You’ve drafted a piece of dark fiction, but you’re not sure whether it’s ready for editing. Are the plot and structure as effective as they could be? Are your characters fully developed and believable, or do they come off as flat? Did you pick the best POV—and execute it correctly? What could you do to improve your story before you revise and polish? A skilled editor can answer these questions through manuscript evaluation.
What is manuscript evaluation?
Manuscript evaluation, or critique, is a high-level overview and comprehensive assessment of your work, whether it be a short story, novella, or novel.
After you’ve finished a draft, you naturally need to revise it but often don’t know how to approach such a formidable task. Manuscript evaluation by a qualified story editor provides a workable process toward “re-vision”—seeing with fresh eyes—what you’ve put on paper. It analyzes what is and isn’t working, and develops a plan to implement improvements.
Manuscript evaluation offers an educated opinion, in writing, about how your draft stacks up to published fiction standards. The editor evaluates and reports on such elements as structure, plot, pacing, characterization, point of view, description, setting, and more. Most importantly, a professional critique includes what you could do to sharpen these elements and make your story better.
Why and when should you request a manuscript evaluation?
The next step beyond story coaching (link coming soon), manuscript evaluation is an entry-level edit for when you’ve completed some actual writing.
You might seek critique and feedback when you’ve finished your first (or second or subsequent) draft. Or after you’ve submitted the work to beta readers and made your own preparatory revisions.
A note about beta reading: A seasoned story editor’s manuscript evaluation goes far beyond a beta read. Beta readers can give you feedback based on their personal experience as readers in your genre. But manuscript evaluation is a deepwater analysis from an editorial professional who can can envision how to develop your story’s full potential. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?
You could even opt for manuscript evaluation after you’ve self-published a book that’s received less than stellar reviews. Manuscript critique will assess what’s going on—or not going on that should be—with your manuscript. Editor feedback will suggest how to fix problems identified.
Although developmental editing is a story-level edit designed to reshape fiction early in the revision process, your manuscript may not be ready for it. Manuscript evaluation is an introductory step that identifies the structural strengths and weaknesses of your work. Based on the editor’s guidance, you get a second go at revising your dark fiction before submitting it for developmental editing.
Part of manuscript evaluation is determining whether further editing would benefit your work. As a developmental editor, I not only review and evaluate your manuscript but will let you know if I recommend further editing. (The next step in the process (X Spectrum) is most likely developmental editing.)
What an editor does during manuscript evaluation—and how long it takes
How much time a manuscript evaluation takes depends on the size of your manuscript. I can critique a short story in a week. Novellas in three to four weeks. Novels may take six to eight weeks.
Here are the fundamentals that I review and assess during manuscript evaluation:
Word count for your genre (dark fiction only)
Plot, story structure, and pacing
Conflict and tension
Characterization and character development
Point of view, narration, and narrative voice
Narrative consistency and continuity
Setting and description
I don’t do the following in manuscript evaluation:
Correct grammar, spelling, or word choice
Edit at the paragraph or sentence level
Fix dialogue problems
The result of manuscript evaluation: the editorial report
An editorial report (also called an editorial letter or memo) is what an editor returns after thoroughly reviewing a manuscript. The report provides the valuable feedback you’re looking for as a writer of dark fiction.
In my editorial reports, I begin with a general statement about your work, pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Then I delve into specific critiques of the core narrative elements listed in the previous section. These assessments include advice about how to improve your story with actionable steps for revision, such as:
Evaluation of your story’s premise
Information you could cut—or add, if it’s missing
Whether your word count is appropriate for your particular dark fiction market
Ways to solidify story structure, reconstruct your plot, and avoid clichés
Recommendations on how to heighten conflict and tension
How you might fix instances of inconsistent pacing
Suggestions to deepen character development and make your story people more authentic
How to strengthen your chosen point of view, narration, and narrative voice
Any narrative inconsistencies
Better ways to describe characters and action grounded in your story setting
Tips to underscore your theme
The editorial report contains information and instruction that could lead you to make substantial changes to your manuscript. Toward this end, my guidance will help you develop a revision strategy that, if implemented, will improve your story.
Finally, the editorial report concludes with any suggestions for further editing, such as developmental editing.
Your job after manuscript evaluation
You may have questions after you’ve had time to read and digest my editorial report. If so, you’re welcome to email me back for any necessary clarification about my comments and suggestions. If you’d like to conference with me to receive further advice, I offer 50% off a thirty-minute video consultation (link coming soon).
If you submit an early draft, my editorial direction may prompt a significant rewrite. If you send a polished draft after several rounds of your own revision, my comments might focus instead on deepening character development or nuancing your story’s themes.
In either case, when you receive the editorial report, you may spend a few weeks incorporating my feedback or otherwise rewriting portions of your manuscript. Rest assured, this work will strengthen your story structure and improve its content, moving you closer to the possibility of publication.
How manuscript evaluation leads to developmental editing
If you’re still in the drafting stage and aren’t sure what level of editing you need, it can’t hurt to start with manuscript evaluation. Critique identifies big-picture story issues and suggests how to fix them. You then can do your own revision (a great exercise for developing writers) and submit the revised manuscript afterward for developmental editing.
When you follow the staged editorial process in the Fiction Editing Spectrum and begin with manuscript evaluation, you’ll save money in the long run when you move on to developmental editing; I provide a discount for both services.
I typically recommend you submit your dark fiction for manuscript evaluation first. By making your own changes based on my feedback, you’ll learn how to revise your own work. And your story will be more cohesive moving forward.
With developmental editing, I also provide an editorial report. However, the information and suggestions will be more in-depth and include inline comments. Since you will have addressed structural and other overarching issues during your revision following manuscript evaluation, I’ll be able to focus on finessing your story into something even more powerful and compelling.
Reedsy averages the cost of an editorial assessment at $0.0197 cents per word ($0.02). This means that, for an 80,000-word book, the average quote would be $1520.
My rate for manuscript evaluation is $2.95 per 250-word page, which comes out to $0.0118 per word. For more information about my editing rates, see Dark Fiction Editing Rates.
How you can start the process of manuscript evaluation
If you’re thinking about submitting your latest work (or a previously shelved manuscript) for evaluation, I’ll need you to do something important for me. (And, by the way, I’m not the only editor who may request what I’m about to ask you.)
Write me the back cover description for your book. This text of around 100 words lets me know what your story is about and what you intended to accomplish in writing it. I’ll use this summary as a basis to evaluate the whole manuscript.
Book descriptions communicate what your story’s about through three simple elements:
Who your main character is
Your character’s story problem and goal
The conflict arrayed against them (what’s at stake)
In describing what your story’s about, provide the premise without giving away any twists or the ending. These few sentences are what you’re promising to those who risk buying your work. I need this information so that I can evaluate whether your manuscript delivers on what you’ve promised.
How to write your book description
The protagonist is a character whose life is upended by a problem and who therefore pursues a goal to resolve that problem. During this process, they encounter conflict that threatens what’s most important to them—the stakes of the story.
Here’s my 94-word book description for Death Perception, a supernatural thriller:
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, Kennet must bring the killers to justice.
Let’s analyze this:
Who’s the protagonist?
Young Kennet Singleton is a crematory operator with a mediumistic ability.
What’s his problem and story goal?
He wants to escape the personal care home where he lives with his mother and get a place of his own. But his ability to discern the cause of death of those he cremates entangles him with murderers.
What’s at stake in the conflict?
In his desire to save the care home residents and avenge the murdered dead, Kennet must stay alive to expose the killers and bring them to justice.
It takes a little doing, but see if you can write a 100-word book description for your story, novella, or novel. Then you’ll be ready to contact me about manuscript evaluation.
If you’re looking for a high-level assessment of the narrative elements in a work of dark fiction, an analysis that will guide you into a more effective revision process, consider manuscript evaluation. Drop me a line about your project soon, and let’s explore how to make your work more publishable.
Good dark fiction isn’t just about story. Equally important are the clarity, readability, and style of your writing. After finishing a work of dark fiction, if you want to improve it, you need to concentrate on how you communicate your ideas. That’s where line editing comes in.
Can you do it all?
Examine how well your paragraphs and sentences fit together. Do they flow from one to the next? Do your words successfully evoke the tone you’re going for? Is your language precise and understandable, easy to read? Have you executed point of view consistently? Can you cut extraneous words and phrases? And catch those wrong words, overused words, junk words? Did you—?
Whew! Can you do all this—and a hundred other things to simplify and streamline your manuscript? If not, a line editor can.
What does line editing accomplish?
A line edit evaluates and enhances your writing style at the paragraph and sentence level. Line editors don’t scour your manuscript for mechanical errors like copy editors do. Rather, they focus on how you use language to tell your story.
Line editors analyze your writing line by line. They examine the building blocks of your story—chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences, clauses—to ensure these components work together.
During this stage, a line editor’s mission is to make your writing as clear as possible by looking at the content, style, tone, and consistency of your prose. Line editing is also called stylistic editing because it focuses specifically on your individual writing style.
The goal of a skilled line editor is to tighten your writing and make it sing.
What’s the difference between line editing and copy editing?
Line editors share certain attributes with copy editors: attention to detail and interest in how language works at the sentence level. But their tasks differ.
Although both line editors and copy editors work line by line, they look for different issues. Line editing focuses on your writing style; copy editing concentrates on the nitty-gritty of mechanics—spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation.
When you should hire a line editor
Line editing should take place after your story draft is complete. In fact, line editors prefer that you’ve done everything you can yourself and see no further way to improve your writing before you share it with them. (I’m one of them.)
If your manuscript has gone through developmental editing, line editing is the next step in the editing spectrum (link coming soon).
Tasks of a line editor
Line editors tackle many issues to make your manuscript better. Here are a few of them.
Restructure paragraphs and sentences to maximize comprehension, simplicity, and flow
Break up long paragraphs
Fix run-on sentences or incomplete sentences
Revise awkward sentences, split long sentences, streamline sentences with clauses and parentheticals
Catch misspellings, wrong words, double words, overused words
Flag POV errors and explain why and how they need to be rectified
Tighten dialogue and mend faulty attributions
What I typically do during line editing
During the course of a line edit, I may:
Point out inconsistencies in the story line
Flag scenes where the action is confusing or your meaning unclear
Query you in a manuscript comment about whether you’ve requested and received permission to include those song lyrics in your epigraph (you can’t use them for free, and if you use them without permission, you can be sued for copyright infringement)
Correct the spelling and capitalization of 7-Eleven and all trademarked names to protect you from legal action
Recast sentences that begin with There are and It is (no-nos, by the way)
Mark redundancies that repeat the same information in different ways
Indicate where tonal shifts occur
Eliminate confusing or unnecessary narrative digressions
Suggest changes you could make to improve pacing
Flag clichés and prompt you to use fresh phrasing
Vary sentence lengths
I also check for any discrepancies in your setting, plot, and character traits to ensure internal consistency. For example, if you wrote on page 29: “Derek scrubbed a hand over his blondcrewcut,” but on page 74 you wrote, “Derek tore at his long, brown hair,” I’ll bring it to your attention. Why?
Because readers hate such gaffes and will drop stars off their reviews of your book. As a writer striving for excellence, you don’t need that.
The cost of line editing
How much does third-party line editing cost?
Editing businesses usually advertise set per-word rates, sometimes with different prices based on turnaround time. On average, expect to pay $0.02–$0.04 per word (around $5.00–$10.00 per page).
The editing and proofreading service, Scribendi, lets you calculate the cost of editing based on your word count. (They lump line and copy editing together.) For example, an 80,000-word novel takes two weeks and costs $1602.86 (as of the date of this post). That comes out to $0.02 per word, or $5.01 per 250-word page. A 4000-word short story with one-week turnaround time costs $129.33 ($0.032 per word, $8.08 per page). With 24-hour turnaround, cost increases to $163.17 ($0.041 per word, $10.20 per page).
With Reedsy, line editing is lumped in with copy editing and costs about $0.02 per word, or $5.00 per page.
I line-edit for $0.02 per word, or $5.00 per page. If you contract for both line and copy editing or line, copy, and proofreading, I offer a discount. See Current dark fiction editing rates.
How we can work together
In addition to doing the edits, I will, if you want, talk through my edits and answer any questions you may have. See video consultation (link coming soon).
If you submit a clean, well-written manuscript, I may be able to do line editing in a single pass; but it will more likely involve two rounds between us. Editing, like writing, is an iterative process.
Need a line editor?
If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, I’m here to support your goals.
If you need any kind of editing for your dark fiction manuscript, including line editing, check out The Editing Spectrum (link coming soon) and Dark Fiction Editing. I have decades of experience and can help you improve your writing. Then drop me a line about your current project. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Developmental editing, also called substantive or content editing, focuses on improving big-picture narrative elements in your writing. This kind of editing occurs early in the writing process. For fiction, developmental editing considers these aspects:
Characters and characterization
Narration, point of view, and use of narrative modes
Plot and pace
Mood and tone
Style and voice
Examples of developmental editing
As a developmental editor, I give your manuscript a careful reading to evaluate the previously listed elements. Here are examples of the primary ones.
When I analyze the structure of your story, I look for, at minimum, a clear beginning, middle, and ending. For longer works (novelettes, novellas, and novels), I check for scaffolding such as three-act, hero’s journey, or eight-stage organization. (These are just a few; there are others.) Are all signposts in place and connecting material in proper proportion?
Plot and pacing
With plot, I check for a clear cause-and-effect chain from beginning to end, keeping an eye out for possible contrivances. Does the protagonist (and other important characters) have a clear story goal? Sub-goals?
While pursuing those goals, your main character must encounter meaningful conflict based on significant stakes. In your protagonist’s monumental effort to resolve conflict and attain their story goal, are the climax and resolution logical yet satisfying?
The pace between major plot events should vary yet steadily mount toward the conclusion.
Characters and characterization
Evaluating characters and characterization asks if the protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters are well-drawn for their purpose. Are they believable and consistent, properly motivated to pursue their story goals through heightening conflict?
Does the main character learn and change through the course of the work, demonstrating their ability to resolve the conflict?
Narration, point of view, and narrative modes
Have you chosen the most effective narrator for your story (external or internal)? How about the most effective point of view for the narrator to relate the story events and action? I have an eagle eye for catching and correcting POV errors, mistakes that can distance readers from your story or prompt them to quit reading altogether.
Line editing more fully evaluates your use of narrative modes—dialogue, internalization (character thoughts and feelings), action, description, and exposition. But during developmental editing, I suggest how best to use these modes to narrate or dramatize particular passages.
Setting includes geographic location and time.
You should set your story in the only place it could happen.
Its sub-settings, such as your protagonist’s home or a dark alley where significant action takes place, should contribute to conflict by threatening your characters or constraining them from reaching their goals.
Time in setting refers to the time period during which your story events take place (past, present, future) as well as the time of each scene. To evaluate your story’s use of time, I ask questions such as:
Does your story adhere to the limitations of the time period in which it’s set?
Does your narrative progress along a defined timeline or, if told out of chronological order, are the time points for each scene clear and understandable?
Is time revealed at the beginning of each scene so that readers understand the progression of scenes or any skips in time?
The cost of developmental editing
How much does third-party developmental editing cost?
Editing businesses usually advertise set per-word rates, sometimes with different prices based on turnaround time. On average, expect to pay $0.02–$0.04 per word (around $5.00–$10.00 per page).
The editing and proofreading service, Scribendi, does not offer developmental editing, only line/copy editing.
With Reedsy, developmental editing for an 80,000-word novel costs about $0.0252 per word, or $6.30 per page.
The goal of developmental editing is to ensure your work is sound on a structural and storytelling level. As a developmental editor, I analyze the previous aspects of your story to identify missing elements or, if present, to determine whether they’re working.
A developmental edit may require you to restructure your manuscript. Usually, you will need to rewrite to address issues identified and resubmit for a second evaluation.
What I do as a developmental editor of dark fiction
When a writer of dark fiction sends me their manuscript for development editing, I make notes as I read carefully. I evaluate and comment on most of the above elements and suggest options and improvements. I return the commented manuscript (change-tracked Microsoft Word) with a cover email that discusses my findings and summarizes my recommendations.
As a developmental editor, I will evaluate, critique, guide, and help you shape your work—even if you’re still writing it. After you produce a strong story, I’m available to further refine your writing with line editing and copy editing. Each step will bring you closer to the possibility of publication.
Since reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s Writing the Intimate Character(Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), my eyes have been opened to recognize omniscient POV and its techniques. We’re seven for eight with omniscient novels for my MFA Readings in the Genre: The Haunted class. Of all the books I’ve read, Stephen King’s The Shining is my favorite execution of the external narrator. King manages to employ the best techniques of greater omniscience as well as close third, executing both perfectly.
With his first line, King establishes third-person POV with the filtered yet italicized thought of the protagonist/antagonist: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick” (3). More narrated interior monologue appears on page 6. The final paragraph of chapter one ends with summary and comment: “…he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them” (14).
In chapter two, King brings Wendy’s POV on stage. Chapter three moves back to Jack’s. And four introduces five-year-old Danny. King represents a young but bright boy adequately without being literarily strangled by the constraints of internal close third.
Chapter five starts in Jack’s POV, then offers a paragraph of Danny’s on page 51, and reverts to Jack inside the Rexall drugstore. Here’s something that a writer can do in omniscient third but not in internal third: “Jack felt a wave of nearly desperate love for the boy. The emotion showed on his face as a stony grimness” (52, emphasis mine). King weaves inner monologue and flashback, follows with a paragraph of Danny’s POV on 64, then closes with Jack.
POV hops from Danny to Wendy and back in chapter eleven (114). Dick Hallorann shares a private moment with Danny, who pitches his powerful psychic fastball at Dick. The chapter closes in Dick’s POV (127).
Another touch unique to omniscient is: “Jack and Wendy… didn’t look down at Danny, who was staring” (133). If they weren’t looking, who noticed the boy staring? The omniscient external narrator. He/she sees what even the characters don’t or can’t.
The first paragraph of chapter thirteen presents the Torrance family portrait before things get rough:
The Torrance family stood together on the long front porch of the Overlook Hotel as if posing for a family portrait, Danny in the middle, zippered into last year’s fall jacket…, Wendy behind him with one hand on his shoulder, and Jack to his left, his own hand resting lightly on his son’s head. (143)
Can you picture this from the narrating global consciousness hovering before the front steps? I can. The writing is so simple, yet King is masterful at painting pictures and making characters come alive in readers’ minds.
On page 193 there’s a time jump to the future and back when Danny is stung by wasps: “Oh Danny… oh, your poor hand.!” / “Later, the doctor would count eleven separate stings. Now all they saw…” (emphasis mine).
Part 4 is introduced omnisciently with “Her hands grew slower and slower, and at the time her son was making the acquaintance of Room 217’s long-term resident, Wendy was asleep with her knitting on her lap” (325). An internal narrator cannot see another character on a different floor nor report any actions or perceptions while asleep. But it works with omniscient.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-seven King performs more sleight of hand: “She didn’t look up…, but if she had, she would have seen Danny…” (336).
POV switches from Jack to Wendy on 358–359 and back over the next few pages, then to Danny on 366. King references Shirley Jackson’s Hill House on page 414. And summarizes that autumn at the Overlook starting on 417.
Danny’s face is described externally at the bottom of 423, and Jack’s POV mentions his “sore-looking lips” (431)—both no-no’s in internal third.
I think I found a mistake (subject/verb agreement) on page 442: “There was three splotches of blood….”
The narrator takes a high-level view of the Overlook, telling its history over time, 447–448.
Dick Hallorann is introduced omnisciently in chapter forty-seven (457). When Dick is reeling from Danny’s psychic cry for help and swerving all over a Florida highway, the POV impressively head-hops in a lane-switch from Hallorann to the Pinto driver, 461–462.
The narrator forecasts the future here: “There would be little sleep for them that night…” Then shares Danny’s and Wendy’s thoughts from bed, finally moving outside: “The hotel creaked around them. Outside the snow had begun to spit down from a sky like lead” (482–483).
Omniscient can get away with filtering the perceptions of two (or more) characters at a time: “And they both heard the vicious, descending swing of the invisible club…” (496, emphasis mine). There’s a jump from Hallorann outside the hotel to Jack inside on 613.
The omniscience overhead camera swoops all over the place with the explosion of the hotel, 640–641.
If I’ve learned anything from this course, it’s that omniscient is a good choice for tales of hauntings, the spirit realm, psychic gifts, and tragic protagonists who perish before the book ends. The Shining was a good novel, one of King’s best, and I recommend it even if you don’t give a fig about external omniscient POV.
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term, I’m expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, especially omniscient. So, as long as my assignments include books written in omniscient, I’ll blog about it here.
Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House, is a nasty little haunted house story. It’s a harrowing, action-filled tale stuffed with debauchery and sex about “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses” (Matheson Hell House 17).
Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House is written in third person omniscient. Unlike Jackson’s book, which is limited third omniscient, focusing on protagonist Eleanor Vance, Matheson encompasses all the characters with third person omniscient.
The subjective omniscient narrator
The primary difference between omniscient and other POVs (first or close/intimate third) has to do with the narrator.
Every story has a narrator, but with first and close third, the narrator is one of the characters in the story. With omniscient, the “narrator is not a character within the story but is positioned as an all-knowing… external narrative voice that provides a ‘god-like’ or ‘birds eye view’ perspective of the events within the story” (Cabal How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV, emphasis mine).
An objective omniscient narrator reports only what characters do but never what they think or feel. A subjective omniscient narrator can report both what characters think and feel, as well as what they do. Matheson’s omniscient narrator is subjective; we get the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.
Reading to discover POV
How an author handles POV isn’t always readily apparent. Sometimes, you must read a few chapters to fully discover the approach and techniques the author is using.
In the opening scene of Hell House, Matheson’s first line could belong to several POVs: “It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning” (9). The second sentence provides the first real POV clue: “Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought” (9). In omniscient, character thoughts are usually presented indirectly, with a tag. (“Filtering” is acceptable in omniscient and actually necessary from an external viewpoint.) But we can’t be certain of the POV until we read further.
By the end of the first page, Matheson reveals another hint: “[Barrett] was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color…” (9). We know the author is writing in third person. However, this outsider’s description of the doctor indicates that the narrator is telling the story from an external perspective.
Another clue on page 12 tells us, “Barrett looked appalled.” A close-third character/internal narrator would not describe himself in these ways. After a few scenes, the writing confirms that Barrett’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are reported externally.
As we read through the chapter dated December 20, 1970, we find Florence Tanner introduced in third person (20). Edith Barrett is introduced next with third person that seems closer than the previous two characters’ POVs. Fischer follows with another third person POV (23). By now, we’re able to determine that Matheson’s use of POV is subjective third person omniscient, which he applies to multiple characters.
Techniques belonging to omniscient POV
Omniscient is confirmed on page 27 with a description of multiple character action: “All of them gazed at the hill-ringed valley lying ahead…” (emphasis mine). This is direct reporting from an external narrator. On 29: “The cold was numbing, a clammy chill that seemed to dew itself around their bones (emphasis mine).”
In the December 21 chapter, the scene headed “2:21 p.m.,” the internal thoughts of Fischer (43) and Barrett show up in the same scene (44). At this scene’s end, Edith reads a list of psychic phenomena observed in the house, and the narrator expresses her thoughts (46). Here, we have the POVs of three characters shared in the same scene. This can only be done with subjective omniscient.
“Head-hopping,” as it’s called in literary circles, continues in many scenes (81). (And, contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with head-hopping—if it’s done right.) Matheson pulls it off skillfully. He even enters three heads in the same short paragraph: “Barrett… had not been aware… Florence sat stricken… Edith felt a rush of pity for her” (228).
Florence tells Fischer “the secret of Hell House”: “Controlled, multiple haunting” (174). Perhaps this is why Matheson used controlled third person omniscient POV to tell this ghostly tale…
I’ll be looking for more contemporary novels to study omniscient POV. I’ve included a short list at the end of this post.
As I read Hell House, I was impressed with Matheson’s knowledge of parapsychology and Spiritualism. His mention and portrayal of mental and physical mediumship; the use of a cabinet (an enclosed space to keep light out and energy in); Florence’s devotion, beliefs, and practices; and Fischer’s description of his boyhood abilities all rang true to my studies.
Other practices Matheson accurately mentioned include: psychometry with Daniel Belasco’s ring (130), Florence’s funeral prayer (129), her mention of guides and spirit doctors (131–132), the renowned physical mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Eusapia Palladino (136), physical phenomena such as ectoplasmic masking (162ff), the difference between mental and physical mediums, and, sadly, Florence’s channeling of Red Cloud (64ff).
Matheson’s research on Spiritualism and the afterlife in Hell House was probably a carryover from his 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, which I recommend for a Spiritualist portrayal of “life on the other side.”
I just spent the past five days at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to get “F”ed. Or to start getting “F”ed. Let me explain…
Back in 2006, I completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing. Death Perception (my fourth novel) was my thesis. SHU since upgraded the program to an Master of Fine Arts (a terminal degree), so I applied again last fall and was accepted. So I’m going back for the F.
The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something I want to do more of in the coming years. I’d also like to teach at the university level when I retire from technical writing.
The program consists of three week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June, graduating the following January. I’ll be working on another novel, tentatively titled Elder-Feral. My faculty mentor is Scott A. Johnson, author of Shy Grove: A Ghost Story and Cane River: A Ghost Story.
Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
Developing an idea
Structuring the external plot
Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
Writing effective scenes
Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
Revising your work
Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.
What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over adecade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
You can enter different projects, such as short stories or novels. I’m in the early stages of working on novel number seven: plotting and outlining. My project page is below. WordKeeper displays my daily target word count based on the completion date I set. It shows daily progress as well as total progress toward my projected word count. It also provides stats about time, sessions, words, writing phases, and locations (which I don’t use). (Scroll down past the image for the rest of this post.)
When I sit down at my laptop to write, the first thing I do is open WordKeeper and start the timer. Then I write for an hour or two, stopping the timer when I’m done. Last evening, I got home late from dinner and only got 50 minutes in.
WordKeeper then displays the Session page, showing my stats for that session: start and end times, any pauses I made, and the duration of the session. If I were writing, I would enter a word count. But right now, I’m still outlining.
WordKeeper is helping me track my fiction writing progress so that I can be more productive.
When I get to the writing phase, hopefully in a week or two, I will start racking up the word count. WordKeeper will keep me on track to meet my deadline.
I like WordKeeper. It’s easy to use and has more features than I have time to explore. It’s $2.99 a month—the cost of a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking to track your fiction writing progress and productivity, you can learn more at https://wordkeeper.app/.