Last September MISHA HUSSAIN won an editing course from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy for his longlisted manuscript Sakthi (Strength). Having completed the course, Misha shares what he learned and changed.
Congratulations on completing Edit Your Novel the Professional Way. What was the most challenging aspect of the course?
Just getting your head around the amount of work you still have to do. I hacked off around 20,000 words from my first draft of 80K and rebuilt, so you can imagine that feeling on day one of recovery. And coffee doesn’t work because you just do daft shit faster. You need to chill and get a hold of life, get some perspective. The journey of a thousand miles doesn’t start with the first step, but a cup of tea and a Jammie Dodger.
Delegates put in up to 10 hours a week for 18 weeks. How did you fit the hours in?
Ten hours a week is a lot, especially if you work and have young children. And seeing as how you can’t kill your kids (last time I checked), you have to cut down on work. So I stopped working ‘for a living’ and focussed entirely on the novel. It helps if your wife is a legend.
Would you say the course showed you how to get from draft to agent-ready?
For me, yes. But it depends where you are in your book and how much work is needed. I stopped working ‘for a living’ and worked on editing full time, and I only just got my book into a reasonable shape. I still need help, psychological more than anything. I’ve noticed whilst writing this book that at times I just forgot to breathe, like for a full minute or so. That can’t be healthy!
What structural and stylistic issues did you diagnose in your manuscript and did you fix them?
The biggest structural issue with my novel is that it didn’t have structure – at least at the scene level. You see I read about Freytag’s Pyramid and watched about 50 episodes of the BBC children’s series ‘Peter Rabbit’ to understand overarching structure, but at the scene level it was all over the shop. The course had a quick troubleshoot guide on how to structure scenes, I applied it and hey presto.
The stylistic issue was much harder to deal with. It had to do with use of dialect. My MC is from the north, so I gave her the local accent that she would speak with, but readers had a real issue with someone with a dialect expressing intelligent thought. It infuriated me. Similarly, readers found it strange that a 16 year old might use complex words and logic, but kids these days are way more advanced on logical argument than I am even now. Imagine if 16 year olds could’ve voted in the EU ref…
What techniques did you learn to enhance story, character and pacing?
Never kiss and tell.
Any tips on getting to grips with whether a scene is working?
There are certain elements that a scene needs; structure and purpose being key. Once you’ve got those in place read it out loud and you’ll just know when it’s right. It just feels right, a natural instinct. It’s like when you look into the crapper after laying down a few logs and think, hopefully not out loud, ‘yeah, I’m happy with that’ before you pull the flush.
Most useful piece of individual feedback from your tutor?
I have a massive inferiority complex about language because of where I come from and who I am. So in the first draft of my book I was trying to sound all poetic and clever. But my MC would never talk like that. It was hard to accept that. I did, and my tutor gave some great feedback on a revised sample I posted. And now the voice is spot on. My MC sounds like Jane Eyre after she’s had a few bottles of alcopops down the local boozer. Content still thought-provoking, but banter common as muck.
Fan of writing exercises?
I hate writing exercises unless they are connected to the novel because I have this dimwit belief that intelligence is finite and that if I use even a smidgen on something irrelevant then it’s wasted. Of course, that’s a ridonculous philosophy. And writing exercises can inspire, but nah, not for me thanks. I’d rather get bored into action by watching paint dry.
How about the forum discussions?
People did the best they could not having read each other’s books, and only being exposed to one snippet at a time. I’ve always found the discussion forum a place to find kindred writing spirits for the long term, not the short 4-5 months of this course.
Did you find the course valuable?
My writing is propelled along by a continuous stream of brain farts. Sometimes, they produce solid, well-formed ideas, tapered into perfect scenes. At other times my thoughts come out like Shitterish Allsorts. What Cornerstones did was act like an adult diaper, catching all those goodies, so I could sift through them forensically and diagnose why the story is ailing. I guess that’s why they call themselves book doctors, and rightly so!
Did the course change how you edit?
I understand much more about how stories are put together. It’s surprisingly formulaic, so if you follow the recipe, you can’t go far wrong. Yet recipes do go wrong… we’ll have to wait and see what happens with Sakthi.
For most budding authors, opportunity costs are the biggest barrier to writing a novel. So whatever I can do, no matter how small, I’m in – especially if it helps some poor soul to stock up on Spam and weed and finish the damn book. It’s a token gesture at the moment, things have to change structurally if we want to see more diversity in publishing, and this is part of that change.
What’s next for you and Sakthi?
Find an agent bold enough to represent this book. It’s pretty hardcore.
Read the opening pages:
I smiled all the way through me mam’s funeral, and if it hadn’t been for the rain masquerading as tears, the mourners might’ve thought I were callous, or half mad. I were neither, just glad another woman were free of the shackles of life, and men. I’ll come clean, in our tradition I shouldn’t have even been there. It’s men who carry the body to the grave, a man who leads the prayer, and men who do the burial; as if women were too fragile to deal with the grief of death, despite enduring the agony of birth. But Meghna were stronger than any of the men who put her in the ground.
It chucked it down in Shaleton that day and me wellies sank deep into the clay. The hearse pulled up alongside a messy, flooded part of the cemetery, where simple markers lay so close together you’d think it were chock-a-block in the afterlife. Only a handful of people had shown up, hardly enough to get the coffin out. Father asked some randoms visiting the next grave but one to be pallbearers.
“Who died?” they asked.
“Sakthi’s mother,” someone replied.
The imam leading the service were a tubby little man. His wife fed him well, too well. His plain white tunic stuck to his belly in the wet, showing rolls of fat that questioned his piety. A rough, dark spot dominated his forehead where it had struck the Earth five times a day, everyday for the last forty years. His orange beard dyed with henna flapped in the breeze. He let his arms drop to his side, looked towards the east and began the janaza funeral prayer.
“Allahu Akbar,” he said, and launched into a passage in Arabic with an off-putting Northern twang.
Nobody had a scooby what he were on about, but they still followed his actions like sheep.
His words weren’t welcome in my brain. Every nerve and synapse were jammed with memories, some sweet, mostly bitter. Pressing me eyelids tight, I pictured washing her body hours before, top to bottom, left to right, as is custom. Above the neckline, she seemed peaceful. Her jet-black hair pleated and tied in a bun, her eyes tranquil. I traced the ridge of her slender nose, across the cleft in her chin, and down her neck to her chest. Here, her smooth, brown skin became rough and discoloured, the ribs a patchwork of blue and black. Running me fingers over the bruises, I could hear them screams again. The coroner said she’d died quickly, and without pain, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Every day alive inflicted a new flesh wound until she bled out like a sacrificial lamb.
The men stood shoulder to shoulder in a neat line behind the imam. They lifted their hands until their thumbs touched their earlobes and then folded them in front of their paunches. When the prayer finished, they turned their heads to the right and then to the left to send their blessings to the Noble Writers, angels who sat on either shoulder recording their deeds.
But Father treated the angels with contempt. His sullen eyes never once looked at them, nor the sky. They stared at the open coffin. As the men brushed their palms over their faces, he leant forward, drew a long, hard breath and gobbed on mother’s corpse. Only the imam brought his hands down in time to witness the treachery. He didn’t say anything. Me blood boiled as I fought to control me sense of betrayal.
Father took the body out from the wicker casket with the help of Titash, our only male relative in the country. They lowered it into the grave making sure the head faced Mecca.
How I wished I could lie beside her. To be her light as the last rays of sun were blotted out. To keep her warm when the hard, winter frost spread through the ground. And, when enough time had passed, when the creeping ivy had wrapped its scraggly fingers round her headstone, and the weeds had swamped her grave, to have a word with the earthworms that turn death to life and say, no, leave her be. Here lies a great woman.
Father picked up a spade and thrust it into a heap of topsoil. But before he could throw it in, I burst through the line in a fit of defiance, grabbed a handful of soil and threw it over her body. Inside were a locket with a picture of us together, which landed in such a way nobody could see it were there. Father wrenched us back into place.
“It’s your fault she’s dead,” he said.
I broke free and ran, I ran as fast as me little Bengali legs could carry us, away from this charade.
Near the gates, police officers had cordoned off a number of graves that had been defaced. Nazi swastikas in red paint loomed large across all but six stones, which each bore a single letter of the alphabet spelling out – BREXIT. The fetid stench of beer and urine made us retch. I covered me face with me orna and made for the exit where Mrs. Finch, our elderly neighbour, sat in her wheelchair. She crossed herself one last time. When she had said her goodbyes to Meghna, she squeezed me hand and I pushed her back up the hill.
Misha Hussain is a British-Bengali human rights journalist who grew up in East London and later in Preston. His reportage covers topics such as female genital mutilation, ‘breast ironing’ and forced marriage. Prior to becoming a full time journalist, he worked as a consultant in aid and development for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the United Nations and the World Bank.
In Sakthi a teenage British Muslim girl must discover the truth about her mother’s death to escape a similar fate. Set in the industrial north of England, Misha tackles the complex relationship between Asian Muslim parents and their British-raised children in “an unapologetic commentary on identity, religion and gender issues in the context of Brexit, Islamic radicalisation and the #metoo campaign.”
The Bath Novel Award 2019 is open until June 2nd with a £2,500 prize and literary agent Hellie Ogden judging. One longlisted writer will win a place worth £1,800 on Cornerstones Literary Consultancy’s Edit Your Novel the Professional Way