Building the House of Fiction

Fragments from the Writing Life – New Novel Manuscript – Version Eight

This week I received my second round of edits from Janice Zawerbny, my editor at Thomas Allen, the house that is bringing out my novel, Underground, a year from now.

We sat side by side at my dining room table (she lives not far way, so it’s easier than our meeting at the office downtown) and I looked as she flipped through the pages of the manuscript and made suggestions and comments. We are really down to line work at this point, the kind of technical detail I love to fuss over.

For example, at one point she suggested the word “scared” to lose a repetition of “afraid”, but I can’t use that word in a novel set in Europe in the late forties. It sounds too American and too young to me. I proposed another solution that took me to a thesaurus first and eventually to rewriting the sentence altogether.

A good editor is a building inspector who crawls into the sub-basement of your novel and shines a beam of light on the supporting walls to make sure they are sound. She knocks on the beams to check for evidence of weakness. Sitting beside her as we pored over the manuscript, I followed her into the attic (third person omniscient, a rather “high” voice that isn’t used much any more) and examined the front porch (the prologue) and then we had a discussion about the back deck (the epilogue – most writing texts recommend avoiding both front and back end pieces like this, but she gave them her stamp of approval).

I’m now reading aloud through the manuscript, following her notes and finding new phrases that can be removed.

When in doubt, I trim. I want the reader to walk through the structure unimpeded, to find the movement so unresisting as to find the end of the house a natural conclusion, an inevitable reality. It’s amazing how many snags I find while reading this way, ones that might slow that progress.

I am going through the manuscript for the eighth time, and there will be at least two more trips through it before we finish it off by summer and I can get started my next novel.

The world of literature is sometimes themes and stories, but often simply craft like this, the phrasing that builds the details that make the sentences and go on to construct a house of fiction.