This is a three-part post regarding the developmental editing I got for my first novel through Steve, the Novel Doctor. Part 2. Part 3.
My hope is by reading this you can get some sort of idea on what dev editing is and how it works to help improve your novel. Even though I didn’t always agree with Steve (you’ll see that in Part 2), his feedback always inspired me. That’s the relationship I think you should look for in a dev editor. If, for some reason, you aren’t clicking on that level with yours, I suggest trying someone else. I read a lot of Steve’s blog posts before I felt he was ‘the one;’ you may need to invest that level of research as well. There are lots of good editors out there, but you want one sympathetic to your story goals and interested in your story (he read the first two chapters before committing).
Editorial Review for Diary of a Contract Killer
The Big Picture
This is mostly what you’re looking for – that quantitative measure of how close to “there” you are with the novel. You know what I’m going to say here – that’s kind of an impossible thing to provide. And here’s why: I’ve read dozens of novels I’d have said were brilliant or nearly so; clearly better than most of the stuff that gets published. But only a smattering of those books actually found a publisher, and fewer still found any modicum of success. Alternately, I’ve worked on some novels that, to me, fell notably short of “there” that went on to find a sizable audience. There are just too many variables to offer any kind of trustworthy prediction about possible success. The notes that follow will outline the areas I think need the most attention – and I believe addressing those can help you get closer to the “there” you’re looking for.
Let’s look at it this way – can you write? Yes. There’s a quiet confidence in your writing voice that suggests you have some natural talent. Is this a story that readers will enjoy? With some revisions, I believe there is an audience for it. However, the challenges of finding that audience may make it difficult to grab an agent’s interest. Whenever writers step out and try something that doesn’t have a proven track record of sales, agents find themselves in a quandary. If they love the story anyway, they might take on the author, hoping to find a way into a publishing house with something “new” despite the overall concern about whether or not that thing can actually sell enough copies to make them money. But more often, when considering the manuscripts in front of them – the cool, but different “DoaCK,” and a half dozen genre novels that may not be as cool but are selling a ton in the market – they’ll go with the one they think publishers will jump at. That’s not a judgment on the quality of the writing or even the novel itself; just the realities of publishing as a business. (My own writing is similar in that it doesn’t immediately tell agents “this will sell,” but rather sneaks up on them and makes them feel bad that they can’t choose to represent me. Heard that from three very sad/apologetic agents on the most recent work.)
This needs some work, though. Even though you can eschew a traditional narrative structure and approach by design, you’ll still need something to compel readers to keep reading. Ostensibly, it’s the romance between Seacay and Isabel, but there just isn’t enough on the page as written to compel readers to stick around. The contract jobs are interesting and will appeal to some readers, but anyone looking for romance will instead find scattered scenes of sex, a tease of something more substantial, and a few intriguing but underdeveloped themes of longing on the part of our hero. If you can develop those aspects of the story, and build Seacay’s growing love for Isabel over time, you’ll have that audience’s interest. I’d probably just call it contemporary fiction – and not try to oversell the literary angle. “Literary” is an assessment more than a genre, anyway. And it’s a label that screams “low sales” to many agents. As written, it’s definitely not a romance novel. It isn’t erotica, either, though it sounds like you could almost turn it in that direction by going back to what you were originally writing. In that case, you’d have an alpha male (of the highest degree) who falls for one (or two) strong female characters. This might be the direction to go, since you already have the framework for adding more scenes that ooze sex and power and (eventually) something resembling love.
Okay, that’s the big picture. I have a sense that your writing voice isn’t quite “there” yet, but that it’s well on its way. The only way to find it is to keep writing, of course. Can this become something worthy of a significant audience? Hard to say. But if you enjoy writing (or feel compelled to write), I’d encourage you to keep doing that no matter what this book does. I will, however, caution you to say that writing typically doesn’t turn into much in the way of income. I have a few writers who are making some money (not a ton, but enough to pay a few bills and keep writing), but most are lucky to break even, at least on their first books. It really does take having a backlist before you start to see notable income, and only then if you’ve managed to build a good list of readers.
Discouraging? Sure. Writing is hard. Making money as a writer is harder. But both are possible if you stick to it and embrace the paradox of patience and persistence.
With that, on to the more specific notes…
The Inner Monologue Dilemma
One of the great challenges of first person narrative (particularly first person present tense) is finding the balance between inner monologue and external action/exposition. The tendency is to overdo the inner monologue, but the result of that is exhausting the readers (often due to repetition of themes or ideas). This draft shows that you have tried to address that (whether by design or happenstance), and that’s a good thing. However, you can tighten the voice even more. Here’s a small example from early in the novel. You wrote:
She considers this for a while. I look at her as she drives, her hair is so silky I have to actively resist the urge to reach out and run my fingers through it. I’m of two minds of being on my own again: I really find her distracting but I don’t really want to end the distraction. Watching her think is fascinating. She’s capably driving the car yet making plans for infiltration at the same time. I think, on balance, I’ll be better off clearing my mind and perhaps breaking this spell she has on me.
Thing is, we already know Seacay is distracted by her. That’s been well established in what has gone before. So every time you mention it after that, it has the effect of pummeling the reader with something they already know. The solution is to cut back the obvious and let readers intuit what they’ve already learned. For example in this paragraph, you could just as easily say:
She considers this for a while. I look at her as she drives, her hair is so silky I have to actively resist the urge to reach out and run my fingers through it. Watching her think is fascinating. She’s capably driving the car yet making plans for infiltration at the same time.
This tells the readers he’s entranced, curious. And readers will already make the leap to conclude that it might be wise not to be distracted. They don’t need to be told.
Another general thought about the narrative – Seacay describes a lot of things as “this is what I usually do” in his internal monologues. I’m fine with seeing some of his planning in “real time,” but too much preliminary analysis/planning can steal some of the wonder of discovery from the moments when he actually enacts his plans. It’s a case of telling the reader what’s coming, then showing them when it happens, and if they’re not demonstrably different, it feels like redundancy.
Suspense and intrigue are built as much on what’s not said as what’s said. This applies equally to a budding romance.
I have to wonder what the book would sound like in first person, past tense. I have a gut feeling it could be stronger that way.
I like the tease back and forth between Seacay and Isabel. Especially the way Seacay analyzes her skills and is equally distracted by them (and her obvious beauty). But they sure do get deep fast, at least in the last chapters in Part One where she’s sharing all about her backstory, without any apparent hesitation. It seems to me that trust is a rare thing for a contract killer, so I’m wondering if this is believable for them. I almost wish you’d use the whole first Part to tease the coming relationship. Perhaps they do fall into bed by the end of the section, but don’t share all those intimate details about their lives. Leave some of that off the page early on to create more of that all-important intrigue that will compel readers. Let some mystery remain in Seacay’s head/heart, so the tug back to her becomes even more significant.
BTW, “Isabel as distraction” is a good plot device. But maybe have less obvious mentions of this – show, don’t tell. Let us “feel” Seacay’s distractedness, follow his eyes to Isabel, his thoughts as well, instead of saying “Isabel is a distraction” in so many words.
Bottom line is this: secrecy is power – so wouldn’t there be some of that going on even in this budding romance?
Also, while I certainly can buy Seacay’s “no other relationship will compare to this” snap judgment, based on his experience with Isabel, it’s a big leap for someone who’s thus far considered women to be little more than distractions. I think it can work – perhaps even better if you do what I suggest above – but it’s the kind of thing that grows on you, rather than is immediately certain. At least I think that would be true. Perhaps even moreso if there are some unanswered questions – some secrets – re: Isabel.
See other notes below on the romance and how to make it stronger.
For someone who prefers to work alone, he sure was quick to agree to help Tessa and Isabel. I wondered if this was believable for someone who by choice, and by personality, needs to be highly protective of his choices regarding other people (especially people in the same business). He just needs to act honestly from that core of who he is for readers to trust him and care about him. Not that he can’t have cracks that show he’s not entirely consistent, but that he tries to be consistent to the core truths he’s embraced.
I’ll mention this a few times, but his skillset is a bit hard to believe. Yes, in Part Three we see some imperfections and hiccups in the execution of his plans, but it’s rare. It’s something that will cause some readers to go “really?” when you want them to go “cool.” For example, he always seems to have exactly the tech he needs to get the job done. That can feel like a plot contrivance at times. What if he has to improvise once in a while? What if he screws up?
He talks about being emotionless, but cries at chick flicks? And while I like that he develops a friendship with Tessa, I’d much rather see more of it than be told about it.
Finally, I wonder about what really motivates him. We get clues that he’s in it for the thrill, the job itself, and he talks about all the money. But we don’t see him really using that money, apart from the costs of the job itself (which is usually funded by the client anyway) and the details about his lavish house at the end. What’s his endgame? I wonder if we might benefit from more clues about that – and perhaps a few scenes showing him really living extravagantly, which would make sense considering the dollars he’s raking in. Something to support that aspect of his character.
A Few More Notes About the Non-Traditional Approach
It’s true that “not much happens” in a global sense in the novel. As already noted, Seacay is nearly invincible anyway, so it’s almost a moot point. But it is exactly the kind of criticism you’ll hear from agents or publishers. One of the issues is the abundance of “telling,” too. When you give us a scene that’s more immediate, you compel the reader more. Those are good. And the dialogue is pretty good, too. But it’s otherwise an overload of “let me tell you some things” and that will wear on readers.
And a Bunch of Other Things
The Heart Attack Dart – Is it a real thing? A believable fiction? Just noting this because all invented tech choices in a novel need to feel believable or readers will roll their eyes. Too many eye rolls and you lose them. Also, why doesn’t he confirm the death? Wouldn’t that be part of his job? Wondering if “trusting things are all good” is a reasonable expectation for a professional.
Chapter Naming – I find myself often saying “don’t name the chapters – you’re giving too much away” to writers. But I kind of liked your chapter titles. They’re fun and don’t reveal everything that’s to come. But that’s a good think to keep in mind – if your chapter title could be considered a summary of the coming chapter, it might be the wrong thing to use. You want readers to discover the plot along the way, not be told “here’s what’s coming” first. (Small note – chapter 21 reads “Why am I So Cautions” and I suspect you mean “cautious.”)
The Crude Joke in the Vent – I wondered if that worked as written. I mean, the decision to speak it seemed almost out of character, though I suppose that was part of his plan. Still, it really stands out like a sore thumb. Wouldn’t there be another way to get his focus back? It’s probably fine, but it jumps out at readers as surprising, and not necessarily in a good way.
Time Table – I wonder if you can include dates (even just general ones, like season or month and year) at each Part of the novel, or chapters that occur much later than the previous ones to help readers see the passage of time more readily.
Language – You often refer to the fact that a character is speaking this language or that. This can be fine, but also, when overdone, quickly becomes a distraction. Only mention it when the plot demands and you’ll be fine.
The Signals – I wonder if the story would be more interesting if Seacay and Isabel hadn’t created signals to flash to each other when meeting in the future. Then there’s more “hmm…how’s this going to turn out” in the readers’ minds and that could be a good thing. More uncertainty/mystery is a good thing. For novels in general, and romance in particular. Again, I’m just looking for natural places to add some intrigue. It’s the little things like this that can make a novel stand out.
Chapter 4 – I wondered just what Secay wondered – was that whole thing too easy? I’m fine with characters who are unusually skilled at their job, but so far things have gone pretty much without a hitch for our protag. You mentioned in your note that this isn’t a traditional narrative approach to the genre (well, depending on the genre we’re talking about) and that’s fine. But when you have opportunity for some added tension or obstacles, you might as well take advantage of those moments. More tension means more intrigue means more reader engagement.
Chapter 7 – Is that specific cocktail believable? It strains credulity just a bit, since it does all the intended things and that might be a bit too convenient for some readers. As noted earlier, we could use some errors and mistakes early on in the story to make our hero less unbeatable.
Agatha – It’s rather convenient that S. has a contact with just the right equipment so nearby to where he happens to be. Just noting the “plot convenience” elments because too many and you get reader disengagement.
Exploding Bullet – So Seacay is an engineer of ballistics? Hmm…reminds me a bit of a scene in that George Clooney movie, The American. In fact the novel has shades of that (and maybe a touch of Mr. and Mrs. Smith as well, without the humor). Just made me pause a bit because it’s one more thing that makes him “perfect” and that can be off-putting. (Along with his great shooting skill, skill with women, disguise-making ability, photographic memory, etc.)
Chapter 11 – This was a fine chapter, but it felt a little like “filler” to me. You have Seacay and Tessa share stories, but while they’re interesting, they aren’t that important to the general flow of the novel, so you might have a few readers skipping ahead. They want to see what happens next. It’s a pacing issue, I suppose. And it’s certainly not a big deal if you keep these stories, but you already have so much detail about the current timeline “jobs” that your protagonist does, this will feel somewhat redundant.
Chapter 15 – Would love to see more showing vs. telling here. Seacay says “I am surprised how much I think about her” about Isabel, but it’s been three years, right? I wonder if readers are going to wish they’d had a scene or chapter earlier that showed us this longing, rather than suddenly say “I think about her a lot” once three years has passed. Maybe we need a small chapter before this where we see Seacay between jobs, just living his life but wondering if he’ll run into Isabel around the next corner. Watching him try to have a kind of “normal,” considering his job and his current love for Isabel could be interesting to readers.
Chapter 16 – Not much to this chapter, really. Nearly a filler chapter. I wonder if the important bits could be incorporated into a different chapter.
Chapter 17 – This is another chapter full of “making plans.” I’m fine with those in general, but it’s the abundance of “here’s what we’re going to do” moments that tends to drag the pacing down a bit.
Chapter 18 – The second half is very “talky,” which could be an issue, but I do like the fact that Seacay begins to ponder the whole “trust” thing. I just thought that might be something that would have come up long ago, considering his general lack of trust (as noted earlier).
Chapter 20 – I like the backstory stuff here. You do repeat the “average guy” theme that’s already been established, as well as the “I have a good memory” thing, though. Also, the first kill seemed a bit far-fetched.
Chapter 22 – This is a good example to illustrate what I mean about Seacay being “perfect” and nearly a superhero. Even when things don’t go as planned (he slipped up in his planning?) he happens to have the access and skills to accomplish his goal anyway. He can tamper with meds? Hmm…one more skill that shows up just in time to save the day. Here’s another way to look at it – it’s like Batman’s utility belt in the old TV series. He has exactly what he needs (or in Seacay’s case, access to exactly what he needs) just when he needs it. It strains credulity just a bit.
Chapter 24 – The bartender comment “I wonder how he keeps track” seems out of character. Doesn’t Seacay have to keep track of multiple things at once? Maybe instead he’d feel a kind of affinity with bartenders? Also, you spend almost as much time on the sex scene with the two women as you do in the earlier scenes with Isabel. Seems out of balance to me. Maybe we need more Isabel on the page earlier?
Chapter 25 – This seems awfully familiar to me. Most of the chapter is redundant themes and claims by Seacay. Once you get to the actual job (“It is nigh on two weeks…”) it starts to feel new again.
Earlier… – You use the “Earlier, I did this…” form a lot in Seacay’s narrative. That’s fine because you can’t show everything in “real time.” However, an abundance of this usage can steal the edge from the narrative. If you’re going back to say what he’s done “before” too often, the reader starts to lost the all-important sense of immediacy that comes from the first person present tense approach. And you need that, to help with building tension.
Not a Target? – I had to wonder throughout the novel why Seacay could just get away with all of these kills, etc., without anyone targeting him. Maybe he’s just that lucky? But wouldn’t clients want to cover all their tracks, and if he’s a loose end, he might be considered one of those tracks? Just wondering aloud on this one.
Chapter 26 – It’s more of the same “I have a great memory” and “I’m good with disguises” braggadocio here. And maybe that’s my issue with Seacay in general – he keeps repeating himself about all these skills (and tricks) he has (and uses), and that repetition starts to make him less appealing/compelling.
Chapter 27 – The painted on eyes? On the boy? A bit of a stretch again, but mostly I was bugged by the shift in narrative tone to talk directly to the reader (“Come on, you didn’t really think I would do such a thing…”). I’m wondering if you even need this chapter. It’s quite a bit different from the rest, though perhaps even more unbelievable. And it’s gruesome, so it’s going to turn off some of your readers.
Chapter 28 – This feels like it’s coming too late. Too much after the fact. Just show us that scene with Tessa earlier in a chapter that’s more immediate. It will carry far more emotional weight that way. You can have Seacay show a hesitation there, even, if that works for him. Something to suggest he’s thinking about Isabel when Tessa walks out of the shower. We could use more moment of “showing” like that, as already noted.
Chapter 29 – Tessa’s long explanation about Isabel is really wordy and a bit on the nose. It doesn’t come across as organic conversation – especially for someone who is upset. Dialogue here could be more fractured, as I would expect from someone in a near panic. The patterns of dialogue can reveal as much about the characters as the words themselves. Also, in this chapter Seacay one again manages to do everything right. Wouldn’t this be a place where he might fail? That could raise the stakes a bit for the reader.
Chapter 30 – A few things. I’m thinking Seacay will come across as less of a heroic figure than he thinks he is, based on how he deals with Isabel after her abduction. When he says he’ll wait for her to be “ready” for sex, it sounds like the right thing to say, but it still comes across as rather self-focused. If she’s been sexually abused, raped or otherwise tortured, it could be a very long time before she’s even going to think about sex or that kind of intimacy. Seacay’s thoughts on the matter in the story show little sensitivity, despite saying some “right” words. And while I was expecting the declaration of love, we need more scenes earlier to support that idea. As written, he has previously referred to her as an object of lust, even as he’s mentioned how surprised he is to think of her so often. Give us two more scenes/chapters with her. And one with Tessa to build up that complication as suggested earlier. Then when we get to the “love” moment, it will have been well-earned.
Chapter 31 – We can add architect and builder to Seacay’s list of skills here. Hmm…he doesn’t sound real. And Isabel’s story to proclaim and explain her bisexuality? That’s the stuff of male sexual fantasy, I suppose, but it’s not needed in this moment. Less is more in this case, and this is a case of “more is more” instead.
Chapter 32 – The male sexual fantasy continues. Will it appeal to men? Some. Women? Maybe not as much. And while it was nice to get the tour of Seacay’s place, it just kills the story momentum. Maybe we needed some of that earlier, if at all, though it’s another bit of evidence that Seacay is The Perfect (Self-absorbed/Self-confident) man. Some of your readers will want to be him, most will think he doesn’t exist (which is true). Yes, it’s a novel – in a way, a pure spy/assassin fantasy – so going over the top is somewhat expected. But I think there are opportunities to make it a little more believable, without losing that “fantasy” element. Thus, all my previous comments. The ending, while again an attempt to humanize Seacay a bit (his acknowledgement that Isabel needs to feel feminine after all she’s been through) comes awful fast, and in a strange way emphasizes his lack of nuance in understanding women/love. It’s kind of a “duh” realization that she would need some time, so for him to state it, while correct, just comes across as saying what he’s supposed to say. It doesn’t resonate.
A Few Good Words
I always like to end an Editorial Review with a few brief excerpts from the novel that I really enjoyed.
Setting up a really good security system is hard to do: make one small mistake and you might as well have nothing. [Just love the truth of this statement. Seacay makes a lot of smart observations. Some of those, like this one, make him an entertaining and enjoyable protagonist.]
She has a very tight sweater barely buttoned together, with a loose weave that allows for intriguing peaks on what lies underneath. Sporting a short skirt that flares out at the waist, it’s carefully calculated to be revealing if she bends over or spins about. She understands that half the fun in getting a present is unwrapping it; plain nakedness leaves nothing to the imagination. [Descriptions in this scene are good. Enough for readers to “see” but not so much that the details distract from the moment. This gives me hope that you can become a highly skilled writer of descriptive scenes with a little more writing experience.]
“It may sound strange to put it this way, but you are the most warm hearted cold blooded killer I’ve ever met.” [Just thought this was funny. You used it again in the last chapter, I think. But I love the line.]