A series of guest articles from Sunday Times bestselling author GILLIAN McALLISTER on getting agented and published. This week, five tips when facing a structural edit.
I do a structural edit for each novel I write, because I am not the kind of person who can nail my plot and pace in a first draft (far from it) and so, somehow, my routine has become: first draft (three months), structural edit/second draft (three months), prose edit (one month), proofread (one week). That’s my formula for writing a book, and I think you can get that done in about two hours a day plus a bit more at weekends. (It’s amazing how you can find two hours – on trains and some lunchtimes and while a bath runs, but I digress).
And so having now done three structural edits, and having also re-arranged the structure of Everything But The Truth with an editor, here are the five things that helped me.
The very first thing I do when faced with an edit letter, or when I have come to the end of a first draft and thought “… oh, that’s a bit rubbish,” is get a stack of index cards. Then, I sit down on the floor with them with a pot of tea and read. Depending on which stage I am at, I either read the edit letter, or my manuscript. I’m presuming most people reading this are at the novel-writing stage so I’ll focus on that.
I put my book on my kindle and then I tap through it and write every single major scene on an index card. If I have subplots or dual timelines I use different coloured cards.
And then, I sit and look at the index cards, and I think. Sometimes they stay there for a few days while I talk to my dad and re-visit them at odd times and annotate them. Sometimes my cat walks all over them and messes up the order (numbering them is a good idea).
And then, when I am ready, I start to write on the cards in red pen. What I write is what needs to change. Sometimes it’s crossing out the current scene and replacing it. Sometimes it’s adding something that creates more tension. Sometimes it’s a complete deletion. But by the end of it I have the structure of my novel as I would like it to be, sitting in front of me.
This can also be done on Excel (and, if you use a Mac, Numbers had a very excellent ‘checklist’ layout where you can literally write scenes and then tick them off). It works in the same way. I create a three-act table (so three columns with about nine scenes in each), and then I annotate it in red with how I would like my novel to change.
The point of 1. and 2. is that it’s a (relatively) quick and easy way to visualise your entire novel’s structure, pace and beats. I can’t possibly begin to tackle my structure unless I can actually see it, which is why this works for me: I’m a visual learner. Otherwise, it’s just a formless mess in my mind.
To do lists
I use this more often when faced with notes, either from beta readers (currently I am receiving a whole host of notes from my readers of my second book – police officers, a criminal lawyer and a doctor who are all helpfully fact checking for me), my agent or my editor.
I find the best way to distil a scary edit letter is to just write a good, old-fashioned list. The items on it will vary in size (‘sort the structure out,’ for example, verses, ‘delete the line about…’) but then once they’re on the list I work sequentially down it, having good days when I tick off three or four items and bad days when I get hugely embroiled in just one. But the comfort of a list is that you know once you’re at the end of it, you’re done.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to read through your novel again after a structural edit. Even if the structural edit is only on part of the book. Honestly. I have never once read it through and not found a real humdinger. Books are like trees with huge, sprawling roots, and changing something at the beginning almost always impacts on something at the end, even if you’re pretty sure the change is never mentioned again. I have had characters remembering things that no longer happened, bits of dialogue that made no sense after I changed the name of someone’s workplace (even after doing a ‘find and replace’ for the workplace name) and, once, somebody being angry about something that had never occurred in the first place. Read. It. Through. It’s painful, but it’s necessary.
Think outside the box
So many times when I have been trying to figure out a plotting problem it’s been solved by thinking of something entirely different. I get a certain feeling when I am trying to shoehorn something in, and now I recognise it, and take a few steps back. Does the scene even need to be there? That’s often the solution, for me.
Gillian McAllister is a former lawyer and Sunday Times Top 10 bestselling author of Everything But The Truth, Anything You Do Say, No Further Questions, The Evidence Against You, How to Disappear and That Night.
Her latest release is Wrong Place Wrong Time which has been sold in over 35 languages.
She lives out in the countryside with her husband, son and dog. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @gillianmauthor. She also blogs at www.gillianmcallister.com. [Bio updated May 2023]
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