I mentioned last week that I’d just completed the second draft of my next book (I’m going to need a codename for this project, aren’t I? I don’t think I’m ready to share the actual title just yet). I’d worked hard to get it finished by the end of September and felt pleased to have met my own deadline, but it felt strange to complete it at the same time as the final proof of THE TREES.
For those who are interested, the process of editing a book for a publisher goes something like this:
- Your principal editor goes through the novel and suggests alterations. You do your best to make them and bounce drafts back and forth until your editor is happy with the changes.
- The book goes to a copy editor, who checks for inconsistencies and garbled grammar. You do your best to fix these problems and send it back for proofreading.
- A proofreader combs through the text for errors and typos, which keep turning up like wasps in summer.
- You get one more pass through the manuscript, one last chance to make tiny amendments. This is the final proof.
So while I was typing up Project Codename, and feeling small moments of satisfaction for doing so, I was also reading THE TREES for the last time and feeling the same things I felt when I read the final proofs of THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET and THE MAN WHO RAINED. A few flashes of pride in my work but mainly, and consistently, dread.
You can’t change what you’ve written any more, that’s the problem. Oh, sure, you can correct errors (each of which leaves you coldly paranoid that you’ve missed a dozen others) but you can’t manipulate it or cut it or shake it by the shoulders and scream at it. You have to stick with it, now. The you of the present has to live with, stand or fall with, the work of the you of the past. When you’ve spent the past few years, in between changing nappies and chasing a tiny child around playgroups and parks, drafting and redrafting the manuscript, its sudden fossilisation is a terrifying thing.
I remember kneeling on the threadbare carpet of my old flat with the final proof of THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET on the floor in front of me (for some reason I had decided to proofread the whole thing kneeling) and bowing my head against the paper in despair. It was as if, to borrow the premise of that book, my story had turned as hard and unmalleable as glass. That feeling didn’t really shift until people started reading it and taking the time and effort to let me know they’d enjoyed it. It came around again when I worked through the final proofs for THE MAN WHO RAINED, and I felt sick for days afterwards.
The great thing about being in charge of a tiny person is that it’s so much harder to indulge fears like these. I’d just finished the proof of THE TREES and was embarking on my internal odyssey of dread when I got offered an imaginary cup of tea in a smiley purple cup. That, and the experience of proofing the first two novels, makes things easier. So too does the pleasure of making progress on Project Codename. We live in a strange world full of the illusion of immediacy. I made the last significant changes to the story of THE TREES about a year ago, and remember being intensely proud of it. Three hundred and sixty five days later I’m a different person, just as I will be this time in 2016, just as I was a different person on each of the days I spent working through it. I spent about a fortnight proofing it, and I couldn’t help but notice that on some days I loved it and some I could hardly bear to go on. Maybe its quality just varies wildly from chapter to chapter, but I suspect it was my view of my past self and his output that was changing.