So, the editing process on The Miniaturist is done. And as my Dublin friend, Niamh, would say, it’s been a ride. See left. This is me, smiling, arms folded. I can write this tome no more. But I can ride a bike with no hands! Finishing my first novel, for the twelfth time, instils in me a somewhat similar feeling.
If you think your novel doesn’t need an editor, then most probably it does. I had no idea quite how self-revealing the editing process would be. Remember Blind Date? I used to love that programme. The datee would have said goodbye to the two he or she didn’t pick, to groans of regret or relief from the audience. Then the screen would glide back revealing the chosen one - the nutter, the hunk, a bimbo, a himbo, a weirdo - and the datee’s face would express immediate feelings of horror or delight. Sometimes, of course, it was the datee who was the worry, and you felt concerned for the three candidates swivelling awkwardly on their too-high bar-stools, hoping for a chance at love.
Being bought by an editor at a publishing house IS OF COURSE NOT REMOTELY LIKE THIS.
I was much more impressed than this girl when I met Picador
You might meet your editor before your publishing deal is clinched, you might not. If you don’t, I suppose it’s a bit like getting married without ever having actually met, but at least it encourages everyone to put best feet forward. Will you get on? Will they get you? Well, they loved your book and they wanted your heart and soul, your sweat and blood and tears. A good start.
I met three publishing houses in the last round of the auction for The Miniaturist. Not a single person was in a cocktail dress or a Superman outfit, or sitting on bar-stools, but all of them were extraordinary, erudite and generous people, and it was one of the most wonderful days of my life. All the approaches were different, but I was particularly delighted that Picador won the auction. Theirs was a brilliant meeting, led that day by their Editorial Director, Francesca Main - you know, the woman who has such fabulous taste in books. They are a fantastic team - so professional and creative, yet approachable and fun as well. No point in being scared to death of your publisher.
So, my not-so-blind date from now on was Francesca Main. She was my MAIN date. See what I did there - see why they wanted my book? Words, right! They just come to me and I PLAY THEM LIKE A PRO. The opposite, of course, is true. I am a newcomer to this strange, strange world, which is why I needed Francesca so much, and why I was so grateful that she was the one in charge of handling my manuscript.
It would have been interesting to take Francesca on an assault course in the New Forest (girl would be a mean tug o’war contestant, let me tell you), topped off with a spa and medieval banquet and a report back to Cilla Black how marvellously it was all going. But instead we had a more pleasurable, leisurely tea-and-cake debrief about the excitement of the fair and a discussion about a few aspects of the novel, (my novel I should say - let’s not get all E.M. Forster here). I was more than ok with this path, because I am not massively sporty and don’t look good in a wimple. And I knew even during the auction that FM was one of the best people who could ever be in charge of my novel on a creative level, and this meeting just confirmed it.
Across the pond in US and Canada, I also had two more editors, Lee Boudreaux and Jennifer Lambert, who were equally enthusiastic and hands-on as Francesca. I felt like a small camera propped up by a formidable tripod, taking my pictures as best I could.
By early July this year, I had three editorial letters (UK, US and Canada), and two physical marked-up manuscripts of The Miniaturist totalling 800 pages, one sent by aeroplane from New York (never have I felt more glamorous nor carbon-footprint guilty), the other by motorbike from London, N1. I spoke to a few writers during my editing, and it seems there is no hard and fast process. Some editors just write you a one page letter, others mark up an entire manuscript. No one, to my knowledge, has taken their author to a spa.
Francesca and Lee there, helping me out
My three editors had a conference call prior to sending me their thoughts, just to check they were all (quite literally) on the same page. I was very, very lucky that they were. I cannot imagine the confusion a writer might experience if there were structural disagreements between editors over an author’s novel-in-progress. Line edits can be thrashed out *fairly* easily - a word here, a character slippage there, but structural editing - the skeleton of your book that affects its pacing, plotting, core and mood - if people are throwing you conflicting suggestions left, right and centre at this late stage - that could be a proper nightmare.
Astute, concise and revelatory are three adjectives I’d used to describe my editors. Brimming with their generous compliments and enthusiasm, I edited the book for 8 weeks, going through the UK and US versions simultaneously - that is, two 400 page manuscripts in front of me, turning the pages in tandem, scouring each paragraph twice to see what Francesca had written compared to Lee’s observations. I was a bit worried I would start changing the book according to committee, trying to find a middle ground, located no doubt somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Anomalies between the two were few and far between - but once, a sentence which Lee had underlined as an example as to why she bought the book, was a sentence Francesca had suggested to erase. I had to laugh. I guess this is what it’s like to get reviews. I won’t tell you who I went with on that occasion.
Through their commentaries, I was receiving a genuine masterclass in handling my own work. I’ve never learned so much about writing than I have in these few months. The American way was more direct, the English more conditional - surprise! Page by page, I saw the benefit of having outsiders’ eyes upon my work, and not just any outsiders, but people who really knew about how to push their authors to be the best they could be. You know when a friend meets a man, and she just seems more herself when she’s with him than any of her past boyfriends? Some kind of alchemy felt similar here. A synthesis, a strange sympathetic fusing. A great editor doesn’t seek to change the magic of your book. She poses you a question (not one you always want to hear) that will deepen that magic, but the answer, and how you get to it, lies nowhere but with you.
There go all my lovely, over-the-top darlings
After Edit 1 was sent back to me, there were some plot issues that I just couldn’t see were unclear to others, because they existed in me and I thought they were crystalline and obvious. But they weren’t yet on the page, they were somewhere in the ether. Certain novelistic flourishes, which really I knew in my heart of hearts should go, required someone else’s hand to bring down the axe. There was talk of ‘volume’ - of turning the sound up on some things and toning others down. The domino game - move one piece, the whole thing collapses? - that happened here.
I cut, cut, cut. I wrote new words. After two months’ more of writing, I left it for a week then read it out loud, tweaking again as I did so. I sent it over to the triumvirate.
I went, I think, too far.
Here’s what being edited does to you - it makes you realise the kind of person you really are. It appears I am obedient, a grafter, willing to be directed accordingly, eager and nodding and desperate to please, my rebellions secret and seldom manifested. The consequence of my personality was to over-explain bits in Edit 2, and to make a certain plot-strand too convoluted. I did some good work, and went a bit modernist in the final chapter, like Mrs Dalloway In Amsterdam.
Donna Tartt said in a recent interview that all the work she cuts is never truly lost. I don’t regret writing everything out - it’s better to my mind than not writing your idea at all. It’s all experiment. Where you want to go is only revealed to you at the end of writing. It’s a matter of carding the wool, smoothing it, paring it down to the silk satisfaction of a perfectly-slotted scene, a turn of phrase, a character who shifts into the sun. I had opened up my novel and allowed others to probe, and the best consequence of it all was that even more ideas had budded and bloomed.
Just makin sure it all worked
My editors loved Edit 2 - but one subplot strand was still all snaggy and thready. ‘You’ve managed to write five novels in one,’ Francesca said. The ambition of my book was genuinely not something I had ever considered. Quite simply, all these characters needed their story, or the story needed them. It was, as ever, a question of balance. Character, scene and syntax - for me, no problem - well, you know what I mean. But subplot. Counterplot! Oh, plotty plot plot! Plot. What a stupid word when you say it over and over. PLOD.
If your plot is in place, you can soar with the rest. My subplot had just been through a bad time - a certain miniaturist had been taking up the limelight, and the subplot needed love. Francesca and I met up and talked, at my request. I will remain eternally grateful for those hours she gave me - the questions she posited, the questions I posited, the debates we had, the things we learned together about the shifting text before us. I suppose to some writers this would be anathema, but it was mainly technical stuff, with a few giggles thrown in. Sometimes, you don’t know what you want until you’re threatened with it being taken away. For 8 more weeks I went to work, tightening, brightening, refining, refining. Our conversations had sparked even more new ideas.
Then my Dutch editor got in touch. Join the party, Marga! Marga sent through the most phenomenal historical observations about my book. I took these on board - for example, my use of German language in the novel shifting to Portuguese - for the Dutch at the time apparently held the Germans in little esteem and were unlikely to use it to pepper their speech…Other things may have been problematic for a native English reader to grasp in the flow of reading, so (my bad) I kept them as they were.
It takes a certain skill to be up close and far away at the same time, and Francesca and Lee and Jennifer have it in bucketloads. However, I’ve learned that the deeper editors go, the more subjective they too become. It’s inevitable, but the book wouldn't have the roots it has now if it weren't for them. I’ve learned that certain characters sometimes feel so real, so rounded, that actually they could choose several paths - and it’s hard to play God (no, really it is) but you have to do so.
This November, it was time to sew it all up, to let the operation heal and ‘re-Jessify’ it (my incredibly sophisticated phrase.) But this was important. You have to believe in what you’ve written, you can’t write what someone else thinks would be best, unless you agree with them too. And if they can’t find the tools to convince you, then perhaps no one is right. In Edit 3 - the one I have just finished, the last one before the grande publique see it, 6 months after The Miniaturist was purchased - the open-ended spirit of my final chapter has been threaded into a more inclusive direction with the rest of the novel. Still, it was fun to ignite one more strange spark even at the very end. And even if readers don't see it, I know it's there. I think it was a sign I was ready to hang up my pen on this one - although some of my publishers around the world see my book as very literary, as much as others find it quite commercial, so I’ve already learned there’s no status quo. It just has to feel as right as it can, as much of the time, for you.
I thought I could rewrite The Miniaturist till the day I die. Turns out I was wrong. I have finally, finally reached the point where there is no more I can do. I love my novel, like I might love a sister, if I had one. But now it's time for someone else to read her and bring her to life for me again.
Sure, there is always a word I could change, and no doubt there will be many passages at which I will cringe - but all the enriching, all the slow, slow layering that can only ever be achieved through draft after draft after draft - that is all in place now and it’s ready to go out.
And here’s the thing. If I’m lucky, I’ll be asked to talk about my book, if anyone will listen. Right now, any dodgy adverb, or repetition, or downright bizarre scenario - it’s all mine. Guided, shaped, encouraged and challenged, yes - but ultimately, mine. I will be nothing but doubtful and deliberate in turn about my own ability, but I will always be underscored by the invisible confidence of my editors’ work. I am so grateful to them for showing me the angles that were hidden, the corners in which nobody would benefit if I chose to hide. And ultimately, I thank them for all the space - wide open, full of views and valleys - that they gave me to soar through, free.