Thursday 17 October 2019

Arrgh! Early Halloween Special - it's the Edit Letter!!!! by Tracy Darnton

One of the tough things about writing novels, as opposed to having a ‘proper job’, is that there are hardly any times when the manuscript is truly ‘off’ your desk. But the period between delivery of first draft and the editorial letter some weeks (or months) later is one such marvellous time when there is a true long-forgotten sense of having handed in your homework. You can spend this time either worried that a D Minus is on its way or (and I prefer this approach) living in blissful ignorant expectation that your editor is LOVING every last word of it. So absorbed are they, that it’s taking weeks to formulate their thoughts. 

This time round, the gap gave me a new lease of life and I spent this time usefully on inventive school workshops, admin (not so fun), fact-checking my research, writing three new picture book scripts, being a beta reader for a writer buddy, getting a bad cold (also not so fun), starting a new story, completing ten reviews, pitching a couple of articles and catching up with all my sadly- neglected friends. Happy days!

But then IT came. The edit letter. Plopped into the inbox on a Friday when I was feeling sorry for myself, dosed up on Lemsip and running a fever after too much wild tea drinking with friends. Uh oh.

When I received my edit letter on my debut novel, my agent sent me a reassuring email with ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic. This is perfectly normal!’ in the subject line. She must think I am sufficiently grown-up this time round to not need one. I hope she’s right.

So I could have been that mature, grown-up author and read the letter there and then – OR – and, reader don’t judge me, I could have looked at the covering email, taken comfort at the sentence including “we absolutely loved it” and stopped right there without reading the six pages of ‘but’s and suggestions until I felt better.

Worse, I could delegate the reading of said edit letter to my offspring packing to go back to uni and childishly get him to read it for me. And then try to read his body language when he tells me not to worry – it’s all achievable. 

What does that mean exactly… “achievable”? Hmm. And what does he know? More Lemsip, more strepsils.

Two days later, fever gone, I start the first-stage process of reading it by washing the shower curtain and clearing out a bookcase. I tidy my desk. I make a cup of tea. I brace myself. I read the letter.

Before I was an author, I thought that the editor would send a list headed How to fix your book. A useful list numbered 1-5, 10 at a push. All I’d have to do is tick my way through said list – changing a word here and there, striking out that troublesome scene in the cable car etc etc. But I have news for any non-published writers: editors don’t do that.

Editors ask questions. They zero in on the slightly woolly aspects of your plot or characterisation that you hoped you’d slipped past them (Curses!). Editors ask inconvenient questions. Editors make you think about your book and how to make it the best it can be.

I have a two-hour chat on the phone with my editor. She is kind, she is calm. She gives credit where credit’s due. She makes suggestions to make my book better, pushes me to explain what I was trying to do here or there … and patiently waits when I flounder.

We talk through my draft book club discussion questions which helps me to focus on the main threads of my book, the themes, the structure, characterisation.

I draw up an action plan of things to do, some for definite, some to try out and see what I think. My brain cogs slowly turn with possible solutions. Of course, I worry, as all writers do, that the pulling out of one thread will cause the fragile web of plot to fall away. But I’m fired up to try. The game is afoot.

I’m exhausted. I send an emergency text to my teenager walking home from school to bring me a packet of Twirl Bites. He doesn’t get the message but, on his return, kindly offers me a slightly sticky, solitary fruit pastille from his blazer pocket.

I take it. The edit letter trauma has made me eat a fluffy, second-hand fruit pastille. And that, in a nutshell, is what the edit letter is like.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.

She is currently editing The Rules out next year with Stripes. (It’s going better than expected).

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton


Anne Booth said...

Gosh, this is a very accurate description of the terror of an edit letter - and the ending is brilliant. I think being driven to eat a fluffy fruit pastille sums it all up! How kind of your offspring though - just who you need at such a time!

Tracy Darnton said...

Thanks, Anne. Yes - there are a lot of tough moments in this author game!