I think I just finished writing another book. I’m not sure. It looks like it’s done, at least for now. But I’m having a hard time closing the file and sending it back to my publisher.
I’ve been working on The Vanishing Track – which is the new title for the third Cole Blackwater mystery – since 2006. Five years of hard work have gone into this book, and maybe that’s why I’m having a difficult time pressing send.
This was a really difficult book to write. It was hard to write, hard to research, and hard to edit. It’s also been my favourite book to write, research and edit – so far – so I guess that makes me a bit of a literary masochist.
I both loved and resented the copy editor assigned by my publisher to The Vanishing Track. I’ve spent nearly three weeks working through uncountable edits, and not for the first time, for this book.
Late in the winter I spent a month working with my story editor – Frances Thorsen – as we used a chain saw to give this book a more manageable shape. I think even the chain saw got snagged in the knots or excessive verbiage found in the manuscript. When I had penned this story originally it weighed in as a super heavyweight, as its boxing obsessed protagonist would say. At 130,000 words, and five hundred pages, it was the longest story I had ever written. The previous two Blackwater books were published at around 105,000 words each or so. I have no ungodly idea what made me think I could get away with 130K worth of words, in particular since I moved from NeWest Press to Touchwood Editions.
Before Frances and I were through with the story it had been pared down to 97,000 words; welterweight, or super middleweight, at best. I could have used the extra 30,000 + words to start a whole new novel, or hammered them into a series of short stories. Or turned them into about 1,000 tweets.
Through the copy editing process we trimmed another 1000 or so, and the book now sits at just over 95,000 words: the shortest book I’ve ever written, so far. I’ll be the first to admit that The Vanishing Track is by far a better novel after this gutting. Taking a chain saw and walking into your novel as you might into a forest of dying and senescent trees is not easy. I agreed to cut my favourite part of the book; a scene I had written years after the first draft had been completed that I felt helped readers understand more about what motivated the protagonist to address his anger problems. We agreed to cut the scene, which was easily 2,000 words, because it slowed the pace of the story and would distract the reader from the main plotline in the book.
Kill your darlings, an editor might say. Buzz-buzz goes the chainsaw.
Doing the copy edit was another matter all together. It’s startling to have a copy editor who actually knows as much about your characters and story as you do! It’s wonderful, in a somewhat awkward way, to have someone point out that your antagonist likely wouldn’t behave in a certain way because although he’s sleazy, it would be overdoing it to have him behave as such. The character is, after all, just a figment of my imagination, so how does she know? But she does.
When it comes to copy editing, we’re not chopping and hacking sections of the story that don’t work; here we’re taking every second or third word that I’ve written and swapping another better word for it, or rearranging the words, or deciding if the words match the level of storytelling or not. It’s not chainsaw work; we’re now using a pruning saw, or maybe a really sharp pair of hedge clippers.
I’ll admit that when I first opened the copy edited version of The Vanishing Track I was a little overwhelmed, and even disheartened. My discouragement came from the fact that my previous two Cole Blackwater novels, and my book on Taoism, didn’t receive this sort of thorough treatment, and they almost certainly would have benefitted from it. The same copy editor did work on The End of the Line, published in September by Touchwood, and when I spoke with my publisher about this she told me that she had shielded me from the original round of copy edits to keep me from becoming dispirited.
She let me in on the first round of copy edits this time around in the possibly futile hope that I’ll learn something.
Part of my discouragement arises from just that: I’ve been writing now for more than twenty years and you’d think that I would know better by now.
The truth of the matter is I want to be edited hard. I know that my strength as a writer isn’t in sentence structure or spelling or grammar. In school I studied limnology, not literature. I have no idea what the difference is between an adverb and an adjective is. I know I mess up loose and lose and call beagles bagels and frequently confuse the subject and object of a sentence (though even now, writing that, I can’t help but wonder what those really are or if I just made that up in my head).
I’m a storyteller. That’s my job. Spelling, I have always argued, is someone else’s job. But that’s a bad attitude, and one that I have to take more seriously now. The fact is that someone is paying someone else to clean up my mess. When I talked with Ruth Linka at Touchwood Editions about this she admitted that with The End of the Line and The Vanishing Track the press was making more than their average investment in editing, and she hinted that in the future she hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary.
And I hope it won’t either, because it’s a little hard on the ego. At times I was left wondering if the final product should really have co-authors on the cover because frankly without Frances and Lenore the book wouldn’t be nearly as good.
It raises the point that occurs to me often: how much of what I write is mine? Aside from outright plagiarism, which I’ve never knowingly committed, I wonder how much credit I can take for any one novel?
I’ve said before that being a writer is simply opening oneself up to the universe and being a conduit through which the story emerges. But that’s not what I’m talking about here: every novel is a collaborative effort. The Vanishing Track grew from a few lines in a tiny black notebook jotted on the way back from Costa Rica in 2003, to when in the summer of 2006 my best friend Josh and I were running on Mount Doug in Victoria, and the antagonist of the novel was born. Josh even named him, and in a nice bit of irony, his wife, Tara gave the book its final title a few months ago when we were desperate to replace its previous one.
From that moment of inspiration on Mount Doug, this particular instalment of the Cole Blackwater series has been pretty dear to my heart, and maybe that’s why I overwrote the hell out of it. It’s the third in the series, and therefore needs to bring some resolution to some of the troubles that have been vexing its protagonist. I really dislike mystery series where the character doesn’t develop beyond his or her shortcomings. It’s boring. In the real world, people can get away without addressing their own problems, but in a crime series, it feels overindulgent. I remember reading Exit Music, the last in the John Rubus series of books by Ian Rankin and thinking: really? This guy hasn’t changed one iota since the first novel! Twenty books and he’s still drinking and smoking too much and eating crap and feeling sorry for himself.
The Vanishing Track is almost as much about Cole tackling his own shit as it is about the disappearance of homeless people from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. In fact, Cole couldn’t help solve the mystery if he didn’t confront his own secrets.
But as a writer I became attached to the details of how Cole developed, and that’s why you need someone with a chainsaw and a keen eye to step in.
So now it’s really time to send this back to my publisher so we can get on with this. It’s made easier knowing that in a month it will come back to me, all laid out in a PDF, and I’ll get to/have to read the whole thing through once more, looking for stray typos and random commas that somehow evade even the sharpest editors eyes. We’ll be down to using an exacto knife by then.
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