Posted On June 15, 2012 by Print This Post

Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens

Theresa Stevens joins RU once again (yay!) to lead us through editing the opening pages of a brave volunteer. 

Let me start by thanking the volunteers who send their opening pages for evaluation in this column. It’s an act of courage, and all of us at Romance University appreciate it.

This month, we have a contemporary romance with paranormal elements, and it gives us the opportunity to talk about something more akin to content editing than line editing. Let’s dive right in and read the excerpt — longer than our usual excerpts here, but I think this time we’ll learn more by reading more.

Romance novels were going to be the death of her.

Katy cradled the stack of books that threatened to topple out of her arms. Josh would freak when he saw her catch for the day. She spent too much money on books and too much time reading, he’d yell. That is, if he noticed. More likely he’d be too busy on his computer or cellphone or… well, something.

But she’d dawdled in the store long enough. The book signing was almost over. Katy glanced at the author, Laura Flanders. The blown up book cover next to her displayed a man caressing a half naked woman, their historical clothing in tatters. It was just a drawing, and probably PG-13 at that. But somehow it made Katy blush in a way a strip club billboard never could.

The book signing was a flop. The author, Laura Flanders, was reading. No one had approached her the entire time Katy had been here. But somehow that only made Katy feel more intimidated. She hated being conspicuous. Space was cleared around the table, but it would just be her, a bestselling romance author, and a giant poster of chiseled, impassioned flesh.
Well, here she went. Katy stepped up to the front of the table.

Laura kept reading.

Katy shifted her weight, hugging her books.

Still reading. It must be a good book.

Katy cleared her throat, and finally Laura looked up. And smiled.

“Hello,” Laura, or Laura Flanders, best selling romance author, as Katy still thought of her, said. “Are you here for the signing?”

“Yes! Oh my god. Hi. My name is Katy and I’m a huge fan.” The words jumbled together, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“It’s great to meet you, Katy. Please, call me Laura.”


Katy kept her squeal firmly contained. “I love your books.”

“How wonderful to meet a fan. Have you read The Duchess Wore Red?”

“Oh, it was amazing.” Katy heard her voice go dreamy, could just imagine Josh’s man-blush if he could hear her, but she couldn’t help it. “The way he mourned her when he thought she’d died. Then she came back and he didn’t realize it was her. And then — “ Katy sighed, “ — then when he finally recognized her. ‘It’s not that you made my dreams come true, Clarissa. It’s that you made me dream again.’”

Laura’s eyes were suspiciously shiny. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it.”

They grinned stupid grins at each other for a minute, and then Laura sniffled.

“Well, here. Why don’t you sit and chat with me? If you’re not doing anything. Lord knows I have nothing else to do right now, and I love to learn about my readers.”

They both ordered lattes from the cafe and sat in the big, plushy chairs.

“So, tell me,” Laura said. “Do you only read historicals?”

“Oh, no. I love all types. Of romance, that is. I must have my happy ending. In my books, at least, if not in real life.” Katy’s voice sounded brittle to her own ears. Why had she said that?

What do we know about Katy after reading this excerpt?
* She likes reading romance novels and is very knowledgeable about them.
* She has a boyfriend, but he’s probably the wrong man for her.
* She might be a little weak. She has trouble approaching an author at a book signing, and she seems to let her boyfriend have too much say in her finances. (I’m assuming Josh is a boyfriend, not a husband, because if Katy is married, she can’t be a romantic heroine.)
* Anything else? Anyone see something I’m missing?

The first item is a hobby, the second a situation, and the third a character trait. What are we missing? Goal. Motivation. Conflict. The big three. Goal, motivation, and conflict are the engines that drive a plot. Without them, even adept writing — such as what we see here — is going to feel a little off.

In this case, perhaps it’s Katy’s goal to speak to Laura. (Can you identify any other goals?) If so, this is a scene-level goal rather than a story goal because it can be accomplished in a single scene. This doesn’t mean you can’t use it here. A scene-level goal is just fine at the start of the story, depending, of course, on the context. That is, if it fits the story and engages the reader in a meaningful way, and if the story goal becomes apparent before too long, then there’s no reason to cut an opening scene that focuses on a scene-level goal rather than a story goal.

So let’s say that the scene-level goal is that Katy wants to talk to Laura. Why? The “why” question gives us the character’s motivation. Why does Katy want to talk to Laura? Hmm. Because she’s a fan, maybe. But that doesn’t quite get us to where we need to be. This is a surface reason, and we need something deeper to hook the reader right away. What does Katy hope to accomplish from this conversation, and why does she hope to accomplish that? What does she want to say, and why? What does she hope will be said in return? Why? Can any of you identify from this passage why Katy wants to talk to Laura?

Regardless of her purpose in this conversation, there must be something holding Katy back from achieving this goal. In this particular scenario, the objective is fairly easy to reach. Katy wants to talk to Laura. Laura is there, and she is not occupied. So what is the obstacle? Katy seems shy or reluctant, and we don’t really know why. She says she hates being conspicuous, but we don’t know what about this scenario would make her appear conspicuous or what the danger is in being on public display here. Is she hiding from someone? She’s in a public space, so some amount of public exposure seems inevitable. What is she really worried about? What is really holding her back?

These internal worries and external obstacles are important because these are the energy sources that power the scene engine. Without the right kind or amount of fuel, the scene will feel sluggish. And that’s what happens here. The writing is technically competent, but — to use an editing cliché — it lacks spark. We don’t feel a lot of investment in these characters because we don’t know what is at stake or why it’s a problem. This reads something like a nice encounter between two nice people — something that might be appropriate in the middle of a book when the pace needs to be slowed for a moment. But not for an opening scene, we want something pacier.

The good news is that there are ways to inject tension and drama into a text. This comes back to goal, motivation, and conflict. Make it clear that her goal is to speak to the author, and that this is not a mere coincidence. Make it clear that she buys all those books because she’s stalling. In other words, the scenario now is that she is at the store for the purpose of buying books, and she happens to speak to the author. Reverse that. Put her in the store for the purpose of speaking to the author, and have her happen to buy some books while she is there. That slight shift in goal will add force to the text.

Then, be clear about why she wants to talk to this author. Let us in on her fantasies. Authors are minor celebrities, and women tend to attach their daydreams to celebrities. So what is her vision or expectation here? What does she hope for? What does she fear? I’m wondering if it has something to do with the fact that her life seems to be an unhappy one in some ways. She uses the books as an escape from that, and meeting an author might bring that escapism into her real life. This might tie into the theme of the book, so consider how it would tie into her mood or emotions at the outset of the scene, and how those moods and emotions would influence the development of the scene. Don’t lose sight of Katy’s interior state. If it comes across as honest and sympathetic, then you will have the reader hooked quickly.

The obstacles can be minor or temporary. Maybe she takes a deep breath and steps out from behind a bookcase just as a staffer approaches Laura to check on her. Maybe the obstacles are not external at all, but purely internal — which is how it is currently presented. What does that say about the character? She gets in her own way, even on simple things. This is why she seems slightly weak. But by deepening and strengthening her reasons for hesitating, by letting us in on her internal conflict in this moment, we might come to understand and appreciate her problems instead of wondering why she’s having these problems.

We can’t really line edit for these things at this stage because the scene will undergo some pretty deep changes in order to accomplish these tasks. I think you start by cutting the first two paragraphs, which set the wrong tone and focus for the scene. Take a closer look at paragraph three and figure out how to incorporate more of Katy’s motivation there. And then go through the rest of the scene line by line to make sure that Katy’s internal state — reactions, emotions, expectations, etc. — are coming through loud and clear. If you hang this scene on the hook of Katy’s desires and fears, then those have to be very clear and dominant for the scene to work.

Think, too, about the nature of those desires and fears. If the reality of their encounter is slightly different from what Katy expects, that shift can add some tension to the scene, too. These differences don’t have to be negative or destructive. Think of this column, for example. The author submitted her work in the expectation that it would be line edited. We’re doing precious little line editing here, but talking instead about a scene revision. It’s not a negative or destructive thing, and we hope the author will find it helpful. But it is different from expectations, and that can cause surprise, confusion, or a number of other emotions. In the scene, work with Katy’s reactive emotions, and the reader will become more invested in her character.


RU writers, looks like we have a wonderful opportunity to discuss the age-old problem of establishing GMC. You have Theresa and her knowledge and yoru fingertips – ask away!

Join us on Monday with Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich (w/a Lucy March) join us to dicuss their new WriteWell Academy


Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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32 Responses to “Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens”

  1. HUGE thanks to Theresa and this week’s volunteer! I never knew there were different kinds of editing the manuscript would go through until after I signed the dotted line, so thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | June 15, 2012, 4:46 am
  2. Morning Theresa! =)

    I struggle with GMC terribly! Even reading your steps to take above makes me feel like I’m reading Swahili. =) I’m terribly guilty of just having scene goals, not a big overlying GMC. I’m really hoping once I grasp the concept, it’ll make a change in my writing that will knock their socks off!

    Thanks for the great post Theresa….I thoroughly plan on reading it over and over and over!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 15, 2012, 5:30 am
  3. Great post! 🙂 Like Carrie, I think I’m going to be re-reading this one over and over again.

    I’m actually commenting for another reason: I subscribe to this blog using the RSS feed in my Google Reader. Just recently, though, the feed doesn’t seem to be delivery the whole blog posts anymore; I only get 1-2 lines and then a […] to indicate there is more. Just curious: is this an intended change or did something go wrong on my end?

    I love the blog, but I really liked being able to read it (and the other blogs I follow) all in one place.

    Posted by Juliana | June 15, 2012, 6:38 am
  4. Ooh, this is perfect timing for my WIP. I’m finding myself asking “Who cares?” a lot. LOL. This will help me sort it out!

    Thanks for another great post, Theresa!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | June 15, 2012, 6:52 am
    • Ah, the “Who cares” question. So important. We never ask who cares the same way a snarky kid asks. We ask because we want to know — who in this book cares about this detail, and why? Will the reader also care? These are important questions!

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 15, 2012, 1:26 pm
  5. Hi Theresa,

    Even a short excerpt opens up so many layers of a story. And then what becomes the constant question.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 15, 2012, 6:59 am
  6. I always learn so much from you! Thank you for a great post!

    Posted by Robin Covington | June 15, 2012, 7:09 am
  7. Thanks to Theresa and to the volunteer! This post is very helpful to me. I also struggle with GMC.

    In the example above, since the writing is good, I didn’t see much that needed to change. You helped us to delve deeply into the scene to discover what was missing and then offered ways to make it much better.

    I am struggling with where one of my finished manuscripts should start. But I think much of the problem revolves around not nailing the GMC as you’ve indicated above.

    Posted by Roxanne | June 15, 2012, 7:18 am
    • Roxanne, the writing in this example is good. I agree with you on that! When we talk about “almost, but not quite” pieces, this is the kind of thing we mean. There is evident skill, but it doesn’t quite hang together yet.

      Figuring out where to start is often a troubling problem. My general rule of thumbs are to start later rather than earlier in the timeline. Start in the middle of action. Start with a big problem rather than a small problem. But whatever you do, start with something that will grip the reader’s attention!

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 15, 2012, 1:31 pm
  8. When I read Deb Dixon’s GOAL, MOTIVATION, CONFLICT for the first time, it was a light bulb moment. I should probably keep it on my desk, right next to the computer, to remind me of the all-important GMC when I’m writing.

    Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting your pages!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | June 15, 2012, 8:22 am
  9. *headdesk* Forgot to thank Theresa!!! As always, your advice is excellent. If you ever compile the advice you’ve shared with us into a book, I’ll buy it!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | June 15, 2012, 8:23 am
  10. Interesting post. I have a question, though: If this was the opening to a novel, how much back story would a reader tolerate before this point? Wouldn’t a reader assume we’d find out why Katy is so shy? The last paragraph seems to be a setup for doing that very thing.

    Posted by Dave Thome | June 15, 2012, 10:37 am
    • (I apologize for still not having a photo up, and I probably won’t see an answer until tomorrow because I’m presenting at a conference today.)

      Posted by Dave Thome | June 15, 2012, 10:42 am
    • Actually, you don’t need any backstory to explain character traits. You need to show the character behaving in accordance with that trait in the present moment. So here, Katy is shy and that makes her hesitant to talk to the author. That’s fine, but what is at stake? What will change for Katy if she lets the shyness win? This is the source of tension for her in those moments before she approaches Laura. If she will kick herself for not speaking to Laura, we ought to know that. If she has something specific she wants to say, we need to know that. The trait is fine, but the tension needs a bit of plumping up, and we don’t need backstory to get us there. Do you see what I mean?

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 15, 2012, 1:34 pm
      • Here’s where I’m coming from: I read 10 pages a week out loud at my writing group and then people make comments. One comment I can count on every week is, “This needs to happen.” And the next time I read, that (or the opposite of that) happens. Not because I added it as a result of the comment, but because the scene before led up to it. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? People want to find stuff out and keep reading?

        I think there’s plenty of tension in the example, and it makes me want to know why she’s so shy, etc. Could you please give a concrete example of what you think needs to be added here–maybe by showing the exact words you’d use and where they would go?


        Posted by Dave Thome | June 16, 2012, 11:36 am
  11. Thanks for this. I’m a newbie writer and things like this really help me.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | June 15, 2012, 11:30 am
  12. Thank you for your post, Theresa.

    This is just my opinion, and probably not representative of romance readers or writers in general; but here goes. All I require in an opening scene is a situation that interests me. Or better yet, intrigues me, compels me.

    It should relate to the protag’s goals, motivation, and/or conflict. Otherwise, it’s a phony hook, a misleading introduction. But in the first scene, how can the reader specify just what the GMC is?

    Also, sometimes the GMC takes time to develop. At least, it does if the author handles in an aesthetically-satisfying way.

    Dumping it all into the opening scene just doesn’t work with me. It shows the author is trying too hard, taking a cheap shot. The story unfolds on the pages in a contrived manner, a way it never would in real life. Or in a well-constructed work of fiction.

    In reading this excerpt, I got the impression that Katy has mental problems. If she’s a fan of this author, why didn’t she just say so, ask for an autograph, and engage her in a conversation right off the bat, like fans typically do?

    Katy’s thoughts, words, and behavior suggest she doesn’t or can’t socialize normally. What’s more, in this context her insistence on happy endings hints at a disconnect between her and reality.

    But since romance editors don’t allow protags with even mild forms of psychopathy, all this can’t possibly be the case. Therefore, from my point of view, this heroine started off on the wrong foot with this reader.

    If I were an editor, and thank goodness I’m not, I wouldn’t just edit this opening scene. I’d ask for a different one. I’m sure the author can write it.

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | June 15, 2012, 11:46 am
    • …But since romance editors don’t allow protags with even mild forms of psychopathy…

      Ha ha! With the advent of self-publishing, it’s a whole new ball game!

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 15, 2012, 1:18 pm
    • Actually, a goal doesn’t need to be developed over the course of the book. A goal can be stated immediately. The obstacles and conflicts will evolve over the course of the book, and that might impact the shape of the goal, but there’s no generic reason to withhold the goal.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 15, 2012, 1:38 pm
  13. Hi Theresa,

    Does the internal and external GMC have to be fleshed out in the first chapter or is it “acceptable” to string it out until chapter three or so?

    One thing I noticed about this passage (and it’s just one of my peeves) is that I needed a tad more description. What time of day is it? What month? Did Katy notice what the author was wearing or did the author look like the headshot in her book? Was Katy thrilled to have coffee with one of her favorite authors?

    Many thanks to our RU guinea pig!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 15, 2012, 1:16 pm
    • Jennifer, I agree that we needed a bit more of Katy’s reactions. This ties into what I was saying about Katy’s expectations.

      I think it’s best to make goals clear to the reader early — you can have a lead-in goal (sometimes called a false start), but you do want to get the reader on board with what the characters are trying to do, what is at stake, why they want it, that sort of thing.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 15, 2012, 1:41 pm
  14. Interesting post. I read at the beginning that this was a contemporary romance with paranormal elements, so I kept wondering if the heroine’s hesitation had something to do with the paranormal elements. If this was the case, how long should the writer hold off in sharing this with the reader? As a writer, I want to keep everything a mystery for as long as possible, but I think the reader wants more clues quickly.

    Thanks to the writer and to Theresa!

    Posted by Larissa Reinhart | June 15, 2012, 3:14 pm

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