Pencil Marks

by M.J. Hearle

Readers of my previous post know why I have an aversion to post-its. I hate those little squares of fluorescent paper because they symbolise my inadequacy as a writer. Oh sure, I can come up with a fairly compelling story, I know a thing or two about character, but ask me to supply a ‘clean’ first draft and I’ll invariably fail. It doesn’t matter how much proofreading I do (or other people doahem…yes, I’m looking at you mum, dad and girlfriend) somehow the typos and the grammatical faux pas escape scrutiny and proliferate. As difficult as it is to admit, I’m a messy writer.

Before I submitted Winter’s Shadow to my publisher, I worked with my agent to scrub the manuscript clean. We went through four drafts together, tightening my prose, making sure all the commas were in the right spots, and that the story made sense. Because of this, I wasn’t too worried about getting my first round of editor’s notes. How much more work could there possibly be left to do?

Opening the parcel containing my book, I was heartened to see there were no post-it notes. Maybe I’d turned in the tidiest manuscript Pan Macmillan had ever seen? Just as I was about to pat myself on the back, I noticed something strange. Faint grey markings covering the pages. Pencil marks. Hundreds of them. Not just any pencil marks but weird curling symbols and runes. It looked like somebody had scrawled satanic messages all over my work. What did they mean? Luckily, Alice had also bundled with my manuscript a separate piece of paper containing a key to these symbols.







Ah, so that’s what the chicken scratches were – proofreader markup notes. Clearly, my publisher’s definition of a ‘clean’ manuscript was even more extreme than my agents. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d fixed every possible error but there wasn’t a single page that didn’t require some kind of amend. The first thing I had to do was change all my quotation marks from doubles to singles. Apparently, in Australia we do not use double quote marks to indicate speech. That’s what I get for reading all those American novels. This wasn’t too hard to fix, the global find/replace function handled the change easily enough. The other superficial amends – swapping commas around, paragraph breaks etc. – were relatively easy to make as well. But then we started getting into the tricky stuff – my writing style. Unfortunately, there was no computer function to fix my prose which suffered from what my publisher, Alice, labelled a ‘stylistic sameness’.

I’ve gone into detail about this particular tendency of mine in a previous post so I won’t repeat it here, suffice to say this problem was a lot more difficult and time consuming to fix than the other mistakes. Once I’d gone through and varied my sentence structure to improve the rhythm of my writing I then had to tackle an even bigger problem. Story. The consensus at Pan Mac was Winter’s Shadow moved too slowly. At least at the beginning.

The story picks up speed as it goes along, culminating in quite the exciting climax if I do say so myself, but the opening one hundred or so pages were relatively free of incident. There’s plenty of mystery and atmosphere but no action, and we all know how the kids love their action. I’d chosen to write Winter’s Shadow entirely from Winter’s perspective and she doesn’t really become involved in the action until midway. Until that point, she’s just trying to figure out what’s going on, usually through ponderous interior debate. So how was I supposed to add action if my lead character didn’t have anything physical to do?

After mulling this narrative problem over for several days, an idea occurred to me.


Madeleine, Blake’s mother, turned out to be the key. Winter’s Shadow begins with a prologue set in nineteenth-century Paris. Madeleine is fleeing through the city streets from her abusive husband, Victor, when she stumbles into a stranger, named Ariman. Ariman spirits Madeleine away to The Dead Lands and the reader is offered their first glimpse of the power of the Demori. It’s a quick, exciting little scene with a splash of magic and mystery. I could have easily removed it as the scene doesn’t impact Winter’s storyline in any major way, but I liked it and thought it was a cool way to open a book.

I started thinking what if I added more flashbacks? Brief snippets of Madeleine’s adventures with Ariman. My intention was that these flashbacks would not only offer a burst of much needed excitement in dull spots, but they’d also complement Winter’s relationship with Blake. Interestingly, this device was not inspired from a literary source, but from the TV show LOST. I was a massive fan of LOST ((until the last episode anyway, which was a big disappointment) and the novelistic way it used flashbacks to add thematic and character depth.

So I added a handful of scenes with Madeleine and sure enough, the feedback I got from Pan Mac was that they felt the new draft moved a lot faster. This didn’t mean my work on the book was done. I went through another three drafts with the Pan Mac team before the manuscript was locked for printing. Even then I had to make a few amends to the galley proofs (the unbound typeset pages of the book).

By the time I signed off on the absolutely-can’t change it anymore- final version of Winter’s Shadow, to say I was glad to see it go would be an understatement. The editorial process had exhausted me physically and creatively. Just thinking about the book made my head hurt. Re-reading your own work over and over again isn’t fun unless you’re a masochist. Or an egotist, in which case you’re probably not a writer. Even now, when I see a HB pencil or stack of post-its, I break out into a cold sweat. Stationery stores are hell.

M. J.