The fundamentals book editing, aka story editing, aka fiction editing – when I first started looking into editing as a career, I knew this is what I wanted to do, but thought it was unattainable.
Don’t you have to have your PhD in English Literature and get a job with a big publishing company to do this?
Fortunately for those of us not educated in such a manner, this is not the case! But finding out HOW to edit novels is difficult.
There is not a lot of formal training in the field, and it used to involve a lot of excel spreadsheets (or good old pen and paper!) and cross-referencing yourself as you read the manuscript. Fortunately, times have changed and the wise and industrious people at Fictionary have come up with a better process called StoryCoach – more on that later.
What is Story Editing?
First, what IS book editing? Book editing is the structural edit of a novel. It’s the first step in a process which includes line editing ( looking at flow, clarity, and grammar, among other things), copy editing (every word spelled correctly and every comma in place), and proofreading (ensuring accuracy after the book is set up by the publisher).
Story editing doesn’t just look at what happens in the story, it also looks at various elements that make us care why. Story isn’t just about a bunch of things that happen, it’s about why they matter to the reader.
Keeping that in mind, a story editor looks at the story after it is first written and suggests major revisions to the plot, the characters, and the setting. An editor, trained to know what makes a captivating story, can suggest these objective revisions to make an author’s great manuscript even better.
The plot is what happens in the story; the second sister in a family of five girls meets a very wealthy and very pompous gentleman whom she vows to hate forever, but the two of them grow to appreciate each other and eventually fall in love (Pride and Prejudice).
Editing plot looks at several factors.
- Does every scene have a purpose related to the plot?
- Is the timing right for the best flow of the story? (What if Elizabeth had met Wickham before Darcy?)
- Do we know where the scene is taking place?
- Do the scenes transition smoothly?
- Is there some tension or conflict in every scene? Are we hooked into the scene in the beginning, and again at the end, so we want to keep reading?
There are ways to mark the timing of your plot so that your story really works: Kristina Stanley at Fictionary has researched and found that every successful story follows the Story Arc; find out more about that here. A Fictionary StoryCoach story edit will include listing the story arc key scenes (inciting incident, plot point 1, middle, plot point 2, and the climax), and show you how the story lines up – or doesn’t – with the story arc.
When looking at the characters in a story, there are lots of things to consider. These include looking at
- who has the point of view,
- who has the role of protagonist,
- making sure the names of the characters are both distinct (does the author really want a Tracy, and Stacey, and a Casey in their novel?) and consistent (did the author switch names of the main character halfway through the manuscript without noticing?),
- and how many scenes is each character in.
A story editor will also check to make sure the protagonist and/or the point-of-view character has a goal for the scene – which relates back to the plot, what’s at stake, and why every scene must be important to the story.
Editing for character also includes looking at dialogue, making sure it is understandable (who said what) and that it includes motion and emotion (“No,” she said, versus “No!” she spat, as she whirled to face him.)
This one seems kind of obvious, but there is actually a lot involved. Each scene must be happening somewhere, and it’s easy to overlook in the heat of writing an amazing action scene!
- When does the scene happen, relative to the last scene?
- Is the setting the best one for the emotional impact of the scene? (A heated argument at home is easy – there are no witnesses, and one party can walk away. But what if that same argument happens in a crowded restaurant? Or in a plane, where there is no getting away from the conflict? Has the author used objects in the scene, and are they important to the plot?)
- Did any of those objects magically appear at just the right moment, or did the author remember to write early on that the protagonist always kept a gun in his bedside table?
- Have they used the senses to the story’s advantage; smell to trigger a memory, or creaking of a stair to raise suspense because we know someone is coming?
- How about the weather?
- Is a storm coming to raise the tension (or, in the case of poor Jane Bennett, to cause a nasty cold)?
- Is it sunny the day of a funeral to show contrast?
- Can the antagonist taste the poison in his punch, or feel the spider crawling up his arm?
You get the idea.
Structure of a Novel
After these elements of plot, character, and setting are considered, there is the overall structure of the novel to consider; the Story Arc, of course, but also the flow of the story itself.
Word Count per Scene
What is the word count per scene? If ninety percent of the novel’s scenes are 1200 words, but there is one scene with 400 words and another with 3200, those will need to be assessed and reworked by the author; such anomalies will be noticed by the reader.
It also allows you to see if the author gave the critical scenes the weight they need – these scenes should be longer than the less important ones.
Scenes per Chapter
The same with scenes per chapter; you may have one scene per chapter or many, but any vast inconsistencies will interrupt the flow of the story and the reader will notice something feels out of place.
The word-count-per-scene and the scenes-per-chapter structuring can also be used to control the pacing of the story – short scenes or chapters equal a quick pace to increase the tension or suspense and drive the story forward; longer scenes or chapters create a slower pace, allowing for a breather in the action and giving the characters (and the readers) a chance to contemplate what’s just happened.
The Fundamentals of Book Editing
By now you’ve got the idea that editing stories is complicated. A story editor must have a process in place to keep track of all of these elements. There is way too much information to store in memory; it’s likely that something will be missed. This is where Fictionary StoryTeller and StoryCoach are indispensable tools. These editing programs allow self-editing authors and online story editors to upload a manuscript and keep track, comprehensively and objectively, of the 38 Fictionary Story Elements related to plot, character, and setting.
The Story Map
The Story Map feature can look at each of these elements on a scene-by-scene basis for comparison. For example,
- Is every scene anchored in point of view, timing, and setting?
- Did the author use dialogue at the start of every scene, or did they vary it for interest?
- Is there tension in every scene?
- Does a character know something that they shouldn’t know yet?
- Does the author change point of view inappropriately?
The Story Arc
To understand the fundamentals of book editing, you must understand how to evaluate the story against the story arc. These programs also allow the editor to assess the key elements of the Story Arc and where they fall in the novel:
- the inciting incident (something happens that launches the protagonist on their journey);
- plot point 1 (there’s no turning back from the central conflict);
- the middle (the protagonist moves from reacting to the conflict to becoming proactive and trying to deal with the problem);
- plot point 2 (the low point for the protagonist – all seems lost, and they must increase their efforts to overcome their problem or they may lose everything);
- and the climax (the scene where everything is resolved or lost). If these key scenes are too close together, the story feels rushed. If they are too far apart, readers will get bored and won’t be hooked into the story.
The Character Arc
In addition, StoryTeller and StoryCoach map out the Character Arc, showing the editor how the protagonist is faring on their journey. If they are attaining their goals in too many consecutive scenes, the story falls flat; it’s too easy, and the story is boring. If the protagonist struggles too much and faces defeat after defeat, it might be too much for the reader (who we hope is cheering for the protagonist!) and they will give up. If the protagonist doesn’t win or fail (the arc is flat), there is no tension or growth of the character and again, the reader will not be invested. The Character Arc in StoryTeller and StoryCoach allow a story editor to see this after their edit and show where to suggest changes.
The Fundamentals of Book Editing, and What They Mean to Me
I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to pursue my dream of being an online story editor, something I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago. It has certainly been a steep learning curve, one that won’t end anytime soon, but using StoryCoach is the key to giving a thorough and objective edit to my clients.
Post Written by Kara Henderson
Kara Henderson is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and a content creator for Fictionary. She attended Simon Fraser University for editing courses and is a student affiliate at Editors Canada. She edits blogs, creative non-fiction books, non-fiction books, and fiction novels. She has a passion for young adult stories.
She is excited about living life as a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and helping writers make novels the best they can be.
She currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada.