Last night I went to a structural editing workshop presented by author Paddy O’Reilly through Writers Victoria. Structural editing can feel like wading through wet concrete because you sink deeper into the mire with every step and feel further away from where you’re trying to go. At least, that’s what it feels like to me.
Paddy talked us through the common mistakes that authors make when writing their first draft, and how to fix them in the editing process.
- There is a delicate art to weaving together the main plot and subplots. Usually, a novel will focus on one plotline, theme or series of events which is the driving force for the book. But there are often a couple of minor threads to keep the book interesting or to mirror or contrast the main focus. Paddy talked about using colour coding to identify the different threads. It’s a pretty clear way to see that your gardening metaphor is prominent in the first third of the book but fades out later. Or perhaps your love interest is clumped together in one section and has no appearance earlier or later.
- Paddy warned us that we might slow down the pace of our book if our main character was frequently ruminating, reflecting, remembering. I’m not looking forward to checking my manuscript to see how many times my protagonist is alone with her thoughts! Paddy did say that writers are often observant types, and we tend to think a lot. Guilty as charged! But we can’t pass that trait on to our character, at least, not without providing them with a lot of action.
- As writers, we need to avoid describing eyes – because how do you come up with an original way to describe eyes? Smokey grey eyes. Eyes as blue as a summer sky. Twinkling eyes – a la Enid Blyton. She looked deep into his eyes. His eyes flashed with anger. Her eyes darted about the room. His glance told her everything she needed to know. Her eyes filled with tears. Instead, we could focus on how our characters move.
- When stuck plotwise, brainstorm twenty unexpected but plausible events. This is where I’m up to – going to find time this long weekend to brainstorm. Because that is the sign of a wonderful book – that as a reader you are surprised by a turn of events so you keep turning the page but yet it seems inevitable so you are left with a sense of satisfaction.
My friend Renee (also a middle-grade fiction writer) and I took lots of notes, then went out to dinner to dissect our own books. We tried to come up with unexpected but plausible alternatives and to work out whether we were clumping our subplots together. After going to a workshop like that, where I simultaneously realised that I do have the tools to fix my manuscript but it’s going to take a lot of rewriting, it’s essential to debrief with a fellow writer. Let the rewriting begin …