The Crime Readers' Association

Behind the Scenes with an Editor – AJ Waines

1st April 2015

Every writer I know talks about Revisions. After submitting a book to an agent or publisher (and after a nail-biting wait (Do they like it?)), the response comes back in an email report outlining suggestions about how the book could be improved. This involves tightening up certain areas, managing issues better and cutting others out altogether. Some authors call them ‘editorial notes’, ‘comments’ or ‘feedback’ – they are also known as ‘structural edits’ and are usually both extremely helpful and daunting.


Some of the comments are easy to address (none of the comments here are from my current agent, by the way!):


I don’t think we need the character who fixes the roof’, for example.


Others are more nebulous and all-embracing, such as:


The plots twists and revelations need to be sharpened up – too many moments are given away cheaply or are buried in the midst of a chapter…’ or


The character, Derek, gives away too much information about the mechanics of the plot…’


Ouch! That perfectly structured novel has to be taken apart and put back together again. But it’s all going to be worth it – the changes are pretty much guaranteed to make it a better book.


As well as feedback that begins ‘We really think it needs…’ the comments will often include ‘preferences’ or questions – such as, ‘Do we need Lisa’s father to be suffering from motor neuron disease – does it make it too gloomy?’ Or ‘Does Annette’s baby have to die at the beginning?’ These are the issues I may occasionally choose not to change, but only if there’s a good reason. It might be because by altering an issue it would cause a premise of the book to falter or it could remove a key motive from a certain character.


In a tightly constructed crime novel – if you change or cut one thing, it affects everything else. All the components are delicately balanced in a chain. For the bigger adjustments – at first it can feel like the book is falling apart. The chapters change, the continuity is messed up (Paul now dies before the bridge collapses, not afterwards). Most importantly, the Timeline is messed up. When you bring action forward or delay events, what once ‘happened yesterday’ (Tuesday) now becomes Monday, and this then changes future references to time. Throwaway phrases like ‘two days ago’, ‘missing for three days’ are now out of sync, so each and every one needs to be tracked down and changed. I find this stage of altering and then reconstructing like a complex mathematical puzzle – a Rubic’s cube (and I was never very good at either!)


During the planning and writing stage, I will have kept a record of each scene – where it is, which day of the week and also which part of the day it is. Most writers check sunrise and sunsets too, to make sure it really would be ‘getting dark’ at 9pm in October in Cairo, for example. But when things are moved and changed, I usually have to go through the whole book again, rechecking scene by scene. If I cut a scene, for example, this brings forward action that originally happened in the evening, say. Now Lucy would be opening the curtains (it’s morning), not closing them.


When all the structural changes are made, I also go through the manuscript checking that all the chapters are in the right order and I don’t end up with two chapter 24s! Alterations can sometimes add or cut a great deal to one chapter without my realising, so then I check the length of the chapters – I don’t want ‘Chapter 7’ to end up being six pages and ‘Chapter 8’ being twenty-seven. Then I check to see if any end of scenes now fall at a page break – adding  * in the centre to indicate this.


Then I go through to make sure nothing has jumped around (when using ‘track changes’ on Word, sometimes there are big blank chunks or page-breaks have got lost). I add a fresh word count and then, after another read through to check the flow hasn’t been interrupted, it’s ready to go back. At this stage, I usually feel uplifted – the book works better – no question about it!


Let’s bear in mind one thing – this is only Round One (take a big breath) – before long, it will come back with more changes, hopefully these will be less complex, such as ‘I think we need a bit more background for Doris’, ‘It could do with more sense of atmosphere to convey the heat, dust, air conditioning’ or ‘The ending now feels rushed – it needs more space so the reveals are not backed up so much.’


Then it’s on to Round two…

A J Waines write Psychological Thrillers. Her first two novels Girl on a Train and The Evil Beneath reached No 1 in ‘Murder’ in UK Kindle charts. Website:

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