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Self-Publishing Lessons Part 7: Flow and Outlining

Developmental editing requires a holistic, big-picture approach that starts with how the book will flow for the reader. Here are some ways to help a writer think about that.

Flow

There is at least the feel of a seamless flow to a good book, even in nonlinear manuscripts. This comes from many small things, some of which I’ve already talked about.

Reader immersion is essential, and the copyediting process helps with this the most. However, when developmental editing, you need to keep your eyes open and make notes on trends you notice in the manuscript. This is harder to do for yourself than it is for others, but whenever you notice that you’ve done something that could break immersion, rest assured you’ve done it many times. Thus, the notes.

Things that break reader immersion tend to be grammatical sins. Unclear antecedents are biggies. Redundancies can do it pretty easily. Lack of agreement between singular and plural is huge. Shifts in person and/or tense will do it every time.

Now, that’s not to say that none of these things can be used properly. There are times that reader immersion can be broken without losing the reader, but it must be done carefully and insightfully.

And that is why I am even discussing it here: fixing those things is line or copyediting.

Using those things depends on developmental editing.

Some of my favorite books, some inarguably great books, break those rules. They don’t break immersion per se, but they know how to change tense, or person, without losing the reader. My favorite example is in Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny, when Random takes a chapter as narrator. Perfectly done, and despite momentary confusion, the narrative sweeps the reader right along. That momentary confusion actually heightens the experience of the story.

Generally, this involves some subtle clues to the reader that such a thing is coming up. You need to move or adjust parts of the manuscript to “telegraph” the shift so that the reader is not absolutely confused by it, and stops reading—or at least to ensure readers are only as confused as the writer intended them to be.

In almost all cases, when there is a shift in person, there should be some kind of break immediately before the change. One might think that breaks interrupt the flow of the book, but the opposite is the truth. What breaks the flow of reading more than anything are unexpected grammar choices. The things that are not telegraphed for the reader to expect, such as suddenly changing from third person to first, or one sentence in the present tense amidst the chapter full of past tense.

This is also a big part of the conventional wisdom against using second person. And for the most part, this wisdom is correct. In conversational writing, such as this blog post, it doesn’t bother you that I speak to you directly in the second person. That’s because you expect me to do it sooner or later, partly because blogs tend to be conversationally written, and most of them are edited into stupid little one- or two-sentence paragraphs. In other words, they are edited in general for an audience with the reading comprehension of a very young child. Most books are only slightly better (which is actually a good thing), but they are nonetheless better. Readers expect consistency, unless they have been prepared to expect inconsistency.

Again, as always, you must be cognizant of your audience in determining how to best make your manuscript flow. Developmental editors never stop thinking about the audience for your book.

Neither do great writers!

Outlining

Even authors who work from an outline don’t necessarily outline in the most effective way. Obviously outlining can assist an author in moving forward and completing their work, but that doesn’t mean the outline itself is ideal for moving the story ahead.

So forget your original outline when you are thinking about your manuscript developmentally. Instead, concentrate on the outline of what is actually there. Never forget, with your developmental editor hat on, you are no longer trying to add to the manuscript. You are trying to cut and rearrange the manuscript to make it closer to perfect.

Cut things to make it flow better.

Cut and paste things to make it flow better.

Reconsider your entire outline — not the one you wrote from, but the one that you ended up writing. In reality, these two things are usually very different. And since most people are never taught how to break down an outline and analyze it, this is a skill you will have to develop by practice.

Your book is more than a plot. Did whatever initial outline you worked from, be it a traditional standard outline or something more esoteric, take that into account? Most outlines only deal with plot. Books deal with plot, theme, character growth, and many other factors. Find an outline that alternates these in a skillfully flowing way and rearrange your manuscript to suit that outline.

Yeah, you’re not even close to done rewriting. But once you have that outline, once your manuscript has been rearranged to more effectively convey what the author intended to convey, that rewrite will be the first draft of your book. At that point, you’re done with “manuscript” writing and are working on a finished product.

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