When you write a book for a publisher, you work with an editor. My editor’s name for Jelly was Fliss, and her job was to read however many drafts of the manuscripts I wrote and suggest ways of making the story better. It can be tough for an author to be edited because we spend weeks and months working on a lot of words, only for someone to come along and tell us many of those words are the wrong ones…! But an editor is a crucial part of publishing and over the years I have appreciated each and every editor I have worked with because every single time, without fail, they spot something I’ve missed, or come up with an idea better than the one I already had. Or, what’s even more common, is that they spot a problem with my manuscript and encourage me to come up with better ideas myself to improve the book.
My first draft of JELLY was 45,391 words long and submitted on 5th November 2017. The basic story arc was already there: Jelly and her impressions, the talent show, Lennon coming into her life, poetry and the song. However, the announcement of The K Factor talent show didn’t come until Chapter 7, and it was immediately followed by a friendship breakup as Kayma and Jelly were at loggerheads:
I bite my lip as they start talking about the new sketch we could all write together. I want to do my impressions, but I don’t want to let down my friends. I can’t enter twice though; the school rules are very strict. You can’t be in two different acts.
‘You OK?’ Kayma turns to me.
Sanvi looks puzzled. ‘You are up for this, aren’t you, Jelly? We can’t do it without you.’
‘Oh…’ I clear my throat. ‘Um. Well, I was just…I’d been thinking…maybe I should do my impressions.’
There is a small pause. Both of them are staring at me.
‘You know,’ I say, to fill the awkward silence. ‘Everyone thinks they’re really funny, and I enjoy doing them, and it’s our last year, so when else will I get a chance to impersonate Ms Jones and Mr Lenck… I mean, next year no one’ll know who they are!’ I give a laugh but it dies away.
‘Oh…’ says Sanvi. ‘So you…you don’t want to do it with us then.’
Kayma just looks at me.
Fliss’s first lot of editorial notes was detailed but she picked up on several key issues with my story:
- Where to start the story / what your central storyline is? We’ve spoken about this a bit already – and I know we both feel that the second half is stronger than the first. I wonder if part of this is because the story begins earlier than it needs to? Could you begin with the K Factor, perhaps – so that we have one central plot-line, right from the beginning?
- Nan and Grandad: Ok, so this is the more brutal part – but I’m not sure what Nan and Grandad bring to the book? Particularly Grandad, who has so many awful views that he feels like a bit of a straw man… To be discussed!
- Mum: Is there a way to show us more of what Mum’s really like? I’d love to see more instances of her interacting with Jelly – in a normal, everyday way – as well as her concerns about boyfriends / how she looks. The fact that Lennon likes her for who she is is fantastic – but I’m not sure that the reader ever gets to see exactly what that personality is?
The thing about editorial notes is that they help the author to look at their own work in different ways. When Fliss asked what the central storyline was, I realised that the subplot involving the friendship breakup was completely pointless and distracting. I should have known when writing it, to be honest, because they made friends again within a few chapters, and it didn’t have any lasting repercussions. There was also a storyline involving a fashion club set up by Verity Hughes in which Jelly was made to feel very uncomfortable and left as a consequence. But it was heavy-handed and didn’t add anything to the plot.
In order to restructure the first half of the book, I made notes on the key scenes I already had and laid them out on the floor. The structure wasn’t bad as such, but it wasn’t as strong as it could be – so I started again.
Out went the friendship breakup and the fashion club. Mum’s ex-boyfriend Chris was promoted to boyfriend right at the beginning. The announcement of the talent show was moved to Chapter 1, exactly as Fliss had suggested. The visit to Aunt Maggi was lost entirely and I completely rewrote the final confrontation with Jelly’s grandad (see Deleted Scenes for both these original scenes!). Mum’s part was beefed up a bit too so that the reader felt she was basically a good mum who deserved nice things.
Over the question of Jelly’s grandparents, I argued that they were absolutely necessary. In order to understand why Jelly’s mum was the way she was, the reader needed to see the damaging family she’d grown up with. Grandad is bigoted and racist and strict and sexist, and Jelly’s mum had always been made to feel that she wasn’t very good at anything or wasn’t worth much. This also meant that she brought those issues into her own parenting style, trying very hard to love and support Jelly ‘just as she is’ without seeing that she was creating a lot of eating problems for her own daughter. However, I did tone Grandad down just a little 😉
The second draft of Jelly was 44,913 words long and submitted on 30th Jan 2018. I was pleased with the way it felt, but authors are always nervous when sending to editors because you never know if you’ve managed to fix it to their liking!
I should say at this point that ALL good editors always, always say that their feedback is just to be taken as a starting point. Authors can and do ‘push back’ on certain suggestions, and that’s absolutely as it should be. An editor is there to help the author to polish and refine their vision for the book, not to remodel it in their own style. (Sometimes this relationship goes wrong, but I’m lucky that it’s never happened to me.)
Fortunately, Fliss liked the second draft! She said:
“I think you’ve done the most lovely job with this second draft. The shape is all there – and the character development – and it’s moving and fluent and … well, excellent!
I’m wondering if we could trim down the length a little (nothing too drastic – but I’m thinking around 42,000 words rather than 45,000…) and there are a couple of moments where I think you could lift the mood a fraction. But all fairly small-ish things.
Will jot my thoughts down in situ and send you a marked up manuscript in the next few days.”
How wonderfully encouraging is that! A marked-up manuscript means the manuscript sent back to me with added comments and changes. (We use Track Changes in Word MS for this.)
One of the scenes Fliss suggested losing at this stage was the PE lesson. This was the email I sent back to her:
“Fab, thanks! Have had a quick skim-read and most of it looks do-able. I might argue for one or two of the lines you’ve taken out 😉
The hardest thing will be getting the word count down. And I do want to keep the PE lesson because the changing part is so relevant to a lot of kids…but I’ll see if I can cut it right down.”
“That’s great. Definitely do push back on anything you don’t feel comfortable with – all just suggestions 🙂
Cutting down the PE chapter rather than losing it sounds sensible. The word count thing doesn’t have to be set in stone (around 43k would be totally fine). Part of the reason I raised it is that the opening third still feels just a beat too slow to me – but see what you think. There’s so much that’s good that don’t want us to feel that we have to cut chunks out just for the sake of it!”
The third draft was 41,994 words and submitted on 15th Feb 2018. I rather enjoyed trimming out extraneous sentences. I do have a tendency to go on a bit sometimes! And removing a sentence here and a paragraph there really tightens up a scene.
For example, this is a bit from Draft 2:
Under the pillow is my special book. It has a pink cover with shell patterns on it and it says, ‘I’M A PART TIME MERMAID notebook’ on the front, which is kind of stupid, because does it mean ‘I’m a part time mermaid and this is a notebook’, or ‘I’m a part time mermaid notebook’? which is impossible because a notebook can’t be a mermaid. Mind you, neither can a human, so the whole thing is dumb. Mum bought it for me last Christmas. It’s very girly, and exactly the sort of thing people assume I’ll like.
And this is the same scene from Draft 3:
Under the pillow is my special book. It has a pink cover with shell patterns on it and it says, ‘I’M A PART TIME MERMAID’ on the front. Mum bought it for me last Christmas. It’s very girly, and exactly the sort of thing people assume I’ll like.
(as an added aside: what WAS I thinking, writing all that nonsense in the draft 2 version?! Isn’t it AWFUL!)
Fliss liked the third draft enough to send it straight to copy editor Talya for her to read through. Talya said:
“Please find attached my copy-edit of Jelly, which I LOVED!! Great voice, great character, really universal emotions (and an incredibly easy and clean copy-edit). I’ve done my usual nitpicking, but I don’t think it will take you long to go through, as there’s nothing major.”
Hurray! We were nearly there! (And, frankly, cutting it fine for a publication date of 14th June.)
I sent my response to the copy edit on 26th March 2018. The manuscript was now 42,737 words. Once this was in, the manuscript went to layout/proofs, which I had another chance to look over.
These were sent to me through the post at my request as I find it much easier to spot errors on paper than on screen! A proof reader at Piccadilly (not Fliss or Talya) also read it and made comments, and I also asked my parents to read it because they’re really good at spotting errors and both have proofreading experience.
On 15th April I sent my proof comments in – here’s the first page:
Everyone does their proof comments differently. I prefer to put all of mine into a table so that I can see at a glance what’s what. You can see some of these are typo errors, some of them are me tightening up my text, and some are small changes because of other reasons, eg what colour do you call a brown horse?!
These were sent to me digitally on 24th April, just for my records. By this point the file had also been sent to the printer’s, so there was nothing anyone could do to change anything! The editing process, which had started on 5th November 2017, was now over, and all I could do was hope that we hadn’t missed anything and that the book was going to be well received!
Many thanks to Fliss Johnston and Talya Baker for their amazing support on this book 🙂