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.
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.
‘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 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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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…
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.