Like it or not, getting published involves making compromises. The trick is to make only those compromises you are happy to live with in the long term. Some times you get it right; sometimes you don’t.
In my novel Balloon House, the central character’s name is Neve. Originally I spelled this the Irish way, Niamh. The editor wasn’t happy. Your readers won’t know how to pronounce it, she complained. In the end I agreed to spell the name exactly as it sounds. It annoyed the hell out of me but I decided it really didn’t matter. After all, the character wasn’t even Irish.
In my forthcoming book, The Magical Detective Agency, the central character’s name is Otto. My editor clearly thought that this was an odd choice and wanted to change it. She suggested I look at the list of the most popular names and choose one. This time I stuck to my guns. In my mind the character was unquestionably Otto. He had been right from the very start and I could not possibly imagine him with any other name. I won that round.
The compromises I made when writing my fantasy trilogy, The Promises Of Dr Sigmundus, were of a completely different order. The American publishers paid quite a lot of money (by my standards) for the rights but only on the condition that I would work with the editor on the manuscript. I agreed. After all, working with someone isn’t the same thing as being dictated to.
The editor felt that for the US market, the manuscript needed to be much tighter, much pacier. My UK editor, who was clearly flattering me to win me over, put it like this, ‘What you’ve written is a bit like French art film, Brian; what they want is more like a Hollywood blockbuster.’
I had my reservations of course but I agreed because I wanted to get the best book and to do that you always have to be open to criticism. It turned out to be quite a revelation. The US editor went to work with her pencil and she did not beat about the bush.
As the process unfolded I was extremely impressed by how much work she put in and how clear she was about what she wanted to achieve; but the cuts were very significant and took some swallowing. The second book, for example, ended up very much shorter than it started out.
It hurt, but the new version was tighter, sharper and really cut to the chase. Of course a great deal had been sacrificed and when some reviewers complained that it was too short on atmosphere I wanted to cry out: there’s another much fuller version on the hard drive of my computer that will never see the light of day.
Does this matter? Yes and No. The fact is that a successful book is never just the result of one person’s work. If you sell the foreign rights (which is what every author hopes to do), the translator will always transfer his or her particular vision to the book – they won’t be able to help it – and unless, the author is fluent in half a dozen languages he or she will never even know what has been changed.
The truth is that writing a novel is a two-way process; it’s about listening to other people’s views as well as your own. After all writing is a form of communication. Besides, in my opinion a book only fully exists when it is being read by someone else.; and if it doesn’t get published, it doesn’t get read.