Editing a Novel: Developmental Editing

In the first episode of the Editing a Novel Series I talked about my experience with beta readers for Uncommon Stock and how writers can maximize the utility they get out of having a small group of qualified friends give feedback on their manuscript. Once you’ve gone through at least one iteration with beta readers it might be time to move on to the next step of the editorial process: developmental editing.

What differentiates developmental from other kinds of editing is that it helps to develop the story rather than focus on language, grammar and stylistic issues. It’s higher level stuff: this character’s motivation doesn’t feel right for the decisions they’re making, that plot point doesn’t make sense given what’s happening in the previous scene, this story arc leads nowhere, etc. Not all writers use developmental editors. Not all developmental editors give the same kind of feedback. It’s highly variable and personal but the core point is that your developmental editor helps you refine the moving parts in your story to help maximize its potential.

Good developmental editors are hard to find. Anyone can claim to be one but, needless to say, quality varies widely. You can find them on various freelancing websites and a few maintain their own sites. I asked other authors for referrals without a ton of success. Luckily for me, a fantastic developmental editor had snuck into working on Uncommon Stock with ninja-worthy stealth.

My good friend Shannon had been kind enough to be a volunteer beta reader for the manuscript. In a previous life, Shannon was a developmental executive in Hollywood and an acquisition editor for screenplays. She’s devoured thousands of stories and her eye for narrative was as spot on as her extremely direct feedback. After getting her detailed beta reader feedback, I immediately offered to bring her in as the official developmental editor for Uncommon Stock.

Shannon did three full passes on the manuscript over the course of about seven weeks. In between each pass she would send me notes and we would have a phone conversation to go over the details. Here are the three major things we focused on:

  • Structure. TV and movie scripts are highly structured. They follow a three act formula that provides a framework for the story. Novels are much less structured and authors have more freedom to follow the story wherever it leads them. Nevertheless Shannon pointed out some structural elements of Uncommon Stock that could be reworked to improve the bones of the narrative (don’t worry, we weren’t trying to achieve or emulate a written-for-TV formula).
  • Pacing. Pacing is a critical element of any good story. Ever find yourself yawning halfway through a movie? Remember how the first hundred pages of that novel you read in high school took forever to get through? Stories have rhythms. Just like music, different kinds of stories have different kinds of rhythms. Literary fiction is like Jazz. Epic fantasy is like Wagner. Technothrillers, like Uncommon Stock, are like electronic House music (layered beats building towards a crescendo). If the pacing isn’t right, the story loses momentum and the reader gets distracted.
  • Balance. Uncommon Stock weaves together narrative threads that involve everything from raising venture investment in a technology startup to uncovering a criminal conspiracy. The story needs to be well balanced lest the narrative list to one side or the other. It was important to fine tune how the scenes fit together to fill out the story in a satisfying way that maximized the impact of every thread and every character arc.
Uncommon Stock benefitted enormously from going through the developmental editing process. If you have friends who have keen eye for narrative sometimes you can rely simply on using them as beta readers. Throughout my work with Shannon, I complemented her feedback with input from additional beta readers sprinkled in throughout the various revisions. This established an ongoing sanity check that I recommend any writer take advantage of.

My manuscript was ready to enter the sandblasting workshop of copy editing.