Monday 21 October 2013

Killing your darlings (then resurrecting one) by Imogen Robertson

Marie Bashkirtseff - In the Studio
The Paris Winter is out in paperback this week, so while I’m copy-editing my next book, part of me is also wandering the boulevards, peering in at the shop-windows and watching the young women climbing the stairs to their studio to continue their training as artists. It is one of the great pleasures of writing for a living that you get to swoop mentally across a city, checking the waters rising, being a ghost at Maxim's or Bal Taberin or examining diamonds in the jeweller’s shops on rue Royale. You start watching your characters and as they and the plot develop you start noticing something like a novel taking shape. It can be very exciting. There are also moments though, when rather than wafting around the world you’ve created, you find yourself slamming into a brick wall.

Writing a novel involves any number of highs and lows, and normally at least twice in the process I feel like throwing the laptop out of the window and finding something more sensible to do for a living. Then I remember I’m not trained for anything else, and being self-employed for this long has turned me too feral for office work so I have to sit back down and get on with it. There were some real highs writing Paris Winter, there were some brick wall moments too.

The helpful cat
When I first delivered the manuscript to Headline, and to my editor there, Flora Rees, it had a modern narrative running through it. There were bits of it I was very pleased with, but after getting my notes back from my Flora (and getting married - though I’m not sure that had anything to so with it), and re-reading the manuscript I had to admit that it just wasn’t working. I was on my extended honeymoon in Portugal at the time and I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I skyped Flora, my mother-in-law’s cat curled up next to the keyboard, to say I thought it all needed to come out. Flora had, I think, come to the same conclusion some time ago and was gently hinting me in that direction, so I suspect she wasn’t surprised. I also remember she seemed a lot less worried than I was about throwing away a third of the book. The next few days involved a real slaughter of the darlings, as scenes and characters melted away and left no trace behind them in the manuscript. Once that painful decision was made though, the novel blossomed. Suddenly there was room for the story to breathe and I’m afraid I began to forget all about my modern characters and their stories. Playing with the cat helped. Also having an understanding husband and a shop down the road that sold a decent white wine for one euro a bottle turned out to be very important. 

The understanding husband
I entirely rewrote the book in a month and it was incredibly satisfying. In the general slaughter though, I also killed one of Flora’s darlings. It was a scene towards the end of the novel, a key one, and I entirely rewrote it so it was seen from a different character’s perspective, and took place in a different part of the city. Flora, while of course understanding my reasoning, was sorry to see it go. Which brings me back to the paperback. As well as having a lovely quote on it from Manda Scott and a banner announcing it was short-listed for the CWA Historical Dagger, it also has a bonus track. We have put in that missing scene as an extra at the end of the novel. Has anyone else every done anything like that? And if you had the chance to resurrect a lost scene like this, adding to the end of the novel as an sort of ‘alternative reality’ for your readers, would you? And as readers, would you be interested is discovering bits of what might have been? 

The Paris Winter (with bonus track) is available from Thursday.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Been there, done that. And good on you for recognising that the modern bits had to go. I once read a novel about that woman, what was her name, who ended up being thrown in an oubliette by King John (it's been a long time since I read it, and I thought of the woman as older than the one in the book). It would have made a fine historical romance, but no, this author had to have a whole modern stream in which it's hinted that the modern heroine and her boyfriend are reincarnations of the mediaeval heroine and King John! It could well have done with a third of it cut.

What a great idea to add the "bonus track"!

Mary Hoffman said...

"Too feral for office work" - that's me! And, I suspect most self-employed writers.

Great post.

julia jones said...

Drat - will need to buy pb as well as hb. Shrewd move there Imogen! (No, honestly it'll be a pleasure) I tried interweaving history with modern adventure in the Lion of Sole Bay but it didn't work at all. Clogged the modern adventure and made the history feel fictional. I took the opposite decision - kept the modern stuff and shoved the history in the back in the form of Lectures. "God, mum, you know how to win the average 10 year old, don't you," said Frank unkindly.

Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating hearing the history of the book - thanks for posting about it!

Imogen said...

Sometimes though dual time narratives can work brilliantly, didn't for me though and nice to know I'm not alone, Julia! Thanks all.

Theresa Breslin said...

Great stuff Imogen - and not just that decent white wine for one euro a bottle!

Mark Burgess said...

Interesting post, thank you. I've often wondered if John Fowles simply couldn't make up his mind over the French Lieutenant's Woman... As a reader, I have to say I don't like that sort of thing, any more than an ending which is unsatisfactory in some way. It's about the contract between writer and reader, and the writer has to honour their side. Unless you are Schrodinger's cat it has to fall one way.

Ruan Peat said...

I love a good book but I lay awake at night rewriting it, making different things happen, bring out different events and a new ending and new situations. I have dine this since I was a child, I remember redoing Aesop's fables, and making them do more. I became the hero, (never the heroine they weren't as interesting) and fought the battles, rescued the captives. I loved rescuing a dieing hero and saving them!
Even to this day I take the stories I read or watch and twist them further or change the result! I have saved James Bond and helped him find a new quiet life, I kept Captain Jack Sparrow company, but would rather have saved Commander Norris. Been the latest Zorro, and danced with Sir Percy Blakney.
I think the best stories have allowed me to dream and I thank every author who allows this to happen.
Thank you!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great post, Imogen! I'm thinking of doing a dual narrative book for my next project. This will make me more open-minded about abandoning that if it doesn't work!

Imogen said...

Thanks, guys. Yes, Ruan I love dreaming my way through stories and giving them alternative versions. One of the great pleasures of fiction. It's one of the disadvantages of actually publishing books that, as Mark says, you have to actually choose one version over the others! Good luck, Caroline. Biggest thing of course is that all the work we do on a book deepens it, even the stuff we end up throwing away. That's what I tell myself, at any rate!