Welcome back to the self-editing miniseries. 🙂 It’s good to have you.
Last time, we summarised the self-edit. Feel free to check that out if you want to brush up first. In the next two posts, we’ll be looking in-depth at the first big part of the self-edit–structural editing. (Quick note. I thought to keep everything concerning the structural edit in a single post, but I realised midway through writing this one that it would be an half-hour read at the least. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.)
The structural or developmental edit is the phase of the editing process where you look at each part of your story and see if it fits with the whole. Basically, you’re taking it apart, giving it a polish, and tinkering it back together.
This part doesn’t focus on grammar and word choice, but you’re free to tinker with that if you choose to. Some authors find that grammar and word choice editing influences how well they can accomplish the structural edit, and leave that for later in the process. Others can’t help but fiddle with grammatical issues throughout the process. No matter how you do these things, it isn’t wrong!
In the last post, I mentioned that we’ll search for every part of the story that damages the overall logic, anything that hinders effective storytelling, and anything that might confuse the reader. Once we’ve found those issues, we’ll cut or rewrite.
Today, we’ll look specifically at:
- Plot and setting.
Next time, we’ll tackle:
- Flow and pace
- Conflict and resolution
- Voice and style
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Plot and Setting
Ah, yes. The plot. If you want to know if the logic of the overall story makes sense, you have to look for plotholes, right?
But we’re often so close to the story that finding faults becomes near impossible. So, how do you take off your mom-goggles when it comes to your precious little story?
Personally, I find questions to be super helpful. Questions force me to come at the issues from other angles, and often point out possible plotholes before I’d even considered them.
These are the kinds of things we might ask ourselves:
- Is this storyline at least a little plausible?
- Does it make sense?
- How will the reader understand this story/part of the story?
- How will the reader feel about this? AKA, will this confuse/excite the reader?
- If I read this in another book, how would this make me feel?
- Would the same thing happen if *this* thing didn’t happen/happened differently?
- How much of the plot depends on chance?
- Is this scene/character necessary to advance the overall story?
- What is the worst thing that could happen in the story?
- What would happen if the antagonist got there first?
- What if the romantic plot took place between different characters?
- Would the protagonist handle this differently if they were older/younger/had a different origin?
- Will this *thing* strike the reader as out of the blue, or will they have an ‘aha’ moment?
Additionally, tropes are important. Certain tropes attract certain audiences, which means readers will expect specific things to happen in our stories.
Knowing which tropes appeal to our target audiences can make the structural edit that much easier, because we have basic guidelines of how the tropey parts of the story should look.
Better yet if we find ways to twist those tropes so they still appeal to our audiences, but reflect our personal storytelling styles. To do this, we can turn to the same kinds of questions. If we can ‘what if?’ the hell out of set tropes, we force ourselves to look for alternate plot points.
But what if the questions we ask cause more questions? Personally, I find the best remedy when I’m stuck in ‘what if land’ is a brainstorming session with someone who knows the plot intimately.
Fresh perspective, folks. It’s a lifesaver. Other people tend to ask questions we don’t even imagine could be asked, and come up with new answers to the questions we’ve already considered.
It’s because of this that I strongly recommend you send the book to beta readers before you self-edit, and eventually have an editor look at the manuscript. Personally, I self-edit repeatedly during the writing process, each time before and after I send it to others to read. Even if you have just one other set of eyes go over your manuscript, the feedback will likely help plug plotholes you didn’t know existed. I’ve written a piece about handling feedback, if you’re interested.
Finally, foreshadowing is incredibly important. All advice I’ve read on the subject suggests that we mention a thing two to three times throughout the story to make it stick in the back of the reader’s mind.
How do you know what to foreshadow? Typically, anything the beta readers point out as ‘this seemed out of nowhere’, or ‘this really confused me’ are things that might not have been foreshadowed enough.
Also, anything that will be important later in the story must at least be hinted at throughout, even twists or important items. If the pendant her mother gave her holds the key to everything, the reader must see her toying with that pendant, or maybe finding it after all these years, or whatever–anything to show us it’s important.
Typically, we’ll consider the setting of the story before we start writing, but I’ve met the odd author who had to rewrite the story’s location to suit the story they ended up telling. It happens to pantsers, but hey, even the odd planner might find a different setting more suitable to their story.
More than just location, though, we want to consider the inner workings of this world.
Again, we’ll ask some questions.
- Does the setting promote the story?
- Does the setting strengthen the characters? Does it hold them back?
- Will the target audience understand this place?
- Do the politics and hierarchy make sense?
- What are the issues of this world? Do these issues mirror real-life issues?
- Does the magic system have limitations, or does it make things too easy for the protagonist?
- How about the tech? If it’s made-up tech, does it at least seem possible?
- Do the people of this world have a plight? Motivation? Do they feel real?
- If the setting is our world, is it realistic? Does it suit the time of the story?
I almost guarantee you’ll figure out character issues hand in hand with plot and setting issues. These story elements just go together, and can often be solved together.
When it comes to the edit, the biggest issue is often that all the characters sound the same. They don’t have unique voices.
If this is the case, we need to ask ourselves if the character has a goal/motivation?
It sounds intimidating, but don’t worry, goals can be really simple.
Maybe all Susie wants is a boyfriend. That’s a goal. Maybe Peter wants to make tacos for dinner. Goal. Maybe Brian wants to end the rule of his oppressive president. Goal. Even better, Riley wants all three of these things. She has a little goal to start off the story (taco), a mid-length goal to bring us through the saggy middle of the book (boyfriend), and a long term goal to keep us reading to the end (removing the president).
If the character has a clear set of goals, it becomes easier to figure out what makes them tick, which also makes it easier to give them each a unique voice.
It gets even easier if we give characters:
- Opinions and passions. If one character is a vegetarian and another a meat-eater, we can easily hear the kinds of arguments they might have. Their opinions round them out, and offer them a sense of realness they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Bonus if we write characters with opposing views, since we’ve immediately created conflict.
- Hobbies, interests, pet peeves. The fact that Feyre from ACOTAR is an artist, for example, not only makes her a more interesting character, but ends up facilitating her growth arc.
- Secrets. If a character must achieve their goal while hiding a secret that can derail them, we’ll be able to give them a clearer voice.
Another trick when editing characters is to edit from the middle of the story forward. When we start writing, we often don’t have quite as strong a vision of the characters as we do after a few chapters. Because we’re more firmly settled in the character’s head after about five or so chapters, the following chapters are a good blueprint for how the character should behave and sound in the beginning of the book.
Lastly, write what the character knows. If two characters are looking at the same coat, for example, and one of them is an aspiring designer while the other is a spy, the designer will notice things like shape, fabric, colour, buttons, the lines–anything aesthetically pleasing. The spy, on the other hand, will consider how easily the garment will blend with their location, where they might conceal weapons and such, how easily they might put it on or take it off, etc.
Most of the points above also apply here, but I want to add some thoughts on how to find character voices.
- Region. If our character is from a specific place on earth, we must consider how people from that region speak. If the character is Cockney, for example, they might use Cockney slang, or swallow their h’s.
- Swearing. Depending on the area and origin of our charaters, they might swear like sailors or never utter the politest of oaths. Some characters won’t be allowed to swear in a professional capacity.
- Class/education. The actual words characters use can tell us exactly what their station in life is.
- Humour. Some characters will turn to sarcasm, while others might have dark humour, or giggle at the silliest of things. If we give them something to laugh at, or have them make jokes, they’ll gain distinctions from the rest of the cast.
- The hive-mind. If a group of characters grow up together, or have worked together for a while, they will begin to absorb each other’s speech patterns. Still, each will have glimmers of personality that shine through in their speech, even if they tend to use the same kinds of words as others.
- Pet phrases. Everybody has a personal saying or two. Things that will distinguish us from others. Personally, I say ‘cool beans’ a lot. I also use ‘shit’ probably way more than I should. 😛
Other things to consider:
- Spice up dialogue with actions. AKA avoid talking heads. If too many scenes rely on a pair of characters (or more) simply talking, we might want to throw in some doing. What the characters are doing can set the scene, and will serve a greater purpose if it advances the plot at the same time.
- Dialogue slows the pace of the story. Writers get to choose which parts of the story must race by, and which ones must allow the reader a moment to catch their breath. Using dialogue to do this can be super effective.
- It’s important to remember that all dialogue, like everything else, must serve a purpose. If characters are stopping to have a chat in the middle of a bloody battle, there should be a clear reason. If there’s dialogue in the book that serves no clear purpose, we must cut it.
- Information can be delivered in dialogue, IF it’s something natural for characters to be talking about. If not, it becomes just another info dump, and we want to use those sparingly. Most of the time, it’s better to sprinkle information throughout the book, instead of bombarding the reader with heaps of facts they don’t immediately need.
Point of View
Another big character issue can often be attributed to point of view, or POV.
Some of the frequent POV problems include:
- Weak POV. When the reader isn’t sure who the viewpoint character is, because the voice and word choice is too generic. We can fix this by pinpointing character voice, or even sticking to a specific pattern when it comes to chapter openings. For example, I always try to ensure that the first name used in a chapter is the name of the viewpoint character.
- Inconsistent POV. If we’re in the head of a five-year old, I can totally get behind a mood swing every ten minutes. Other than that, we need to keep our characters’ voices consistent.
- Head Hops. This is when we’re in one character’s viewpoint for most of the chapter, then shift to another’s, then back, etc. Of course this is different for omniscient viewpoints, but for first or limited third, it’s best to stick to a single viewpoint per scene.
- The POV isn’t suited to the scene/story. Maybe the scene would have a greater impact if told from another viewpoint? Maybe the story could do without this viewpoint altogether?
- The POV changes too frequently. Keep in mind that each viewpoint shift also alters the pace of the story. Too many shifts will read almost like watching a reel of edited-together bloopers. It’s jerky and fast-paced–something that might not suit each story. Is every shift of POV necessary? Does it advance the plot?
- The POV doesn’t change frequently enough. If there’s absolutely nothing happening in a specific viewpoint character’s world, readers don’t want to read about them. It’s better to jump to characters who are actively progressing the plot now, then catch up with the others when they have things happening.
It’s important to make sure the characters develop.
Each will develop at their own pace, and different events will cause different growth in each of them. Point is, we must make sure their growth is actually happening, no matter at what pace. As long as they are growing and the reader will see that growth, it’s fine.
Finally, we must ensure their growth is consistent. If we copied and pasted scenes into new slots in the story, we must edit those parts that reflect earlier or later growth so that it fits the current place in the character’s growth arc.
Also look out for
- Inconsistencies in personality or description.
- Romances or friendships that don’t make sense.
- Having skills or knowledge beyond what they should have, or being good at everything they try immediately.
- Having no imperfections.
- Being unrelatable.
- Does each character have a clear role to play in the plot?
And that’s where I’ll leave today’s post. We’ll talk about the other elements of structural editing on Thursday.
Until next time.