On why redrafting a novel is like doing your music practice

My ten-year-old is practising for a piano exam and finding it tricky. The Scarlatti Minuet is half-remembered: the bass line forgotten, the fingering more fiddly than before. She plays a couple of dramatic, minor chords then curves off the piano stool balletically. "I'm playing something else," she insists, as she hangs upside down.

And so she starts to learn an alternative piece: a perky Allegro by Clementi. C major and its related G major where the Scarlatti was C minor; a far easier to manage 4/4. Her fingers fly across the keys; the perfect cadences so much more automatic than the Scarlatti's dissonant, imperfect ones.

Her piano teacher wants her to persist with the more complex piece: the sad little melody that fills my head long after I've forgotten the anodyne, jaunty Clementi. And yet, to get it right, she will need to take it apart. She must rethink the fingering; make the rhythm precise; get the dynamics, the phrasing, the odd misremembered note absolutely secure.

I've been thinking a lot about this this week as I've plodded on, redrafting my second novel. For, panicked about my deadline, and knowing it wasn't right but not knowing how to fix it, I opted for a bit of Clementi: throwing bright jauntiness and some basic C major at a tale with a far darker heart. Luckily my clever editor was having none of it. She saw my discordant novel for what it  was: a draft in which one timeline - the bass, if you like; or the story that's set in the past - moves resolutely into a minor key - while the treble, or the present day story, insisted on chirping along in its major key, tone-deaf and oblivious to the darker, more interesting rumblings. Imagine playing two hands of the piano in different keys and that's effectively what you had.

Persisting with the Clementi-like plot was not an option and so I've been doing the equivalent of relearning the Scarlatti: though in my case this has meant not just developing characters and darkening plot strands but chucking out and rewriting 30,000 words. Interviewed by Rebecca Mascull last week, I talked about how I'd drawn up a grid for my first novel and seen the different plot lines interweaving polyphonically, like a Baroque counterpoint. This novel has a different structure, with distinct, more equally balanced past and present stories. I've worked relentlessly on the bass line - the past plot - and now it's the turn of the treble - or the present -  to sing just as sweetly but with more melancholy, more light and shade, than before. 

For getting this second novel right matters immensely and so I push on, worrying away at the rhythm of paragraphs and the freshness of the imagery; checking that a character is psychologically consistent. Fretting about pace; and tension; and balance -  just as I once practised my flute obsessively, for hour after hour. 

My daughter is back at the piano stool, scrutinising the Scarlatti. And tentatively, she plays first the right hand, then the left one. Rethinking, relearning. Figuring it all out, once more.