Developmental Editing

  • Should you dust off that old novel?

    Should you dust off that old novel? Is it really too late to revisit that old unpublished manuscript?
    Should you dust off that old novel?

    I’m currently analyzing a novel that received very fast agent attention some years ago.

    Later it piqued the interest of literary scouts. There was international interest. But in spite of the initial promise, the novel failed to get an English-language deal. And because of this, the international publishers didn’t take it either.

    The main issue was that it needed a developmental editor.

    A common piece of advice is to ditch a rejected novel and get on with the next one. This is not bad advice in the short term. But it could be a mistake to ditch it forever.

    How to decide if your book is worth saving

    Here are some things to consider:

    • Did the novel show a lot of promise?
    • Have you had positive feedback since on its potential?
    • Do you now have the skillset to address any problems and fix them?
    • Do you want to rewrite the book? (If you don’t, then that’s the end of the matter.)
    • Market trends might also factor into whether it’s time to rework that book
    • Taking a few years out before re-examining the book is also instructive – it’s hard to read your own novel with fresh eyes at the best of times
    • Is this book similar to other books you have written or intend to write? (If it is, that would be a plus.)

    It’s understandable that some books are not worth revisiting.

    But when a huge amount of effort has been invested, as well as research, and the problems can be identified, it seems a shame to close the door on a rewrite.

    After all, revisiting the book is like meeting up with old friends… visiting old haunts. But you also get to meet new people and new places as the new draft takes hold.

    Identify the problems and the solutions

    In the case of this novel, the central issues lie in a problematic triad of structure/location/viewpoint. It’s a classic example of how changing one thing – viewpoint – could actually change the structure of the entire book.

    If the main character is telling the story, the reader can only know what they know and hear things when they hear them.

    This can have a very negative impact on story structure, pushing a lot of twists and revelations towards the latter part of the book.

    And this in turn creates structure and pacing problems.

    This is what happened with the book I’m currently looking at.

    Multiple third-person POVs would make a huge difference, freeing up the narrative. The plot structure would be more balanced. And information, revelations, and so on, more evenly spread through the book.

    If a book has a strong central voice, it might be difficult to let go of it and try something new. But if you really want to give your book a second chance, it will be necessary to change some things.

    This writer intends to rework their book.

    But for other writers in the same boat, the question is, do you want to rescue your novel or not? If you’d rather keep it as it is, and you’re okay with it not being published, then you can leave it. But if you want to publish it, it’s best to look at what can be improved.

    The advantage of returning to an old manuscript

    Here’s the beauty of working on an old manuscript:

    • You know the characters already
    • You know their backstories already
    • You know the locations already
    • You know the plot and subplots already

    So, you don’t have to start from scratch. You already have this information in your head.

    You just need to have the objectivity to know what’s best to keep and what to throw out. Hopefully, your writing skills will have improved enough that you can pull off a good rewrite.

    Never use the old manuscript as a roadmap

    But here’s something to avoid – dusting off your manuscript and using it as the basis of the rewrite.

    What you should really do is read it over and make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. There are things you previously thought were important – maybe you’d happily ditch those things now.

    What is worth keeping? What do you wish you’d done differently?

    Write up a rough plan. Then put the old draft aside and start again.

    Give yourself the freedom to start from scratch. Where you find your enthusiasm flagging, you might have stumbled on something that doesn’t work so well anymore.

    Where your enthusiasm picks up – that’s something worth keeping, or maybe just something new and exciting!

    The thing about tackling an old manuscript is you’ve already done the research and planning. You don’t need to plot the whole thing out again unless you have serious plot holes.

    Maybe the plot is great but it’s let down by the choice of viewpoint or the order of the scenes. Or there’s something off with the structure.

    Or maybe you started your novel in the wrong place and this set off a chain reaction right through the novel. And now you can see how to fix it.

    Not everyone wants to write a lot of novels. Some people would rather write fewer books and spend more time on them.

    One approach is not better than the other. Writers are all just different. This is not a competition.

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    It really comes down to whether you’d want to spend more time with the characters and that world.

    It also depends on the value of the manuscript. If it received positive attention from industry professionals, that might suggest it’s worth revisiting.

    Of course, you could just go down the indie route and publish it yourself.

    But if you want to have another go submitting it to agents, you could put it aside for a while. Even better if it’s been lying around for a few years. The more objectivity you have, the easier you will find it to spot the strengths and weaknesses.

    If you try to rewrite the manuscript by closely following the previous draft, you’re in danger of making the same mistakes again. Because the old draft exerts a certain gravitational pull – where you end up repeating too many things from before.

    In fact, tinkering could actually be harder than throwing out the previous draft (metaphorically) and starting again. Constantly referring to the old draft takes up too much time.

    Open a new file. Here’s your fresh start.

    You know your main plot and characters already. You are free to make any changes you wish. You are free to change the name of your characters, their appearance, and so many other things.

    You can make things better. Use the skills you’ve learned since the last draft.

    This is your second chance.

    Useful links

    If you want to check out my editing services, I offer developmental editing, manuscript critiques, beta reads, and custom reports. If you don’t see the particular custom critique service you’re after, you can email me at: karen@indiecateditorial.com

  • Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?
    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    I was recently in the mood to read some historical fiction and decided to pick an indie novel. The blurb sounded fun and I looked forward to spending hours and hours in another period. As per usual, I started with a Kindle sample.

    And that’s as far as I got.

    In fact, I didn’t even get to the end of the sample.

    I gave up.

    So, what was the problem? To be honest, there were numerous problems. Some are simply related to the lack of a good editor – or any editor. Because I suspect this book never saw an editor.

    But that was not the biggest issue.

    No, the biggest issue was the language. Or rather, the saturated archaic language meant to evoke the period.

    The problems with syntax, grammar, and shifting tenses only added to the difficult prose.

    So, let’s talk about using period language in historical fiction. What can possibly go wrong? And should you use it? And is there such a thing as too much period language in a historical novel?

    An unfamiliar language

    The biggest issue is that modern readers are simply not familiar with this language. A writer might feel impatient at the unwillingness of modern readers to wade through overtly archaic language. But bear with me…

    For people of a particular period – say, Shakespeare’s time – the language used back then would be clear and transparent. It would not be confusing. It would be their own way of speaking – depending on class and education obviously.

    They would not notice anything strange or elaborate about their way of writing and speaking. It would be the norm.

    It would be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass.

    But, to our modern ears, it sounds like a different form of English… With a higher number of obsolete or strange words. Some words would be recognisable but possibly spelled differently. Or they might now appear in a slightly different form.

    If people from Shakespeare’s time were to teleport to the present and listen to us talk, we too would be hard to understand. Yes, people can acclimatise to speech and new words. But it’s hard work.

    And a novel isn’t meant to be hard work. At least, not when it’s a genre novel.

    But the point I was making above about period language being normal and easily understood within its time is important. When you use modern language, you might think it doesn’t sound right. But using the reader’s language, with some period words sprinkled here and there, is the easiest way to convey the period. (Along with actual descriptions of locations, events, mores, and so on.)

    Because to the people of Shakespeare’s time, their language was normal. It wasn’t a novelty or colourful or rich.

    Therefore, it doesn’t work to replicate the language of that time. Because we can never experience it as anything other than outsiders. Readers are like time travellers. They travel back and they immerse themselves in the period. But if they don’t have the natural language of the period, it’s going to be difficult. They will always be that modern person trying to fit in and never quite succeeding.

    To experience the period more accurately, it’s best to remove as many linguistic barriers as possible.

    Other ways to convey period language

    You don’t need to drop all period language. It’s a matter of density. Overuse makes the story harder to read and a modern writer is never going to write as fluently as a writer from the original period.

    In fact, a modern writer can make a big old mess of period language precisely because they are not and never will be fluent in the language. They don’t use it every day, speak it to their family, think in it, write in it, and hear it from their neighbours.

    A modern writer can unwittingly fall into pastiche or parody.

    It’s far better to read a lot of material from the period and listen to the rhythm of the language. Choose some words to use, but try to make your prose as transparent as possible. You should aim to give a flavour of the period.

    To go beyond that means alienating readers who might otherwise have bought your work.

    The language is the medium through which a story is delivered. So, the question is this – what should the writer’s priority be? Telling the story and introducing the reader to the characters? Or injecting a strong sense of the period through the language? You might try both and do a good job, but it’s a difficult balance.

    Get a good line editor

    If you’re going to attempt to write in the language of the period, you cannot skimp on a good line editor.

    Why?

    Because if you set up one difficult hurdle for the reader – obscure language – you can’t afford to have additional problems with grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc.

    All books will have some errors in them. The fewer the better. However, the more errors there are, the more times readers trip up.

    Here are just some of the problems you don’t want to be mixing in with overtly archaic language:

    • One long and convoluted sentence after another – this not only drags the pace, but it taxes the modern attention span
    • Grammatically incorrect sentences that force the reader to back up and read them again as they try to unpick the meaning (made worse by too much archaic language)
    • Meandering tenses

    I would also suggest being careful with overly long paragraphs. Especially if you have rather a lot of them. They can drag the pace down. They can also be more taxing on the eye, requiring visual scanning across one long line after another. Again, throw in too many strange words on top of this and a modern reader might balk.

    Having said all that, some readers do like a lot of period language – especially if they have some knowledge of the period to start with. But it’s worth considering the downsides and offset some of the cons by ensuring your book is edited well.

    Do you have a historical novel in need of a critique?

    One of my developmental editing services is an opening chapters edit. Contact me for a quote since you can opt for a custom word count. This developmental edit is detailed. It includes an editorial letter, plus track commenting in the margins of your manuscript. I read your manuscript several times, which allows me to dig deeper into the writing, characterisation, and plot. I’m also available for follow-up email feedback. You can email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com.

    Other IndieCat Blog posts

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    Review of historical epic, A Place of Greater Safety

    Social media blockers

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    How to order the stories in a collection

    Why your book cover design matters

  • Fear of exposure in first-person narrative

    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative can lead to self-censorship

    Have you ever struggled to write a story based on personal experience because you fear revealing yourself in some particularly vulnerable way? While there are writers who prefer to deal with fictional stories, others weave in the events of their lives, including painful experiences, traumas, and things they’ve never spoken about before.

    They give these experiences to fictional characters, in possibly fictional settings, distancing the narrative from the real-life details. And yet, in spite of these distancing techniques, for the author it might feel just a bit too uncomfortable.

    Self-censorship is often a problem for writers. Even when it comes to fiction, a writer may fear readers will assume a biographical element. One reason is the way literature is often taught in school. We’re encouraged to explore where a writer’s themes and subject matter may intersect with their own life.

    You can see it with writers like Fitzgerald. His history with Ginevra King and her influence on characters like Daisy Buchanan and Judy Jones can lead to readers assuming writers, in general, use real people or events as inspiration. However, it would be a mistake to assume too much about what is and isn’t true. But knowing some readers have those assumptions might give a writer pause.

    Another issue is how much more personal a narrative becomes when it’s written in first person. Even when the character is completely fictional and not a fictionalised version of the writer, there is still the fear of exposure or discovery. An author might worry about what family and friends will think – this is especially true when it comes to erotic writing.

    But when it comes to actual traumatic events and experiences, writing in first person might get closer to the experience. Yet sometimes it can be too painful, or too risky. It can seem like crossing from a fictionalised account into something closer to memoir.

    And when it comes to painful subjects, writers might prefer to maintain some distance. You can achieve this by using third person. This might help achieve some objectivity, and possibly allows the author the space to explore things without self-censorship. When you’re worried readers and family will assume something is true, you might find yourself hiding the truth and hiding too much. And then you can run into a serious writing block.

    This is why it’s worth considering a third-person point of view to get around these issues. Writers might be put off using third person because it seems more distant. This is because a lot of third-person narratives can be an over-the-shoulder perspective that doesn’t really dwell much in the character’s head.

    But it’s totally possible to dig deeper using deep third. Here the character’s thoughts and the narrative merge together to become the narrative. It also avoids the problem of writing thoughts in italics or using thought tags and other filter words.

    You can also tackle painful personal topics by changing the gender or age of your main character. You can set your story in a different time and/or place. This can help you establish a safe distance if you feel that’s necessary.

    You can also use a mixture of strategies – third person/different age/different location or time period.

    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative is a real issue. But if you really want to write about an experience without self-revelation you have a range of options. You don’t have to self-censor if you don’t want to. You don’t have to allow fear of exposure and the judgement of others to silence your voice.

    Other IndieCat Editorial posts that might interest you

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?

  • How IndieCat Editorial can help you

    How IndieCat Editorial can help you

    Does this sound familiar?

    You try so hard to write a kick-ass novel that will wow readers and get everyone talking. Then you go around in circles tweaking and rewriting. Because you need to get it just perfect! And for a while, your book genuinely seems to be getting better. Then you lose a subplot or a character falls out stage left.

    Now you’re demoralised and stressed out. Your manuscript has turned into a monster, complete with tentacles. (Where did all these loose bits come from?)

    You’ve struggled to find reliable beta readers. Maybe you’ve tried online writing groups only to feel intimidated or frustrated because some of the advice just seemed plain wrong or contradictory.

    Unfortunately, serious indie authors and those hoping to submit to agents will always struggle with polishing their work. Everyone does, including seasoned professionals.

    Indie writers don’t have a publisher to help

    When you have an agent and a publishing house, you have a team working to support you and your book. You can take confidence in trained experts making your book the best it can be.

    But when you’re publishing yourself or just starting out, you don’t have these things. Then, you’re often dependent on the conflicting advice of writing groups and beta readers.

    Worse, they’re not trained to spot underlying problems, let alone anticipate the way different fixes impact one another in a manuscript. Because when you change one thing it can have a knock-on effect on everything else. Other writers or beta readers can also base their advice on how they would have written the book if it was theirs. That’s not the kind of advice you want. Because it’s not their book, it’s yours.

    You need someone who will respect your author voice and intentions.

    How developmental editing helps you

    That’s where developmental editing comes in. Developmental editing, also known as structural editing or substantive editing, is the first round of editing. This is where a professional assesses the big picture issues in your manuscript. They look for plot holes, structural problems, slow pacing, weak characterisation, and more.

    Think about it – how often have you given up on a novel you were reading because the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere or the characters were two-dimensional? A developmental edit highlights issues like this and allows you to fix them. Developmental editing takes your work to a whole new level.

    If you want to try out a developmental edit or manuscript, I offer a free 2,000-word sample edit. You can contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com or check out my services page.

    Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash