|Subtle misdirection: this scene looks nothing like anything in my novel|
I've recently come out the other side of a rather intensive editing process for my novel, The Mannequin Makers. I didn't go through anything like this with the manuscript for my short story collection. Sure, the freelance editor in that case changed a lot of commas and reformatted things into the house style, but I can only think of two or three meaty queries (a conversation they felt sounded artificial, a child they felt sounded too old, ‘does an oxalis leaf really feel like a dried apricot?’). There were probably a few more, but A Man Melting is pretty much as I wrote it.
Flash forward three and a half years and I’m in the delivery suite at Wellington Hospital. Labour is progressing slowly (it’ll be another 14 hours before my daughter pops out) and I have time to check my emails. Waiting for me is a message from my new editor saying she’s just read my book, likes it, is excited to work on it, and here are some high level thoughts. Over the next few hours I tinker with a response (one of the suggestions is something I’m dead set against: changing how Part Three is narrated will cause other parts to unravel!) but I don’t end up sending a reply until Lia is a week old.
My editor and I exchanged a couple more emails about high level things (the melodramatic ending, the voice of one of the narrators) and other, more focussed, questions, like ‘Could a Maori be mayor of a town in New Zealand in 1919?’ We came to agreements over these issues and my editor delved into marking up the manuscript line-by-line.
Toward the end of January the ball was back in my court. As I started working through the comments and suggested changes — there were a lot! — I began to wonder if there would be a page in the manuscript that didn’t need changing…
Turns out: no. Not unless you count half-pages at the end of chapters. There were a few pages with only one edit (pages 105, 123 and 144 for those of you playing along at home), and I scrutinised these, hoping I could reject the change and reaffirm the honour of the page, but alas, they were necessary.
Necessary. As in, this book cannot see the light of day until what I wrote (and revised numerous times myself) is changed. Every necessary edit is an admission I am not omniscient. That I could not bring this book to life single-handed.
As I waded deeper into the marked-up manuscript I began to feel as if I’d handed over a flabby mess. A tedious and inexact (what a stellar combo!), overwritten and over-explained, grammatically clumsy and anachronistic eyesore.
Some perspective is needed, of course. It’s the editor’s job to find the errors of fact or taste. It’s not their job to pad my ego. Running through the suggestions in a 105,000 word document, the writer is only seeing the editor’s question marks, never the ticks.
Doing a creative writing workshop teaches you a little about the process of getting feedback, knowing what to take on board and what to stick up for. But editors aren’t paid to use the sandwich technique (open with a compliment, then get to the constructive criticism, close with a compliment). Writers after ego-stroking should not look to the editing process for validation.
|But this dude, he's totally in my novel |
(though not on a bicycle, sadly)
Getting edited is a bit like receiving the worst review ever. That one you dream about the night before your book comes out, where someone you respect has mercilessly picked at the minutiae as a way of proving THIS WRITER IS NO GOOD AND NOT WORTH YOUR TIME. There’s no time to talk about the story because there’s so much else wrong with the book. Look, they don’t even know when to use ‘lay’, ‘laid’ or ‘lain’!
But, you remind yourself, this is not a review. There’s still time to make these changes and save face. You convince yourself this, but as with a bad dream, you still carry it round with you the rest of the day — that sense of shame.
As I got further into the manuscript and felt the scales tipping back in my favour (‘I’ve improved the first half of the book... the first three-quarters... the whole book will be better than when I started…’) I felt myself coming to terms with the prospect of bad reviews. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘if there’s a pedant out there who picks up a perceived anachronism, so be it. That’s just them trying to prove they read the book closely.’
Sometimes they’ll be wrong, of course (more on this later). But the real hatchet jobs, at least in NZ, are likely to stray wildly from the text and focus on the big issues, like the fact I’m no Franz Kafka and produce McLiterature. This sort of review one can deal with.
So what were some of these necessary changes? And what did I push back on?
This was the first time I’ve tried to write anything set in the past, and though I was pleased with what I was able to create and hand over to my publisher late last year, seeing the edits, it’s clear I still have some blind spots. You might say I have a long way to go before I could be considered rigorous in my historical accuracy.
A random example: after my roadtrip around South Canterbury/North Otago in 2011, I was struck by the town halls in places like Palmerston. It took me a long time to figure out what that pebbledash effect was called (rough cast) so that I could mention it in passing in the novel, only for it to be 30 years too soon when I used it in the novel (rough cast was a 1920s thing, but I’d mentioned it in the 1890s).
|I'd have saved us all some time if I'd just |
zoomed in on my photo (built 1911)
With things like this, I tssked myself, accepted the change and counted my blessings my editor had picked up the anachronism.
Concrete things like architecture and technology are pretty easy to resolve, but there were quite a few times where my editor questioned how characters talked. Sometimes the criticism was bang on (‘Run them past me,’ ‘big reveal’, ‘Don’t get me started’) and other times I found myself pasting links to Papers Past or Youtube to prove people back then talked or acted like they were talking or acting in my novel.
But that’s not the end of the story. Even if people did talk like that ‘back then’, should they talk like that on the page? There is always a tension between what actually happened and what people think the world was like in a past time. The things people question — were gossip columns so cheeky and forthright? Did they use ‘sunshine’ as a (sarcastic) term of endearment? — are liable to throw readers out of the story EVEN IF it’s historically accurate. A novel is not like a Wikipedia page where you can provide citations and hyperlinks to prove you haven’t made this shit up — well, you have, it’s fiction! — or at least that you haven’t made a historical flub.
On the one hand, I don’t want to throw people out of the story with things that seem anachronistic. But on the other I don’t want to recreate a period based purely on what contemporary readers expect it was like.
A line of dialogue is small biscuits, really. I’d be silly not to change the line to keep reader’s engaged in the story. It’s a novel, after all, not a history book about South Island vernacular 1890-1920.
The issue becomes more fraught when we talk about what the culture was actually like back then. One of the big things I want to get across in the first part of the novel is that urban NZ in 1902 wasn’t the dour, sour, isolated no-fun place many think (the image is more appropriate post-WWI). I didn’t know this myself at the start of the project and didn’t know it would be a subtle but vital part of the first fifty pages of the book – but that happens all the time when writing.
In trying to present this more-vibrant-than-you-might-think world, I’m inviting people to be thrown from the story — is that really what I want to do? My editor pointed out a few things that threw her. She felt particularly thrown by a gossip column that appears in the novel. It was, of course, a fake column from a made-up paper (the Marumaru Mail), but this implag (‘imported plagiarism’) conformed to the tone and style of some of the columns I’d come across while doing my research. After all, I didn’t just come up with the idea of writing a one-off entry of a made-up column in a bawdy style. But when the historical fidelity of such a fake column was questioned, I went back to the real ones I’d read and conceded that the most shocking were in metropolitan weeklies, rather than small town dailies like the Marumaru Mail is supposed to be. So I toned things down slightly, but fought to keep the column in the novel as it’s one way to open a window to the more lively aspect of pre-WWI New Zealand (while also giving readers some relevant info about characters in the novel if they’re prepared to dig/decipher).
A lot of people don’t like implags… I only had about four or five in my manuscript and they all got the “Cut?” from my editor. But I like implags. I think they do a lot of work for a small amount of text, and if pulled off well, add a layer of richness and sense of time to a story. I did let two implags hit the cutting room floor when they weren’t needed as a result of some other changes to the final section, but even that was hard.
Here’s one that got cut:
SUICIDE IN MARUMARU
Florence Pettaway, aged 33, unmarried and living with her brother-in-law near Marumaru, was found hanged in a shed yesterday. The deceased had been melancholy for some days.
This took me a couple of hours to craft these two lines. I needed to research how notices like this were written at the time. Without this piece of reportage, readers will no longer know this character’s last name, her age (though you can work it out), or the way her life would have been essentially dismissed by the newspaper (and, by extension, society). All good, worthy things. But it just didn’t seem right for my not-so-literate narrator to be cutting and pasting from the newspaper. Voice drives form, which leads me to...
Writers often talk about struggling with a piece until they ‘find the voice’. This is particularly true of first person narrators, of which there are three in my novel. Each time I slogged and slogged and got nowhere until something clicked and the new narrator’s voice became an almost audible presence that carried me forward.
During the editing process, I realised a lot of the things my editor was cleaning up were things I had dictated from this voice. My knee-jerk reaction to a lot of these suggested changes was, ‘But that’s not how Avis/Gabriel/Eugen talks.’ But these voices that arrive are never perfect. Yes, I was able to tap into some part of my unconscious that could do a pretty good facsimile of a bookish sixteen-year-old girl in 1919, but it was only pretty good. Turns out, there was still a lot of 2011/2012 in her voice too, and only someone with fresh eyes (and no mystical voice in her head) can flag the hiccups and the howlers...
This is not to say that I accepted the changes wholesale. I picked my battles and fought for the odd overreached phrase or over-explanation when it’s driven by the character of the narrator (rather than the novelist pushing his own agenda — of which I’m guilty sometimes — or the novelist channelling an imperfect voice he is too stubborn to admit could sound even better).
Tics and idiocy
All writers have tics. Some are thematic. Like how my stories tend to revolve around fathers: artistic fathers, absent fathers, stern fathers, concerned fathers, de facto fathers. I also have some tics at the sentence level, some of which are part of my received Manawatu plains vernacular. Most of the tics that got pulled up in the manuscript for The Mannequin Makers, however, were related to the voices of the narrators inside my head. My editor pointed out how fond I was of ‘atop’, ‘hoisted’, ‘eased’ and the colour orange (for dresses) - all things that, when examined post-mortem, sound slightly antique and more active than ‘on,’ ‘raised’, ‘lowered’, and a more common colour. But, overused, these words lose their value too.
A lot of things were ‘compared to’ others, rather than ‘compared with’. This might be part of my imperfect vernacular and I was happy to revert to the more formal sounding ‘with’.
And then there were the moments of sheer idiocy, like when I wrote ‘descended down the ladder’ and my editor swiftly removed the ‘down’. Phew!
Praise be to editors.
The process of going through my edited manuscript involved a lot more than ironing out the tics and anachronisms. I also rewrote large chunks of the final section to improve the ending and make it all hang together better.
When I sent the manuscript back with my blue edits mixed with my editor’s red ones, our comment balloons cramming the right margin, I felt two things:
One: this manuscript is a frigging mess.
Two: this manuscript is 200% better than the one I sent off a couple of months ago.
In order to reconcile these two impressions, before I hit send I asked myself: is there anything here you wish you could change if you had another week? There were passages I’d have liked to read again with fresh eyes. There were a few changes I wanted to sleep on for another night. But there was nothing more to do just then.
I hit send.
The first proofs are being couriered to me now and I expect to find them waiting for me when I get home from work tonight. I’ve now had the chance to sleep on the changes. I have relatively fresh eyes and the new booky layout of the text should help.
So it’s the start of another few weeks of pouring over my baby before I hand it on to someone else again. All those possible books I could have written when I started with the idea of a mannequin maker and a shipwreck have narrowed to one. All those ‘first’ novels I’ve worked on or daydreamt are about to be trumped by a real first novel. I’m anxious and pleased. I’m ready to bounce from pride to shame at the sight of an errant coma. I’m tired — so tired — but I’m nearly done.