Editing and The Synapse Sequence
By Daniel Godfrey
That was the name of New Pompeii in its original draft form, moving briefly through its title of Novus Pompeii on submission to agents. But I jump ahead of myself: the first draft was called The Arena, and it was the thing I hoped would secure me a deal.
I’ve heard a few unpublished writers talk about editing, and I heard one thing in particular recently that prompted this blog post: It’s just the way I want it. If someone else makes me change it, then it won’t be mine. I think this attitude is completely understandable. A novel takes a long time to write. You work on it on your own, and each bit of it is worked and re-worked until you’re completely happy with it. And changes cause waves. A simple alteration can cause problems across multiple chapters. A large change can be disastrous.
I’d written several novels before The Arena, but the two immediately preceding it were called The Locked Book (about a book haunted by the devil falling into the hands of a child) and Johnny Max and the Panther’s Skull (a treasure hunt, a bit like a modern Famous Five, which I went on to self-publish). Both of these had been sent to Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and I’d been pleased with the advice and feedback received (even though they’d rightly identified the main ideas weren’t innovative enough to attract a publisher). It therefore seemed natural to send The Arena to them for comment.
I waited for several weeks, and then the verdict came. It wasn’t entirely what I was hoping for. Cornerstones had boiled The Arena down to its three most important points, and given their verdict on each:
- A form of time travel has been invented – while it’s impossible to go back in time or to travel forwards without help, it’s possible to transport people from the past into the present. GREAT!
- The population of Pompeii has been transported, bringing living Romans into the modern world. GREAT!
- People transported as described in point 1 are killed in arenas for sport. FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED.
The main character (Nick Houghton) in The Arena was very different from that which appears in New Pompeii. He was a customer of the nefarious company (NovusPart) behind the time-travel tech, visiting ‘arenas’ where he paid to shoot people for sport: people who had been transported into the present from disaster sites in the past. The ethical issues of this are dismissed as “they are already dead”, but people who play at the arenas are social pariahs. Nick is frightened he’ll be found out – and that’s how he is sucked into NovusPart’s scheme. Chapter one of The Arena was Nick engaging in the game at the Arena, and shooting people.
Now, if you’ve read New Pompeii (and I’m hoping you have!) you’ll probably realise that the above was re-tooled and used in a different way in the final novel. But Cornerstones’s main conclusions were that, whilst the time travel and Roman aspects of the novel were interesting and would be attractive to publishers, the third component severely weakened the story.
But that would take me ages to fix! It’ll mean a complete re-write! OH MY GOD IT’S OVER!
I put the manuscript and Cornerstones report in a drawer, waited a few weeks, and then came back to it. They were right. I knew they were right. Nick’s character was unbalanced, unsympathetic, and hadn’t worked as I intended. I could do better.
It took me a long time, but I re-worked the story and found new ways to approach the central ideas of a Roman town being transported into the present. The conspiracy darkened, the alternate timelines became clearer – and Novus Pompeii was finished. Of course, that wasn’t the end of it: both my agent and publisher also wanted important changes. But turning Novus Pompeii into New Pompeii was nowhere near as traumatic because an attitude within me had changed. This was still my book: but I also understood now that everyone working with me all wanted my book to be the best it could be.
It was still hard work…
…but I’m glad I made the effort. New Pompeii found an agent, and a publisher. It was released in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, and has since been translated into Czech and Hungarian. It was included in both the Financial Times’ and Morning Star’s “Books of 2016” lists. It got good reviews in The Sun, SFX, Starburst magazine, and a whole host of blogs. It was shortlisted for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards.
It had posters on the London Underground. And I got to write a sequel, Empire of Time, and my third novel, The Synapse Sequence, which came out in June 2018.
And at the end of each edit, I’m always immensely grateful for the insights offered by those who have worked with me on these books. For pointing out the flaws; for suggesting how things could be done better. It’s been a hell of a ride. Cheers!