This post could also be called: Anatomy of Writing a Novel.
When writing a novel, the hard work really only begins once the story’s written down. Most novels require heavy editing in order to make them publishable, and by heavy editing we’re talking discarding tens of thousands of hard-earned words and penning tens of thousands of new ones. Most authors I know, even experienced ones, rewrite their books before sending them out. But rewriting takes courage and self-discipline, and not all writers are prepared to shred their hard-earned words and spend hours writing new ones.
I’ve rewritten both my completed novels. Both times it was a mammoth task, akin to a major house renovation involving knocking out walls and redoing the plumbing and electrical wiring. Both times it felt scary as there’s no guarantee you’re actually making the story better – but both times I know it did.
Rewriting – real rewriting, not just interior decorating – often finds the gold in a book, those themes that hide even from their author. Sometimes I wonder how many discarded novels have gems hidden within their depths that are just waiting for someone to come in with a giant shovel and discover.
It goes without saying that I love this post of Jo’s – I love any writer who’s prepared to return to their book again and again, and do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be. The other thing to note is that when rewriting a book, it’s not just the novel that improves, but the author develops as a writer, too.
Joanna Morrison is a writer based in Perth, Western Australia. A former sessional academic, she’s also worked in bars, restaurants and bookshops, and been a journalist, a backpacker and a muso. Since completing her Creative Writing PhD in 2014, she’s had short stories published in various Australian journals and anthologies. Her debut novel, The Ghost of Gracie Flynn, was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and will be published by Fremantle Press in October, 2022. She lives with her husband, two sons, and miniature schnauzer, Scout.
Writing and Rewriting The Ghost of Gracie Flynn
One of my favourite questions so far about writing The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is, ‘Was the non-linear structure difficult to pull off?’ The short answer is, yes! The long answer? Picture an author in their garret, channelling their novel onto the page in a luminous, eloquent stream of consciousness. Now, picture Dr. Frankenstein in his lab, lit up by a flare of lightning. There he is, bent over the mess of his creation, desperate to give it life. I don’t think I need to point out which is the closer likeness.
Which is why I find quotes like these so reassuring:
And this one:
The main goal in writing a non-linear narrative, I think, is to pull the various threads and scenes together in an arrangement that maximises suspense without ever allowing readers to get confused—arguably a messier process for ‘pantsers’ like me than it is for the ‘plotters’ among us. I thought it might be fun here on Writers in the Attic (in a sado-masochistic kind of way) to relive that process, as it played out in the writing and rewriting of The Ghost of Gracie Flynn.
The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is a ghost-narrated, non-linear novel propelled by two interwoven mysteries. In the novel, narrator Gracie is still invested in the lives of the university friends who survived her death eighteen years ago—old flame Cohen, best friend Robyn, and Robyn’s ex, Sam, now a respected author, husband, and father to baby Isla. When Sam is found dead on his boat, alone on the Swan River, Gracie feels compelled to tell Isla the story … not just of Sam’s mysterious death, but of her own as well.
The non-linear structure looks a bit like this. The novel opens in early 2019 with a woman waking up on the deck of a small boat. Her head is throbbing. As her eyes begin to adjust, she realises she’s not alone. Just metres away is the body of a lifeless man, a man she knows: Sam Favier. After this opening scene, the story jumps back a bit, allowing us to witness the weeks leading up to Sam’s death. And as this ‘present-day’ thread unspools, the narrative lens shifts back and forth, capturing various moments in the characters’ collective history. We drop in on Sam and Cohen as young friends in the late nineties, for example, and we look in on the four friends (Sam, Cohen, Gracie and Robyn) as university students in 2001. In this way, we get to know them better while gradually unravelling the two key mysteries that drive the novel: why is Sam dead, and what happened to Gracie?
There were three main revision phases involved in making this structure work. Phase one (before submitting the manuscript for the Hungerford Award in early 2020) took around three years, on and off, and involved three major overhauls, each one owing much of its energy and direction to feedback from long-suffering friends and family members. While it had potential, my initial free-indirect speech version contained some shallowly rendered characters and a few plot clichés. Naturally then, the second draft became a cold-case podcast transcript, set twenty years after the event of Sam’s death. Unfortunately, feedback suggested that the podcast format felt contrived and the time shift had had a distancing effect. So, it was back to the original non-podcast format but with improved character depth and minus the clichéd plot points. The manuscript was getting stronger, but it felt a bit flat to me, something I put down to the absence of a singular, engaging voice. So, I let Gracie take the reins as narrator, and that’s the version I submitted for the Hungerford Award.
Phase two happened between the thrilling news that the manuscript had been shortlisted for the award, and the magical moment of signing a publishing contract with Fremantle Press in 2021. After the award night (when the prize went to Maria Papas with her gorgeous novel, Skimming Stones), publisher and editor Georgia Richter invited me in to chat about the manuscript. She made three key suggestions: rethink certain characters’ culpabilities, change some of the more generic character names, and revisit the causes of death. These were relatively light revisions, and best of all, I finally had an excuse to reach out to a forensic pathologist as part of my research—something I’d always wanted to do. The hardest part of this phase, I think, was waiting to learn whether I’d done enough to secure a contract. Spoiler alert: I had! Joy and relief ensued.
At the beginning of phase three, I could practically hear Georgia rolling up her sleeves and cracking her knuckles. Which is exactly what you want to hear. The last thing you want is an editor saying, I’m pretty sure it’s fine as is. Revision fatigue had set in by now, but knowing that people might actually read the book one day somehow helped me find another gear. With Georgia’s guidance, I layered in more depth, refined the rules around Gracie’s ghostly narration, and rejigged the structure to maximise narrative tension. This meant working with a comprehensive timeline, executing a careful dismemberment, and writing a fair bit of new material, before stitching and smoothing everything back together again. The very last rejig took place aftertypesetting, when we decided that actually, the final third of the book would be stronger if I rearranged some of the key revelations. The ending had been keeping me up at night, so I was really relieved to discover that it wasn’t too late, at this very late stage, to go back in and shake things up one last time. I can’t tell you exactly how many tables and outlines and lists and mind-maps were involved in this final phase, but it was a lot!
Looking back, I can’t believe all that re-visioning and stripping away and remodelling has yielded something coherent. Surely it should be more like Frankenstein’s monster: cobbled together and staggering around, confused and confusing. But somehow, it seems to have worked. And every step of the process was crucial. Because something magical happens when you work and work on a story you love, particularly if you’re blessed with feedback from friends and family and the guidance of a brilliant editor. The wringing of hands and the odd bolt of lightning helps too, I’m not going to lie. But mostly it’s the work.
I’m thrilled to offer a copy of Joanna’s book, The Ghost of Gracie Flynn, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of my social media posts about Joanna’s novel.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 20th October, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.
Addendum 21.10.22: Congratulations to Marian Edmunds on winning the Book Giveaway! A copy of The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is on its way to you. Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the post – your support of Australian authors is appreciated.