(Picture, The Kiss by Andrius Kovelinas)
“I took my revenge on Bill when he died. I didn’t say Rest in Peace. No peace for the wicked that’s what I said; and I meant it.” Annie Griffin in Honor’s Ghost
This time last year, I was planning to finish Honor’s Ghost by the summer. I had completed a full draft, and done a fair bit of editing. How long could it take?
A year later, I’m planning to finish it by summer this year. What took me so long? An editing journey that showed me I had a lot more to learn than I thought, that’s what.
In February 2013, my coaching mentor Jacqui Lofthouse delivered a full editorial report on the manuscript. Jacqui is incredibly skilled at providing feedback, both technically and personally, and we had a long discussion about her suggestions. She had enjoyed the novel, and had many good things to say about it, as well as a a number of great ideas to improve it. The story is a dual narrative, (two stories being told alongside each other), a structure which has many challenges. Jacqui pointed out a serious flaw in the believability of the dual narrative as I had written it; and I knew it would require a massive re-write to put it right. I decided to try a less demanding solution. Gently, kindly, Jacqui told me that she remained convinced it needed the more radical overhaul, something I had come to know in my heart as I tried the compromise option. So, there was my next editing challenge. By now it was the summer, and I knew I needed more help. Jacqui’s career had taken a new turn, so she was not able to offer me the forensic editing support I needed. Where to turn?
Twitter then did one of those magical things it does – presents you with exactly what you need at the very time you are looking. It was the online How to Self Edit Your Novel Course run by the Writers’ Workshop, taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin, over six weeks. The timing was not great: I was very busy with my working life, and there were numerous family events and activities scheduled. But I didn’t want to miss the chance so I gave it a go. It was invaluable: weekly taught module, homework; feedback, both from other students and from Debi. Through this, I learned explicitly where my writing was strong, and why; and where and how I could improve my story. As I considered how to re-structure Annie’s story, Debi made a comment, which was a real breakthrough:
“Ah, OK. So what you need to ask yourself is: where is Annie standing when she’s narrating her story? And who is she telling it to? That will provide the key to her voice, I think.”
I knew the answer instantly: she is standing just behind Honor’s left shoulder, whispering her story into her ear. And I also knew it wasn’t written in a way that showed that; so that was my next editing task. Around the same time, my friend Isabel Costello, author and blogger, invited author Sue Elliot Wright to contribute a guest blot to her site, The Literary Sofa, on dual narratives. Sue had written a set of guidelines which provoked me to make a number of changes. Armed with Sue’s list and Debi’s question, I felt equipped to complete the overhaul that Jacqui had known to be right for the novel.
The self editing course proved so illuminating that it left me hungry for more. My writing style is to just splurge it all out on the page, then edit it. But that means a LOT of editing is needed, and I wanted to learn more about the art of revision, in order to make Honor’s Ghost the best book I could possibly make it. So I applied to the Faber Academy Edit your Novel course, to study with Sarah Savitt, the Faber Editor who worked on the amazing Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. The course is three terms long, with fortnightly sessions. The final term is taught by literary agent Sam Copeland and focuses on finding a literary agent.
The course began with a full reader report on the manuscript. I submitted with some trepidation, as I had now completed the re-structure of the dual narrative, so this was the first test of that new version. To my great relief, the reader report commented:
“This is an incredibly readable book in which both narratives are handled effectively, and the reader’s interest is equally engaged during both the historical and contemporary interludes. It definitely has an original concept without being alienating and with its broad range of issues and characters, should find a wide readership within the book-club market.”
Phew: the newly structured dual narrative worked! After this encouraging start, the report suggested some ideas for refining, clarifying and tightening some other aspects of the story, all of which I completely agreed with, but hadn’t been able to identify alone.
I’m halfway through the Faber course now, and it has provided real impetus to my editing work, offering both the inspiration and the tools I need. Most lessons spark a shower of ideas over the ensuing days, that add to the constant refining of my writing.
Although my deadline for completion is a year later than planned, I couldn’t be happier: I have learned so much, that I can apply to all my future writing. Plus, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. So a massive thank you to all those who have helped me over the last twelve months, I couldn’t have done it without you!