Rearranging the pieces – the big structural edit

One of the reasons XX proved more successful than my previous efforts, is that it benefited from a far more prolonged and extensive editing process.

So much of writing is rewriting. True, you need to silence your inner editor if you’re to get a first draft down at all. But the minute you type ‘the end’ on version one, the real work begins!

A book will need editing at both the macro and micro level – sometimes many times over. Today, I’m sharing a checklist relating to the big, structural edits: the changes that enable the gush of a first draft to take shape as a coherent narrative.

Ideally, you’ll put the manuscript away for a few months before embarking on this process.

Have you fully explored your themes?

Most of us write books because we have something to say. So a key question to ask yourself: have you said it? Have you covered a range of different perspectives on your themes? The most satisfying narratives tease out a multitude of complexities – have you gone as deep as you can go with your explorations?

Be ruthless at culling any moments where your characters appear as mouthpieces for a particular point of view. There will be other, more compelling, ways to explore the nuances of an issue. You just need to invest some time trying to find them.

Do your characters feel real?

I find that I ‘get to know’ my characters through the process of writing and that their slow progression to rounded human beings can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on a book.

However, this often means that they were introduced to chapter one before they’d taken on a three dimensional form. When I begin writing, the protagonists are a list of characteristics in my notebook. They tend not to take their first real breath until much later in the story. Going back and retrospectively adding complexity to your characters in earlier scenes, will help your readers care about these fictional people.

Do they undergo a journey?

Do the events in your book shape your characters in some way? Ideally, they should be learning new things about themselves and the world they live in as the story progresses. Revisit the key moments in the narrative and ask: how might this change my protagonist? And how might this change manifest itself.

Is the action driven through choices, or are you subjecting the reader to a cascade of events?

Stories in which one momentous event follows another can be wearing for the reader. We want to see the characters shaping their destiny through the choices they make, rather than always being buffeted by forces beyond their control.

Go through each of the things that happen to the central figures in your story and ask yourself: how can they contribute to their own predicament? How will they respond, and what bearing will this have on what happens next?

Does the reader have a reason to keep turning the pages?

You will have inevitably worked a climax of some sort into your first draft – but one tense moment is not enough to sustain reader interest throughout the course of a novel. On a chapter by chapter basis, you need to ask: where is the tension coming from?

You may need to give your protagonist something to solve in the short term to inject pace. Or to introduce some sort of ‘ticking clock’ which will raise the stakes and keep the reader engaged.