Shifting the blocks

I hate structural editing. I think I’m quite a lazy writer. In my ideal world I would finish the manuscript and find that the only editing required was a quick trawl through to pick up clunky style, repeated words etc. Because I am a planner par excellence, and because I edit so much as I go, I should be able to achieve that with no trouble. Sometimes I have.

My work in progress is a young adult novel, the first in a new series called Shadowfell, and I’ve been aiming at a word count somewhere between 90,000 and 120,000. Past experience suggested I’d finish closer to the upper figure. My critique group has been reading a couple of chapters a month and providing very useful feedback as I progress, and I’ve been working in my usual way, continuously revising the earlier chapters as I add new ones. About a month ago, at around 70,000 words, I saw a structural problem looming.

The difficulty came partly from the need to create a novel that has its own satisfactory story arc while also leading the reader on (in breathless anticipation, I hope) to the next in the series. There’s a big over-arching story, a grand tale of tyranny and rebellion, with both human and Otherworld characters. And there’s a central love story that takes three books to play out. At the end of Book One, we want the reader to feel satisfied with the resolution of the one-book story, while still feeling a keen desire to get her hands on the next instalment. This was a fairly specific brief from the publisher re the Shadowfell series. So what was the structural problem?

Basically, the action climax of the story was not close enough to the end, and I could see no easy way of changing that. It seemed unavoidable that this scene of high drama would be followed by a couple of chapters in which new characters and settings were introduced – set-up for Books Two and Three. In these final chapters, the protagonist must spend some time unravelling misunderstandings and making key decisions about her future. After the fast pace and high tension of the big action scene, this was likely to feel rather flat. I could see this would be a let-down for readers, but could not work out how to change it within the essential framework of the story.

I took it to my critique group, who suggested a restructure. I must get the introduction of new characters and the soul-searching out of the way before the action climax, and tie up love story in one short scene afterwards. It was a plan that would conform with popular wisdom on plotting – build gradually through a series of high points, with the biggest last, and don’t waste too much time tying up loose threads after that final climax. But instinctively it felt wrong. Was I too attached to what I had already written? Refusing to kill my darlings?

Thinking I was just being lazy, I attempted a rewrite of the whole final section, in keeping with the restructure outlined above. I introduced the new characters before the action climax, allowing the final resolution to be much shorter.

It didn’t work. The result was the inevitable removal of a major element of suspense / mystery, and a resultant blanding-down of the protagonist’s character. I realised very quickly that I was much happier with the original version, flawed structure and all.

Happily, it’s usually possible to find a compromise that works well. I put the scenes back in their original order, but shortened the resolution section – some elements would go into Book Two. I made the final love scene briefer and more intense. And, to my shock and surprise, I found the novel was finished at only 88,500 words long. It’s the first time ever that I have completed a book in less than the minimum word count.

Is it perfect? Not yet! I am fully expecting that in the next revision I will add those 1500 words and probably a few thousand more, because there are certain elements of the world building that need fleshing out. What a luxury to have spare words with which to do this!

And I’ve had a useful lesson reinforced. Listen to your critique partners, take on board what they say, try it out if it seems like a good solution to a problem. And if it doesn’t work, set it aside and try something else. Your original idea may have been the best one. Apply your technical knowhow, but also trust your instincts – they will generally serve you well. Don’t forget, there is no such thing as the ‘correct way’ to write a book.

Photo credit:
© Sascha Burkard | Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. says

    I think it’s every writer’s headache Juliet. Structural editing is time and focus consuming. It can also throw your manuscript down the stairs (happened to me before).

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  2. says

    I love reading about how other authors deal with plot problems and story structure. This was very helpful, if not specifically, conceptually for sure.

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  3. says

    Hi, Juliet. This post resonated with me because I just went through a similar situation and it took me three major rewrites to figure it out. It was a brutal task, but I’m much happier with the flow of the book now.

    Thanks for a great post!

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  4. says

    I agree with Erika – it’s helpful for me to read how others handle these types of structural revisions, partly just so I see that I’m not the only one who has the *need* for these types of revisions, but also to be reminded that writing and rewriting are a process, and sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what is needed to make things work. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. says

    I feel your pain! Structural stuff kills me. Often I have to write it in order to find out whether or not it works, which is slow and painful, and means a lot of writing gets thrown out. Hoping to one day develop a technique that works better.

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  6. says

    Excellent advice! I love structural editing, but it’s so easy to get lost in the wordds. Knowing what to take and what to leave in critiques is so hard. Ultimately you are right: the writer knows the story best and the solutions to the problems have to come from our insight and application of what others see and from developing our own ability to examine structure.

    Martina

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  7. says

    I remember sitting down with the late Barbara Parker after a SleuthFest conference, where she’d graciously agreed to discuss my first attempt at a novel. She said, “You’ve got great writing skills, but you don’t know anything about structure.”

    I’ve learned since then (I hope) but it’s still hard for me to stop and look at the forest when there are so many beautiful trees.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

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  8. says

    Love the peek into your process. Posts like these become especially meaningful when I read the published product; it’s like being able to witness a high-functioning critique group.

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  9. says

    Like Jael, I often have to write something out completely (then polish) before I know if it works. It’s time consuming. It’s also maddening when your cut-scenes file begins to rival the size of your work-in-progress.

    I’m glad you were able to work through the challenge, Juliet. Riley is looking forward to your next YA novel–and so am I.

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  10. says

    Sometimes I find it hard to wrap my mind around restructuring.

    My husband (also a writer) outlines like crazy–his outlines are so complete that his first drafts are the equivalent of most peoples’ fourth or fifth drafts.

    I don’t outline that efficiently but it helps me to put scenes up on the wall, in the form of cards or paper or whatever works, and move them around. We finally had to cover a wall in cork because we do this so much. (There are computer programs that do this but I like that broader picture.)

    I don’t know if this saves me any trouble in the writing, but it helps me to visualize the structure–the beats, the climax and the beginning/middle/end.

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  11. says

    “Listen to your critique partners” … oh, yes, but it’s so hard … to be a Big Girl and Admit One Was Wrong.

    And isn’t that what revisions are? Taking out the wrong and making it right?

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  12. says

    You may have just gotten me out of a funk I’ve felt myself slipping into by making me think about structure. Of course, I thought about structure before, but sometimes it’s helpful just to see someone else say something basic, like your statement about the series of high points. Also, it must be nice to write under what you suspect, and have room to fiddle around. I suspect this may happen with my current WIP as well, but we’ll see! I’m going to have to think harder about where the next block of story will fit into the overall structure now.

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  13. says

    A wonderfully instructive post, thank you! I especially appreciated the final point that while it’s useful to receive feedback, ultimately we have to go with our gut.

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  14. says

    Thank you for sharing this…I’m actually quite glad that your instincts were working for you, as if you were the hero of your own conflict. I find that my CP’s help me more than I deserve, but ultimately it comes down to that original vision.

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  15. says

    I love your description of your writing process. I’m also an edit-as-I-go writer, and I “continually revise chapters as I add new ones” too. It does make structural editing more difficult and time-consuming – and sometimes heartbreaking (although killing darlings is tough for every type of writer).

    I also transition tightly, which makes my writing tough to cut whether it’s an 800-word news story or a 100,000-word novel.

    Great advice about trusting others, but also trusting your writers’ instincts.

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