Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Editing, rewriting, revising the manuscript...

I have just finished the little tweakings (sounds like an address in Surrey...) on The Coward. They took me a couple of sessions, one at home, and one at the British Library, to get away from the internet, phone, cat and various others.
And no, that does not mean that was all there ever was to do!
I found myself approaching this piece of work differently - it is the first time I have written anything so long, so involved, and the process became very different to my writing of a short story - something that tended to need to be all there in draft form before I tried to bash it into shape at all, or I'd lose something, freedom, flow, air... something.
Over the four/five years it took to write The Coward, I polished as I went. Literally, and obsessively. I would write the opening to a section and worry at it for days, reading it out loud, changing a word here, there, and only when I had it as right as I could, did I go on to write more of that section. The process would begin again - reading the whole thing, as far as I had it, out loud. Smoothing, changing, swapping paragraphs over to see if that made it different, better, worse -before continuing.
Sometimes, this process was very necessary. There were great gaps in writing anything of the novel, thanks to external factors. No - I am not whinging - just explaining my process, to myself as much as anything. And to be able to return to the place I was at creatively became quite a leap, very often.
I found reading out loud, slowly, really listening to the words, the rhythms, helped to ground me in the work over and over again, and was also a necessary part of the editing process.
The first draft was completed at Anam Cara in February 2010... and when I came home, I sent it to the marvellous Maggie Gee, with whom I was working on final polishing, thanks to an Arts Council grant. This was the first time anyone had read the whole manuscript right through, apart from its author.
'About 80% of the way there. Publishable already, but will be so much better if you do this, that and the other...'
That was marvellous to hear.. I was getting there. I have to admit, looking back, that there was a bit of me that wanted to hear, 'This is perfection. No need to do anything, oh a typo on page 234...' but I knew it wasn't, and never would be perfection - but it absolutely HAD to be the best it could be before sending it out to my agent.
The world is tough. If I sent him a 'less than' manuscript, and he had ten pieces of work whose authors had taken the trouble to polish, polish, polish on his desk - see the issue?

So how did I approach the polishing process? Maggie prepared detailed notes, pointing out those places where her response to the book became 'teachery' as opposed to 'readery'. That I understood completely. We would discuss the bigger issues, and I would go off to sort out the solutions. It took a long time - working up to a final read from Maggie in the late summer, a final list of notes, and a couple of weeks in Ireland, chipping and chipping away.

Many times during the process, I would print off the whole book, read it through, trying to keep a distance, treating it as a whole, to see what effect this or that change had on the whole thing. In this way, reading it through again, and again, I picked up more little nits and nats and changed those too.
And by October I had a piece of work I felt was right to send to my agent. The attention to detail, obsessively ironing out the nits, guided by a seasoned, marvellous novelist, (also, incidentally first female Chair of the Royal Society of Literature) paid off. He wanted no revisions, and sent it straight out and the rest is history.

So what tweaks can my editor want? As many as she likes, actually - she is so in tune with the book, I have no qualms about anything, and trust her judgement. But there are so few, thank heavens. The process this time was this - to get Helen's suggestions via email. To read carefully - and sit on them for a few days. Then print out the novel again (!) and consider each suggestion separately. And tweak. Often, all it took was a single phrase added. (But of course, I would always end up reading out loud to make sure the phrase fitted absolutely!)

So the only tip I can end on, is this.

If you are not normally an obsessive personality, there is one time you absolutely must be one. And that is when you are editing a novel.


  1. Thanks, that's very enlightening. I spend an eternity – well, not quite – agonising over my very short stories. I was doing that last week and thought, "if I scaled this process up to cover a novel it would take.... a long time." There must be some kind of short-cut, I reasoned. A quicker way of getting it done. I guess not. Unless you are just prepared to let things go. But then why bother in the first place?

  2. You're so right about reading out loud. I'm doing that as I rewrite to my agent's list of revisions. And that one tweak somewhere can affect things elsewhere, so the "treating it as a whole" is vital, also. Obsessive is good, and (for me) it's funny how many times you can read something and not realise that there's been a nit there that no one spotted (not typos, more than that). Thank goodness for deadlines, or it would be hard to ever let it leave this stage, wouldn't it?

  3. Hi Neil - well, it's just my own process, with this novel - I cant ever see me being a production line with a single process repeated over and over - that wold be ghastly...

    and perhaps there is an element of not wanting to let it go without making sure its got everything it needs - a bit like saying goodbye when a child leaves home?

    but you are so right - why bother if you are prepared to settle for second best when you look back on your own efforts? I cant think of anything worse than thinking, 'I could have done that so much better' - with the caveat that the skills were there at the time of writing.

  4. Hi Sarah - interesting that you echo the 'not wanting to let it go' thought...I can't wait to let The Coward go now - and get on to being excited, for something else.

  5. Lady, put The Coward down, step away from The Coward and do not return to The Coward...keep your hands up...

    Brilliant insights and tips. Thanks.

  6. Wow, I'm impressed by your process. You have inspired me to read out loud more.

    Great to find your blog again, looked it up after hearing you read at SPARKS. For months I've been visiting your old blog, hoping for a new post, so maybe you could put a link on top to your new blog address?

    All the best with the final final edits.
    Louise x
    (I spoke to you very briefly at SPAKRS, and you might know me as you were supposed to read at the same Short Fuse night as me back in May when you had that fall in Stockholm ... glad you are back on your feet!)

  7. Hi Louise - of course, sorry I had to rush off, train to catch - maybe we'll meet at another event, drink on me.

    Thanks for the nice words re the editing, and this blog - sadly - (long and boring story) I cant add anything to the old one - I lost the password to that Google account in a Firefox update. There is a link hidden on the right hand side, 'if this blog dies' - direct to this one - as I knew it wold happen at some point.

    happy writing!

  8. Oh, I love the idea of having permission to obsess! And you're so is a see saw which takes you from not ever wanting to read 1 more word of it ever again, to wanting to read each word over and over just to be sure, Insanity, but such fun:-) I can not tell you how anxious I am to read it!!

  9. This is precisely the post I needed to read! I'm poised to start my third set of agent revisions and have been feeling rather low about it all. However, I do see and accept that the polishing is worth it - AND that it's okay for a novel to take a long time to be ready. Thanks, Vanessa.

  10. Hello there - oh I am so glad! And having just popped across to see if you gave us the title of your work - I have to say ' Balthasar's Gift' is a fantastic title - I am intrigued already.
    I never knew what hard work this would be. And yes, I recognise the 'feeling low' - very often in my case. But it has been worth it - and now, Im just embarking on the next something.... must be absolutely crackers!
    Good luck - keep faith - between you, it will come right. Look forward to hearing more.

  11. Wow that's amazing that you went on submission straight away. Obsessive editing does pay. I will remember that for my next book. :)

  12. Very timely for me also thank you Vanessa. I am facing up to revisions of a novel I wrote five years ago, but then dropped because my agent didn't fall in love. Africa doesn't sell, she told me. I realise nobody has ever read the whole thumping story and you are blessed to have had Maggie Gee's eye over your shoulder. I have only ever done nitty gritty revision of my commercial novel (red pen in the old stable, read aloud til I was hoarse) called The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy - blog tour soon. But this work is longer and trickier and needs a different pulse. Also the distractions of winter.. I am itching to run away and ski. Happy Writing and thank you for the inspiration. Cat

  13. Hi, authorsoundsbetterthan (yes it does!) - the speed may have something to do with the fact that there is mining incident in the book - something that will be flooding the novel world soon enough post-Chile and New Zealand. But the state of the ms was obviously helpful!

  14. Hi Cat - good to see you here - why not go skiing, and take the novel with you?? I found working in Zermatt very good - must be the rarified air at that altitude! Lots of good luck with both anyway - look forward to the blog tour for Divorced Lady's Companion - sounds a great read, and following on from Eat Pray Love - should do really well.

  15. Yes lovely idea but the laptop has never come out of the bag when I take it up - too many hours on the slopes, beers and sofa time! Much easier to work on the plains where there are less distractions. But maybe one day at the end of March.. Have just ordered your book on the Salt site. Congrats and can't wait to read it. Ciao cat

  16. Hi Vanessa! This is a very interesting blog post for me to read right now. I didn't realise you had been working on The Coward's Tale for 4-5 years. I have been working on my novel for 5 years with huge gaps when I didn't touch it. I have been editing as I go along to a certain extent, but have never read aloud. Probably time to start. I frequently get low periods when I wonder what on earth I've started and wondering if I can ever finish it to my satisfaction!

  17. Wonderful post!

    I edit books, and so many times I find young authors who think their agent or publisher will "fix" every mistake. They therefore submit subpar work with disastrous results. I've been trying to tell these young authors that they only get one chance with each reader at a publishing house, so they must, absolutely must, submit their very best work.