9 minutes reading time (1735 words)

Twelve Days of Editing at a Sri Lankan Cabin

Ahead of the publication of Undressing Stone, author Hazel Manuel gives an insight into the novel's editing.

I am sitting in a log cabin amid lush jungle, facing a clearing at the end of which a huge rocky promontory juts up from a wooded hill. A single tree graces the summit. This is Lion Rock, at Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka. I arrived here just after lunchtime, hot and tired after landing in Colombo at 7am. The remote cabin was a welcome sight after 6 hours of two bone-shaker bus rides.

I am here to work on Undressing Stone, my forthcoming novel and I have a looming deadline before publication. Having received the edits from Cinnamon Press, the bulk of the work has been done. Nonetheless, this final stage in the life of a novel is crucial; an opportunity for a last proofing, to see what changes my editor has deemed necessary, and to make any further last minute changes. I know from having two novels previously published that this final stage is in many ways the hardest.

I began work this morning after a breakfast of tea, roti and coconut-stuffed pancakes and am at my desk - a garden table of thankfully just the right height - overlooking Lion Rock, and so far have been kept company by a little heard of goats, two peacocks, whose loud 'meow' sounds like cats, and a visiting hare who streaked across the clearing as I was drinking tea outside. A couple of disconcertingly large lizards have darted under the porch but so far I am happy to report that they haven't ventured inside — no doubt they will at some point. The constant twittering and calling of birds and the occasional cry of a monkey — the pleasure of whose company I have yet to receive - provides the perfect accompaniment for my work, and although the wifi doesn't work — a possibility I had anticipated - all of this adds to the sense of being very far from home. This is why I came here. Novels need not only emotional space in which to grow, but when the time comes, for us as writers to let go and allow an editor to do their work, unencumbered by our egos. My novel is set in rural France, not Sri Lanka. Here though, I hope to view my work through new eyes, to see what I couldn't see when I was writing it, and to give space to the work my editor has done. Whilst necessary, this isn't always easy.

It is day two of my editing trip and today's highlight has been watching a group of farmers scatter-planting rice in the field beyond my garden. One of the women had a baby on her hip. I guess they were taking advantage of the weather, because it rained yesterday. The sky turned grey-black as clouds pushed in fast from the east, the grass and the trees lost their verdant glow and fast, fat raindrops was cooling on my hot skin. The monsoon deluge stopped some hours later as abruptly as it began but while it lasted I enjoyed the feeling of being released from the pounding heat which characterises this country.

Today's editing has seen me enter stage two of Tuckman's model. I use this model a lot to help me gain perspective. For those who aren't familiar with it, it is a simple model which suggests that in a new situation we will move through four stages — forming, storming, norming, performing. The forming takes place when each participant enters into a relationship — in this case my editor and me. What often follows is one or both participants rails against the situation, each attempting to assert their own ideas — the storming phase. Hopefully this is quickly worked through so that the norming and performing stages can take over.

So today has for me, been about storming. It makes sense. After all, in the life of a novel, the writing part is all about the author exercising her imagination, giving herself free-rein to explore, experiment, take the story and the characters to new and exciting places. In many ways, the editing process is the exact opposite. The editor curtails, disciplines, hones, pares back. I am no stranger to conflict, I sat on boards of directors for years and believe me you develop a thick skin. But writing a novel is different. Like many writers, I write my books from the heart. I feel deeply about the issues I am exploring. I hone and develop my characters carefully and understand and care about them. Today I have found myself saying 'but that's not how she speaks; I loved that metaphor; this has to stay in!' My main issue is with my main character, Sian. She is a loner but she is feisty and quirky and sarcastic. Continuing to read through the manuscript I feel more and more that I no longer know her. I am tearful. This new Sian isn't the woman I envisaged. I leave my desk, make tea and go to drink it outside.

Gazing out over the garden and the rice field beyond, the Lion Rock, the jungle, I try to gain some perspective. I know very well how difficult it is to see your own work how others see it. I know it is pretty near impossible to tell when our own metaphors are too much, our prose too flowery, our dialogue not quite there… but I also know how hard I worked on all of this, on developing a character that I loved. It was so difficult to finally say 'yes, my book is ready' and hit the send button sending the manuscript off to my publisher. And I'm so ambivalent about what has come back.

The next day I am back at my desk but distracted by a troupe of monkeys. I'm supposed to be editing chapter 47 but my heart isn't really in it and in any case the show outside is too much fun. The adults are helping themselves to leaves from the bushes while the little ones are chasing each other up and down the trees. Two big males have come right up to the porch and are munching away at the hedge. It's much more fun than being upset about my novel.

I've been in e mail contact with my editor. I persevered for a while but finally decided that before I could continue, I needed to understand the changes she'd made to my manuscript. It's easy to come across in ways you don't intend via e mail and I phrased my message carefully, not wanting to appear defensive. I finished the read-through and some of her changes made perfect sense to me. But I was still unconvinced by some of them. I explained how I felt and feeling rather apprehensive, sent my e mail.

Thankfully in spite of the 5 hour time difference, a reply came back quickly — a detailed and sensitive reply. And I am very much reassured. The changes my editor has made — and on reflection they are minimal — have a rationale. They focus on paring back where my character is too self-conscious, where her feisty asides break the spell of the story, forcing the reader to experience her not as a woman but as a character in a book. I re-read those parts. And I saw exactly what my editor meant. Sometimes it really does take an outside view to experience what our readers will experience.

So It seems that my 'storming' is over. I am now 'norming' — working out where I need to be insistent my novel remains as I wrote it and where I need to back off and accept my editor's changes. In the meantime, I think I'll take a break and be entertained by these monkeys.

I'm on the home stretch now and I'm still feeling grateful for the e mail exchange I had with my editor. It has made the process so much more productive and enjoyable. I've been through all the changes that my editor has made and I am happy with what I am insistent stays and what my editor was right to change. I have reached a point where I can say yes, this is the novel I intended, Sian is back to her full and feisty glory and the reader won't be yanked away from any of that by clunky asides. The process now is really about a final sharpening and tightening, getting rid of the odd redundant adjective that has escaped our eagle eyes, checking and double checking for consistency, weeding out stray proofing errors — it's amazing how resilient they can be. I will give it one final read-through then it's on it's way.

It's my last day at my Sri Lankan cabin. It really doesn't feel like 12 days already and in some ways I'd love to stay longer. I hovered over the sent button not wanting to let my novel go, but I've sent Undressing Stone back to my editor. It's a strange feeling. I am happy with the way I've left it, but will my editor accept my final decisions? It was absolutely the right thing coming so far from home to do this work. Being in a new and different environment has enabled me to gain the distance necessary to approach my work with fresh eyes, to see what my editor saw — and thereby hopefully what my readers will see.

Tomorrow I will leave the cabin early and take the two busses to Negombo — 5 hours at least — and stay there overnight before my early morning flight on Sunday. Undressing Stone has gone ahead of me to be transformed from a manuscript to a book. And I am off to India, to continue with the next stage of my Asian literary adventure.

Post script: While I was in India I received an e mail from my editor saying that she had been through the manuscript again, and regarding the parts of the novel that I was insistent stay in their original form, she had accepted all but four instances. I don't at this stage know what those four are, but I know well enough by now that I can trust my editor's judgement. So I'm counting down the days until publication!

Where There's Method...
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Thursday, 09 July 2020

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