That’s a lot, but it seems to be what I do. I cut so much from The Last Great Dance on Earth I sent it back to my publisher in a larger type size, hoping my editor wouldn’t notice. I cut quite a bit from Mistress of the Sun—an entire chapter and then some—at the last minute.
Here is the letter, should it be of interest. (Warning: it’s long.)
First, thank you for doing this. This is the second draft of The Last Great Dance on Earth; there will be two more before it goes to my publisher, and then it will be edited and revised yet again. What you see here will no doubt change greatly—as many as 100 pages are apt to be cut, as many likely to be added.
The manuscript has not been edited for spelling and punctuation, so expect errors. However, at this stage, the true problems are much, much bigger, and much more difficult to remedy. Let’s call it a reluctance to fly, to get off the ground. Let’s call it a plane without wings. With each draft, I try to get that plane up in the air more often—and to get it to stay up longer. By the final draft, I want it to be a jet that takes the reader not only to France, but to the 18th century. No crashes!
Symptoms: You look at the clock. You put the book down. You sigh and thumb to the back: how many more pages? Then oh oh, you’re up in the air: it could be midnight, but you don’t care! The story has swept you away. And then—whoops, another crash.
Why? And where? What parts carried you along and what parts were a bit of a trudge? That’s what I need to know. What breaks the momentum? Plot structure (or a lack of it)? Characters you either don’t believe or don’t like (or both)? No narrative drive? (“Where is this going? What’s the point?”) Lots of things.
Before you begin, I should warn you that I think the opening chapters are not yet right. (And much more, of course—but especially the opening.) I think most novelists spend half their time on those opening chapters and even then, few are successful. Does this opening work, for you? If it did, what did you like? If not, how could it be better? Was it confusing? Is there another place you think the story could open?
Another problem, too, is that often it lacks a sense of place: this is one of the reasons for my research trip to Europe in September. Also, I’ve not put a great deal of thought into the details that make a story come to life: I want to have the storyline right before I do this.
Some general questions:
Which characters failed to hold your interest? Which ones came to life for you? What actions seemed suspect, unbelievable.
When did the story fail to convince you? When did you stop believing it? And what parts did you believe? Did it make you cry? Laugh? Forget about dinner? Knowing what works is as important to me as knowing what does not.
Again, thank you VERY much. I want this novel to be wonderful?but before that can “happen,” I need to find out its strengths and, most especially, its weaknesses. Be sure to tape your conversation. If you write down your thoughts, I would very much appreciate it. If you mark up the manuscript (please do!), it would be helpful to me to see it. (I could return it to you, if you wish.)
In closing, please don’t be concerned if you only have negative things to say about this book. The book club that reviewed Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe hated it. I took out 100 pages, reworked it feverishly, and as a result it was short-listed for the Trillium. Criticism at this stage helps very much. (But a little praise helps too!)
Getting the plane in the air: great image! Yes, it's always — ALWAYS — hard. Thanks for your note.
How interesting, Sandra. I am in the midst of writing a novel and am feeling that struggle to get the plane up in the air. It's always reassuring to see that all writers face the same difficulties in the process. And I LOVED your Josephine books! Thanks for sharing :)
Thank you, Mary. They did enjoy it. Two of that group came to one of my readings.
That's a great letter, Sandra. I'm sure the book club members felt honoured to be part of the drafting process.