An expert’s introduction to structural editing

Bloodshot eyes editorThere are two things an editor should always bear in mind when faced with a manuscript:

  1. All novels are too long
  2. The writer has already edited the manuscript until his or her eyes have bled.

I put these thoughts upfront because a lot of what I am about to say may suggest I am promoting the butchery of manuscripts, when I am in fact demonstrating how an editor should be proactive in improving the structure of a novel.

When I say all novels are too long, I’m not suggesting a particular word limit; I mean every novel that comes to me is overwritten.  It is the hardest thing to edit your own work effectively. Emotional investment trumps intellectual engagement every time.  There are writers who are very good at it; Lil Chase talks about reducing a first draft from 74,501 to 49,501, and I’ve known writers who edit very effectively as they write, but in my experience it takes an expert second pair of eyes to perfect the structure of a novel. In 100% of these cases, this will mean cutting.

So how do I cut a novel?

Well the first question to ask is do we need that Prologue? If yes, how much can I shave off it to get the reader into the main bulk of the story as quickly as possible? Indeed, in the world of expanding electronic publishing, the need to get a story started quickly is an absolute given – think Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature; this is the battleground where readers choose or reject books.

After this I systematically go through every chapter, and every scene, looking to see if it can start later in, and finish earlier.  This is a good exercise for any writer and can profoundly change the pace of a novel.

And then there are the things that will hurt the most. If a scene does not lend itself towards advancing the story of a novel, it should be cut. No matter how good it is, how beautiful a description, how delicate a character reveal, it is junk.

I often find myself reading published novels and my attention beginning to drift just after the middle and into the last third. This is basically because the editor has not been ruthless enough to sacrifice good scenes that slow the story down. Now I’m all for a novel with a consistent leisurely pace that fits the style and thematic drive of the story, but to have an inconsistent pace often results in an uneven reading experience. This is down to bad editing – the buck stops with me.

An editor is not a tyrant. If I change something and a writer comes back at me saying this subverts the original vision of their story, character, or theme – then I will back down. The writer is right. I have a duty to be ruthless and proactive, but I must be willing to defer to the writer on fundamental ideas that he or she brings to the story. It is never my novel. If a writer trusts that you understand where they are coming from, they are far more likely to accept radical change that will improve their novel.

With this in mind, nothing is off the table. Sometimes it is possible to remove one, or two characters. If they are minor, exist only to provide background colour, and do not serve the story, what are the advantages of deleting them? Well, by removing two characters I have been able to completely lose a chapter in the middle of a book, tighten the story and keep the reader’s attention on the main characters and the primary drive of the story. If you can show this to your writer, and they trust you, they will go with you.

Of course cutting is only part of the process. The editor brings an overview to the novel that is invaluable.

Is everything in the right order?

Scenes are moveable, and it can greatly improve the structure of a story if certain events happen earlier, or later.

What is missing?

This is where the trust shared with your writer really pays off, because you have to go back to them and say the story needs new scenes to smooth transitions and make the novel logical. Not only that, but there may need to be things added which reflect deep story-structure, for instance, we need the main character to refuse the ‘call of adventure’ for as long as possible, we need perhaps two scenes that see him/her in conflict about this matter. And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.

All these factors bring us to the end of a novel. Here the big-picture view of the editor means I must make sure that every loose end is tied up, that all characters finish their journey, that the resolution is satisfying. At the same time, we have to get out quick. Do we need that epilogue? Is it so long because the story conclusion is inadequate? If it is essential, how much can we reduce it?  If you’ve taken your writer on a journey of trust, he or she will see the need to make changes and will always, in my experience, rise to the challenge.

I always look at the structural part of a novel first – it is my particular way of working. The production of a novel is an evolution, a complex process of collaboration that moves through many stages. When these matters have been resolved, a whole new stage is started, one that involves a far finer, more detailed, approach. In the end everyone’s eyes will bleed.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: MATT REINBOLD

Steve Haynes, EditorSteve Haynes lives and works in Cornwall. He is the commissioning editor of Proxima Books, the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Salt Publishing.

Comments

  1. A terrific article, especially this:

    “And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.”

    Thanks.

  2. Good job here. Your comments apply to all good editing.

  3. Great post. I usually scribble scenes in cards and shuffle them to see what effect that creates. I’ve come up with some funky ideas that way.
    Regarding the constant need of fast plots, I wonder if in the future people will look back at our literature and think “Authors from the over-populated, early twenty-first century, wrote in frantic pace for a two-paragraph-attention-span audience.”

  4. I have to doff my hat to the guy, and I can safely do that without appearing to by sycophantic because although Steve edited my first novel, “Aphrodite’s Dawn”, we aren’t currently working on anything together.
    I enjoy being edited, for the most part. What does get up my nose it when an editor edits so heavily that I cant see my work for his/her suggestions. Surely if a piece needs that much work, the kinder thing to do would be to return it with specific and general comments and suggest ‘try again’?
    I think it must take far more skill to be able to steer an author by deft touches rather than sawing on the reins.

  5. I agree with every word of this. Fantastic article. It should be compulsory reading for first-time authors.

  6. Very useful article. I will refer to it repeatedly! Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*