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The Red Pen: Tackling Structural Changes

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the third in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.


This piece is principally for novelists, but some of the following will be familiar to many writers of narrative non-fiction.

It’s with dismay that writers hear from an editor – or realise themselves – that their novel needs radical alteration. How can you make changes which impact on your vision of the novel? Will it be compromised or changed into something else altogether?

It’s safe to say that if that’s the case, the novel you’ve written isn’t working. The challenge is to decide it there is something that can be done or if you’re better forgetting it and starting again. After many rejections of my early attempts at novels, I can tell you that’s disheartening and hard to accept, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. With each one you write, you learn an enormous amount about how to do it better. Nothing’s wasted.

However, a potentially good novel can be strengthened by rethinking some aspects. As you read and edit your own work, you may realise that something vital is missing, or a whole section no longer fits. You can fix this, but it helps to understand what’s gone wrong.

Editors know, from reading many submissions, that it’s the opening chapters which usually need most work:

  • They have more errors and the writing is less certain or polished.
  • By the time you complete your first draft, your opening section might no longer be apt. As we write, much changes – even sometimes our original concept for the novel. The story might be different – or the story might be the same story, but the emphases are different, the themes shifted in relative importance. What started as a novel about a single relationship might end as a novel about the constraints of family; what began as a story about an old quarrel, might end by being about a dramatic event in the here-and-now.
  • Sometimes a character grows so much they impact on plot or other characters to the extent that they become the focus, and not the original protagonist. You go with this, as you must, but looking back, you can see the first chapters no longer fit or have the wrong emphasis.

In the novel I’ve just finished writing, I brought a minor off-stage character directly into the action for one scene, but that scene was never quite believable. Eventually I pinpointed what was wrong: I’d written it when I still had in mind an earlier idea for the novel that had long been ditched. So I deleted that scene and any reference to it, and kept him off stage. The ease with which I could do this told me how necessary it had been. If everything fits and nothing is redundant, it should be next to impossible to remove scenes or minor characters.

There should also be hardly any space between the lines to add more. Shoe-horning in a new scene or stretch of dialogue should be difficult. If it’s easy, something is a bit loose at the seams. Your new section should stitch the seams tightly and make the whole thing better – if it doesn’t, that’s not the scene you should add.

These things are easier to fix than a more systemic problem, such as the pace being too slow. If you’re told your work ‘lacks narrative drive’ that suggests to me you’re saying too much, and taking too long to say it. Back to my advice on easy edits! But you may need to do more than remove unnecessary words and phrases. Pace is not just about action – things happening one after the other, a breathless race to find the murderer before he strikes again. Pace is also about keeping the reader interested and wanting to read on. Here are some checks you can do to work out what to do to fix this.

  • Have you spent too much time on exposition – detailed explanations in the narrative, or revealed in dialogue. That can seem clunky (technical term!) and hold up the narrative. Readers can spot when they’re being given an indigestible lump of information.
  • How much should you tell your readers? Can you get away with leaving them to work out more for themselves?
  • Do you have long descriptive passages intended to set the scene or portray the landscape your people move through or live in?
  • Do you tell the reader what your characters are like, describe their clothes, houses, offices and family lives in detail? All that might be interesting, but it will slow pace significantly and there are more economical ways to get a lot of the same information across. Think if it as putting stitches in, neatly enriching the tapestry of the novel as you go.
  • You may find that the order in which you’ve written some of the action no longer makes sense and you need to change it or change when something happens. This might be plot related: How did Mrs Jones know the suspect had been in her shop if she was away that week?; continuity related: If I have that long scene about the funeral before Joe tells Clara about the mugging, it doesn’t make sense for her to be so worried about him.
  • Moving text around is treacherously easy with Word programmes – cut and paste and find and replace have been my friends for years. Treacherous because you can introduce new errors as soon as you move one significant scene or fact – or character. You do have to read the whole thing again to make sure it all hangs together.

Below are excerpts from editorial notes I’ve given three very different authors when returning their first edit to them. In the full notes, I’ve been specific about the kind of changes that I believe would benefit the novel.

1.

Most changes are in the first half, as that’s where the cuts and changes still need to come – once the story starts moving forward, the momentum and power of the novel are much greater. I’ve made comments in the margin in most cases to explain why I’ve suggested a change. Where sections seem a bit laboured, and to be continually filling in background, rather than moving the narrative on in any way, I’ve suggested minor cuts. Again this is almost entirely in the first half. I’ve also suggested some tightening in the narrative where you seem to be telling the reader too much.

2.

The weaknesses are still in the long descriptive passages, particularly at the beginning of each Part, where you are clearly trying in Part 1 to set the scene, and in Part 2 to bring the reader up to date with what’s been happening. With both of these, you need to trust the reader more, not tell them so much, and break up long passages with some direct rather than reported action. I’ve indicated these passages with comments in the margin of the text.

3.

Chapter 24 – I would be inclined to remove this chapter altogether. We have moved on in the novel from these events and I feel this chapter detracts from the tension building up with L. We don’t need to be told again about the atrocities, and R. is perfectly believable as a good woman who has witnessed horrors in the past, and been involved, without this.

Reading through your whole text again is something best kept until you’ve made all the major and minor changes you want to. As you go, it’s worth keeping a few notes about what you’ve done, and using those as an aide-memoire.

In later pieces I’ll cover timelines, tense and continuity; all of are integral to the structure of your work.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth