This photo on the left shows what editing used to look like (quite some time ago). After I’d finished a story in draft and typed The End, I’d drink an embarrassing amount of celebratory alcohol. Then it would be time to edit. In a perfect world you would have a good long break away from the story and come back to it with fresh eyes. Often, however, you just had to find a way to look at the story from a different perspective because time wasn’t on your side. My way of doing that was to print the manuscript out and look at it in hardcopy. That always read differently to the screen. It also allowed me to paperclip chapters together, spread sections across the floor, stick post-it notes on sections then replace them if I changed my mind, and scribble lots of ideas down on butcher paper. In other words, it allowed me to pull myself away from metaphorically bumping up against bark (writing draft) to rise up and see the shape of the forest.
The first two questions I’d ask myself were: Whose story is this? and What’s their GMC: goal / motivation / conflict? If the answer to both wasn’t 100% clear by the end of the story, I had a lot of work to do. For those unfamiliar with GMC, another way to look at it is:
This is a story about………………………………………(CHARACTER)
Each of these elements is vital in it’s own way, and must be crystal clear to the reader. Structural editing is about making this GMC obvious to the reader, and clearing away anything that’s clung onto it (like barnacles) while you were sailing down plot river. I’ll talk more about GMC below, but I’d like to clarify that in tightly plotted genre novels everything in the story needs to relate to the GMC – which means every element you’ve introduced should either help or thwart the main character in achieving their goal. If, by the time you’re at The End, you realise you’ve got a cute subplot that didn’t actually impact on the GMC, this is the time to toss it. Kill your babies. Mercilessly. Your readers will thank you.
But back to GMC, the character’s goal is important because that’s what drives the plot forward. Once the reader knows what the goal is (to find a missing person, to fall in love, to quest for a magical sword, to be free) they know where the story is heading and you’ve caught their attention. Don’t spend chapters waffling on with set up. Let us know what the character wants and why they can’t have it in the opening chapter. Also vitally important is the character’s motivation for attaining the goal. As the going gets tough for the character, the reader has to believe that they’ll keep hanging in there (and not give up and go home), so the character’s motivation to achieve a goal must be a strong, believable one. Make it clear to the reader what’s at stake: what will happen if the character doesn’t achieve the goal. If the answer is ‘nothing’ then why should the reader care? Make sure there’s a consequence to not achieving the goal. Then there’s conflict – either internal (fears, doubts, insecurity) or external (villain, storm, the ‘other woman’, car crash) which stops the character achieving their goal instantly. You want the character to make some progress, but one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back will keep readers turning pages.
There’s a saying that a lot of writers have on their desks – Make it hard. Then make it harder. This is talking about conflict. Make things hard for your character. Then make it harder. What’s the one thing your character never wants to have to do? Make them do it. Who’s the one person they rely on? Take that person away. Readers should always be worried for the character, wondering how they’ll solve their problems and achieve their goal. There’s no space for ‘downtime’ in modern fiction. If the reader stops feeling tense their attention drifts, they might skim pages or worse, put the book down. Make sure there’s something on every page to keep them tense, to keep them intrigued, to keep them reading on.
Check that you haven’t given viewpoint to characters who don’t need to have it – the lion’s share belongs with the main characters, and a strongly held viewpoint is your best tool in developing characterisation. Readers like to identify with the main character, and editors are always looking for “an interesting story with characters I care about”. The best way to get an editor to care about a character is to give the character lots of viewpoint, so we’re inside their head a lot. (Next Wednesday I’m starting a series called Workshop Wednesday which opens with an article on Deep Viewpoint, so look out for that!) But back to editing: check also that you haven’t summarised information that we need to see shown as scenes. Remember the writing maxim Show, Don’t Tell. All the important turning points in the story must be shown, not mentioned in passing.
When you’re confident you have the structure solid, then and only then is it time to do line editing (or copy editing as it’s also called). Check your grammar, spelling, tenses, clarity of sentence structure and punctuation. When that’s done, you’re ready for some critique, and that’s the subject of the next section in this GETTING PUBLISHED series. Happy writing until then!
(Links to Getting Published Part 1: Making the Commitment, and Getting Published Part 2: Doing the Work)