I received the structural edit over the weekend. That’s the big important phase of the book. This is where it goes into the arms of an editor who doesn’t know me, doesn’t have to sugar-coat anything, doesn’t have to look me in the eye and lie to me to save years of friendship. They just read the book cold, as a reader, and as an editor with a critical eye, and they then tell you what’s wrong with it.
It is a bit like a cross between getting a survey on a house that you’ve fallen crazily in love with, and singing on an X-Factor audition (only after you’ve finished singing, the Judge tells you in great detail about every note that you got right, and every note where you were a bit off key)
So it is important, because to make a book really work, you need someone who gives it to you straight. And if you don’t believe that an editor is hugely important, go and read some of the amazing Raymond Carver short stories (What we talk about when we talk about love would be a good start, or Cathedral – or Gazebo, or Menudo… damn, nearly all of it) and then go online and find the draft that Raymond Carver wrote before his editor helped him find the heart of the story. That draft is ugly. Painfully ugly. It took a collaborative effort to make the story so taut and elegant and spare that you can feel the words twang on the page like tweaking piano wire.
Or (and I’m not in any sense comparing my book to this sort of thing), Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, which you will have heard thousands of times, including on X-Factor. Cohen told Bob Dylan he’d spent two full years working on the song (he was deliberately underestimating, perhaps because Dylan told him that it usually took him 15 minutes to write a song)
Cohen wrote 80 verses for that song. 80 verses. And he kept working on it, working on it, and it didn’t come off. He recorded a version, but it wasn’t right. And then he kept playing it live and kept fiddling with it, and then one day John Cale of the Velvet Underground came to a concert where Cohen played it, and Cale liked the song and he reworked it – more piano, restored some of the original biblical imagery, made it less dark and bitter and more sorrowfully uplifting. And that song got onto an album of Cohen covers, which nobody really bought. But one person who bought it happened to be visiting a guy called Jeff Buckley, and Buckley happened to play the CD and liked it, and did a magnificant cover of Cale’s cover of Cohen’s song, and put it on an album. And nobody bought that either. Until Buckley died in tragic circumstances, and his work got re-evaluated, and in that process, Hallelujah became one of the most loved and well regarded songs around. It just had to go through a hell of a process to find the song.
(I’ll cheerfully admit here that I stole that info about Hallelujah from Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful podcast Revisionist History, which I highly recommend. http://revisionisthistory.com/ I only just learned that Hallelujah wasn’t a song that the world loved straight away but one that had to be found out of the raw materials, and it is such a great metaphor for the creative process generally, that I’m using it and giving Gladwell full credit for coming up with it. )
I feel like the structural edit is helping me find the book, to bring it to where I want it to be. I can see the fixes and changes that are needed, and the good news is that the editor liked it – she hasn’t put red pen through loads of dialogue or told me that she hates the characters or that my world is flat. I need to make some bits clearer to readers, I need to switch some stuff around with the ending, some things that I was keeping as mysteries are going to be more dramatic and tense if the reader knows what one particular character knows and is waiting to see when and if and how it all explodes, and I basically need to have more stuff happen in the first half of the book. I also need to rein back on the comic asides during moments of terror and drama…
So I’ve already reworked the first two chapters, for the better, I hope, and this rewriting phase will take about four weeks. I’ll keep you posted. Go and read some Raymond Carver while you’re waiting – he’s the best (or at least, with the help of a damn fine editor he became the best)
If you haven’t already checked out the book, please visit the site and have a look – ideally to pre-order yourself a copy, and if nothing else, to watch a video of a mouthy sarky lawyer get pelted with water bombs whilst trying to pitch what the book is about.