I have heard that when starting out as a novelist, getting your manuscript finished is the easy bit. I always thought that a little bit silly, because you’ve sweat blood over the thing, spent months or even years on it. But I’m beginning to see there is some sense to this. For a start there’s all the additional prep, the formating and understanding the process. Then there’s the cover design and blurb to sort, both of which are easy and exciting. But then comes the structural edit. This is not nearly so easy or as exciting, and sweating blood plays no part.
A structural edit has to ensure that the plot makes sense, so if it doesn’t you’re faced with some heavy duty rewrites and rearranging. The structural edit also checks that the characters in the novel are believable and consistent, and that you haven’t overloaded them with tropes that undermine or distract the reader. As important is a check on the consistency of voice and point of view, of tense and credibility in terms of dialogue. These are all things you think you’ve addressed during your umpteenth rewrite, prior to submitting the manuscript to the publisher. But no matter how thoroughly you think you have gone through your work, you’re bound to have missed stuff. This is why editors are so vital and so lauded by their authors. They can literally help to spin gold from dross.
I’m now working on implementing the structural editor’s recommendations for The Draftsman, wrestling with the dross and trying to find the gold. In the process I’m learning a lot about writing. I’m struggling to resolve all the queries and suggestions to make The Draftsman better. Struggling, but at it.
Helen Francis did the first big edit of the Draftsman for Unbound, the publisher. She has given me a mix of mild critique and several excellent suggestions to improve the narrative. Helen has also pointed out that I use far too many pointless and distracting adjectives. Both my mother and my sister noticed this after they briefly skimmed some early chapters, but I thought I knew better. Ms Francis agrees with them. I was wrong. Now the adjectives thing is making me wonder why I thought I needed them in the first place. It might be that using too many adjectives is a way to avoid getting to the point. That’s probably because I wasn’t quite sure what that point should be or even what happened next in the story. More likely it’s a tendency to hide behind excess words because I don’t trust myself. This isn’t surprising because I trust virtually no one, so why should I trust me? There’s no habit for the trust thing.
Fixing all the points raised in the structural edit is extremely demanding and quite frankly exhausting. It’s at this stage that you understand that your book really is going to be published, and even if you might not agree with your editor’s suggestions, together you’re creating something that people will buy, a viable product. You might have to completely rethink how you present your characters. You might need to focus on how much or how little you want readers to get to know them and their role in the story, beyond helping to drive the plot. And yes, you must decide how many adjectives to use and which ones.
There is some real risk involved in this process. You need to make sure that the story doesn’t distort in the course of the rewriting and edits. This is almost harder than writing the thing in the first place, because you’re probably now working on some other work, one that’s completely different. Keeping within the bounds of the book is tough and it’s very tempting to bring in all sorts of other ideas as part of the structural editing process. You find there are lots of possible new digressions, subplots and thoughts you have in the middle of the night and think will made a massive improvement. Resist: they’re bound to go nowhere. Keep them far away from your editing process, keep them for another day, maybe as notes for a different story. Stay focused wholly on the work in hand.
And remember that you have to watch that fictional characters don’t start to change on the page. If you aren’t careful, this can happen almost without you realising it. Be disciplined and make sure to keep your face out of the narrative pie. Taking suggested edits one at a time and considering each one in the context of the paragraph, chapter and overall work, is slow and tedious work. It’s a first for me so I’m finding that process difficult. The structural editing thing is pushing me beyond what I thought were the limits of my abilities. Or perhaps I should say beyond whatever it is that feeds my sense of limits. I know I’ll get it done and in the end The Draftsman will be a much better product. Thank you Helen Francis.
(from July 2020)