Angela Chadwick was a student on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2015. Angela’s debut novel XX was one of Sharmaine Lovegroves’ first acquisitions for the new Little, Brown imprint, Dialogue Books, and will be published in hardback and ebook today. XX follows a lesbian couple who take part in the first trial of ovum to ovum fertilisation. Here Angela talks us through what is arguably one of the toughest jobs for novelists, the dreaded structural edit!
When I signed up for a six-month online course with CB Creative, I’d already completed a draft of XX, a novel which explores what might happen if a medical breakthrough allowed women to reproduce without men. I’d been submitting it to agents, many of whom were intrigued by the speculative premise, but unfortunately none of this early interest evolved into an offer of representation.
And so, as the course commenced, I knuckled down to a big structural edit. As my class cohort covered various elements of novel writing, and shared feedback on one another’s work, I began to develop a checklist for the editing process:
HAVE YOU FULLY EXPLORED YOUR THEMES?
Most of us write books because we have something to say. So a key question to ask yourself: have you said it? Have you covered a range of different perspectives on your themes? The most satisfying narratives tease out a multitude of complexities – have you gone as deep as you can go with your explorations?
Be ruthless at culling any moments where your characters appear as mouthpieces for a particular point of view. There will be other, more compelling, ways to explore the nuances of an issue. You just need to invest some time trying to find them.
DO YOUR CHARACTERS FEEL REAL?
I find that I ‘get to know’ my characters through the process of writing and that their slow progression to rounded human beings can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on a book. However, this often means that they were introduced to chapter one before they’d taken on a three dimensional form. When I begin writing, the protagonists are a list of characteristics in my notebook. They tend not to take their first real breath until much later in the story. Going back and retrospectively adding complexity to your characters in earlier scenes will help your readers care about these fictional people.
DO THEY UNDERGO A JOURNEY?
Do the events in your book shape your characters in some way? Ideally, they should be learning new things about themselves and the world they live in as the story progresses. Revisit the key moments in the narrative and ask: how might this change my protagonist? And how might this change manifest itself.
IS THE ACTION DRIVEN THROUGH CHOICES, OR ARE YOU SUBJECTING THE READER TO A CASCADE OF EVENTS?
Stories in which one momentous event follows another can be exhausting for the reader. We want to see the characters shaping their destiny through the choices they make, rather than always being buffeted by forces beyond their control.
Go through each of the things that happen to the central figures in your story and ask yourself: how can they contribute to their own predicament? How will they respond, and what bearing will this have on what happens next?
DOES THE READER HAVE A REASON TO KEEP TURNING THE PAGES?
You will have inevitably worked a climax of some sort into your first draft – but one tense moment is not enough to sustain reader interest throughout the course of a novel. On a chapter by chapter basis, you need to ask: where is the tension coming from? You may need to give your protagonist something to solve in the short term to inject pace. Or to introduce some sort of ‘ticking clock’ which will raise the stakes and keep the reader engaged.
Working through this checklist will be so much easier if you have one or two critique buddies whose judgement you trust. I still regularly share work with a couple of my fellow CB Creative students, and reflecting on their comments and perceptions has become an essential part of my editing process. If you don’t have access to that kind of support, then at least put your manuscript away for a while – you’ll be more objective after a break from it.
I won’t lie – editing is labour intensive. I went through 11 drafts of XX before the manuscript was accepted by my publisher. But as hard as it is, nothing can compare to that wonderful feeling you get each and every time you change something for the better.
For further editing advice, check out Anna’s blog How to Edit a Novel – Working on the Big Picture.