Making changes

On Tuesday, I submitted a synopsis to my publishers for my next historical novel, The War Bride.

This morning I received some feedback – very positive, but suggesting a few changes so the novel wouldn’t be too dark for the audience.

Having thought my way around the issues raised (all very valid), I’ve decided that the only way I can rearrange the plot to eliminate a particular dark element is to pull out one entire strand of the storyline and throw it away, complete with a character I rather like. Also, completely change locations.

And that’s okay.

It’s one of the reasons I like synopses; you can make major changes up front, saving yourself at least one and maybe more drafts. Not all books lend themselves to synopsis. In the last one, The Soldier’s Wife, I honestly had no idea how it was going to end until I wrote the final scenes. But if I’d been asked to write the synopsis, I would have written it knowing that I had room to change, to shift ideas and characters around, to develop the story.

A synopsis isn’t a contract. It’s more like a promise to your publisher: I will write this kind of book for you. They know (none better) that a novel is like a wriggling baby in its bath: slippery and vulnerable. They don’t expect you to adhere to every word in the synopsis. But I find it very helpful to have an editor who knows what I’m trying to do, because so often in the writing process the soul of the book gets away from you, or is clouded in the minutiae of detail and plot. The synopsis can bring you back on track: the editor can say, ‘Well, this is what you were trying to do. Is this new element (plot twist/character/location) better or worse in terms of what you want the book to be like?’ They may also have opinions on this, and the writer is wise to listen to them.

The changes my publisher suggested were about what she thought ‘the readership’ might prefer. I’m used to writing for specific audiences (all children’s writers are), but this particular audience is new to me, and frankly I’m pathetically grateful for any guidance. And it was obvious to me, even at this stage, that the central storyline, the heart of the book, won’t be touched at all by these changes; I suspect (with some chagrin, I admit) that it may be made stronger.

In the same batch of emails, I received a request from my children’s publisher for changes to a non-fiction picture book manuscript. I’d recently met with the editor and done a fairly big reorganisation of the text (this was around 10 drafts in). Now that the redrafted text had been laid out with the illustration roughs, some problems emerged. Alas, I had to kill my very favourite darling in the book: ‘A pink pelican chick, fresh from its egg, raises its wobbly head to a sky flickering with birds’. I could have kept it and written another sentence above it, but that would have placed too much text on the page, so it had to go. I mourn that little pelican chick, but I know my readers were better served by cutting it out.

I tell my students that when a publisher asks for changes, it’s foolish not to comply, because editors and publishers are experts at detecting problems in novels. In both these cases, I’m happy to take my own advice.

The End.

I’ve just posted off the proofs (first pages) of The Soldier’s Wife. So that’s my last chance to change it, gone.

It’s an odd feeling, particularly with this novel. Although I’ve done it many times before (this will be my 30th book), there is a much higher level of angst over this one, because it’s an entirely new genre and audience for me, and I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

I hope it’s good; my publishers and my beta readers tell me it’s good – but in the end, it will be readers in libraries and bookshops who will give the final judgment.

When you write fantasy or crime, there are standards you can hold yourself to – pace, originality, satisfying structure, set tropes – and I have a pretty good idea of what those standards are. For straight fiction, the standards are both looser and more challenging; and for a newcomer like me, it’s difficult to place my own book in comparison with others. (Don’t worry, my students – this inability to judge relates only to my own work!)

The worst thing about sending off proofs is that it’s so long before anything else happens…

But we’re going to have a HUGE launch, that I do know!