By Philippa East
Okay, well I’m not dead yet, but in the three years it’s taken me to create my novel Little White Lies, the story has reincarnated more times than I like to count.
Draft zero took about three months to write. The subsequent editing took three years (and counting). Am I mad? Has it been worth it? Best if you decide…
Before embarking on this novel, I’d had a number of short stories published, so I reckoned I could write okay. In December 2015, I had a premise, some characters and… not much else. In the end, I decided to just start writing. (Uh oh.)
I set myself a target of 1,000 words a day and stuck to it for the next two and a half months. I ended up with 82,000 words of… something. I wrote THE END on the final page: draft 0, aka the sh*tty first draft. Honestly, mine was very sh*tty.
I had written a mess, basically a patchwork of random scenes. I tidied up what I could and gave it (now called draft 2) to my sister. Always my biggest critic, I knew she’d be honest. She had a lot to say, some positive, a lot on what needed improving, all of it valid. I wanted to make it better but I was completely overwhelmed. And so, I signed up for Emma and Debi’s brilliant self-edit course.
Over the next few months, I rewrote and rewrote. Characters, plot, voice, pacing. Pretty much everything needed fixing.
In September 2016, I went to the York Festival of Writing for the first time and immediately liked the look of the one-to-one agent I sat down with (Sarah Hornsley). She had some pertinent feedback (the whole weird omniscient narrator POV wasn’t working AT ALL), but asked to see the full. Maybe I liked her because she asked for the full, but I think I liked her anyway.
The novel, though, was nowhere near finished. It was still a mess. I was still rewriting and rewriting, this time trying to include Sarah’s feedback too. I could have just sent it, but I wanted to get it as good as it could be.
A full year on from Sarah’s manuscript request, I was finally ready. By now the MS was on draft 12(!!).
Alongside submissions to a handful of other agents, I sent the full in to Sarah. A couple of tense weeks later, I received her response:
There is a lot I like here but I think at the moment it isn’t twisty enough for me to offer representation. I would love a call with you though to discuss some of my editorial thoughts as I do think it has real potential, but I think it would take a lot of work.
By now I’d already written this book 12 times. I had worked on it non-stop for almost two years. Now an agent was calling me to suggest I rewrite the whole damn thing? She felt the plot needed a big twist. She thought it would work better written from two alternating POVs, instead of one. This was (in her words) ‘a massive rewrite’.
Was I up for it?
Another author might walk away at this point, feeling the agent’s vision was just too different. But a little voice in my own head was already whispering that the book could – and therefore should – go up another level. Personalised feedback from other agents was suggesting something similar. I realised I had written a book that was ‘for me’. Now it was time to let go of that version and write a book for the outside world.
I told Sarah I would give it a go.
The next couple of months were agonising. Coming up with a brand new twist idea, and re-drafting my opening chapters in dual POV (which I had never done before) were two of the biggest challenges I have faced as a writer. I had to push myself so far beyond my current level of competence, while trying not to freak out about how much was at stake (agent representation, a potential publishing deal, etc. etc.).
I rewrote and rewrote, inching my way there, trying to avoid a nervous breakdown. Finally, I achieved what I wanted. Not perfect, but good enough to represent my vision. I sent my new outline and first 47 pages to Sarah.
She emailed back within a couple of hours. She loved them and wanted to represent me. I jumped for joy, all about my house.
Over the next eight months, under Sarah’s guidance, I rewrote the rest of the novel – all 85,000 words of it. (Again.) Together, we went through at least another 4 drafts.
The version that we ultimately ended up with was so different to the original that, in my head, I now consider them two separate novels. One was the book I had to write for myself, and I still have a lot of affection for that story. But as they always say: you have to kill your darlings.
What have I learnt from all this editing? Here are a few reflections:
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Sh*tty First Draft.
Painters need paint; sculptors need clay. We need word-vomit on a page. Writing is re-writing; it really is.
Read (Current Titles In Your Genre).
This is like getting your hands on a thousand past exam papers. If you’re trying to fix issues in your own novel, why not look at how other (successful) authors have done it? No need to reinvent the wheel.
If You Possibly Can, Create Some Kind Of Outline.
I’ve come to accept that, in the long run, pantsing will only ever get you so far. Eventually you’re going to have to learn how to plan.
Learn Your Craft.
Editing a novel isn’t about changing it. It’s about changing it for the better so that it works. There are basic elements of writing craft that make stories work for readers. These include: show vs tell, point-of-view, psychic distance and – so importantly – story structure. Getting to grips with these will make it easier to edit your novel successfully. Not easy, obviously. But easier.
Listen to feedback, and accept that other people (agents, editors, even beta-readers) are often better judges of your own work than you are. Your book has a very best version of itself. Be open, and trust that others can help you achieve that vision.
Don’t Panic (Too Much).
Editing is scary, especially editing in response to feedback. By definition, you’re being asked to fix things that until now you haven’t been able to. You are going to have to do better than your best. Keep working at it, seek help when you get stuck, and trust that you will eventually get there.
So was it worth it for me, in the end?
By October 2018, I finally had a MS that Sarah was happy with. (Probably draft… ooo, 20 by now.) We were ready. Sarah talked me through her submission plan, advising that it would be about a month before we’d know if we had any firm offers. Oh, and just before we sent it out to publishers, could I edit the climactic scene just one more time?
By the end of the week, I was ‘on sub’. Six days later, we had our first offer and a couple of weeks after that, Little White Lies sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins.
I celebrated with Pink Cava and made sure to enjoy the moment.
After all, an editorial letter would soon be on its way…