When I was a little girl my father, bless his heart, loved giving me little life-lessons, one-liners which he hoped would shape my world-vision and make me a worthy human being. Things like “God is a human invention” and “Money is the root of all evil” and “America is the Evil Empire“. Dad was a die-hard Marxist, and meant well; and though I later figured out my own world-vision, one quite different to his, some of his wiser aphorisms stuck, and did indeed guide me through life.
One of his oft-repeated mottos was “There’s no such word as can’t“. Those words must be ingrained into my consciousness, because they have pulled me out of so many bogs. And once again they proved true.
Who said I can’t write a synopsis? Of course I can! And I did!
Once I put my mind to it, it came easily. Within a week I had a good, strong story mapped out. I mailed it to my editor, and continued with the novel, confident that now I was back on track.
Before the week was over she sent the return mail. Three pages long.
Basically, she liked the synopsis. But….
There were many buts, too many to recall now. One of them had to do with the main character not appearing as an old woman (as she was in my frame novel) but ending it when she is still young, and giving it a Happily Ever After.
Now, imagine being out on the high seas in a sailboat, whipping along in a joyful breeze, the sail full and billowing, the sky blue above.
And suddenly the wind stops. The sail droops. And your little boat is stranded in the middle of the ocean.
That’s how I felt.
I rang my agent and told her I could not work to these revisions (there’s that awkward little word can’t again!) I told her I was more than willing to make any number of revisions to the novel once it is written, but to actually bend and manipulate it during the writing – everything inside me rebelled against it. It just wasn’t right.
For me, there are two distinct phases to writing.
There’s the right-brain creative phase, in which the story is growing; first the embryo of a story, the vague outline. And then slowly limbs grow out of it, and indiviual features develop, and then it’s there, a fully formed first draft.
The first draft is a mess. It emerges from my depths in an exhilerating rush; my thoughts often race ahead and my fingers stuggle to keep up and I make hundreds of typos
whihc which becaude because to correct them now would slow me down and I can’t slow down because the characters are rattling at the bars of their prison and screaming, let me out let me out!
In the second and subsequent drafts I do slow down. I exchange my creator’s hat for my editor’s. I turn into a strict discipliarian. I shape and cut and switch scenes around; I am my own worst critic, but I also welcome outside opinions and, since I value my editor’s judgement, there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do for her to make my story strong and, maybe, perfect.
But not now. This was the right-brain’s arena! And the only rule here was NO EDITING ALLOWED!
To have her analyse my synopsis – which was really nothing more than a guideline – in such detail, to prod and poke at it and shape it into a being of her construction – well, it strangled the baby.
Instead of replying to the mail, I thought about it. And thought some more. I dug deep inside myself to find out what to do. I knew I could not go on this way.
Finally I found my answer. I came to a decision.
I called my agent with my decision. I took a deep breath, and spoke.
“I’m going to ignore these notes,” I said.
Then, “Ignore them? What do you mean?”
“I mean – I’m going to go ahead and write my story the way it wants to come out. When I’m finished, we can revise it and pull it into shape. Not now.”
“Yes. I’m going to write it without a contract – on spec. When it’s finished I’ll submit it and take it from there.”
“You’re crazy. You need the advance!”
Indeed I did. England was expensive; I’d recently bought my own home and had not only a mortgage to pay but my daughter’s private-school fees. Finishing the book might take six months to a year. I needed a shot of cash much sooner.
“I know. But still. I feel so sure about this. So confident. It’s what I have to do.”
“You know what a risk you’re taking?”
Sure, I knew. My agent had often told me of the Deep Option-Book Pit awaiting certain authors. Authors like me, who had not earned out their advances. She had always told me laughingly, playfully, never threateningly: these authors get dropped. Their option books rejected. Even authors the publisher had once loved and drooled over. Love in the publishing industry is often quite shallow, and irrevocably linked to the bottom line.
It’s sometimes harder to get a third book published or a fourth than a first, she’d told me.
Getting published is easy. It’s staying published that’s hard.
My agent often put it like this: either you’re huge as an author – or you’re nothing. And I certainly wasn’t huge.
But I was safe. It was simply a matter of getting this book – a book my editor loved, and I loved, but just needed moulding into shape – finished. Once that was done the Aquisitions people would love it too.
Those horrible stories – well, they were just that, stories. She told me them to amuse me, not to warn me. They happened to other people.
She didn’t mean me.