To Huff and Puff and Blow Your House Down
Your editor is not the Big Bad Wolf.
Your first draft is your experiment. You know what you want to write; you know your characters and what they are going to do; and you get that story out with sweat and tears and chocolate (or your comfort food of choice). It’s like giving birth, only it takes a lot longer. With a mother’s eye, you gaze fondly upon your finished work, and you think, this is the best it can be. It’s lovely.
‘Isn’t it lovely?’ you ask Auntie Madge, who reads a lot, and your best friend Frank, who is into sci-fi, rather than the historical mystery that’s your chosen genre, but hey – it’s all words, after all. They tell you it’s great, which coincides with your own hopes and beliefs, so it must be true.
Frank gives up halfway through when he discovers that none of the carriages fly, and Auntie Madge always tells you that what you do is lovely, on the grounds that you’re her favourite sister’s child.
They don’t spot the errors: a few spelling mistakes, yes, but not the punctuation or the gaps in the plot or the fact that you state in Chapter One that it’s Thursday, and in Chapter Two the same day is suddenly a Tuesday. They don’t notice that you keep lapsing into present tense, or that you say someone has left the room when they’re still there and speaking.
You suffer a sudden rush of authorial blood to the brain and hand the finished thing over to an editor, just to confirm what you are sure is the case – that it’s all perfect. Back comes the novel, covered in red ink. The mean, rotten, nasty editor has picked up every flaw there is, including some you are not sure are flaws. Like the first of the three little pigs’ houses, the editor has huffed and puffed and blown it down, and you feel like s/he has gobbled you up and spat you out.
After a period of reflection, which can be months or years, you start again. You face the red ink, and you resolve to banish it. This time you’ll make sure of the typos and the spelling mistakes by using autocorrect, and you’ll tweak the tenses, because you realise that actually the editor was right about that part. Convinced that this time it’s really as good as it’s possible to be, and anyway you really want to get this thing published now, you send it off and sit back to await the praise.
Once again it comes back. S/he can still find errors: all your autocorrecting has done is to put weird replacements in where they don’t belong. You didn’t check, did you? You thought you’d sorted out the Thursday/Tuesday thing, but the editor says that you now have the longest day in history instead. Oh, and the hero who started out as James has changed to Denzil halfway through this version.
The big bad wolf has blown down the second house and gobbled you up and spat you out again.
This time you open your eyes and your inner ears. You listen to what you’ve written; you hear its rhythms, you see the words as they appear on the page, not in your head; you concentrate until your forehead is a mass of lines that will be with you for ever, and you work out what’s wrong and what’s right. You look at it, not as though it’s your innocent child, to be protected against all slights, but as though it is a piece of work, to be honed and manipulated and polished so that when the reader opens that first page, they are hooked. You realise that all this tweaking and correcting has actually made a good, solid, finished piece of art from what was a shoddy thrown-together prototype, full of good intentions and possibilities but unrefined.
The big bad wolf, far from destroying your houses for no reason, has actually made you realise that construction isn’t about the plans and the paper they’re written on: it’s about the execution of those plans. Old Furry Snout isn’t in this for the fun of knocking your house down, but for the joy of seeing you build the final version – the one that will last.
You have the right to by-pass the editing part; you can do whatever you want with your novel; but when the reviewers seem to be overly rude about your work, and picky about the plot holes, and cranky about the name changes, what will you have gained? You’ll be the little pig in the straw house, free from the attentions of the Big Bad Wolf, but prey to every other passer-by instead.
If it looks like a wolf, and it snarls like a wolf, it’s just being a wolf. That’s what it’s there for.