that knocks people out before they can fire their own gun, I figure a small addition of a heart attack inducing chemical isn’t that far a leap.

That’s fine. I only ask these sorts of questions because I know some readers will. I will say this, though, when an author says “Well, it happened in real life, so of course it could in a novel,” I have to press pause. Because what exists in real life, and what works in real life, doesn’t always work in fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than non-fiction.

Maybe I do need to remove/rewrite that, but it was a key scene I came up with early and I feel shows them both struggling with their feelings for each other. I also want to show that Isabel is struggling with their relationship as well.

I just wonder if there’s a better, still awkward, approach that doesn’t dive directly into misogyny. Which is what it feels like in context.

…I also feel that Seacay, in adapting his diaries, would be cagey about some of those details, but I can also see that he would conclude he should make some stuff up to help the reader. I’ll think about how to go about adding more such flavor.

Fair enough. But he does mention how many months/years it’s been in the text, so why not make that clearer for the reader. This actually could enhance the “diary” aspect of the form.

…On the one hand I hate sub titles, on the other hand, I hate Anglicizing everything, particularly since I think non-US viewers might be a significant fraction (at least I would be targeting them, were things to proceed to that point).

This is a case where clarity probably trumps cleverness (or even accuracy). This is the same dilemma historical fiction writers face when trying to figure out how much classical language to include, etc.

…As I said before, I don’t think I emphasis enough that they spent several sex-filled days at the end of their first job and no matter how fantastic the sex is, if nothing more there has to be some conversation while the body recovers. I think if I am able to effectively get that point across that perhaps this element won’t be as out of place.

Yes, that will solve this.

…The vulnerabilities I want to show (perhaps not well) is that he is out of his comfort zone because of Isabel. I can see to adding more layers of evident distraction, perhaps catching his mind wandering or something like that.

I think the key here might be for him to ponder more about his rather quick decision to partner. It goes so against his nature, yet there’s not that much resistance to the idea.

…This event (giving the second a specific drug cocktail) isn’t spontaneous, it is the result of a long period of careful planning on Seacay’s part. I’m trying to tell the story entertainingly, but quickly, to show his expertise is more than simply tripping people going down some stairs or shooting them with a needle gun.

Maybe what’s missing here is a piece of narrative that helps readers see how much time has gone into this job before what we see on the page. That would answer some of the concerns. And I’ve already noted my general concerns about “convenience” above.

…I wanted to show that he isn’t just about unbelievably beautiful women, but is more about personalities once there has been interaction.

This is fine. It’s just that there’s an abundance of things that appear rather conveniently. This would be stronger if there were fewer of those, I think.

…I could just drop Seacay’s story and keep Tessa’s if you think that achieves what’s necessary. I guess this also applies to below as well.

I like having more Tessa. Maybe you can solve the concern about “perfect” Seacay by addressing it more directly. As noted earlier, sometimes when you have the protagonist directly address the issue that the reader may be pondering, you eliminate it as a concern in the readers’ minds. It’s like you could have him say, “I know I’m a bit of an ideal – a superhero who has all the right skills at all the right time. But it’s not like I started out that way. And history is written by the victors, so I’m telling the story my way.”

I agree that some transition is helpful. Perhaps a good place for one of those ‘living it up’ scenes where he is having a great time, but is seeing Isabel everywhere he looks.


…I was trying to make his earlier ‘vanishing’ acts more believable by showing some of what was involved in making that happen. I guess this applies to the below as well.

I could see this. But readers have already made their assessment about his abilities from the previous scenes where he just does these things. So the explanation comes a bit late, and may feel more like story apologetics than a narrative necessity.

…Perhaps the marathon dialog needs to be broken somehow, except I don’t want them to interact physically and don’t really see them being this intimate at, say, a restaurant.

I think the key here might be showing a little more dialogue earlier, or at least some aborted attempts at communication so when this flood comes it feels like it’s been building.

I can see I’ve hammered home my average looks and memory aspect, but I want to show him getting started before he joins the military and this story seems plausible to me.

The first kill comes without any real vetting of who he is, though, right? I think that was my concern.

…In my mind this doesn’t show anything particularly super human, he knows what meds the target has been prescribed and even if he didn’t already know the result of higher doses he could learn that trivially.

This is fine. Just keep in mind that my comments about this stuff are mostly about the abundance of convenient skills, etc. Readers will get to a breaking point on the believability of a story/character when they’ve had to swallow (pun intended) too many things that required suspension of disbelief. That point is different for different readers, of course.

…As I’ve said, I think my first sex scene needs a massive overhaul and with that done correctly, I think this scene might fit in better.


…I can see interweaving those discussions within the body of the novel, perhaps that would ‘speed things up’ on the job.

It might simply be an issue of the form you chose to write the novel. When it’s a series of jobs, there is going to be a baseline “sameness” to some of the action. But my concern here was more about the stuff that happened before that, which just touched on themes about Seacay that I felt had already been adequately addressed.

I agree in principle, but need specifics in order to focus enough to come up with alternatives. Perhaps, if I persuade myself to move forward with this writing, I can get your “Red Pen of Life and Death” or “Comprehensive Edit” and you can point those locations out.

[I’ll save my Kindle notes. Out of habit I started to highlight things I’d address in the Red Pen. They’re written in my own little shorthand, or I’d send them along.]

I suppose I could do away with the chapter, but felt it was important to show the reader some of the effort he puts into his layers of disguise.

Which you already did earlier, right?

…I get that when there is a theme with readers there is an issue that needs to be addressed and in this case I am not so attached to it that I would want to stick with it, but I feel something like this is important.

I’m fine with the psychological operations idea. It actually makes sense, assuming of course that Seacay is skilled in this as well as the other jobs (kills, observation, requisition of data, etc). Psyops would be a rather specialized field, wouldn’t it? So to make Seacay an expert at this too…well, you know my general thoughts on that.

…BTW, don’t really get the ‘bit on the nose’ reference, where does that come from? Going with what I recall in my reading, I would interpret ‘on the nose’ as being ‘right on target’, the opposite of what I think you are trying to convey.

The “on the nose” reference is just to say it feels too neatly packaged. It’s a phrase used a lot with movies – you’ve probably seen some dialogue that just feels like it was drafted to answer questions for readers, rather than sounding organic to the moment. That’s what I was referring to.

Well, I’ve designed and built a house (along with my wife, the two of us doing 90%+ of the work) as well as an indoor pool/greenhouse, all from reading books, so it doesn’t sound like any sort of stretch to me. My goal with the story about the bondage is to show how Isabel and Tessa came together, to make it clear that they have had a long, loving relationship. Perhaps it comes too late for proper impact.

Yes. It does come a bit late. It’s all bunched up at the end of the novel, though the truth of these two would have been evidence at least in clues here and there much earlier.

…I can see adding some of the elements scattered around the rest of the book, that would make this chapter much shorter.

Yes. That will help a bunch.

…I want to have to defend the elements I think are critical, if I can’t convince a professional editor that they are important, perhaps either they aren’t as important as I thought or, as is likely in this case, I’m just trying to do something that doesn’t have a ready market.

I didn’t mention funds because I skipped over that question in your editorial note. Not on purpose – I was focusing on the editorial notes. I can tell from your writing (and from these notes) that you have a great interest in making this better, but also that you have strong opinions on what that might look like. Both are admirable qualities in a writer. Being open to editorial suggestions and direction gives you the chance to grow, but without some conviction about the story, it’s like taking a writing class, rather than writing a novel. Which by the way, isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve worked with lots of writers on books that became a living writing class rather than a publishable work. Writing ain’t easy. And making money from it is even harder. But for those who feel the compulsion to write, the hard, long road is something to embrace.

Just a few more thoughts – first, there is no such thing as wasted writing for anyone who desires to be a writer. I have the sense that you’re not entirely sure you need to be a writer so much as someone who wants to make money writing. (Though as noted – your natural writing voice is good – you’re far from a hack.) The two aren’t entirely distinct, but if you find yourself frustrated by the process now, I can assure you it’s not going to get any easier.

This is something I tell all my writers: don’t quit your day job. I know, you’re talking about retirement, but the same truth applies. No one can tell you with assurance if your books will ever find a substantial audience. That’s been true in publishing forever. Of course, if you have to write, then no one can tell you not to (nor should they). But if it all comes down to dollars, you’ll never hear me saying “drop everything and write full time” because that’s simply unwise. Could you be a huge seller someday? I can’t say “no” because I can’t predict trends and luck and opportunities. But the vast majority of writers (including some brilliant ones and plenty of average ones and more than a few hacks) won’t earn back what they spend on editing/covers (if they self-publish) or much more than their advance (if they publish traditionally). That’s just reality.

Of all my writer friends (and clients), I only know a handful that make anything near 50K a year from writing alone. A great goal, and for a select few, reachable. But you have to be totally committed to the marketing game, however you get published. And that’s practically a full time job in itself.

Okay, enough harsh reality. If you feel you must write, write. I’d be happy to work with you to help shape a book into something that might garner more agent interest (no promises – but that’s always the goal). I enjoy the give and take that comes with the editorial process. I always grow as an editor with every project, but especially with those that are trying to do something a little different.

I hope those of you who stuck through this to the end got something out of my exchange. Steve’s input triggered me to make changes to my novel that I easily believe made it 10x better. His feedback also gave me confidence in my abilities as a writer, allowing me to believe my quixotic quest to become a professional writer wasn’t entirely misplaced. I felt it was well worth the money and the wait and recommend developmental editing to anyone who is serious about their craft, whether they intend to publish or just grow their skills.

Author: mitusents

Biochemist, MBA, then programmer. Now novelist, screenplay writer and hopefully director. What a strange trip it's been.