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Years ago I paid for an Academi Reader's Report (Academi being the old name for Literature Wales). The report was really well written and a mixture of praise and constructive criticism delivered with a wicked sense of humour to sweeten the pills. An example of the yummy praise:
"Despite a fair smattering of laddish banter, sex, drugs and rock and roll, the overall tenor of the story is essentially romantic: all the main characters, male and female, can have sex when they feel like it but find love harder to come by. ... It takes us a while to get there but the scenes in bed are one of the best aspects of the novel: believable; passionate; even desperate."
The largest pill to swallow was the suggestion to rewrite the novel, making many changes, including reworking it in the third person:
"It takes a lot of determination, and stamina, to produce a novel of this length. It takes a strong nerve, and even more determination, to deconstruct it and put it together in a different, more condensed form. But that's what I would advise."That has been my goal.
I did get a bit of feedback from Authonomy in the short space of time that the first version of Soft Collisions was up there in its first-person form. That also inspired me to keep going.
"Your writing is immensely visual, a sign of a talented writer. best wishes, this is fine and gripping."
"At first I wasn't sure if I'd be able to keep the three characters and their activities in my head but after the first chapter I was drawn into your novel. I like the way that you describe situations from two people's perspectives - for example, the parting scene between Mark and Sam. I'm a bit soppy and have to also admit to being a bit sad and tearful at the end!"
"The characters have strong personalities and the stories are hinted at intriguingly."So the work began, partly based on the Academi Reader's Report. I also had some amazing help from Janet Thomas, who is anyone's dream editor to work with: able to pinpoint flaws and bring them to the table for discussion in an honest yet productive way. I have learnt so much from working with Janet. I intend to do a blog post in the future about how important it is to learn from professionals, and how informed criticism is a tool to build with, not a weapon that destroys. I have been incredibly lucky in the help I have received and am endeavouring to repay it by listening to the advice, then getting my hands dirty working. I do not take good things for granted, any more than I let selfishness or cruelty go unchallenged.
"I think you are working with some really interesting ideas here and your depiction of young people’s lives in Manchester is very convincing. "
Changes made since then, in roughly chronological order
- I wrote many new scenes where there are details that seem relevant to add in order to reinforce ideas and themes or create justifications for decisions. I also added more 'incident of moment', making it less anecdotal and repetitive and attempting to raise the status and the scale of the characters.
- I have worked on developing the supporting characters, giving them more life of their own. As the Academi Reader put: "I reckon Anne, though she appears only briefly near the beginning, has considerable potential: her fiery dismissal of Alex is actually one of the best bits of dialogue in the story. ... Above all I think you've missed a trick with Natalie. Her moments of flirtation with Alex suggest a potential for a darker, more dangerous subtext."
- I made a major change to the ending of one of the stories by adding a touch of bitter to counteract any sweetness. The other reason for the change was to differentiate the two plot strand outcomes, to have one couple succeed and one fail with the differences worked back through the book into the core of each relationship and character.
- I had to work on strengthening the reasons why Sam left Manchester. In the original version it was mostly one incident: in the re-write that incident is just extra pressure on a decision that had been coming anyway.
- The novel originally began with three miserable prologues. They sapped vitality. The novel now begins with some form of character-defining tension instead.
- I have worked incredibly hard to weave the themes throughout the texture of the novel, particularly the unseen collisions in an apparently chaotic universe and the invisible parallels that imply the opposite. (Don't you hate writers who want to have it both ways?)
- Integration of the importance of music and art into the novel, especially to delineate the differences between characters.
- Characters from my other short stories have made guest appearances here - a further example of 'collisions'.
- I hopefully fixed the unconvincing 'mystery twin device' storyline by telling the hidden character's story right from the start, letting the reader into her thoughts and justifying her actions so that there would be no disappointing (even cheating) plot twist at the end. An attempt to make the unlikely seem plausible, and by showing Jane getting more and more tangled in lies the pompous character Alex should appear more sympathetic because we know he is being conned.
- The whole novel has been re-written in the third person.
- For ease of editing each story I split the two main plot strands into separate documents to see how they stood alone. I have merged them again, but still need to work on a flow that works artistically but also that doesn't fragment the plot.
- I have begun preliminary editing to re-write and cut out unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs.