Boy, Was I Wrong: Fifty One – First Edits

So, you’ve written your book.

You’ve dreamed up the story and done the research. You’ve spent endless hours agonising over character development and sequencing events. You’ve written the first draft, and then more drafts. People have read it and commented, and you’ve revised and sharpened it. Rewriting until you’re sick of it, and can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to read the damn thing.

Then – oh joy! – a publisher likes it and signs it up. Job done, you think. Time to start on the sequel.





Boy, are you wrong. Enter the editor.

When I was younger, and greener in judgement, I admit I was sceptical about what editors contributed. I sometimes read an author’s fulsome gratitude for their editor in the book’s acknowledgements, and I would mutter to myself, “Can you not write properly on your own, then?” I was pretty confident I could do my own punctuation, thank you very much. I couldn’t see what else I might need from an editor.

Boy, was I wrong.

My novel, Fifty One, is on its way to publication (in September) with Filles Vertes Publishing. We are currently in the editing process, and have recently been through what I think of as the Big Edit. In my case, this meant my editor, a sharp guy called Harvey Spectre (of Spectre Editing), brought a completely fresh eye to my manuscript, asking difficult questions about the structure, themes, style. In effect, he took the  story for a test drive, having thoroughly kicked the tires first.

It was disconcerting to read his feedback on that test drive.  I thought I’d done a pretty good job. I was pleased with myself. But he told me that the book was way too long, nothing happened in most chapters, the characters were annoying, and – by the way – the time travel science on which the plot hinged was fundamentally flawed!

I exaggerate. But not much.

Harvey’s comments made me take a long, hard look at my work. And have a good, hard think about the tough questions he raised. I didn’t agree with every single comment he made, but – once I’d picked myself up – I could see that he had spotted a better story, and a better way of telling it, inside my original.

By chance, I was able to clear my schedule and make a few weeks available. I could work nearly full-time on a complete rewrite. I trimmed the length, straightened out the science, and gave the main relationship in the story more room to breathe.

I also addressed an annoying writing tic that Harvey spotted, and thoroughly skewered in his feedback (and which I will never reveal: once he’d pointed it out, it made me cringe that I’d not spotted it myself!).

Sculptors often say that their job is not so much to make something, as to chisel the stone to release the sculpture within it. Writing is different, of course, but in some ways your early drafts (and – in my case – what I thought was a final draft) are the rough stone. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to be able to release the best story all on your own. But sometimes it is really valuable to have a critical friend to tell you that you haven’t finished.

The rewrite did the trick, and we’re now moving on to line edits, the more detailed polishing of the manuscript.

I’m hoping the next lot of feedback will be easier to read. But I’ll make sure I’m sitting down when I get it.

Grass by Sheri S Tepper – 1989

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed]

Near my home in south London, there is a splendid library, housed in an old red phone box, and run by community volunteers. The deal is that you can take a book that takes your fancy, and you’re encouraged to donate books you’ve read.

I pick up a lot of good books here. There is obviously at least one other SF fan in the neighbourhood, because I get numerous SF Masterworks from here (if my friend Max doesn’t snaffle them first!).

I got a copy of Grass some time ago, and then it sat on my shelf, unread, for months. Every time I needed a new book I passed over Tepper’s novel. For some reason, despite it’s Hugo and Locus nominations, it didn’t appeal. It was, after all, called Grass. About a world covered with grass. That sounded a bit, well, dull.

How wrong I was. The novel is set in a future where the earth has become overstretched, and is dominated by a ruthless religious cult. Humanity has spread to other worlds, including Grass. A plague threatens all worlds, except Grass, where for unknown reasons it does not take hold. Earth sends an ambassador and his family to try to find out more.

I loved the start of the book. (It was bold to make the first paragraph simply “Grass!” That made me laugh.) There is a great sense of dread as a group of aristocrats set out on a hunt. Without being told explicitly, it is clear that the hounds are not actually dogs, the ‘mounts’ are not horses, and the fox is not really a fox. Something is badly wrong with the whole picture, and it takes much of the rest of the book to tell you what and why. I have not read any other Tepper books, but was impressed by the style and delivery of this one.

The world-building is detailed and beautifully unravelled bit by bit. Some of the characters are real and interesting (although some of the men are a little cardboard). The first half of the book is slow-moving, but never dull. In fact, when the action hots up in the second half, I found I could have done with a bit less of the chasing around, and a bit more exploration of why the alien creatures are as they are. This was the only drawback for me, so much so that my excitement over the prospect of another two books in the trilogy had dulled by the end, and I’m not sure I’ll be reading them soon.

But still, overall a solid 7 out of 10.

Where I’m Coming From…The Stories I Love

I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger. In truth, I read little else. Stories set in the world I recognised around me seemed too mundane; I wanted imagination-stretching, mind-bending tales of adventure in the made-up realm.

So I grew up on Heinlein, Farmer, Asimov, Le Guin, Ellison, Pohl…the list goes on.

Later, I fell out of the SF habit. Did it get dull, or did I? I don’t know. I still dipped in occasionally, but I mainly moved on to crime fiction, non-fiction, the occasional ghost story.

Recently, I have come back to SF. I was led by my writing – after years of ghost stories and horror fiction, I found myself writing SF. Not very well, but I found myself enjoying it.  I also soon realised that a lot of things I was thinking about had already been written, earlier and better by other writers. The SF world had moved on since I drifted away from it.

I didn’t entirely abandon the field: I find I have read 10 of the Hugo-winning novels since 1986. But I have read 17 of the winners from the 20 years before that.

So, I’m setting out to explore the treasures that I have largely missed in the past nearly two decades while my attention has been elsewhere. I apologise for being so behind the game, but as penance I’ll write about the books as I catch up with them.

Let me know of the books you think I really must not miss, and I’ll try to read them.

Coming Soon – Fifty One

For some reason, the fine people at Filles Vertes Publishing are quite taken with my time travel romance story, ‘Fifty One’. It’s a simple story: boy (born in 2010) meets girl (who dies in 1944), and they fall in love in Blitz-era London. Boy discovers that girl is due to be blown up before the war ends, and risks life, the universe and everything to save her.

The book grew out of a short story that won a ‘Dark Tales’ magazine contest some time ago. That story was essentially a ghost story about a young woman killed by a flying bomb in a south London street market in 1944. The novel takes the same real-life incident, but leaps off into an action-packed, heart-aching and mind-bending romp through time. As one reader said, it’s a love story ship in a time travel bottle!

I’m having a lot of fun getting the book ready for publication: editing, looking at cover art, and all that jazz. I’ll post updates here as we work our way through the process.