January finds me working through the editorial report for my new adult novel, Heart’s Blood. I got my manuscript back just before Christmas and I have until the end of the month to make changes. (To recap, the editing is a joint venture for separate publishers in Australia, the UK and the USA – same book, different editions, same publication date of November 2009.)
When I turned in the completed manuscript a month or so ago, some aspects of the story still weren’t working – it was not great, just OK. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. The ms did have a disrupted path to completion, with a nine month gap in the middle while I wrote another novel at my editor’s request. The report on Heart’s Blood indicates that the part I wrote before the break is the weakest. The ms requires structural edits.
I absolutely hate structural rewriting. It’s messy, requires intense concentration, and often means deleting favourite passages to streamline the narrative. As a writer I am a control freak, and right now my work table looks uncomfortably busy: laptop centre stage, marked-up hard copy on the left, with the editor’s pencil comments now overlaid by my slashes and scrawls. The hard copy is bristling with star-shaped post-its, on which are scribbled things like ‘window, rain’, ‘pitiful remnant’ and ‘wager’. Other post-its are stuck directly to the table. To the right of the laptop is the editorial report itself, which contains firstly general comments about character, pace, themes and so on, and secondly more specific queries. My long-term editorial assistant, Sonia, is lying across as many pieces of paper as a large cat can reasonably cover.
Of the twelve novels I’ve written to date, three have needed significant structural reworking at the editorial stage. This time around I need to do substantial cutting and pasting – more of the former than the latter – and quite a lot of rewriting. Editors do generally suggest solutions to perceived problems, but I don’t always use them – more often I find my own way around the difficulty. For some parts of this ms I’m finding it easier to set the original aside, think about what is truly essential to the scene, then write the whole thing again from scratch. This means a scary amount of the original is being discarded, which has the potential to cause continuity problems. The book has four generations of stories running alongside one another, the main, linking one told as a first person narration, the others conveyed through memories, documents or visions. When I finish and read through later in the month, I’ll be looking out for characters quoting from speeches that have now been deleted, for instance, or characters knowing about something that they now don’t get to read or hear about until later in the book.
I also need to capture some emotional nuances it seems are not quite there yet. It’s salutary to hear an editor’s take on your story, and to discover that the central characters who seem so real to you are not yet pressing all the right buttons for the reader. Ideally these characters will leap off the page and straight into the reader’s heart, to inhabit her dreams and imaginings. The reader should be cheering the protagonist on, shouting warnings as she heads into peril, weeping with her as she gets her heart broken. These subtle changes can be the trickiest to attend to.
I’ve definitely learned something from the long-drawn-out process of writing Heart’s Blood. If I have a long gap in mid-novel it’s extremely hard to pick up the pieces. Taking a brief period off to write a short story or do editorial work on another book is fine; taking most of a year off to write a different novel isn’t. To write effectively, I need to immerse myself in the world of my story, get under the skin of my characters, live their journey with them. The project switch left the Heart’s Blood cast in limbo and played havoc with their already challenging lives.
Of course, many writers successfully juggle several projects at once, including novels, and enjoy the variety. They seem to switch around without any difficulty. What’s your experience? Do you need total immersion, or can you happily multi-task as a writer?