A Structural Editing Outline

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Deep into the editing process for The Light Never Lies, I had an idea for getting a better picture of the overall structure of the novel. The book consists of fifty chapters, approximately three to six sections per chapter and about 140,000 words in total. It’s easy for me to lose sight of what’s happening at the beginning of a section or chapter and what happens at the end.

So, here’s my brilliant idea. I created an outline of the entire novel that consists of a page for each chapter. Listed on each chapter page is the first and last line of every section. It took a while to put this together but even as I worked on it, I saw where immediate changes needed to be made.

One chapter got a total rearrangement. Looking at the starting and ending line of each section made it obvious that a middle section needed to be moved to the end for better flow. After the rearrangement, the chapter concluded on a much stronger note.

I was able to pinpoint a couple of problematic point-of-view issues. My novels get in the heads of a number of characters but I try not to head hop in such a way as to confuse the reader. A section usually starts from one character’s perspective and ends that way, as well. Of course there are exceptions – a large gathering might include a few character voices. Studying the starting and ending lines for each section had me patting myself on the back at times for my genius and throwing my hands up in the air, at other times, when I realized that the line that established the essential point-of-view was halfway through the first paragraph instead of right at the beginning.

I had suspected that I had fallen into a lazy habit of ending scenes with people slamming out of doors. Alas, it was true. With my handy-dandy document printed and in front of me, I underlined the actual number of times this happened through the entire novel – yes, it was way too many. I made the appropriate changes.

I haven’t yet begun to mine the information contained in this fifty page document. Last night, I was able to pinpoint the exact spot where every major story revelation occurred. I asked myself if the timing was appropriate. I woke up in the middle of the night knowing an additional section was needed, near the end of the novel, to reinforce an epiphany for one of the main characters.

Here’s an interesting aside. It is only at this stage, that the strength of the overarching themes in my writing become clear to me. The story is revealed to me in ways similar to how it is revealed to the reader.

Just as an outline of major points helped guide the initial creation of this story, an outline of how each section begins and ends helps me to see where the structure needs reinforcement. I know this idea can’t have originated with me. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. But, I did think it up on my own and I’m thrilled by the manner in which this structural editing outline has become another valuable tool in my writing workbox.

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Brit says – seems like a brilliant idea to me, Grandma. Now let’s go for a walk.In love

16 comments on “A Structural Editing Outline

  1. This is such a great idea! I’m actually nearing the end of my book (it’s taking a while because of other work)- and so I’ve been thinking about editing a lot and how to go about the process. A page a chapter for an outline is perfect for some major plot edits I know in the back of my head that I need to go back and rearrange, so I will definitely be trying this out…:)

  2. Gwen Stephens says:

    We have an inside joke in the teaching profession about there being no original ideas; we’re all guilty of plagiarism. Not suggesting of course that you’ve plagiarized anything, just find the parallels between teaching and writing interesting. Editing 140k words has to be a daunting process, and it sounds like you’ve found a great method. Just curious if you write in MS Word? Or if you use a software for writers, such as Scrivener.

    • I always write in Word – not sure if it’s worth the time and effort involved to learn anything new. Old dogs and all of that! Bruce and I often talk about Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the noosphere – that bubble out there filled with all kinds of ideas that we pluck things from. Of course those same ideas are there for everyone so it isn’t surprising that more than one person thinks of something ‘original’.

  3. This is a brilliant idea – I love it! the longer my manuscript gets the more complex it is to keep track of everything. I write in Scrivener and that does help a great deal since I can keep notes and move things around so easily.

    • This idea certainly is working for me when it comes to addressing the plot complexities and the length – it is easy to lose the forest for the trees. Angela – would you ever consider doing a guest post on how you find Scrivener useful? Email me if you would like to.

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    Great idea Francis! I’m creating so many barely connected sections in my WIP that I’m going to need some method of rearranging them all. Your idea is interesting but (as said above) Scrivener claims to be the tool of choice for drafting/editing.
    And 140,000 words! I’m impressed both with your vision and stamina.

  5. Gemma Hawdon says:

    140k words? Wow Francis, that’s impressive and I can only imagine how complicated the editing must be. It’s great you’ve created a process that is working for you and drawing out the bits that need reworking. You must be one fast writer!

    • This second novel is a wee bit longer than Disappearing in Plain Sight but I seem to have found my natural pace for telling a story. I try to use Stephen King’s tip – the writing of a first draft should not take more than one season – any longer and you lose the umphhh. It’s working for me.

  6. I have an addiction to reading author’s blogs and websites. This technique is used by other published authors like yourself, Francis. I guess great minds think alike. 🙂 I’d love to try it, but I wonder if I have the patience. Perhaps I should try it as a challenge.

    • I was pretty sure someone else had come up with this great idea before me! No worries – I do like to figure out my own methods and then continue to tweak. Mostly it’s about finding what works. Good luck if you give it a try.

  7. C J Gorden says:

    I think this is a wonderful idea. My problem is I haven’t figured out how to do chapters. My writing comes out in a never-ending stream, and I have to try and figure chapter breaks later. I completed NaNo in 2011, and had 50K words without a chapter break. In the long run, I think this is working against me. I’m happy with the novel so far, and so is everybody else, but without chapters, it’s unwieldy. I’m having problems going from there. I may have to figure chapter action first and rewrite to fit that (with a lot of give and take.) Is it just me? I think you have a valuable tool in this post, I just have the cart before the horse and need to reharness.

    • Sometimes, when I’m doing rewrites and edits, I look back and wonder why I chose certain spots to break the action and why I kept it going at other times and I don’t find myself coming up with a satisfying argument one way or the other. It just felt like the spot to stop. This writing thing is a big mystery at times. Thanks for stopping by my blog and taking the time to share your experience.

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