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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from Touchstone Editing!

Touchstone Editing wishes you a happy and healthy new year! We hope it will be a year filled with happiness and success for you, and we look forward to helping your writing dreams come true in 2017!

Happy Thanksgiving from Touchstone Editing!

Photo by Yainea 
Regardless of everything else going on, Thanksgiving as it's celebrated nowadays offers a wonderful opportunity to—at least temporarily—refocus on the good things in our lives. In that spirit of introspection and gratitude, we wanted to share a few of the things we're grateful for. Of course, that includes the support and kindness of our loved ones, but we're hoping they don't need to be mentioned below to know that.

So here are just a few of the things that we greatly appreciate having in our lives:

  • Having found a partner in Anya, in the best sense of the word. Someone who shares my aspirations and standards, knows where I come from and where I want to go, and wants to take those steps right alongside me.
  • The trust writers place in me when they ask me to edit their work—and, even more than that, when the same writers come back to me for future edits, showing me that they believe their trust was well placed. There’s no greater compliment!
  • Chocolate. (But seriously.)

  • Authors being willing to push past their protective emotional responses and dig into their work to make a story reach its potential. And then those same authors being eager to share their experiences working with me, to help fellow writers decide if my editing style will be right for them and their work.
  • That day Jennifer and I met for coffee—only to find out neither one of us drinks coffee—and came away with the idea of Touchstone Editing. I'm so glad an offhand comment ended up bringing Jennifer, who'd been only a passing acquaintance, more firmly into my life, as both a business partner and a friend.
  • Good wines. I live in California and temporarily lived in France. Need I say more?

What are you thankful for this holiday season? Share in the comments!

Jennifer's 5 Tips for NaNoWriMo

Greetings, brave writers! With one week left until the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), now seems like a perfect time to go over some last-minute tips. Whether it's your first or tenth time participating in NaNo, it never hurts to be prepared.

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month
First, some background: The idea of having a month dedicated to writing a novel started back in 1999 among a small group of friends, but it caught on so quickly that within just a few years, hundreds of thousands of people were participating. The goal of NaNo is to write 50,000 words in the month of November, and the mass appeal stems largely from the positive community surrounding NaNo, as well as the mindset of "you don't have to write something good, you just have to write something."

That takes off some pressure, but writing 50,000 words in the span of 30 days can still be daunting. If you're in the US and celebrate Thanksgiving during November, that can make it seem even more unlikely that you'll have the time to knock out so many words.

But it can be done, and it can be a really positive, fulfilling experience if you keep a few things in mind.

Break it down
Sitting down and thinking I have to write 50,000 words might overwhelm you. Instead, think of it this way: you only need to write 1,667 words each day to meet that 50,000-word quota. That's really not so bad! NaNo offers some widgets to help with keeping track of your word count so you don't need to waste valuable writing time on that, and they also hold daily "competitions," if that's a good motivator for you.

Go easy on yourself
It's okay if you don't hit 50,000 words on November 30th. Really. Plenty of people continue on into December, and no matter how many (or how few) words you write, it's better than zero.

Don't fret writer's block
If you're feeling stuck on a scene, don't panic. Remember that you can always skip that scene and come back to it later. If you're set on writing it, try looking around for inspiration: take a walk, talk to a friend, or use a writing prompt generator.

And when in doubt, check out the NaNo forums. You'll find nothing but encouragement and sympathy there, plus plenty of ideas to get your creative energy flowing!

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month
Take breaks
No, really. Make sure you're well rested (or at least try to be). Go out with your friends, watch a movie, read a book. If you let NaNo consume you for the entire month, you'll feel miserable and will dread sitting down to write every day. Balance is important; set aside time to write, but don't neglect yourself to do so.

I already mentioned the NaNo forums, but if that's not your thing, give Twitter a try. Some of the most popular hashtags to check out are #nanowrimo, #nanowrimo2016, #amwriting, and #writing. For advice and encouragement, follow the #nanocoach hashtag. In October, #nanoprep is a big one, and in December and January, #amediting skyrockets.

There are also local write-ins you can join, if you're craving some in-person interaction. You can find likeminded writers in the NaNo Regions Directory, or you can utilize and find local writers groups in your area—I can pretty much guarantee that they'll be having some NaNo-related meetups. Some people spend the entire time writing during these events, and others value them for the chance to socialize; it's a great way to make new friends! Remember, there are no bad experiences. There are good experiences and then there are experiences that make good writing fodder. ;)

However you cope with the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month, we're rooting for you! At the end of the month you'll have the start to a shiny new novel down on paper—or maybe even most of it!—and when you're ready to take it beyond the roughness of a first draft, we'll be here to help.

Every Writer's Dream Editorial Letter

Many writers dream of receiving a glowing letter from their editor. What can be better than expecting criticism and receiving endless compliments instead? So, I've written you the "perfect" editorial letter—and you don't even have to pay me! If you're looking for adulation, feel free to fill in some details more relevant for your story and print a copy.

    Dear [YOUR NAME HERE],

    [MANUSCRIPT TITLE] was simply a pleasure to read! I haven't read such an engaging and well-written [GENRE] novel in far too long—including published ones, not only drafts. Right away, [MAIN CHARACTER]'s voice captivated me, and it remained consistently engrossing throughout. Compelling and relatable, [she/he/they] [was/were] developed so fully that I was entirely immersed, temporarily living in [his/her/their] mind[s]. I forgot myself as I read, your words sweeping me along.

    The story itself was filled with unexpected plot twists that kept me reading late into the night. I literally couldn't stop myself! You had me alternately holding my breath and [LAUGHING/CRYING/TERRIFIED (depending on genre)], as your characters leapt off the page and pulled me into their world. And that world! Every detail was vivid, perfectly fleshed out without being overbearing. I can picture [MAIN SETTINGS] as easily as if I had albums full of photos in front of me, and yet your prose flowed flawlessly, never bogged down by unnecessary details.

    Of course there was the stray typo or occasional repetitiveness in your word choice, but nothing that cannot be easily fixed. Those rare moments are all marked in the text.

    Overall, I am incredibly impressed by the caliber of your work, and I cannot wait to read more from you! I'm certain readers will be as captivated as I was, and I am honored to have gotten an early glimpse of such a magnificent book.

    Best wishes for what is certain to be an exciting career,


Now be honest: does your draft deserve a letter as glowing as that one? In the vast majority of cases (allowing for one or two impeccable geniuses out there), the answer is "no." The fact is, the editorial letter doesn't exist to provide endless praise and compliments. Rather, like the more in-depth editing that often accompanies it, it is there to help you pinpoint problem areas in your plot and character development and to offer suggestions for improvement.

The ultimate goal is to ensure your readers love your book, and for most writers, that requires the insight of a capable editor and the determination to work through multiple revisions. Our job as editors would be much easier if we could simply add manuscript-specific details to a template like the one above! Instead of taking the easy way out, reputable editors put in the time and effort to analyze writers' drafts, using their skills to help your stories reach their potential.

Both Jennifer and I are committed to providing the honest feedback writers need to help transform their drafts into engaging, compelling novels. So that later, readers will give your hard work the rave reviews it will genuinely deserve.

    Are you ready to whip your manuscript into the best shape possible? 
    The Touchstone Editors are here to help!

Mini Lesson: Syntax Matters

Why does your editor nitpick where in a sentence you put each word? Because in English, syntax—the order in which words are put together to form phrases & clauses (sentences)—affects meaning.

Syntax wasn't quite as important in Latin, for example, where there was more fluidity in word placement because of the complicated structure of conjugation and declension—word endings helped convey precise meaning. But in English, moving a word around in a sentence can drastically change the meaning, or make a phrase entirely nonsensical.

In other words: syntax matters.

Let's take a look at an example of a lyric taken from the song "Payphone" by Maroon 5:
      "Even the sun sets in paradise." (Emphasis mine.)
Because this lyric says even the sun sets, it means that in paradise, everything sets—including the sun. Now, given the rest of the lyrics and the general idea of the song, we know that the intended meaning was to say "all good things come to an end." In other words, the sun sets everywhere, including in paradise. So this lyric should read:
      "The sun sets even in paradise."
By moving the word even, we can drastically change the meaning of the other five words. And by misplacing it, the lyrics imply almost the exact opposite of their intended meaning.

For another example, let's look at a great sentence that's been making the rounds online:
      She told him that she loved him.
Now, place the word only somewhere in the sentence. Got it? Now move it somewhere else. Did you see how the meaning changed?

In fact, by adding the word only, we can get 7 different meanings from the same words:
  1. Only she told him that she loved him.
  2. She only told him that she loved him.
  3. She told only him that she loved him.
  4. She told him only that she loved him.
  5. She told him that only she loved him.
  6. She told him that she only loved him.
  7. She told him that she loved only him.
Notice how, when reading, you automatically stress different words based on the placement of just that one. Because (say it with me): syntax matters. You don't want to end up with sentence #7 when you mean sentence #2.

So if you're going to be lax with syntax—e.g. to play with the speech mannerisms of your characters—be aware of how moving those words around will affect your meaning. And if you do want to break the rules, make sure you have a good reason to do so.

Writers for Hope Auction for @RAINN01!

The 3rd Annual Writers for Hope Auction is happening today (April 4th, ET)! There is an incredible list of items donated by agents, editors, authors, and book lovers, all going to the highest bidders to raise money for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. Last year's auction was a huge success, and this year's is shaping up to be even bigger!

Photo credit: One Way Stock
via / CC BY-ND
Among the auction items, you'll find editorial letters (full manuscript critiques) from each of the Touchstone Editors. We're thrilled to be able to support such a fantastic cause!

There are also books, literary gifts, consultations, and much more—over 100 items total!—up for auction. Bidding is open from 12:01AM to 11:59PM Eastern Time (9:01PM Sunday to 8:59PM Monday Pacific Time). Highest bid during that time wins the item, so watch out for those last-minute bidders!

Commandment 10: Know When to Stand Up for Yourself & Your Work

Sometimes editors are wrong. And sometimes agents are wrong. The same can be said for reviewers, contest judges, cover designers, and really just about anyone. So how do you know when to listen to the critiques (or advice) and when to trust your own sense of the work?

The truth is, it's a fine line. Some writers believe that their first draft is brilliant and that any criticism comes from people who are jealous, closed-minded, unintelligent, and/or unable to appreciate their genius. Some trust everything anyone tells them; they try to incorporate all of the feedback, or they give up because someone said the story was boring/awful/poorly written/would never sell/etc. Both approaches can be damaging to your work.

You've likely seen countless posts about the danger of not listening to your editor and not being open to critiques. And it's true; it's impossible to improve if you're not ready to internalize criticism and put in the work. But it's also true that at the end of the day, you know your story best. Consider the experience of this author, who lost what she felt was the core of her story due to editorial pressure. You don't want that to happen to your work—and neither should your editor.

A good editor will be able to lay out a clear explanation for every suggestion s/he provides—not simply insist you do what s/he says—because the goal is to improve your work and your vision. Understanding the reasoning behind the suggestions your editor makes will allow you to address the deeper issues of your story, rather than merely agreeing to the changes. It will allow you to know if the suggested changes are taking your work off course, while giving you the opportunity to fix the core problem(s) without losing your voice. Personally, I love it when my writers fix the problems I point out in their way, regardless of whether they incorporate my specific recommendations.

Understanding the reasoning behind the suggestions someone makes for your work also lets you discuss those deeper reasons and address the other person's concerns, rather than picking a fight or resenting their advice. Similarly, if you want to push back, you need to ensure that you do more than unilaterally reject someone's feedback or suggestions.

One author I've worked with handled a situation like this brilliantly. When she received the publisher's cover design, she didn't say, "I don't like it." She laid out clear reasons for her concerns and coherent suggestions for addressing those concerns, including sample visuals to help steer the designer's work. Now, in reality, she's lucky the publisher listened; some won't, simply because they don't have to. But she stood up for her work in a respectful way, and the result was a beautiful cover that represented her story. Had she stayed quiet or not explained her reasoning as well as she did, that cover wouldn't exist.

At the end of the day, you're the last line of defense for your story. You're responsible for ensuring that the final result is the best it can be, which does mean accepting the criticism necessary to improve it—but it doesn't mean allowing your vision to be steamrolled. It's up to you to walk that fine line of incorporating feedback and staying true to your story. It's also up to you to seek out the people—agents, editors, critique partners, and more—who will be in your story's corner, and not to settle for anything less.

Missed a post? Check out all of Touchstone Editing's 10 Commandments for Writers

Commandment 9: Don't Be Afraid to Put Your Work Out There

Rejection sucks. No one is going to argue that point, and no writer is going to pretend that they like being rejected.

But trite as it may sound, if you never try, you can never succeed. Sure, if you submit a short story to a literary journal, or send a novel off to an agent, you might get rejected. With the amount of other writers doing the same thing, odds are that you will get rejected. But if you don't submit anything, you lose any chance of being accepted at all.

Photo credit: kajojak via / CC BY-NC-ND
I figure submissions are kind of like the heads of a hydra: cut one off, and two more grow back in its place. So personally, when I get one rejection, I try to send the story off to two more places. The other day, I was looking around, trying to figure out where to send one of my stories, and I came across a link to The New Yorker's submissions page. Now, I am 99.9999999% sure that The New Yorker is never going to be interested in anything I write. But! What if? If I submit to them, maybe there's only a 0.00000001% chance that my story will get accepted—but if I don't, that number drops to a flat 0% chance, and those odds are even worse.

Another thing to consider is that, even when your work gets rejected, you could get helpful feedback. True, in many cases you'll get a form rejection. But every so often you'll get specific comments about what didn't work for that publication/agent, why they weren't interested, whether they're excited to see more of your work, etc. That feedback is a tool you can use to improve your writing, better understand what that publication/agent is looking for, and submit stronger work in the future. You can learn from it, and you can grow as a writer as a result.

Plus, though it may hurt to put your heart and soul into your writing only to have someone tell you it isn't good enough, ultimately it's good practice. Because once your work does get published, you're at the mercy of readers everywhere. No matter what you write, no matter how brilliant, some people are going to hate it. You may get scathing reviews—and again, that sucks—but if you've built up a thick skin from all those rejections, you'll have a bit more perspective on how subjective opinions are, and you won't let those opinions stop you.

Don't let rejections make you think your story isn't worthwhile. It might need revisions, or it might be a simple matter of not being a good fit for that particular publication/agent. Plenty of the most influential, bestselling writers were rejected dozens of times before finding success.

Your story deserves telling—but in order for the world to hear it, you need to get it out there.

Commandment 8: Not All Critiques Are Created Equal

It's tempting to listen to your best friend, your supportive family member, or even that writer you met in a critique group who's telling you that your work is pretty much perfect, except for a couple tweaks. It's even more tempting when it's someone who calls themselves an "editor" paying you endless compliments (and charging you money to boot!). Maybe they're even right. But if you're struggling to meet your publishing goals, those unhelpful "critiques" could be to blame.

We all like to be told that we did an amazing job, and more importantly that we're done. No more work needs to be put into this project because it's great exactly as it is! Incredible feeling, right? But you can't trust just anybody who gives you this kind of feedback. 

Photo credit: Nic's events
via / CC BY-SA
There's a reason your fellow writer or friend doesn't catch that massive plot hole, point out character development problems, or notice that your subplot stops existing halfway through the book. And there's a reason a good editor catches all of these problems and more.

Just like programming, drawing, gymnastics, etc., editing is a skill. Like most skills, editing well is something that must be learned and then honed. Having an English Literature degree doesn't automatically make you a good editor. Neither does being a bookworm, or even a successful author. These things don't preclude you from being a good editor, of course, but they're insufficient.  Not everyone can catch the problems, point them out, and provide useful suggestions on how to fix them. It takes knowledge and practice, and possibly a natural inclination toward that kind of work (what people like to call "talent"). 

As a writer, you should seek out not those who pay you endless compliments, but those who actually have the experience and knowledge to evaluate your writing and help you improve. They should be able to abstract themselves from their relationship with you and focus entirely on your work. Similarly, you should evaluate the quality of the feedback and disregard how much you like the person.

There is a clear hierarchy to the value provided by a critique. Someone who doesn't read in your genre is pretty low on the list, because they have no frame of reference for what your target readers will expect and enjoy. A beta reader or a fellow writer without much critiquing experience would be somewhere toward the middle, as in many cases, they lack the experience and wherewithal to provide honest criticism and clear suggestions for improvement. An experienced critique partner, especially one who is familiar with your genre and has previously provided useful feedback, is close to the top. But nothing beats a qualified, experienced, and skilled editor.

Remembering this hierarchy can help you sift through contradictory critiques and suggestions, choose the direction in which to take your revisions, and decide how much work still needs to be done. Another way to think about it is: A good beta reader will point out what they like in your book. A good critique partner will point out what isn't working. A good editor will also help you fix it. 

    Have you received contradictory critiques on your work? How did you decide which suggestions to prioritize?

Up next: Commandment 9: Don't Be Afraid to Put Your Work Out There

Commandment 7: Respect Your Editor

There's a strange culture among writers nowadays of demonizing their editors. Not even intentionally, most of the time, but it still happens. Even authors who love their editors—who post gushing things about them on their blogs, or tweet nice things about them, or recommend them to friends—will joke about how they're paying their editor "to be insulted."

Photo credit: Tjololo Photo via / CC BY-NC-ND
I get it: authors use humor to lament being beaten down by editorial feedback so that their fellow writers will commiserate. I know, too, that sometimes we editors ask for complicated changes, or we might point out a huge plot hole that derails your entire vision of the end of your book. And facing those revisions can be daunting and disheartening.

I'm not saying that there are no bad editors out there; there are, and if you genuinely believe that your editor is insulting you, inhibiting your writing, disregarding your book's best interests, or just generally feels to you like "the bad guy," get a different editor. Even if your editor was assigned to you by a publishing house, you can request a switch if you truly can't work together.

Your editor should never be the villain in your tale. Our goal is to make your work stronger, and if that means returning a manuscript to you covered in red ink, so be it. Once you've considered our suggestions and made any necessary changes, your book will be that much stronger. Better to get this feedback from us, pre-publication—when you can still fix the problems—than to have a reviewer post a scathing review about that plot hole you didn't notice, right? The bottom line is that we're on your team; you shouldn't feel any negative feelings toward us. (But feel free to lament about the revision process itself—that part certainly isn't fun!)

Here's the thing: If you're saying things like this about your editor for sympathy, consider what message you're sending to other writers—and to your editor.

For the writers, you're perpetuating the fear of criticism that makes writers react defensively rather than internalizing editorial comments and incorporating them. You don't have to make every change we suggest, but you should consider the aim or reasoning behind each one thoughtfully: Why did we think that word or phrase needed to be changed? Why is that character's action not reading realistically to us—is there something you could clarify elsewhere to make sure other readers don't have this same reaction? How is it possible that we believed those two characters were a married couple when you thought you'd made it obvious that they were in fact siblings? Et cetera.

Photo credit: Nic's events via / CC BY-SA
As for the editors, when you complain about how "brutal" the notes we send are, you're implying that we derive pleasure from unfairly criticizing your work. We're not trying to make you miserable, and, no matter the level of revision needed, we're not trying to say that your writing isn't great. That's not what editing is about! (More often than not, we love your writing and think you're the bee's knees. But even our favorite writers need editorial guidance.)

The absolute best feeling for an editor is seeing writers improve their work and grow in their craft as a result of working with us—and that growth wouldn't happen without authors putting in the hard work of internalizing feedback and plunging into revisions.

Everyone needs a good editor. Even editors need editors.

So how about the next time you're awaiting edits, or going through pages covered with red ink, you quell the impulse to make jokes at our expense?

Not cool: "Waiting for my editor to send me her notes. So funny how we writers pay to be insulted!"

Totally cool: "Wow, every page is covered with corrections. My editor must have spent so much time on my work, helping me to make it stronger. I'm so glad she caught things I never would have noticed! Now on to revising (ugh)."

Commandment 6: Never Sign Anything You Don't Understand

The title pretty much covers this point, but let's go into a bit more detail. When it comes to business dealings, most people aren't necessarily trying to take advantage of you. They are, however, trying to sweeten the deal for themselves, if only because that's the job of the lawyer drawing up the contract (a professional publisher definitely has a lawyer working on their behalf). And let's not forget about the shady people who are trying to take advantage of you. How will you know if you're dealing with one of them if you don't understand what you're signing?

Photo credit: thinkpanama
via / CC BY-NC
If you do sign a contract with questionable clauses (and plenty of publishing houses have some less-than-stellar clauses in their standard contracts—I've seen them), you're stuck, unless you can prove that the clause is illegal in the state where the contract is executed. Often, even if you could hypothetically do that, it would cost you an exorbitant amount of money. 

So it's your job, as an author but also as a responsible adult, to know what you're signing—and to understand the repercussions. And if you don't understand a legal contract without a shadow of a doubt, it's up to you to find someone who doesn't have a vested interest to explain it to you, because publishers will absolutely use your desire not to make waves—caused by your deep desire to have a publishing deal—to pressure you into signing something that's tilted heavily in their favor. 

If you're negotiating on your own behalf, it's also your responsibility to understand industry standards and do just that—negotiate. The other party isn't coming to the table with their best offer if they're expecting you to counter; they're leaving themselves room to sweeten the deal. If you don't even try, so much the better for them. And if you aren't aware of industry standards, you won't be able to call a publisher on their (false) assurances that everything included "is standard."
    Another thing to remember: if it isn't in the contract, it doesn't count. When things aren't going well, all those promises someone made to you (about marketing plans, or a forthcoming print edition, or anything else) never existed if they weren't written into the contract.

Some publishers will tell you that their contract is non-negotiable. This on its own isn't necessarily a red flag, if the contract itself is fair. In my experience, however, those non-negotiable contracts are usually far from fair. Most importantly, you once again have no way of knowing which category the contract falls under if you don't understand it. Someone could tell you it's standard to have a clause saying you'll purchase a minimum of 100 copies of your own book every month for three years, and if it's written in legalese you can't decipher, you might agree. And if you don't read the contract at all? Eeesh.

If you do have an agent negotiating on your behalf, to some extent your job will be easier: the actual back-and-forth with marked-up contracts won't be up to you. But if you understand contracts and industry standards, you can discuss your priorities with your agent and then judge for yourself whether s/he is doing everything possible on your behalf—especially if your relationship with that agent is new. Best of all, it's part of an agent's job to explain the contract to you, so you don't have to look very far for answers. Eventually, once you've established a deep trust with your agent, you might be able to make an argument for signing without reading too deeply. I would still recommend at least glancing through any paperwork handed to you, because ultimately it's your name, and your future, on that bottom line.

If you need some help wading through the inner workings of publishing contracts, check out:

** Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I am not offering you professional legal advice on your contract decisions. The main takeaway you should have from this post is: do your homework and understand what you sign.

Ready for more? Check out Commandment 7: Respect Your Editor

Commandment 5: Remember the Importance of Revision

Your first draft should never be your published draft. I don't often speak in absolutes, but in this case, the only exception I can imagine is if you're publishing a first draft alongside a finished version to illustrate the enormous difference.

Photo credit: cellar_door_films
via / CC BY-NC-SA
As a writer, revision is one of your best friends. Not only does it transform your work, but the knowledge that you can revise down the line also gives you the freedom to write a less-than-perfect draft now, so that you can have something to work with later. It is this knowledge that allows many writers to push past their inhibitions, or even their fears, and start down the path of creating.

Whether you're writing flash fiction or epic novels, or anything in between, your first draft is unlikely to be the best version you could write. It's important to know when you've done all you can do—and not to get stuck in an infinite loop of revisions—but you can't decide you're done before you've even started. Though most readers will never know that you've written 5 or 20 or 100 different drafts of your story before it ever reached their hands, you still don't have the right to skip this crucial step. It's disrespectful—to your readers, to your fellow writers, and to your own work. It implies none of them are worth the effort.

Revision also isn't something that writers "grow out of"—and more-experienced writers, including those published many times over, know that. It is an unrealistic dream that one day, you'll write a perfect first draft of a novel. Most likely, you'll never write a perfect second draft, either. And that's okay, because that's why you revise; it's why you're likely to need multiple passes through, even when working with the best editor. In fact, a perfect first draft shouldn't even be your goal. With experience, your initial drafts may become more cohesive, closer to the finished product, but you'll also start seeing all the many ways that revising augments your work.

Think of it like a gem, mined from the ground. The mining itself is important; it brings the gem out into the world. But after that's done, the rock still needs to be cut and polished to showcase its beauty in the best possible way. By stopping when the rough stone has been mined (i.e., the story has been drafted), you're doing your work a great disservice, impeding the world's ability to appreciate—or even notice—its beauty.

So respect the process of revision. And respect the critique partners, beta readers, and editors who help you along the way.

Commandment 4: Be Professional

Writers, if you can't present yourself as the kind of person people want to work with, you can't expect them to be interested in representing you. Your writing itself may be great, but if you're rude or flat-out insulting, nobody will want to work with you (whether beta readers, agents, editors, etc.).

Let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, I attended a writers' and editors' retreat for Circlet Press, during which we held a party for anyone associated with the press to join. This was a great social networking opportunity—face-to-face networking, to be specific, which is still an incredibly important aspect of getting your name out there and getting others interested in you. At this party, I was schmoozing with various people when a man looked at my name tag and said, with a sneer, "Oh, you're one of the editors here? I bet you're one of the editors who rejected me."

How this man thought this was an appropriate way to approach me I will never know. Both as an editor and a writer, I understand the pain of rejection and the inclination to take it personally. From an editor's perspective, I can assure you that a critique or rejection is never a personal attack, though sometimes it might feel like it from a writer's perspective. It's okay to feel resentful, or angry, or hurt—in private—but it is NOT okay to express those feelings in public, or on the internet, or to the person you think might have been your editor. (For more on this, see Anya's post on Finding Your Coping Mechanism.)

For the record, this man had never submitted anything to me. Regardless, starting off a conversation with an editor (an editor you might be submitting your stories to in the future, no less!) with a bad attitude and an accusatory tone is NOT going to incline them to think well of you.

I assured this man that if his story had been rejected, it certainly wasn't meant to be a personal attack; his story may have been amazing, for instance, and might have just not fit with the theme of the anthology. But (speaking of personal attacks) he went on to make a snide remark, saying that he was writing before I was even born—the implication being that what did I know, he was older and thus more knowledgeable about my job than I was. So I bit my tongue, made an excuse, and left the room.

The need to be professional seems obvious to me, but, judging from this man's behavior, it isn't. Here's the thing about social networking, no matter what field you're in, whether you're interacting in person or online: every word you say, every smile or sarcastic or rude remark, is representing not only you but also your work. It's true that some famous writers are rude in real life, but I guarantee you that those people, when they were starting out and first trying to impress editors and agents, turned up the charm and kept their snide comments to themselves.

Don't forget that for every bridge you burn, that bridge has told one, five, or ten other bridges to avoid you, too. The publishing industry is a small place; if you don't treat others with respect, don't expect them to treat your work any better.

Have you ever had to deal with someone acting unprofessionally? Tell us in the comments!

The Great Breakfast Debate: Winners!

This week's Great Breakfast Debate was a ton of fun! Anya and I would like to thank everyone who participated, whether you voted #TeamPancake or #TeamFrenchToast. It's a pretty contentious topic, it turns out—with very strong opinions on both sides of the breakfast fence!

Photo credit: taidoh via / CC BY-NC-ND
Despite my concern that pancakes might have had an unfair advantage this week (it being the better-known Mardi Gras food), I'm happy to say that Team French Toast trounced our competitors, proving once and for all that French Toast is the best. (Just kidding, pancake lovers. You can still sit with us. This way we don't have to share!)

So, without further ado, the two randomly selected winners are:

  • @_KimChance
  • @kdeflane

Congratulations, Kim and Kathy!

Anya will be critiquing manuscripts for both of you for free! As a reminder, 30 manuscript pages = ~7500 words, and the turnaround time will be one week from receipt of pages. Whenever you're ready, go ahead and send her your manuscripts for edits.

We hope everyone else had as much fun with this contest as we did! What would you like to see us debate in future contests?

The Great Breakfast Debate: #TeamPancake or #TeamFrenchToast?

Mardi Gras is tomorrow! This upbeat holiday is celebrated all over the world, with beautiful costumes and masks, lots of drinking and flouting of propriety, and perhaps best of all: delicious food. It's common to celebrate this holiday with pancakes, and in some parts of Latin America & the Caribbean, people also celebrate with sugary fried breads (sound familiar?). This made the Touchstone editors ask: which one's better, pancakes or french toast? Now we need help settling the debate!

We've split into two teams and hope you'll join us in figuring out once and for all, which one is more delicious: pancakes or french toast? The losing team's captain will provide two free 30-page critiques!
  • 30 manuscript pages = ~7500 words
  • One-week turnaround time from receipt of pages

Captain: #TeamPancake


Captain: #TeamFrenchToast

Which side will you choose?

To enter:
  • Pledge your allegiance to #TeamFrenchToast or #TeamPancake publicly on Twitter (include your team's hashtag)
  • Tag your team's captain (@AnyaKagan or @JLevine3)
  • Include the link:
  • Paste your tweet's link into the Rafflecopter below & hit enter!
    • Without this step, your vote will help decide the winning team, but you will not be entered to win one of the critiques.
  • Entries close 11:59PM ET (8:59PM PT) on February 10th
  • Results announced Friday, February 12th

Need some tweet ideas? Just click to tweet your pick!

Commandment 3: Read Often and Widely

Fact: you can't be a good writer without being a good reader.
Photo credit: aafromaa via / CC BY

"But Jennifer," you may say, "I'm too busy to read. Any spare time I have needs to be used for actual writing."

As Stephen King famously said: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write."

What he meant, of course, is that without reading, there is no writing; without being inspired by reading a book, you might never have wanted to write one in the first place. And if you stop taking the time to read, your writing will suffer.

Everything you read is a learning experience, whether it's a novel, newspaper article, short story, poem, memoir, blog post, or something else. When you read something great, you're learning what writing style appeals to you, how an author pulled off a trick you love, and what kinds of stories you want to tell. What was it about the imagery in that story that let you feel so completely immersed in the world? How did that author suck you in so quickly that you felt like you couldn't stop turning the pages?

And it's not only important to read the good stuff. You learn from the bad, too. Things like: what made that scene fall flat? What was it about the way that character kicked over a chair that didn't seem to fit within their personality? What was it about that author's style that drove you nuts and that you want to make sure you avoid in your own writing? You can read all the textbooks and blogs you can find about the writing craft, but nothing substitutes for actually doing the hard work yourself—and reading is a big part of that work. Sometimes you might not even realize you're learning just from reading a good book, but you are.

Reading improves a writer's vocabulary and teaches a writer:
  • how to create narrative structures and characters;
  • how to develop tension;
  • and how to write compelling dialogue. 

Read often to keep your imagination active and to learn new ideas and techniques from other authors. And read widely to ensure your own writing doesn't become stagnant in reflection.

What's the best thing you've read recently? When was the last time you read something outside of your preferred genre? Tell us in the comments!

Commandment 2: Find Your Coping Mechanism

As I mentioned last week, one of the benefits of being part of a good writing group is that it teaches you to cope with the disappointment or even heartache of having your work critiqued.

Photo credit: Simon Collison
via / CC BY-NC-ND
In the moment, you might want to cry, scream, yell, rant about being misunderstood, fight against the criticism, or maybe even give up on writing altogether. And in today's world where every moment is shared through some form of social media, it can be all too tempting to put all of those feelings online, forgetting that doing so makes your private moment very, very public. You don't want to be seen as the egomaniac who is impossible to work with because they believe every word they write is sacred. And you definitely don't want to give up on your dream just because you haven't yet figured out how to pick yourself back up and keep working.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you what coping mechanism will work for you, as it's different for everybody. Some writers read their critiques (whether from critique partners, agents, or editors) and then go curl up in a ball, unable to face the criticism of their painstakingly written work—for a couple of days. Then they get up, reread the notes with a little bit less emotion involved so the suggestions don't feel quite so life-or-death, possibly ask some (or many) follow-up questions, and get to work on revisions.

Other writers like to dive in right away, because they want to get a handle on things and not feel like the problems that were pointed out are beyond their control. I had one writer reply within hours to a rather long editorial letter with a step-by-step response on how he planned to address each note. Later I found out that this had been his method of dealing with feeling overwhelmed and a bit despondent over the quality of his draft. But we discussed his proposed revisions and agreed on a direction, and then he was able to do the important part: getting back to work and improving his story, transforming it into the novel it is today.

For some people, like the aforementioned writer, knowing exactly what they're going to do to fix the problem is how they cope. For others, it takes commiserating (privately!) with a close friend or fellow writer, or eating a pint of ice cream while binge-watching a comedy show, or maybe putting the notes away in a drawer and pretending they don't exist for a little while, before they're ready to accept and thoughtfully consider the critique.

Whatever your coping mechanism, the important things to remember are:
  1. Keep it private and off the internet,
  2. Be respectful to the person who put in the time and effort to help you with your manuscript, even if you don't agree with 100% of their notes (which is okay!), and
  3. At some point you have to sit down, take it all in, and get back to work.

What's your go-to coping mechanism? Share in the comments!

Commandment 1: Find a Good Critique Group

Photo credit: TheCreativePenn via / CC BY
A good critique group is a crucial part of an aspiring author's (and even an established author's) success for two reasons:
  1. It teaches you how to deal with criticism—good, bad, and ugly.
  2. It provides both help in polishing your work and a support group as you enter the complex world of publishing.

Notice I didn't say, "Find a group of people who tell you your writing is amazing." A critique group exists to do just that—critique.  A good group will consist of people who are willing and able to point out the problems you're having, so that you can work on fixing them. While your group can consist of writers of all levels, you do want to make sure you're not all beginners. Also, don't be afraid of being the least-experienced writer in your group, as you'll almost certainly learn a lot about both writing and how publishing works. And if the first group you join doesn't seem like the right fit, don't be shy about trying a different one!
    If every writer you know is just starting out, consider taking some courses or workshops led by experienced authors or editors. Many of these are now conveniently available online.

Now let's look back at reason #1: learning to deal with criticism. Everyone in the publishing world knows that having your writing criticized can be difficult and sometimes even painful. It's also an inevitable part of the process. What experienced writers know is that it's a million times better to have a critique partner or an editor point out the problems in your manuscript, big and small, than it is to have those problems brought up in negative reviews after the book is out.

But taking criticism is a skill. You have to know how to cope with the sting (Commandment #2), how to sort through criticism and decide which suggestions to apply, and how to then go through and revise your manuscript accordingly. When going through submissions, the main reason I care whether someone has a creative writing degree or any relevant coursework is that that's a sign the writer has learned how to deal with critiques. Because sitting at a table with 10+ other writers while they tear apart your work is tough. Recognizing which of the comments you received are complete bogus and which, no matter how much they hurt, will help your writing improve is tougher. And being able to tear into the precious baby that is your manuscript in order to make it even stronger is one of your most important skills as a writer.

A writer who has learned to take criticism is one who has at least some idea of how much hard work it takes to get from a first draft to a polished book; one who will embrace working with an editor, rather than fighting every suggestion and refusing to make changes; one who knows editorial notes are a necessary growing pain on the way to making their manuscript the best story it can be; and one who can handle all of the rejections and negative reviews that every author has to face. And having a good critique group is the first step in learning and honing these skills.

Do you have tips on finding a good critique group? Share in the comments!

10 Commandments for Writers

Hello, everyone! To kick off our blog, Jennifer and I have put together a list of "commandments" for writers—i.e., our 10 biggest tips. Because all these tips are equally important, we've organized them chronologically: from just starting out as a writer through the publication of your work. We'll discuss them all in depth, one at a time. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments!

Touchstone Editing's 10 Commandments for Writers are:
  1. Find a Good Critique Group
  2. Find Your Coping Mechanism
  3. Read Often and Widely
  4. Be Professional
  5. Remember the Importance of Revision
  6. Never Sign Anything You Don't Understand
  7. Respect Your Editor
  8. Not All Critiques Are Created Equal
  9. Don't Be Afraid to Put Your Work Out There
  10. Know When to Stand Up for Yourself & Your Work

Check out the links above to read our explanation for each commandment. Have tips for fellow writers we didn't include? Leave them in the comments!

Welcome to the Touchstone Editing Blog!

Welcome to the brand-new Touchstone Editing blog! Here, Jennifer and Anya will share tips for writers, their thoughts on current events in the industry, any special offers, and whatever else comes to mind.

We hope our posts will prove helpful to all those writers pursuing publication, whether they follow the traditional, independent, or hybrid path. Our goal is to help demystify topics related to working with an editor and the publishing industry, from overarching explanations to minutiae that might be helpful for writers to learn.

So of course, we welcome your questions! If there's anything you would like the Touchstone editors to address, please post your questions in the comments. You can also send them to (Please be sure to note if you would like your question to be addressed anonymously.)