Developmental Editing – What a Novel Idea: Part 1


My Novel Writing & Editing Journey…

I remember when I wrote my very first fiction book – over ten years ago. I was so proud of it. I must have produced about 50,000 words and I could not wait to unleash my ‘masterpiece’ on the world…🖋️

I did actually submit it to one publishing house (this is such a funny story – I might share it one day). I received a standard, polite rejection i.e. “…Keep writing. This story isn’t there just yet…” So, I listened to the advice and continued to write. I even got myself a bunch of writing and editing jobs at various UK based publications. It paid off. Today, I am a much better writer than I was 10 years ago. Although, hopefully, not as good as I will be in 10 years from now… We should never stop growing…

Anyway, the above-mentioned manuscript was the first draft of what could have eventually become a good book. Now I know what I didn’t know then – first drafts are not final products… First drafts are basically writers telling their stories to themselves… Books need to be edited – over and over again. Good writers are re-writers… This post is about what I have learned (so far) while developmentally editing my first novel.

If you’re after non-fiction editing tips – please read my previous post HERE.

Developmental editing is the very first editing level. As the name implies, it is meant to develop the heart of a story. It is about the big picture too. And, it is the most time consuming and labour-intensive editing level. Although, I find it to be quite creative and fun – at least, in fiction.

Most self-published authors do developmental edits themselves because paying someone to do them can be very costly. Plus, most editors in the marketplace are copy-editors. Whereas, those who provide developmental editing services usually do not do the work themselves. They just show the writer where their manuscript falls short and how it can be improved.

Personally, I would not even let anyone make arbitrary changes to my fictional story because it is my story and I am the only one who knows its core. With that said, I did hire an editor… So far, I have used some of her advice as well as a few suggestions by another storyteller whose professional feedback I respect. However, none of them made the changes. Both gave me ideas and showed me where the book (chapter one actually) was not working for them… Some of their advice rang true hence I embraced it and made the changes accordingly. I did touch on that in my other post titled,‘Creative Writing – Novel vs. Non-Fiction vs. Poetry.’

One of the observations my editor made was that my protagonist’s internal conflict was introduced too early and with too much emotional intensity. The reader hadn’t been given enough time to get to know or develop empathy for the character… In consequence, they could not feel nor understand her pain. To fix it, I was advised to take the reader back in time  which I did (with flashbacks). I spent some time introducing the character’s likable personality traits and her emotional motivations too. One suggestion was to take her back to her childhood which I did as well – watch my  brief book reading excerpt here – 1 min video.

I’ve been writing for over ten years and intuitively know when a story is missing something even if I don’t know what it is… yet. But I have not published a novel yet, so apart from working with an editor, I have been researching successful novelists and listening to their teachings on what to pay attention to – during the developmental editing stage. I recommend that you do the same.

Story structure is one of those important things… And, I realised that I needed to re-arrange a few chapters so that the inciting incident can happen when it’s supposed to. According to my brief research, it should occur somewhere within the first 20 – 30 pages of a novel. Right now, mine happens somewhere between pages 40 and 50. Hence, my plan’s to change the order of chapters three and four… It’s a good thing that, although subsequent events must make sense, they don’t have to be introduced in a linear order (again, that’s something that my editor reminded me about).

According to my understanding, the inciting incident is that point in your story (usually an external event) that sets the plot in motion. After it happens, your protagonist’s life changes and it will never be the same, at least not until their problem gets resolved or situation changes. I’ll just use an example we can all relate to now (sadly). If I was writing a novel about the pandemic, my inciting incident might be – a scientist releasing the virus (from a laboratory)… Its release (the inciting incident) causes many deaths, and the world in which my protagonist lives goes into a global lockdown…  

The verb ‘to incite’ means ‘to stir up’ or ‘to encourage’ – it comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to move into action’… So, the inciting incident forces your protagonists to “spend the rest of the novel” trying to find their way back into the old or a new normal.

The inciting incident doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the above mentioned i.e. nobody has to die. It needn’t even be a negative one, but it should hook the reader by creating conflict, high enough stakes and unanswered questions that set the story in motion like never before. The inciting incident is a big topic amongst novelists. Most of them agree that it should happen asap because if it’s introduced too late readers might lose interest…

Back to my example, if I were writing a fictional story about the outbreak: prior to the incident, I would spend some time introducing my protagonists in their normal environment. But I might also want to leave some clues about the virus’ lethal power while foreshadowing the possibility of its unleashing on the unsuspecting world… All this should be done at the developmental editing stage, at the latest…

So, that is where I am with my novel, now – restructuring, adding, and taking away… And learning a lot, along the way… I am going to write more about my editing journey in part two and maybe even part three. If you’re interested in all that, please do stay tuned… One thing that remains certain about developmental editing is that it is not a novel idea at all. Every book needs it – although some need it more than others do… 🙂

Monika Ribeiro © 2020