I always think it’s fascinating to get an insight ‘behind the scenes’ into the process which brings a book from a concept to the finished article, ready to be read and enjoyed. House of Windows is Alexia Casale’s second young adult novel, published by Faber, who also published her highly-acclaimed debut The Bone Dragon, and, as I mentioned on the podcast, is the story of Nick, who heads to university at the age of 15. That university is Cambridge and soon he is selected to cox for the college rowing crew, and things take an interesting turn.
Not only was my interest grabbed by those plot points, but Alexia has kindly written a brilliant article which introduces the way in which House of Windows has been shaped by herself as the author but also by the editorial team at Faber, and what that process has been like. It’s illuminating reading for anyone, but especially for any budding writers out there.
Writing, Editing & Compromising – Alexia Casale
There is often insufficient recognition of the fact that while authors draft their own work, agents and editors have a huge impact on the shape of published books. I was so lucky to be taken on by the fantastic, and very lovely, Rebecca Lee of Faber & Faber for The Bone Dragon – and for her to buy House of Windows from some sample pages and a synopsis. The Faber team is made up of incredibly talented people and it’s a privilege to get to work with them in so many ways.
One of the simplest ones to point to is the fantastic cover art by Helen Crawford-White. Even though the books are very different, the style suits both in their own way. Such great care has gone into the production of the books – the page setting is gorgeous and I love the scene-break ornament in The Bone Dragon just as I love how carefully they’ve laid out the mathematical chapter headings in House of Windows. With House of Windows I also love the maps that Faber commissioned from artist Nathalie Giunamard. It really makes a difference to have some context for all the description – and it also makes it easy for people to skip some of the Cambridge info if they’re not enjoying it.
The description is one of the things that we debated at length during edits. Faber requested that I add very substantially to the descriptive passages as my first draft had only a few scattered scenes where there was substantial detail. In The Bone Dragon, there’s a lot of description but all of it moves the plot forwards. Every time Evie goes out with the Dragon we learn something new that explain where the book ends. Moreover, the description isn’t factual. Everything the reader sees is filtered through Evie’s eyes. We notice what she chooses to notice and we skip over what she refuses to acknowledge. Evie needs the fens to be beautiful and magical, so that is what we get in her descriptions. We don’t get the abandoned beer cans and the condoms tucked under the hedges and the cigarette butts polluting the puddles, or the terrible smell of all that standing water and mud.
In House of Windows, my instinct was to let people look up pictures of Cambridge for themselves and only describe the things that were important to the plot. I also launched into almost every scene in medias res – mostly in the middle of conversations. For me this was about only putting in what was strictly necessary to tell the story. But for my editorial team this missed an opportunity to let the beautiful and fascinating setting shine. I love Cambridge and I could sit and write descriptions of it until everyone else is blue in the face, so it was no hardship to be asked to add. And then add some more. And then add some more. For my own taste, I would cut a solid 12 pages of description that I think is nicely done and illuminates Cambridge as a place, but isn’t anything more than prettily worded fact. But I can see that some people are likely to love all the description. That’s the thing about literary taste: it’s a broad continuum and no two people will always agree. I’m a ‘don’t tell me unless it’s vital’ sort of reader and that informs my writing. But that’s me and my taste. An editor’s job is to say what will work for the most people and I did my best to listen – up to a point – and I added a significant amount of description. After all, it’s quite a compliment for an editor to say add instead of cut!
I also appreciate Rebecca’s argument for scene-setting rather than throwing readers in at the deep end. Again, this is my preference – my taste – as both reader and writer… but it’s by no means everyone else’s. There are a few scene introductions that I would prefer to cut, but I can see the value in most of them: they make the book an easier, if longer, read. Again, it’s about compromise – about listening to the top-notch feedback that talented people gave me and making a compromise between what I prefer as a writer and what the maximum number of readers are likely to enjoy. At the same time, it’s impossible to hit exactly the right mark for everyone – which is precisely why it’s so critical that it’s not just the author who works on the ‘balance’ in a book. Three heads (author, agent and editor) are definitely better than one.
A lot of these differences of opinion revolved around my aesthetic for third person narratives. Personally, I think description in third person narratives often strays towards telling rather than showing. In that sense, first person is easier because everything is showing by its nature.
A related issue is my dislike of interpretive description in third person narratives. Who is interpreting? Why are we getting interpretation when we’re outside the character’s head? It feels like cheating to me. Different narrative perspectives have different pros and cons but if you bend the rules too much you can’t then turn around and use the strictures of those rules to create subtext. The Bone Dragon relies on the fact that everything in the book is Evie’s interpretation of the world. It would fall apart if I included anything that Evie couldn’t possibly know or understand. When I wanted to show that she’s interpreting other people’s actions incorrectly, I had to find sneaky ways of indicating that all is not as it seems: I couldn’t just tell the reader.
House of Windows places the reader outside the characters’ heads as an observer, and yet I’ve tried to use subtext to make it clear why the characters act as they do… and to help readers guess the likely outcome of their stupider choices. I play a lot on the fact that the reader knows what’s going to happen before the characters in a lot of cases: it creates a particular type of suspense that I love as a reader. But it wouldn’t work if the narrative interpreted too much or too obviously. We’re only entitled to interpretation from inside a character’s head.
And in House of Windows we have to be outside because, unlike Evie, Nick is not an emotionally intelligent person. He doesn’t understand what he’s thinking and feeling half the time, let alone how others are feeling. His thought process is much more like nonsensical muttering than the actual mumbling he does. It’s one of the reasons he mumbles in the first place: he can’t sort stuff out in his head. Rather he has to vocalise it before he can even begin to decipher it. Why would we want to be in the head of a person like that? Not to mention the fact that he is a fifteen year old boy. If we were in his head, there would be a lot of stuff about sex and his penis – something Nick and I both agreed we’d rather avoid.
Unlike with The Bone Dragon, there are things I would change about House of Windows for my own taste, but at the same time I trust my editorial team to help me strike the balance that gives the book the best possible chance of appealing to the largest number of people. There are rarely right and wrong choices in writing: when there are, authors must have the creative integrity to pick what they feel is right for them. But when it comes to balance, it’s important to listen and to understand that the writer can never be purely a reader – the writer’s understanding of a book is always going to be unique. Think about it like this: sometimes when you’re cooking you end up tasting something so many times you honestly can’t tell if there’s enough salt or not. So you bring in someone with a decent palate and see what they think. Of course, you need to trust your own judgement, but you also need to listen. There are some things a writer can’t see objectively. That’s why we need agents and editors so much: to help us trust when we’re blind so that we can listen.
Thanks so much Alexia for that really interesting article, and a reminder that House of Windows and The Bone Dragon are both out now in paperback, published by Faber!