How to Get Help for your Fiction Writing
When I was writing my first novel–now safely trunked and never to see the light of day–I had no idea what an editor was or how they could help me improve my writing. But when it came time to edit my own stories, it quickly became clear that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to critically evaluate my own writing, I didn’t know how to structure a scene or a sequence or an arc, and I was completely lost when it came to the less tangible stuff–pacing, tension, conflict, theme, etc. I just knew that the story on the page didn’t match the story in my head. I needed help.
Looking at this now from the editor’s perspective, I want to help writers figure out when to ask for help, and what specifically to ask.
But, before getting into that, know this: no successful and compelling novel is the result of just one person’s work. Every novel you’ve enjoyed has benefitted from a team of people who have supported the author, and without whom that book would never have gotten into your hands in the first place.
So, authors, please understand that you’re not wrong to want or need help. You’re not failing by talking to a writing coach, relying on a critique group, or getting feedback from an editor. In fact, it would probably be a mistake on your part not to do these things!
Asking for Help While You’re Still Writing
It might seem counterintuitive to stop in the middle of a draft and talk to an editor, but hear me out! While you're writing can be a great time to talk to a coach or an editor to get feedback on your outline, help fix a scene, or take a step back to look at the “big picture.”
Here are a couple of places you might need to ask for help:
When you don’t know what to do next…
Sometimes you just hit a wall, whether it’s a plot-wall, a conflict-wall, or a worldbuilding-wall, and your idea tank is running on fumes. So, ask folks for help. There are facebook groups and slack channels and websites where you can find other writers who will gladly help you hash your way out of a plot-tangle or two.
But it’s important to remember that not all ideas are of equal value. If you’re working with a writing or story coach, then you know that this is exactly what you’re paying them for--expert advice on the process of writing, while you’re writing. Which isn’t to say that the amateurs are wrong, just that you’ll likely have to sort through a lot of unhelpful advice to find the good stuff.
Here at Reforge, I offer an on-demand service called One Question, One Answer that’s set up for exactly this purpose: ask your question and get an in-depth, knowledgeable answer from an editor, on just about any writing/editing topic imaginable. The best part is, your first question is free.
When you know something’s broken…
You’re a smart cookie, and when you read a part of your book that doesn’t work, it’s clear right away. But it’s not always so clear what the fix is.
This is where an editor or coach really shines. What they bring to the table is breadth and depth of experience. They’ve seen it before, they’ve taken the courses, they’ve read the writing books, they’ve unpacked and put back together story after story, so they can help you create a solution that works for you.
Reforge offers quick mini-coaching solutions for some common writing issues:
Scene fix - You’ve got a scene that just isn’t clicking, where something doesn’t feel right but you’re not sure what. Scene Fix will help you break it down and build it back up so your scene works on every level.
Outline fix - Your outline is your road map, and Outline Fix will take a jumbled, unreadable map and help you find your way again.
Worldbuilding fix - You’ve put backbreaking effort into building your world, but something is still missing—the magic feels weak, the politics are uninspired, the culture is boring, etc. Worldbuilding Fix is here for you.
Asking for Help While You’re Revising
This is classic “editor territory.”. You’ve wrapped up your first (or second, or third…) draft and you know there’s work to be done, but you’re not sure where to start.
When you want to self-edit...
Always start with a round (or three) of self-editing. This comes with two great big caveats:
It’s really hard to be critical and objective about your own writing, especially if you’re not experienced doing so.
Editing books is an entire career that takes knowledge, skill, and insight that comes with experience.
But you should still always take the time to do a round of self-editing, because:
The more experience you have thinking critically and objectively about your writing, the easier it is to do revisions (whether they come from you or an editor).
The experience of doing so will make you a better writer and self-editor going forward.
Professional editors will appreciate the work you’ve done, and your approach to your own writing, plus with a little practice, you’ll be able to take care of the obvious stuff so your editor can focus on the more difficult things.
Ask other writers (or a writing coach) for tips on what to look for or resources that they’ve used to perfect their own self-editing.
When you want big-picture feedback...
It’s time. Your book needs to be read by somebody who isn’t you. Ideally, that person will tell you what they think, identify problems, and offer solutions. The only real question is, who are they? Well, there are two broad categories of person that you can find to read your novel:
Find alpha and beta readers*
These folks are lifesavers for any writer, but especially for those who may not have a lot of money or are waiting to save up for the cost of an editor. They’re often friends or family members, but this is also a standard function of writing groups both online and IRL. On the plus side, these readers are fairly easy to find and will most likely read your story for free (though you can find paid beta readers on sites like fiverr and upwork).
On the other hand, they may not have training or experience reading critically, may not be well-read in your genre, may require nagging or wrangling, may not be entirely honest in order to spare your feelings, and/or may not offer much in the way of practical or implementable solutions.
To make the most of your alphas/betas, do the following:
Understand the benefits and drawbacks of alpha/beta readers so you don’t have unrealistic expectations.
Use a standard list of questions so you can compare their answers (I like this list from writingcooperative.com).
Find readers who enjoy reading your genre.
Set a deadline–I give readers one week for every 30K words in the book, plus a week to write up their feedback.
Thank them for their time and effort! The classy thing to do is include them in the Acknowledgements section of your book, but a $5 gift card to their ebook store of choice would be a nice gesture too.
Hire a Developmental Editor
Every book should go through a developmental edit before being published or shopped to agents. Think of it like Quality Assurance. Your book is your product, and you want to make sure that your product is as good as it can be before you send it out into the world. Do you, the writer, know what that looks like? Do you know how to tell when your book is the best it can be? Do you know the craft of storytelling and how to apply it in a consistent and compelling way? Do you know what’s happening in the publishing world in your genre? Do you know what types of stories are selling? What types are being talked about? Do you know how to look at a story, diagnose its problems and provide step-by-step solutions? I sure didn’t, when I wrote my first book. And I still didn’t when I wrote my fifth. It wasn’t until I studied, trained, and practiced my capabilities as a developmental editor that I began to build these skills.
In short, developmental editors have the expertise to improve your book. And even better, they also have the skill to help you improve your book. Working with a developmental editor will make you a better writer, full stop.
But the downside is that these editors cost money–often quite a lot of it.
To make the most of your developmental editor, do the following:
Understand what a developmental editor does (story structure, character, worldbuilding, etc.) and what they don’t do (fix grammar, copy editing, etc.) to avoid unrealistic expectations.
Be specific about what you want to get out of the editing process.
Find an editor who specializes in your genre(s).
Read client testimonials!
Connect with your editor before hiring (via email or chat programs) and ask for a sample edit so you can get a feel for their style and approach.
Ask to negotiate on price (it doesn’t hurt to ask and maybe they’re offering discounts), but don’t get upset if they won’t (editors charge what they’re worth and you should respect that).
Be a good client: read the fine print/terms and conditions, pay promptly, sign the contract, communicate clearly, provide feedback, write a testimonial for their website, etc.
Keep a record of all communication, documents, invoices, payments, and contracts just in case.
And of course, if you’re interested in hiring a developmental editor, I hope you’ll consider Reforge.
Things to Remember When Asking for Writing Help
It’s okay to ask for help! Ask early and ask often.
Be specific about what you’re looking for, even if you can’t be specific about the issues in your writing.
The best help doesn’t just fix a problem, it helps you understand (and avoid) what created the problem in the first place.
Free help is great, but you get what you pay for.
The writing community loves to help! Get out there and join a writing group, a facebook group, a slack channel, a subreddit, or just hang out where other writers are writing.
*There are lots of differing takes on what distinguishes an alpha reader from a beta reader. I don’t distinguish, but if you do, great!