Constructing Novels: Part Three
When my wife Linda finished reading her third three-chapter block of manuscript pages
for A Fearful Thing – on its way to becoming the fifth novel in my Rebecca Series – she
made two disquieting observations: first, the plot, she said, had become too scattered,
and she felt that she was losing the thread of the story; and second, the story, she
added, had gotten too far away from what she called “the mind of Rebecca.”
From the start of this series of novels, I have always asked Linda to read and comment
on the manuscripts as each story developed, usually in blocks of three chapters (60-70
pages). Although her comments have always been helpful, this was the first time she
had rendered a set of opinions that suggested to me that I needed actually to start over.
Not start over from page one… but from fairly early in the story. And so, having decided
that she was absolutely right on both counts, I went back from roughly page 200, where
I had paused to await her comments, to about page 80, which is where both those
problems had begun. I simply discarded about 120 pages (probably three or four
months of work), and then set out to write afresh, from page 80 on, so that the story
would hold together better, and so that it would remain close to the mind of the central
character in these novels.
This was not, you understand, a matter of self-editing those 120 pages. This meant
throwing them away. That’s a hard thing to do.
But sometimes necessary.
Back in the 1940s, when C. S. Lewis began his three-book series for adult readers, a
series that is usually referred to as “the Ransom trilogy” or “the interplanetary trilogy,” he
was part of a group of Oxford scholars who called themselves “the Inklings.” In their
regular gatherings, they would read aloud to each other their in-process manuscripts.
And they would all make their observations about each other’s work.
These literary friendships served a purpose for Mr. Lewis similar to the one Linda
serves for me, but he was taking a chance in having people so similar to himself –
highly literary university scholars who did not read much fiction themselves – rather than
people like my Linda. She is certainly well educated, holding a doctorate in adult
education, but most importantly, she reads fiction regularly, and has done so for much
of her life. She is, in that way, a more reliable source of feedback to me than, I suggest,
the Inklings may have been to C. S. Lewis when he was writing fiction.
And Linda has not been the only reader of my manuscripts. For example, when A
Fearful Thing was finished in its early manuscript form, I asked five individuals whom I
knew well to review the manuscript and write their comments. They did, to the benefit of
the final version of the novel.
Aside from the contributions of readers who read and comment, you may wonder
whether or not my approach to construction of these novels has changed over the
years. Well, it indeed has, and I’ll explain that in Part Four.
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