The Plastic Surgeon
While exploring self-publishers, I continued to tinker with my manuscript. I knew it wasn’t quite right but I didn’t know what to do about it.
I googled “how to improve my manuscript…” because sometimes simplest is best. What came up was a list of books, most of them formulaic: How to write a novel in ten easy steps, Self-editing for dummies etc. They were easy to discount. The library lent me a few of the rest and I flicked through the contents. The one book that I renewed over and over again was Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. The blurb had me hooked from the start: “This is a not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions; how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” It’s become my “go to” reference–if Sol doesn’t say so, then it isn’t so.
Perhaps he’s not the first to recommend putting down your manuscript for a few weeks, reading a few good or even great books, and then rereading your work and revising as necessary. Per Sol’s instructions, I filed away my final draft, and trotted off to the library for Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, March (the one by Geraldine Brooks), Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong and Alberto Moravia’s Two Women. All different, all amazing books, and all relevant to my writing. I immersed myself in wonderfulness. Then I opened the drawer.
How can I describe the skin-crawling horror at the realisation that my beloved creation, the precious fruit of my sweat and tears, was, in fact, hideous? I should have read Shelley’s Frankenstein. At dawn, copious edits in yellow highlighter glinted on my print copy like the monster’s eyes. I girded my loins (whatever that is, I’ve always like the sound of it), made the changes on my laptop and did the exercise again.
The second reread was marginally better (perhaps because my library selections included Bridget Jones’ Diary, which is lovely but hardly the stuff of enduring classics). At the continued lack of perfection, I became unhinged.
The husband found me at 3am staring at the full moon through the office window. “Hmm, a colleague of mine just published a book,” he said. “Maybe he can help?” This is why I love my husband: he knows me better than I know myself.
The colleague did help. He recommended that mystical creature, the independent editor. “Like cosmetic surgeons, they take away blemishes so that the manuscript becomes more acceptable, still yours but slimmer and with a tighter jawline.” Harps or at least bells played in the background, like when Clarence got his wings. It had never occurred to me that I could pay someone to babe-ify my manuscript. “…Make sure that you pick one who’s experienced in your genre,” was his final pearl.
I contacted Lisa Dale Norton by e-mail, a tentative message, haltingly full of perhapses and maybes. She specialises in memoir and was encouraging and gentle, but also firm about the important things that are central to writing: voice and point of view and character and use of dialogue. We agreed on a course of action and my manuscript returned from two weeks with her, decorated all over with suggestions, comments and questions in her delightful cursive hand (I paid her, of course).
Her advice wasn’t what I had expected. But what had I expected? Despite the panic rising in my throat that I would have to rewrite the bloody thing completely, I plodded through the reams of considerations. Revising one chapter was all it took to convince me of Lisa’s brilliance. It was a ton of extra work but I restructured, nipped and tucked and underpinned, until finally I felt that my final, final, really final draft was ready to go to the publisher for review. I had to check one more time though. After a third stay in Sol’s drawer, my baby emerged not too cringe-making. Phew.