Developmental Editing

Do you ever wonder exactly what a full Developmental Editing letter looks like? How the conversation starts when you hire an editor to work over your plot with you—to make sure it tells the story you want to tell, in the most gripping possible terms, to keep a reader completely seduced by your imaginary world up to the last page?

Xavier is an imaginary client composed of a whole slew of real clients. His novel does not actually exist. But if it did exist, and I was just starting work on it, this is the letter he’d get:

Dear Xavier,

I have finished a preliminary read-through of THE DECEIVER’S WIFE.


First, let’s talk about your theme, because it’s a profound one, it’s complex and intricate and full of enormous possibilities, and it matters a lot to a huge number of potential readers. Plus, you’re doing terrific work with it—extraordinarily slow movement (so much material in single scenes!), but so rich in detail and significant character development that it just pulses.

The parent-child relationship between adults is something every adult in the world deals with in one way or another. And the fractured parent-child relationship between adults is something that resonates deeply with the vast majority of them. Very few adults have their ideal relationships with either parents or children. This makes your target audience extensive and, more importantly, in great, sincere need of illumination and reassurance.

Lembarto is a wonderful father figure: he’s sick, he’s powerful, he’s smart and charming and vulnerable and emotional, and he’s HIDING THINGS.

Rachel is a great foil for him: she’s psychically strong, she’s deeply wounded, she’s her father’s intellectual equal, what she lacks in age (and experience in playing this parent-child game) she makes up for with sheer charisma, and she, too, is HIDING THINGS.

There’s a terrific deadline urgency to their situation in Lembarto’s illness.

And here comes poor, innocent, wunderkind Elwood with his butterflies and statuary and treatise on Freud. How can he possibly avoid getting entangled in this familial duel? How can he NOT cast his lot in with them, considering his own white-washed background and the whining, trivial, superficial secrecy he’s been raised to consider family norm?

So, okay, your premise is gripping. Your set-up is already teetering on the brink. Your characters are hot out of the gate on page 1 and moving at a fantastic clip.


The first issue, then, is the placement of their backstory.

It is a very common issue to want to get all your backstory into Chapter One. But it doesn’t belong there. It’s so hard to tell—when have you given the reader enough? when have you given them too much?—and this is what I, your editor, can tell you: hold your fire.

The character indications you give in the foundation scenes in Chapter One provide plenty of information to hold the reader until Chapter Two or even Three. What you don’t explain (never explain! only illuminate!) just serves to draw the reader forward.

Why do Lembarto and Rachel talk to each other like this? (Great cross-purpose dialog!) What’s behind their sudden switch to a united front when Elwood begins to ask his questions?

This is all fabulous, tantalizing material. Let it do its work, weave its spell on the reader.

Have faith in the characters of Lembarto and Rachel to intrigue both the reader and Elwood simultaneously. They’re rich and well-developed. The extensive background work you’ve done on them is clear in the telling details you use in just the opening scene: Lembarto thumping his cane over the words he doesn’t want her to say, Rachel walking behind his chair to pretend she can’t hear him interrupting her, the way both their heads swivel when the door opens and Rachel puts her hand on his head as if to reassure him but really to control where he looks. . .all subtle, powerful stuff.

Let it stand on its own. It has the strength to.

And when we cut out all the backstory, piece it together in one chunk, and put it into a subsequent chapter, what we find is that Chapter One reads like the pages are on fire. Lamberto and Rachel are at odds! Elwood interrupts and forces them to collude against him! Their internal conflicts are too much for them—the crack reveals itself—Elwood is sucked in—and the chemical reaction that flares up at the addition of him is suddenly, clearly, the pivotal Hook that sends them all three sliding and crashing downhill through the series of Conflicts that will lead them INEVITABLY (very important) to your Climax. Beautiful!

So let’s focus on that for now. Get all the backstory out, let it be chronologically-ordered (don’t confuse the reader if you can at all avoid it—you need them smart and on their toes or you’ll lose them with a really good plotline), and put it in its own chapter. They’ll follow you there and back into the story again in Chapter Three.


You have two protagonists: Lembarto and Rachel, but since Lembarto dies, leaving Rachel to the Resolution, Rachel is your main protagonist. Let’s talk about their character development.

You’ll hear a lot about character arcs among those writing about fiction. Narrative arcs. What this means is that a story is about something happening to someone. That’s all. It is not just someone sitting in a chair doing nothing.


What is Lembarto’s character arc? Well, he’s come to a crossroads in his life, the last one he’ll ever come to: years ago he made two decisions—colluded with Fatima—to hide her lesbianism from Rachel and her authorship from the world. And now he’s dealing with the cause-&-effect of that. For every act in life, we deal with the consequences. The consequences of what Lembarto has done are pretty big. Now he’s dying, which is a pretty dicey position from which to cope with big consequences. So this is all wonderful! Readers love characters facing nearly-impossible odds.

By the time Lembarto dies he’s dealt with the consequences of his decisions: he’s helped Rachel reconnect with her mother (he is the only person who can do this), and he’s promised Fatima the secret of her authorship dies with him (not knowing he doesn’t have that power anymore). That’s his character arc, the change he goes through. He has looked both death and his life decisions in the eye, agonized over them, and either reversed or reaffirmed those decisions.

Because he is the secondary protagonist, you can afford to let death take his last action out of his hands.


What about Rachel’s character arc? She has not made Lembarto’s original decisions, however she, too, is dealing with the consequences of them. The cause-&-effect of her parents’ decisions forms the decisions she is making now. It’s very important that she’s not portrayed as a victim. Victims are not interesting. Rachel, however, is not afraid to take her destiny in her hands, for better or worse. Readers love that in a character!

At some point in the past, Rachel decided to collude with her father in hiding her mother’s authorship. Why? For love of Lembarto? For fear of learning her mother didn’t love her? For some other reason? Right now this is unclear. But it would be terrific if you could roll that up in her decision to find Fatima—the more internal conflict you give the protagonist, the more exciting the story. And double internal conflict is excellent for a Hook.

Rachel has, at the moment your story opens, now decided it’s time to contact her mother—Lembarto’s terminal illness is the catalyst that triggers her decision. (You see how her decision, not Lembarto’s illness, is the Hook. It’s always best if a Hook involves decision or action of the protagonist; it shows the reader right off the bat this is someone worth following to find out what they’ll do next.)

How she copes with the consequences of her decisions—to hide Fatima’s authorship, to contact Fatima about Lembarto dying—is Rachel’s character arc. Hiding Fatima’s authorship leads her to engage with Elwood, which leads her to internal conflict over her beliefs about love and relationships, which gets entangled in contacting Fatima about Lembarto, the people who gave her the beliefs she’s now in such internal conflict over.

By the end of the story Rachel has faced the two-pronged complexity of this internal conflict, but not completely resolved it (it’s hard to completely resolve anything so complex without simply dying, as Lembarto does) so the Resolution is her epiphany, not Lembarto’s.

Keep this in mind as you work over this novel. This gives you your focus: Lembarto’s decisions and how he copes; Rachel’s decisions and how SHE copes. Whenever you’re confused and wondering where to go, ask yourself, “What does this have to do with Lembarto’s and Rachel’s character arcs?”


Next week we’ll look at what you’ve included and what you have yet to include in the outline I’ve made of your current plot:

HOOK: Lembarto and Rachel, in mid-crisis over Lembarto’s terminal illness, meet Elwood, who completely alters their agenda
hook scene: Lembarto and Rachel are arguing when Elwood arrives
conflict #1: Lembarto doesn’t want to tell Rachel where her mother is, but Rachel says she has to know, now, after all these years because Lembarto is—let’s face it—dying. And she’s certain Lembarto knows.
conflict #2: Elwood has scheduled an interview with Lembarto about his great, underground, cult novel of decades before, the 800-page opus, THE DECEIVER’S WIFE
conflict #3: Lembarto and Rachel must collude to keep Elwood from discovering it was Lembarto’s wife, the secretive and now fugitive Fatima, who wrote his novel, not Lembarto at all
faux resolution: Elwood is seduced into buying Lembarto and Rachel’s story of Lembarto’s memory issues due to his illness
climax: after Elwood leaves, Lembarto realizes he has, in the heat of the moment and the twilight of his failing eyesight, accidentally autographed for Elwood the copy in which Fatima made her handwritten notes for the revised and final edition

CONFLICT #1: Rachel must get that copy away from Elwood before he discovers the hoax and Fatima is exposed to Lembarto’s public
hook: backstory about THE DECEIVER’S WIFE (not yet organized)
conflict #1: Rachel follows Elwood to his own territory and tries to trick him
conflict #2: Rachel tries to reason with Elwood
conflict #3: Rachel tries to intrigue Elwood
faux resolution: Elwood is intrigued
climax: Elwood reveals that he’s already discovered Fatima’s authorship

PLOT POINT #1: Lamberto and Rachel now move forward inevitably involved with Elwood

CONFLICT #2: Rachel must win Elwood’s cooperation without falling in love with him, which she is loath to do because of what happened to her parents
hook: Rachel and Elwood have an electric moment (not yet written)
conflict #1: Rachel distances herself from Elwood, dealing with Lembarto
conflict #2: Elwood pursues Rachel, now negotiating about the book
conflict #3: Rachel proposes a wager with Elwood
faux resolution: Elwood accepts the wager (not yet written)
climax: Rachel loses the wager just as she is notified of Lembarto’s collapse

MIDPOINT: The scale has tipped, Lembarto is dying, Elwood must be accepted, Fatima must be notified

CONFLICT #3: Rachel must confront her long-lost mother with her beloved, Honoria (for whom she left Lembarto and Rachel when Rachel was a child), over the deathbed of Lembarto, who collapses before he can arrange an amicable meeting
hook: Rachel, with Elwood in tow, rushes to Lembarto’s side when he collapses
conflict #1: Lembarto admits he knows how to contact Fatima and lets Rachel send a message
conflict #2: Rachel can’t reach Fatima
conflict #3: Rachel reaches Honoria, whom she knows nothing about
faux resolution: Honoria brings Fatima to Lembarto’s bedside
climax: Rachel faces the mother who abandoned her long before

PLOT POINT #2: Rachel and Lembarto must move forward with Fatima

FAUX RESOLUTION: Elwood agrees to keep Fatima’s secret out of love for Rachel, and Rachel and Fatima strike an uneasy truce over Lembarto’s hospital bed
hook: Elwood charms Fatima
conflict #1: Rachel confronts Elwood on his intentions toward Fatima
conflict #2: Honoria confronts Rachel on her intentions toward Fatima
conflict #3: Elwood confronts Honoria on her intentions toward Rachel
faux resolution: everyone is reassured that they are not blackmailing or bullying each other (not yet written)
climax: Fatima confronts Lembarto on his intentions regarding her book

CLIMAX: Lembarto dies, and Fatima in her grief reveals that she never loved Honoria as much as Lembarto, but only ran away with her to prevent Rachel from growing up knowing her mother wrote such a novel of love about another woman
hook: Lembarto, not knowing Elwood has figured it out, tells Fatima that her secret (her authorship, which even Honoria doesn’t know) dies with him
conflict #1: Fatima collapses in grief
conflict #2: Honoria tries to comfort her and is thrown off
conflict #3: Rachel turns to Elwood to assure herself that he won’t blackmail her with Fatima’s secret, to distance herself from Fatima and Honoria, and secretly for comfort
faux resolution: Fatima pulls herself together when she sees Rachel with Elwood and realizes he knows
climax: Lembarto dies, and Fatima goes berserk, revealing the truth of her feelings to Honoria

You see how these sequences of events, especially in the Climax, must be arranged in just exactly the correct order so as to lead the reader to the greatest tension at the very last moment. We’ll talk about this more when we get to that point.

You also see that the real Resolution isn’t included here. We’ll talk about that when we talk about the Climax.

Once we’ve solidified this structure, we’ll talk also about how to layer in the subplot involving Fatima and Honoria, and I’ll show you how their existence repeatedly supplies the cause-&-effect catalyst that keeps Lembarto, Rachel, and Elwood ricocheting deeper and deeper into their crisis, until they fetch up against their Faux Resolution (“Thank god! We’re not going over the edge of the abyss after all!”) and are confronted there by the inevitable catalyst THEY CAN’T AVOID and there they go—over the edge.

Pure fireworks.

Always be thinking in terms of, “How does this story illuminate the basic human conflicts inside these characters? How do these characters illuminate the way internal conflict causes and fuels story? What is the inevitable chain of cause-&-effect that forces these characters, again and again, to make the choices they make, which turn out, again and again, to be the wrong choices, which forces them, again and again, into more choices, worse dilemmas, greater crises on the way to their Climax?”

This is what fiction is: an unending exploration of the eternal predicament of being human, in all its complex, poignant, significantly-detailed glory.

So send me your thoughts now on developing the characters of Lembarto, Rachel, and Fatima, along with Elwood and Honoria!


*This letter is the introductory letter for a full Developmental Edit. For an Abbreviated Developmental Edit or Synopsis Edit, this letter would include a great deal more specific information on identifying and focusing character needs, creating the proper cast of supporting characters, and designing a brilliant outline that “grows plot out of character.” Additionally, certain essential aspects of story development are absent from this sample—they are my trade secrets, available only to my editing clients.

14 thoughts on “Developmental Editing

  1. cghale says:

    Great stuff…I’ll need to go back and read in more detail when I have time. I like what you say about the backstory. As I’m writing my draft, my characters are very chatty and want to tell us all about themselves and where they’re from, etc. So I’m letting them, with the understanding that eventually I’m going to go back and delete most of it–either to work in via plot and character or to include in the sequel, where they will confront their pasts directly. But for now, it’s helpful to me that they’re explaining themselves πŸ™‚

  2. Victoria says:

    Absolutely—the more you know about your characters, the more accurate your eye in picking out just those telling details that bring them to life for the reader.

    Spend a ton of time with them. Far more time than you’ll ever put into your novel. Always think of J.R.R.Tolkien and those mountains of books he accumulated in creating his imaginary world and what a tiny moment out of the entire story he chose to illuminate, the handful of characters he snapped into focus.

    All that depth riding below the surface.


  3. cghale says:

    Yes! That’s exactly the example I used when explaining to my wife why my characters were being so tedious. I probably won’t end up with the Silmarillion, but there will be a rich backstory that hopefully will seep through in interesting ways.

  4. Victoria says:

    “my characters were being so tedious” πŸ™‚ That’s great! My characters are tedious, too. SHUT UP ALREADY, PEOPLE!

    Kidding aside, the hard part is not mistaking all that backstory for the actual storyline. Annie Dillard warns about this—reworking the same words over and over again so many times they take on a resonance in your mind and then you can’t bring yourself to get rid of them. I pulled out an old novel last night that I’ve kept around for years thinking, “Someday I’ll have the time to do a revision, and then it’ll be great,” and I finally realized I can’t. I can’t revise what I have into a real story. I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote it, and now the words have been so deeply ingrained in my mind I can’t figure out how to fix them. I’d have to start over from scratch with one or two characters and come up with a whole new plot. You simply can’t get there from here.

    So whatever you do—don’t get too attached to the words! It’s good characters and a good story that matter. It’s always the characters and the story.


  5. cghale says:

    Great advice. As I write, I’m constantly wondering whether this or that beautiful bit of prose will be the thing that I ultimately will have to cut.

  6. Victoria says:

    You know, the first thing I look for in a Line Edit is individual words that can be cut. It drives newbies crazy to learn this—they hear “let your writing breathe” and they think this means whatever falls on the page has to stay on the page—but it’s true. Clean writing is minimal writing. Even Henry James, Flaubert, and Proust used no more words than they absolutely needed.

    Every word must count, or zoop zoop out it goes.


  7. cghale says:

    I’m grateful to my journalism degree for teaching me the economy of good prose!

  8. Victoria says:

    Yes! Journalism’s a terrific foundation for a writing career. It teaches you to say it and move on. Not to fear editing. The use of structure. All excellent essential writing skills.


  9. Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this. I hope you don’t mind if we include this in our Friday roundup of Best Articles for Writers. This is something every writer should read.


  10. Victoria says:

    Of course, Martina! Thank you.

    I had at one time thought about doing a whole series of Developmental Letters to Xavier, but unfortunately that would also involve writing his novel, and I have not yet found the time for such an ambitious project. I’ll let you know if I ever do!

  11. Victoria, I am SO glad I stumbled on your web site. I do editing for others, but, of course, need an editor for my own work (2 memoirs). I’m not quite ready for your services, but I’ll be contacting you when I am! Thanks for superb information for writers here.

    1. Victoria says:

      Great, Lynette!

  12. Rose Offner-Bowman says:

    Hello Victoria,
    Your blog is lovely and your conversational voice is appealing and easy to listen to. Your you approach to writing and the discussion of writing and editing is very practical and sounds extremely valuable.

    I have a novel β€œThe Color Of Lies,” which is currently 114 double spaced pages. There are several missing chapters that I have yet to include because they need editing and revision and probably even more writing.

    There are about 4-5 short to medium chapters that must still be integrated into the narrative. My question is how long does it take to read through 114 double spaced pages. The chapters that I want to add are what I would like to begin with although it makes sense that to be helpful a reading of the work would be in order. (114 double spaced pages)

    Are you still 8 weeks out? I would love to ask you a few questions, put some money in your paypal at least for a couple of hours worth of work to see how much work there will be for myself and for you. Would this be acceptable.

    I also have short stories in need of revision by me and editing by you if you have time. It is the strong praise from your clients that gives me hope in your skills as an editor. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Rose Offner

    1. Victoria says:

      I’ll email you, Rose.

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