I only talk about my own writing on this blog when I reach a significant point. A year ago, I wrote about how it felt to finish my first novel. In the summer something unrelated prompted me to reflect on my early experience of rejection. This time the milestone was when I decided to stop submitting, get a professional edit and embark on a major re-structuring of the manuscript. I’m happy to share my experience, but that’s all it is.
One of the strongest messages to come from the numerous writer events I’ve attended is that agents and publishers no longer have time to work extensively with authors on their manuscripts. A submission should be the absolute best the writer is capable of and extremely polished. I worked hard on my novel and accepted a lot of feedback at every stage which helped to raise my game. By the time I started submitting to agents I genuinely thought the manuscript was ready.
Is this the part where I wail about how embarrassed I am to have ever sent it out? Well actually, no. I can’t pretend that nine months of rejections was anything but hard, but it had its moments. I believe this is known as ‘feasting on crumbs’, but for what it’s worth (and I appreciated it) many of the agents I approached said nice things about my writing and in fact some of the most positive comments came from those who read the whole thing but just didn’t love it (and I understand now just how important it is that the agent does love it). One, who I’d met briefly, told me she liked me more than the book (!) and another had such a strange emotional response to the story that my husband got quite angry, saying ‘Who are these people?’
In an attempt to hang onto my sanity I started work on a new novel and reached 30,000 words before I knew it, but the very fact it was going well made me feel uneasy about the first one (never underestimate a writer’s capacity to beat themselves up). When people started to say, ‘Maybe this will be the one that’ll get you an agent’, I suspected they might be right. So why didn’t I just throw the first one in a drawer and mark it down to experience? Plenty of writers do.
I saw several reasons not to do that. I felt I’d been taken seriously by agents and had been in with a real chance. By this point quite a few other people had read the novel and connected with it. The main characters Jackie and Kath have become incredibly real to me, and not just to me. I’ve had the thrill of hearing others discuss them as if they are real and I still want the chance to tell their story. To give up now would be like locking two friends in a cupboard.
There is one other small matter. I remember watching an American film years ago where a guy barks at some poor loser ‘Your best is not good enough!’ My problem isn’t that my best wasn’t good enough (that might be next), it’s that it wasn’t my best. It wasn’t good enough either and I can see that now. ‘Polished’ doesn’t mean elbow grease and a can of Mr Sheen; it means French polished like a dining table at Versailles. A lot of what you hear at publishing events for new writers is pretty unpalatable (You’re more likely to win Wimbledon, etc) but one constructive piece of advice kept cropping up over and over again – Get a professional edit. Your manuscript is competing against plenty which have.
I decided to call in Debi Alper, who I have followed on Twitter for ages. In September I attended her excellent half day Self-Editing Workshop at the York Festival of Writing and could immediately tell her standards are sky high. When the report arrived, she told me to take lots of deep breaths before reading it. I was so terrified I could hardly bring myself to open the document, but I wasn’t all that fazed by it in the end. I knew she’d be tough on me, but that’s what I needed – unbiased, honest critical input. The verdict? Debi did an amazing job and I am very grateful to her. It’s obvious that she read my manuscript very attentively and spent a long time on it. She really ‘got’ the novel and addressed both the fine detail and the way it functioned as a whole. I was given credit for the things I’d done well, and given my own taste in reading I was really pleased that Debi felt the language and challenging structure made it more literary than I’d seen it myself. That’s very motivating. I was less delighted to be told that the ending was veering towards chick lit but like most of the things she picked me up on, it’s true (and deep down I knew it).
The main story is about two very different women who meet in London and become close friends in rather odd circumstances. Each of them has a back story which is gradually revealed in flashbacks closely linked to the main action. On the whole it works but there are key places I haven’t pulled it off. Now it’s been pointed out, I can see that I’ve made some common mistakes such as revealing plot developments in dialogue or by skating over them in passing rather than having them take place ‘on screen’, which lets the reader experience them with the character rather than at a remove. I’ve also withheld details of the American character’s past from the reader for far too long, and when I fix this, the reader will feel more invested in her throughout the story.
The bad news is, to do that I’ve got to take the whole manuscript to pieces and put it back together in a different way. I’ve just spent three very intense days going through it working out what needs doing and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable, although it’s going to be a huge challenge to keep the synergy between the back stories and the main narrative. The other big issue in the manuscript is improving the use of Psychic Distance. I thought I was already writing the two 3rd person narratives from deep inside the characters’ heads, but I don’t go far enough. This too will greatly increase the emotional power of the book if I can get it right. I’ve gained huge respect for the skills of the professional editor which are very different to those of a writer.
If I could do one thing differently, I would commission the editorial report before submitting to agents and no future book I write will go out without being professionally edited. For many published authors, that proved to be the turning point but I know there’s no guarantee of that and it would be foolish to think so. I’m doing this because I love writing. I believe in my story and I just want to write the best book I can.
Maybe this time I really will.
Writers, have you taken the step of getting a professional edit or would you consider it? I’d be fascinated to hear what readers make of all this….
Debi reminded me of Emma Darwin’s fantastic blog This Itch of Writing, a huge source of useful information for writers on topics such as Psychic Distance, mentioned above.
Fellow debut novelist Anthony Madigan is devoting an entire new blog to his own re-write and it promises to be a very interesting one to follow.