This is an example of a structural assessment (also known as a structural report, substantive edit, or editorial letter) I wrote for a manuscript called Clockmakers. It’s a young adult fantasy novel set in Germany, about a young woman called Emma. Without having read the manuscript it might be hard to follow the events or character arcs, but this can give you an idea of the kind of feedback I’ll provide in a structural assessment.
Keep in mind that if there’s a particular area of your manuscript that you’d like to work on, let me know and we can work out what sort of editing or report will best benefit you.
Structural assessment example
Thanks for sending me Clockmakers to take a look at. I really enjoyed the story you’ve created, and I loved reading the manuscript and writing up this report. I was enthralled by the microcosm fantasy world you’ve created in Essentor, the idea of a just single town having magic added some limitations that really helped to drive the plot — and it was a very original idea.
One of the key strengths of this story was its characters, the journey that we see Emma going on, and how her relationships with Joan, Karmi and Jorah develop over time. I was also fascinated by the conclusion and the questions raised by the black fountain… I really hope you plan on writing a sequel. The pillars, the fountain, and the spring all gave just enough answers and raised just enough questions to keep a reader hooked until Emma’s story continues.
As requested, I made some notes on plot and characterisation as I read, as well as a couple of other small-scale things I noticed, which I’ll add to the end of the report. As always, everything here is just a suggestion and I hope I’m able to help your critical eye when you’re revising the manuscript. I’ve tried to include a possible solution to each problem, but of course these are just starting points for your creative process — you know so much more about these characters and this world than I do so I’m sure you’ll be able to find some more innovative ways to improve the story. I’ve loosely arranged the issues by discussing the most important plot and character issues first, with less significant ones coming after.
The plot of Clockmakers really picks up about a third of the way through, developing into a great mystery/race-against-time story. However, I felt that in the first part of the story, the plot, and Emma in particular, was lacking direction. Her interest in Jorah perked my interest in that storyline, but her investigation into him was fairly lacklustre. It also felt like another goal of hers at that time was trying to coerce Joan into giving her the Formula but, again, she didn’t really take any steps towards that. The elements that drive the story forwards here such as bumping into Jorah, Joan revealing the supposed ‘curse’ etc, are all initiated by other characters, but it’s important to make sure the protagonist is driving the story forwards herself. My instinct here is for her to focus on trying to get Joan to give her the medicine, which could feed well into her and Karmi volunteering at the art gallery — Emma could see it as a way to impress Joan. This would give the reader a hint of that race-against-time theme, before Emma’s problems blossom into the full plot.
While Emma’s ability to enter other clockmakers’ fragments created some tension between her and Jorah, and lent itself to a spectacular display at the finale, I did feel that this ability of hers was underused in the plot. I’m taking a leaf out of Chekhov’s book here, and his famous gun — I feel that Emma shouldn’t have an extra-special power unless it is vital to the resolution of the plot. After the party at the castle when Jorah reveals his past to Emma, I was expecting the final fight to involve her drawing soldiers out of his fragment and into the real world to fight the cultists. I do think this would be a great way of using her unusual power to help resolve the conflict, and could allow some action scenes — though this would create more violence than has been in the story previously so might not fit with your intended mood. Another possible use for her power could be that Emma must be inside a fragment from the past in order to reach the pillars (perhaps the way is now blocked), and this would explain why only a descendent of the white queen could reach them. I think that you made an excellent decision in Emma not creating her own fragment and becoming immortal, despite her affinity with fragments — I think keeping some distance and alienation between her and Jorah keeps a tone of instability in their relationship, which makes it much more exiting.
Absence from the finale
Although it can increase the drama to have the protagonist pass out right at the climax of the plot, it felt like Emma (and the reader) was missing out on the best part of the story. I strongly advise against having her black out and wake up later; this device, which has become a bit clichéd, only really works when nothing much happens between the climax and waking up for the resolution (for example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Pillar). Because so much happens while Emma is passed out, it would be so much more exciting to see this action. I would have loved to see Emma taking Herman back to the nursing home and saying an emotional farewell after he’s sacrificed himself to save her, and it would make for a satisfying and powerful scene if Emma got revenge on Joan by being the one to report her and her corporation to the police. Because Joan surely survived the earthquake in the cave, right?
The Golden House mystery
I loved the mystery of the Golden House appearing to be in a different place/time, and it’s such an atmospheric setting, but the mystery became quite convoluted as we found out more about the clockmakers’ abilities. At first I assumed it was in another part of the world, or perhaps involved time travel, but the revelation that the clockmakers can’t use their magic outside of Essentor and that they can’t travel back in time made the house very confusing. I think a fix for this could be to introduce the concept of fragments earlier in the plot, but only reveal that objects can be pulled through into the real world when revealing the secret of the Golden House. This could also help to leave clues for the reader about what happened at the spa — if they know about fragments then they might be able to figure out Emma’s power.
I really enjoyed learning about the clockmakers’ magic, and watching Emma learn to use her abilities (or not, as the case may be!). However, I felt that the lessons had a problem with tone and pacing. I feel that the others spent too much time lecturing Emma on the mechanics of the magic, and I don’t think they need to use so many metaphors for the powers. Over-simplifying it makes it sound patronising to Emma, which may have been your intention, of course, but it also removes some of the unknown, arcane-ness of the magic for the reader.
Instead, I thought it could be effective to have the clockmakers teach her using games and fun exercises? For example, throwing a ball in the wrong direction and expecting Emma to catch it could be useful training for both slowing time and teleporting. This would also create some more interest for the reader, as it adds elements of fun, risk, and competition. Catching the ball would also introduce a subtle element of foreshadowing to when Emma slows time and teleports to save Karmi from falling off the cliff.
Emma’s decision to run away from Joan’s house was a powerful one, but I found it disappointing that we don’t actually see her making that decision. She seems to go very quickly from a bit confused about the goings-on in Essentor to fleeing. I think there needs to be a scene before her packing her bags, where she encounters her ‘final straw’ and decides to leave. I think this could tie in nicely with my next point, regarding the people in the fog. Their appearance was very sudden, and was explained to us by Emma as opposed to us seeing an actual encounter. I think they need to be introduced earlier, so this would be an excellent time to combine these two issues, as seeing hundreds of ancient people standing frozen in the fog would be a very good impetus to leave. It could also be a good opportunity for the reader to bond with Emma; her vulnerability, and also her strength, will be plain to see when the town itself seems to be rallying against her.
The White Queen’s pendant
As I was reading, I was hoping that the beautiful pendant would play a role in the final plot, and I was pleased to see that it did. However, this piece of jewellery is almost forgotten throughout most of the story, and it would be good to see it used more than just once. I suggest that it might benefit Emma to fill the pendant with Spring water from the Golden House when she’s being taught by the clockmakers, as a way of boosting her power a little. This would also foreshadow her reaching the pillars and swapping the Spring water for the pillar water to gain her awesome power.
The origins of Formula
Emma discovers a little backstory to the origins of white steel and Formula in Joan’s desk, but its creation remains a big mystery in the story. I think this would be okay, but the clockmakers would need to emphasise that they have no idea how it’s made and how to counteract it, since it’s currently accepted without question.
Alternatively, it’d be good to have some of the ingredients or the process of creation explained, as Formula has an air of Kryptonite about it at the moment. For example, when she opened the book I felt sure one of the ingredients was going to be the blood of a clockmaker!
For me, the biggest character problem was the revelation that Joan is a clockmaker. This felt very out-of-character, and I felt it undermined a lot of the character building that had been done for her throughout the story. This was a surprise and at first I was certain that she was tricking Emma, but as she seemed to be sincere I think it’s an unnecessary complication. The plot is still coherent (and possibly makes more sense) if Joan is just a regular person, but one who’s a fanatic of the Black Fountain. I also had the thought that it might be interesting if the twist isn’t that she is a clockmaker, but that she used to be one, and has somehow survived the horrific effects of a Formula injection. This would also fix the logic problem of why Emma was needed to retrieve the pillars for Adrian, when Joan herself could have done it, being a descendent of the White Queen just like Emma.
Of course, I don’t know your plans for a sequel, and Joan’s secret might be a pivotal part of the coming story. If that’s the case, then I think we definitely need more clues as to her true nature. Some examples that come to mind are Joan appearing (teleporting) in strange places, or Emma seeing a faint blue-white glow of magic before the light is turned on when she’s hiding in the drawing room and Joan opens the door.
Feelings for Jorah
I loved seeing Emma’s feeling for Jorah growing, but the period of animosity between them felt a bit fabricated. She jumped from interest in him, to loathing him, to liking him again, all in large steps; Jorah seemed to go from static unfeeling, to being attracted to Emma with little transition. I was unsure whether Jorah was exaggerating his numbness from being fragmented, or if his feelings for Emma were strong enough to break through that barrier. I think there needs to be some hints and signs that even though they’re angry at each other, they actually have a burgeoning attraction growing. Perhaps even as Jorah and Derren jump her in the spa, she isn’t so much angry as confused? It might also work to have Jorah be colder towards her in the tea shop near the start — allowing him to be totally indifferent would permit greater character growth when we realise he has feelings for her even though his magic should prevent it.
The drawing room scene is one of the most powerful scenes in the book — the horrible fate that Joan forced upon Florence made me feel sick, and I’m sure that other readers will feel the same. My only issue with that scene is that Joan’s sudden coldness feels very out-of-character. We know that she can be somewhat indifferent, but this stone-hearted cruelty to Florence felt a bit too much of a stretch. I think even if we see that same cold look in her eyes once before — I was thinking perhaps when Emma tries to leave the Christmas Eve mass — would make it less of a surprise and might give the reader some satisfaction, knowing that Emma should never have trusted her.
Florence is one of my favourite characters in this story — a lovely person swept up by an extreme cult and made to believe she’s cursed. Florence’s demise is tragic, but I think Emma and the reader need to be given another opportunity to get to know her. At the moment we like her, but have never truly formed a bond with her. Perhaps a deeper conversation with her at one of Joan’s events, or even bumping into her in the street or at the tea shop, would allow us to get to know her even more, especially since Emma herself likes Florence quite a lot. The more attached we are to her, the more horrifying the drawing room scene will become.
While I think it works for Joan’s true motives to be secret, I do think we need to see a hint every now and again of what they could be. The main one I think is perhaps she should pay more mind to her father, who’s living a short walk away, and why she never visits. I don’t think Emma would confront Joan about it, but I imagine she might occasionally mention Herman in conversation, which would give us a small glimpse into why Joan is trying so hard to ‘cure’ the clockmakers. I would have loved to see a conversation between Joan and Herman, given their attitudes towards each other, but the limitations of first-person narrative, and Joan’s character, might make that a bit difficult.
I liked Mrs. Schäfer, which made her betrayal sting, but I think there’s a lot of room to expand her relationship with Emma. I feel that their connection needs to be more positive from the start, and perhaps Mrs. Schäfer could develop into Emma’s favourite teacher? This could help elicit more emotion in a reader when they see her attitude at the end.
Motives of the criminal cultists
While we have a glimpse into Joan’s motives for poisoning the Spring water, we don’t really know why the rest of the cultists would do such dreadful things. The Christmas Eve mass could be a good time to show a shade of extremism, perhaps in the language the pastor (or Joan) uses to rile up the congregation? I think it would also benefit the church to have a focus on a positive figure of worship rather than just their enemies, the clockmakers, for which I think the Black Fountain would be suited. Introducing the concept of the Black Fountain earlier would further emphasise the enmity between the church and the clockmakers, especially since it would allow for a great metaphor in the dichotomy of the White Queen and the Black Fountain.
In addition to the large-scale issues above, I did notice a smaller issue (aside from copyedit issues that every manuscript has). I wanted to mention, just for you to keep in mind as you do your revising, that the manuscript contains a lot of filter words. Emma ‘hears’, ‘sees’, and especially ‘notices’ things a lot, and in 90% of the cases the filter word can be removed to make the sentence much punchier. Of course, this kind of thing will be sorted in the copyedit, but I mention it since it’s so prolific.
You’ve written a really wonderful manuscript here, and I hope my comments and suggestions help you in your revision of the book. I look forward to seeing it printed and on bookshelves!
Please do contact me if you have any questions about anything I’ve said, or if you’d like to discuss your work further. It’s been a pleasure working with you and I hope to do so again in the future.