Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Novel Experience

Whenever I give talks, I am often asked about how I go about producing a novel, so I thought I'd break down the production of the forthcoming hardcover into its component parts and tell you about how a novel comes to be.

I have to decide what I am going to write about. This usually happens as I am finishing up the previous novel and preparing it for production. I thought with THE TIME OF SINGING that I was going to be writing about William Marshal's grandson, Roger Bigod III and the whole Henry III/Simon de Montfort debacle. However, in the course of the research, Roger III's grandfather claimed the stage instead, together with his wife, former royal mistress Ida de Tosney, and informed me that it was their story I had to tell next.
At this stage the work didn't have a title. It was just called ROGER AND IDA.

The subject matter decided, I have to read up on my research so that I can write a character study, synopsis, blurb, and first three chapters. These form the initial document that I present to my agent and editor for their approval and to show them what's in store. At this stage in the game the synopsis, although fairly detailed is still 'more like guidelines really.' Not all synopses have to be this detailed, but since I am under contract, my editor and agent need to see as much detail as possible - even if some is going to change during the writing. Reading matter consulted for The Time of Singing included a university thesis on the Bigod family, an English Heritage online report about Framlingham Castle, various other online documents, a genealogy report on William Earl of Salisbury and a biography of Henry II. There were many others, but this is just to cite a few examples. I have included a full biography at the back of the novel. I also employed akashic consultant Alison King so that I could 'interview' and observe the people involved in the story and get a handle on their appearance, their personalities and discover the story they had to tell.

Here's page 1 of the synopsis. If you click on it, it will enlarge.

Once the synopsis and first three chapters are approved, I get on with the nitty gritty of writing the story. My contracts are 15 months long. Some of that time is spent actually writing and researching, but I also have to build in time to write pieces like this for my blogs and for putting the show on the road and giving talks to the readers - because without readers I wouldn't have a job!
At first draft stage I write 100 lines a day on the PC which usually equates to around 1,200 words or perhaps a bit more. At this point I am researching as I write; the two go side by side. I am always very aware that this first draft is not clean. It will be full of over-writing, repetitions, unecessary paragraphs, and a few scenes that go nowhere. That doesn't matter. It's getting it written down in concrete wordage that is the most important thing and viewing the basic structure. It will probably take me about 7 of my 15 months. Once I have written that first draft (which I haven't revised at all except for the first three chapters which were part of the selling document), I read it through on the PC and tighten it up, taking out the over-writing and the repetitions where noticed, dealing with loose plot threads, and generally pulling it into shape. Giving the shapeless blob a six-pack is how I sometimes describe the process! At this stage I am still researching too. This will take me up to 11 months. During this time I will work on the 'soundtrack' to the stories. The explanation can be found at my music blog here, along with the soundtrack to The Time of Singing.

Here is page 1 of the 2nd Draft of The Time of Singing. Note that it still says 'IDA AND ROGER' at the top. At this stage I write on both sides of the page to save paper.
Font is Times New Roman 13 point and spacing is 'exactly' 22 points. It's what suits me.

Once the second draft is written, I leave the PC and read the typescript as if it were a book. This way, I am looking down at the words rather than across to a PC screen and it does make a difference when it comes to spotting errors and flaws. I make biro notes about what alterations needs making and then I return to the PC and key the alterations into the novel while once more reading it. Below is an example of such a page from The Wild Hunt. (I've thrown away my notes for The Time of Singing unfortunately). This stage takes about 2 months

Once I've finished this next lot of alterations, I print the work out again and read it aloud to my long suffering husband over a period of several consecutive nights and again I make biro notes. Reading aloud is yet another different discipline and helps out pick up dodgy word flow, repetition and manky dialogue. I revise again on the PC and then, finally, I send the manuscript by e-mail to my agent and editor. They will read it simultaneously which brings about stage 5.
The above paragraph will occupy a month at most, thus I am usually around a month ahead of schedule.


My agent and editor will report back with their opinions on the manuscript and I will ponder on their suggestions and alter the manuscript accordingly. Usually there aren't that many and it's more a case of general tweaks and tidying. At this stage my editor will begin asking me if I have any ideas for the jacket and the title. I have a consultation say in my UK covers and although we don't always agree and it's often a matter of compromise, we usually get something we can all live with!
When I was asked about The Time of Singing I had a clear notion of what I wanted. Ida was a skilled needlewoman and one of Roger's main concerns was his castle at Framlingham. I thought that a cover based on Edward Blair Leighton's Stitching the Standard would be great.
Click here to see the picture.
Now compare it with the book cover at the top of the blog. You can also see the rough drafts of this by going to my illustrator's blog here:
As far as the title was concerned we played with a lot of different ideas and suggestions. As always when I need inspiration, I turn to the bible (!) which is filled with excellent quotations and poetic phrases. A line from The Song of Solomon came straight to mind. The Song of Solomon is a love poem filled with a rich imagery of gardens and lovers, springtime and renewal. The novel contains several key scenes involving gardens and orchards, so the imagery fitted perfectly. Also, when Roger first notices Ida at court, she is singing and it is something she loves to do, and that he enjoys as well. The quote, taken from the New English Version of the Bible (rather than the King James) says: 'Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.' Perfect I thought, and different from the 'Queen' or 'Virgin' or 'Mistress' titles with which historical fiction is awash at the moment. You might also note in the illustration that the heroine gets to keep her head this time around!

The manuscript is passed on to a freelance editor who checks the punctuation and grammar and makes comments re the script where he/she feels appropriate. With The Time of Singing, I was very fortunate to have Richenda Todd, who was copy editor toDorothy Dunnett and is one of the best in the business.

Next the proofs arrive. These need to be read though and any teeny last minute alterations made. Now is not the time to suddenly realise you do not need chapter 4 after all - although I do confess to nearly having done that once! Not with The Time of Singing though.

Example of page proofs

While stage 8 is in production, the 'blurbs' will be prepared. These are the mini-synopses/teaser pieces of text that readers see on the inside flap of the hardback and the back of the paperback. These are difficult to write because the word count is restricted and you are trying to condense the flavour of a 150,000 word novel into a few sentences.
The PR department at the publishers will send out advance copies of the novel to interested parties in the hopes of good reviews - any reviews really! The author has to gear up and be prepared to suddenly become a party animal and court the spotlight for the first few weeks following publication. Of course, being prepared doesn't always mean it will actually happen. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't, but one has to have a nice frock in the wardrobe just in case.
And of course there's the magical day when Ta Da! the postman arrives with his signature form and that wonderful box of first edition which time I will usually be at stage 3 on the next novel i.e. nose to the grindstone - see below!


Click on the text at the left to enlarge for a sneak preview of the first page of the new work in progress - which may, of course be totally different by the time it's part of a published novel!


Passages to the Past said...

What a great post! Thank you for the glimpse into your has always fascinated me! You make it seem so easy! Another reason why you rock!

Tess said...

Very cool!!! Thanks for posting all this :) I love hearing how other writers work, especially successful ones (nose to grindstone - I need to hear that a LOT!).

The thesis service - does that mean you can get access to unpubbed theses???

Anne Gilbert said...

Wow! I'm still furiously working on my own WIP, which is quite different from anything Elizabeth Chadwick writes, but I found that, at least for the idea and the revisions, etc., I work much the same way as she does. Makes me feel a lot better, knowing I'm on the right track.
Anne G

KC said...

Fascinating! From the viewpoint of a reader, I am in even more awe of writers and what they do!

Fuzzy History said...

Thanks so much for the insight into your world. I suppose it comes as no surprise that it's completely different from my experience with writing non-fiction.

I love the visuals I get when I read your stuff, whether your novels or postings. "Giving the shapeless blob a six-pack is how I sometimes describe the process!" You have such a way with words!

Carla said...

Fascinating post! I like the cover art. Much nicer to be able to see the lady's face :-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you for all the positive comments folks. Amy, if you could hear me cursing sometimes, you'd know I don't always find it easy. I've never had writers' block but sometimes I need to get up and leave the screen for a while to refresh my head - especially when writing the first draft!
Tess - Yes, I hope your nose IS to the grindstone right now - LOL!
Yes, I do have access to the unpublished theses, providing I can get hold of them via the British Library service. They do cost serious money if you are not able to go and view them on Microfiche though!

Heartbeatoz said...

Thank you as a Reader it is very interesting to see the long and arduous process it takes to get your wonderful Books into my hot little hands, very much appreciated and long may you write :)

Julianne Douglas said...

Elizabeth, thank you for your post. It's always interesting to see how other writers work.

A question for you: why do you use a freelance editor? According to your timeline, this editing takes place after you've submitted the completed manuscript to your agent and publisher. Doesn't the publishing house do the editing, or are things different in England?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for dropping by the blog Julianne.
The freelance editor is the extra layer between the commissioning editor and and the in house copy editor. I guess that person, Richenda, in my case, does the job that the commissioning editor no longer has time to pull in. This layer of editing is mostly done on lead titles and not all of the publisher's work is sent out for this process. In Richenda's case too, she knows the Middle Ages fairly well, and it's brilliant for me to work with someone who knows the questions to ask.
Some works are edited in house. For example my back list titles that I'm re-editing are edited in house, but my new lead titles go out to Richenda. It's common practice in publishing in the UK and most houses will send their leading titles out for free-lancing. The free-lance aspect also means that the editor is only employed as and when required, so it's a one off fee rather than a permanent salary.
Bottom line - it's mix and match but it is common, especially in the case of lead titles to employ a free lance ed.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for answering my question, Elizabeth. It sounds like a process American publishers should use. And what an editor to have assigned to your book! I'm sure the result will be fabulous--I can't wait to read it. Best wishes!

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Gosh, this is fascinating! Thanks for taking the time to show us how it's done!

Anonymous said...

This post was fascinating, fascinating! Thanks for the inside glimpse. I look forward to when your title arrives here in South Africa (luckily we are linked to UK publishers and don't have the availability problems as in the US). Also, I love the cover art - very evocative. Thanks for sharing!