The pains and pleasures of a structural edit
I’m just emerging from a structural edit of what will more than likely be my next novel. The term itself sounds painful, and indeed it is. The plot holes get exposed. Much-loved and painstakingly researched characters prove pointless. Others need to be created. People find ways to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Locations prove impossible to reach in the timescale allocated. Often someone dies twice. Or ages. Or gets younger. Or changes their name, but not everywhere.
But fear not, fellow writers, for I have some tips to make this daunting task easier and enjoyable. And you get to indulge in retail therapy, so there’s an element of in-built procrastination.
Take a break
First up. After you finish that first draft. WALK AWAY. Do something else for at least a month. Two, if you can manage it. Even if you’re sure it’s best to edit while the ‘iron’ is hot, while the story is clear in your head, don’t be tempted to turn back to the first page and begin changing things. You are wasting your time. You need to clear your head so you come at the edit with fresh eyes and see it for what it is. A pile of steaming doggy-do in need of major surgery. First drafts are meant to be appalling.
Print on demand
Reading my story on a different device from the one I wrote it on helps. That might mean exporting it for an iPad or Kindle. Many people swear by printing it out, then swear even more at the cost of printer toner and paper. If you want a paper copy, there are options. Buy a cheap inkjet printer and a massive box of refill ink because you will need it. And double the paper you think you’ll require for the job, as a cheaper inkjet printer will snag and tear paper or stop for no reason midway through something. And your fingers will turn blue as you change the cartridges. So buy gloves too.
Laser printers cost a bit more, and toner refills set you back almost as much as the printer, but they’re fast, and you’ll get an 80k word novel printed within the hour (rather than it taking two frustrating weeks). And it won’t smudge. I still think of the trees, but inhaling the fumes produced by an overheated Hewlett Packard P1102w can take you places you’ve never been, so there’s that.
But really, why don’t you experience the story as a reader? Log onto a print-on-demand service with no set-up costs. Lulu, for example. You’ll pay less for one POD copy paperback than any print-it-yourself option and have something you can take anywhere. A train, a coffee shop, a beach, the downstairs loo. And holding a copy of your first draft is magical, no matter how awful. Trust me on this.
My second tip is to use multi-coloured index cards to track each character, plot strand, or location. This is a great chance to buy stationery. Don’t get these mixed up with Post-it notes. You want to be able to move them around. You want to sit on the floor with a pot of tea or a bottle of vodka and shift them quickly. Post-it notes are sticky. They curl. If that’s your thing, buy some too, but use them to leave passive-aggressive notes on office milk or toilet seats left up/down.
As you scribble down events from each chapter on a card, be sure also to keep track of anything that might change by accident (eye colour, names, even the shade of grey allocated to the carpet in a living room). This visual aid will help you stay organised and ensure consistency throughout your story.
And if you buy these online, think of how you’ll have whole days where you can use the excuse of waiting for delivery without guilt—writer procrastination rules.
Cruel to be kind
When you start, scribble notes as they occur on these cards. Things like “Make this scene shorter” and “Why is he so bothered?” “didn’t he die already?” and “Who the hell is this character, and why hasn’t anyone asked why he’s there?”.
These are all valid points and should be addressed during the next stage of the editing process. Don’t be afraid to challenge your work and make the necessary changes. But don’t go back to the text and start rewriting. Not yet. This isn’t why we’re doing this.
If you find you’re justifying things to yourself, you’re either not in the right mindset, or you’ve ignored my warning about leaving it two months before starting on this.
Create a new character if you can’t stop being such a sop. But this time, create an evil editor who wears horrible glasses and eats raw onions. Buy a new outfit. Shopping remains by far the best way to avoid writing. Give this editor a pinched Scottish accent or a bolshy London one. If putting things off is genuinely your thing, learn a whole new language along the way and …. sorry for getting carried away now.
At some point, lay these cards out, see your path, spot the links, and … get yourself ready for that beautiful moment when everything clicks into place. All the missing scenes become clear; all the ones you loved writing that serve no real purpose to the plot are gone. The story works.
The pleasure begins—the part where you go back to the words. Make actual changes and get to polish what you’ve written. This is called line editing – what you’ve been dying to do since you finished the first draft.
There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing your story come together and knowing that you’ve improved upon it. Completing a harsh structural edit allows you to read and change words without that nagging sense of wasting your time. You know you’re not going to have to rewrite the whole second half of the story again.
This is the law
Never start an edit until you’ve checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the story structure. Trust me; I’ve learned this the hard way. Skipping a structural edit is a one-way ticket to madness. Take the time to ensure your foundation is solid before diving into the nitty-gritty of editing. And if you know you don’t have it in you to be ruthless, admit it. If you start to cross something out but then change your mind – because everyone reading your masterpiece has to understand how the internal combustion engine actually works and why it couldn’t possibly misfire the way it did unless someone tampered with the spark plugs – HIRE SOMEONE WITH A BIG RED PEN and let them kill those darlings for you. Trained word assassins are available.
Embrace the pains and pleasures of a structural edit. It’s a challenging process and an opportunity to shape your story into something even better.