Dear Emily Bronte - How To Make Your Lovely Novel Better

Last Tuesday, I wrote a blog post for my regular slot on Authors Electric, titled Dear Emily. A 'previously undiscovered piece of literary correspondence', this was a letter from Humongous Publishing (look out for more from this unique company in due course!) asking for edits on Wuthering Heights. Today, checking the stats, I see that there have been more than 800 page views in that short time and a lot of interesting comments, many of them from writers saying the same thing: this was very funny, but all too horribly true.

It was all too horribly true, I suppose, because I lifted a surprising number of the comments directly from letters and emails I have received over half a lifetime of writing and submission. In fact I think I'm about to take a vow not to 'submit' anything - with its sense of relinquishing control to another - ever again. I always think of myself as a forgiving kind of a gal, so I was amazed how - once I began - all of them just came boiling to the surface. 

But it set me thinking. I've also had some good editors and artistic directors in my time, not one of whom would have written anything like this - so what was it about this string of  'helpful suggestions' which rang so many bells with so very many writers?

I think it's something that demonstrates a total misunderstanding of how the creative process works, but we all encounter it from time to time. Good editors will ask lots of difficult questions. But they will always be questioning the book you have written, the book (or play) that exists. They will be forcing you, the writer, to examine it more closely, to find out more, to tell the tale you want and need to tell. Or even more accurately, the tale that wants to be told.

As soon as somebody starts to suggest glib alternatives - why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? Can't you make him or her do this? Or be like this? - the red mist descends. Or it does for me. Because I can't 'make' anything do or be what it doesn't want to be.  

When I was writing Bird of Passage, I spent months knowing that there was something in Finn's background about which he could neither speak, nor even think. It was something so traumatic that it must account for the way he was, in himself and in his relationship with Kirsty. The trouble was, I didn't know what it was and Finn couldn't remember. Some hypothetical editor might have said 'why don't you make it...' but I couldn't do that. I couldn't make it anything. Instead, I had to find it out. And I did. In the middle of the night. I woke up thinking 'oh - that's what it was. That was what happened to him!'

Strange as it may seem, it was as if the story had existed somewhere all along, as an entity outside myself. I don't know whether other writers feel this way, but I suspect a lot of them do. And I suspect that's why we find it so maddening when somebody else tries to manipulate our fictional reality with inappropriate suggestions.


margaret blake said…
Thanks for posting, I loved the Dear Emily had not seen it previously.
Also much of what you say rings bells too.
Kathleen Jones said…
I loved Emily's letter! You really whacked the nail dead centre. It was so real it made me squirm. yes, recognise quite a few of the phrases. TG for e-publishing!
Avril said…
Loved the Dear Emily - I too have a sense that the stories I write and the characters I create exist outside of me and the idea of never submitting to my agent or publisher again is rapidly gaining ground with me.