FWA: If I’m a writer who has laboured, possibly for years, to complete 50,000 words, what insights into my work can I expect a structural editor to provide?
KA: If you’ve written 50,000 words or more, you’ve been a nose-length away from your story for months or years. You’ve thought about the characters who inhabit your world, thought about conflict, dialogue, setting, and how to deftly weave in themes. You’ve worked. And congratulations on doing that. Unless someone has written a manuscript, they have no idea what a significant undertaking it is.
But much of your manuscript will be so familiar to you (perhaps tediously so) that it can become difficult to see where it might be improved, the places where a reader’s attention may drift, where a character’s actions become confusing or a storyline thin. This is the point at which outside perspective – an invested, supportive, constructively critical eye – is useful. A structural editor will look at the shape and construction of your story, its strengths and weaknesses, with the aim of taking your manuscript even closer to the final book you hold in your mind.
FWA: What, in a nutshell, are the principal goals of a structural edit? How will it improve my manuscript?
KA: A structural edit is the first significant step in turning a draft manuscript into one ready to submit to an agent or publisher. The goal of a structural edit is to make sure all the parts are working in harmony, singing whatever type of song it is you want to create.
Depending on the manuscript, a structural edit may explore any/all of the following:
Plot (What is the core dramatic question in your manuscript? What is at stake for your characters? Is there cause and effect in the events you describe?)
Pace (What is the pulse, speed, of your manuscript? Does it have a compelling rhythm? Are you offering information in small amounts to build tension and curiosity? What is the balance of dialogue and exposition? Are there moments of light and shade?)
Character (Do they have intentions and obstacles? What is their motivation – that is, why do they desire what they do? Can your reader see and hear your characters?)
Beginning and End (Has your novel started and finished in a way that best serves the story, makes sense, will seem interesting and is credible to the reader?)
Setting (Is your world specific? Have you shared its concerns and preoccupations? Does the setting have an impact on the personality of your characters and the actions they take?)
Language (A structural edit is not the place for a deep dive into a writer’s choice of adjectives. It is the place to look for passages that could be tightened, deleted, expanded upon. It’s also the place to look at whether the dialogue for each character is distinctive and whether it drives the narrative forward. A structural edit will also look at whether sentence and paragraph length vary, and whether there is a clear voice forming the throughline of the novel.)
You may not agree with all the notes you receive from a structural editor, and that’s fine and normal. But the hope is that thoughtful professional feedback will allow you to revisit your manuscript with clarity and renewed energy.
FWA: Would you tell us how the group discussions in Advancing Your Manuscript work?
KA: That will depend on the makeup and preferences of the group. Personally, I lean towards one-on-one discussions about creative work so a writer can tackle the specific issues of their story, and I will absolutely make myself available for more of these than the good folk at Faber have nominated! But I do understand that some people find it useful to work things out in group discussions. I’d say only that the guiding word for the group discussions will be ‘constructive’. I aim for each of the writers to come out of the course feeling they’ve been heard, respectfully and helpfully responded to, and that their manuscript is stronger and more complete as a result of our time together. The role that discussions play to that end will be up to all of us.
On a technical note, should we be spread across several cities (likely), discussions will be held on zoom. I’m in Melbourne. One-on-one conversations can be conducted on zoom, by phone or in person, as best suits you.
FWA: What happens after the structural edit work has been completed? What are the other stages along the pathway to publication?
KA: After a structural edit, you’ll want to turn your attention to the finer details of your manuscript. You may wish to do this by enrolling in another course or by paying a freelance editor to copyedit your manuscript. There are various organisations who can steer you towards a reputable copyeditor, including state-based writers centre (Writers Victoria, Writing NSW, Queensland Writers Centre, Writers SA, Writing WA, NT Writers’ Centre, Tas Writers, ACT Writers Association).
While your manuscript is being copyedited, perhaps spend time working on your pitch letter and synopsis. Most agents will want both of these – a short, sharp pitch (400 words maximum) in your email and a synopsis to accompany sample pages.
Once you feel your manuscript, pitch and synopsis are word-perfect, it’s time to approach agents. Ask other writers or check the Australian Literary Agents Association website for the contact details and specifics (what type of manuscripts they’re interested in, whether they’re open to submissions all year or at set times) about which agent would be best for you. It’s often said, but make sure to stick to each agent’s submission guidelines. They vary, and when they cite a word length for sample text or your personal bio, for example, do as they ask. After all your work, you don’t want to be ruled out because of admin.
Some publishers will consider your work unagented, via a competition/award for unpublished manuscripts or a temporarily open door. Allen & Unwin’s The Friday Pitch (www.allenandunwin.com/about/submission-guidelines/the-friday-pitch), Text Publishing year-round (www.textpublishing.com.au/manuscript-submissions) are great options, as are the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, the Bath Novel Award (an international prize for unpublished writers), the Affirm Press Mentorship Award (which doesn’t guarantee publication but offers feedback from Affirm Press editorial staff, so an in), the Novel Prize (biennial, international, offering cash and publication), and others.
All of this takes time. Traditional publishing is a long game. It tests your patience and resolve. Should an agent or publisher take you on, it’s not only likely but guaranteed that they will ask for changes to your finished manuscript: large edits, copyedits, perhaps questions following the proofread. You may decide that self-publishing is your preferred road, and that is a legitimate option though it can be cumbersome and costly.
I’m happy to discuss each of these stages in as much detail as you’d like once we’ve tackled our structural edit.
FWA: Will participation in Advancing Your Manuscript provide insights/understanding that will be useful throughout my writing career? Or will it just be relevant to the work in progress?
KA: Both. Once you know something, it’s hard to unknow it. Every book you write will require different things from you – to step inside the mind of a character who behaves reprehensibly, to research a place and time about which you know little, to write in first or third person, to try something unusual with chronology – and will be a new adventure. But having had feedback on this work in progress may show you some of your own habits, and shine a light on different way of approaching obstacles with plot or endings, for example.
FWA: I’ve heard Advancing Your Manuscript described as ‘manuscript assessment on steroids’. Is this true? What makes the difference?
KA: There will be no steroids involved! Sorry about that. But there will be concentrated, focused attention on you and your work. While an orthodox manuscript assessment can be extremely useful, it leaves the writer to flounder at one of the most important points. This course aims to offer a thorough manuscript assessment and then stay with the writer as they tackle all the issues that have been raised, talking through solutions to problems, encouraging, guiding, suggesting, so the feedback can lead to action.
Advancing Your Manuscript Nonfiction: The Structural Edit
with Kirsten Alexander
20 November 2023 – 4 March 2024