My first draft of Catherine’s story started from the time her mother died and she was first shipped off to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. It told the story of the years she lived in the Duchess’s residencies at Horsham and Lambeth, of her first secret kisses with her music tutor, and later her first illicit love affair with the young Francis Dereham. All of this, and she hadn’t even arrived at court, yet. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when this first full draft was about 475 pages long. Nearly a full ream of paper (I didn’t realize this until I was printing it out, a terrifying discovery). So I sent it to my literary agent to get his feedback.
His feedback was great: the second half of the novel, once Catherine arrives at court, is really great, very interesting. What you need to do is to take page 1 to page 190 and cut it. Remove it entirely. Page 191 is your new page 1; you’ll need to revise the novel from that point on. Was this advice difficult to hear? Did it sort of make me want to build a blanket-fort, curl up into a ball and hide? Yes, yes and yes. But I also knew, even in that first discussion, that he was right. Of course he was right.
But I still had a bunch of mis-steps: do I start when she’s first arriving at court, to be a lady in waiting in the new queen’s household? Do I start when she’s already at court and the queen first arrives from Germany? Or should I start at the moment when the king first sees her, first “casts a fantasy” over Catherine Howard? I tried, failed, tried again. And I kept cutting. At one point I thought I had sort of settled on starting the story when Catherine arrived at court, because I wanted to retain the rags-to-riches element of Catherine’s story. I was talking to my friend Beth about it over lunch…She thought maybe I could start it when the king falls for Catherine and was getting rid of the queen. Just hearing her say that and make a good argument for it was enough for me to rethink, yet again, and try yet another beginning. I’m relieved to say that she was right—but it took me a lot of writing and revising, a lot of mistakes to get to that point.
Now, in the first scene of the novel, Catherine is wearing an elaborate sapphire necklace gifted to her by King Henry, and she is about to learn news that will change her life forever—and more swiftly than she had dared to imagine. A friend of mine told me that the beginning read so naturally, she imagined I just sat down and started right at that point when I started writing. Well, let me tell you all, it did not happen that easily. Am I breaking some sort of writer’s code by admitting this? Maybe, but too late, I’ve admitted it. This is the beauty of revision: no one (except for your friends and your agent and your editor, all hopefully very patient people) needs to know about those earlier versions. And all of them helped to deliver you to the right way to tell the story. At least that’s what I think to make myself feel better about all of those pages I discarded along the way. It helps.