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.
Ten years ago I wrote the world’s best Regency romance. I wrote it, read it, edited it, read it again, sent it off and waited for the praise to come back.
It didn’t, of course; the whole thing was returned with a definite ‘no thanks’ letter. Hurt beyond measure, I thrust the manuscript into a file and shelved it, thinking up any number of reasons why they could have rejected my wonderful novel apart from the obvious.
Last year, while writing a modern novel which has grown out of a 200 word flash fiction story, I found the Regency romance again. It seemed like such a simple idea to take that one, edit it, refresh it, and get it out there to earn its shelf space while I concentrated on the other.
Ten years of writing and using my brain for what it was intended have wrought many changes in my outlook. As I read through the novel, I could see all the flaws. The time scale was all wrong – the whole thing took place within what must have been the longest four days ever recorded. The main character was not, as that publisher desired, the female – in fact she came a definite second; and the secondary characters were all having a better time than she was. In short, she was someone for whom everyone else acted.
So that quick edit and turn it round idea died a death, and a rewrite was required. There were some excellent parts, and they will remain; but it’s been a case of bringing the rest up to match.
In the intervening years I’ve honed my editor’s skills. I have learned to keep a calendar of the storyline, and to make sure that the plot contains everything it has to contain. That changes as it goes along – novel writing is never a static process, and characters will insist on going where I hadn’t thought they would, or planned that they should.
I’ve grown stale with the project, and stopped for a breather – worth doing for the refreshed vision it can bring. I read the start of it again yesterday and thought, yes, this is good and should be completed.
Writing is about more than just putting down the words on paper. It’s about structure, and geography. It’s knowing the setting, seeing the place, putting the characters into that place and watching them move and interact. It’s remembering that two characters should not have similar names, and that a man who arrives in a carriage should not leave on a horse unless he has a very good reason to do so.
Occasionally it feels like trying to herd soup; but I’m getting there, and the greatest Regency romance novel ever written** will make it into the public domain.
My mistake, and it’s not an unusual one among writers, was in refusing to let anyone else read it before I sent it off. Writing is such a private affair, and handing a piece of work over to someone else and asking them to pick holes in it is like asking someone to stick pins in you. It’s painful, it’s embarrassing, and it doesn’t make any sense at all when the whole point is to get your work out there for hundreds, if not thousands (may as well be positive) of total strangers to read.
So my advice today is, hand the thing over and let someone see it through their own eyes. It may well hurt if they find fault, but that’s a lot better done before you publish it or submit it, and could save you a lot more grief.
(**by me, on a wet Friday, without my specs on.)