We spent two hours going through Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth and discussing all its faults. We barely touched on anything good about it (except that the first scene of the final chapter must not be touched because it is just right). Despite this distinctly unbalanced analysis I came away feeling very positive. After all, unless there was quite a bit right, it wouldn't have been worth the two hours on what is wrong.
So what are the problems? It's too long, by about 10,000 words (it's a smidge over 100,000 at the moment). It's too wordy, and the pace is too even. I think that these all go together - by stripping down the prose in some scenes, particularly in the second half of the book, I should be able to up the pace and lose some length. I'll need to dig out my notes on Pace from Annie Burgh's workshops on the subject.
Some of the characterisation needs a bit of work. The eponymous hero, Lord Alexander, is OK, but the heroine needs a bit of warming up. Some of the secondary characters need a bit more fleshing out, and in one particular case where a character turns up near the end after bowing out of the plot at an early stage, I need to do something to remind the reader of his continuing existence in-between. My favourite character, a nine-year old girl who is intended to be the heroine of the third book of what I see as a linked set of stories, is fine. I just need to develop my mental images of the others to the extent that I have a picture of her.
I need to add more vitality and impetus to the opening few scenes, and in some other places. This is linked to the pace issue above, but it is particularly critical here. The scene at which my agent felt the story really got going was some 20 pages in. Many editors won't get that far if it isn't a bit more tense and urgent from the start. In some of the other scenes that need this tightening I know that there is detail that I can trim, but for the opening scenes I need something else.
I also need to put in more at an early stage that sets the political scene. Readers won't all know just what was happening in the Spring of 1809 (a low point in the Penninsula War, and something of a mess in terms of both British and French politics) and a bit of background helps explain what is going on among the villains. The trouble is that this is precisely the sort of thing that kills pace and tension. I am currently reading Dennis Wheatley's Roger Brook books and he has a really bad habit of having his characters stop everything to discuss the latest political and military developments, whether or not they have a strong bearing on the plot. The last thing I want is for Lord Alexander spending anytime telling his colleagues what they already know.
There are one or two plot implausibilities or even impossibilities that need to be worked through, but luckily none that drive a stake through the heart of the storyline.
In addition to these major issues I need to sort out some stylistic problems (too many "said"s in the dialogue tags, too many "that"s , especially in dialogue, too few commas, too many people saying "indeed" in response to remarks.
And then there are the detailed bits and pieces scattered across most pages - potential anachronisms to be double-checked, infelicitous turns of phrase (including some real clunkers that I should have spotted myself), slip-ups in surnames and relationships, eccentric capitalisation, all that good stuff.
Despite all of this, there wasn't a single moment when I felt that this agent wasn't on my side, or wanted me to write something that wasn't what I had in my head. This is going to be my book, but thanks to her it is going to be a much, much better version of it. And while the title may need a bit of tweaking (the first half more than the second), the elephant still gets to stay in the very final sentence.
So I have a great deal to think about, and a great deal to do. Can I do it? I think that I can. How long have I got? Well, there are no external deadlines, but my agent is expecting to hear from me before the end of April. My own target is the end of March at the latest. I started Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth from scratch - not a single word nor fragment of a plot aready in my head - in the first week of April last year. In her new column in the Telegraph, confusingly titled A novel in a year, Louise Doughty says
Your novel will take you as long as it takes you - but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that if you haven't written a book before and are really serious about it and have a job or a family or - heaven forbid - both, then you are looking at around three years from start to finish.I'm aiming to shave two years off that. If I can produce a publishable novel in a year, while holding down a full-time office job, then I think that I will be able to hold my head up high.