So this first stage of the editing process is the big one, and it will need some time to get right. It’s not concerned with your spelling, grammar and punctuation right now; it’s more worried about whether your narrative can hold water from page one to the very end.
Editing at this stage is all about ensuring you have a story that stands upon a sturdy structure, one that will carry your readers through a series of believable events before ultimately leading them to a satisfying ending. Of course, there’s no pleasing everyone, but broadly speaking your experienced reading audience will have some expectations about your book when they buy it, so it’s their judgement you'll be keeping in mind when editing your book at this level.
It’s important to remember too that not all edits will be the same. The genre, style and target audience you have chosen for your book will dictate how the developmental edit will proceed.
If you hire an editor, this is also the stage at which you are probably going to get hit with some pretty hefty feedback; don’t be repelled by this – this is exactly what you want because it’s what your book needs to whip it into shape.
So, welcome feedback: it will help you to develop as a writer, more than you might realise at present.
What a Developmental Editor is looking at:
The structure of your book is its backbone, and it doesn’t just relate to the plot (which I’ll address in the next blog post), but stems from the decisions you make about how your story is going to be told and who by. There are more variations of structure than you can probably think of, but the one you choose will determine the style of your novel and define its unique identity. Let’s take a look at some potential concerns with structure:
Another way to think of story structure is to consider its shape.
Does your story start at point A, rise steadily in pace and action to point P where it all kicks off and everything seems doomed, then falls gently to point Z where everyone goes home happy (or not happy)?
Or, do you have a retelling of events that have already concluded and follow a non-linear timeline, jumping back and forth?
Might you have decided to have several different stories running at once, which may or may not intersect at some point?
How about you started your narrative in the midst of the action (effectively halfway through) and then used flashbacks to inform your readers about the first half they missed?
From just these four options, you get the idea of how many shapes a book’s structure can possibly take. What an editor would be looking for is whether the particular shape you have chosen is appropriate to your genre and more importantly whether it’s consistent from beginning to end.
For example, if your story continually moves forward in time for the first three-quarters but in the final quarter it jumps to something that happened in the past, this could come as something of a surprise to the reader.
If you’ve been relating events from the perspective of two main characters (perhaps using each chapter to alternate POV), the reader’s focus will be jarred by the sudden appearance in the last but one chapter of a third character perspective.
Now, I’m loathe to say ‘never do this, never do that’ because there is always a writer somewhere who has broken ‘the rules’ to spectacularly wonderful effect (I genuinely love those writers!).
But what I will say is: if you’re going to change the shape of your story midpoint, have a really good reason for doing so, one that benefits and reflects the narrative and one that does not throw the reader out of the story in the process.
You could examine the structure of your novel by trying to write it out in a sentence as per the examples I gave above.
So when I say voice here I’m talking specifically about your narrator, who may or may not be a character in the book. Your narrator does more than just tell the story, they are setting the tone for your entire book, which is why I’m relating it here to structure.
If your book is a fairy tale about a poor, wretched girl who uses her intellect to defeat a wicked witch, the chances are the narrator will be on the girl’s side, or it will be the girl herself.
If your story is a harrowing account of how a medical error leads a psychotic patient to murder a family in their beds, your voice might be an objective narrator (allowing the reader to decide who is at fault), or the psychotic character, or family members of the victims, or both.
And should you choose to have multiple narrative voices, will they tell their stories simultaneously or chronologically?
The developmental editor will be examining this narrative voice to ensure it works well within your genre and that it stays the same throughout, because a common error for new authors is to jump between narrative voices.
For example, a narrator who has been silent throughout – relaying events from an objective (invisible) perspective – suddenly ‘reveals’ himself during a later chapter by throwing in an opinion or trying to guide the reader’s response.
In an ideal world, you would have a clear idea of who your narrator is and what she is or isn’t capable of before you begin work. But if you find you haven’t really paid that much attention to the narrator as you’ve written, then you’ll want to pin them down by the end of the book.
You could try clarifying this for yourself by writing a paragraph about your chosen narrative perspective and why it works for your story. Then as you redraft pay close attention to whether your narrator has stuck within their parameters throughout.
In Part 3 of the series we’ll look at what sort of issues a developmental editor may be concerned about when examining your novel’s plot.