The problem with McGuffins

Editing is a bugger. Over the whole life of a manuscript – from inception to release – the actual writing will take only a fraction of your time. The thinking is what takes the hours, closely followed by time procrastinating or spent staring blankly at the screen.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you were sure that your reworking was improving the work. Unfortunately it takes another person – or at least a fair bit of time (making yourself the other person) – to really tell you if your changes have worked or not. It’s easy to get yourself out of one narrative-hole by creating others, or by subtly undermining your own edifice by removing one ill-fitting, rotten old plank without properly shoring up the area.

After my last draft of Night Shift I went away and looked at the outline of the novel as a whole, cross-referenced with my reader’s comments. I spent time ironing out the problems she’d highlighted – a lot of time, and a lot of caffeine. There was a point in the plot where a body is found. Great – no problem with that. But as I thought on I realised that certain characters needed to know where the body was in the first place. I’d had a vague idea of this, but I saw that I really needed to know what my characters had been doing behind my back.

So I created a McGuffin. A trail for them to follow. A logical and sensible progression that led from a character’s room to the Antarctic wilderness.

And that’s great, but now I have the McGuffin to deal with. I’d created a tablet (the electronic kind), upon which a message, ostensibly from the protagonist, had been left to draw the victim to his death. Having created this I’ve realised that this evidence could be used repeatedly ‘downstream’ and could be a useful prop upon which to hang more tension.

I can see that this idea has potential – but to add a thing like this into the 9th draft of a novel is problematic. I’m having to constantly add references to it, to explain it away, to make it both significant and magnificently unimportant – whilst it’s not quite a red-herring, it’s not integral to the wider plot so I don’t want to overstate its importance.

Perhaps more of a problem is that I’m wracked with self-doubt. As I’ve said before, this draft consists of a major structural re-working. I’ve been adding, deleting and moving scenes. The only way is onwards, but I’m losing track of my own novel. I’m struggling to keep faith with my changes. I’m determined not to be lazy, not just to do the minimum effort to please this reader; I want to strengthen even scenes that had been praised previously.

But am I going too far? Am I ultimately undermining the novel as a whole, making it awkward and unwieldy?

I’ve already determined that I need a ‘draft 9a’ where I got through the text again and try and see the damn thing from an objective perspective.

But it never gets any easier. Each draft, each layer of repointing, is a confusion and a doubt. Which is where beta-readers come in; it sure helps when you’ve someone else to reassure you that what you’ve done is okay. Preferably before it goes out into the wider commercial world.


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