I have in front of me, as I write, a thin red exercise book costing 30p from my local newsagent.
Dated 9th May 1989, it contains the initial thoughts and plans for a novel about a man with amnesia, which would become – over thirty years later – Room 15.
Many of us go around most of the time with a positive feeling about ourselves. We’re intelligent, likeable, generous, upstanding and more or less a good lot.
Then every now and then we are brought up short with a nasty shock. We see our real flaws. We realise we have the power to hurt and the temptation to do just that.
This started me thinking.
Do we, perhaps, have a wilful amnesia about some sides of ourselves? Do we conveniently forget some of the things we do? And what might happen when we are forced to confront that forgetting?
Already, in these early notes, I had decided the protagonist would be a detective. What could be more important to a detective than his memory? And what more frightening than losing it and finding yourself surrounded by people, all of whom know more about you than you do?
Including a killer…
Ross Blackleigh, as he became, was a detective inspector, but he couldn’t remember the past eighteen months of his life. He found himself standing one night in the snow with no memory of where he was or why he was there. And he was terrified.
Around this scene, a plot began to create itself. Or rather two parallel plots.
There was an investigation into a murder. A murder that he may have witnessed – possibly causing the amnesia.
And then there was an investigation into his own mind. Who he really was. Who he’d been for the missing year and a half of his life.
However, some parts of the story didn’t work and at that stage I didn’t have the experience to fix them.
I tried it as a novel, I tried it as a feature film script. I put it to one side, but something kept nagging me about it. Over the years, I took the drafts out again, fiddled with them, put them back unresolved.
Finish it or bin it.
Finally, three years ago, I decided it was time to decide – finish it or bin it. So, I turned to the highly experienced editor Lucy Ridout, who had edited my first novel, The Breaking of Liam Glass.
Lucy first performed a stage 1 “structural” edit. In a structural edit, the key questions are those of plot and character. Does the story work? Are the characters right? Does the story flow well and in the right order?
This might sound as if it trod on my artistic toes, but in fact a good editor focuses on helping an author do what he wants to do, but better. And I could always choose to accept or not.
Like all the editors, however, she was quick to praise any parts she liked. It’s always nice to find an editor going “oooh” at a surprising twist or putting a nice big tick beside a particularly strong exchange of dialogue. (It’s also good psychology on her part, making me feel less bruised and more likely to agree to suggested changes).
This was followed by a stage 2 “copy edit” with detailed suggestions and queries about anything down to the level of individual words. Again, it always came down to my decision in the end.
Not there yet
After this, I felt that the manuscript was as good as I could make it, but things were not to be so easy. Initial readers liked it, but something still didn’t quite work – and my gut feeling was that it was connected to the characters.
By now, Lucy was too close to give a detached reading, so I was recommended to another highly experienced editor, Sheila McIlwraith, whose CV includes work with some of the most prestigious authors in the country. This time, I sent a series of specific questions and received a succinct four pages of suggestions, which made a great deal of sense.
We batted ideas and manuscripts to and fro and what emerged was snapped up by Bloodhound Books.
Still not there
You might think that this would be it for editing, but the book now went to a third editor, Bloodhound’s own Morgen Bailey. She agreed, thankfully, that the structure and characters all worked very well, but after all the work the manuscript needed a new copy edit.
Once more, I found there was more to learn about Room 15. Every author has their favourite repeated verbal tics. Morgen zeroed in on these (such as 206 “justs”!). She also spotted other repetitions (seven different “blond” men and women), and even a few small plot holes that had been missed by everyone else.
One very useful note concerned the opening chapter. I’d named it “Prologue” but Morgen pointed out that some readers deliberately skip anything called a prologue on the assumption that the story starts afterwards. In Room 15, the first chapter is crucial – I rapidly renamed it “Chapter 1”.
What’s in a name?
Finally, Morgen provided a Names Table – showing which characters and places started with which letters of the alphabet. This might sound nit-picky but readers can become rapidly confused if too many characters sound similar or start, say, with the letter S.
I realised that I had to rename a few, and was sad to change a couple of names that I liked, but she was right. They would have got in the reader’s way.
That, more or less, was it, aside from the proofs from Shirley and Heather at Bloodhound, which were sent for me to check over before everything went off to be printed and uploaded to Amazon.
It’s been a long and fascinating journey. Not everyone is lucky enough to have three editors. But everyone along the way, including my fellow writers and beta readers, have contributed something useful. More than I would ever have thought and in ways that I would never have expected.
Early reviews have been excellent, suggesting we made the right choices. However, the final verdict will now be up to the readers at large.
(c) Charles Harris
About Room 15:
Ross Blackleigh is on trial for four crimes which he insists he didn’t commit. A detective inspector and a thoughtful self-reflective man, he goes against his counsel’s advice and takes the stand in court.
This is his story.
Ross found himself wandering the streets one night, bleeding from the head and unable to remember the past year and a half. But before he could make sense of it, he was summoned to a crime scene where a nurse had been brutally murdered.
His amnesia unnerved him and, fearing the worst, Ross allowed himself to be taken to hospital, only to be viciously attacked by a stranger with a knife.
Suspecting that the attack was connected with the nurse’s murder and that his own police colleagues were behind it, Ross set out on two parallel investigations: one into the killing and the other into his own mind.
But when he digs into his own psyche, he is scared by what he finds…
Is Ross being set up or is something far more disturbing behind the killings?
Room 15 is a twisty psychological thriller which will keep you guessing until the very end. It’s the perfect read for fans of authors like Rachel Abbott, Michael Connelly and Mark Edwards.
Order your copy online here.