I’m so happy today because I’ve waited for ages to have a long chat to Jessie Cahalin, brains behind the wonderful Books in My Handbag Blog. Sundays are lazy days in Tuscany and here we are, down by the river, talking about her debut novel, ‘You Can’t Go It Alone’. I can’t believe my good fortune.
Handbag fever has overshadowed Jessie’s editing. Her book has been patiently waiting to come out of her handbag for a second appearance. However, some of the characters have been rather disobedient and refusing to go it alone. ‘You Can’t Go It Alone’ has undergone minor surgery. Jessie asked me to share the editing process to get her back on track and now her book is ready for a new handbag.
You Can’t Go It Alone waiting for a facelift
Jessie, I read your first version and enjoyed it. How would you summarise your story?
You Can’t Go It Alone is contemporary women’s fiction. The novel explores the impact secrets can have on relationships and pursuit of happiness.
Set in a Welsh village, the story reveals the contrast in attitudes and opportunities between different generations. Rosa, the leading lady of the Olive Tree Café, must face issues in her marriage. Sophie, a teacher, helps others to communicate but struggles to communicate with her husband, Jack, about their IVF journey. Olivia, who is coming of age, struggles with the pressures of fame. As they confront their secrets and fears, they discover surprising things about themselves and their relationships.
The reader is invited to laugh and cry with the characters and consider how to find joy in the simple things in life.
I know you felt it needed an edit. Now, first exercise – because as authors we are always told to pare our works to the essentials to heighten its effect – can you choose a 250 word extract from your book for us?
I have selected the opening of the novel. In the new version, I have established the scene and been explicit about Sophie and Jack’s IVF treatment. Initially, I hinted at something on Sophie’s mind, and Sophie appeared rather scatty, rather than worried about the IVF treatment. I aimed to contrast the idyllic setting with reality.
Here is the revised opening:
“As Sophie looked up at the sky, its vast blueness held endless possibilities. The sun caressed her back as if to welcome her to Delfryn village. Married for three years, Sophie and Jack longed for a family. A gnarled vine framed the doorway of their new home, Vine Cottage. And a wrought iron gate, decorated with gold vine leaves, showcased the entrance to a sloping rear garden. Delfryn River rushed past at the bottom of the garden, as if to nudge the winter from a slumber. Vine Cottage, a traditional Welsh stone dwelling, sat between Delfryn Abbey and Delfryn Vineyard. An overwhelming sense of tranquillity wrapped around Sophie as she admired the view.
Filled with hope, she banished the possibility of another failed fertility treatment. She helped Jack carry the coffee table. The removal men did the lion’s share of the work, but Sophie took charge of the more delicate items of furniture. Vine Cottage, contented in its lush green surroundings, welcomed her as she stepped over the threshold. Inside, everything sparkled but she would redecorate in the summer once they settled.”
I recognise the opening, but you have established a better sense of place and simplified the detail. What overall changes have you made to the complete novel?
My new version is more focused on Sophie and Jack’s story. Initially, I included lots of twists and turns but it needed tightening up. Furthermore, I ensured each chapter is from one character’s viewpoint. I have deleted chapters, removed characters and re-written the ending. Although I deleted sections, I developed the scenes and sense of place. Thus the word count is similar.
Jessie snipped, tucked and enhanced the language.
How did you go about the editing?
Initially, I re-read the book many times and moved from a general overview to the minutiae, but I ran out of magnifying glasses and my eyes were stinging. I searched in my handbag for my phone to contact the beta readers, but their comments sent me in a spin. The editor’s comments provided a detailed analysis and I snipped, tucked and enhanced the language. I went through a stage of asking myself too many questions. It helped me to place the questions in a notebook, so I could get them out of my head.
I feel thirsty just listening to all these comments about editing, Jessie. It’s hard work, isn’t it?Let’s have an aperitivo. “When in Italy…” We’ll return to editing when we’re refreshed!
Cin cin! Tell me about your day’s routine. How on earth do you fit in your own writing around the wonderful work you produce on your blog? You are so supportive of other authors.
During the week, my day commences at 7am. I interact on social media while eating my toast and drinking my builder’s tea. I think that transforming bread and water in to tea and toast is one of the miracles of life.
Editing dominates most of the day, but I reward myself with brief interaction on social media throughout the day. I have to be strict and turn off FB and Twitter. Sometimes, I allocate a time to preparing an interview or extract. Weekends and evenings are devoted to: writing blog posts, reviews, adding handbags, news and updating the website. My day ends at about midnight.
I complete editing in my study. I move around the house when I am completing the other tasks, but the garden room is my favourite alternative.
If I am wrestling with the editing, I print out some text and take it with me to my favourite coffee shop in Cardiff Bay. But the last time I did this, I ended up writing a blog post.
I find the editing process a challenge and confused myself at times.
Wow, Jessie. You’re such a hard worker. I needed the help of an editor when I got myself in a tangle with the plot of Now and Then in Tuscany. I had put the mss away for a month, but I was still in a muddle when I returned to it. My editor helped me re-shape and move chapters around. I also had to cut out about five chapters.
Yes, I still remember the pain of removing chapters. However, I worked through it slowly and realised the changes were better. Initially, I had too many twists and turns in the plot, because I got carried away with my ideas, and I wasn’t thinking about the reader. I had to read the book objectively from the reader’s viewpoint.
I found this hard too. It’s difficult to be objective. But, I was told by another writer not to throw away those chapters. They could come in useful at some time for a short story or another novel.
I felt the same way about axing chapters, and your advice helped me, Angela. I have stored the deleted scenes for the future. It is reassuring to know I can call in and visit my characters again.
What would you say was the most important writing tip you picked up during your editing process?
The key tip for an aspiring author is to get an editor as they will give you an honest, objective perspective.
Although brutal, my editor’s commentary became my companion as I worked through the editing. She noticed gaps in the narrative and alerted me to the eccentric mannerisms of my characters. For instance, Olivia spoke to her mother behind a closed door. And my characters winked at each other rather a lot. It was all clear in my wild imagination but needed clarification for the reader.
Following the editor’s advice, I pruned chapters and removed characters because they didn’t contribute anything to the narrative. I had to slay one alpha male character who resembled Rochester. This character arrived one day, but I didn’t have the heart to turn him away, at first. I have sent him packing as he was distracting me and Olivia.
Let me introduce the scoundrel:
“Finally, the door opened, and Ben was standing there in a loosely tied dressing gown. Olivia was glad of the visor on her helmet, as she was blushing. She tried not to look at Ben’s naked chest but was desperate to keep her gaze focused above his waist.”
Feel free to scream!
The downside to removing a plot or character is like pulling a thread on a garment. I don’t enjoy threading the narrative back together, as I have always been terrible at sewing. While patching up the narrative, I seem to find more holes and it drives me crazy. Sleep helps to rejuvenate my perspective in these dark winter months.
As lunch time approached, I topped up our drinks – the description of Ben had made me thirsty and hungry. In true Italian fashion, we moved on to antipasti.
Between munching and sipping, I asked Jessie what came first – writing her book or the desire to blog.
What is the motivation behind your blog, Jessie?
The book came first! I wrote the book but never intended to publish it. Tired of writing action plans, I wished to explore the story in my head. It was a joy to exchange bullet points for full sentences. My husband decided to publish the story, via Amazon, without my knowledge. Although worried, I concluded it was best to make the most of an opportunity. I am a true believer in ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be’). At this stage, I did some research, realised I needed to make contact with the reading and writing community. I loved the idea of blogging about all the books I enjoyed. I sent out my first blog, with trepidation, and didn’t expect a response. The blogging had taken over and I wrote about the adventure in a in a blog post .
You have more than 250 books in your Gallery now. And they are very varied, which is great. I have read some books from your blog that I would never have otherwise come across, which is all good. We need to continually expand our minds. But do you have a favourite book?
A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’ was ground-breaking in my reading journey. The interwoven narrative, mystery and movement between eras was thrilling. Clues about the plot are woven into the poem, and it is a book about writers. I read this novel in the eighties when up to my eyes in some rather linear narratives. I have been intrigued by the complex narratives ever since.
I placed these words, from ‘Possession’ in my handbag:
“…words have been all my life, all my life–this need is like the Spider’s need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out–the silk is her life…’
Maybe, I should return to the book again. I read this book when I was enjoying a good Victorian yarn. Nowadays, I tend to read an eclectic mix of books as indicated in my Books in my Handbag blog. Johanna Spyri’s Heidi secured my reading addiction.
The midday sun and the Prosecco had warmed us both up. Jessie removed her lovely Yorkshire cashmere jumper. She told me she’d bought it from a boutique in Wales. I found mine on a market stall in Sansepolcro. It made me think of a passage about revising and editing that I came across in one of my most useful writing text books.
“To me, the process of revising any piece of writing is about looking at the work from as many different angles as possible. It’s like holding up an object you’ve made – a pot you’ve thrown, a jumper you’ve knitted – to the light and looking or flaws and other points of view. You turn it round and examine it. You wonder how it might be different or better.” (Paul Magrs).
I chatted to Jessie about some of my own thoughts on editing:
• Share what you write with fellow authors, Beta readers and, if possible, use an editor, because after a while of going over and over your work, your eyes and brain tend to see what they want to see.
• Ask yourself if every scene, sentence, word is essential. Pare back the dead description to heighten tension. Cut out lazy clichés. But all this doesn’t mean it has to be plain and bare.
• Don’t tell the reader too much. Let them think for themselves and use their own imagination. Stendhal said: “Find out what you most want to say and then try very hard not to say it.” Be subtle.
• Be kind to yourself. The first draft is always going to be that and will inevitably need change. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Listen to others’ opinions, but don’t always follow their suggestions. If you can honestly justify to yourself why you need to keep something, then go with your instincts.
• Read your own work out loud. Note where you stumble over a phrase. Your reader will probably do the same.
• Be prepared for the fact you will have to go back and forth while editing, to make the shape of your book as perfect as you can get it., between the “small detail that makes the novel real”(James Friel) and “the general shape that holds all these details in place”. Think about whether the dialogue is convincing – do your characters talk like people? Can you visualise them or chat to them? Are the events in the plot relevant and logical?
• Know when to stop.
Your points are a helpful, succinct guide. I have printed them off to keep me on track the next time I am editing, as I found it an agonising process. I wrote the initial book in a couple of months, but it took far, far longer to edit. Editing was like wading through mud, at times! Hopefully, it will be easier next time. However, listening to you and others comment about the process really helps. I feel as if my Handbag Gallery is a room full of supportive authors. Your emails asking about the editing and prompting me to stop have kept me on task. Little did I know how poignantly the title of my book “You Can’t Go It Alone” would apply be to the writing process.
Jessie, I could keep you here all day and chat. Let’s go for a walk and pick you some Tuscan flowers. Thanks so, so much for coming here to Tuscany. I wish you every success with your debut novel. When you wrote your review for me this time last year, it made me cry. You so got what I was trying to put over and that was like manna to me. I bless the day we met.
About Jessie Cahalin
Jessie is a bookish blogger, word warrior and intrepid virtual explorer. She loves to entertain with stories, and is never seen without: her camera, phone, notebook and handbag. Fellow authors have deemed her ‘creative and quirky’ and she wears these words like a blogging badge of honour.
Having overcome her fear of self-publishing, she is now living the dream of introducing the characters who have been hassling her for decades. Her debut novel, “You Can’t Go It Alone” , is a heart-warming tale about the challenges women still face in society. The novel has light-hearted moments and presents hope. As C. S. Lewis said, ‘We read to know we are not alone.’
Connecting with authors via her Books in Her Handbag Blog is a blast. She showcases authors’ books in the popular Handbag Gallery and has fun meeting authors in her virtual world. Communicating with her authors, still gives Jessie a creative buzz.
Jessie Cahalin hails from Yorkshire, but as a book blogger, she has realised that her country of origin is probably The World. She loves to travel the world and collects cultural gems like a magpie. She searches for happy endings, where possible, and needs great coffee, food and music to give her inspiration.
Available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon and the new edition is waiting for a new handbag.
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