Adventures in the Writing Tunnel: Working with a Professional Editor


Blazing Summer

It’s full blazing summer in the Tarn and devoted followers of this blog (friends, family, the neighbour’s Great Aunt Brigitte and the lady on the cheese counter at SuperU) may have been wondering what’s been happening since February.

That month’s blog included an extract from Chapter 28 of my never-ending Work in Progress From Nettles to Nightingales. Readers may recall the author’s heroic tussles with this Demon Shape Shifter of a memoir. ‘When will it be finished? Who knew it would be so hard?’ I moaned in July 2021. This year’s attempts to tame the beast have included garlic-waving and spear-wielding while singing Running Up that Hill in falsetto (you can learn a lot from Netflix). As spring arrived, social life ground to a halt, the writing tunnel got deeper and I joined a Facebook group (see my thanks in the P.S.) which kept me going when I wanted to lie down and sob.

When will it end!
Artist Gordon Seward

One day (maybe in March, it’s all a blur) I actually typed the magic words ‘The End’, thus breaking a cardinal rule:  Never Ever Tempt the Fates. For, to borrow Winston’s famous words, ‘The End’ was not actually the end, it was not even the beginning of the end…More, and sterner, challenges lay ahead. Read on…

In Chapter 6 of the book, I write about how the installation of a wood-burning stove (poêle) in The Cowshed led me to muse on the story of René Descartes, whose eureka moments occurred in a series of dreams when sleeping in his ‘poêle’ (a small room heated by a stove). The resulting masterpiece was Discourse on the Method, published in 1637 and which established Descartes as the father of modern rationalism.

The stove. No eureka moments

‘Sitting in front of our very own poêle on chilly evenings, the MDM (Maître De Maison) and I had often found ourselves dozing off. So far neither of us has had a eureka moment and become a famous philosopher. (We’d settle for a dream about the winning lottery numbers). But I’ve occasionally mused on the idea that the Cartesian mindset, ‘cogito ergo sum’, the notion of eliminating all possible doubt by a process of reasoning before accepting the truth of something, has shot down in a straight line through history to lodge itself in the head of the MDM.

In contrast, winding and looping down into my head over the years and making a cosy nest there are the observations of another great Frenchman, an accidental philosopher writing about life the way he sees it in a series of rambling, digressive ‘loose sallies of the mind’ (to borrow a definition from Dr Johnson).

I was referring to the mighty Michel De Montaigne, whose Essays, published in 1580, have frequently been mentioned on this blog, and about whom Nietzsche observed ‘The pleasure of living on earth has been increased by the fact that such a man wrote.’

The writing tunnel

The point of the above, as it relates to my tussles with the Shape-Shifter, is this: perhaps one reason I’m drawn to Montaigne’s work as opposed to that of Descartes is because I am not a rational, organised writer (or indeed person) who goes about things in a linear fashion with a lot of cogitos and ergos. Consequently, when I came up with a plan for a non-fiction book three years ago– a short, easy-to-write, easy-to-read memoir about how the Maître De Maison and I moved to rural France and created a garden from a wilderness – I felt extremely pleased with myself. I even went as far as to write a chapter outline based on diary entries, photographs and emails to friends. Eureka!  I was going linear!

The problem was, my subconscious had another plan, a non-linear ramble more like a drunken weave  that wandered off down all sorts of paths, historical, geographical, cultural, linguistic, literary – in short, a Rebel that blew raspberries at my neat timeline, tempted me with honeyed words and siren-songs, and when I resisted, bellowed the chorus from the Monty Python ‘Philosopher’s Song’, the bit that goes ‘René Descartes was a drunken fart/I drink therefore I am.’

The study, a tranquil haven

Writing, at the best of times, is a solitary and demanding business. Authors must cope with obstacles and obligations – a day job, a family to bring up, the lack of quiet place to write, and so forth. In my case, I had neither day job nor children; I had a tranquil study with stunning views; at the end of the writing day I had the MDM flipping the burgers, mixing the margaritas and generally shoring me up.

Margarita maison

But I faced other obstacles – writing in English while immersed in a French-speaking environment, and living in a small rural community where anglophone bookworms willing to discuss chapter development over coffee and hobnobs were thin on the ground.  Adding to these difficulties was the Rebel Raspberry-Blower, whose subversive agenda had introduced an unexpectedly personal dimension into the story: the account of my mother’s final years, her declining health, and death. From writing about the excitement of new beginnings I found myself compelled to write also about the sadness of endings; about joy, and about sorrow.

The stark realisation came mid-March: I had two choices: chuck the manuscript on the compost heap or get professional help.

Enter the developmental editor.

Editorial services for writers fall into distinct groups, line editing, copy editing and developmental editing. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the terms, the line editor checks things like syntax, word choice and clarity in sentences. The copy editor will focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, stylistic inconsistencies and formatting. The developmental editor is the Head Surgeon, looking at the big picture, head, shoulders, knees and toes, then delivering a detailed, in-depth critique on things like content, structure, quality, plot and character development, and market potential.

When I wrote my EFL book, I was working with one of the big publishers, Oxford University Press, and thus had a de facto editor. She turned out to be a godsend, transforming the manuscript and becoming a dear friend. I learned that the collaborative process with the right kind of editor is truly invaluable. The question now was: where could I find another Yvonne?

I turned to the Reedsy website.

Set up in 2014, Reedsy is an on-line market place where you can hire freelance professionals, describing itself as ‘changing the way books are published by giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals, powerful tools, and free educational content.’

Beautiful books

Browsing the numerous profiles, I submitted my proposal to a short list of five, finally choosing one whose professional background and enthusiasm for the project had the added benefit of a somewhat unusal work method. Instead of offering a detailed written critique followed by phone or video discussions, she proposed a form of mentoring lasting between four to six weeks. I would send one chapter at a time, she would edit and critique it, and I would write a revised version. At the end of the process she would read the revised manuscript in one ‘swoop’ and give a verdict.

When ‘The End’ is not the end, and you need an Editor

There was a lot of word-shedding. We started with 106 000 words (which I had already whittled down from 108 000), and finished with 99 000. Parts where the pace flagged and I wandered off-piste were noted, and re-written. Structurally, chapters were moved about, merged together, renamed. The entire work became tighter, better-written and more focused, and a harmonious, somewhat arboreal 😉 shape grew around the central garden theme. The six weeks became two months. Seeing the book through a second pair of eyes made me stop and think; it was rare that I disagreed with her suggestions, expressed in a kind and encouraging manner, praising the bits she liked while being clear about what needed changing, and why, often with practical suggestions.

What an experience!  Challenging, intensive, enriching, inspirational, and totally exhausting – I loved it. This, I thought, was what every writer needs – a patient, meticulous, empathetic and innovative editor who knows how to handle not just the manuscript, but the author, whose moods can range from black despair to full-on defensive prickliness.

So three rousing cheers for Tatiana Wilde,  whose role in getting me to The Real End (Fin) will be fully acknowledged when the manuscript makes the next step, into print/ebook.

But that’s another story, another challenge, another day. Meanwhile, I shall be down at the Big Blue acquiring new skills as an apprentice sand-castle builder with my three great-nephews. Life is one long, learning process…

Bring on the sandcastles

Bonnes vacances to all readers!

PS I’ve previously mentioned those amazing friends who stepped up as literary midwives when I was writing the French Summer Novels. During this last year, when momentum flagged, I’ve had support via a Facebook group called ‘500 words a day’. Thanks to all, in particular the ever-encouraging mods, E.M. Swift-Hook and Ian Bristow, and member Fabrice Rigaux who read and gave feedback on a difficult chapter about Paris.

16 thoughts on “Adventures in the Writing Tunnel: Working with a Professional Editor”

  1. Dearest Laurette–

    My intentions, as always, were to come immediately here to your blog as soon as I got the email announcing its posting. That didn’t happen, and sadly, I fell down several rabbit holes of my own between then and now. But now I have at last made it here and again, as always, loved reading what you’ve written–this time about The Process. As I think I’ve mentioned to you in an email, I still have my own memoir-in-waiting in what I once considered in final form, here on my computer and haven’t looked at it in longer than I care to think. Obviously, I’ve hit a block, and although I can identify its source, I don’t seem to be able to get through or around it. I do need to at least look at it again…maybe my lack of attention to it in all this time will give me a fresh perspective and new inspiration to get back at it.

    I really can’t wait to read your finished product, and am sure I would have found the unfinished product a wonderful read too. Will you be having it printed in hard copy as well as in Kindle form? Oh–and have you considered doing a voice version where you, or someone of your choosing, reads it aloud so it can be sold as an audio book? Honestly, that’s how I do most of my “reading” these days as I can listen while I drive or am doing outside work. I get most of my books from Audible–offshoot of Amazon–but there are other entities too that offer the same service. You have the perfect voice for it, but I’m guessing it might be yet another whole Process to think about before plunging into it. The son of a friend here in the US is a professional audio cleaner-upper (don’t know the official name for it)–meaning he eliminates unwanted noises and more from audio recordings before they are put on the market, so there is help available in that domain too.

    In any event, I’m happy to know that you are successfully emerging from the tunnel and can’t wait to see (maybe hear?) this new book as well as anything else you produce. And thanks for the reminder about
    Michel De Montaigne–I must look him up again as I know I’ve loved what you’ve written about him and his writings before. He sounds like someone I would love to have known.

    1. Ma chère Nancy
      Thank you for that detailed comment, particularly interesting as regards your own work, and, as you say The Process. I can now confidently say that if you find a good developmental editor your memoir will move to another level and be ready to see the light of day. It’s an excellent vintage and I’m sure will be full of fascinating material.
      Many thanks for the info about Audible, I haven’t tried it yet either as a listener or as a possibility for one of my books. Seems like a memoir would be a perfect subject, as it has a unique voice. I’m leaving the publication question till September, might try the M/S with some small traditional presses, if no result I’ll be rolling up my Indie sleeves again.
      A huge ‘merci’ for all your loyalty and encouragement, and yes, do check out the genial genius Michel, he has a great essay on his cat!!!! xxx
      PS Just waiting for the sandcastle builders to arrive – their flight landed at Carcassonne this am…boiling hot on Ze Big Blue!

  2. Always a joy to read Laurette – where do you get the time and ideas for such a raft of erudite and amusing recollections and clearly, enjoying life ?
    Have you moved from being a ” Lady of Letters ” to a Docteur of Philosophy or should if be a ” Madame of Philosophy – or is there such a thing?
    You clearly can write, edit and revise for yourself now – have you considered another role as Editor in Chief ? Perhaps you should run a Summer course in ” The Philosophy of the Romantic Novel ” with special reference to ” gardening in the Tarn ” with practical options on the ” art of sand castle making in the Blue Med ” ?

    1. Thank you dear PeterT for your comments, always interesting and a good laugh, maybe it’s not too late for me to think about a new career, of course I’d have to first get my qualification as Sandcastle Builder, might be a difficult challenge, apart from the aesthetics of getting the turrets straight there are other considerations: can I get down on my knees on the sand? And if so, can I get up again? Keep safe xxx
      PS For all of you booklovers, Peter T sometimes tortures me by sending a link to a wonderful specialist bookshop. Brontë fans, if you’ve got £120,000 squirreled away down the side of the sofa, you could hold in your hands “a first edition of…the novel that ‘remains consistently among the top three best-selling of all classic novels in the English language’”. Check it out, and weep, waah…

  3. My dear Laurette,
    Ça fait des lustres (un pour être exact, puisqu’il me semble que mon dernier commentaire sur le blog doit dater de 2017 – à vérifier, ma mémoire se met parfois à me jouer des tours ces derniers temps) que je n’avais pris le temps de te lire. Je suis impardonnable et je mesure à quel point j’ai eu tort d’être si négligent vu le plaisir immense que j’ai pris à te lire de nouveau. J’ai hâte de pouvoir poursuivre ce plaisir initial avec la lecture de ces «mémoires» qui s’apprêtent à sortir de e-presse.
    Bien amicalement,

    1. Quel plaisir de te lire cher Toto ! Aucune excuse nécessaire, tu auras remarqué sans doute que, avec la marche des années, soit on a beaucoup plus de choses à gérer, soit on est plus ‘disorganised’ (or both !) Très contente que le blog t’a plu…je me demande si par hasard tu es un fan de Stranger Things, et que tu as noté que Kate Bush (à qui je fais allusion dans le blog) est encore une fois à la une du Hit Parade grâce à la dernière saison de la série ! Seras-tu surpris de savoir que j’ai toujours la cassette de ses chansons que tu m’as offerte à l’occasion une belle soirée à Paris ??? Merci de ton commentaire et vive l’amitié ! xxx

  4. A lovely post, Laurette! It made me laugh, and I love Nietzsche’s quote. Yes, the excitement of writing is balanced with an anxiousness to proceed and finish. Congratulations! I can’t wait to read all about your adventures.

    P.S. I just joined the FB group.

    1. Thank you so much chère Denise! Do you know, I think you’ve been faithfully reading and commenting since 2015… must check that…and always something interesting to say. Well it’s a momentous summer for you, with the new book coming out August 8th. Readers who would be interested in a free advanced review copy, and would like to know more about the book, click here
      There’s a wonderful video as well. I’ll be watching developments in between building sandcastles and keeping fingers crossed for a great launch. All very best wishes for the new baby, godspeed 😉 xxx PS Good to hear you’ve joined the FB writing group!

  5. Hello my old friend, great blog, completely batty but very entertaining. I wondered where you were, I now see you’ve been busy on the new book, well done you and a well deserved dance in the sea singing a bit more Monty Python please!
    Glad to see you are enjoying life in the tarn, we have had two days of hot weather, we are still recovering and can you believe we could have an Indian PM! I’ll have to get writing again, maybe use your editor, they would need help or vodka after a few days with me lol.
    Looking forward to the new book, keep in touch my French- Yorkshire- Punjabi friend
    Much love, from melting Sheila xxx

    1. Great to hear from you -my English-Yorkshire-Punjabi friend- and what excitement!!! Could Dishy Rishi be the next PM, and if so, are you related, and can we get a free visit to No 10? Pity he’s married, he could have shot straight to the top of Mrs Singh’s list of suitable boys for Shaz and Trace! (For anyone wondering what this strange conversation is all about, read Sheila’s surreal, drop-dead-laughing books ‘The Magic Vodka Wardrobe Series’
      about life in Bradford as no-one has ever known it but once they have, they’ll never want to leave.) Thank you for your lovely comment, I have been a bad friend skulking in the writing tunnel, can’t wait for your next book, Auntie Sheila’s diary must be bursting with entries, get writing!! (Or come and join me singing and dancing in the Med, we need lots of child-handlers ) Much love back, please don’t melt completely, stick extra ice in the voddyxxx

  6. Like Paula I eagerly await the appearance of what sounds like a most interesting project. Dare I ask if – speaking in hushed tones! – you have a date yet? As a plus I had never heard Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song so followed your link. What a pleasure to listen to such clever and erudite stuff! We are a privileged generation to have grown up with such broadcasters – they beat today’s favourite ‘ Love Island’ hands down!
    I’m sure your sand castles will be worthy champions of the genre so enjoy that family time.

    1. Ah ma chère amie, thank you for your comment and I’m delighted to have introduced you- a philosophy student- to philosophy as seen by ‘Bruce’, what a riot 😉 Totally agree with our privilegexx

    1. Oh yes dear Sissi a process, it really gave me a boost, shook me up… now what are you up to??? For readers, Paulette’s wonderful novels, whose profits go to helping rescue dogs, published her latest (and I think one of her best) books just recently, about the terrible history of Oradour-Sur-Glane, the ‘martyred village’ at the end of WW2 , here :
      An unforgettable read from a author with heart, your books fill me with emotion Paulette -just keep writing! xx

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