Someone on Facebook recently posted to ask me about how to restructure an entire book if it needs a bit of an overhaul. This is something I work with authors on at Avon, and it’s also something I had to do for my own book, so I do have a few tips on the best way to approach this. Looking at the structure of your finished novel can feel quite overwhelming – especially when you’ve already written 100,000 words and can’t bear the thought of having to move them all around like a nightmarish jigsaw – but it can also be so, so worth it. The structure of your book is so important, because readers are a discerning bunch and a weak ending or confusing middle will not go down particularly well on publication.
Here are my top tips for looking at a restructure:
1. Write down a chapter summary for each of your chapters. This is particularly useful if the book contains a lot of characters or multiple plotlines. Just write a sentence or two after each chapter to sum it up, and if you’re writing from several points of view, you could colour code each chapter so that at a glance you can see which points of view are getting the most airtime, and work out whether the POVs are equally spaced. When you have these little summaries, it will become a bit clearer as to which chapters could afford to either be cut, or moved to another part of the book (and still ensure the book makes sense!). You could try writing them on little cards or post-it notes too which you can then move around if you’re more of a visual person.
2. Take the individual plotlines one by one. To feel less overwhelmed, try looking at each aspect of your book on its own – for example, with my book, I looked at the relationship between Corinne (one of the sisters) and her mother, the storyline between Ashley (the other sister) and her husband, and then the more sinister plot of the doll house and who was leaving the pieces for Corinne to find. I cut out a whole other plotline in the end as well because it was ultimately one element too many, but focusing on one thing at a time really helped me to ensure that each of the plotlines made sense on their own and (hopefully) engaged the reader – you don’t want readers skipping certain chapters to get to the ‘more interesting’ parts of your book!
3. Think about the breadcrumbs. An editor who worked on The Doll House (the brilliant Celine Kelly) told me to do this, and I found it super helpful. If you’re writing a psychological thriller or crime book, think about the clues you’re leaving for the reader and where these are best placed. Spacing these out over the course of the book to ensure you’re constantly keeping the reader on their toes is a good technique, and you can work out the best placed to insert them in the overall structure of your book. Imagine it as a trail of breadcrumbs, Hansel and Gretel style, that lead your reader to the climactic end of the book.
4. Look at your characters one by one. What does your protagonist want? What is standing in her way? Who are her supporting cast? Making sure you know each of your characters inside out is helpful when looking at the overall structure of your book. You can then make sure they are behaving consistently throughout (or inconsistently if they’re an unreliable narrator!) and give each character the space to develop and go on a journey through the book. Ideally, your characters will be in a different place at the end of the novel to where they were at the beginning.
5. Have an open word document for your cuttings. During a structural edit, don’t be scared to make a lot of cuts – but if you save your extra words on another document, you can always add them back in or save them for another novel. You might find that a certain scene actually sits better in a different place – so if you have it to hand, you can insert it wherever you like and you won’t feel so panicked about losing your words.
6. Be brutal with your scenes. Does each scene serve a purpose? Does it pull the plot forward? Does it give the reader crucial information? If not, ask yourself whether you really need to keep it in – too many superfluous scenes that don’t move things forward can contribute to the book feeling slow-paced.
7. Don’t be scared to add new scenes. If once you’ve looked carefully at your structure and moved some things around you feel the book needs new information, you can add it in at this stage. Make sure not to leave unnecessary loose ends and don’t worry, your word count is bound to fluctuate up and down as you work – mine went from over 110,000 to 65,000 and then back up again to somewhere in between.
Above all, try not to panic! Doing a structural edit can feel like a huge task, but once you start, you will find that it becomes easier and you will begin to see the new shape of your book emerge. Try to tackle it one stage at a time, and keep in mind your end goal – why you’re putting yourself through all this! Editors and agents are great for seeing your book through fresh eyes so do consider their feedback, as by the time you get to your structural edit stage you will probably have spent tons of time with your manuscript and so a new perspective is really crucial to your book’s development.
Good luck! Thank you for visiting my blog. If you’re interested, you can make my painful structural edits all worth it by buying my book here!