‘I sent my characters out into the world to agents and publishers, over and over again, naked, without a prayer; in the wrong tense, in the wrong voice, in the wrong Point-of-view, in a linear arc from Kildare to Hobart.’
Today on #IrishWritersWed I am delighted to welcome Orla McAlinden back to Swirl and Thread. Orla has been a guest with me here in the past but, I suddenly realised, never on Irish Writers Wednesday!!!
Orla has written a great post on the ‘rewrite’ that I think many many writers will resonate with. I’m also delighted that Orla has revealed some exciting good news within this post so please do read on and as always ENJOY!
When is a novel not a novel? When it’s a draft
by Orla McAlinden
I hate shopping. I’m really, truly bad at it; I’ve been known to try on clothes back-to-front and once (a rather fetching spangly boob-tube) actually upside down. Dressing room assistants sometimes have to pull me bodily out of items I’ve attempted to wedge on with the zips still closed. And after one such horrendous experience, in the Autumn of 2014, I found myself, demoralised, red-faced and determined to buy something in the local history department at Hodges Figgis.
I love bookshops with the passion of any addict. Books always fit.
I flicked idly through a slim volume, just 50 pages, The Transportation of women from Kildare to Van Diemen’s Land by Catherine Fleming, published by Four Courts Press. By the time I reached the cashpoint with my haul, my next book — my first full-length novel — was fully formed in my mind. I even knew the title. All I had to do was write it down. Easy Peasy. On my way down towards Stephen’s Green, I passed a posh shop selling posh alcohol. And in the window was a whiskey I’d never seen or heard of: Writer’s Tears. I don’t drink whiskey, but I took a photo for fun. If writing ever makes me cry, I’ll just quit and find a new past-time, I thought, plenty of other ways to enjoy yourself.
In Spring of 2015, I sat with 75 other novice writers, who had qualified to attend the Date with an Agent event organised by writing.ie. My novel, The Flight of the Wren, had been chosen out of several hundred entrants to receive feedback from Paul Feldstein, one of Ireland’s top literary agents. I was on my way to stardom, and Hollywood, and astronomical riches… or at least I aspired to as much as would buy me and my husband and the four kids a good dinner at the Hollywood Inn, in County Wicklow, a few miles drive from our home.
Paul started to talk. He liked the characters. He liked the plot. He liked the time period. He liked the ending. ‘But…’
‘But, what?’ I asked, ‘Is there something you don’t like? I’ll change it. I’m not one of these difficult geniuses…’ I said, prepared to sell my soul downriver, ‘I’m happy to change it. What is it about the book that don’t you like?’
Paul replied, ‘All of the words.’
Okay, okay, so that may not have been exactly what he said. But that’s what I heard. (We have met since and had a laugh about it… I don’t harbour any grudges…ahem!)
Six weeks later, when I had cried a whole distillery-worth of tears, I took out my novel. My finished novel. My masterpiece, every word carefully selected, every paragraph honed and polished. And I read it from start to finish, not allowing myself to pause to alter so much as a comma. When I had finished, I realised with a rather sickening flash of humiliation that my masterpiece was in fact, a first draft. A very carefully revised first draft. A grammatically correct first draft, with not a hint of a spelling mistake, or a misplaced semi-colon. But a first draft, nonetheless.
This is the kind of embarrassing thing that might not happen to writers who know what they’re doing, or to those lucky enough to have an agent to say; Erm, hold on a minute! But I’m neither of those things. I had sent out a raw first draft into the world. I owed my characters an apology.
So I rewrote the whole bloody thing.
I sat in the Greenbean Novel Fair in 2016, run by the Irish Writers Centre as part of Dublin International Literary Festival, one of twelve winners of a competitive process, with my finished novel, my masterpiece… I was on my way to stardom, and Hollywood, and astronomical riches.
‘I like the premise…’ said one agent. ‘I like the characters,’ said another. ‘I like the plot’. ‘I like the writing.’ And I sat back happily as they all went home clutching extracts and synopsises and memory sticks. And they all ‘didn’t love it enough.’
I cried. And then I rewrote the whole bloody thing.
I sent the book to Averill Buchanan, a free-lance editor I heard of through the wonderful community of Women Aloud NI run by Jane Talbot and friends, which promotes the work of women writers from or in Northern Ireland. Averill had already read and admired my first book, The Accidental Wife, published in 2016 by Sowilo Press. I knew she would love The Flight of the Wren, my finished novel, my now-sparkling masterpiece. By now these characters were members of my family, I loved them and I wanted them to get the chance they deserved, the chance to tell their story, to a world that wasn’t listening when they were still alive. Averill hated the voice of my 12 year old protagonist.
I rewrote the whole bloody thing.
An Irish writer I won’t mention — as it was an act of great kindness, and I don’t want to open the floodgates of aspiring writers besieging her for help — offered to send the book to her agent in London. The agent described the writing as “very fine” but the narrative arc as too flat. She made some concrete suggestions, just one or two lines about what was needed to make the book sellable.
I rewrote the whole bloody thing.
And all through this three year period, I sent my characters out into the world to agents and publishers, over and over again, naked, without a prayer; in the wrong tense, in the wrong voice, in the wrong Point-of-view, in a linear arc from Kildare to Hobart. And every time I rewrote the book, I thought scornfully to myself, what a fool I was to send out those previous versions, the book is finished now. I’m so lucky that Sally, Eleanor, Liz, Catherine, Paddy et al didn’t just get up off the page and find themselves a writer who had a clue what she was doing.
I’m currently half-way through rewriting the whole bloody thing. As I finish each chapter I think to myself, aha! I have it now. What a fool I was. This is it! The final draft for sure.
Yesterday, an Irish Publisher phoned me and offered me a contract. They want to bring The Flight of the Wren to life and set her on her voyage. Their editor will be in touch soon, with her thoughts and requirements.
And after I’ve read them, I strongly suspect I’ll rewrite the whole bloody thing.
Set against the tense background of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, The Accidental Wife follows the twists and turns of the McCann family over seven decades.
Marion Smith has a secret. So does Colette McCann. How many generations will these secrets destroy? Why did Matthew Jordan slip his passport into his pocket before he kissed his wife goodbye and drove to work?
In a land riddled with suspicion and fear, secrets are not easy to keep. How long can Marion Smith hide what happened in Derry at the height of the Second World War? How many generations will her secret destroy?
Lies, half-truths and omissions litter the stories of the McCann family, spanning seventy years of Northern Ireland’s turbulent history. Who will come through unscathed and who will pay for the sins of the fathers?
Purchase Link ~ The Accidental Wife
Who is Orla McAlinden?
“An Irish writer, trying to make sense of the world.
My first collection of short stories, The Accidental Wife, won the Eludia Award, 2014. Published by Sowilo Press, Philadelphia.
Contains the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year 2016.
Website ~ https://orlamcalinden.com/
Twitter ~ @OrlaMcAWrites