Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Great Horse 10 – Editing, the editor’s view by Helen Wire
Without exception everyone who read and assessed Katherine’s massive 200,000 word manuscript of what was to become I am the Great Horse, “loved it”. Katherine had already been very successfully published by the Chicken House so we – the innovative publisher of great books for children and young adults Barry Cunningham, his deputy managing director Rachel Hickman, their in-house editor Imogen Cooper and I, a freelance editor – already knew what a thoroughly good writer she is. And we weren’t disappointed.
No one reading this Great Horse blog could fail to recognise that Katherine is a gift to an editor – she barely needs editing. And that leaves one free at first reading to simply enjoy her stories. From page one of Bucephalas – the working title for what became I am the Great Horse – I was hooked. I wanted to read on, and not just because I was being paid to. First to read it was Barry, who wrote some notes prior to the manuscript coming to me for a first reading before we all got together to discuss this epic story with Katherine. To give you a real sense of the kind of things editors and publishers say to one another about a book they have agreed from the outset is brilliant, I quote below an email I sent Barry in response to the few notes he had written. The page numbers I quote below must relate to the first manuscript. (Luckily, I found this five-year-old email lurking in the memory of one of my by-now discarded computers.)
From: helen wire […]
To: Barry at the Chicken House Cunningham […]
Cc: Imogen Cooper […]
Date: Wednesday, February 2, 2005 9:13 pm
Dear Barry and Imogen
What a marvellous book ... I didn’t have any of the reactions you mention, Barry, in your notes to me (in bold below).
It is truly extraordinary how Katherine has written this whole book from the horse’s point of view without ever faltering.
Having Alexander talk to his horse is a brilliant device for getting into the king’s mind – he could and did share any confidence with Bucephalas and know absolutely that any vulnerability or self-doubt he revealed would go no further. And now Katherine has let us the readers be privy to those moments of intimacy. What a knockout!
BarryC: I enjoyed it – it’s much more direct and easy to read than the more complicated parts of Katherine’s Echorium Sequence. But it is rather too long—
HW: It is long but there’s no part of it I would want to cut. What’s Katherine’s view? Unlike the [other author’s] book you once considered splitting into two chunks, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to break the Bucephalas story up into two or even three volumes. What do you think?
BC: sometimes all the battles tend to blur together.
HW: They didn’t for me. And on the contrary, in her meticulously spare prose Katherine rarely wastes words on anything that is not driving the story forward. She doesn’t overly dwell on each of the battle scenes and they all seemed very distinct and vital to me. And it’s all a lively history lesson too. I could very easily get bored by battle scenes but I wasn’t ever – not for a single moment.
BC: I’m not overly sure about the end – it seems that the final break of the horse bond isn’t really a satisfactory end to the Charm and Alexander thing – even if it is for the horse part of their lives.
HW: It seems to me that the horse bond broke exactly as predicted throughout the book, and when it happened Charm was indeed finally set free to pursue her life with Tydeos. I really liked the clever way Katherine ended it all with the ghost of Bucephalas making the final links – far better than any stereotypical human-to-human ending [with Alex & Charm] would have been. But I would be interested to know if Katherine would consider coming up with any other ideas about how to end it.
BC: Obviously the horse doesn’t develop much as a character either – he’s pretty much the same throughout.
HW: That seems entirely appropriate to me – he is a horse after all. He is a strong and well perceived character though.
BC: The evil horsemaster is perhaps not a big enough adversary either …
HW: Well I suppose he could be developed, but in the big scheme of things he’s actually a minor character who has ghastly consequences whenever he appears. He is at the heart of some of the nastiest plots, and is certainly horrible enough as it is to provide the story with an evil undercurrent. Indeed, he shot the arrow that wounded Alex (p. 512). I was more puzzled that the Macedonians seemed very careless about having him properly dealt with earlier, and Charm sometimes seemed naively fair with him despite the woeful mistreatment to which he’d always subjected her.
BC: and perhaps we need much more of Alexander at key moments to feel the reality of his awesome character – he often just seems bad tempered.
HW: He did become increasingly bad-tempered as the story unfolded but that seemed entirely well done and appropriate to the kind of pressures he was subject to. He started as a young energetic, forceful young man who was playful with his mates, and gradually became a powerful and determined leader inevitably being corrupted and brutalised by the deaths and pain for which he was responsible. It’s all there in the text.
I thought Alex’s character developed rather well throughout the story and that he displayed a far greater range of emotions than mere kingly rage and cruelty. The device of having him talk to Bucephalas, and also to Charm, was a terrific way to contrast his tough nature with his gentler feelings (p. 427) of friendship, protectiveness, caring (p. 424); fear, remorse, compassion (p. 474; vulnerability and uncertainty (p. 528); repentance (p. 536); irrationality (p. 564); vengefulness (p. 582).
And knowing how much he cared for Bucephalas makes it doubly painful for us when he unthinkingly hurts his beloved horse. We witness his growing madness and fears via his intimate talks with his horse.
BC: I’m tempted to say let’s play a little looser with history at the end – since Alexander is writing his own anyway.
HW: Well yes, but Bucephalas can only tell the story that he the horse is witness to. The horse would tell it straight, not as Alex might have wanted it written. Having a ghost horse is quite a big deviation from known history.
I have marked up the text and started compiling more detailed notes/queries [for Katherine] There’s not much to be changed throughout but of course it is very long and they all add up. I have a few queries but they will be easy for Katherine to deal with.
BC: Let’s chat when you’ve read it.
All very best
Co-incidentally at the time, Katherine and I both lived in Gloucestershire, so Barry and Imogen drove up from their Somerset office and we all met at my house to discuss the text. I have always had the greatest respect for Barry’s publishing intelligence and instinct but I was horrified when he said we would have to cut 50,000 words because Bucephalas was just too long for the children’s book market. I had reckoned the original text to be one of the best and most interesting I’d ever read. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to cut any of it, let alone 50,000 words. Where on earth would I start? Fortunately, Katherine came to the rescue and offered to see what she could do to reduce it. Being the consummate professional she is, Katherine toiled away on the mammoth task of rethinking and cutting the text she must already have been working on for months, years even.
(Muse: the book took about a year part time to research, 9 months full time to write, and 2 years to edit and publish!)
Various communications passed between publisher and author but on 26 May 2005 Katherine emailed us, saying:
I have now read through Bucephalas again, and spoken to Helen about it as you suggested.
I am worried that the book has changed somewhat from my original vision, but I agree it is tighter and more of a controlled story now than a wild gallop through history. I think most of the "flatness" you mention comes from having shortened the first part, which makes the rest of the book seem unbalanced. Also, Helen feels some of the condensing I did last time is not as exciting as when it was written out in full, so if we can't have the length then I will need to condense these parts even more to avoid slowing up the story. I also feel that, from the Gordian Knot onwards, I need to make slightly more of the supernatural elements, particularly towards the end in order to build up to the ghostly ending. And we both agree the first chapter should be more explosive to fit the new, condensed version of the book.
She then went on to list the various cuts and changes she could make. As an experienced editor I know that most writing can benefit from cutting and refining to allow the essence of a story its greatest clarity. But there is always a risk that cuts as drastic as those Katherine was having to make could leave the story without its original expansive freshness and vitality – hence the slight “flatness” Katherine mentioned above. It can happen with words just as it often happens when a first, uninhibited, rough sketch in drawing is too carefully redrawn for the final artwork and thereby loses all the vitality of the original sketch. But, as anyone who has read I am the Great Horse will know, Katherine did yet more word magic and the book, like its equine narrator, is magnificent.
Muse: A final question: Katherine broke a few rules in I am the Great Horse, changing from present to past tense and back again several times during the story (e.g. battles told in present tense, journeys in the past). What is your view on tenses as editor?
HW: Without going back and rereading the whole book, I'd say what she did worked well in the service of the narrative and was never confusing, so if a rule was broken that's what makes writing creative.
Thank you very much Helen! And to prove editors never sleep, she has picked up the following typo in this blog and given me a tap on my glittery horn…
FYI Blog typos to correct in:
Great Horse 5 - Research
4. He died in Babylon, aged 33, leaving no heir.
I’m trotting off right now to correct it!