Behind the scenes of a novel in the making
With 17 years of KidLit writing under my belt, I've learned from experience. In particular, when you're so close to a work-in-progress, you need the eyes of others to see it clearly ... like amiable writers who will swap critiques with you; or paying for professional critiques and appraisals.
Those other eyes may see what you can't (and not just line errors, spelling, grammar etc), but in your characters and what they do and say, or a structure that doesn't quite work.
It could be a subjective thing too ... not everything your critique buddies say is necessarily right for your story, it's from their personal viewpoint, remember. But if three critiques say the same thing you'd better take notice.
... Setting the story in a dark place of Australian history ...
Yes, our work is precious to you, but it can usually be improved and taken to a much higher standard - publishable standard. And that's the joy of editing and rewriting.
After eight years of writing, editing, rewriting Sweet Adversity, I thought the manuscript was in good shape when I had an appraisal with Lisa Berryman at the 2014 SCBWI Conference. She'd read three chapters and a synopsis. I pulled out my notebook ready to take a list of helpful insights I was sure Lisa would give me to improve my story.
'I love Sweet Adversity!' said Lisa, 'I love Addie, and I love the way you write. I want to read the whole manuscript.' Yep, you could've knocked me over with a feather. I thought about this later - what does it take to grab a publisher's attention?
For me, several questions jumped out that must be answered for every story ...
1. Does my protagonist grab the reader's heart and mind and not let go?
2. Was the plot viable, intriguing and different?
3. Is the structure sound? ... i.e. the way the story is put together.
I can't put that more strongly ... you can write the most amazing prose with a brilliant main character and plot, BUT if the structure is wrong, it won't work. I spent many hours analysing and testing Sweet Adversity's structure against US editor, Shawn Coyne's complex, hair-tearing The Story Grid.
The Story Grid won't suit everyone, it is very analytical. But there are many websites with articles to help you with structure. Janice Hardy's Fiction University is brilliant, and it's free.
So back to Sweet Adversity's edit with Nicola O'Shea, HarperCollins' very experienced editor. I won't go over everything that I fixed or changed or added to over the full edit. But some things needing fixing up were repeat offenders, and easily missed. You can see in the example above, the 'clean-up' process, and how that makes the sentences read better.
The story's structure, thankfully was basically sound, Nicola said. So it didn't require a major rewrite. Phew!
1. Some of my scenes ended too soon before the action was fully resolved. Put yourself in the reader's head ... make it a rich experience. Don't take the easy option. I tend to rush when I write, trying to keep up with the visual and vocal images playing out in my head. (And sometimes, I just want to finish the damn thing!)
I re-arranged some of the chapter breaks, taking out and adding to ensure the chapter lengths were long enough (or not too long). It meant renumbering them and finding two more chapter headings, but hey, that was easy, Shakespeare had a quote for every human emotion under the sun.
2. Repeated words or phrases close together on the page. Cringe!!! See how important it is to read aloud your work. It's the only way to see these things. Not that I follow my own advice all the time (obviously).
3. Complicating the story when it's not necessary. Why do we do that? A case of your creative brain spills with possibilities and you jam them in ten to the dozen? It's also where editing and rewriting comes to the fore. Sometimes 'simple' is best if it's coming from the story's heart. The trick is to know when to do that ... the advantage of the new eyes of an experienced editor.
4. Too many commas. Yeah, I kinda love commas. But Nicola knew how to pull them into line.
5. Inconsistencies with names or spelling. Easily fixed. It's really hard trying to keep consistent over 60,000 words. That's where a Style Guide for your story comes in handy. Write down the names etc as you go. Don't try to do it when you're finished, like I did. You'll miss things for sure.
6. Changing tense without noticing I've done it. Mmmm.
I hope you find these useful tips. Now get writing!
To finish, I'll share some (I don't want to brag too much, lol) of Nicola's comments about Sweet Adversity ...
Sheryl, I loved this manuscript so much. Addie is a strong, clever and brave character, and I know your readers are going to delight in her and Macbeth’s adventures. The historical details are rich throughout but worked in with a light touch, and it’s fascinating to read about a period that’s not often explored in Australian fiction .... it’s been such a great pleasure working on this manuscript, Sheryl. I know other readers are going to love the book as much as I did, and I wish you every success with it.