I read (funny term for a writing course) journalism at university because I was tired of the bad rap journalists were getting. I didn't know whether or not there was any genuine corruption in the system—although reading some of the tripe passed off as news to the proletariat made it hard to believe otherwise—but I was determined to do my bit to redress the balance. So I studied journalism, received above-average grades, generally impressed my tutors with my grasp of the language, and proceeded to find not a notepaper's worth of work since.
Now I work for Hills & Moon. This is a publishing house with an unorthodox business model. The company puts out small, generic, mildly erotic novels: the sort with just enough sauce and simple enough plots to keep middle-aged, bored housewives believing they're being risqué and coming back for more. Each book is credited to an author who doesn't exist—the actual books are written by a team of failed authors and journalists and other such creative types.
A new book starts today. There is just a small team of six for this one. Teams are usually between two and twenty, depending on the imminence of the deadline, the profile of the "author", and various other business-related factors we mere writers are too under-educated to understand. Anyway, today five others and I are starting a new story under the assumed pen name Ian Jackson, a new but promising author in the Hills & Moon line-up.
New projects are the highlight of the job. Besides the obvious creative outlet afforded by a blank slate, the process under which we work is interesting as well. There is an internal writing team who churn out plots, frameworks against which we write books. Each "author" has his own formula, or possibly two for a high-profile author. They're all the same basic idea: woman meets man, woman has erotic but unfulfilling relationship with man, man dumps woman, woman goes on bender, woman returns to long-term male friend full of enlightenment about his romantic advances, woman realises hitherto undiscovered feelings for long-term male friend, woman and long-term male friend enter long-term fulfilling relationship. That sort of thing. Adjust a few things here and there, tweak the knobs on the intensity of feelings and levels of eroticism, change the bender to a respectable séjour, and there's the next book, ready for the slavering maws of the listless classes. The main character is always female and always learns some character-building lesson, but not without having some generic fantasy sex with some plastic fantasy man first.
So a new book starts with the next plot already laid out. It's very vague, but the important characters are already sketched out and the story, such as it is, is written. Our job is to fill in the details. This involves a fair amount of collaboration among the team to maintain consistency, but by and large we write fairly large parts of the book independently, especially at the start. This is when we each are given a section of the book to write—two or three chapters each for a team this size—so we get on with it at a fair rate.
When I arrive at the office, then, I'm sent to the room I'll be working in for the next few weeks. Each office has five rows of four desks—which is why there's the twenty-person limit—and at the front sits the manager for this book. His role in this story is to collaborate all the work we produce and make sure it makes sense as it arrives. The upper echelons of management, however, don't favour overstaffing our company, so overseeing a writing project is only part of each manager's workload, what with administrating employees, various communications with the executives, reorganising filing cabinets—who knows what they do. Anyway, this means the managers give only the most cursory of attention to each revision to the manuscript before editing it into the master copy. Occasionally the manager passes the manuscript to the proofreaders and editors, who either give it the OK or send it back with annotations, but mostly we get on with it uninterrupted until it's ready.
We each sit at our desks with two copies of the manuscript. The desks have a number of features worth noting at this point. The first thing is the two spaces where the manuscripts are kept. In one is kept a copy of the master document, the one on the manager's desk. This only changes when his does. The next is an evolving one, covered in notes and annotations and chopped up to our hearts' content. This one we can discard at any time and replace it with a fresh copy of the master document. Don't worry: all the paper is recycled into grocers' bags!
Finally on the desk are a few recesses, one of which contains a pad of headed notepaper. This paper also sports a few formal boxes, and each sheet has a serial number printed on it. These are our revision papers, on which we put our official, final amendments to the story.
The process of work goes like this. We receive two copies of the master document, as described already.
I probably shouldn't really be writing this down. It probably counts as trade secrets. But I am a journalist at heart, and this is my journal, so as long as I don't publish it I suppose I should be OK.
Anyway, two copies. One to scribble on. At the start of the project we all know what we have to do and can work fairly autonomously so we start adapting the manuscript, which at this point only contains the bare-bones framework of the story. We can do as much as we like to the second copy of the manuscript because the only things that actually get accepted are the things written on the serialised notepaper.
So now you should have an image in your mind of six people bent over their desks, peeling off pieces of notepaper and stacking them into one of the other recesses on the desk.
Each filled piece of notepaper is called a revision, since it describes a change to the manuscript. The forms on the sheets include a space to write down the serial number of the previous piece. This is because revisions sometimes apply to other revisions, but since we've already written the other one down it's easier to amend it than to rewrite it. That means that the order is important.
Sometimes we do rewrite a revision, but all that involves is taking a new sheet, writing the new content on it, and replacing the old one with it. This simply means that the sequence of numbers is interrupted, so it's always valuable to know which other revision your new revision is based on.
The interesting part here is that the manuscript also has a serial number. It is the serial number of the last revision that was applied to it. Today at the desk, with our fresh manuscript, its number is zero. I have the first desk, so my notepad has a sheet at the top with the serial number 001-0000-0001. We can get through thousands of revisions before a book is ready.
As we write the story our stacks of revisions grow. My job today is the third chapter, in which the lonely housewife is tiring of her husband being constantly away on business and her friend introduces her to the man who will be her wild, sexually-charged affair. I have to build a generic, toned male character, a sort of bronze Baywatch type, and not allow him to have so much personality that he actually becomes a romantic interest. Nothing new here. Occasionally I will try a new idea, so I will put the revision papers in a new stack. The bottom one will be based on the top of the first stack, so if I like how it goes I can just shove it on top. If I don't, I can just throw the stack away to become bags of apples.
Eventually the six of us have written a sixth of the book each. We know it's not perfect, but we're encouraged to get some meat on the skeleton, since later we can revise it further after a bit of collaboration and discussion. Ideas often come better in groups. So there's no point writing what you think is a masterpiece if it's only going to be updated by someone else who imbued your characters with an unnecessary amount of intelligence in their own section. So we write generically, then step back and look at what we have.
I've finished my chapter now, so I'm going to take my revisions to the manager. I stack up the papers and staple them together. We have this amazing stapler for the job—you should see it. It can literally staple a stack of papers three fingers thick without complaint. As long as we keep the staples out of the content of the revisions it is ideal. Now I have a wad of paper, only about one finger thick, containing a list of revisions to make to the manuscript. The manager will go through them and perform the most boring part of his job, which is to apply each revision to the manuscript.
This takes time, so I make a cup of tea.
There is no drinking or eating at the desks. A kitchen area is provided.
By the time the kettle's boiled the manager is halfway through. By the time the tea has cooled enough for me to start it, he's nearly done. By the time I've actually drunk it, he's not only finished but has printed off a new copy of the master document and replaced the one at his desk with it.
Since I gave him some revisions he has also printed a new copy for me, because I will continue work based on this new copy. And, of course, he has printed a second copy for me to maim wantonly.
The manuscript proudly bears the serial number 001-0000-0054. I wrote fifty-four revisions to complete chapter three.
The process works well, really. It is difficult to apprehend, but I do appreciate that we can work on a section of the book independently of others. I'm writing chapter three. I don't really care what the writers of chapters two and four are going to write, because we have a framework that should guide the plot. The first version is always going to be segmented anyway, so it means we can plaster over the cracks later on and align the story with itself after the first reading.
We've been doing this so long that we can basically preempt what each other is going to do anyway, since a formula is a formula and the story can only really go one way.
Next I'm doing chapter seven. I don't know why I'm not doing chapter nine. That is another one of those things the powers that be decide we are not worthy to know. Clearly they know better than us how to run a ghost writer circus or else we'd be running it instead.
I work on chapter seven similarly to chapter three. The husband is on a protracted session away from home and the affair is taking her to Majorca or Minorca or somewhere. Details. Anyway, there's a raunchy sex scene on the train—Budapest, that was it. Orient Express—and too much wine is drunk and there's this heart-to-heart except it isn't because neither of them has one. Well, maybe that's unfair to the characters, but at this point it's all about lust, and that's not a heart thing.
Meanwhile I can hear my colleagues trekking back and forth to the manager's desk and the tea kitchen (coffee is also available) with their stacks of revisions, performing the awkward bit of the process, which I'll get to next. It is inevitable that I will have to do this bit as well, because this part is what happens when someone else has submitted revisions before you.
Remember how we're all working in parallel? Well since I wrote chapter three and had 001-0000-0054 emblazoned upon the official master document (a pristine copy of which still resides on my desk), everyone else has written their chapters as well. Six chapters are now incorporated into our story, and six more are being written. This means that the manuscript on the manager's desk no longer has my serial number on it. I happen to have been paying enough attention to see that desk 4 submitted his chapter last, and that was chapter two.
(I make no pretense of understanding the distribution of work in this office.)
This means that the serial number of the manuscript starts 004. It also means that the last revision was for chapter two, even though chapter two is earlier in the book than mine.
This works because another part of the form on each revision states where in the book the revision takes place. On each of my chapter three revisions I simply took the page number with CHAPTER THREE written on it in revision zero (remember that?) and wrote it on revision 001-0000-0001. This tells the manager that revision 001-0000-0001 goes on that page. Each subsequent revision refers to the page, paragraph, sentence and/or word numbers required to identify the location of that revision in the document. So revision 001-0000-0002's location was the position of CHAPTER THREE, plus the number of paragraphs in 001-0000-0001.
This is very flexible, since it means you can literally amend anything from a single letter to an entire chapter just by filling in the relevant parts of the form and submitting your revision.
Now comes the hard part.
All the work I just did on chapter seven is based on the fact that CHAPTER SEVEN is written on page 178.
In revision zero it was written on page 65, but I added a bunch of pages when I wrote chapter three, so my copy of the manuscript labelled 001-0000-0054 has it on page 178.
Trouble is, if I submit my revisions to the manager now, he's going to reject them, because the first one (001-0000-0055) says it is based on 001-0000-0054. The manager has changed things considerably since then, so he's not prepared to even consider it. He's busy, remember? He can't deal with that sort of thing. That's our job.
The master document's last revision is that one from chapter two that starts 004. I only knew it started 004 because desk 4 submitted it. I don't know what the rest of the manuscript looks like; especially not where CHAPTER SEVEN has got to.
I need to update my manuscript.
I ask the manager for a new copy. He obliges, and sure enough, the manuscript's serial number is 004-0000-0086. Desk four took eighty-six revisions to write chapter two. No wonder he submitted last.
Since I know nothing after chapter six has been touched, I can simply do two things.
First, I will find where CHAPTER SEVEN is and amend the form on revision 001-0000-0055, the first part of chapter seven, to reflect the new page number.
The second thing I will do is change the form on that same revision to say that it is actually based on 004-0000-0086. This is a simple process, because remember that revision 001-0000-0056 is based on 001-0000-0055, and the manager doesn't know about that one yet.
Now I can give everything a once-over to make sure no one's snuck anything in the original document inside chapter seven (otherwise the revisions I made would not make sense!), and re-submit my work.
I make another cup of tea because the manager is incorporating my work. All I had to do was say that my first revision sheet in chapter seven was based on the master document, and not my ancient copy of it, and it was all fine.
The manager is strict, but we avoid lots of problems this way. Otherwise he'd have to spend time trying to figure out how to make what we're telling him to do work with what actually exists. That's the job of the creative team—the writers—not the managerial team. Imagine letting managers try to decide which of two versions of a story makes the book better! It would be a disaster. Simpler not to look, and to just make us rewrite the second version that comes along.
The manager finishes creating the copy with chapter seven in it, but there's little time to complete the next part today. The major part of both chapter three and chapter seven are already complete, and I have time to read over the whole manuscript and identify inconsistencies in the plot, awkward scenes, contrived scenarios, not-contrived-enough scenarios and generally give our current progress a once-over to see how we're getting on. I fill in a few revision sheets, but I keep them on my desk. They're just private musings at the moment, and I might never send them out.
With a few notes on my desk, and more ideas rattling around my head, I fetch my jacket and wander home to let my subconscious sort my thoughts out for me.