|Nuala Ní Chonchúir|
I love to edit my novels; I think of it as the Relief Stage of writing. The first draft is there – a real and tangible story has been concocted – and now it is time to make it as elegant and shapely as possible. I love it despite the fact I have developed RSI from all the editing I have been doing in the last few months. It’s a task that requires such close attention that I have been hunched over my laptop for hours, not taking regular breaks, madly tapping at the keyboard. There is an urgency about the editing stage that makes for a frenetic life and, for me now, a sore neck and arms.
The Closet of Savage Mementos days before it went to print in March. I made fifty changes (small ones) to the final proofs. I am sure that did not endear me to the publishing house, but I was shocked to still find repeated words and bockety sentences in the MS so late in the editorial process and they had to go. A writing friend is convinced that the repeated words we banish from our novels creep back into the manuscript at night, while we sleep.
My third novel Miss Emily (due 2015), about Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, was bought by Penguin USA and Canada in late January and my editors there sent me 17 pages of editorial notes to consider while writing my second draft. I had six weeks to ready that draft. It turned into an intense time of re-reading research and trying to get everything right; of thinking about my characters lives before the action in the novel takes place in 1866/1867. What formed them? How did the people they used to be bring them to where they are? The work was close and time-consuming (all consuming!) but deeply satisfying.
For The Closet of Savage Mementos, which concerns a love affair between 21 year old Irish girl Lillis and 51 year old Scottish man Struan, the managing editor at New Island met with me over breakfast in Dublin to discuss changes that I might like to make. He recommended fleshing out conversations, having deeper reactions to shocking news, and the tying up of a loose end concerning one character who seemed to just disappear from the story. These suggestions from someone who is ‘cold’ – and by that I mean someone who is outside the story – are enormously helpful to a writer. It is amazing the basic mistakes that linger in a manuscript even after we have edited it several times to our own satisfaction before submitting it to the publisher. I implemented his suggestions and was so much more pleased with the novel then.
I consider myself a bit of a perfectionist (or nit-picking control freak, whichever) so I am always surprised at the vast amount of copy-editing issues and annoying inconsistencies that I and my editors find in my manuscripts. But I love the buzz of working really closely on the MS towards the end, trying very hard to get everything right. I read the text aloud from start to finish to attempt to catch any unwieldy sentences and those nasty repeated words, especially. I always find that over the course of a novel I have obsession words – ones that appear again and again for no good reason other than that they are lodged in my brain. The Closet of Savage Mementos is set in the Highlands of Scotland mostly, so naturally some words will be there often (loch, mountain, sea) but my editor pointed out that the words ‘hover’, ‘grunt’ and ‘manic’ appeared frequently. I’m still not sure what those words say about my state of mind while writing that novel!
I urge those starting out on the novel writing life to embrace editing fully. Learn to become your own best editor firstly and, after that, listen to the professionals who genuinely want to help you make your book the best it can be. The great editor is like an invisible mentor – she is not all over the pages of your book, rather she steers you along, helping you to see how you can improve things. The hope is that you both have the same vision for your novel and, when that is the case, things can go very well indeed for both you and for your book.