Ask Bethany House: What Do Editors Look For in a New Author?

Because many of the questions submitted to our survey involved what the process looks like for our editors to give a contract to a new author, this is the second post that aspiring authors might find useful. Last month, I covered the ways to get yourself and your manuscript in front of our acquisition editors. This week, I’m chatting with Raela Schoenherr to get an editor’s perspective on this process. Enjoy!

Editor

Amy: Since I’m guessing you would say that “strong writing” is what makes a manuscript stand out to you, what do you mean by that? What does that look like to you?

Raela: Here’s a laundry list of things of things that make for a good novel. This is far from comprehensive, but hopefully it’s a good start.

•    Interesting, varied word choice and use of the English language in a way that is appropriate to era, setting, characters, etc.
•    Non-generic narrative
•    Natural and readable dialogue
•    Distinct voices for POV characters
•    Delivering back story without info dumping
•    Foreshadowing without telegraphing
•    Clear character arcs for main characters
•    Secondary characters come alive
•    Logical, believable character choices
•    Pacing that neither drags nor makes awkward, abrupt jumps
•    Clear, compelling conflict
•    Paints the picture of a setting. Characters are clearly grounded in that setting and couldn’t be easily transplanted into another generic setting.
•    Distinct author voice. A very simplified example: if a reader was given a paragraph from you and three other authors, would she be able to tell yours apart from the others just by your tone and way of writing?

Amy: That’s quite a list! So, beyond the writing quality, what’s one thing that makes a manuscript stand out to you?

Raela: Publishing savviness always makes authors stand out to me. Do they understand the world of publishing to some degree? Have they researched the industry? Have they read broadly in the industry? Do they have a realistic grasp for what sets them apart? If they’re writing something that sounds like a lot of other books in the market, can they articulate why their book is different? Or, if their book is pretty different from the rest of what’s in the market, can they articulate why it would appeal to our audience? Do they understand the aspects of being an author beyond simply writing a manuscript? Do they have ideas for helping to promote their book? Do they have connections or unique qualities we can leverage to help spread word of mouth? Do they have endorsements of themselves as an author or of their manuscript?

Amy: Since you take a look at lots of sample chapters, what is one mistake you often see beginning writers make?

Raela: The showing vs. telling advice is a cliché for a reason. Authors who aren’t ready for publication often struggle with this—whether it’s info dumps, tedious setting descriptions that read like a “for sale” listing, clumsy and didactic explanations of character emotions and motivations, and so on.

Beginning writers often start their stories at the wrong place. Many times the story would be much stronger and more interesting if the reader is dropped right in the middle of a situation rather than having to wade through three chapters of set-up that explains how the characters got to where they are. And sometimes, but less often, beginning authors may start their stories too late. This is when all the interesting conflict has taken place in the past and only leaves the reader to learn about characters’ responses after-the-fact.

In general, conflict can be a big hang-up for beginning authors. Conflict needs to be believable and compelling enough to drive a reader to keep turning pages all the way until the end of a book. New authors might set up a good conflict but then not deliver on it, or they might have all external conflict and no internal (or vice versa). Conflict can’t be too easily resolved unless authors want to annoy or lose their readers. Beginning writers need to make the stakes as high as possible for their characters and put them into seemingly impossible situations—whether it’s solving the mystery, saving a life, defeating an enemy, chasing  a dream, or falling in love.

As for proposals, I can pretty quickly get a sense of an author’s industry savviness. For example, saying “I am available for book tours” and not much else under marketing shows a lack of understanding of the industry. Also, I always find the comparable titles section to be very telling. I’ll have my own comparisons in mind, but I take note when an author’s are similar to mine or she makes an intelligent comparison I didn’t think of. On the other hand, if an author misses all the natural comparisons she should make or compares her novel to novels that are either nothing like her book or extremely out of date, I can tell she lacks an awareness of the market. Or, heaven forbid, if an author says there have never before been any other books like hers.

Amy: What advice would you give to writers for how to best improve their craft?

Raela: Every time an aspiring fiction writer says they either don’t read fiction or don’t have time to read fiction, an angel loses his wings. Seriously though, I’ve gotten comments like this more times than I’d like to count and I have trouble not immediately dismissing those writers. Our authors here at Bethany House are some of the busiest people I know and most of them still find time to read because a) they like reading, and b) they realize it’s important for their career. Obviously a person who is trying to complete a manuscript is going to have less free time than someone who isn’t writing, but it’s nearly impossible to write a good book for your market if you have no awareness of what people are reading and you don’t have recent and consistent personal experience as a reader. Make time for reading, both in and outside of your genre.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has a great list of Resources for Writers on her blog. One I would add is Fiction University, a blog I follow and find often has great tips and resources. The Christian Writers Market Guide is always a good standby for general industry information. Most of your favorite authors will list their best writing resources on their own websites.

In general, I advise authors to learn as much as they can about the craft and technique of writing and then go out and make their writing their own. Everyone is going to have different rules and non-negotiables, so authors should do what makes the most reasonable sense for them. Just make sure it’s intentional and the result of research and not just laziness.

Amy: Great! Now, if someone was interested in being on the other side of the desk, what practical tips can you give for getting a job as an editor?

Raela: From my experience and observation, there are a variety of paths that can lead to the position of editor. It’s not always English or Creative Writing majors, although there are plenty of those.  If you want to be an editor, you had better like reading and be both a voracious and discerning reader. If you’re looking to copy edit, hopefully you aced all of your English and grammar exams. Acquisition editors have to do a variety of business writing and also should have strong business sense. All types of editors must be able to read through the lens of “What’s working in this story and what isn’t?” and “What does this story need to make it better?” If you love everything you read and can’t articulate what you loved (or hated) about a book, being an editor is likely not for you.

Another huge part of getting any job is hands-on experience. I know the paradox of needing experience to get experience can be frustrating, but there are other ways to get experience beyond the position you’re seeking. College students should do as many internships as possible—don’t wait until senior year. Outside of internships, aspiring editors can offer up their writing and editing skills to newspapers, literary magazines, newsletters, or blogs. Think both print and online, and be willing to volunteer or freelance. LinkedIn’s Jobs site also includes listings for volunteer writing and editing opportunities. Offer yourself as an online assistant to an author. Running your own blog is a start, but also look to write book reviews or articles for established publications or websites.

Pursue informational interviews or shadow anyone connected to writing, editing, and publishing and ask for their suggestions or if they know of any volunteer/freelance/job opportunities. Stay up-to-date on the industry and follow publishing news and reviews. Work at a bookstore. Get creative! Brainstorm the people you know and the connections you have to think of any ways you can get actual writing and editing experience beyond a classroom setting.

Thanks so much, Raela, for joining us today! I know I learned things. How about you, writers (or readers)? Any resources or advice that you’ve found especially helpful that you’d like to share with others?

18 thoughts on “Ask Bethany House: What Do Editors Look For in a New Author?

  1. I am so excited! After reading the wonderful list of attributes that make a great novel, I could truly answer yes to all of them. Knowing that I am on the right track motivates me as I write the sixth novel in my Songs of the Heart series.

    • I am so excited! After reading the wonderful list of attributes that make a great novel, I could truly answer yes to all of them. Knowing that I am on the right track motivates me as I write the sixth novel in my Songs of the Heart series.

  2. Another excellent blog post, Amy and Raela! I always learn something new when I stop by the Bethany House blog.

    I appreciate getting a peek at what the editors at Bethany House are looking for. I’ve found the best way to improve on the things Raela listed is to keep writing, keep reading, keep submitting to contests and critique partners, and keep studying blog posts like this. It’s comparable to building muscles. We need to exercise different skills to strengthen them. With each manuscript I write, I focus on something I need to improve and then I work on it until the weakness has become a strength. Even if a manuscript is ultimately rejected, it’s not wasted because it helped me become a better writer.

    The last bit of wisdom I’ve gleaned over the years is that there’s no fast-track to publication. We all must put in the time and hard work. It’s not something to be dreaded, but celebrated. I wouldn’t change a thing about all the highs and lows of my journey.

  3. Thank you, Amy and Raela! Wonderful post!

    I think many new writers make the mistake of thinking publication is going to happen overnight. They rush the story, rush the process, and have pie-in-the-sky expectations.

    After many years at writing, I’m just now finally hitting my stride. But that’s only come after a lot of hard work, contests, conferences, and workshops. I cringe when I hear folks say,”I think I’ll write a book, too. Anyone can do it.” Really??? I can hardly utter a coherent response… but I try. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

  4. SO much valuable information packed into this one blog post. Thank you for taking the time to spell it out so clearly. What an education for those who have been writing a while as well as those new to the craft.

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  10. Reblogged this on Scribbles and Somedays and commented:
    If you’re interested in editing like I am, then this BH post is right up your alley! Come hear from Raela and Amy about the different types of editors and what they do. Lots to learn here!

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