Tips from a professional editor, part three.

This is Part Three of a special series of tips I picked up from workshopping with Claire Eddy of Tor. If you’re curious you can go back and read:

Part Two

Part One

Part Zero (Or how I got to pick an editor’s brain in the first place)

What does an editor look for in a novel submission? Here’s what I learned.

On protagonists and archetypes.


In a delightful pot-calling-kettle-black moment that everyone in my workshop was too polite to comment on, I mentioned that I had a problem with the protagonists of an epic fantasy submission (young men getting a little sword-fighting practice in while watching some sheep) because I felt I’d seen that “type” too many times before.

“I’VE SEEN THAT BEFORE,” SAID THE LADY WRITING ABOUT A POOR ORPHAN BOY.  Oh the lack of self-awareness. It burns us, Precious.

But Claire said the familiarity did not bother her, in fact it was a good thing. There is nothing wrong with using an instantly recognizable archetype. Readers LIKE archetypes. They are comfortable and understandable and speak to the reader on a deep level. That’s what makes them an archetype in the first place. This kinda blew my mind because I’ve seen the recognizable archetype get sniffed at for being “flat” or “stale” so many times…but there are only so many stories to tell, and it’s only the small twists that make your story unique, and you’re kinda fooling yourself if you think anything else. Take the archetype, add your own special sauce, and baby you’ve got a stew going.

baby you've got a stew going

In regards to protagonists: I’ve mentioned in earlier posts the need for a sympathetic protagonist. But sympathetic doesn’t necessarily mean nice. It doesn’t necessarily mean kind and good. It means interesting.

I would even venture to argue that an extremely nice protagonist is not sympathetic at all because extreme niceness is boring. Unless, of course, we find out that the niceness is actually a result of flaw or tragedy: the nice protagonist is actually a master of manipulation, or the nice protagonist is full of secret rage and feels he must hide it because X Y and Z; or the nice protagonist previously suffered a devastating loss and in response now chooses to conduct his life with kindness and compassion. (See how important backstory is?)

So thus concludes tips from a professional editor: I may add additional posts on this series in the coming weeks as I go over all my notes again, but in the meantime I’ve lots more material from the conference, and I’ll see you back here on Monday with the tale of my pitch practice with Cameron McClure of Don Maass, and share with you all the two questions you must be able to answer in any query or pitch. (SPOILER ALERT: I couldn’t even answer the first one. It was Very Yikes!)