Structural Editing, by Helene Young
One of the joys of writing is seeing the way a down-and-dirty first draft can emerge from the editing process glowing in the sunlight.
I’m a dyed in the wool pantser who starts with an opening scene, a couple of characters, and a theme I want to explore. Once I sit down to write I hang on for the ride. I’d love to be a plotter. The idea of words carefully placed on the page adding brick by brick to my story sounds seductive, but because my working life as an airline pilot is driven by standard operating procedures when it comes to being creative I don’t want to be shackled to a plan.
When I finish my first draft I do plot the book out in long hand and check the timeline on a calendar. As I’m writing I build character maps to ensure things like Nick’s eyes don’t change from thick treacle to midnight blue. Rather memorably, I changed a minor character’s name half way through Wings of Fear. That threw my editor for a while!
The first part of formal editing is the structural edit where the story is tightened, the narrative arc reshaped, and some characters lose their heads on the cutting room floor.
This time around, with Half Moon Bay, I found myself adding 21,000 words to satisfy frequent requests from my publisher to ‘see scenes on the page’ rather than learn about them second hand. In my previous three books I’ve always managed to lose five or six thousand words so I was horrified to see the manuscript grow and grow. Jack and the Beanstalk would have been proud! Thankfully, my editor wasn’t at all fazed.
So, what does a structural edit do? It ensures the foundations of the story are strong and true. It looks at the basic premise, the conflicts, the number of points of view, the setting, pacing, and the story arc. It’s the point when scenes can be retold in a different POV to strengthen the reader’s connection or more scenes can be added to show another dimension of the characters’ conflict.
The editing notes are quite extensive. Hachette Australia works with typed notes, and a hard copy of the manuscript and comments in the margin. Penguin Australia uses track changes on an electronic document.
Here’s an example of a comment regarding Half Moon Bay’s opening scene.
“Is there opportunity for us to learn a little more about our character here – some detail of what she’s been doing or what she’s wearing/reading/watching until now? Would be great if we could ‘see’ her even better in these crucial opening moments.”
The detail of how I do that is left up to me to work out. It’s liberating when your editor asks for more, but it can also be daunting. It’s important to remember they are highly skilled professionals and working closely with them will be rewarding for you and your readers. They don’t ask for change out of contrariness. They ask because they too want the best for the story.
It’s a long road to produce a book and my advice to new writers is to embrace the editing. It will get easier with time, but there’s no place for a thin skin in this business! Every step is about learning and growing as a writer.
Helene Young’s author website: www.heleneyoung.com
Writing Novels in Australia