Authors who’ve never edited fiction, or editors who’ve never reviewed it, face a somewhat steep learning curve about how the process works. Although every publisher has its own set of checks and its own standard editorial flow, it makes sense to shed some light into how the Caffeinated Press editorial process unfolds — at a minimum, to provide insight to writers about how at least one publisher prepares manuscripts for marketing.

Behold, the Question List for fiction:

Query Review

  • Does the inbound material conform to our editorial guidelines? Any “hard stops” that automatically prompt rejections (e.g., the pitched product isn’t finished, or the sample contains identifiable author data)? How many minor points of departure, short of a hard stop, does the material present? In the aggregate, do these minor points effectively translate to a hard stop?
  • Does the quality of the cover letter suggest that the author is a serious professional who deserves a serious, professional response?

Marketability Analysis

  • Can we sell the work within our target market? For example, is it too long or too short to be viable for the “right” distribution channel?
  • Can we classify the work within our target market?
  • Is the content germane to our target market?
  • Does the work address themes or include content that limits the scope of our potential market?
  • Can we work with the author to effectively promote the material when it’s published?

Developmental Assessment

  • Conflict and Tension
    • Is the plot conflict clearly introduced from the outset and managed effectively through the end?
    • Does the conflict drive the story, or is it just tangential ornamentation?
    • Is the conflict plausible in a moral and psychological context?
    • Does the conflict create tension that compels the reader to emotionally invest in the main characters?
    • Is conflict structured on a scene-by-scene basis (i.e., plotted) to perpetuate the tension that keeps the reader hooked?
  • Pacing
    • Do some scenes drag too long with unnecessary exposition? Or do important scenes fly by too quickly?
    • Does the verbosity of the prose slow down the scene’s action? Does variation in prose style affect scene pacing through shorter, simpler construction or narrative interludes?
    • Does the sequence of scenes along the plot, and the aggregation of scenes into parts or chapters, keep the story moving at an acceptable rate?
  •  Plot
    • Does the plot arc make sense?
    • Does the plot resolve in satisfactory fashion?
    • Are subplots effectively introduced and concluded?
    • Does the sequencing of the plot — in both temporal and geographic senses — develop correctly, with no continuity errors?
    • Does the plot rely on MacGuffins or dei ex machina to make progress?
    • Does the plot seed clues to help the reader understand the story’s structure and the final conflict resolution? Do these clues throw off the reader’s sense of the story just for the oh-so-tired gimmick of a surprise ending?
  • Point of View
    • Is POV consistent within the story and within subdivisions of the story?
    • Did the author pick the right POV for a given scene, in works where POV flips among main characters?
    • Can readers infer a character’s thoughts through narration and dialogue instead of through explicit assertion of the character’s thoughts/feelings?
  • Environment
    • Is narration about the setting appropriate? Are settings described too tightly, too loosely or “just right?”
    • Do setting descriptions read like travelogue essays?
    • Are unnecessary things described just for the sake of a complete scene description?
    • Do one-off objects incur a lush description to leaven a particularly barren scene?
    • Does the setting fit the plot without descending into stereotype? (For example, not at all strip clubs are seedy, and not all hospitals are sterile.)
    • Is the setting believable?
    • Does the setting advance the story?
    • Does the author reveal the environment through narration, through dialogue or through a mix of the two? Does a mix “work?”
    • Does scene-setting narration interrupt the flow of the story?
    • If the setting is based on a real place, is the translation of that place into fiction accomplished deftly and in a manner that precludes the risk of lawsuit by business owners?
  • Tone
    • Does the tone or voice of narration match the mood of the plot? For example, does it really help to feature a sarcastic narrator in a horror scene?
    • Does the author over-rely on affectations of character attitude to supply a narrative voice?
    • Does the story rely too much on cliché?
    • Does the story “read” like fill-in-the-blanks template prose?
  • Character Development
    • Is it clear who all the characters are and whether they’re the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s)? Are there compelling reasons for being opaque about certain characters’ loyalties?
    • Is there an unnecessary cast of thousands? Or are there too few characters to be believable given the nature of the plot and setting?
    • Do readers care about the characters, or are the characters flat, 2-D representations of real people?
    • Do characters fall into stereotypes — e.g., the evil person is always fat or ugly, or the beautiful princess is either weak or Lara Croft, or the smarmy-but-vulnerable kid looks emo, or the Native American character incessantly talks about the wisdom of his people? Do characters have disabilities or disfigurements that may advance the plot or the conflict?
    • Are minority characters deployed effectively, without appearing as tokens?
    • Does the cast of characters faithfully reflect the expected diversity of the setting, given the plot?
    • Do we know what motivates each main character?
    • Do main characters grow or change or fail? If not, why not? If so, does the evolution make sense psychosocially and morally?
    • Is enough material presented to identify a character well?
    • Do characters have their own tics or vocalizations?
  • Dialogue
    • Can a reader tell who’s talking even without speech-attribution tags?
    • Does the volume of dialogue advance or hinder the plot and its pacing?
    • Do characters talk like real people? Do they make too many unnecessary references to objects in the scene or rely too often on using people’s names? (“Why, thank you, Bob, for giving me this cup of water.”)
    • Does dialogue serve as an all-too-convenient info dump for facts that should have been introduced through plot action?
    • Does a dialogue-heavy scene in one part of the story serve a useful purpose in a different part of the story?
    • If dialogue partly serves a didactic role, is the message suitably veiled so it doesn’t feel like a rhetorical hammer?

Line Assessment

  • Does all the content conform to an uniform stylebook convention, regardless of what stylebook it may be?
  • Are all the words spelled correctly, and are all sentences appropriately punctuated?
  • Are the right words used at the right time, for maximal effect? For example, does the story use “10-cent words” judiciously, and avoid prose that reads like ESL construction?
  • Is dialogue appropriately attributed with a minimum of unnecessary synonyms for the tried-and-true “said?”
  • Is description deliberate instead of a function of haphazard, proliferating adverbs and adjectives?
  • Are there avoidable grammar errors in the manuscript?
  • Are “errors” like sentence fragments deployed with an artisan’s mastery?
  • Is the syllables-to-concept ratio appropriately low? (That is, does the story unfold with concise language that avoids both unnecessary circumlocutions and the flabbiness that comes from an underdeveloped vocabulary?)

Pre-Production Assessment

  • Is the work too long, too short or just right?
  • Are genre conventions respected? If not, is there a good reason to bend the curve?
  • Does the story begin strong and wrap up effectively?
  • Is the story original?
  • Where suspension of disbelief is required, does the totality of the story support such suspension?
  • Is there a theme or a lesson that transcends the plot and the conflict? If so, does it work? If not, should it?
  • Is the language fresh and accessible?
  • Does the author over-use narration when dialogue would work better, or vice versa?

Robust self-assessment of a manuscript’s fitness goes a long way to finding a receptive ear within a publishing house. By thinking through the story’s content, structure and diction, you’ll be one giant leap ahead of writers who — despite proliferating advice to the contrary — still insist on shopping their first drafts.

An Editor’s Toolkit for Assessing Fiction

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