“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stepping back and waiting was one of the most significant challenges I faced once the first draft of the manuscript was complete. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests putting your book away for six weeks before you edit. Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. When you return, you’ll see it with fresh eyes and errors should stand out clearly.
I didn’t wait six weeks—more like two (I will wait six weeks after this round of edits before picking it up again). The point Mr. King makes is valid. I looked back at what I wrote several months ago. Reading through scenes that lacked action or pertinent information to move the story forward helped me discover weaknesses in my writing. Some parts lacked structure, especially in the earliest chapters.
Great books tend to have great structure. They hook you in the beginning, build a promising premise, maybe a twist or two, show a climax, and deliver a satisfying ending. That is plot structure—the foundation of the story. Those books have a solid structure from the big picture down to individual sentences.
The chapters in these great books are structured in a way to keep you reading because “I don’t care if it’s one-thirty a.m. I have to finish the next chapter oh crap now it’s four-fifteen what have I done?”
Just thirteen more chapters, then I’ll go to sleep.
Chapters contain scenes, each with its own structure. Scenes, like the overall story, have a beginning, a promising middle, and a compelling end—mini-stories within the big picture that keep the reader engaged. Each scene should drive the reader to the next.
Breaking it down further, paragraphs within each scene require structure. A paragraph’s structure helps control the pace of the story. Long paragraphs with little white space slow it down, while short sections read at a quicker pace. And sentence structure is as important as anything, as your English teacher lectured over and over. And over.
Mr. Jones has no chill.
I’ve gone back and reworked some structure issues with scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. I had weak sentences in which the character reacted to an action that hadn’t yet occurred. I had scenes without a goal, action, or decision. Pointless dead weight. I rewrote those worthless lumps of words into meaningful, strong scenes (I hope).
Having gone back to chapters I’d previously edited, I haven’t moved at the pace at which I started. But the book is improving, and that is what ultimately matters. With editing, I’m learning as I go, as I did while writing the draft. I take what I learn and apply it to the subsequent chapters.
I do think I started editing too soon after finishing the manuscript. Some of these structural issues would have been more noticeable with fresher eyes. But we grow by learning from our mistakes. My biggest takeaway is that with the next book, I will follow Mr. King’s advice and spend more time away from it after scanning and identifying the trees.
A Snippet from The Mousetrap Killer
Water flowed underneath Greg. Lapped against his shins, splashed his jeans. A gentle breeze tickled the leaves of nearby trees, and birds twittered back and forth to each other.
Greg jerked awake. His eyes flicked open. He couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. He blinked. The world was obscure—as if filtered through a screen. His mind floated in a fog, but gradual realizations pierced through the haze.
Sitting…in running water.
Face covered with cloth.
He choked on a breath. His veins flushed with panic. He tried to take the hood off his head, but his arms wouldn’t move—his wrists were bound behind him. “What the hell is going on? Who’s there?” He kicked and thrashed, almost slipped off the seat. “Let me go!”
He hadn’t breathed in over a minute. Lost ounces of blood. The pain from his cracked skull his only remaining sense.
He quit fighting.
Lungs filled with water.
Heart squeezed one final time.
Darkness consumed him.