Friday 9 June 2017

Editing Your Novel - Five Steps to Add Texture and Depth by Kathryn Evans

I'm still learning how to edit but I've nailed one thing. If you feel like your story isn't right, it probably isn't. You absolutely 100% can not skimp on editing.

It starts with a trusted  outside view of your script.   If you don't have an editor or an agent,  try getting involved with a critique group - or, if you're self publishing, or need extra help, seriously consider paying someone to give you an editorial perspective.  They may not help you fix problems in your story, but they will flag them up and that's a pretty good start.

Five months ago, I had the not-quite-bare bones of my new novel: An okay draft with a strong concept,  fairly well developed characters and  what I thought was the heart of my book.  There was something missing though: it lacked depth and it lacked tension.

I got to work on fixing that in a series of  five ( and a half) editorial passes.


First Pass:  Tension

I want my books to feel a little like a thriller, so tension is essential. For my new book,  both the story, and the story structure, needed tightening up. It was  too bland and the pace wasn't right.  I remembered going to a talk by Meg Rosoff . Her book, "A Bride's Farewell", had a similar problem. It was a story about a young gypsy girl from a large family but Meg felt it lacked something. She talked it over with her friend, writer Sally Gardner, who suggested she "remove one of the children" -this created a kind of 'cuckoo in the nest story' and immediately, the plot thickened.

I needed to do something similar. I had an essential character who was relatively benign in her role as a kind of foster parent - but if I took her out of that exposed position, and put her somewhere more shadowy - her  motivations suddenly looked a little bit doubtful.  At the same time, I did the opposite with another character - and suddenly made a far more complex villain - who maybe wasn't even a villain at all.  By semi-swapping their roles I created mystery, drama - tension.

While rewriting the story to reposition my characters, I made sure I paid real attention to physical structure.  It isn't just your overall story that needs shape. Every scene and every chapter  needs rise and fall and a little hook at the end. They don't  have to always be these kind of moments:


But they do need to leave your reader wanting to turn the page.

 Every decision, event and discovery is like a heartbeat in your story.

 They drive it on  like this.


The image above is really good for demonstrating another key feature of tension. Watch it and note the rolling tape before it knocks down the dominoes. It's the pause before the event.  Think of how a joke works - it's all in the ...timing.  That's because in the pauses, the drama , the expectation, builds.  Rises  only exist with the Falls - the pauses, the comic moments, the questions. As I edit for structure, I watch for this and build it in where it's lacking - or cut whole scenes if they aren't needed.
As long as the pay off is worth it,  and as long as you keep balance between the rises and the falls, you'll build tension.

Second Pass: Relationships.

It matters to me that I have convincing relationships in my stories. Life means nothing without them - friendship, family, love in all its forms.  In fact, I thought that was what I was writing about - how we pull family around us even when our family isn't there, we create one from our friends. Good relationships are what give a story depth.  Looking at how they  work in your novel will also flag up whether you have characters you don't need, or underdeveloped characters. It'll also identify holes in individual characters stories.


I cut three characters in this pass in my new book - they weren't doing anything that couldn't be done by someone else. A fourth character nearly got the chop but I felt I could use her to give some lighter moments in the story - instead of cutting her, I built her up a little. She doesn't drive action but she gives me those "pause"' moments.


Second and A half Pass: Have a Heart

During the second pass, while I was concentrating on the dynamics of the relationships in my story,   I realised something. I was kind of writing about family,  but that wasn't the heart of my story. I was  really writing about how differently people deal with grief - it was there in the great shining motif of ice that just kept appearing - I do seem to love a big 'ole metaphor.  It's an odd thing when you make a discovery like this - like the story was always there and you are just mining for it,  revealing it. I know that sounds bonkers but sometimes, that's exactly how it feels.

I started the second pass again with a deliberate eye to serving the newly discovered heart of my story.


Third pass: Developing your World

You'll already have developed your world to some extent but it's a good idea to do an edit that specifically looks at how it's working. My new novel is set, very slightly, in the future so I had a lot of fun thinking about what kind of world we'd be living in, while being careful not to get carried away -  I'm not writing Brave New World.


This is a chance to add texture to your story - I like to blend science-fiction and a little horror into what are essentially stories about people.  At its heart, More of Me is  a story about growing up and discovering your own identity bit its skin, the texture of it if you like, is a fast paced contemporary thriller with a sinister sci-fi twist.

 It was also a time to cut out a lot of extraneous description that I'd used while I was becoming familiar with my world.  I have a rule that if I'm skimming over a description in my edit, the reader will most likely skim it when they're reading - best to cut it.

Fourth Pass: Time Line Tidy up


When you've mucked about a lot with a draft, continuity can go to pot.  Read through for any issues:
  • Are your characters having breakfast straight after dinner?
  • Have they had two early mornings without a night in between?
  • Have they leapt from  one place to another with no apparent reason?
  • Are they wearing different clothes in the same scene?
I was guilty of all of those.

Fifth Pass: Final Polish

Spell check. Chapter headings.  Page Numbers. Font check.

You are about to send your script to a professional, make it look like it's come from one.

That's It.

You're done - press send and enjoy the moment before you have to start all over again!


Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and Twitter @mrsbung.  She also blogs on My Life Under Paper.


  1. Excellent post. I especially liked Step 3. I'm currently at work on a story set in the depression of the 30s, and trying to find the right balance of detail in the background has become a major challenge. Your observation about cutting what you - the writer - skim during reading is a good one.

    1. I think it's important to trust your gut - we usually know something should be cut we just don't want to acknowledge it!

  2. Love this, Kathy. That knowing and acknowledging and then dealing is crucial. Finding the heart is what I'm working on at the moment. It's nearly there but I'm sort of writing my way into it. THanks for this.

    1. You'll have a breakthrough moment and be all "gah! Of course!"

  3. Terrific post! Thank you! And love the final the gif!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Excellent post Kathy. My characters swapped roles a lot in the first few drafts. Even to the point of changung who said what. I knew what had to be saud but it had ti be said in the right voice by the right person. It's an interesting process.


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