This week, The Girl on Harlow Street’s editor Kendra Guidolin gave some no-holds-barred answers to a series of direct questions on the novel-in-progress. In keeping with one of the main tenets of this project — to share the novel-writing process with you — with Kendra’s support, I’m opening up the editing process too. These questions will be available to anyone currently reading the story, and I’ll be seriously considering the responses before I embark on the mammoth task of rewriting the work to prepare it for the next leg of its journey.
Q: What storylines and plot points are working best for you? Have these storylines left you satisfied as a reader, or are you finding yourself wanting more?
A: For me, the interwoven aspects of the story are the most important and prominent. With these layers of generations, we as readers not only get the backstory of what lies at the root of some troubles that are now arising in the health, but further, we’re seeing the lingering effects of trauma, abuse, mental illness, neglect, and lust. Specifically, because Harlow has such a complex history, from Sir and Mrs. Wells to George and Justine, these interwoven storylines are what drives the plot forward, and makes investing into each character’s backstory worth while. With Aubrey’s death starting the novel, we know that the backdrop of Harlow is dark, haunted by familial trauma and mental illness that has carried on throughout the generations of individuals lost, and as such, following the Wells family back in time only draws the reader in for more. At this point, although she is used as a vessel through which Harlow’s background becomes apparent, Aubrey seems to have more significance than is offered, and this makes me long for more from her. Where does her voice belong in this piece? What does she offer to this complex, rich history on Harlow, and what are we the reader missing out on with her being dead?
Q: What do you like about this novel in general? Feel free to weigh in on the structure, writing style, characterisation, dialogue, experimental writing, or anything beyond the actual plot.
A: While I find the dialogue flowing and the characters rich and fully thought out, I also think the language is one of the greatest achievements throughout this novel. The exposition is heavily intertwined with the poetics offered in the scenery and aesthetic of the Victorian period, further extending the landscape to the reader, and keeping them close to the time period, while maintaining Phil’s modern-day positioning. The analogies and metaphors used throughout bring about great, vivid images that bring the setting into its place further extend the narrator’s eye into the positioning of the Harlowian tone. Even at the sentence line, phrasing such as “bobbing around the horizon of [Vic’s] smoothie cup” brings to mind the sun setting on the Atlantic, drawing nearer to the darkness that unravels beyond the first few chapters of the novel.
The structure itself is ambitious, as pieces with this much weight and depth are heavy and as large a task as the serial novel is as it is presently. Because there are so many layers and stories to tell along the way, tracing the footprints back in time, the reader needs the time to both adapt to the time period, the character’s positioning, and the character’s development, as they evolve much faster than most novels because of the nature of the plot. With this said, I think this structure is the only one that fully encompasses the depth of the reality of familial trauma such as the ones that the Harlow inhabitants endure. From Justine’s troubled past before she even steps foot into Rosegate to George’s harrowing relationship(s) and devastating losses, the structure allows those painful memories and trauma to ripple out, demonstrating its long-term effects.
While this piece was originally started as a serial project, recurring regularly and in short bursts as many have in the past with publishing chapters weekly in a newspaper, it feels ever-growing even in its last stages. As such, the use of experimentation makes sense, as we’re seeing the process, the unfolding of new techniques and language, and the development of characters who exist beyond their dialogue—in the movement offered through exposition, in the glorious illustrations offered by Christine, in the interdisciplinary platforms such as the piano compositions and videography of London. All of these come alive with their context, and bring with them the heath and all its inhabitants.
Q: What storylines and plot points are not working for you? What are some things you find yourself struggling with? What needs to be further delved into and developed for it to function well in the novel?
A: For me, I lose sight of many modern characters because although they set the modern setting, I think they’re largely secondary to the larger plotlines and characters. Namely, Phil’s family and the details of their goings-on, and for the most part, Vic and his journey, as much as I adore all his character offers in terms of lightening very heavy scenes with his ridiculousness and offering us some relief from what is about to become very dark imagery. As well, because the story begins to overwhelm Phil’s perspective, these secondary characters become less and less prominent, and though they’re worth mentioning to position Phil as a human being with a family and kids and terribly annoying colleague, the piece shifts further away from them, and becomes too focused on something far beyond these characters. As well, as mentioned before, I want to see more Aubrey—perhaps she can offer her insights as a limited-omniscient narrator, and interject in first-person perspectives occasionally. I would also like similar interjections from Phil, as well, as I myself forget I’m reading a piece within a piece; with this said, there is merit to maintaining this position, as Phil I’m sure becomes engrossed in Aubrey’s manuscript as much as we do. I think a bit more firm positioning in Phil will help us remember that though this is a Victorian narrative, it is still through a modern lens, and this perspective is truly significant when it comes to the repercussions that come later on.
Q: Is there anything way off centre and completely unbelievable for you? Is there anything that falls beyond the “creative liberty” and “imaginary realm,” and therefore simply doesn’t work?
A: I thought hard about this one, as I think many aspects of the novel fall into the grey area of truly knowing what is true and what is an estimation–namely, the practices of undergarments for women of the Victorian period, because truly, it wasn’t proper or really necessary at the time for women to describe what garments they wore underneath their dresses, so many historians take estimated guesses or base their information on specific individual accounts. However, one edit that I think is worth revisiting is the time-framing around each character and their development. I think this is largely something that the novel needs as a large-scale edit, to make sure that things line up in terms of how long Phil is reading the manuscript, how many years pass between romantic engagements, how many years pass in mourning, and so on. As a serial novel, details on this scale tend to slip past me as a reader, but looking back on the many details and events revealed, some sections may need more time to breathe, and others may need a bit more speed in terms of pacing. With revisions, this will be a huge undertaking, but once the chapters that stay are in their places, the edits from there can be easily shifted in time with phrasing or exposition to keep the reader on track.
Q: Who are your favourite characters in this novel? Why?
A: Surprisingly, Ada is one of my favourite characters throughout the novel. As well, I love Sidney and Justine for her older, more mature years. I say surprisingly because Ada is not a necessarily likeable character on the surface. Because we’re in George’s perspective, and he at one point grows very tired of her and while he wants to keep her happy, he no longer loves her and she feels like a growing burden on him. As a result, this point of view tends to shift how we as a reader view Ada, and the less time he wants to spend with her, the less likeable she tends to be in his perception of her responses, her body language, her connection with him. With that said, she opposes so many expected norms of the Victorian period: she delivers incredibly offensive sermons to even many practicing Christians nowadays; she is much more crude and brash than many women would have dared to be back then, and yet both of these things, along with her terrible sense of humour makes her such a daring and wonderful character in contrast especially to some very expectedly proper English folks in the town. It’s exactly this personality, along with her unfortunate position as a wife to a husband in love with another person that makes the stakes with her well-being even higher than anyone else, in my opinion.
Q: Who are your least favourite characters? Why?
A: At times, I found Sir Wells both harsh and unbelievably kind to Justine; however, maybe this needed to simply be fleshed out more from the very beginning (explaining why he’s so kind to Justine when he is, and when he loses his temper and is quite harsh) or maybe hold back on his kindness and only start to really release the reins once he has well and truly fallen for her creative mind and sense of wonder. Of course, Justine is a young, beautiful woman, but with the position of her being both less powerful than Gregory because of her age and gender, she’s also his maid, and is from a lower-class status. The power dynamics, I can imagine, would have been very disruptive to their relationship in its early days, so I think holding back on the ease with which he comes onto Justine would make his character both more likeable and respectable, as we don’t necessarily like older men who prey on younger women for aforementioned power dynamic reasons to say the least. As well, perhaps it’s within my bias, but many characters of the upper-class tend to have a less likeable personality—namely, they don’t have the warmth and charm of say, Bertie or Harold. With this said, these less likeable characters are certainly done so for that reason, and highlight the truly wonderful, warm, down-to-earth characters that appear in less stuffy personas, and even disrupt their expectations despite their higher status.
Q: When you’re reading, what is flowing for you, and what is stunted, and therefore needs refining? (I find, for me, that dialogue tends to flow, but I feel that I struggle with setting).
A: Although dialogue seems the easy answer to this—the dialogue is truly conversational and rings true to British mannerisms, humour, language, and slang—I think the exposition is even more flowing, and often reads poetically. I also find the characters’ movement and descriptions of their positioning within space and in reference to others beautifully done. Namely, because there is such a heavy emphasis on relationships and sex, often the point of view refers to their own positioning in reference to how they are close or near another, and this offers a further insight into the characters’ dynamic.
My one suggestion would be to allow more room for these explicit scenes to grow beyond symbolism or motif. These scenes tend to be focused on ideas beyond the simple connection or dynamic between the participants, and some of the finest scenes are those that explore that territory unapologetically and without an abstract approach. (This question also ties into my response to the next question, so I continue below!)
Q: I include experimental writing in the work (the chapter ‘Artistic Light’ comes to mind). Do you like these experiments? Or do you find them to be incongruous with the flow? Explain why you feel this way.
A: While the abstract adds artistry, it can take away from the simplicity of the scenery. These don’t feel stunted necessarily, but they flow less organically than others, as the experimentation—while absolutely worth visiting—often took me away from the flow that happened so organically in chapters between. This just tells me that these scenes could work, just in a different setting or in a different context. I would love to see revisions of complex or perhaps busy scenes to really visit what is happening at the individual and collective level emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Q: Do you like the serial format, or would you prefer to have the whole story in hand?
A: As much as I loved reading it in the serial format, it feels like a project that would land best as a novel if only for the pressing nature of its plot. As well, to follow Phil’s timeline for reading, it would make most sense to have all revealed before the reader, and offered as a whole piece, rather than in smaller sections of the sum. As well, I think that the manuscript itself would be a great placeholder or signifier of the manuscript within this—that is, Aubrey’s, and its reflexive nature would make the reader a sort of shadow of Phil, which would raise the stakes that much higher.
Q: Are the story’s “big reveals” spread out in a way which keeps you satisfied, but in a way that keeps you curious enough to continue reading? When you’ve stumbled upon them, are you genuinely surprised, or did you already guess what they were beforehand?
A: I think the reveals are well spread out throughout the chapters themselves, however, I think they could be hinted at sooner, so that this cliff-hanger lingers longer and draws out even further. For example, having smaller hints at certain characters’ sexuality may imply that they perhaps may fall in love with or become infatuated with other characters with whom their chemistry seems more electric than the average interaction. Or, Aubrey could play narrator and suggest that something wicked may come from an individual’s poor decisions on another, or the consequences of sins beyond religious persecution (the trauma of others, the suffering of loved ones, abuse and regret that linger afterwards, etc.)
Q: I’ve included many explicit scenes in the novel, some of which are experimental in nature (with regards to the writing style). Which of these scenes would you keep in the novel? And which can be axed?
A: Along with what I have mentioned before, I think it’s also worth exploring the explicit scenes that allow for a moment in the plot to pause. With so much action and trauma that happens in each of these characters’ lives, a moment to breathe is both realistic and practical for the reader to have some relief. Because this novel deals with some dark matter, these moments often (though not always) act as a break from the heavy content. I think that these scenes can be used to both explore a relationship evolving over time, and to offer the reader a variety of topics offered throughout the narrative. While this may require some shifting around, I don’t think the novel necessarily needs to lose many of these scenes, as it is important to maintain and further demonstrate the importance of normalizing female sexuality and the enjoyment of erotic fiction.
Q: How would you summarise your reading experience with this ‘novel-in-progress’ so far?
A: Especially with the weekly chapters, the piece feels much less daunting than the many hundred pages it would span in one sitting. As well, with time, we feel the natural progression of the novel and its characters—the goings-on feel almost in real-time, and as such, the characters, along with the narrator’s voice begins to progress and develop as we, the readers do while discovering more about the piece that changes our perceptions that we once held. As it is even a self-professed novel-in-progress, as well, perhaps the reader feels included in the process itself, as we too come to conclusions that feel perhaps sprung out of necessity, or that would not have originally come to be had the entire piece been written all in one sitting. Certainly, it feels embracing of its audience, and offers a great deal to us, the reader, because it feels like a project in which each of us may have a tiny stake.
With all of these pieces of feedback, I do want to reiterate that this novel does some really great work and brings forth readers a great perspective that is so important to bring forth: from criticisms of colonization, to the normalization of female sexuality and pleasure, to giving generational trauma an approachable context wherein readers may better empathize with those who suffer from such and/ or mental illness that may also be passed down through ancestors. While this project is a huge task to be taking on with you, Rosemary, I’m so grateful for the journey, and can’t wait to see where we take this next revised version.