Editing Magpie


I am delighted to announce the title of my next book: Magpie.

     One for Sorrow, Two for Joy
     Three for a Girl, Four for a Boy
     Five for Silver, Six for Gold
     Seven for a Secret never to be Told.

I'm currently in the throes of editing. It's that first big structural edit, with the story clear in my head but not yet coming out quite right. There are chunks of text moving hither and thither and quite a lot heading for the "re-use" file which I suspect never will be. The story grows, but the way the timeline unfolds has changed and there's a fair amount of head-scratching to juggle reveals, clues and what goes where when. Writing under contract is a whole different experience to writing that first "debut". The time is shorter, the stakes are higher and this time I have an editor in the wings.

That second book is much feared. Can you do it again, or will the truth out and failure drag you back to obscurity? My real aim is to do it better. That old gremlin on my shoulder is tugging my ear. I suspect it's no easier with the 3rd or 4th or - see, I am actually contemplating another.

Cue lots of distractions. A complete overhaul of the office, a new flower bed in the garden, a walk with the cat down the lane - even writing a blog... It's amazing how much stuff you can get done, not doing the one thing you should be.

I'm pretty good really, once the boys are at school, I grab some toast and a hot drink and settle down to the pc, but I do jump up and down a lot. The last few weeks have not been helped by lots of storytelling in schools (the day job) including a three-day trip to Spain for World Book Week, lots of driving, not much sleep and then one heavy cold after another (the price you pay for visiting schools). I've had to block out the next few weeks and finally get stuck in.

The moment the story really takes off in your head is such a buzzy one. I always aim for that moment when I tell stories, when the adrenaline fires up, the room goes quiet, the faces look intent and you know everyone is there with you. Trouble with adrenaline is it makes the legs wobbly and the brain fizz and it's pretty scary. But you have to just go with it. The last thing you can do is stop mid-story.

So how do I go about that first big edit? Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

- Daydreaming is okay, letting your mind wander frees things up. I usually have the story in my head 24 hours, 7 days a week once I really start. I may wake in the early hours with a brainwave. It might not work out, but those mistakes spawn new ideas and slowly things mesh together more tightly.

- Flowcharts - I have lots of these. I'm very visual, so written notes and detailed plans don't really work for me. Too limiting, I think, but I'm learning they're still very useful. Give me a whiteboard or a large roll of paper sellotaped to the table and I'm off. I think the key to this is arrows - connecting ideas, pointing in a direction, scrubbing out and starting again. It's my way of processing the story.

- Rein it in - having said wild flowcharts are great, discipline and hard details are a necessity. To anchor your thoughts and work your story. I'm reading loads at the moment (and watching lots of TV dramas) and appreciating how tightly plotted and ruthless other writers can be. Every scene, paragraph and piece of dialogue has a purpose. A structural edit is all about plot, how to tell the story. So yes, go wild, then rein it in. I should know this really, because oral stories are very pared down, the bare essentials of a story with the odd startling image to blossom in your head. Usually you don't even name, let alone describe, the characters!

- I have to hide. I can't do that writing in a café thing - it sounds so romantic tapping on your laptop to the smell of coffee and the chatter of folk. No, doesn't work for me, lovely though it is. I sit in my study in a sunny corner of the house gazing out over the hills in complete silence. Well, maybe a bit of birdsong and the sound of a horse on the lane. But preferably when everyone else is out.

- Reality checks. I need a lot of this. A deadline, an email, a ream of notes from my editor. Awkward questions. I think editing is the art of asking awkward questions. And listening. I knew the concept for my second book was something unusual for a psychological thriller. And fortunately, my editor has let me run with it, but now it's about making it work in a practical way. Still there, but reined in.

- Fun - it has to be fun. Warm and funny fun, scary fun, thrilling / intriguing fun. There's a lot of hard slog, long hours and tortured thinking goes into writing a book, so it has to be fun too. Fun to think up and write the words. Fun when you're on a roll and the words just keep coming. Fun when you finally see how people respond to it. I've this whacky idea for book 3 and keep pitching it to complete strangers. It usually makes them laugh and then get serious. Would you want to read that? I ask. Yes. Good. Fun.

Photos: Magpie; tidying the office; my new whiteboard; almost ate these by mistake!; taking the cat for a walk; on my way to tell stories in Spain; Cuckoo on sale in Waterstones; a clue to the new book!