authors · editing · Independent publishing · work-in-progress · writing life

Standing On Top of Your Manuscript

In my editing life, I’ve been using track changes a lot. I’m all for it. It’s efficient – no waiting for manuscripts to thump through the letterbox (or having to collect them, mysteriously shredded, from the post office); no expense of high-level security postage, lest it gets mislaid en route. It’s great for culling repetitions and inconsistencies. (‘I’m sure it was Bristol …’) The editor and author can both welly in and engage. Then it’s off to the typesetter and the long editorial process miraculously speeds up.

But god, do I miss Post-it notes.

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The fluorescent ones actually wink at you, like cats’ eyes on the road – only in reverse, because you can see the perils you need to go back and address. You slap one down, almost thoughtlessly, like a bookmark inserted when the phone rings, knowing a passage needs attention, and then, forty pages later when a chasm in the story opens up and you nearly fall into it, you feel the reassurance of the yellow slip poking out of a page. It acts like a ledge to steady you.

There’s great reassurance in the heft of a manuscript – in seeing watching the pages grow, and seeing you are a third of the way through, halfway, almost at the end. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, State of Wonder and now Commonwealth, stood on top of a print-out of the completed manuscript of her first novel. She says it made her feel taller, but perhaps she wanted to make sure her story didn’t get away from her. There it was, after months and months, tamed.*

Stories aren’t static until the printer sets the presses rolling and the pages are bound into a finite order. Manuscripts move. Hilary Mantel tells us this, but I was reminded last week by hearing Jilly Cooper on Desert Island Discs, speaking of cutting up typed pages of and reordering paragraphs. Perhaps she uses a typewriter but there’s no reason why you can’t do the same with word-processed pages. I’d almost forgotten you could.

As you know, I’ve started a new novel. I found myself writing two scenes about the same characters. Both were mainly in dialogue, because I’m at an early stage where scene-setting isn’t a priority. Nevertheless, I found I was including discoveries about the characters and their circumstances as they revealed themselves to me. So, although the two scenes were set a few weeks apart, they felt like simultaneous starts, in parallel – but not quite. One needed to lead to the other.

I know stories aren’t linear – I mean, they are in the end, but for me they don’t grow that way. They shoot sideways. They leap ahead of themselves. Like actual memories, they are skittish and undisciplined. They don’t unfurl on a single sheet, unless it’s Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

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So I printed both scenes out and cut them up. I interleaved patches of dialogue. I moved facts and background. I printed some sections on coloured paper to flag up to myself – more loudly than the most vibrant Post-it note – that this needs to be moved! This will find its place, but it isn’t here. I’ve made those changes on screen. I’ve altered repetitions. Tweaked and tweaked. Next week, I’ll print it all out again. And do the same process, again. I need to keep the pages moving, in order to give motion to the story.

The famous publisher, Julia MacRae, apparently applied a simple test to a manuscript she was assessing. She would open at any page and appraise the prose to know if the standard was such that it was worth going back to the start and reading the whole book.

Have you ever dropped a script to the floor and realised, only when standing in a pool of pages, that you haven’t numbered them? Do you despair? Or do you use the opportunity to dive in at any random point and see what’s going on? Do you relish just feeling the possibilities within the pages?

How is your work coming along?

* This anecdote is delated in Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which contains ‘The Getaway Car’, one of the BEST ESSAYS I’ve ever read about becoming a writer.

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