What I Learned Revising My First Novel After Publication
Lisa Harding Goes Over the Bones of Her First Book Project
Once a writer completes their final, final copy edits and the email comes from the publisher with the words “Final Draft” attached, you think that’s it. No more chances now. The surge of adrenalin that accompanies that moment of letting go is unsurpassed. What-ifs? crowd your mind: what if that sentence were tweaked a little, that image sharpened, that one edited, that section more fluid, that character a little more complex? What if it’s truly dreadful?
My first experience of picking up my debut novel Harvesting in book form and seeing my words in print filled me with a strange mortification, a shame instead of pride. Maybe that is my Irishness. Maybe it is being human. But for sure, it was excruciating and not because the novel was bad. It wasn’t. Critics said some very nice things; it won a prize but still that feeling niggled.
Imagine my surprise then, when my editor at Harper Via, who published my sophomore novel Bright Burning Things in 2021, asked to read Harvesting in early 2022, a full five years after its original publication in Ireland and France. It was thrilling and heart-stopping to think it might get republished, particularly since the motivation behind writing Harvesting was primarily to raise awareness about sex trafficking of minors inspired by my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People, an ECPAT International initiative, spearheaded by the Body Shop and The Children’s Rights Alliance in Ireland.
The offer came through shortly after my editor finished reading it, as she felt moved and compelled to engage with the urgency of the topic, which unfortunately still has relevance today, perhaps even more so because of the mounting migrant crisis and the rising number of displaced children.
Although she fell in love with the novel and its two central characters, she very sensitively asked if I would be amenable to some editing notes? Yes, I would, unequivocally. Harvesting did not get any structural editing in its first iteration; what appeared on the page was an unmediated flow. The only changes to the text were tiny copy edits, at the level of the individual word choice. It was borne out of a visceral response to the stories I was privy to during the campaign and its initial conception was brutal and wounded and full of a bristling outrage at the injustices visited on these girls.
I liken the process of writing Harvesting to a feeling akin to possession; there was heat and fury on the page. I was haunted by firsthand testimonies provided by survivors in Ireland, and I was unable and unwilling to forget them. And so, I wrote, or their stories wrote me. The characters of Nico, from Moldova and Sammy, from Ireland emerged from composites of many stories.Now, I believe in the need for light and nuance, in my personal life as well as in my work.
Undertaking to write about such a traumatic, triggering subject that I have no first-hand experience of was a huge responsibility, and I struggled with legitimacy, rightly so. I approached two frontline NGOs in this field, Ruhama in Dublin and CCF Moldova, alongside representatives from the Children’s Rights Alliance in Ireland and the Immigrant Council of Ireland to read the work and provide rigorous feedback.
Their resounding response was that a work of literary fiction like this, with its accurate and sensitive portrayal of young lives corrupted, could raise awareness and touch readers minds and hearts in a way no amount of investigative journalism can. This sentiment was mirrored exactly by the team at Harper via a full five years later.
To have the opportunity to revisit the same novel through the lens of distance and time was an extraordinary experience, a rare chance for me to address any lingering concerns. I remember at the time of its initial publication, some of my friends saying, but it is unrelentingly bleak, and my response was, well, of course it is. Now, I feel differently. Now, I believe in the need for light and nuance, in my personal life as well as in my work.
My initial drive to create this story remained unchanged: I wanted to give voice to victims of domestic and international trafficking in a way that would honor their humanity and uniqueness and thereby disrupt the accepted representation of these girls in print as faceless, nameless statistics, as objects of sensationalist othering. I wanted to bear witness from the inside out.
I chose a first-person, present tense dual narrative to fully embody my character’s beat-by-beat experiences as they fell into an unimaginable world of exploitation. I was determined not to look away and to create an immersive reading experience. None of this would be altered by the edits that were being suggested.
My editor gently probed. Although the world of the novel is concerned with the darkest corners of human existence, surely there are some characters, even peripheral ones, who show some concern, who are a counterbalance to the seam of trauma running through it? And perhaps, there could be even a note of hope at the end, for a character I initially felt had none?
I resonated fully with these notes and felt as if the characters were being breathed new life into, stoked into a kind of existence where perhaps they had known love, and would be in a better place to exist beyond the boundaries of their traumatic experience. A gift then—to revisit this explosive, emotive work, and approach it with a little more detachment and an eye to the craft of novel writing.
Again, there was no structural editing, the plot remained exactly as it was, but the world seemed richer, and more real, when populated by characters who offered a contrast to the brutality on the page. I introduced a concerned friend’s mother for Sammy, who tried but failed to save her before it was too late. I introduced a kind young shopkeeper in an off license who saw Sammy for the troubled young girl she was and showed sisterly concern rather than a lecherous interest as had been the case in the original. Likewise with a taxi driver, who wanted to help, and a male police officer, but Sammy escaped them all and plunged headlong into a world where, once she was in, there was no getting out.
Nico’s trajectory had been a little more balanced as she had a brother and mother who loved her dearly. Both girls had best friends in their previous lives, and this set them up well for forming an unlikely, though deep and sustaining friendship now. Sammy’s unconscious xenophobic biases were addressed in this version, and I felt nothing of her essence was lost by being fully sensitive to the reader in this regard.
Perhaps the biggest change lies in the title. From Harvesting to Cloud Girls. From the focus being on the horror of storing and collecting young lives, to Sammy and Nico finding solace in friendship, in nature, in dreams, in the clouds that shape-shift outside windows, to transcendence, to tiny instances of grace.
This reworked version of my novel has benefited from this refocusing, not in an unreal glossy Hollywoodization of the very real human suffering endured, rather in the acknowledgement of the need for light and shade, in any life, under any circumstance. I sincerely hope the moments of tenderness, humanity and humor that exist on the page can help the reader stay with the girls and love them in the way that I did. And still do.
Lisa Harding is the author of Cloud Girls, available now from Harpervia.