The other day I growled to my husband, "This book is driving me mad." He gave a shrug: "They always do." After 20 years, to him it's water off a violinist's back, and he retreats happily to practise his Paganini. Upstairs, though, I am in the middle of what is elegantly termed 'Editorial Development', but is, to me, the inevitable part of writing a book that is a bit like being skinned alive. The outer covering is pulled off and every bone, every vein, the entire network of connective tissue and nerve-endings, are under microscopic scrutiny.
My editor has done a wonderful job with the manucript. She has been kind, encouraging, firm and to the point. She's homed in on issues that I sort of know about, but might not have focused on so clearly: for instance, I tend to speed up towards the end of a story, and that's not a bad thing, but it is not good if you press the accelerator pedal down so hard that the countryside blurs and your passengers can't see the thing they came out with you to see in the first place. Ghost Variations came back from its editor 14,000 words shorter. Odette has come back with an encouragement to make it 5,000 words longer.
Above all, she has made a point which I know that the legendary Robert McKee, the Hollywood screenwriting guru, would absolutely applaud: the stranger the story's world, the more its internal existence has to be consistent and convincing.
This week I've been at my desk for long hours (and will be for this next week too, I expect), still trying to shake off the sore throat and annoying cough I picked up on the plane coming back from Australia, and attempting to make sense of a 70,000 manuscript in which the central premise does not and never will make any sense, and is not supposed to, but everything else has to be a hundred per cent watertight.
This probably sounds nuts, but I promise it's a crucial part of the whole Writer's Technique malarkey. For instance, I am asking you to accept a story in which one of the main characters is transformed into a swan during daylight hours and has been living under a spell for 166 years. But that means under no circumstances can I ask you also to accept that she could be blown 8000 miles from Siberia to the east of England in a single day. Not even the most extreme hurricane-force wind could do that. When I first drafted Odette, back in 1992, we had no internet, you'd have to go to a library full of good encyclopedias in order to check your details, and I had no idea how far it was from Cambridge/Norwich/Cygnford to Novosibirsk, let alone Irkutsk. Now it takes about 15 seconds to find out on Google Maps.
In fact that wasn't something my editor pointed out; but she did point out much else, and when you start noticing and questioning such things, you then start noticing and quesitoning others as well. And that's when you start checking facts on the internet, even though the basic facts - your heroine is 185 years old and her enchanter is probably about 200 - are totally, utterly impossible.
I think this may be one reason it's called "magical realism".
Next, I read the whole thing aloud. To the cat. Our old cat, Solti, used to detest being read to. If I started reading aloud he would come in and meow at me continuously. I never knew whether this meant "I wanna join in" or "Shut the **** up!" (The same is currently true for Madame Cosima and Tom's violin practice...) Ricki (pictured above) who has designated himself "my" cat, while Cosi is "Tom's", is much more patient. He'll sprawl in his cat-tree top bunk and watch the birds in the apple while being read a nice, very long story, and only really responds if I happen to have used the word "suppertime".
Whatever he thinks of it, it's an incredibly useful thing for me to do. Again, it's the laboratory microscope of the Writer's Technique malarkey. If you read aloud, you read every word. You hear things - and if you are into music, this means you are aurally motivated and hearing things can offer insights that simply seeing them will sometimes miss (especially if you're trying to look at them afresh after 26 years). You notice images that are repeated too often, or phrases you've over-used, or daft clichés that stick out like a sore thumb [see what I did there?]. You feel the passages that jar, rubbing at your skin like mosquito bites. And you notice the bits that probably go on too long because you start wanting to check Facebook while you're reading them. Time to make judicious use of the 'delete' button.
So, that's where we are in 'Editorial Development'. Now you know the painful truth, and I'm going back in to tackle the next 100 pages. Wish me luck and have a lovely Sunday.
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