Just when you think you’ve finished by Ian Nettleton

Joseph Conrad once collapsed after a long writing session. William Golding despaired when a publisher showed interest in Lord of the Flies but asked for some big changes, including losing the first chapter. Writing is tough work and you may think you’ve got a finished draft on your hands after many years of hard work, only to find there’s more to be done.

The Last Migration was finally getting some recognition. My photo was on the Bath Novel Award website and the Bridport Prize site and in the local paper. A long section of the novel was available for anyone to read. Some agents showed an interest after Bath, but there were still no takers, but after Bridport there was more interest. I soaked up the unseasonal October sun in Weymouth and waited to see how things would turn out.

Getting placed in a competition makes a difference, to your confidence and to how you are perceived. It also makes you new acquaintances in the literary world that you wouldn’t meet otherwise. In my case, Caroline Ambrose, the Bath Novel Award founder. One Friday she was on a train with the agent, Sue Armstrong, and told her all about my novel. That evening I got an email from Sue with a request to read the whole manuscript and one week later Sue had finished and wanted to meet in London. So I took the train and went to the Conville and Walsh offices off Piccadilly – the kind of meeting you picture when you are daydreaming as a would-be author. By the end of our discussion I had an agent.

Christmas was only two weeks away and just before I set off up north with my family, Sue sent me her editorial notes. You think you’ve finished when someone is interested in your novel, but this is only the beginning of the next stage. The notes suggested a structural change – moving a major event (the answer to the burnt-out car with the corpses that appears near the beginning) from a midpoint in the novel to nearer the end to maintain the narrative tension – and some more detailed additions to include more character backstory and motivation. More of the emotional story, basically.

As Sue Armstrong said when I met her in London, it is a common part of the process that once you have an agent, a new round of revisions begin. And once that is over, if the agent finds you a publisher, there might be further, lesser revisions. So after an initial feeling of bewilderment and that attendant thought, When will there be an end? I spent Christmas thinking about how I could approach this, and most of January. I couldn’t begin with the edits because I had too much work on, but it’s surprising how vital pondering is to the creative process (sometimes at two in the morning, while trying to get my one-year-old back to sleep). I started to see how I could reshape the plot. I also saw how I could collapse two characters into one character, how I could begin to work in new scenes (a funeral in a cemetery in the desert, the death of a gangster). I knew my world and my characters. I was just finding and releasing new information about them.

A year ago I heard I was on the longlist for a literary prize. I still look at some of the emails from time to time – that first contact from Bath, the announcement of the runner-up prize from Bridport – to remind myself of how good it felt to find my work was being valued. It’s a great feeling. I’ve more work to do over the coming months. I’ve new scenes to add, character backgrounds to explore, more drama, more mystery, more sense of jeopardy to bring into the story. I’m going to put my characters through the wringer more than I ever did. Kurt Vonnegut said be a sadist; make your characters suffer. I’m going to make them earn their place in this story. If I’m going through it, why shouldn’t they?

 

Afterword: I would like to thank the people at Bridport for all they have done for me since I was runner-up last year – their encouragement, the publicity they have given my novel, the chance to contribute a blog. I’d also like to thank Aki and TLC for their help, and Doug Johnstone for his detailed report. 

 

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