Writing Advice

Surviving a Story Edit Critique

I recently took the opportunity to support Mark Stay during his Unbound funding project. I was already interested in the book “The End of Magic,” a fantasy novel, and I had intended to pledge at a lower level, maybe splurge and get a hardcover instead of a paperback. Then I scrolled down a little further and found the option to have him read my manuscript which, at the time, was about three-quarters complete. It was much more expensive than I intended to spend but much cheaper than any story editor I had seen. After checking with my wife, as any good husband would, I committed.

I spent the next couple of months finishing the manuscript and performing the first set of edits. I wanted to make it as much of a finished product as possible – epic fail by the way. It was the first time I was able to finish a project, and my first attempt at editing, so I invested in the paid version of Grammarly. I have found it to be a great application though far from perfect. It is excellent at highlighting where you missed a comma and is decent at identifying typical grammatical errors including pointing out where you have repeated words too often. I will post a more detailed review of Grammarly at a later date, but in short, I can tell you it helped me.

My secret hope was similar to many who have done this for the first time, a beaming response, with comments like “change nothing it’s perfect,” and “I have included a link to an agent that wants to represent you.” It was the same part of my brain that starts spending the lottery money I plan on winning. The other side of my brain had quite a different perspective. It was sure that Mark would give up halfway through, unable to make heads or tails from anything I had written. “I’m sorry, I just can’t waste any more time on this,” I would imagine him saying. “You should give up trying to be a writer.” It wasn’t the first time I had people read my writing, and there were a host of people who thought it was great, all avid readers, all highly intelligent, and all of them were people I respected. None of that mattered while my first baby was under the scrutiny of a person who did this for a living.

The results were more than I could have hoped for, minus the lottery fantasy.

Mark ran through the hundred thousand words in about two weeks, and his edits came in two files. One was a readers report where he gave a synopsis of his thoughts on characters, style, and suggestions for the next rewrite. The other was my “inked up” manuscript, which had a lot of comments, pointing out both the good and the bad.

So without going into the vast number of individual errors that I made, including a massive overuse of the words ‘obviously’ and ‘apparently,’ as well as a tremendous amount of mansplaining that I wasn’t even aware I was doing, (sorry ladies) here is what I learned. There were the usual issues of over-explaining especially during fight scenes, extreme overuse of pop culture references, and inconsistent use of the third person narrative that occasionally slipped into first-person. I was trying to write it in a close third person as was done in the Wheel of Time. I always liked how Robert Jordan was able to show the world through each character’s eyes without the use of first-person. Needless to say, I am not there yet, and my first rewrite will be to change from third to first. I have attempted a few paragraphs to see how it feels, and it was like putting a pair of shoes that finally fit properly.

Mark also highlighted where some of my scenes could be more impactful by providing some set up in earlier chapters. He pointed out which characters worked and which appeared as little better than cardboard cutouts – my words not his. My prolog was exciting but confusing since it created a massive divergence in characters from chapter one. Both he and my wife – my primary alpha reader and overall spirit guide – had the same suggestion to improve not just the prolog but the overall impact of the book. As they pointed out this glaring oversight, my reaction can be summed up in one word, duh.

This markup is gold to me, pointing out where my exposition has gone into a droning monologue that is lulling my readers to sleep, showing me not just where I tripped up but the shining points where I stuck the landing.

I have gone over the whole thing several times, and I will go over it many more. I can picture Mark reading it, “No, no, no, where are you going with this? Ah yes, see? Perfect that was all you needed to say, get rid of the other crap!” Steven King’s first newspaper editor said it best; “I just got rid of the bad stuff.” I will be using it going forward as my roadmap, my guide akin to Indiana Jones’ notebook, showing me where my personal traps are, and how to navigate around them. My biggest ah-ha in this experience was the critical need for outside review and the lack of being able to follow rules that I have heard multiple times.

If the last twenty years has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t know everything, in fact lately, I feel quite the opposite. I have found, at least with myself, that the more you think you know, the less room you have for growth. It’s like placing an empty bottle top down in water, the air in the bottle prevents water from entering. The same scenario exists with your ego, preventing knowledge from filling you. The best writers never believe they have all the answers, acknowledging that their most recent books are always better than earlier ones. Every author I have heard interviewed can tell you, for each of their books, what they did well, what they could have done better, and are now taking steps to improve. The air in my head took twenty years to dissipate, but it needn’t take you twenty years to get there. You only need to pop the bubble of your ego and allow someone else’s knowledge and experience to flow in.

With that in mind, I have been searching for any methods of learning elements of the craft that I lacked. I have read reference books, listened to twelve seasons of Writing Excuses podcast, both seasons of The Bestseller Experiment, and many hours of The Creative Penn. The issues that Mark found in my work are the same points that were covered time and time again in these sources. These were pitfalls I was aware of, acknowledged while writing, and thought I avoided or corrected. I have heard how authors, in general, tend towards over description and would repeat things unnecessarily. Despite all of that, I did it anyway. What became blatantly obvious was that I could not edit my work, at least not yet. Maybe one day it would be a skill that I could hone, but for now, it would be like critiquing your Martial Arts form in the mirror, you can see that something is wrong, you’re just not sure what it is.

Now let me be clear, having someone critique your work is not an innocuous process.

You need to be in the right head space for it. Had someone delivered these suggestions twenty years ago, they would not have been well received. There were some notes that, if taken personally, could be cutting. My reaction back then would have been something like “you just don’t understand my writing.” Or I could have easily fallen back on the classic, “this must not translate well in the UK,” (where Mark hails from) the whole English humor theory. With my mind open, I actually enjoyed the experience. Mark has a way of using humor in his remarks, between them and acknowledging my own stupidity, I was nearly crying I was laughing so hard.

There was one key factor in the decision to purchase this service that we cannot ignore, trust. Leading up to this I had spent several months binge listening to the Bestseller Experiment – and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I highly recommend it- where every episode painted a picture of the kind of people the two Marks were. When one of their listeners achieved the goals stated in their public declarations or locked down a book deal of their own, the joy they both experienced was unmistakable. This more than anything made me confident that the suggestions he was making were focused on making the story the best it could be. If you are choosing to enter into this process find someone you can trust, whether it be through extensive research or referrals. I will add some links to the bottom of this blog as suggested follow-ups.

Okay, let’s wrap it up.

All in all for me the story edit process was an extremely positive one. If you go about it with the right state-of-mind, work with someone that you trust, and use it as a springboard to make your work the potential bestseller you envisioned, you will too. A good story editor will take your rough stone, show you where to cut and polish to reveal the hidden jewel to be cherished by any good agent, publishing house, or legions of fans. If you are on the fence about doing this my advice is this, do it.


Joanna Penn has a great podcast and set of books to help you with your writer’s journey. This link will take you to her suggested tools of the trade:

The Bestseller Experiment: I have listed to many hours of writing advice from many sources, it was the two Marks from BXP that really put the fire under my butt that spurred me to finish my first novel. I highly recommend it.