Connecting with Consultants

Writing Magazine – June 2023 issue

It’s not only multi-national companies who use consultants. Simon Whaley chats to one author who uses a series of consultants for her writing business.

The first Thursday in June is International Consultant Day. Businesses call upon consultants to help them overcome a specific issue within their organisation, and the principle is no different for writers.

Even if we don’t think of our writing as a business, we are operating as sole traders. That makes us responsible for everything. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should do everything without asking for a little help. Sometimes, we can be blinkered in our approach, and so a fresh pair of eyes might offer a different perspective of our work. A consultant’s experience with other writers means they’ve come across similar problems before and can offer us solutions.

The right consultants can transform a business, and that’s why writers should consider calling in a consultant when they need advice.

Annabelle McCormack ( writes female-centric contemporary and historical women’s fiction and romance. The third novel in her Windswept World War One series, Whisper in the Tempest, comes out this September.

Annabelle called in the consultants after getting some favourable feedback from agents, but not favourable enough to take her on. The consultant she turned to was a developmental editor.

‘After I started querying my first novel to literary agents,’ she explains, ‘I received a lot of positive feedback but also helpful regrets that my novel wasn’t “quite there yet,” with invitations to resubmit after I did a revision. Having spent years working on the craft of fiction, I decided that what I needed next was to have the dedicated guidance of a publishing professional who could dig into my novel and help me fix what wasn’t working.’

Publishing Professional

‘Since that’s exactly what a developmental editor does,’ she continues, ‘I researched and found one and sent my work to her for a fifty-page critique, to test what type of feedback she could offer me.’

This is where Annabelle benefitted from asking someone outside of her business to look at her work objectively and constructively.

‘I was stunned and pleased to receive my editor’s report,’ Annabelle explains, ‘which articulated vividly what needed to be tweaked for the opening of my novel flow more smoothly. From there, I hired her for a full developmental edit and worked for months polishing my manuscript based on her feedback. She helped me flesh out my plot and subplots more fully, identify and strengthen my protagonist’s character arc, and greatly improved the pacing of my novel—in addition to a myriad of other countless edits. I honestly believe that the draft of my book written after working with her was the strongest and best version of it that I wrote. I couldn’t have gotten it there without her help.’

Consultants come in all shapes and sizes, not just in the guise of a developmental editor. Even if we’re confident of getting the basic plot and character structures correct, it can still be immensely useful to have some feedback on what we’ve produced. And while development editors cost (quite rightly), it’s possible to call in a different consultant at a later stage of your book’s production.

Beta Readers

Step forward the beta-reader consultants. Beta-readers are not necessarily editors. They can simply be fans who love your work and are keen to help you release high-quality page-turning books. They’re not there to pick up spelling mistakes, or grammatical issues, although if they do, that’s a bonus.

Primarily, a beta-reader will feedback on any missing plot holes or missed loose ends. They can be useful to spot other errors, any inconsistencies, or point out passages that make little sense.

Annabelle finds beta-readers can make excellent consultants. ‘Ever since I went back to school for my master’s degree in writing, I became very accustomed to seeking the feedback of others to gauge reader response. I’ve worked with a critique group for almost a decade and giving others a chance to respond to my work has become a huge part of my writing process. Handing my book to beta readers is a natural extension of this process.’

Unlike the developmental editor, which is one person, beta-readers are plural. This isn’t about bringing in one consultant. It’s about using three, four, or more.

Invaluable Insight

‘Beta readers give me invaluable insight into what’s working and not working in my novel, not because I base my opinion on one person’s perspective, but because I usually send my book to at least a half-dozen or more people,’ she explains. ‘By doing it this way, I’m able to ask targeted questions about the plot, characters, pacing, and reader likes/dislikes.’

Having more than one beta reader helps Annabelle determine what may simply be a particular reader’s preference for something more fundamental.

‘Generally, I follow the advice that if only one person responds a certain way to something, I can probably ignore it. But if three or more people tell me an element of the book isn’t working for them, it’s time for me to pay attention. I do make exceptions to this if it’s something egregious and only one person happened to catch it.’

Handing our work over to someone else, especially if we’ve spent months or years working on it, can be immensely daunting and scary. However, Annabelle suggests that finding people you trust can relieve some of that anxiety.

‘It’s always a vulnerable thing to ask others to read your book but, provided you have trusted beta readers or a trusted service connecting you to betas, I actually get quite excited about sending my book off into the world. Positive comments are fantastic at this stage, of course, but it’s also wonderful to know that if I got something wrong, I still have time to fix it before I take the next steps with that book.’

Professional Procurement

So, how do you find a reliable consultant? A personal recommendation can be useful, but it’s worth remembering this is a business transaction, so treat it in a business-like manner. For developmental editors, check out reviews, seek examples of an editor’s prior work, or use services that have a trusted reputation and system for dealing with complaints when things don’t go right.

‘I currently work with two developmental editors,’ says Annabelle, ‘one for my historical fiction and another for my contemporary romance novels. For the former, I came across her craft articles on many reputable writing sites. For the latter, I heard a bestselling author in my genre give a glowing review of her editor on a podcast—so I immediately looked the editor up and then contacted her.’

‘Finding an editor is something that should be done with care. Many editors offer a sample edit and I strongly suggest taking them up on this. A sample edit can help you easily narrow down your choices. It’s vital to find a developmental editor that works on and enjoys your genre. Authors in your genre can be a resource to help you find an editor. Reviews or references can be important.’

For beta readers, this can be a little more tricky. It’s not uncommon for fans of our existing work to want to be involved, especially for those writers producing a series. Some like to feel part of the production process and love the fact they’re getting to see the story before it’s officially published. And fans often have far better memories. How many times have fans spotted an error in book three, because the author forgot something they mentioned back in book one?

Social Search

‘For finding beta readers, I’ve used two methods,’ Annabelle advises. ‘I’ve put the call out on social media asking for beta readers. I usually post a three-paragraph blurb to my manuscript and give content/trigger warnings. And I’ve used a beta reader service. Thus far, I have absolutely loved the service that Hidden Gems provides for beta reading. I’ve used it twice and found it to be extremely professional, quick, and thorough. I will probably continue to use this option from now on when I need beta reads. I particularly like the fact that it’s anonymous, so I feel like I am getting honest feedback without bias.’

And that honest feedback is important. It means that it’s not always easy to listen to. But Annabelle is clear about why these consultants offer so much value to our writing businesses.

‘One of the most important things to remember is that, while novels feel so personal to us, constructive criticism is not a personal attack. What’s particularly lovely about developmental edits is that a top-notch editor won’t just tell you what’s wrong—they’ll help you work through ways to fix the problems. It can be difficult to hear that something we love may not be working, but truthfully, what we love are just words that, when reworked, can become more powerful, more beautiful, and more effective. Editing is what makes your work readable and developmental edits and beta readers can help.’

‘If you’re writing with the goal of having others read your work, then you must get out of your own way and write what others will want to read. That doesn’t mean compromising the heart of your story; that means having a story that is appealing to the audience you’re seeking because it makes sense to others. As the writers, we’re too close to the manuscripts to fully gauge the readability.’

Annabelle has discovered that while we may be a one-person business, that doesn’t mean we have to go it alone for the entire journey. Taking our work to the next level could be just one consultant away.

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© Simon Whaley