I’ve just thrown away the best piece I’ve ever written.
It was intriguing, atmospheric, filled with mystery and beautifully-observed description. It attracted interest from agents and publishers. It was short-listed for an award. I’ve tweaked and twiddled it for years. It was perfect.
But it didn’t fit.
I suppose, in my heart of hearts, I’ve known this for the past six months or so. It set out too much of the story of the novel too soon, crammed in too much, and it belonged to quite another book. Granted, this was the book I was originally trying to write, and for that book it still might have worked. But for this one it didn’t. Not any more. It was too slow, too full of information, and it concentrated on entirely the wrong characters. The ones who were important when it was a different kind of book, but who are definitely not important now. Barely get a look-in, in fact.
So it had to go.
And that is what working with an editor is all about: that clear-eyed over-view of the book and a reader’s reaction that cuts through the proverbial and leaves you with the fact of the matter.
Am I weeping into my gin – er, soup? Am I cursing? Have I torn up my contract in a huff and declared Art Shall Win? Of course not. I’m a pro. Plus the good thing about building up a writing career slowly is that you’ve experienced so many gratuitous (and some not-so -gratuitous) insults and put-downs along the way, anything that is intended to help comes as a wondrous gift, so be seized upon now, this minute, before it slides off into the ether.
What I didn’t expect – and this is part of the amazing privilege of working with an editor – is the sense of utter liberation this binning of My-Best-Work-Ever has given me. The albatross fell. The mind sat up and rubbed its hands and went aha! Well, actually it went AWOL for a couple of days. But then the solution came to me in a burst of heady inspiration.
So, at the end of last week, I sat down and rewrote. The chapter is not nearly so crafted, nowhere near as beautiful – but it works! Not only that, while I was writing I could feel just how much I have learnt during this process of working with an editor. My writing is tighter, more focussed, more aware of the reader. It is less self-conscious, less precious – and yes, far less up-itself than it was when I started. I’d thought I’d left the up-itself bit behind years ago, but this was my first attempt at a SERIOUS novel, and obviously the old habits had come creeping back around the edges. Hey ho.
Ah, I see I mentioned an albatross. I’m beginning to think I should have studied particle physics (whatever that is) rather than English Lit. That way, I might never have fallen for the temptation to write prose steeped in deep allusion and clever references to authors of the past. The kind of prose ripe for studying at ‘A’ level, but quite often not the kind readers actually read. Or at least not in the numbers I want to sell in, to be absolutely and perfectly blunt about this. A girl has to live. And so does her dog.
Anyhow – as Jane Austen pointed out in ‘Persuasion’ – such august works were mostly written by men, and have very little truth to observe on the complications of the female heart. Particularly when the said heart has been around for thirty-five years or more, and has just started to become interesting.
As for throwing away – well, every writer is the mistress of recycling. Nothing is ever wasted. It was too damn hard to create in the first place. A good home for bits of my little masterpiece have already been found. To be merrily thrown out again, if the fit isn’t right. Now that’s a liberating feeling.
And as for particle physics – well, nowadays that’s sexy. 🙂
Take it away, professor …..