I do a little editing work now and again. Not much, because I don’t have very much time, and I’m very choosy about my clients. What I prefer is someone who has the basics—voice, a good story, believable characters—but who needs a little help getting a manuscript ready for submission.
What’s left? you ask. Something that beginning writers seem to struggle with more than anything else: structure. And with structure, pace. A “good story well told” is more than just finding the perfect words to express a sentiment or to underline tension. It’s knowing how much to say when, where the breaks need to be, and how to build the tension so that your reader keeps turning the pages, desperate to know what’s happening next.
I think those things are important whether you’re writing a mass-market thriller or a literary masterpiece. The difference is the tempo, the expectation you set up in your reader concerning the literary time you take them through.
This is all top of mind because I’m helping a writer I admire and like with her second novel. She has all the tools: a strong, likable voice, a main character who draws our sympathy, and humor as well. But she is struggling with the bigger picture. And I’m struggling to help her sort it out, to explain what I mean by that hard-to-define structural underpinning and instinct for drawing the overarching line.
I guess that’s what people call “story arc.” But it can be bloody difficult to step back far enough from your own writing to see it sometimes.
Here are a few basic suggestions:
1. Use a program like Scrivener.
What difference does a program make, you ask. What Scrivener does that Word and other such programs don’t is give you a bird’s-eye view of your manuscript. You divide it into chapters and scenes, and you can drag them around easily to change where something happens. Scrivener also gives you an area to store research, including importing Web pages. And there are character and place sketching areas.
2. Pay attention to how movies are structured.
Not everyone is a proponent of Robert McKee’s Story, But much of what he says holds true for novels. Think in scenes. Where would a director cut? How much do you put in or leave out to satisfy your reader? How much can you see from your character’s point of view, and what is told by everything that’s out of view?
Even the good old Victorian novelists, working before film, used these techniques. Just read Dickens if you doubt me. The pace is more leisurely, the use of an omniscient narrator more frequent, but there is still a need to keep people engaged with what they’re reading, and to make them feel at the end that it all coheres and tells a great story.
3. Don’t be afraid to rethink.
When you’ve spent weeks-months-years on a novel and it’s still not right, it can be very discouraging to have to pull it all apart. It reminds me of knitting a sweater, and getting to the end before you realize that the front is longer than the back, or the sleeves don’t fit. Unraveling and starting over is always disheartening.
Believe me, I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes that little bit of destruction can lead to an insight so revealing that it renews your enthusiasm. It can be something as little as, “My main character doesn’t want x, she wants y,” or changing some key point about the setting. For me, it was moving my time frame a year earlier in history, allowing me to overlay the real-life drama of a cholera epidemic on the basic story, creating the character of a young doctor, etc.
Some writers have a natural instinct for structure and pace. Some writers start with structure by writing copious outlines. For the rest of us, it’s something that can be learned, with a little determination and humility.