Last week, I finished editing my novel and sent it back to Allen and Unwin. A few days later, one of my editors emailed to say:
‘It has been such a pleasure to read the revised manuscript this week. I think you’ve tightened the pace of the novel and fleshed out the characters so beautifully … I was held by the spell of the story right to the end.’
This is exactly what I was hoping to hear! When I showed my writerly buddy, Michelle Johnston (whose novel, ‘Dustfall’, will be published by UWA Publishing early next year), she wrote back, ‘This is what it means to be a writer.’
It sure is. Those moments are the highs of being a writer, the little prizes that make all the hard work worthwhile. It was especially nice to hear because A&U had delayed the release of my book so I could spend more time working on it. For the past two months, I’ve barely moved from this attic, spending my days up here ironing out creases, closing gaps, disentangling timelines and developing characters.
In fact, I’ve spent five and a half years up here doing all of that, and more. I don’t know how many times I’ve edited my novel because I stopped counting. It’s definitely over twenty, possibly more than thirty.
I’m onto my seventh notebook devoted solely to my novel. Underneath my desk, I have a plastic box for storing all the research material I’ve used. It holds books on subjects such as saw milling, the birds and plants of Tasmania and the history of the northeast of Tassie. It also contains a manila folder of articles I’ve printed off the internet. That folder holds write-ups on how to dress a kangaroo and on life in Tasmania in the 1920s and 30s, as well as a print out of a delightful book I found called, ‘Garden and Greenhouse Culture’, which was first published in Hobart in 1895. There are also old newspaper articles I downloaded from Trove, about how to use ration cards and who won the vocal sections of the Launceston Eisteddfods in 1937. And there’s a CD of the calls of native Tasmanian birds, which I played while writing bush scenes.
Then there’s my kindle, which holds more research material, including a quaint series of books on hat-making.
I should add that much of this research hasn’t even made it into the book.
This week, once again I packed everything back into the box and shoved it under the desk and out of reach. I’ve done that before and hoped it would be for the last time, but inevitably, I’ve had to extract it from its hiding spot when I needed to edit further. But this time will be the last. I can hear you saying, ‘Hmm, she’s said that before’. Well, you won’t hear me saying it again, because this time I really am finished; I can feel it in my bones. There are still copy edits to come, but no more structural edits. I promise, and that’s a sincere, dinky-di, cross-my-heart promise.
This story hasn’t been written so much as grafted, sentence upon sentence, layer upon layer. It’s taken years and many, many edits for the story to reveal itself to me. Maybe I should be saying that it’s taken years for me to see and understand my story, because I do believe it’s a two-way thing, a partnership between the story and the author, both growing from each other.
My first draft told a tale, but it wasn’t a very good one. It was rather thin and clichéd, and who knows what its theme was. I certainly didn’t. I had no idea what I was trying to say. I threw in every significant thing I’d ever experienced or seen or heard, as well as a large cast of characters, stirred it all around a bit, made a few links between the scenes, and called it a story. But it was wild and ungainly, and there were a lot of holes. It was also rather grim; I don’t think anyone ended up happy.
However, I wanted to tell that story. More than wanted to, I had to tell that story. It was burning inside of me. Indeed, it was the only story I could have told at that time.
Since then, my story has changed almost beyond recognition, and very few of those original words remain. Yet everything I’ve written since has come from that original tale. Without writing that horrible, messy, unpalatable first draft about something which held so much power for me, the rest wouldn’t exist. I had to write it to get to what I have now.
And I had to write every draft in between, because each stage could only arise because of the one before it. It’s taken a long time, partly because I was new to writing and had to learn how to do it, but also because this tale only came to me bit by bit. By that, I really mean that my understanding of this tale only came to me a little at a time, because at each stage of its development, I had to develop, too, in order to understand it. I had to think hard about each scene and character, and question what was really happening in a scene, or what was really motivating a character, because sometimes the real reason wasn’t obvious.
I also had to learn to tell the story as it needed to be told, and I, the author, had to get out of the way. I found that hard, particularly when it came to writing my antagonist. At first, she was horrible, really horrible, with no redeeming features whatsoever. Just about every reader of my book commented on her being so unrelentingly horrible that she was just annoying and as realistic as a cardboard cutout.
With each draft, I tried to rework her, to make her more sympathetic, more human, but I found it really difficult. Eventually, I realised why: I had my own agenda. She does things I could never do and they’re things about which I feel very strongly. I wanted everyone to hate her in the same way I did. I didn’t want to make her sympathetic because it felt like I was condoning what she did. In the end, I stepped out of the way, stopped judging her and let her tell her story. Once I did that, she came to life. In fact, she changed so much I’m not sure she can be called an antagonist any more. I ‘get’ her now, I understand her motivations and I’m actually quite moved by her.
When I started writing this book, not only did I want to tell a good story with good characters, I also wanted to tell a bigger story, one that wasn’t just about the characters in my novel, but that had a truth about ourselves at the core of it. I thought I knew what that bigger story would be, but I didn’t. It’s turned out to be something completely different and something I like much, much better.
Writing this story has taken me a long time, but I couldn’t have done it any quicker. When I tried to rush the process, hurrying to get to the end, it didn’t work. Similarly when I tried to bend the story to fit my agenda. I learnt to let it go where it needed to go.
I’ve sat here in this attic for goodness knows how many hours. Sometimes I’ve typed, but often I’ve just sat and stared out of the window or at my computer screen. I’ve walked with this story, taken showers with it, done the washing up, vacuuming and hung out the clothes with it. I’ve driven with it, slept with it and lain awake with it. I’ve scrolled social media with it. I’ve carried it with me almost everywhere I’ve been for the past five and a half years, and I’ve tried to hear what it was trying to tell me. To let it lead me and not me lead it. I’ve tried to tune into that quiet, tender place where stories come from, and trust the process to tell it best.
And this is where I’ve ended up: at a place where I can say I’m proud of my story and I’m ready for it to go out into the world.
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Congratulations Louise! I’m sending you a great, big cyber hug. I’m so proud of you — and this post simply makes me even more excited about the prospect of reading The Sisters’ Song. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. So, my only question for you now is (to quote Jed Bartlet, from The West Wing)… what’s next?
Thank you, Maureen! I’m glad you’re looking forward to reading my story—I can’t wait for it to be read now, too!
Next on the agenda is a holiday! School finishes in just over a week, so I’m taking a break. By the time school returns, the copy edits shouldn’t be far away. After that, I don’t know … hopefully I’ll have time to look at Novel #2 again! I’m ready to get stuck into something new.
Thanks for visiting and commenting, and big cyber hugs back to you! xx
This blog post was so interesting to read, Louise. You’ve really brought to light the amount of research, hard work and time that it takes to write a novel. All unpublished writers wanting to be published should read this post. Can’t wait to read your book because it sounds like it’s going to be incredible.
Thanks, Alyssa! Trying to distill five and a half years into a blog post is hard. I’m glad you’re looking forward to my book—I am too … now! Best wishes with your own novel—if your blog is anything to go by, you’ll be published soon. 🙂
I’m proud of you too and I’ve loved sharing probably about half of those years of your writing journey – and now we get to do the real fun stuff together! Book launches! Book talks! And reviews baby, 5****s coming your way; and we get to do Novel 2!! Woohoo 🙂 Huge Congratulations to you xx
I think you’ve shared about three of those five years with me, Ms Lily. You were my first ever guest in the attic! It’s so exciting to be travelling this road together and I’m looking forward to every stage of this exciting journey alongside you! xx
Well gosh, when you put it that way, I feel hugely chuffed! #FirstGuestInAttic #GoMe
#GoYou #LilyintheAttic #AtticDeflowerer 😉
What a lot of work you did! Congratulations on the comments of the editors. Think you did a marvellous job here.
Now it is time for a little bit of self-care I suppose? Big cyberhug xxxx
Thank you Marije! Yes, lots of work, but I can’t help myself—I’m a tad obsessional and I never do things by halves. I’ve caught up on sleep and looking forward to some time off now, out of the attic and away from the novel! Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂
And finally it’s here … that finished feeling. Looking forward to reading it after reading about it. How wonderful to anticipate its arrival … well done and lots of love.
I do have a sense that it’s finished now, which I didn’t before, even after the first structural edit. Thank you for your support, Rashida, over such a long time now. It really has been a source of encouragement. xx
Congratulations on reaching the finish line, Louise. What a relief it must be to know you’ve done that final edit. Now you can sit back and relax, and enjoy all that comes with publication. I look forward to seeing The Sisters’ Song in print. I’m on draft number one, so a few years ahead of me of editing, re-writing, redrafting … think I need a glass of wine!
Thanks, Sue. Yes, it’s a lovely feeling—a real sense of calm. I feel as if I can let it go—actually, I want to let it go. It’s ready … finally! Good luck in your own writing, Sue. It’s a long road to travel, but sooo worth it! 🙂
Congratulations, Louise. That is an incredible amount of effort and I love the glimpses of themes and motifs and characters that I’ve got to look forward to when I read the Sisters’ Song next year.
Oops, I let a few things slip in this post! But I haven’t told all—there’s a few other bits of research still hidden in that box!
Enjoy the last few days of your residency at KSP and I hope it’s been worthwhile. I’m sorry we’re not turning the weather on for you. :-/
Oh, fantastic! You can give a big sigh and do something else for awhile!
Thank you for sharing some of the details of your book’s evolution with us – it really will make it so much richer and more exciting for us as your readers when we finally get our hands on The Sisters’ Song. Can’t wait. xx
Thanks, Fi! I hope these little tales along the way add to the reading experience. Mind you, some of the research I’ve mentioned above is covered in a single sentence in the book, so it might be really misleading! I included a lot more of the research in earlier drafts, but I cut most of it. However, I hope a little of the taste remains.
And you see, this is why I would rather read a book that’s been professionally published, not self-published. It’s a decision I’ve come to out of respect for the work that editors do, making sure that all the hard work that needs to be done, has been done. It’s not just your own determination to make this book the best it can be, it’s also your editor at A&U guiding you towards that:)
You’re right, the editors at publishing houses do guide you, and I have the utmost respect for them. I’ve also learnt so much. They’ve picked up problems I couldn’t see, issues I couldn’t nail, good things to make more of, themes or characters to develop further. There’s no way I could have done it on my own, and it would have cost a fortune to pay editors to go over it with a fine-toothed comb as many times as they have. I’m so grateful for the publisher-author partnership. I’m eager to write another book to put my new-found knowledge and skills into practice!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Lisa. x
Reading your summary felt like I was swimming through a crystal clear lake
Free and liberating
I sense your novel captures the harsh and roughness of early days in Tasmania, and the sweet innocence of characters who are strong beneath fragile exteriors.
I look forward to reading your work
Thanks, Renata. You’ve picked up all of that about my novel just from this post! And you’re amazingly accurate—yes, my story does capture the harshness and roughness of life in Tassie in the earlier part of the 20th century, and the characters are strong—some are physically strong but fragile inside, others look fragile but are strong as mountains, and some are strong sometimes but not always.
Thank you for noticing all of that! Can’t wait for you to read it, too. xx
Wow. Thank you
Yes from your summary I had clear images.
I read your words. I read them.
I read slowly to the end, and I was in
Oh it’s lovely, so lovely to have been able to express my thoughts
and to hold your book will be very special.
Thank you for expressing your thoughts. I appreciate them very much. I really can’t wait for you to read my book–it will be special for both of us. x
Congratulations! Oh wow! So many years and even many more edits. You give me hope. I won’t give up just yet. 🙂 Much love and hugs.
Don’t give up, Anne! Never, ever give up—that’s my motto. Good luck with your writing! 🙂
Thank you so much, Louise! I will keep reminding myself that! 🤗💖
I love this post for so many reasons, Louise. I like how you gave an insight into how much effort, time and research goes into one story, pulling the curtain back on the process. I’m so thrilled for you that you’ve reached this wonderful point, after all the work you’ve put into creating Sister’s Song over all these years. I can’t wait to read it. Sending you a huge hug and congratulations xx
Thanks, Helen! You’ve read about much of its evolution, and I thank you for how much support you’ve given—it means so much to me. I can’t wait for people to read it now. Until this point, I’d been a bit frightened about it going out to shops, but I’m not now—I really think it’s ready. 🙂
That’s when you know, I think – when you’re ready to share it 🙂 If I haven’t already, can I put in an order for a signed copy when the time comes? xx
I couldn’t agree more: you know it’s ready when you’re ready to share it, and I’m ready to share my book now!
One signed copy definitely coming your way! 🙂
Yay! Thank you, can’t wait x
Bonzer news, Louise. I think the copy editing ahead of you is the most fun and rewarding process of all — perhaps helped by knowing it is the final lap of the marathon, the crowd in the arena cheering — and arguably as creative as the structural edit.
I’m certainly looking forward to this last lap! This latest edit was actually meant to be a copy edit, and I was able to incorporate some of it into this edit. Hopefully, that will make the real copy edit smoother!
Being pedantic about detail is my idea of fun, too—I love searching for a perfect word or phrase. Having already had a glimpse into the copy editing side of things, I’m blown away by the difference it makes to a story. Thanks for reading, Robyn. x
Can’t wait to see the next post. What a magical journey Louise xxx
Magical is right: I’m still pinching myself it’s really happening! I have a few posts up my sleeve about the journey to here. Thanks for reading, Rae. 😊