WRITING FEATURE The Lure of a Past Love

SCBWI-BI author Barbara Henderson shares the ups and downs of returning to an old manuscript.

Like many of you, I have been writing for quite some time. Like many of you, my computer folders (and physical desk drawers) are bursting with earlier work – tales which were lovingly crafted at the time, sent away, rejected by the panoply of literary gatekeepers and shelved as I eventually outgrew them.
Barbara's unpublished manuscripts

Sound familiar?

By the time my fifth novel-length manuscript, Fir for Luck came along, I had written a LOT of words, had masses of feedback, and had learned a thing or two from the publishers and agents I had been in contact with. My writing had got a bit better and I struck gold – a small independent publisher wanted to take me on, and I jumped at the chance. A year later, they also published my next historical novel, the Victorian adventure Punch. Like Fir for Luck, it was set in Scotland and fitted well with their yesteryear series.

‘Have you got anything else?’ they asked.

acceptance was only slightly likelier than meeting a unicorn on your supermarket run

Oh, boy, did I ever. I fired them my firm favourite out of my early work, the eco-thriller Wilderness Wars. With its Scottish island setting and its eco-theme, I thought it was my best chance of a winner. The answer was swift. No. Oh well. By then, I was so blunted by rebuffs from publishers that, honestly, it didn’t even hurt that much. Rejection was normal; acceptance was only slightly likelier than meeting a unicorn on your supermarket run. I threw myself into another historical project which was sure to be a better fit. Until the email, a few months later.

‘You know that wilderness book you sent us a few months ago. Could we take another look?’

I checked over my shoulder for unicorns, but no, this was really happening. With only another cursory glance over the MS, I sent it off, not quite knowing how to feel. A couple of weeks later they said yes, they were considering branching into non-historical for their children’s books, and that they would take it. They would TAKE IT! With a handful of pointers of how to improve the manuscript, I set to work.

a million unrelated images and that overwrought, overcomplicated sentence structure

Thankfully, I was still in love with the story, but there was one very unwelcome realisation: my writing pretty much sucked. You know that early stage, with a million unrelated images and that overwrought, overcomplicated sentence structure? That! I loved the characters, I loved the story, I even loved some of the writing, but every couple of paragraphs or so, there was a clanger of a sentence that brought on early-onset hot flushes. Gritting my teeth, I went to work. The book badly needed some humour (danger and jeopardy will only get you so far), so I added in a Houdini-hamster and some bagpipes. Chapter by chapter, needless adjectives were devoured by my delete button. Leaner, better, tighter, I hoped, pressing ‘send’ back to the publishers.

And that’s where this story should end. However, the publishers’ answer was not what I had bargained for.

‘Well, Barbara, yes… you have made a lot of progress, but… we think the first three chapters have to go.’

I feel a fainting fit coming on!

‘And don’t take this the wrong way, but a lot of your language is still quite over-the-top.’


‘And we need this book to reflect where you are as a writer now, not where you were in 2013, so there is a lot of work still to do.’

This, ladies and gentlemen, was the understatement of the year. The editing effort for Wilderness Wars easily doubled what I had to do for Fir for Luck or Punch. It was savage, brutal, and I asked myself on more than one occasion why-oh-why I ever suggested this terrible book! I lost sight of what I had and hadn’t chopped out, wept over newly-lost chapters which were once integral to the story, wondered what had ever drawn me to the concept of nature fighting back. But honestly, now that the finished product is before me, I am so glad that we stuck it out, my editor and me! There was something worth saving here, something worthy of love: a story worth telling.

Do you have a past love still lingering in your documents folder? A story you have given up on, but that still has a claim on your heart? Your head thinks it’s over. Don’t be so sure!

Wilderness Wars cover illustration: Seascape by Vadym Prokhorenko

Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991,  acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. She now teaches drama, but if you dig deep in her past you will find she has earned her crust as a puppeteer, librarian and receptionist among others. Barbara's new book, Wilderness Wars, was published by Cranachan on 9th August. Her Highland Clearances novel, Fir for Luck, and her Victorian boy-on-the-run tale Punch are also published by Cranachan.

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