It’s not often I write something reflective, believing that the work should speak for itself, but I’m going to indulge myself for once.
I’ve been editing the manuscript for my next novel Boys from the Backfields. It’s been a long project. I wrote the first draft of the book in the mid-nineties, almost twenty years ago. I got some interest from a big name literary agent at the time, but through naivety or stupidity I blew it.
The book was written in two parts. Grandly, I named them Book One and Book Two, like it was a great saga. In fact the novel only ran to 70,000 words. The agent loved Book One, but felt that it could be extended into a full novel, leaving my precious Book Two to fall off the edge of the desk into the dustbin. I protested, and argued my case, Book Two was what it was really all about, the whole point of Book One was to set things up for Book Two. Correspondence ceased, I was cut adrift. Touchy bastards those agents.
So there I was nearly two decades later, thinking about what novel I should work on next after completing Cheats and Liars. There were a lot of contenders, two completed novels, the Backfields and another I don’t want to talk about, and at least half a dozen on the go including a science fiction story and a novel set in the dark crevices of society titled Bums.
cut a long story short précis, I eventually settled on re-editing the Backfields novel. I reckoned it would take a couple of months at most. Surely with all the experience I’d gained since, including editing other writers’ books, it would simply be a case of smoothing it out a bit, chopping the odd adjective, giving a limp to a character to add depth, that sort of thing.
I re-read the original. Yes, it was doable. Good, I just wanted to get it out of the way, clear some creative space so my as yet unimagined seminal work could start to take shape. Ha! By the time I realised how much work there really was, it was too late, I had to run with it.
The original book was set in 1963 and in 1993, hence Book One and Book Two. The hero is Mick Matthews, who, at thirteen, witnesses a murder. When he comes back to his childhood home in 1993 the murder is finally solved. Then I thought – or is it? Damn! Book Three here we come. It’s 2013, Mick is now sixty-three years old. What’s he doing hiding in the attic of his ex-lover’s house?
OK, I decided to take it on, all it would mean was a few extra chapters. The characters and locations were already set up, so it would be easy, a pleasure even. I did it. It took about seven months altogether, amongst other things, like the final editing and publication of Cheats and Liars, and earning a living. There were a respectable 92,892 words, hanging together to make what I felt was a decent little story. Boys from the Backfields was almost ready, just a close proofread left.
Book One went well, a few commas in the wrong place, Book Two was all right, I was nearly there. Now, being a skint writer who can’t get a traditional publishing deal, I publish my own work. It’s great, I get complete creative freedom and I love that, but it’s hard, some say impossible, to edit your own work. I can’t afford an editor, but everyone needs a bit of feedback, so before finally committing myself to publishing the book I asked my long-suffering wife to read a couple of chapters. She looked up from the Margaret Atwood she was engrossed in and rolled her eyes. I gave her one chapter from the original Book One and another from the newly minted Book Three.
“Well,” she said, an agonising half an hour later, “it’s good, but the first chapter is a bit verbose, and the other one is too thin, there’s not enough depth.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She smiled and retrieved the Atwood from the arm of the sofa.
Too verbose? Not enough depth?
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll have a look.”
I froze for two days, a whole weekend. I re-read the chapters, she was right, it was crap. I’d just wasted seven months of my life, not to mention the years before that. I had two choices, the first was to scrap it forever, burn the printed out manuscripts, shred the endless digital backups that were lurking in dark corners of old hard drives and on the surface of decades old floppy disks, or tackle the verbosity and the lack of depth. I re-read the book again, it wasn’t that bad, an extra week of editing wasn’t that much, considering how long the story had been haunting me.
OK. I was lucky enough to have some time while waiting for a work contract to start. I had to get Boys from the Backfields out of my head, I needed that space. I started at the beginning. Hmm, I’ll just cut that paragraph, rewrite that cliché, I’ll mark that up and come back to it, maybe I’ll change that character’s name?
Three agonising weeks followed, working all day every day, and well into the night. I became a recluse, going out only to buy bananas and coffee, and once a week to the Farmers’ Market to buy vegetables and bread. Luckily I was still waiting for the work contract to start.
So, that’s it, it’s 10,000 words lighter. It’s less verbose, and it’s got more depth. It’s all ready to go, just the formatting to do, and the cover design to complete, then it will be released – a little needle injected into the haystack of books out there.
Maybe I’ll give it one more proofread, just to be sure.