The Advantages of Letting Your Work Marinate: and How to Assess Better Books Before You Buy

Every first draft is s*t said Hemingway. Donna Tartt, speaking about her Pulitzer prize winning The Goldfinch believed that the years it was in the making added to the layers and complexity. While The Goldfinch was not one of my favourites (too much and too dull), there is no doubt in my mind that the extra time allows for re-writes, and every re-write means an improvement. It’s how I have come to think about editing and no longer abhor it in the way I first did when a very green romance writer. The process of re-writing and time is the difference between literary books and well written popular books that aren’t churned out to a formula and to a (short) deadline—one romance writer I met was commissioned to have a romance out every six weeks. There is no possibility for this type of schedule to allow for anything more than the romance arc with changes of names and scenery and a basic copy edit. This is clearly not true of Liane Moriaty’s books (but she doesn’t do straight genre romance either) but for some struggling to make a living it is their experience of writing. Now we have self-published or quick-turnover-publisher-books on Amazon right next to those that have been marinated and slow cooked.

Is there a difference and if so how do we tell?

First – buy a real book and not from Amazon is suggestion one! This helps our bookshops stay alive and allows the book in hand to be sampled. You can of course usually download a chapter or so from Amazon and this is also recommended if that’s how you get your books (and occasionally I’m desperate when the bookshop doesn’t have one I want). When in hand the quality of the production is easier to assess (rather than the print on demand, though the quality of these have improved out of sight—my husband printed his book out at a bookshop in New York and it looked very close to the real deal). Checking the publisher may help but unless it’s one of the big ones (eg Harper Collins, Penguin) or you know them, it may not help, and there are many arms of the big publishers with different names.

Second – don’t believe the hype. ‘The most shocking thriller of the year’ is publicity hype not an accurate assessment; I rarely agree. I also often disagree with Goodreads reviews but while these reviews need to be viewed with caution (even the best most loved books have some people rate them one or two stars and we all have different tastes), if there are a lot of reviews, the star average is below 3 and the comments are much the same, it is worth thinking about that they might be right.

Third – don’t judge by the cover—and beware you have the author name correct! I have discovered somewhat to my horror that Amazon let people get away with all sorts of things. Like copying someone else’s cover and title (when these get reported they may bring them down) or worse, taking someone else’s (naturally someone successful) name so they come up on the search. When the name of the successful author is unusual, its a dead giveaway.

Fourth, when you are reading a chapter, things to look for: word repetition (someone did a count of how often Holy Cow or something like that was used in the first chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey, but I’m thinking more basic words like “like” of even said/asked etc—over a whole book this can become really tedious), poor grammar (eg split infinitives…even if you don’t know what this is, read the sentence out loud. It won’t sound right if you read a lot, even if you’re not sure why). How many adverbs and adjectives are there? These can be tedious as well. What about ‘voice’—do the characters sound/speak differently?

Finally, the other benefits of “marinating” may be harder to pick on a quick peruse—but they are the difference between Gone Girl (a book regardless of whether you liked it or not, deserved to be on the best seller list) and others that don’t develop character, build plot and tension, use techniques like writing something as if it happened and then say “this is what might have happened but didn’t”.

Layers make for “something to think about” moments, make the book more likely to stay with you. Many thrillers, maybe even most (Tana French would be a notable exception) don’t aim for this—its more about the tension and page turning, and I have enjoyed many of these. But having the extra something enriches your experience.

So how about my own writing? Medea’s Curse marinated for years—even first as a non-fiction book (compared to my romances which held some great—okay, interesting—ideas but were never given time to completely develop). Dangerous to Know was done over a year—but as with any series where you already have the characters (and I know what their development is over time) then you are mostly working on plot and then words, not getting to know these complex three dimensional beings that take over your life. The third in the series I expected to go much the same way…and indeed I have a fully completed manuscript re-written at least three time. But…

Rather than submit it before I went overseas researching Left Right (a romantic comedy co-written with Graeme Simsion, of which we already had a full draft which has been marinating about two-three years!) I held off. When I asked myself “could this be better” the answer was sadly, yes. So I let it marinate…now I am back and of course fully immersed in my character for Left Right so not at all sure when I will get back to Natalie-3.

But the ideas pop up. As I doze off, as I am walking, as Graeme and I talk…and somewhere in that process the answer has come to me. It always does, said Peter Goldsworthy (a GP-writer from Adelaide with a number of prizes for his very thoughtful books) at a recent Melbourne Uni Medical Student Forum we were both speaking at. And he is right. If you give your mind a problem—AND give your mind time—the answer will come.

It may not be one you want to hear of course.

Just when am I going to find time to rewrite it totally—with a different character and point of view and to some degree plot?

Writing, like life, wasn’t meant to be easy…

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About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has over 25 years clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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