Dear Editor: Deirdre Purcell’s debt to the red pen

The veteran author reflects on key lessons her editors have taught her about writing

Deirdre Purcell: My characters are messers. These people I’ve created struggle against what I think I’ve ordained for them. Photograph: Adrian Weckler

Deirdre Purcell: My characters are messers. These people I’ve created struggle against what I think I’ve ordained for them. Photograph: Adrian Weckler

 

Over 14 novels and many nonfiction books, I’ve worked with more than a dozen editors, sometimes two, or even three on the same one, due to handovers as they move on, or because of simultaneous publishing in different jurisdictions. And I believe now that editors do not fully grasp what effect they have on the daily lives, thoughts, fears and emotions of their charges, the palpitations and sleeplessness involved in waiting for initial reactions, the daylight terror that they’ll come back with the literary equivalent of: “you’ll never work in this town again!”

With the callowness of inexperience and just one novel under my belt, I ventured to differ greatly with my editor of that time about a six-page scene in the second

With the callowness of inexperience and just one novel under my belt, I ventured to differ greatly with my editor of that time about a six-page scene in the second offering, That Childhood Country. I had my characters, young teenaged twin boys, emigrating from Ireland to Canada via Liverpool and went into great detail about the smell of the cattle on board the boat from the North Wall, the slippery, yellow evidence of sea-sickness amongst the human cargo, all very atmospheric, I thought. Authentic, I thought. Informative. Evocative.

But from Jane Wood of Macmillan, London, came evidence of a huge cut along with the brisk instruction: Just get them to Liverpool!

“But, Jane, you see, this is an Irish book and this scene is seminal to the Irish experience of emigration. You don’t understand because you’re English and the experience of emigration in England is of travelling merely to another part of your empire, the colonies! The Raj and so forth?”

When I think of it, I cringe. Now, decades later, of course I’d get them to Liverpool in a paragraph. At the time, though, she indulged me with compromise and the six pages were cut to three.

While I persist in the belief that an editorial reaction to novels-in-progress can be based, not just on professional objectivity and skill, which is never in question, but also, understandably, on the tastes and life experience of the individual. I don’t fight any more – well, not much – because editors are usually right and are critical merely to help. Jane Wood’s editing style, for instance, has been of decades-long, beneficial effect.

In those days editing was done on hard copy with a red pen. She despised repetition, not just of words, but of their sounds and I now believe she heard, as well as read, a text

In those days editing was done on hard copy with a red pen. She despised repetition, not just of words, but of their sounds and I now believe she heard, as well as read, a text. If, for example, I used “hone” and “phone” or even “poem” within the same page or two, or “so” and “sew”, all would be circled. And God forbid I’d repeat an adjective, or, horrors! a particularly vivid adverb more than twice in the whole book.

At the time I thought that this was pernickety but I’m now grateful because to this day, while writing, I see those little red circles of hers plinking on words as I go along and I now insert these repeat offenders into a parallel file titled, artfully, “Repetition”. One of my final tasks, before delivering the first draft, is to open this and, using my Mac’s Find facility, to go through the entire novel replacing miscreants with a variety of synonyms or different phrasing should the repetitions be too numerous and the Thesaurus start to rebel.

I find nonfiction so much easier all round, because the object of the exercise there is to weave existing facts into a narrative.

Writing novels is a hugely different and more difficult task, with the whole world available as a setting, all of humanity available to serve as individual characters in an arena bombarded from the outside with sad and ever more tragic stories as potential underlying themes. “Tell me in one sentence what this story is about?” is a question I dread while I’m writing it; the only possible response at that point is a feeble bleat: It’s “character-driven?” Always answer a difficult question with another question.

But I do defend my people, who, during the writing at least, are as real to me as flesh-and-blood family, friends and acquaintances. I agree that sometimes, on the page, their actions can defy logic, but since when has reason applied to human emotion? I’m the one who has thrown them together to see what happens and to listen to their interaction. In some senses I’m the mere chronicler.

My pal Patricia Scanlan and I have discussed, at length, how we must remain in control. We write our characters’ utterances and arguments. We describe the locations. We set up the actions. She is certainly in control from beginning to end when she’s writing and I applaud that from the bottom of my heart.

For me, however, when in the throes of a first draft, my characters are messers. These people I’ve created struggle against what I think I’ve ordained for them; they will order me to back off and let them tell the story as they see it, they play hooky, won’t come inside.

This shows in all kinds of ways such as skewed timelines, difficult for editors. Timelines are my bugbears, my downfall. One novel of mine started with a spectacular air crash, during which the tailfin of the aircraft spun away during take-off and crashed through a perimeter fence to flatten the car of the plane spotter who was (luckily) standing away from it; in chapter five I showed the guy happily driving said car through the streets of Dublin.

I do try. I prepare birth and “significant date” charts for everybody in a lovely little file, easily to hand on the desktop. Then, after delivery comes the customary, plaintive margin annotation: But I thought s/he was born two years earlier? And both Ciara and Hazel, my editors at Hachette Ireland, have been wont to find that I can have my people chat about events that haven’t happened yet.

Thank goodness for you both, dear editors, and for your predecessors. I live on a permanent training loop, d’you see, and from the first and only time John McGahern and I encountered one another, remain mindful of his exhortation to me: “Mind your sentences.” I try.
Deirdre Purcell’s latest novel is The Christmas Voyage, published by Hachette Ireland

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