One of the trickiest bits of writing a book is the part when you realise you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.
The problem is, when the author is in the weeds, it can be extremely difficult to see what shape the story ought/wants to be, and this can make or break a book. This is a bit hard to talk about as it always ends up sounding mystical, but here goes.
A lot of problems come down to not really understanding what shape the story should be, or trying to push it the wrong way. A plotline goes on too long, an emphasis is off, the peaks and troughs don’t come at the right times, the narratives don’t balance, something needed a different amount of weight. You’ve read a lot of books like that, many of them published by Big Six houses because development editing costs money and takes time. It really does not go without saying that every author can find their book’s shape, or that every editor can help them. A lot of the time they can’t and don’t, and what you get is an unsatisfactory read.
This is incredibly hard to give useful advice about, because so much of it is a matter of the individual story. Plus, of course, it’s easy to see something’s wrong but a lot harder to work out how to put it right. It’s a bit like the apocryphal story of Michelangelo’s explanation of his work: “I get a block of stone and chip away everything that isn’t David.” Yeah, thanks for that.
Digging out the shape a story wants to be is a serious editorial gift. NB: this doesn’t mean the editor imposing their vision on the author’s MS. It’s the editor seeing what the author is striving for, when very frequently the author doesn’t have a clue.
Because yes, authors are frequently oblivious to what their books are about. When you’ve been face down in a pile of words for months, it’s hard to step back and take a view of the whole thing. Example: I wrote my historical fantasy romance Flight of Magpies about a mystical plot in which our heroes are entrapped and threatened by various murderous baddies, characters walk on air, and someone gets cut in half on page. My husband’s response to it was, “I can’t believe you wrote a book about my job.” He was a) a marketing manager, and b) absolutely right (thematically). I had not meant to do that.
So. I’ve been writing Gilded Cage, a companion book to Any Old Diamonds, in which jewel thief Templeton Lane and private detective Susan Lazarus have a lot of unfinished business plus a murder to solve. I whizzed to about 35K on this feeling really good about it. I got to about 50K, slowing down, with an increasing feeling of plodding through mud. Then I wrote another chapter and realised a number of things:
- I’d gone wrong.
- I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong.
- I had two important plotlines going on (both flagged from the start) which were diverging instead of converging, and there was no way to reconcile them to create a single cohesive climax. It was the wrong shape, and getting wronger with every word.
Point 3 was as far as I got. I am a pretty good development editor, and not a bad hand at seeing the shape of my own books, but…I was stuck. Screwed. No idea where to go from here, or even how to retrace my steps.
So I did two things. I accepted a freelance writing job that would last for two months to get away from the bloody MS, and I hired a book doctor.
This is sort of like a development editor but in some ways a harder job. With a development edit, you’re working off a finished MS. It’s got a shape even if it’s wrong, and the editor knows where the author wanted to end up, which makes it easier to see alternative ways of getting there.
Whereas a book doctor may well be faced with an unfinished “oh my God this is a mess, I went wrong somewhere between 20,000 and 55,000 words ago, i don’t know the ending and this may never work at all” project. One for which there could be multiple options, multiple places to strip it back to, a dozen different ways to finish it, or maybe none and the only useful advice is “kill it with fire”. The book doctor’s job is to pinpoint the important parts (themes, character arcs, plot points) that suggest what shape the MS should be, and find ways to reshape existing text towards that. A brilliant book doctor will guide the author to a new vision of the book that both resonates with the plan they didn’t know they had and helps them forget the grimpen mire they’ve been stuck in for months.
This is not the same thing as telling the author what to do, or providing a completed outline to follow. Don’t expect that from a book doctor, and if you get one, be very prepared for it not to work. It’s not their book. Their job is to help you see your book with fresh eyes, and with a conscious awareness of the things you were trying to do–which will lead towards the things you should do now.
So I called upon an excellent editor for book doctoring. She sent me a massive critical analysis that pulled out the key themes, the individual character arcs, the romance arc, the antagonist roles, the way plot and character intersected, the undeveloped McGuffin, and the big honking massive great elephant in the room that I had completely not thought about across 55,000 words because it’s not like I’ve done this before or anything. She asked a bunch of relevant questions: what does this character want, what does this character need? And by the time I had finished reading her email, I could see what shape the bloody book should be. At last.
(Since you ask: I cut a huge plotline down to a character theme, ditched three chapters, rebalanced the central romance, and understood where I’d let a character fool me into thinking she was absolutely fine when she wasn’t. And it was a doddle to do, because once I understood what I’d been trying to do–once I could feel the shape of the book–it all clicked into place.)
A good book doctor won’t give you the answers: they will ask the questions that help you find the answers. Because once you understand what you were doing all along, it’s a lot easier to work out where you go from here.
I worked with May Peterson, who is fantastic.
There are many good book doctors available, and also many, many people who offer this service based on, apparently, having read some books. Seek personal recs (anyone who’s had a good experience will be dying to recommend) and look at references.
This is a time-intensive specialist editing service that requires professional experience and nous. Expect to pay accordingly. I realise professional editing is not within everyone’s budget, but that doesn’t make it overpriced: editors need to eat too.
Gilded Cage publishes 23 October.