Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons from the Editor's Desk - Take Me for a Ride

 by Dina Sleiman

In the first lesson of this series, I explained that I am a part-time, often volunteer editor for WhiteFire Publishing. However, I have been reviewing manuscripts for three years now, and I've learned a few things along the way that I think would be helpful to the writers among us. Today's lesson: take me for a ride!

Once I make it through the first chapter or two of a novel submission and feel confident that the book is off to a good start and a reasonable fit for my company's needs, I like to download it to my kindle. From that point on, I try to turn off my inner editor and experience the book like a reader. If it keeps me engaged and I read until the end, I might ask for some improvements, but chances are, I will recommend the book to our publishing committee.

So here's the big question: Why would I stop reading???

One of two reasons: the book bored me or the book wasn't well constructed. When we read a book we want to be taken for a ride, on a journey. It should be exciting, yet it should feel reliable. We want highs and lows, twists and turns, even upside down loops, much like a roller coaster. But...we want to feel like the roller coaster is structurally sound and the safety equipment is trustworthy. We want that assurance that we'll get off in one piece on the other side. Editors end up reading a lot of bad books, but when we find a novel that allows us to relax and enjoy the ride, we are ecstatic! Now, let's look at this in more detail.

If I'm bored and don't desire to pick your book back up and keep reading, I won't. Plain as that. If it's not holding my interest, it won't hold the interest of many regular readers either. Here are some issues that can lead to a boring book:

Overused Storyline
Flat Characters
Weak Dialogue
Weak Voice
Lack of Motivation
Lack of Conflict
Lack of Escalation
Lack of Emotional Intensity
Pointless Scenes
Slow Pacing
Too Much Telling
Lengthy Chunks of Description
Lengthy Chunks of Narration

The most important element to keep in mind in this area is that unlike authors from the 1800s, you are competing with television, youtube, blockbuster movies, and netflix for people's attention. You need to keep your stories quick paced, present moment, multi-sensory, full of conflict, and downright exhilarating. Even a quiet, literary novel must keep these issues in mind. While you might be able to replace some conflict and action with beautiful language and deep observations about the human condition, you must still provide that engaging ride for your reader. So maybe this sort of novel would be more of a sky tram than a roller coaster, but it still needs to provide a strong story arc for a worthwhile and memorable journey.

Faulty Construction:
The other reason I might put a novel down is because I don't feel confident that it will safely get me where I need to go. A reader needs to believe that the story/author is trustworthy and will fulfill the requirements of the genre in a satisfying manner. If the reader feels jolted or confused, chances are he or she will give up on the book. And I will too. Here are some typical issues in this category:

Faulty Plot Structure
Inconsistent Character Motivations
Poor Characterization
Unclear Setting
Continuity Issues
Poor Pacing
Poor Scene Choice
Point of View Issues
Jolting through Time
Jolting in and out of Scenes
Missing Information
Far-Fetched Plot

No one wants to take a ride like that. I for one love a good roller coaster, but at a reliable theme park, not one tossed up by a couple of traveling carnival workers. You can't perfect one element of a novel while letting another fall into disrepair or go missing entirely. Writing a novel is a huge and elaborate undertaking. There's a lot to get right, and if even one element is weak, the entire thing can fall apart. I mean, what if one single piece of track was missing from a roller coaster? Or the pulley to get you to the top was weak or jolting? Or what if the brakes were just so so? In order to have a fulfilling ride, every piece needs to be working well and in conjunction with the others.

Don't get too discouraged. Most books have a few minor weaknesses. That's what editors are for. But again remember, I need to want to read your book until the end before we even get to that point. So make it impossible for me to put down. Take me on a journey that I'll want to finish, and you just might find yourself in print.

What makes you give up on a book? Even better, what makes you want to throw it against the wall?


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Check out her novels Dance from Deep Within, Dance of the Dandelion, and Love in Three-Quarter time. And please join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. I always enjoy hearing about books from an editor's point of view.

    I'm usually a stick through till the end kind of reader, unless the book is so bad from the first I can't go on.

    What irritates me in a book? Authors explaining what things mean. Tell me the story. Don't tell me what to think about it. Tell me that, after he stormed out, she cried herself to sleep. Don't tell me she was crying because the argument upset her.

    I think sloppy writing irritates me, too. Please know the meaning of the words you use. Our local hockey announcer always says "benefactor" when he means "beneficiary." They are opposites, Razor! Ahem. ;)

    1. I used to read every book to the end, but maybe being an editor has ruined me in that area. Most often I read a few chapters of a novel and think, "that was nice" and then never finish it.

  2. DeAnna, I commend you on your stick-to-itive-ness. (holy cow I have no idea how to spell that!)
    I give up easily. I have way too many books to read. I can't always blame the book. Sometimes I'm just not in the mood for it and may like it later.

    Dina - I think you're right to think that if a book bores you, it is probably going to bore other readers. how sad is that? Honest crit partners and contest judges should at least get someone on the right track before they finish a full book that fails in the first chapter. Of course there is accounting for different tastes... but...

    Thanks for today's chat with the editor!

    1. Well, I think it's easy to point out specific flaws for critique partners, but harder to say things like, your characters or dialogue or premise are boring, which sometimes is what it comes down to.

  3. Great analogy, Dina! I know a lot of people who feel compelled to finish a book if they start. I just can't do it. I don't have the time or energy to spend on a book I'm not enjoying or at least engaging with.

    1. I don't either. But as an editor (often volunteer editor), I really, really can't waste time on books that aren't good.

  4. Dina! You know how much I love roller coasters. This is perfect! I get bored really easy, so I really need a book to grab me to keep on reading. I like books that start in the middle of something, without too much introspection, but with enough info that I know what is happening. I don't like to be kept guessing as to what is happening. That's not to say I don't make those same mistakes, but that usually makes me stop reading. Great post. And great picture. :)

    1. So then you must love those blast off roller coasters. LOL. I think I still like the slow climb up the hill to prepare me for what's coming.


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