My novel-in-progress, An Honourable Man, is about the dichotomy between public and private persona, and the whole novel hinges on an apparent chance encounter. This chance encounter is based on a real-life episode: a few years ago I bumped into someone in my local shopping centre and, after exchanging apologies, realised I knew him from somewhere. He recognised me, too – the problem was neither of us could place the face. We chatted for a while, neither of us revealing we were not sure exactly who the other person was and how we knew each other. Both of us asked quietly probing questions (you know the sort of thing: ‘How are your family?’, ‘Where are you working these days?’, ‘Are you still . . . er . . . ?’). I think we went to school together, but I’ll never know.
In my novel, the chance meeting happens between a man and a woman. The question I asked myself was ‘What if there was a sexual chemistry between them?’ And what if, instead of simply exchanging a few pleasantries, they embarked on an affair? But what if one of them then turned out not to be who the other one thought they were?
This is the sort of thing that can and probably does happen in real life, but I knew that fiction is different from real life in that it has to make sense. So I gave one of the protagonists a motive for wanting to meet the other character, and then made them engineer the ‘chance’ meeting. I also came up with what I thought was a clever device for showing the vulnerability of the other protagonist. I thought it worked okay, and the trusted readers I showed the manuscript to seemed to have no problem with it. So I completed the novel and entered it in a competition run by A&C Black.
The runners-up prize in the competition was a critique from The Literary Consultancy. Although the feedback I received was generally good (‘a readable, pacey piece of fiction’) the reader had real difficulty with the contrived ‘chance encounter’. More importantly, she thought my ‘clever’ device simply didn’t work. It made the character concerned sound ‘more mad than sad’. She said it spoiled the whole book.
This was tough feedback to take – after all, the ‘chance encounter’ was the foundation I had built the whole novel upon, and the ‘clever device’ was the key to understanding one of my main characters. But I could also see that the feedback was absolutely right. Problem was, I didn’t know how to make the novel work without that central episode or the insight provided by my device. So I put the manuscript away for a couple of months and concentrated instead on editing the Deal Writers anthology, and on writing a few new short stories of my own. The short stories helped clear my head a little, as well as putting some much-needed cash in the bank!
Now that the anthology has been safely put to bed (I don’t have a precise publication date yet, but it will be going on sale for £3.50 plus P&P in the next month or so) it’s time to dust off An Honourable Man and to hunker down to some serious rewriting. It feels like a massive, daunting task. I think I know how to handle the rewrite, but I won’t really know till I write it, will I?
So, here goes . . .