What I learned from the structural edit of Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal
My new book is a children’s novel set in Pakistan after the huge flood of 2010. It’s called Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal and is the third in my flood series. The first is Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll; the second is Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog. The main characters always have a quest and Fozia’s quest is to find someone from her family alive. Prince Zal’s quest in the story Fozia tells is to find his sister who is lost in a magical jungle where a rogue leopard prowls.
When the structural edit of Fozia first came it looked daunting – twelve pages of mostly encouragement for the great story and what I did well and then some excellent constructive suggestions to give Fozia more agency, to tighten the plot and let the narrative flow more freely. This involved switching the third and first chapters around which caused major rewriting of the first four chapters. The editor was right of course. The first thing she said about the first chapter I had wondered about myself but not done anything about it.
Also, there is a secret Fozia keeps which the other characters don’t know but I thought it would be fine if the reader knows early on since it’s obvious to me. The editor suggested it would be more fun for younger readers if they could work this secret out for themselves and she’s right. I should have thought of that myself. That involved more rewriting.
The story that Fozia tells within the wider story about Prince Zal is her story or she hopes it will be, and I wanted to put in as many characters from Pakistani folktales since these were the stories she was told. But the editor gently wrote that maybe there are too many characters and perhaps the story could relate even more to Fozia’s own life. That involved removing a character altogether, the serpent, since she repeated speech that other characters said. This often happens in folktales but is not needed in a novel.
Another chapter did something I told students never to do: it didn’t move the plot along. It just covered material I thought needed to be known. After reading the structural edit report I managed to delete this info or put it elsewhere. On reading this chapter immediately after finishing the first draft I thought I should rewrite it as the tension dipped and it wasn’t a good place in the novel to dip. Yet I never rewrote it as it sounded better each time I read it. This is a danger when we are so close to our work.
In my journal I wrote about the structural edit report: This looks intimidating but step by step I’ll do this with the Lord’s help. The Daughter of Nomads structural edit looked impossible when I first saw the many colourful Track changes, but bit by bit I managed, especially with the support of a hard copy of the MS sent by the publisher.
I learn things during every edit; usually I don’t forget but often there are new things to learn because each book is different. At times a certain editor will see more than others do. I’m blessed to know one of those. So, this is mainly what I learned.
- Check the main character has enough agency. Since Kelsey appears also in this book, I gave her some lines and actions that should have been Fozia’s. It’s Fozia’s story after all, and I don’t think Kelsey suffers. Remember whose story it is and let that person sort it out.
- When I think a chapter sounds thin or doesn’t move the plot along, cut it immediately and write another or put in a note straight away to rewrite later. After reading it six times it can sound decent because it becomes familiar. That’s why we need clever people with fresh eyes to read our work. Note to self: act on that first impression.
- By all means think of plot ideas and write them up but they are not set in stone – cut and write new ones if they’re not moving the story forward or are repetitive. Note to self: delete and salvage.
- I need to be clear with timelines too. It was fine in my head but it didn’t translate on to the page, so I made a new time line in my Daybook. It only took a few inserted references to show how long after the flood Fozia had been living with Jehan’s family. This particular flood took a longer time than usual to subside, so adding that comment helped too.
- After the first structural edit draft, it worked well to print off the MS without markup to check that it was sounding okay. It’s too easy to miss things with the comments and Track changes on the page. It made me feel I was still ‘in charge’ of the story, not the Track changes.
Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal is out now.