We’ve curated our best editorial secrets and industry insights into a series of articles. They range from getting started through staying on track and grasping the publishing business. Put those fuzzy slippers on your feet, pull up a cushy armchair, and enjoy.
Common Structural Problems
From an independent editor’s perspective, there are common obstacles I see in writers’ work, and some of these are structural glitches. Sometimes when this happens, a writer begins to lose faith. The work seems to have issues, and one suspects they may have to do with form rather than content.
As with a lot of things, when we can formulate the question, we almost always find the answer arriving right behind it. Below, I have compiled a list of six common structural problems, in the hopes that by recognizing a particular issue a little more quickly, the remedy will come with a minimum amount of heartbreak.
1. What you’re writing isn’t what you think you’re writing.
Not that it’s that far off, necessarily. Let’s say you’ve set sail—to use an extended marine metaphor—heading for an island. Everyone needs some “sea room,” and now you’ve landed on some neighboring coast.
Writing is a largely unconscious activity. At some point, we need to become conscious enough to see how we might get the reader and ourselves safely home. Some writers don’t want to be made conscious at any point during their process. In my experience, more often than not, they drift.
This one isn’t anything to worry about, by the way. What you’re writing is probably better than what you think you’re writing.
2. You have not generated enough material to begin revising.
One of my clients was delighted with her first assignment, which was to generate fifty pages of crap. Her next assignment was to generate another fifty, making a hundred pages of crap.
There is no substitute for not having generated enough material. When people come to my class on revision, the minimum they can have written is 70 pages. It is even better to have written 100 or 120 pages to uncover what your real Theme is, what your memorable passages are, and what your readers care about—in other words, what’s working.
Generating material cannot be taught, but that doesn’t mean it is a mystery: you get an idea and you write and write. Generating material cannot be taught because it has to be done instead.
3. You want to put too much stuff in.
A chef whose cookbook I worked on called it the “kitchen-sink” syndrome: a beginner makes a marinara sauce by using every vegetable in the refrigerator, and every spice on the rack. They use seventeen ingredients when there really should just be tomatoes, garlic, and like four other things. You want to be able to taste the parmesan shavings.
Writers think, How am I supposed to fill up a whole book’s worth of pages unless I include everything I can think of? Unity, the sense that your book is only about one thing—that the reader can trust you know how to drive this thing—cannot be achieved by trying to make things comprehensive.
It’s not going to happen. You can, however, be consistent. And if you limit enough things—like the number of side plots you introduce, or rich philosophical themes you debate—you will have a much better chance of keeping the reader by your side for the ride.
4. You let too many people read it before it was ready.
Why is this a structural problem? Because when you involve beta readers (people who read your draft when you know it isn’t done), you are far more open to feedback than you will be at a later stage. You may lose time and focus by pursuing a direction that someone else recommended rather than discovering the path which you really want to travel.
That is why I always recommend beginning with a professional developmental editor, or experienced writers in a workshop setting. Any early reader has to have the ability to suspend his or her ego enough to deliver an objective response to your writing.
On second thought, objectivity may not really be possible. But you do have the right to ask for someone’s non-attached, subjective reaction. That will be equally valuable.
5. Your narrator is too much like you.
In fact, basically, it is you. This is not as much a problem in certain non-fiction genres (like a blog), when it is considered great to sound as much like yourself as possible. Sounding like yourself while opening out to universal experience, is called “finding your voice.”
In fiction, however, you need maximum flexibility to explore emotions and imagine events that will embody those emotions. If your narrator is bound by only who you think you are, as opposed to who you might become, your writing can go stale.
I compare it to the actors Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. You know how Nicholson seems to always be himself in whatever role he plays, while Hoffman seems to disappear behind the role he is in? I think that if you write like Nicholson, you run out of material faster.
6. You don’t know if it’s a memoir or not.
When I wrote The Curse of the Converted Memoir, I received a host of objections—but none of them really changed my mind, so let me see if I can boil this one down. It is either a memoir, or it isn’t. There’s no in-between, hybrid genre that ever makes it on to the shelves.
If it is a memoir, you can still use your arsenal of narrative techniques. You can have richly dramatic scenes filled with conflict and suspense, you can forge a variety of skillful links using quality interior dialogue, and you can arrange your scenes along an unexpected, but perfectly fitting, timeline. But it all has to be the truth as you remember it.
If it is not a memoir, then you cannot be constrained in any way when the time comes to tell your story. It is all up for grabs: people’s names, what they did, how you felt, where it happened, and what it meant. All of it.
If I were asked to sum these up into one thought, I would recall a time when I was hitchhiking in Iowa. I got picked up by a pig medicine salesman who told me, “90% of people get lost because they don’t go far enough.” Writing is like traveling, if you keep going, keep writing without giving into the temptation to turn back, you will eventually arrive at your destination.