Book consultant and editor Ally Machate is today’s guest on Ask the Editor – the series where we catch up with professional book editors and pick their brains for top advice that can make your life in publishing a whole lot easier.
Owner of The Writer’s Ally, Ally sports an impressive history in the editorial field. She’s worked directly with Big Five publishing houses as an in-house editor, is a bestselling book collaborator and award winner, and now helps authors bring their publishing goals to fruition.
Since Ally is a big supporter of the annual NaNoWriMo initiative, we thought that would make for perfect ground from which to start – so let’s ask the editor!
AutoCrit: To begin, give us a brief walkthrough of your experience with NaNoWriMo and your path as an editor. How did you find your way into the position, and have you witnessed the landscape evolve in any sense throughout your career?
Ally Machate: I first heard about NaNoWriMo many years ago, I don’t remember how. But I was already working as a freelance book editor following my time at Simon & Schuster, and though my business flourished, my creative writing suffered. I found it increasingly difficult to turn off my inner editor – after all, I’d given her free reign over most of my days! – and allow myself to just create uninhibited.
NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to shut that voice up for a little while. It worked! When I raced against the clock during a word sprint or typed feverishly trying to meet my daily word count goal, I was freed from self-criticism. I didn’t win that first year, but I did win twice after that, and I learned so much from the experience.
Now, I frequently encourage clients to give NaNoWriMo a try. I think it’s a wonderful effort for writers at all stages, but especially new authors, for two main reasons. First, it encourages a daily writing discipline, which ultimately is what gets you to the finish line but also helps you improve your writing skills, something that only comes with practice. Second, but no less important, is the effect I experienced: When you’re focused on producing under pressure, there’s less time for self-doubt and Resistance, and getting that raw material onto the page becomes a much less painful task.
AutoCrit: Why do you think it’s important to edit your NaNo writing, whether you plan to publish or not?
Ally Machate: Completing a draft in just 30 days is satisfying and thrilling, but for most participants, it’s just the beginning. Even “plotters” who wrote to an outline during NaNoWriMo will end up with a pretty rough draft – that’s par for the course. Now it’s time to take all those wonderfully creative impulses and gold nuggets buried within the raw material and shape it into something more complete and readable.
The revision period is an essential step for any novelist, especially those who are considering publication. But even if you’re not planning to publish, ask yourself, what was your goal in entering NaNoWriMo? Was it just to churn out those 50,000 words, or to try and write a novel? You’ve accomplished something amazing by getting that rough draft done. Now give yourself the gift of taking the next step.
AutoCrit: It may sound simple, but why do you feel good editing is so important?
Ally Machate: The creative process rarely works such that a perfectly told story emerges whole-cloth from one’s brain. That would be more like transcribing than creating, wouldn’t it? Creation is messy. It’s the editing that begins to shape it into something beautiful, something that can be shared with others and enjoyed. Every story has a message to deliver, even if it’s pure entertainment, but for that message to land with readers, it needs to first be refined and made clear, compelling, and engaging. It needs to connect. Good editing makes that possible.
AutoCrit: What are the most common issues you see in manuscripts when you first get to work on them?
Ally Machate: New authors struggle the most with story structure and character arcs. They tend to write episodic drafts where one event follows after another, and where characters have lots of colorful quirks, but without the connective tissue that brings it all together into a novel. Often events, and the characters’ actions, are contrived to make the story unfold as the author wishes – but this comes across as manipulation to the reader and sours the experience. In an effective novel, events and actions must feel organic and believable.
A very common secondary problem is overwriting and underwriting, which are intimately related and are often at work in the same manuscript drafts. The former can be the result of the author’s insecurity about getting her ideas across to the reader, while the latter can reflect an overconfidence in the reader’s ability to “get it” with little detail or development on the page.
This is unconscious, of course, and therefore difficult to spot. For example, there may be a feeling that, even though the word count is wildly high, everything in the draft is crucial to the story when really it is not. Often, overwriting results in numerous scenes that establish the same themes or plot points with redundancy, and frequently also results in the draft bringing us into the story way too early for the misguided purpose of “telling the reader what he needs to know.” Similarly, because the author often has in her mind such a rich vision of each character, scene, and event in the novel, it can be easy to underwrite on the page. Instincts as to what’s truly necessary can be dulled by an author’s lack of objectivity. Which is why understanding and applying basic story structure is so important.
AutoCrit: With your answer to the previous question in mind, what top tips would you offer to writers as they start the editing process?
Ally Machate: Always begin with the big picture view of your story. Don’t let yourself get distracted by fiddling with tiny details at the line level – there will be plenty of time for that later. Writing a book is like building a house: you may choose to place bedrooms on different levels or vary the number of bathrooms, but every house must have a strong foundation, sturdy walls, and beams placed just so to support the vision of the finished residence. Get that part right, and much of the rest will fall into place. Neglect it or get it wrong, and no amount of wallpaper will hide the fact that your house is crumbling.
Very roughly, every story begins with an inciting incident that kicks off a chain of cause and effect building toward the climactic moment. The trick is to make sure that climax feels natural and inevitable – in retrospect, the reader should feel they were heading toward that moment from practically the first page (which is why where you choose to begin the story matters so much!). We offer a basic outline to help guide this process, which you can download for free right here.
I’m a big fan of outlining! But what many new authors don’t realize is that creating an outline can be just as useful after having written a draft as it is when you start with one. In other words, even “pantsers” come to a point where they should create an outline to get a clear view of what’s happening in their draft so they can best determine what needs adding, subtracting, or adjusting. And that point is now, at the start of the revision period.
AutoCrit: Do you recognize and/or appreciate when a writer has obviously put in the effort to self-edit before passing their work to you? Maybe we could talk about how important self-editing is to writer’s toolkit.
Ally Machate: Working with a skilled editor can be an enjoyable and productive part of any writer’s journey, and it’s especially important for new writers who seek successful publication, whether through a publisher or an independent route. But to get the most out of that partnership, it’s best if authors first work to advance their drafts as much as they possibly can. Tools like AutoCrit can help a lot to smooth out the writing and bring clarity to the page, which in turn enables an editor to better see through to the architecture beneath. You don’t want your editor’s time or attention spent just trying to figure out what any given scene or moment is struggling to convey. You want your editor to dig deeper into the more serious problems or opportunities for emotional impact.
AutoCrit: Any final comments or words of wisdom for our audience?
Ally Machate: Winning at NaNoWriMo, or even making it most of the way, is cause for celebration! Let yourself have that before you dive into the next steps. Thomas Edison’s famous saying that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” holds true for writers. The revision period can be long and frustrating, and it’s unavoidable if you want to end up with a readable novel. So reward yourself for your accomplishment and then take a big, deep breath. Soon enough it’ll be time to really get to work!
Our thanks go to Ally for taking the time to chat with us! Don’t forget to click here to download your free publishing checklist, courtesy of The Writer’s Ally.
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