I ‘sailed’ with my family on a sixty-five-foot canal boat over Easter, starting out from Rugby. We’d done a couple of weekends in the past, but this was the first time I was brave enough to try a tunnel, the two km long Braunston Tunnel on the Grand Union. We motored into the maw and out of the reach of the spring sunshine at, I would conservatively say, about two knots. That’s still too fast a speed to enter the underworld, maybe two knots too fast, and it was so much darker than I’d expected. Five minutes in, I took off my sunglasses.
As we slowly bumped along the wall, two-hundred meters, four-hundred metres, my need to escape mounted. The occasional airshaft, punched up through the weight of the hill, hinted that outside the world was getting along just fine without us. I had no choice but to aim for the distant white prick of light that might have been a pre-dawn Venus it was so tiny. For all I knew it was cast from a boat coming the other way. And it got no bigger. I whispered to my lookout sixty-five feet ahead of me, ‘Is that the end of the tunnel?’
‘I can’t tell, I guess so. Why are we whispering?’
‘Trolls. And because I’ve never whispered sixty-five feet before.’
Once, I thought the light was growing, only to realise it was wishful thinking.
Editing a novel is much the same experience, only warmer and without the echo. I’m lucky enough to be working with American editor Patrick LoBrutto on my second novel, The Copper Road. Patrick came in after draft six, when the novel had already had a decent going over by a batch of my ex-MA colleagues, all terrific writers. But I have been here before, once, and I knew it wasn’t finished. Editing never really ends, it’s just that at some point someone has to say, ‘we’re done.’
Patrick’s been doing this a little while, he’s worked with some big names, and has strong knowledge of the American Civil War. I wanted to use an American editor this time to be sure I was getting the voices right and to wheedle out any Britishisms. Even though I knew Patrick would find more work for me, I wasn’t prepared for how straightforward some of his insights were. I’ve been living with these characters for six years or so now, but after only one or two discussions, it felt like Patrick knew them better than I did.
He honed in on one early paragraph where I’d summarised my main character Shire’s unsettled state of mind, finding himself half-way through a war and wondering what sort of person he might become if he was lucky to make it out the other end. Patrick loved the para’ but pointed out that Shire never returned to this form of thinking for the rest of the book. When I looked again, there were huge opportunities to revisit his inner wrestling as the story unfolded. It was so easy and pleasurable and I could feel the book deepening as I went on. Simpler still, Patrick looked at the story arc of other characters and deftly picked out where they ended before their time, leaving characters to mill around unsure of their direction or motivation. Again, it was surprisingly easy to fix.
How had I missed these things? They seemed so obvious in retrospect, but they are not so easy to see when you’re living a book from the inside. In your mind, your invented world can become gently tinted towards how you want it to be rather than how you’ve presented it. That’s why we have editors.
Draft seven is done and back with Patrick. I have the maps finished also and some book art. It’s feeling like the end of the tunnel is just there, out of reach, that at any moment I might feel the spring sunshine again. I’ll see what he says, but I’m not reaching for my shades just yet.
Attribution to Roger Kidd for his picture/ The end of Braunston Tunnel, Northamptonshire