I’m writing this article because a lot of you out there wanted to know the answer to this seemingly complicated question:
“What do I do with my manuscript now I’ve done the first step in the novel editing process, that is I’ve magically analysed what shape my story is in the form of:
the scene-by-scene breakdown
and the outline of the hero’s journey story beats in a four act structure – so what next? What do I do when I’ve got these notes in my sweaty little hands?”
This question is related to the rewrite. Because as we all know, once the words are on the page they have a strange way of ignoring the best planned novel and move around without you knowing whilst you’re lost in the writing zone and they trick you into telling their story instead of the one you thought you were writing.
So, once you’ve done the scene breakdown and four act structure with story beats you wonder what the hell your original story even looked like on a bright summer’s day in her signature red shoes?
Has this ever happened to you? Most writers hit this story wall like dolphins swimming into a net at some point. Weird but totally true as a direct lived and shared experience known to writers as the muse or sometimes just – sitting down and typing for long periods of time with an animal on your lap and the smell of jam in your hair. The story you come out with is not the one that appeared like a vision from the holy source of all true inspiration out of the sunset one night while you were drunk.
But why go to all this story analysis bother?
Why not just trust the story to unfold during the close edit as you correct the spelling and sharpen your narrative voice in one single editing sweep?
In order to re-write your novel effectively you need to analyse whether it’s working as a story first.
If it doesn’t there’s no point spending months polishing your sentences until they glow in the dark.
If your story doesn’t give the reader some kind of human, emotional, tribal bonding connection thing. It won’t work. Or maybe you just need to sharpen that frightening yet exhilarating empathic alienation sort of satisfaction thing you got going on in the form of a purposeful character doing dramatic action things in some shape or other, otherwise it won’t work.
And without a meaningful theme however simple, it’s not working. Not even if you are a talented experimental writer with the mystical creative writing gift of Sappho.
So, the very, absolutely, untiringly and very, very first thing you must do in order to make your re-write a clean and easy experience is to look at it from a great height.
We thought we’d give this guidance to writers we meet during the two hour face to face session we run after completing a story edit. However, what we’ve found is that there is so much to talk about when it comes to story structure, plot, setting and characters of the novel in question that we often don’t have time to cover this immensely important aspect of the writing process.
It’s what comes next.
By the way, just as an aside. I’m indulging in the joy of the occasional possibly outrageously delicious and sickly adverb as part of my own writing pleasure – so please don’t be offended if you see them sprinkled affectionately throughout. It’s just a game I’m playing with words right now. Tomorrow I will mostly be working on clean, sharp Hemingway prose. But for now, bring on the flashy yet tantalising adverb parade.
Once you’ve been through your manuscript making notes on each scene and noting where the classic story beats fall, what next?
Well, try this. Make a hard copy. Read it aloud. Seriously. Like in that film you saw once and you’re not sure if you dreamed it or not. See your words on the page and make notes all over them.
This session creates focus and works for you to get in touch with your work, so make the next most important thing to do is to print out your book. You need to be shuffling hard copy by now. It helps to steady the mind as you dive back into the novel you’ve spent a few months or more obsessed with, to feel the heft of it in your hand.
Like a new lover it’s been on your mind a lot. Sometimes it’s woken you up in the middle of the night with a new bit or conversation that made you laugh in the dark, a new character or a flash of insight and a deeper understanding of who your characters really are…
But now you have to go back into it with a clean eye, an analytical eye. The editing eye is the Raven’s viewpoint, watching and ever watching from the highest branch of the editing tree.
When you wrote the first draft your eye was more like the Dog, yomping through the long grass of your original story ideas. Now you have to switch from Dog to Raven viewpoint character types if you like. It can be a struggle to make such a radical change of perspective on your work in progress. You must look hard with a detached eye, look hard and find where bits are missing, where the colours are weak, the design inelegant.
The inelegant story will not please its reader. The story edit brings a swaggering yet rather beautiful dandy with a sharp eye for detail to the table of your inner writing self. He’s the one with the background in the craft of writing a novel. He follows it’s signposts, the four act structure, story beats and character development.
He’s old school but he works. He’s absorbed all that stuff you read once about how to structure a story and write a plot arc.
And for some reason it only becomes clear what shape that story creature really is once you’ve written the first draft and made the time to read it closely through whilst making notes imagining you’re dressed in floppy white shirts and tight yet comfortable trousers all the way through.
Settle into the Editing Cave
This slow, elegant, distant and intellectual Raven-eyed dandy kind of way of approaching a story is the next stage. You are inside the story cave.
This is when you spread papers round the room and become a recluse. You turn detective and work out what really happened in your story as you wrote it. You put the two pieces of your writing self together. There’s the arty bit that stayed up late and did some great sentences as well as the aforementioned elegant yet deeply analytical self, and you just have to put them to work together.
You begin to question whether your timeline works throughout the whole story. You soar above your novel from a great height. Do you need to strengthen the dramatic action in some scenes?
And yet in other scenes you may now see how you have to find a way to highlight your main protagonist’s emotional reaction to events that happen.
Both of the above adjustments; namely strengthening dramatic action or conflict however low-key, in scenes, or changing them by increasing the emotional reactions of characters to increase tension – however subtle they might be are the key to what you do next.
Re-write the parts of each scene which need adjusting.
This is the holy grail – the bit you’ve been wanting to do all along. This is the bit where your writing is good just because you’ve really paid attention to shaping the work and it’s beginning to show.
That is the work of the next re-write.
Especially when it comes to the last few chapters. They tend to need the most work. Roll up your sleeves and be prepared for this task. The last few chapters or scenes of most first drafts are often rushed, excited and exhausted like the writer at this point in the writing process. Now you can take your time and in doing so take control of the emotional highs and lows of the novel.
After re-working every scene from a global point of view when it comes to the world of your novel in this fashion, you move into tinkering with and polishing the structure of the story itself.
More on that later!
Editing is good because: Re-writing is writing but much better.
Try this: Actually enjoy the cave of editing. Make it comfortable and wear your pyjamas or a bikini whilst in it as much as you can.
J & J x