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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 [1] | Dreamstime.com [2]

About Juliet Marillier [3]

Juliet Marillier [4] has written twenty-two 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 is currently working on a fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards, of which the second book, A Dance with Fate, will be published in September 2020. She has a collection of short stories, Mother Thorn, coming out in late 2020 from Serenity Press, with illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs.