The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

Editing the monster

Ah, remember the giddy days of early summer, when a Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were crowned anew, cherished Fitzbillies Chelsea buns were rescued from oblivion and I finished the first draft of my novel? Well, sort of.

By first draft some people mean an initial version that they would be happy to show to agents and publishers. What I mean is that I filled out the plan I had for the book.

Early on I plotted the story out in detail, both the current action of the book and the backstory. So when I wrote all of those chapters, I felt rather elated. In software parlance, the novel is feature complete. I sketched a skeleton for the book and now it has flesh on all of its bones. I projected a book of about 100,000 words and the draft comes in at over 105,000 (about 300 pages if you think in those terms).

It was a huge relief to get that done. It is by far the longest thing I have ever written. By over ten times. I jubilated just to achieve a novel-length word count. First big question (can I actually compose a cohesive single work of such length?) answered.

However, after the feature-complete stage comes the testing and bug fixing and user interface design and spit and polish. Or, to use the skeleton and flesh analogy, I've stitched together a Frankenstein's monster but parts of it are ugly as hell and the heart is not beating just yet. My creation needs LIFE!

So with a surgeon's knife, a brewing electrical storm, a bug-eyed hunchback and a limitless pile of cinnamon buns, I am tackling the following:

Who knows what when? Does anyone notice that it's Christmas in the middle of the book? Is everyone the right age to be doing the things they're doing? Legally? What happened to Jonathan's coat? Had the Internet been invented when I need it to be? Does it sound like the same book all the way through?

Some scenes in the book are placeholders, glossed over just to get to the end without losing momentum. Now I'm going back over them to make them appear real. Last week I was researching how to put on tarty makeup and treatments for breast cancer. I made some assumptions that just don't hold up, and changing them has a knock on effect for other characters and other scenes.

Is the level of dramatic tension right throughout the book, building steadily to a climax? Not just overall, but in all of the narrative threads – will readers care? Is the pace right? Is it clear enough what all of the characters want and why they want it? The secondary narrative thread in particular needs augmenting to give it a slower burn.

This is the wood and the trees. It's the voice. The character's voices. The texture of the language; the extent of the similes. It's not repeating the word 'tent' too many times. It's the shape of the sentences and paragraphs and chapters. These are not things that can be inserted mechanically but they can all be improved, by standing right back and by zooming in forensic detail.

Each change has implications for the whole book. Each time a scene becomes more authentic the list of things to check in continuity grows a little longer. I tell people that I'm editing but it is more like rewriting. I'm deleting scenes. I'm writing new chapters. I'm restructuring, I hope without damaging the foundations.

And overall I'm trying to keep a view of the whole thing. Is it any good? Why should anyone care? Is my monster alive and terrorising orphans and blind people at will?

I've been writing The Tongues of Men for over three years now, which seems like a lot (unless you're Jonathan Franzen), except that I only take nine writing weeks a year. 30 weeks is not long to write a novel with literary pretensions, especially when you have to continually dip in and out of it. I'd love to be nearer to finished by now yet I'm happy with where I'm up to and that the book is still moving forward, even when it feels like going backwards to get there.


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