- Jo-Anne Richards
If you’re going to trust someone with your work, then trust them. That’s what I always say. And then I fail to do it.
I pride myself on being a professional. Really I do. And I know perfectly well that my first (and even second) draft is fearful drivel. In fact I tell my early readers so. Yet, every single time, I am brought to my knees by that blow to the gut their reaction inspires.
I was recently talking about my first rewrite, during which I somehow managed to convince myself I’d been a harsh critic of my own work. I even prided myself on having grown as a self-critic over the space of five books. I showed it to my chosen readers a touch smugly, even.
There is I think, in any writer, the unshakeable confidence that on this particular occasion you have somehow managed to produce a work of such towering genius that your readers will bow in acknowledgement, shake their heads in unison and piously declare: “My work here is done.”
It’s part of the process. On every other manuscript, you needed some cogent comments before you were shocked into a rewrite worthy of its name. But this one; oh this glorious work, will be different. It will be perfect.
When I look at it now, I can see that my first rewrite shifted the furniture around. The Imagined Child might not have needed a major renovation, but it did need a good bit of redecorating.
I do trust my readers. I just needed time to adjust to the fact that I trusted them. I have chosen them, these hapless people, not only for their willingness to trawl through imperfect manuscripts, but for their skill in picking up where a manuscript works and where it doesn’t.
That’s critical. I wouldn’t show it to any old friend. Most people have a “feeling” that something isn’t right, but they can’t pin-point where it’s not working. I’ve learned something very important through many rewrite processes: you can often alter that “feeling” by getting rid of something very small.
Even as a journalist, I knew that a sentence could change someone’s impression of an entire piece. A paragraph could convince them it was irretrievable. Remove that paragraph and they were convinced you’d rewritten the entire article.
My readers have been carefully chosen to recognise what is actually good. That’s important too – not only for my morale, but because those are the bits you don’t want to go messing with.
Then they need the skill to see through to what isn’t, and what the problem could be. Readers don’t always know what the solutions are, and they don’t have to. That’s my job. But they need to be able to see past that initial “oh that’s all just ghastly” reaction to the specific aspect of the novel which actually needs work.
My partner in Allaboutwriting, Richard, tells me that my reaction to “notes” on my work shows that I’ve never, ever worked in the TV business. He’s probably right.
I did want this book to be the best of me. Intellectually, I knew that I needed real criticism. I welcomed it. I told them to be harsh. Yet, I experienced a reaction I can only describe as panic: rushing in my head, prickling at my hairline, dry mouth and sweaty hands. I know it’s pathetic, especially after all this time, but it’s completely involuntary.
That too, though, is part of the process. Just like every other time, I collapsed in a heap. I thought: They’re imbeciles; they can’t see what I’m trying to do. It’s impossible. I can’t do it. I shouldn’t have started this book. I’m useless.
And that’s where I needed to be. Only once I’d worked myself into a state of abject self-loathing could I begin to look at their criticisms realistically. That’s the point where I began to recognise the truth of their comments and then, slowly, slowly solutions began worming their way into my consciousness.
And that’s when the actual work began.
- The Imagined Child (Picador Africa) will launch in March 2013.
Read more of Jo-Anne’s blogs on writing The Imagined Child.