The Difficulties of Revising A Book Under Contract
A Peek Behind The Scenes Of Publishing
By Peter Lourie
To give some sense of how I work with a publisher to get a book in shape for publication, I’ll relate a small tale about my first imaginings of the structure of Locked in Ice and how the actual structure changed for clarity’s sake (especially for a younger audience). This was a struggle.
Since I was writing a book about Nansen’s great polar adventure, I had always imagined I’d start on March 14, 1895, en medias res, in the middle of his great three-year survival adventure when Nansen and his companion Johansen knew they would not reach the pole in their ship, the Fram, locked in ice drifting in the ice pack on the currents. They knew they would now have to make a dash for the top of the world.
This seemed like a totally action-packed great place to begin the story. I’d then double back and tell how Nansen got to that point, then when I’d reached that day again, I’d move forward for the bulk of the book to the incredible end of the story.
To engage the reader at the outset, the opening scene would be all action. On that day, after Nansen’s ship for nearly two years had been hopelessly drifting locked in the pack ice at two miles a day toward the North Pole, Nansen, restless to finally get back into action, along with another member of his 12-man crew, Hjalmar Johansen, who was slightly hesitant to travel with the overly formal and often-moody boss (the crew called Nansen “Himself” because they thought him arrogant the way he often thought he was right about everything), together they would make a mad dash to the pole, more than 300 miles away.
I wanted to write about Nansen and Johansen abandoning their ship for good and taking three sleds with only 1500 lbs of food and gear—enough to support two humans for a hundred days and twenty-eight sled dogs for only fifty days—knowing full well they’d have to kill the weaker dogs and feed them to the stronger dogs if they were going to get to the pole and then back again to some firm land before the ice split up.
On top of their gear they lashed two small canvas-covered kayaks so they could paddle when the ice turned to water.
When I first thought of this story as a book, I’d always had that part of the adventure as my opening scene. I’d write the whole book alternating between the present and the past, chapter by chapter. Action chapters would be sandwiched by all the wonderful material about Nansen’s early life and then his journey on the Fram leading up to March 14, 1895. That way, I could keep a good brisk pace while delving into Nansen’s compelling backstory.
I wrote the first hundred-page draft exactly as planned. By the end, it was clear that my first attempt at the structure, seesawing from present to past and then back, had failed miserably.
It was a good idea in theory but when my editor saw the draft, she said it was way too confusing for kids. She had a point. What to me was clearly just a little back and forth in time would be pretty obscure to young readers who prefer straight-line chronology.
She also wanted me to tone down the actual dog-killing scenes. Did the kids really need to know that Johansen sliced the throats of the dogs or strangled them to save ammunition? One of my early readers thought I’d created a bit of a Heart of Darkness descent into madness that actually gave the story a certain grim power (for adults), but I was told that sort of thing can be a bit much for kids…
I grumbled a little at having to revise, and I still didn’t agree with my editor about going completely chronological because so many kids’ books today start with action, and I felt I needed action to grab the young reader. So, at the very least, I stubbornly tried keeping the en-medias-res opening with the two explorers leaving the ship but followed with a much shorter section of backstory before (relatively) quickly jump back into the adventure of March 14. From there on, I kept the adventure purely chronological, all the way to the end. I called the opening scene Prologue so it’d be obvious it was out of place but jumped into things to give a taste of what lay ahead.
But now I had an introduction AND a prologue before the book begins with Nansen as a young boy getting his first pair of skis. And my editor stopped mentioning her original idea to keep the biography totally chronological and start with Nansen as a boy learning to ski. While that might have been the most logical way to do it, I thought it was also the most boring. I didn’t want this to be just a typical biography. The whole point of writing the book was to dive into the adventure and then put the boring filler early-bio stuff in after I’d created a dramatic scene. If I could engage the reader’s heart and sense of adventure first, then they’d have the patience to learn the backstory later.
But when the copy editor got the book, only a month or two til publication, she said the three-page introduction did the trick of enticing the reader, and that to have a prologue after an introduction was redundant and that I should do the whole darn book chronologically and save the action of the prologue for where it belonged in the story of Nansen’s life and adventure, on page 90. Ugh.
Okay, okay, I thought, two editors are saying the same thing….let’s just hope the little 3-page Intro can make people interested enough so they’ll want to get through the bio stuff and all the way to the “better” action stuff on March 14, 1895. You know, the part where Nansen sets sets out toward the pole on what seemed like a sure-death mission.
After five years of writing and 10 months of recent back-and-forth revision, that’s the version of the story that went to bookstores.
In the end, I chose to trust the expertise of my editors and prioritize narrative clarity and order. Because Locked In Ice is an unusual hybrid of conventional biography and riveting adventure reportage, I believe it works. But it definitely took me some time to come around to the idea.What I have now is a composite of my original vision. And like some alloys, the fusion of these metals I pray imparts a synergistic property it would not have had in its original.
Readers will be the judges. Sometimes I start a book thinking it’ll go like this or that or it’ll follow this structure or that pacing, and then I work through new ideas and the input of editors, and the book slowly takes shape.
It’s a difficult process to share something you’ve been working on for half a decade and let someone else make major alterations, but in the end, that outside perspective can make all the difference.
This is just one example of a much more complex set of always-evolving edits that is revision
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A spellbinding biography of Fridtjof Nansen, the pioneer of Polar exploration, with a spotlight on his harrowing three-year journey to the top of the world. Before Shackleton, there was Nansen.