I’ve got the editing blues.
After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.
First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?
And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!
And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.
Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.
But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.
Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…
Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.
But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.
As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.
In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.
But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.
I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.
And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.
So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft: