Let's Talk About ... Structural Edits
I’ll start – they’re tough.
I’ve just come off the back of one – the first book in my four-part middle grade fantasy series, Seven Wherewithal Way. It’s the hardest structural edit I’ve ever done, and I’ve clocked up a few manuscripts by now. So admittedly – in my blissful, exhausted, mind-knotty, relieved, and still a teeny bit worried state – my opinion might be a little skewed.
Still, I doubt many authors would disagree. We all know they’re absolutely necessary. We all know that when done, the manuscript will be improved dramatically (x 100 based on my personal experience), and we will wonder why we didn’t just have it like that in the first place. The glaring errors we’ve spent weeks fixing will seem obvious, maybe even a little embarrassing. If it’s a series, perhaps we’ll get a little shiver of delight, knowing how perfectly future books are now set up, hinted at, alluded to.
But doing this most recent structural edit, I began to feel like my personal hell would be re-reading and re-editing the same lines, paragraphs, chapters, over and over again. When I do future readings, I’ll be surprised if I don’t go completely rogue, throw the pages to the wind (jokes, I would never tear up a book), and straight monologue-it-off-by-heart.
So what is a structural edit, for those who might be wondering? There are MANY stages of editing, but the generally accepted three main types are structural editing, copy editing and proofreading (within these, there a various sub-edits/stages, too). A structural edit looks at the big picture, the story as a whole. You are going to fix things that are ‘major’ problems, for e.g.:
- Too much rambling, confused back story
- World-building uneven or needs to be fleshed out
- A certain character or sub-plot needs to be developed or cut entirely
- Structure and plot are not cohesive, or logical
- Inconsistent tone
- In the case of a series, future books need to be considered, and future content foreshadowed
Here is a helpful picture:
When I wrote the first book of Seven Wherewithal Way, it was with the intention of it being a series. I knew my themes, my direction, the type of world I was building, and the journey I wanted to take my characters and readers on. But there was no guarantee it would get picked up by a publisher. So I didn’t worry too much about the second, third, fourth (fifth and sixth at that point) books, and setting up a whole series. I wanted this first book to stand alone as an exciting read and good story, and above all I just wanted to put my whole heart into this world and these characters who had lived in my imagination so long.
But – big HOORAY – I got the publishing deal. And then I most definitely had to think about the book as being an engaging introduction to a whole series. No presh, first book.
I had already edited this manuscript extensively. The first book took me three years to write, fingers to keys, and then I spent another year editing it. After I got my publishing deal, I then had the most amazing chat with my editor – what needs to be done? I spent a month making an encyclopedia of the Wherewithal world, or the ‘Field Guide’ as we call it. This was all about consistent world-building and tracking character’s development over four books. The Field Guide will be a reference point for the next four years, for both me and any beautiful editors who have to edit and proofread the manuscripts.
Now this was fun! It was like a grown-up version of the ‘Faerie Lore’ and ‘Creature Bibles’ I used to make in notebooks when I was a kid. It was my very own Brian Froud’s Faeries, Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Dragonology/Wizardology/Faerieology. (If you get these references, you will understand my excitement). But then all this world-building had to be included in the first manuscript, so back to the editing board I went.
This kind of editing is not just, insert a new paragraph here, change this line there, whack a new character in this part. It’s going through, line by line, a 90,000 word manuscript, and making sure everything I add or take out is incorporated seamlessly into the scene, that the chapters are re-balanced, that the plot is adjusted, that characters speak according to what they know about this new information, that the flow of words and action is smooooooth. It’s correcting things or bad writing that slipped by me before. It’s rewriting the whole book.
This done, I handed it in. Then I get my structural notes/report. Authors, you know the one. The five, ten, twelve page report that very nicely and very encouragingly tells you – that was okay, but you can do better. Mine was seven pages long, and I absolutely agreed with everything my editor said. The thing is, you know these things are not 100%, but maybe you need someone else to give you the kick in the butt, or the insight, to fix them.
So you read these seven pages, and maybe you cry, scream, have a breakdown, binge a whole block of chocolate, pep talk yourself in the mirror. That is absolutely all ok. Personally, I knew I would feel overwhelmed, so I let myself feel that rising terror of ‘OH GOSH THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!’ But over the next week my brain, as I knew it would, started firing, writing down solutions to every problem point, redrafting chapter outlines with exact details of what needed to be changed and how. I was very business-like in my approach. A bit of organisation and problem-solving, and my head was immediately clearer. And so I began the monumental (but achievable) task of a second major structural edit.
Line-by-line, every word once again gets assessed. Things become a little neater, a little tighter, a lot better.
After I had done this, my manuscript was TOO LONG. So back I went again, line-by-line, to cut, snip and trim. Things that I previously thought I couldn’t bear to cut, things that were cute but maybe jarred a scene or could be added into later books, adverbs, adjectives, repetition, over-writing, jokes that don’t land, back story that’s too waffly and would still make sense condensed, ‘oops, that might be inappropriates’, authorial vanities, every said, smile, and character tic gets looked over to see if it’s earning its place.
All this, knowing that a copy-edit is still to come, and there will be many more ‘so long, farewells’, in the future.
All this, knowing that it still might not be quite right, and you will have to go back, once more, and try again.
All this, wondering if you’re the most terrible writer in the world, if you’ve made it worse, if you’ve edited away the heart of why you wrote the book in the first place, if all this will even be worth it and the book will even sell.
I’ve spent days in a row stuck on the best way to rewrite a couple of paragraphs. Days when I think ‘Excellent, this will be done by 6pm for sure!’ only to still be there, hunched over the bloody words, at 2am. Days where my mind just won’t focus so I go away and do something else, only to spend most of it racked with guilt that I should be editing. Come on Bound, it’s not that hard. Weeks now, where I’ve pushed every other niggly thing I have to do aside – work, social commitments, uni, life admin, cleaning my house (yeah ok, the last not my strong suit anyway) – because those edits are always there, and they need to be done.
Would I want to be doing anything else? No. What an honour, joy, and privilege, to be able to have all these writerly agonies in the first place, about a fictional world I’ve created that people are going to read. Sure, I will whine and cry and agonise, but there is no other job I would rather be sooky and anxious over. Editing has taken Wherewithal into the next level, and I am so proud of and excited for the book that has come out of it.