Here’s a summary of the book I’m #livenovelediting:

PART 1, Ch 1: Sabine, an unemployed Canadian, lives in Paris with an artist boyfriend (Laurent). She’s condescending about his art and buddies, and has somewhat paranoid thoughts about Paris buildings because they seem to look down on her. She’s surly that Laurent’s friend, Jesus, pockets her cigarette lighter without realizing.

Ch 2: She goes for an early walk – worried about her missing cat – and gets lost in thoughts of her dad who passed away a few years ago. She takes a ride on the Ferris wheel in place de la Concorde and walks off speaking fluent French. Freaked out, she runs ‘home’ to Laurent’s, but he doesn’t know her from adam. She throws up in a gutter.

Ch 3 &4: Thinking the Ferris wheel will fix this, she goes on it again – no dice. She sits in a cafe to figure out her life from the contents of her purse/handbag. She calls her mom, but things are definitely weird with her, after acting like a total loonie bird she goes to her ‘home’ with Vincent.

Ch 5-9: Sabine meets Vincent – who apparently proposed to Sabine the night before and isn’t impressed at all that she a) smokes Marlboro Lights all of a sudden, b) doesn’t seem to give a shit who he is, and c) can’t remember the proposal. Sabine decides to give this life a go because clearly nothing’s “switching” her back. Vincent thinks she’s having a breakdown. She goes to her job as a translator, which is dead easy since she’s somehow fluent in French. Vincent thinks she’s weird because of being afraid to commit to marriage. An Eastern European girlfriend, Liselle, seems to be the only person who recognizes Sabine’s a different Sabine. The couple go to Prague for a weekend trip away and make luuurve, all the while Sabine’s inner monologues spouts this pseudo-philosophical psycho-babble about her and ‘the other Sabine’ splitting like a peach with her getting the stone and the other one getting who-knows-what, suggesting that this parallel life thing is all based on how we only use 10% of our brains. It’s all extremely draggggy. Vincent gets mugged and they return to Paris.

PART 2 – Sabine reacquaints herself with Laurent on purpose and they start an affair. She and Vincent have arguments over the phone bill and how irresponsible Sabine is. Sabine confesses to Liselle that she’s attracted to another man behind Vincent’s back. Sabine cuts it off with Laurent, but loses her job at the translation office (but doesn’t tell Vincent). They have a weekend away in Rome (all this couple seem to do is have last-minute getaways, drink coffee or wine, and mope around art galleries…) where they have some serious fun in Rome – but back in Paris she’s up to her usual tricks of messing around with Laurent and fudging the truth to Vincent.

PART 3 – You can see where this is all headed: Sab untangles her grief over losing her dad as some pseudo-psychological reasoning for creating these parallel lives. Plus her imaginary friend turns up as a cafe waitress and gives her sage advice about living in the present moment. Then the climax is that Laurent’s art exhibit (a series of nudes of Sabine) clues Vincent into the affair that he and Sab had, enraged Vincent goes on the Ferris wheel and he switches into a parallel version of his life where he and Sabine did already break up and she’s actually living without any guy and holding down a job, with her missing cat by her side. They try to hash it out, but this different “third Sabine” thinks Vincent is crazy. She finally relents to go out to dinner with him the following night. THE END.

That’s the plot and here’s what I would say to the author of such a manuscript. The key issues with this book are character development and lack of story. Some story ideas don’t have enough weight to sustain a full-length novel, so to disguise the fact that the characters and their story haven’t been fully developed, writers draw out the ‘action’ through introspective inner thoughts and long ‘talky’ scenes that don’t drive the story forward (because there isn’t much of a story to drive). Sabine’s inner thoughts dominate the whole 75,000 words here and without resorting to quote swathes of it, trust me when I say she’s not sympatica enough to have to listen to her inner thoughts. Basically, “third Sabine” has her head screwed on right, while the “main Sabine” who switches into “Vincent’s Sabine’s” life has all the likeability and redeeming character qualities of a sociopath. And not a cool sociopath who is engaging despite his mental issues, but a run-of-the-mill blah sociopath. She cares for nobody, so why should any reader care for her?

Having a Main Character nobody likes is one big handicap, but another is having equally cardboard supporting characters. None of these guys and gals leap off the page. And then the other elephant in the room is this magical realism plot. It’s a tough genre to get right because many writers jump on some otherworldly explanation for the voodoo going on, even resorting to a device such as a Ferris wheel – oh, look, that character’s going on a Ferris wheel – bam! switched lives. For no real reason. And to no real effect. Why is this magic in these lives? If you look at Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the device – the vintage car on the quiet street happens to the MC (the writer guy in Paris on holiday) – because he’s swept up with nostalgia for past times. He regrets his ‘sell-out’ Hollywood career and not pursuing his goal of writing literary novels. The main drive for it is his current relationship, which isn’t right for him and isn’t what it seems. He is ripe for transformation and it becomes a retelling of A Christmas Carol by Dickens where glimpses into the past show him the way to him taking action in the present. And it all happens fast. The timeline is a week. Sabine’s story is agonizingly s-l-o-w.

Sabine’s switch isn’t plausible, so it becomes science fiction where it happens just because and there is no real resolution or return to her original life with Laurent, having learned what she needed to with Vincent’s parallel world. In fact, she doesn’t learn much and we are left with a “third” better version of Sab because the other version is just so unlikeable. Having a MC who doesn’t change/transform is the absolute worst thing in any novel. It’s reader-chucking-book-across-the-room bad.

When this novel was on offer to London publishers, the feedback was that they liked the premise but the characters were ‘flat’ or ‘failed to engage.’ One editor referred to “Sabine and the stooges.” Ouch. At the time I sat there thinking, Oh, she didn’t ‘get’ it!! But I didn’t get it. The editors were trying to tell me something. I had a good idea (yes, it was a Parisian Sliding Doors and now, with Midnight in Paris we can see a better Paris version of this alternate-version-of-your-life magical realism story) but my execution sucked. This manuscript is pocked by fragment sentence followed by nonsensical magicky sentences. Here are a few to illustrate:

They both could smell turpentine’s acrid flavour on his fingers. Like hands of hellfire. (Unless this is a paranormal romance, why throw in ‘hellfire’? I’ll answer that: alliteration. It’s not good.)

She would sort this out. It was a matter for the brain to ponder. And she had that down pat, noticing things in minutiae. Pat a cake. Pat a cake, her brain ticked. (An example of Sabine’s inner thoughts. Who can have empathy for this? At best it describes her as OCD. But unless this is The Rosie Project where the MC has Asperger’s and we totally immerse ourselves in his fascinating and different worldview and there’s a fab dance scene and true love and the MC’s flaws are his strengths that drive the story forward… then, no, we don’t want to read nonsensical thoughts.)

She turned her head, ‘I’m completely serious,’ she stared out the window. Another lighter gone. (A snippet from a scene where Sabine has another frustrated exchange with one of the ‘Stooges’ and her cigarette lighter is nicked for the second time. The lighter is a metaphor for… well, the hope of good writing, maybe. Plus here we see some bad verbage: ‘turned xxx’ ‘stared out’ these aren’t descriptive, evocative verbs.)

I’m sure you get the drift. I’m plugging for a total rewrite here. To do that, I certainly won’t be publishing this as an edited novel on Thanksgiving weekend, 2015. But it would be nice to publish this in 2016, if I sort out the characters and storyline.

Sometimes the magic needs to be anchored in the real. Or it's just weird.
Sometimes the magic needs to be anchored in the real. Or it’s just weird.

So my next step is some serious brainstorming. You can join in on the comments if you like. For starters – genre. Is this magical realism or could it be some variant of romance if I really went wild? It might be a novel, but it’s best to think of it as a novella until I dream up a proper, has-legs story that would warrant a full novel. Sabine has to go completely. Or have a lobotomy so that she’s nothing like any of these three Sabines. The only character I like in this current novel is the imaginary friend, Casey, who appears as a sassy cafe waitress. Wait a minute… what about a novel about an imaginary friend who finds herself stuck in Paris because that’s the last place her kid believed in her, and she has to survive… and she finds that she can survive and even find true love and becomes real.

Or maybe that’s a children’s book.


One thought on “How a novel gets edited: Developmental Edit 2

  1. Your post impressed me so much! I’ve read it till the final line without a pause nor missing a word! Your braveness and clearness in writing about this writing experience, a step back with objective observation. I like it!
    My contribution to Sabine’s future is that I’ll change her the name (simply I don’t like it…) and she can stay (I’m unable to fire anyone…) as an antagonist of the future main character, a sort of Charles Dreyfuss, the tolerance-challenged boss of Clouseau inspector (Pink Panter series of movies like “a Shot in the dark”).

    The idea of writing a story about an imaginary friend lost in Paris is funny (go on before the sequel of Inside Out movie!!!).

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