writing advice

  • Too much internal dialogue?

    Too much internal dialogue?

    Too much internal dialogue?

    One of the mainstream published novels I read recently had far too much internal dialogue. Internal dialogue is the stream of thoughts, which can be in monologue or dialogue, that many people have in real life. Though, interestingly, not everyone experiences internal dialogue.

    In fiction, showing a viewpoint character’s thoughts is an excellent way to strengthen characterisation. We can see the character’s changing emotions and thoughts, the questions they ask themself, their hopes and doubts.

    Internal dialogue shows us the interior life of a character, adding an extra dimension to a story.

    However, too much will interrupt scenes, cause lengthy breaks in external dialogue or action which can lead to readers struggling to pick up the story again. Too much will also slow down pacing.

    Imagine a scene where a conversation is taking place, and the conversation is constantly interrupted by an extended section of internal dialogue. The character might ruminate over what’s being said, and that’s fine and good, but if it goes on too long, the external scene becomes fragmented and hard to follow.

    In the case of the gothic thriller I was reading, the internal dialogue also added far too much unnecessary word count.

    I think part of the issue was that the author was often using internal dialogue to emphasise the stakes, as if they didn’t trust the reader to work it out for themselves. But it would run on too long and become counterproductive.

    Stakes should add to tension and pacing in more dramatic scenes, but stringing out the internal dialogue actually blows the pace. The author’s editor could have suggested cutting it back. I could see loads of places where cutting it back would boost not just pacing but the stakes by keeping things more focused.

    I’ve read two books by this author and felt both were failed by the lack of proper developmental editing. There were also other issues including weak characterisation in relation to other characters. It was hard sometimes to tell the other characters apart. Less bloated sections of internal dialogue could have made room for better drawn characters.

    After I finished both novels, I checked the Amazon reviews and many other readers had the same issues.

    Do you want feedback on your novel?

    I’m currently open to new clients. And I’m adding a new version of my Opening Chapters Edit service. Previously this was always a developmental edit, featuring a report and comments in the margins of your manuscript. However, I’m also offering a manuscript critique version. This is basically just a report with no margin comments.

    If you’re interested in either of these services, or a full developmental edit or manuscript critique, you can check out my services page here.

    Or you can email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com to discuss your manuscript and what you’re looking for.

  • Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.

    Story of Your Life is a 1998 Nebula-winning science fiction novella, later adapted as the film Arrival. Written by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life takes a less than exciting idea – variational principles in physics – and transforms it into a moving story about a linguist encountering aliens, intimately woven around her own relationship with her daughter.

    It also addresses linguistics and the question of what we would do if we could see the future.

    Would we still make the same choices?

    Would we still have free will?

    What does it mean to remember the future?

    Structurally, the story plays out as a loop, beginning and ending in the same place. The main plot is a chronological sequence interspersed with future events deliberately shown out of order.

    As a result, the story’s structure represents the language of the aliens, whose perception of time is different from humans.

    WARNING: While this post deals primarily with technique, narrative devices and how they’re used to explore the themes of the story, SPOILERS may be present. I have not described the plot in detail, but read on at your own risk!

    Author Ted Chiang

    Ted Chiang is not a prolific author. And in spite of the success of his science fiction stories, he has never had a novel published, and each story takes a long time to write.

    He’s not concerned with a large body of work. Rather, he dives deep into the subject matter of each story, researching, making notes, before he even begins to write.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, he spent five years immersing himself in the field of linguistics before starting the novella.

    Interestingly, Chiang told one interviewer that he doesn’t start writing a story until he knows how it ends. He writes the ending first.

    Once he knows the final destination of the narrative, he can then build the rest.

    The beginning of a story is usually the second thing he writes. In Story of Your Life this particularly makes sense because the ending and beginning are so intimately connected.

    Chiang also writes key scenes and then fills in other scenes after that. In filling in, he might go back as well as forward in the narrative. It’s not a chronological form of story telling.

    Again, this style is particularly evident in Story of Your Life.

    The novella likely benefits from this approach because it fits with one of the central ideas of the story. The heptapod written language involves the aliens knowing the whole structure of their complicated sentences in advance. This connects to their perception of time, which is not linear or sequential.

    Chiang adopted a similar technique for this and other stories. He has to know his destination before he starts writing.

    Story premise

    A linguist is recruited to help the military and scientists communicate with aliens whose ships have appeared above Earth. The aliens are called heptapods. Communication takes place through the use of ‘looking glasses’ which allow the linguists and scientists to see the aliens.

    The narrator Louise is matched to work with a physicist, Gary. Because for humans to hopefully learn about alien technology and their understanding of physics, they first of all have to establish communication.

    Weaving through the story of learning the heptapod language are ideas about linguistics and how language affects human cognition.

    Additionally, it becomes apparent that the heptapods don’t have a linear understanding of time. Through learning the heptapod language, the main character starts to see the future, including the daughter who is not yet born. This raises questions about free will.

    The Heptapods

    The aliens in the novel are barrel-like with seven lidless eyes circling the body. They don’t need to turn round because with eyes on all sides, they have no front or back in the human sense.

    They have two languages – spoken and written. Initially, Louise tries to deal with their spoken language (Heptapod A). But progress is difficult.

    Realising they likely also have a written language (Heptapod B), she finds more success here, though it will take time to learn even the basics.

    The novella raises the issue of how to communicate in a completely new language, with no common foundations.

    But Heptapod B is also very different from human languages in the way it uses case markers and rotation to denote meaning.

    As time goes on, Louise learns more of the written language, which begins to impact the way she sees the world. Specifically, the way she sees time.

    And it becomes obvious that the heptapods themselves likely see time in a very different way from humans. As less sequential.

    The story explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a person’s thinking and perception are affected by the grammatical and verbal structure of their language.

    An obvious example would be the many Inuit words for different types of snow. Most people in other climates have a more simplified perception of snow, and an easier way to describe it. Either because they don’t encounter snow as often, or their survival doesn’t depend on being able to identify the different types.

    In the story, by learning a non-sequential language, where the end point is already known, Louise starts to see her own life non-sequentially. Hence, she knows her daughter’s life from beginning to end, before she’s even born.

    But because her daughter will die tragically young, this raises the question of whether Louise could or would change the future.

    Does free will exist? Even though she knows the outcome, she is still compelled to move towards it.

    The use of tense and point of view

    The story is told in first-person voice, from the perspective of the central character, Louise. She starts from the point just before her daughter is conceived.

    The novel also ends at this point, circling back to the beginning.

    This present appears in present tense. From there her narrative looks back (past tense) to the arrival of both the aliens and those who recruit her to her new role communicating with the alien heptapods.

    But she also remembers the future with her daughter who won’t even be born until after the aliens depart. When Louise remembers the future, she does so in future tense:

    I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen...

    Note how she’s also addressing her daughter. The passages remembering the future appear in second person/future tense.

    It’s soon revealed however that she never gets the opportunity to tell her daughter the story of her life. Louise knows in advance that the right moment will never come.

    We learn near the beginning of the story that her daughter dies in an accident.

    Structure

    The first thing to note about the novella’s structure is that the sections set around the heptapods and the language acquisition issues are told in chronological order, in contrast to the future memories which are jumbled up.

    The main plot relating to communicating with the heptapods is somewhat heavy in ideas and theory.

    It’s not always the case, but some of these scenes are drier than those looking to the future.

    Scenes with the unnamed daughter bring light, emotion, and more humanity to the story.

    Chiang has balanced these elements well, leading to a solid structure and pace.

    The flash forward scenes weave in and out of the main narrative and while Louise tells us at the outset how this story ends, what packs the emotional punch at the end is seeing an entire life in fragments.

    It’s already clear that this story begins and ends in the same place.

    So what about the rest of the structure? If we were to adopt the structural breakdown that KM Weiland talks about in her book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, the structural points might be broken down as below.

    The resolution of the novel circles back to the opening hook. We learn on the second page of the story that spaceships have arrived. That’s definitely part of the opening hook. On the second last page of the story those ships depart and the final scene returns to the present, just before the daughter’s conception. Exactly where the story started.

    If we look to the inciting event being about 12.5% into the narrative, that would fit with Louise’s first sighting of the heptapods through the ‘looking glass’ devices. She has already been recruited to communicate with them near the beginning/opening hook. This is also where she starts working with Gary, and their working relationship will heavily impact her future.

    The first plot point (25%) introduces the logograms and the beginning of the writing system that will change the perception of any human who learns it.

    The first pinch point (37.5) reveals the nature of Heptapod B, a language with a grammar in two dimensions. A full fledged graphical language. Louise has made a breakthrough with the written language.

    Meanwhile the midpoint introduces Fermat’s Principle of Least Time where a ray of light takes the fastest route through water. After trying and failing to engage with the heptapods on physics, this is the first breakthrough. This is a variational principle. Gary is the one who explains it.

    The next structural point has the two of them discuss this principle and how it means the light ray has to know ahead of time where it will end up before it can choose the direction it will take.

    This strikes a chord with Louise who has already seen the heptapods write in real time. They too need to know in advance the direction the strokes in their complex logograms will take.

    Around the second plot point or 75% mark there is a question of whether it’s possible to know the future.

    The existence of free will seems to suggest otherwise.

    Yet Louise sees an object in front of her that will cause her daughter a minor injury in the future. Louise still feels compelled to reach for it and buy it. It feels right and instinctual.

    The 88% mark introduces subject of gift giving between humans and heptapods. By this time, thanks to learning a non-sequential language, Louise knows what will happen, just like the heptapods. She is merely playing her part and saying her lines as the story moves towards its conclusion.

    The military and government have their hopes that some new technology will be handed over. For them this would be their ultimate goal, the climax of the interaction which runs up to the resolution.

    For Louise, the gift is the knowledge of the future, not to mention her daughter who is an indirect consequence of the alien visitation. She will also start a relationship during this period.

    And so the story moves to its conclusion, circling back to the beginning.

    If this all sounds very dry, it’s because I’ve left out the more personal subplots that also tie in. In case you want to read the story yourself. Plus the thematic elements and linguistic breakthroughs are what actually happens at these percentage points.

    While you don’t have to hit these points, they are useful in analysing a story’s structure. Most of all, they are a good reminder that something needs to happen/change every so often.

    You cannot have long scenes and chapters where nothing happens.

    And when things do happen, they should be building on one another, as they do in Story of Your Life.

    Chiang’s structure and language/physics plot develops nicely to its conclusion, weaving together with the more emotional and personal story of Louise and her future daughter.

    Finally it all comes together in the resolution.

    The question of free will

    Since I didn’t write this post as a general review of the novella, I don’t want to get too much into themes. However, I did want to address the issue of whether free will is possible when you know the future already.

    One reason for addressing this is the very structure and narrative choices the author has made illustrates why Louise does not attempt to change the future, even though she knows the outcome.

    Normally, the idea of knowing the future so you can change it deals with something simple – you have an intuition/dream not to get on a plane because it will crash. If you believe this intuition, your choice doesn’t just extend to whether you save your own life, but whether you try to stop the plane from taking off.

    The problem is you don’t have the whole story of why the plane is in danger. You have an end prediction, with little to no context.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, sometime after she begins learning Heptapod B, Louise starts to see flashes of the future with her daughter. Even before her daughter is conceived, she has seen the whole of her daughter’s life.

    She has also felt the love and maternal bond she will have for this daughter, and she can see that in spite of knowing how her daughter’s life ends, it’s all still worth it.

    She is compelled to live out her fate. Just like the heptapods who enthusiastically interact with the linguists even though the aliens know everything the humans will say and do in advance. Knowing the future doesn’t seem to dampen the heptapod’s interest. In fact, going through with the action formalises it. Which relates to something else that comes up in the story – speech-act theory.

    Ted Chiang’s use of future tense scenes, interwoven with the main plot, makes Louise’s future with her daughter the most vibrant part of the novella.

    It also perfectly illustrates why Louise, having considered the question of free will when you know the future, still carries on the path that will lead to her losing her child.

    Because, as the novella shows clearly, Louise already knows and loves the child before she’s even conceived.

    No wonder she feels compelled to act out this future, with all the joys and sorrows she knows lie ahead.

    Like Fermat’s Principle of Least Time and the beam of light passing through water, Louise already knows her destination.

    What lessons can we learn from this novella?

    While point of view and tense are things all fiction writers deal with, they are usually not used to reinforce a theme or display an idea – certainly not the way Chiang used both in Story of Your Life.

    It’s certainly true that both can be approached in a more utilitarian way.

    In which case your safest bet would be third-person POV/past tense. This is a largely invisible combination that does not draw attention to itself and which is less likely to annoy readers.

    Alternatively, you can use first-person POV and past tense – another safe combination.

    You can certainly change tenses and points of view within a narrative, but there needs to be a good narrative reason.

    In Story of Your Life there are very good reasons.

    Likewise, Chiang’s particular method of putting together a story – starting with the end, then the beginning, then filling in the rest, will work for some people, but not everyone!

    In conclusion, it’s always worth looking at how a classic story has been constructed and why the author has chosen certain narrative devices. Especially an award-winning adapted novella that still impresses after a quarter of a century.

    Other related blog posts

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With the Vampire.

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby.

    When publishers drop the ball.

    Looking for feedback on your own story?

    Whether you’re writing a shorter narrative or a full novel, an objective eye and developmental feedback can give you useful insights into how to polish your final draft(s).

    I offer different options – report only, or report plus margin comments. You can check my services page below to see what’s available or let me know if you have custom requirements.

    Click here for my services page.

  • How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When Scott Fitzgerald heard his first novel This Side of Paradise was accepted, he immediately quit his job (repairing the roofs of railroad cars), and ran down the streets, stopping automobiles and friends to tell them the news.

    His novel had been accepted by the traditionally conservative New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons. And although Scott had sent previous drafts of the novel to Maxwell Perkins there, acceptance of This Side of Paradise marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for two decades.

    Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald would become the voice of a generation – forever associated with the Jazz Age and flappers.

    And Maxwell Perkins would go on to work with Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, making him possibly the most famous and influential fiction editor in history.

    Scott’s last letter to his editor, Max Perkins, was dated December 13th 1940. Scott died later that month from a heart attack. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished.

    The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. It was preceded by This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned and followed by Tender is the Night. Additionally, his Jazz Age short stories solidified his reputation.

    Maxwell Perkins

    Perkins was exceedingly gifted at inspiring an author to produce their best work. While he could help with structure, think up plots and titles where needed, Perkins had a credo: “The book belongs to the author.”

    He also long avoided the spotlight believing that editors should be invisible, both for the benefit of the author and the public. To be visible could erode trust in the work or the writer involved.

    If you have a Mark Twain, he said, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare.

    But in Fitzgerald Max Perkins was dealing with a perfectionist. Consequently, there was less advice needed compared to some others. Nevertheless, as well as dishing out support, cheques against future earnings, and exchanges on other up and coming authors, Perkins would also give editorial feedback.

    In this blog post, I’ll specifically deal with his editorial commentary on the original draft he saw of Gatsby. Perkins would later say of the novel, his favourite Fitzgerald novel, that it was “as perfect a thing as I ever had any share in publishing.’

    What to call the third novel?

    Correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald shows Scott trying out different titles for the book. Some of these titles seem distinctly odd now: Trimalchio in West Egg is perhaps one of the least strange. Other suggestions included:

    Trimalchio

    Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires

    On the Road to West Egg

    Gold-hatted Gatsby

    Gatsby

    The High-bouncing Lover

    Under the Red, White and Blue

    While Scott worried over the title and was still fond of Trimalchio, this choice did not go down well with most of those at Scribner’s. And although The Great Gatsby ultimately won out, Scott felt the title wanting in some way.

    The editorial feedback

    There is a Cambridge edition of the early Gatsby manuscript, titled Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. It also contains notes and two letters from Perkins. The value of this draft of Gatsby is in seeing what differs from the final version.

    For anyone particularly familiar with Gatsby, there will be obvious changes. However, the novel that most people know is still very much there.

    Previously, the novel Fitzgerald was writing was far longer, but he removed a lot of material. There is a long story called Absolution that was cut from the Gatsby narrative. By the time the first draft arrived on Perkins’ desk, the manuscript (Trimalchio) was very similar to the end product.

    Maxwell wrote back to Fitzgerald full of enthusiasm. Dear Scott, he wrote, I think the novel is a wonder. He goes on to say it has vitality and glamour.

    He brought up the issue of the title, which no one at the publisher liked but him. This letter was brief since he intended to take the novel home and read it again, before writing his impressions in full.

    His second letter was a bit longer, but it did not amount to what might be a modern manuscript critique. This is partly because Fitzgerald had already cut a lot out of his novel and shaped it before sending Perkins the first draft he saw. This was Scott’s third novel, so he knew what he was doing and was already a perfectionist.

    Perkins opens the second letter with, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book.” He goes on to praise the use of a spectator narrator in Nick Carraway, which gives the readers more perspective on what is happening than the characters at the heart of the book. The eyes of Dr Eckleberg also look down on events.

    When it comes to actual criticisms, Perkins makes only a few points. He was not a very hands-on editor with Fitzgerald. He never wanted to impose his own vision and he was dealing with an exceptionally talented writer.

    The criticisms make perfect sense and while tiny in number, they do make an important difference.

    First of all Scott had worried that there was a slight sagging in chapters six and seven. Perkins agreed with him but didn’t offer a suggestion other than to say he knew Scott would come up with something to fix the pacing.

    Describing Gatsby

    One major difference between the first draft Perkins saw and the published version relates to the scene where Nick first finds himself looking at Gatsby.

    He was only a little older than me – somehow I had expected a florid and corpulent person in his middle years – yet he was somehow not a young man at all. There was a stiff dignity about him, and a formality of speech that just missed being absurd, that always trembled on the verge of absurdity until you wondered why you didn’t laugh. I got the distinct impression that he was picking his words with care.

    After that, Gatsby is distracted by his butler and leaves.

    Readers familiar with Gatsby will remember a more memorable description that more clearly outlines his youth. Perkins pointed out that Tom Buchanan was so well described that he’d know him if he met him on the street. By contrast, “Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.

    While much about Gatsby is a mystery, Perkins felt that he should be described in as much detail as the others.

    Perkins adds that two people at the publishing house thought Gatsby was older than he was, even with the statement that the man was only a little older than Nick.

    In a later response to Perkins, Scott admitted that he himself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in (the nature of his business). He’d originally thought this was okay, but it was of course one of the problems Perkins picked up on.

    Here is the final version that Scott came up with:

    He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

    Gatsby’s business

    Another point Perkins made related to the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s business. He clearly had a business relationship with Wolfsheim but the reader would still be puzzled by all his wealth.

    It wasn’t that Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to go into detail about the source of his money. But he thought the reader would wonder about it and that it would make sense to drop in hints here and there “that would suggest he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

    Perkins went on to say that the total lack of an explanation “through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect.” Even the suggestion of an explanation would do. The details of what Gatsby is engaged in didn’t need to be outlined, including whether he was an innocent tool of someone else or not. But there did need to be more evidence of his activities.

    In his response letter (which can be read in Dear Scott/Dear Max), Scott said, “Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.

    And indeed in the next draft he does drop in more evidence of mysterious business activities that do not in any way undermine the mystery of Gatsby himself. The reader can fill in some of the remaining gaps themself.

    In a later letter Perkins (in Dear Scott/Dear Max) brought the subject up again, referring to the fact Gatsby was supposed to be a bootlegger – a little bit here and there about the bootlegging might be what’s needed.

    Gatsby’s biography

    In the earlier draft, the story of Gatsby’s background appears in chapter eight. Perkins felt that the way it was given to the narrator departs from the narrative technique in the rest of the book. Elsewhere, “everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it, – in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them.” Dumping the backstory where it appears in the earlier draft interrupts the flow of the novel. Perkins thought it better to sprinkle the information bit by bit through the course of the narrative.

    In a later letter to Max, Scott listed his changes – that he’d brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the two weak chapters (six and seven), improved his first party, and broken up the long narrative relating to Gatsby’s history.

    The outcome

    Although Scott still dithered over the title of the book – mentioning Gold-hatted Gatsby in a March 1925 letter – he also felt that Trimalchio might have been best after all. But it was The Great Gatsby that appeared in bookstores on April 10th 1925.

    Scott’s letters to Perkins show his nervousness, fear, and foreboding. He worried women wouldn’t like the book because it had no important woman in it. And he thought the critics wouldn’t like it because it dealt with the rich and “had no peasants borrowed out of Tess and sent to work in Idaho.

    He also worried that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his debt to Scribner’s since they had often loaned him money in advance.

    Even on the day of the release, Scott was picking over the faults he could still see in the novel. Nevertheless, he considered the first five chapters and parts of the seventh and eighth to be the best things he’d ever done.

    Unfortunately, sales did not take off as hoped. The fact the book was around 50,000 words and therefore shorter than what the trade preferred did not help. At least two big distributors reduced their orders considerably at the last minute.

    Scott reflected that the title was only fair, “rather bad than good“. And he still considered the lack of an important woman character to be an issue since “women control the fiction market at present.”

    In the end, the book would establish itself as one of the greats of modern American literature and cement Fitzgerald’s reputation. But it didn’t happen overnight.

    Reference material

    Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby – The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by James W. L. West III

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald- Perkins Correspondence – edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (out of print so check eBay)

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

    Looking for editorial feedback yourself?

    Whether you’re a beginner writer like Fitzgerald once was, or you have more experience, editorial feedback offers a fresh insight into your characters, plot, story structure and more.

    There are different levels of feedback. I offer an Opening Chapters Developmental edit, a Manuscript Critique, a Beta Critique (a bit shorter and cheaper than a Manuscript Critique), or a full Developmental Edit.

    If you have any custom requests, feel free to contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com or you can check my services page link below:

    My editing services page.

  • When publishers drop the ball

    I recently read a domestic noir thriller in which a woman found herself with a new neighbour. The neighbour from hell. A woman out for revenge who wreaks havoc on the main character and her group of friends. I’m not going to name the book or the author because this blog is not meant to target them. Instead, I wanted to examine some of the issues in the novel that should have been picked up by a developmental editor. Because this is one example of what happens when publishers drop the ball and don’t do their job.

    Since this novel had a mainstream publishing house, I’m assuming she had some level of editorial feedback regarding the story. But I also know, from reading a recent summary of a writing event, that editors and agents are finding themselves stretched. Inevitably, this will impact what happens to the books they promote.

    The book in question has a good premise. It was also obvious to me that it might be the kind of book that would appeal to the likes of reading groups. This would definitely be in the author’s favour.

    The problems were located in a number of areas:

    • rotating points of view that were not always clearly marked, leaving me a bit confused as to who I was following, and on consulting Goodreads I found out I wasn’t the only one
    • a main character who clearly felt she was drugged at some point, but never attempted to get herself tested
    • a main character who felt someone was breaking into her house regularly, yet she never got the locks changed
    • likewise, the MC did not attempt to leave any kind of surveillance device to catch the intruder on camera
    • when she finally gets a pair of bolts for her door, she finds she doesn’t have the right drill bit, so the bolts are not put on. Her house is still open to the intruder (who makes use of this) because there is no other attempt to keep the neighbour out
    • the MC’s best friend visits and is spooked by the antagonist, feels she’s seen the woman before, and promises to investigate when she returns to London. Then she never contacts the MC again. The MC texts her over and over, but doesn’t bother to call her work place to see if she’s okay, or even travel to London to find out. The woman is dead, but it’s a while before it’s revealed
    • the MC worked out the antagonist’s game (though not the motives), yet doesn’t turn the tables on her. Had she done so, it could have led to a pivot against the antagonist, where the MC briefly gains the upper hand and the antagonist is forced to up their game. This in turn would push up the stakes
    • once the MC realises the antagonist has killed her friend, and tried to kill someone else, she still takes pity on the antagonist at a key moment, thinking she’s just lonely, at which point the antagonist knocks her over the head and almost burns her to death. I had pretty much lost all sympathy for the protagonist at this point and thought she deserved whatever fate was coming to her
    • the MC’s character arc was extremely unsatisfying
    • the ending is also extremely unsatisfying
    • the MC’s friends are also (for reasons that are not entirely clear) targets for revenge, but since they don’t consult with each other, the shaky plot wagon rolls on

    In fact, there were more problems than those listed above. The main character was extremely passive and even ended up thinking she somehow deserved the neighbour’s revenge. This was clearly not true. Meanwhile the neighbour’s motives were a complete let down.

    Many reviewers on Goodreads were in agreement. They also pointed out that the book was longer than it needed to be, there were boring bits, and none of the characters were likeable.

    I did indeed feel that there was no one to like, other than the dog.

    Yet the publisher had majorly hyped the book on the cover, making claims it could not live up to. Something that some of the reviewers also pointed out.

    A decent developmental editor could have flagged these issues, encouraging the writer to develop a better motive for revenge on the part of the antagonist, cut out the unnecessary scenes and chapters, better flag up who the viewpoint character is at any one time, and address the passivity and general cluelessness of the MC.

    None of this would have meant completely changing the book either. It would have led to a tighter plot, with faster pacing, and a more credible protagonist and antagonist.

    No one in their right mind would notice their house was regularly being entered without changing the locks. Especially if they know the neighbour once had their keys.

    The novel’s plot rested on a lack of psychological credibility and character cluelessness. The antagonist is not an especially clever person, so it was hard to see how she managed to know so much about what everyone was getting up to – which she could later reveal out of revenge.

    The plot rested on weak decisions, massive holes, and a rotating viewpoint that possibly helped divert attention from the problems at times. There were genuinely gripping points in the book, which is why it was ultimately a let down. None of it was necessary. This was a debut novel and the writer would have benefited from a developmental editor who could have walked them through the weaknesses so they could have eliminated them one by one.

    Having said that, some readers have given the novel four or five stars. But it was the one to three star reviewers who really summed up my own observations.

    As to the exact nature of the edit that would have improved things – even a manuscript critique would have listed the issues and pointed out what to do about them. A developmental edit would have included margin comments next to the relevant parts of the novel.

    The writer’s book was certainly good enough to get a publisher. But the publisher didn’t do the necessary work. And that wasn’t fair to the author, the book or its readers. But if editors are stretched, it’s not surprising that this can happen.


    Are you an author looking for feedback on your novel? Are you concerned about plot holes, lack of character credibility, confusing viewpoints, or a weak ending? You can check out my services page below. I offer opening chapters edits for those who want a chunk of their novel edited for an affordable price. Otherwise, you can opt for a manuscript critique or a full developmental edit.

    Developmental Fiction Editing Services – IndieCat Editorial