Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On The Receiving End of the Red Pen: Insights from an Editor turned Author

Hello everyone, Julie Lessman here. I am very excited to welcome to Seekerville today award-winning author AND editor for Bethany House, Julie Klassen. I was fortunate enough to meet Julie at the ACFW 2008 conference last September, and I will NEVER forget either the woman OR our truly anointed chance encounter in a Sheraton bathroom (you can read my blog about it here

Julie Klassen has worked in Christian publishing for more than twelve years and is the author of two novels: Lady of Milkweed Manor and The Apothecary’s Daughter. Without further ado, I give you Julie Klassen:

I have the privilege of working as a fiction editor for Bethany House Publishers. When I (secretly) wrote my first historical, Bethany House was my hoped-for publisher. Since I work with the people who would be reviewing it, I submitted it under a pseudonym so that if it was accepted, it would be done so objectively. Of course, this also allowed me to cower under the protection of anonymity in case it was rejected! Since then, I have learned a lot about being on the other side of the desk—and on the receiving end of the red pen. With that in mind, I offer a few tips from one editor/author. (Note: just my personal opinion; not necessarily policy!)

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Don’t start with back story. I can’t tell you how many proposals I’ve read where the story doesn’t really begin until Chapter 3. Most readers (and editors) won’t last that long. Drizzle in only necessary back story after you’ve hooked the reader.

Hook reader on the first page with either action, suspense, a dramatic question, or the compelling stakes the protagonist will face. Readers, agents, and editors are becoming increasingly jaded and need to be engaged quickly.

Sell It! Editors are readers first. When writing the synopsis portion of your query letter, think promotional or back cover copy and not “this happens, then this, then this…” Unless specifically requested, I wouldn’t include a chapter-by-chapter summary. Every one I’ve ever read makes even a potentially interesting book sound tedious or contrived. (Note: Several great articles about hooking readers and writing queries have already been posted—refer to these for more details.)

Issue Smissue: Avoid trying to tackle too many issues in your novel. I recently reviewed a proposal which covered abortion, depression, mental illness, feminism, and anti-Christian sentiment. We rejected it. Yes, your novel should have a point, a theme, an uplifting faith message, something worthwhile—but the story needs to be king.

Buzzword: Sympathetic. Your main character needs to be likeable OR understandably unlikeable (due to _____ (you fill in back story)) but redeemable. Perhaps it sounds obvious, but often proposals are rejected due to unsympathetic or un-relatable characters. Ask yourself, am I creating a character readers will want to spend time with? Will they feel for him? Care about her and her problem? I am NOT saying she needs to be a perfect, sweet, godly Christian. Even characters we wouldn’t want our sons to date can be effective protagonists. Think of Julie Lessman’s Charity. Or read Home Another Way by Christa Parrish. Christa’s protagonist is bristly, bitter and unapologetically immoral. But she is also wounded, talented, interesting, and wickedly funny. And ultimately, poignantly, redeemable. (Note: I am not suggesting you all go out and create sexually immoral protagonists—this can be a stumbling block to becoming published, and is a challenge to do well.)

Don’t kill the messenger, er, editor. Don’t take it personally when you receive that detailed rejection letter or seven pages of rewrite suggestions. Yes, editors are fallible human beings and you don’t have to do everything they suggest. But neither should you dismiss such feedback lightly. Seasoned editors have reviewed and edited hundreds of books and know a few things about crafting novels that sell. They really are trying to help you. So consider, pray, and in the end take the suggestions that resonate with you before respectfully ignoring the rest. It is, after all, your book.

The Editor, Edited. I, too, received plenty of feedback (praise and criticism) on my manuscripts. Yes, it’s sometimes painful to hear where a story falls short or needs work, but in the end I agreed with 90% of the suggestions and set about the hard work of rewriting. (Ah well, who needs to go outside during the summer anyway?)

Which is harder, writing or editing? Writing, hands down. Tired? Stressed? No wonder! I’ve learned that writing a book is ten (fifty?) times harder than editing one. I have such admiration and respect for anyone who has completed a novel—published or not. If you haven’t finished—keep your derriere in the chair. And if you have, give yourself a pat on the back and then return your derriere to the chair. Hard, lonely work? Yes. Worth it? You betcha.

Visit Julie at her Web site at where you can learn more about her fabulous debut novel, Lady of Milkweed Manor, and her second novel, The Apothecary's Daughter, release date January 2009.


  1. Julie,

    You've included a lot for us to think about.

    This might seem obvious, but could you give a little more detail on "likeable" characters. I suppose this may vary and be a matter of opinion.

    I just got back some contest comments. One judge loved the character and got that she was "goofy." The other said she was unlikeable. The entry was supposed to be humorous and quirky, if that helps. One judge "got it" and the other didn't. What to do?

    Is it possible for a character to be universally likeable, someone that everyone likes?

    Thanks for any insight on this.

  2. Welcome to Seekerville, Julie K! How interesting to live "on both sides of the fence"!

    I know what you mean about too many "issues" in a single book -- that can make it hard for the reader to follow all the threads, and what might have been a more powerful point about one or two of them becomes diluted.

    I'm guessing, though, that the authors that do this are trying hard for that elusive GMC that will keep H&H apart, yet not seem cliche'd to an editor. Do you have any additional tips for striking that balance in a romance? Having enough "issues" to please an editor and make a book stand out from others--but without overdoing it?

    Your covers are BEAUTIFUL, Julie! And thanks again for joining us!

  3. Good morning Julie, Thank you for taking the time to join us. We are delighted to hear from an editor and hear your side of the story. I think its important for us to know that a rejection letter with many comments is a positive thing and also that there are many reasons for one. Thanks for all the helpful suggestions to watch out for.

    I loved the story of how you and Julie L. met. I have your book on my "To Read" list because of her comments.

    Thanks again for joining us.

  4. Julie, it’s great having you here! I would think that having a background as an editor and now having written several books of your own would give you great insight into helping authors hone their craft.

    Were there any “aha” moments when going through the editing process (as the author) that you had? Like, “Aha, THIS is why my authors couldn’t seem to grasp what I meant when I told the fix xyz.”

    Also, at what point after Bethany expressed interest in your ms did you come clean that you were….ah…YOU? Seems like a very interesting story in itself!

    Beautiful covers, btw! I was at the Mall of America booksigning pointing out Lady of Milkweed Manor to people because the cover was so eyecatching. The Apothecary’s Daughter looks just a delectable!

  5. This was really helpful! I'm working on my first novel right now, and I haven't gotten to the editing stage yet. I think the writing probably is harder, but the editing makes me want to scream sometimes, too.

    But since I love it, it's both fun and a big pain at the same time. LOL. I just submitted my first piece of writing today, so I'll be nice to the editors if it comes back rejected ;)

    Also, is it possible to have a character that's TOO likeable? I've read some books where the characters are like some sort of saint, and just too perfect to be real. Maybe it's just me.....

  6. Good morning everyone! I just got my Internet back after an hour of trouble-shooting, so I'm sorry to be late.

    Julie K. has a day job, but she will try to pop in here and there to answer your questions. In the meantime, I will throw in my two cents where I can.

    Cathy S -- I personally think it is impossible to create a character that EVERYONE would like because not everyone likes every book, every food, every type of music. But I do think you can create a character that most readers can relate to and develop an attachment for. Likewise in contests, you are not going to please every judge. I often cite the example of A Passion Most Pure when one judge gave me a perfect score with the comment: "Please, please, please let me know when this is published!" The other judge gave me a 50% and pretty much hated it. The perfect-score judge just LOVED the subordinate characters, while the 50% judge said I gave way too much attention to them. So, bottom line? Personal opinion plays into everything -- especially contests.

    Hi Glynna, Sandra, Pam -- did anybody bring food today? I am undergoing a colonoscopy-style prep, so I have some delicious cran-strawberry juice to mix with Miralax ... :)

  7. Thanks for visiting Seekerville, Julie K. (trying to keep my Julie's straight)
    Great post. I love hearing how things work from an editor's perspective and you, having been on both sides of that desk, really give insight.

  8. Cathy and all,
    Yes, publishing is a subjective business, and you're never going to please everyone. That's why, when we're considering whether or not to publish something (and even when we have already contracted a ms and are putting together rewrite instructions for the author) we always have several editors review and give feedback. Usually though, the same praise and concerns come up in multiple reviews--and those are the opinions we give the most weight to.
    How to create a likeable character? My guess is whole books have been written on the subject from people who've given it more thought than I have. I will suggest that you work hard to make them human, i.e. dimensional with good points and relatable weaknesses and flaws. Are they believable? (Perhaps one judge thought your characater was too goofy to be believable??)Personally, creating characters is something that doesn't come easily to me. I worked hard to try to make the characters in my second book more dimensional than in my first. I have found the "Character Circuitry" grid in The Fiction Editor by Thomas McCormack to be very helpful in fleshing out character goals and conflicts.

  9. Welcome, Julie! Always fun to get an editor's insider perspective, especially one who also knows the author's struggles firsthand.

    Creating likable characters is definitely an area I've had a few problems with. In my debut novel Abingdon is bringing out next fall, that ms. suffered through countless contest ups and downs because the judges either REALLY connected with my heroine's struggle, or just wanted to slap her around and send her to counseling.

    Thankfully I found an editor who did make the connection, but in the macro edit she also helped tremendously by pointing out ways I could develop better motivation through backstory to make my heroine more sympathetic. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my revisions work!

  10. Glynna,
    You're right in that your romance should have substance and believable hurdle(s)/obstacle(s) to keep the hero and heroine from resolving their relationship too soon. But these needn't necessarily be "issues." Pick only one theme for your book. I attended a class at ACFW where agent Natasha Kern talked about how everything in your novel should relate to one primary premise. In the romance I am currently editing, the hero is struggling over whether he loves his land more than any woman and the woman's obstacle is that, due to the terrible fates of everyone she has ever loved, she is determined never to marry. Various problems and subplots arise because of this, but they are all related to the main premise, not a myriad of diverse issues.

  11. Pam,
    One thing I learned from being on the receiving end is that there are at least two ways to say anything. I have made every effort to become a more tactful and gentle editor since becoming an author! :)
    My boss at Bethany was the only one who knew I had written the book and he sent it around to editors for review. After he began receiving positive feedback, he let the editors know who the real culprit was. Sure glad it didn't go the other way!

  12. Sandra,
    Thanks. I hope you enjoy the book. And you're right, detailed rejection letters are definitely more positive than form letters.

  13. Ariana,
    I'm not sure characters can be too likeable, but they can definitely be too perfect. Reviewers of my first draft of The Apothecary's Daughter, thought my main character, Lilly, was a bit too perfect. Too pretty, too many gentleman admirers, not enough problems. I revised the ms, and now Lilly has suffered rejection from several suitors, because, while pretty, she does not have the rank or wealth to win a society husband. She is now, hopefully, a woman more readers will like and feel for.
    Overall, I have really seen a change in the protagonists of our novels over the last several years. Increasingly, editors are turned off by sweet, "perfect" characters and want characters with wounds, flaws, and weaknesses. It's a real struggle in Christian publishing, though, because obviously we don't want to revel in or glorify sin. But we do want characters that reflect the reality of a fallen world. And, more importantly, we want to see characters grow and change in some satisfying way over the course of a novel.

  14. Ooh, your covers are really lovely. Thanks for sharing your story. It's pretty cool that you submitted anonymously.
    Ahh, the dreaded backstory. It took me until my third manuscript to learn that lesson. LOL

  15. Wow. I've been reading all the comments on characterization and that is something I'm struggling with right now. My heroine is too naive and quirky, so I'm trying to figure out how to tone her down without losing the personality, and how to make her more likeable/relatable. Thanks for your comments everyone. They're definitely helpful.

  16. Hello Julie:

    Great post. My number one reason for giving up on a book is that I don’t like the characters and don’t care what happens to them.

    Do you know if the cover of “Lady of Milkweed Manor” is a photo, a painting, or a combination of both? The lighting is amazing. It would be very difficult to photograph.

    Do you know if your books are available, or will become available, as eBooks or Larger print books for people who have difficulty reading normal size print?

    Pet Peeve: Is there a good editing reason why authors writing historical fiction make you work so hard to figure out the year in which their novels are talking place? Are tombstones taboo? I love it when something like “Athens, 330 BC” appears at the top of a chapter.

    BTW, I have your book but the type is a little too small for comfort. I would be very happy to buy the eBook.



  17. Such excellent advice, Julie!! And very timely for me. Thank you for sharing with us!!


  18. Hi Vince,
    The cover of Lady of Milkweed Manor is a composite: a photograph of a model taken in studio with the windows added in digitally afterwards by a talented designer named Jennifer Parker. I agree, she does an amazing job.
    As far as e-books: I believe The Apothecary's Daughter will eventually be available as a kindle edition, but I'm not sure about Lady. If you like audio books, rent (or find at your library) the Record Books edition of Lady of Milkweed Manor. The British actor who performs it does a stunning job. I loved it.
    As far as your pet-peeve. Good question! I am not sure if it is editors who avoid specific dates or perhaps authors who don't want to be pegged down (and later called to account by some history major for ignoring some actual historical event that would have been going on at the time). My own editor asked me to add "The year was 1810" to my prologue for the very reason you mention. It felt a little pedestrian to me, but I did it anyway. Now I'm waiting for those history buffs to begin lambasting me... :)

  19. Hey Vince, I am TOTALLY in your corner on this one -- I absolutely LOVE it when historical novels indicate a year, which is why I always do! Like Julie K. said, it does put your feet to the fire as far as absolute accuracy, but then I have pretty tough feet because I've been burned more than once by indicating dates throughout my entire series.

    And Julie K, I love your covers too! Sorry they came out fuzzy on this blog -- my artist husband and I tried several ways to make them sharp, to no avail.


  20. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for great insight into both worlds. I know it must have taken courage to submit your manuscript to Bethany House . . . talk about pins and needles!!!

    When an editor speaks, I listen. Inevitably her advice and suggestions make my story a better read. We writers are so close to our work we sometimes overlook obvious problems. Thank goodness for editors who spot the errors and offer solutions that enhance the story.

  21. Hi Julie K.

    I listen to at least 100 books on tape a year.

    I just listened to a sample of “Lady of Milkweed Manor”, and it sounds like poetry. I even read along with the English reader and his phrasing and sound inflection is dead on.

    It is a real education reading the text while a professional reader is reading it out loud with the right emphasis. Of course, a real test of an audio reader is how he or she does multiple voices. I find it amazing how a man can do a woman’s voice and vice versa and have it sound so natural you don’t even hear the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ endings in your mind’s ‘ear’.

    As far as 1810 for the book, was that your second book? I did not find the date in the preface of “Lady of Milkweed Manor”.

    As an author, do you get the option to buy the original artwork used for your book cover? If not, do you know what happens to the original artwork?

    Thanks again,


  22. Hi Julie L.

    After the cover, the next thing I noticed about “A Passion Most Pure” was:

    Boston, Massachusetts, Late Summer, 1916

    This is right at the top of Chapter 1.

    My brother lives in Boston and I just audited a college class on World War I and I thought 'this is just what I want' and bought it at once. I have read some but I think I am going to have to get the eBook version for Christmas so I can make the type size bigger. BTW, your book is available as a Sony eBook. PTL.



  23. Vince,
    Right. The Apothecary's Daughter specifies the year as 1810. I pet-peeved you in Lady by not mentioning a specific year (a choice I made since I preferred not to mention nor comment on military events). In my own timing notes for that book, the story opens in 1809 and the epilogue stretches into the 1820s.
    I'm afraid I don't know about rights to the art. I imagine if a book goes out of print, at which time an author has the opporunity to buy back his rights, that might be a possibility, depending on the publisher and your contract. I haven't crossed that bridge yet. In this digital age, the artwork files are stored for a looong time.
    As ar as the audio version, I agree. A reader who can bring so many characters (male and female) to life with only his voice is gifted indeed. I admit I was a little skeptical when I learned Recorded Books had chosen a male narrator for Lady of Milkweed Manor. But narrator Simon Prebble won me over (and then some)within minutes. Hope you have a chance to listen to his whole performance!

  24. VINCE!!!!

    Oh-oh. Your brother lives in Boston and you just audited a college class on World War I. YIKES, I could be in trouble. Gosh, I hope my research holds up under your skilled scrutiny!

    Kind of like when my editor was telling her husband (who just happens to be an Irish historian ... what are the odds????) about A Passion Most Pure, and he ... uh ... found a really big mistake in the plot that NO ONE but an Irish historian would find. Yep. Had to fix it, but now I have the joy of knowing that in the eyes of history and the Irish, I done good. So all's well that ends well. :)

  25. Dear Cathy, Glynna, Sandra, Pam, Arianna, Mary, Myra, Vince, Jessica, Missy, Debby, and of course, Julie L.,
    I have enjoyed being a guest on The Seekers today. A big thank you to Julie L. for inviting me. Now, it's off to Wednesday night church to (try to) teach 2-4 year olds. I'll check back tomorrow and see if anyone had any final questions or comments. Thanks again!

  26. We've been looking forward to meeting you! Loved the bathroom story. LOL!

    Wonderful, resourceful post!

    Thank you for visiting us.


  27. Julie,

    Thanks for mentioning Home Another Way :) A friend of mine popped by my blog to tell me you included a reference to my protagonist, Sarah Graham, in your post. I appreciate you using her as an example of a redeemable character you "wouldn't want your sons to date..." Isn't that the truth!

    God bless and give my best to everyone over at Bethany House.

    In Him,

  28. Hi Cheryl! Thanks for the kind words.

    Hi Christa. Loved your book!

    Thanks again to all.

  29. Hi Julie L:

    I love history. I even took extra history classes in college so I could get a teaching minor in history should I ever get the chance to teach it.

    When I read historical fiction, what I want most is the ‘experience of living’ in that time period. I may know what happened from history books but I don’t know what it was like to be alive and going about the business of living. What was everyday life like? How much did things cost? Did they use the big over-sized dollars? What did they eat? What was it like to ride in a carriage for hours?

    Louis L’Amour was famous for doing this. He would have cowboys out West reading the Police Gazette in the bunkhouse talking about crime in New York City! (The year was 1867!) He knew cowboys read the Police Gazette from letters written at the time. Unexpected everyday events like this are what I find so enjoyable in historical fiction.

    About not giving the date of the story: usually it’s not a big deal if the story happened in 1805 or 1810 but with some pirate stories it’s hard to tell if the story happened in 1610 or 1810. You can have two hundred years in doubt and I think that is a big deal. I at least want to know what century it is.



  30. Hello Julie, this interview with you was a blessing to read as well as all the posts. I've written an historical and working on its sequel. I use the dates also to introduce chapters. Yes, it requires much research to get it accurae especially the military aspects of the story. Your observations as an author and editor were so helpful. Thanks to Julie L., too.