Jane Wood, my editor at Quercus Books, sent her notes on my novel this week. It’s a moment I’ve been dreading and craving in equal measure, and I wanted to take a moment to think about what it means now it’s actually here.
I’ve already done four drafts of The Visitors. Some of the drafts were very heavy, and some were extremely light. Redrafting is essential to all writing – I still, even now, return to stories published years ago to tweak and rework them. I have little paranoias about all my work, and can’t help but return to it. Sometimes I make changes of single words, and other times I excise entire scenes. Sometimes I catch myself totally rewriting published work, and I have to make myself leave it behind – I have to take stock and force myself to walk away.
On the second draft of The Visitors, I pussyfooted around Sue’s notes, making tiny changes, scared of diving in. When I came to a third draft, I made myself stamp on it, brutalising the manuscript with broad changes and moving onto the next alteration, no matter how ugly the massacre I left behind. Then, when it looked like a crime scene, I started rebuilding again. That’s what I’ll do this time, too, no matter how hard I find it. And I’m going to find it hard.
Whenever I come to editing and redrafting, I think there are two broad categories of change:
These are the easy ones, often little more involved than line edits. Cosmetic changes this time include switching a character’s name, cutting some internal monologue and reconsidering some of the vocabulary used by my main character. I could blitz through that in a day, tops. Unfortunately, the other editing category is:
…and this is the big stuff. Making structural alterations means redrawing the map of the story while trying to maintain the same emotional trajectory, and that can be difficult to keep in balance. In this case, I have two substantial changes to make. Firstly, a minor character needs to become a major character, and he needs to appear much sooner in the story. I already know this is going to be awkward, because I attempted something similar in the third draft, and I struggled to bump him up the narrative even to his current position. It’s going to be tough to find or create somewhere to introduce him sooner.
The second change initially felt even more challenging, but on reflection perhaps isn’t quite so bad. Jane has suggested a different direction for the ending that I’m really excited about. At first I was really worried about it, but I’m starting to see it as a case of unravelling the current conclusion and retying the strands of story into a different shape of knot. This will involve more writing, but actually it’s less of a challenge – with the current ending gone, I’ll be writing into blank space. That’s a thrilling proposition at this late stage of the manuscript.
While it’s still a skeleton, a novel plot is essentially arbitrary. Things can be changed extremely quickly and easily. New characters come and go, and the story shifts like a dune, blown into organic and occasionally bizarre shapes by the wind of imagination. But the more developed a story becomes, the less arbitrarily it can change. There comes a point where making big alterations means breaking the momentum you’ve fought to generate, then patching up the holes and hoping no-one can tell the difference. That’s where a writer needs to have paranoid convictions about the emotional tone of their work, and strive to make it as cohesive as possible in plot, character, voice and soul, then work it again and again and again, hammering and thrashing and beating and combing through the manuscript until it’s carved against your optic nerve.
Editing is frantic. It’s really hard. Throughout the process, a storm cloud hangs over you, an implicit sense that you didn’t do it well enough the first time. Then there’s the crashing changes you wreak on something you loved. And then there’s the dread that whatever you make to take its place won’t come close to what you had before. It’s an exciting time, too, but the whole process is riven with a crawling, monstrous, excruciating anxiety.
This is mostly my load to carry, but I’m glad I’m not taking the journey alone. I’m now far too close to The Visitors to critically appreciate it, and working with other people helps triangulate my own perspective about the story. I’ve often stated my belief that writing is as much about the community as the individual – not least as it counts for little without a reader. When I write short stories, I read them to Mon, and I send them to writer friends. And I pay attention to what they say, even if I disagree. Working with other people – and working with Jane and Sue, now – has repeatedly shown me the importance of opening myself and my ideas to an audience. I have people I can talk to, and that makes me lucky.
Of course, I say this before actually beginning the edits. Try me in a week.
Photo lifted from ‘Minuscule Series’ by Maité Guerrero