The Little Voice Inside Your Head

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So, four days ago I took the decision to cut 70,000 words out of my finished book, and rewrite them. Yup, I’ll say that again. Seventy thousand words. Or, to put it another way, a shortish novel.

I didn’t do it lightly; even now, a few days on, it feels a bit like an amputation. The most I have ever cut at one time is around 5,000 words (a chapter). When I talked about it to friends this weekend I found myself saying the words with a slightly-too-giddy laugh “I’ve just deleted 70,000 words of my latest! I know! hahaha!” and using the kind of voice that suggests an imminent lurch towards a gin bottle.

But I had handed the manuscript over to my agent in June, and a month’s distance – and a barely perceptible edge to her words which told me that while she loved it, she didn’t love it as much as the last two – meant that something had to give. In today’s unforgiving publishing landscape, you can’t afford to put out a book that you – or your agent – doesn’t believe is not just good, but the best darn thing you have ever written.

And here is the galling thing. I think I knew. The book – The Girl You Left Behind – is a dual timeframe epic about love, betrayal and nazi-looted art. Half of it is set in German-occupied France in 1916 – a subject I thought I would struggle with. But no, that part of the book flew; it was the modern plot-line that refused to take off.
And from 20,000 words on, a little voice at the back of my head kept whispering that it wasn’t quite working. I tinkered. I rewrote. I told myself that it was a huge subject, a complex plot. I reassured myself that I had often felt ambivalent about finished work. As writer Debi Alper tweeted me afterwards: “It’s hard to draw the line between clever gut and inner critic.”

By the time I handed it over, I knew I had done a good job. But that little voice was still there, muffled but insistent. And then I sat down and checked the proofs of my finished book, Me Before You, which will be published in January, and I made a horrible realisation. The Girl You Left Behind was just not as good.

So here I am, 2000 words in to a 70000 word rewrite. I have no idea how I will get it done in time. I suspect a return to the 6am writing stints will follow (bleurgh). It will be stressful and, as a freelance, it will cost me money.

The good news is this (and believe me, I need some good news): even 2000 words in, the new plot feels right. (I’m going to assume that’s my clever gut talking. And not an ulcer.)

But it has taught me a valuable lesson. Firstly, that buying yourself a month away from your work in progress is a really useful thing. And, secondly, that if a little nagging voice is repeatedly telling you something is wrong, then, guess what? It probably is. And the sooner you can accept that, take a step back and re-work it, the less likely you are to be working out how to rewrite an entire novel during your summer holidays.

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