Fiction Dev Editing
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
A long weekend is upon us! I have a busy fall and winter ahead, so I'm getting some long-form posting done while I can. This week I want to talk about the kind of editing that will make the biggest impact on your manuscript: developmental editing.
This is the most challenging and rewarding work I do. Getting into the tiny details (copyediting) is a lot of fun, but having a shot at a manuscript while it's still malleable is the best. I can find what's working, what's not, and what would work better if moved around or presented differently. If a character feels flat, I can puzzle out why. If the plot is confusing, I can tease out the separate threads and figure out ways to make it clearer. If I feel bored halfway through, I can think about why the story isn't holding my attention. Then I can make suggestions on how to improve each problem.
This is the best job in the universe for me because I'm the nitpicker type. I'm the annoying person who yells at the TV when there's a glaring plot hole or a character sucks. It's great when I can actually help make improvements!
So here's my process. The first thing I do is a straight read-through. I won't try to piece together anything big at this point, but I'll make brief notes for myself on what's working, what isn't, where I'm confused, where the tension is flagging, and repetitive words or events. Anything I think might need some attention or that's really good.
After that, I spend about 15 minutes making a mind map. This is a one-page sketch of everything important in the book: main characters and their descriptions and goals, relationships, themes, major events, imagery, and conflicts. I'll use this to solidify in my head what needs to be tracked throughout the book. There's software for this, but it's easier for me to just scribble it on paper. You wouldn't be able to read my scribbles, though, so here's somebody else's:
Armed with my notes and mind map, at this point I'll usually start an Excel workbook that will become a book map. I can track all kinds of things in a book map: chapters, scenes, days, characters and their development, relationships, themes, settings, romance, subplots, rising and falling action, emotions. Most books aren't going to need all of that tracked, though: maybe there's no romance, or only one setting, or the timeline is simple and straightforward. So I'll only track the things that are important to the situation.
Here's an example of a book map: JK Rowling's handwritten one for Harry Potter.
(It's much neater when you do it in Excel.)
Book maps are really handy because when you know what to look for, things that don't add up will jump off the screen. So now I begin a second read-through, filling in the columns and rows as I go.
At the end of this process, I'll have notes on some of the cells where something needs to be reviewed and/or revised. Examples of things a book map is helpful for catching:
A day is skipped in the timeline.
The point of view doesn't switch to a main character for 10 chapters.
In a romance, a character doesn't think lovey thoughts about his romantic interest for two scenes.
There are long sections in which the emotional tone is about the same (for example, there are several chapters in a row from the point of view of a character who stays in a depressed mood).
There are scenes that don't drive the plot, further character development, or have emotional impact.
There are scenes that don't make sense with the rest of the story.
There are events or characters that are too alike and could be combined.
A plotline doesn't go anywhere.
There are abrupt jumps that need transitions.
There are sections that move too slowly and will lose the reader's interest.
A character's goal isn't clear.
The protagonist's goal doesn't conflict with the antagonist's.
Then I'll decide on the few major places where revisions will help the manuscript the most. For example, if a book had every single one of the above problems, I would decide that the three major issues the author should focus on are with the plot, the characters, and the book's organization. I would then make a list of specific examples of the problems, ordered something like this:
Chapter 2, Scene 5 does not drive the plot or character development and can be removed with no impact to the story.
Chapter 7, Scene 1 does not make sense with the rest of the story.
The subplot about the mechanical bears does not have a resolution and can be removed.
Patrick doesn't think about Helen for from Chapter 6 to Chapter 12, although he was burning with desire for her in Chapter 5.
Kate and Frida are both friends of Helen's of equal importance that don't appear together and could be combined with no impact on the story.
Helen does not have a clear goal that is in conflict with Conrad's, although they are enemies.
There is a day missing in the timeline.
There is too long a section from Patrick's POV when he is sad, which the reader may feel to be a slog.
The story jumps from Helen in Italy to Helen in London with no explanation.
Helen is in London shopping for two chapters, and this needs to be broken up with a different scene or another POV to avoid losing the reader's interest.
For each point in my list, if it's appropriate, I'll mark down a suggestion on how to go about fixing the problem, if appropriate. For example:
There is a section from Patrick's POV when he is sad that is too long, which the reader may feel as a slog. Helen has a lot of scenes in a row too, so you could intersperse some of hers in with this.
In a full developmental edit, I'll leave comments in the manuscript at each place where something needs to be reviewed or revised, along with suggestions. Then I'll summarize in a short letter.
In the short version (which I call a manuscript evaluation in my Services list), I'll still look for the few overarching issues that will greatly improve your work if addressed. But rather than marking up the manuscript directly, I'll provide a longer summary letter with examples of the problems.
That's about it! I'm always happy to answer any questions, so please reach out if you've got one.
Have a great weekend!