The Joy of Hindsight by Sarah Rayner
Is a book ever finished? Picador author Sarah Rayner tells us what happened when she revisited her first novels more than ten years after they were published.
Recently I made a film for Picador, and chatted to the presenter about who else he’d interviewed. He’d just been with Iain Banks, and asked him what an editor does for an author. Iain Banks apparently replied, ‘an editor does what an author could do, were they able to put their novel away in a drawer and not look at it for ten years’.
Most writers don’t have that luxury – some publishers demand a book a year, we have bills to pay, or maybe our drawers simply don’t have enough storage space.
But recently I was afforded that opportunity.
Back in 2001, my first novel, The Other Half, was published by Orion. A year later came its follow-up, Getting Even. They went through the usual editorial processes: I revised them to reflect my editor’s feedback – which was fulsome, trust me; and then they were copyedited, proof-read, the works. By the time they were published, I honestly thought they were the best that they could be.
Ah, the arrogance of youth!
Both novels sold respectably, were translated around Europe, and I was pleased with their performance. However, neither did well enough for me to give up the day job, so I continued with that, and it wasn’t until several years later I was moved to set my hand to a third novel, which, because I was older and slightly more battered, was somewhat different in tone. That novel was One Moment, One Morning, which was published by Picador in 2010, and soon – to my astonishment – became a bestseller. Inevitably, people started to ask where they could get hold of my first two novels, but sadly so much time had elapsed that they’d fallen out of print. Eventually demand grew great enough for Picador to offer to reissue them, and once we’d firmed up a contract, I set to work updating them.
‘Oh, I’ll just change a few bits – tweak the technology so they’re Instant Messaging one another not phoning, that sort of thing,’ I said to my agent. I planned this would take me a week per book.
Five months later, I submitted the manuscripts. Because when I revisited them, that’s how much work I could see they needed. Yes, there were elements that clearly dated the books – the Twin Towers were still in New York, for instance – but that wasn’t what took so long. What I’d thought would be a quick trim of several dozen sentences, turned out to be a full root and branch pruning. I could see such hideous examples of overwriting that I made myself blush. I said everything twice, sometimes three times. I moved my characters around like puppets, not going inside their heads nearly enough.
I put both books through editing software and found even more glitches – repetition, hackneyed phrases, the lot. I didn’t change the plot of either story (in fact, I was rather impressed by my younger self’s ability on that score); nor did I change the essence of any of the characters. Both books still remain very different from my two recent novels, One Moment, One Morning and its follow up, The Two Week Wait. They’re lighter, a lot sexier, and (without wishing to blow my own trumpet) funnier. By the same logic, neither is likely to make you cry, so readers expecting similar tearjerkers might be surprised.
To give you an idea, I’ve just done a word count. The original Getting Even was 100,000 words, and the new version is 79,000. The Other Half likewise. A fifth of each novel – that is a LOT to lose. And my editor at Picador, Francesca Main, cut and tweaked and helped me hone them further. Nonetheless, because I no longer had such an attachment to either story, I could be objective, and with objectivity came ruthlessness.
I was proud of those earlier novels. But I’m prouder still of the revised versions.
Both novels can now be found on Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith and so on, and downloaded as ebooks right away. They’ve got beautiful new e-covers too. Should you read them, you can email via my website, www.thecreativepumpkin.com. I’d love to hear what you think.