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Editing Your Novel – Stage One

December 20th, 2020

First, thanks to Keith for last week’s post. It was great to hear from someone who’s had a connection with Writers Bureau for so long and has done so well. And, I think you can read between the lines just how much pleasure he’s had from his career as a writer!

Moving on to something completely different, this week I’m going to provide the would-be novelists amongst you with a checklist that we recommend you follow before even contemplating sending off your work to an agent, publisher or self-publishing it.

Does the story make sense?

Have you made the journey from the beginning to the end in a logical way, with each stage clearly set out and leading on to the next? Is the ending believable? Is there one easily followed narrative strand all the way through the text? Is it obvious who your protagonist is and what that character is trying to achieve?

Have you made any continuity blunders in the text?

Does the story jump era or have events happening out of chronological order? Does David mysteriously change his name to Derek in Chapter 11? Does a character switch from being a vegetarian to a meat-eater without any explanation? Has anyone changed jobs, ages or genders when you weren’t looking? Is it magically snowing in summer?

Does every piece of action follow on logically from the previous one?

The story should be a chain of actions and reactions. The protagonist should make decisions and behave according to events that have just happened. Make sure you show the incidents that spark each move. Make sure these incidents and problems escalate as the story progresses.

Have you adequately signposted every flashback?

Don’t have readers becoming lost, not knowing whether the events they are reading take place in the present or in the past. Make sure you signal clearly when you’re making a transition in time.

Have you shown each character’s motivations clearly enough?

Can the reader understand why certain characters act and react as they do? Do we know what makes them tick, what their single most important guiding emotion is? Do their actions and attitudes seem plausible?

Have all the characters acted consistently?

There’s nothing more baffling than a fiery-tempered individual who suddenly – and for no apparent reason – becomes calm and philosophical, or a foul-mouthed yob who begins to speak like a Jane Austen parson. Make sure none of your cast undergoes an unintentional personality change.

Have you got too many minor characters?

Can you cut out a few bit players, or combine two inconsequential individuals into one important character? A few minor characters are useful to flesh out a drama, but they rapidly fill up the stage and detract from the main players. Lose anyone who is in the story merely as window dressing and not a fully-functioning character.

Is there something important you’ve missed out?

Have you remembered to put every clue in your whodunit? Have you adequately foreshadowed every major incident? Have you told readers all they need to know about the characters and their dilemmas or hardships?

Have you hammered home a point too much so that readers feel they have been lectured?

On a re-read you may find you can create the impression you want with a lighter, more deft touch. It’s often only necessary to hint at a fact rather than scream it out loud. As long as you haven’t been so vague or cryptic that you baffle people, most readers welcome a chance to use their brains and imagination.

Is there a sufficient mixture of pace?

Have you made sure your novel starts off swiftly but slows down a little in the middle to give readers a lull before the breakneck hurtle towards the climax? If the story has only one pace throughout it will be either plodding and dull, or too fast and frenetic.

Is there a mixture of scene types?

Are there scenes which feature several characters interacting or are the episodes all ‘two-handers’ – only featuring two people. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only having two-handers because they are simpler to write than crowded scenes, but you need variety if you want to avoid boring your reader.

Have you tied up all the loose ends?

Has the main conflict of the narrative been resolved? Has the protagonist resolved the main predicament – or at least learnt to live with it? If the goal hasn’t been achieved have you shown why? Have all the story strands and subplots been brought to a logical conclusion? Does the reader know the ultimate fate of every character?

Every chapter, every scene, every page, every paragraph must be vital. It’s only when you’ve pared the novel back to its bare bones that you’ll have a fast-moving and spellbinding read.


And remember, this is only the start of the revision process. Once you’ve made any necessary changes you need to take the new document and go through it with a fine-tooth combe to make sure you eliminate any grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.  We’ll be looking at this next stage in more detail in the New Year.



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