song of the slums

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Writing Song of the Slums







Revising & Editing




So, yes, I did a total rewrite, drawing on feedback from the ROR writers group (Margo Lanagan, Rowena Cory Daniells, Tansy Raynor Roberts, Maxine Macarther and Dirk Flinthart, at our retreat in Tasmania), from my sample readers, and from my Australian and German editors. Plus several things I wanted to do myself - after a couple of months away from an MS, I can always see things that could have been done better.

(On the right, my only photo from the Tasmania retreat - actually me launching Margo's Sea-Hearts in Hobart. From left, Rowena, me, Tansy and Margo >

I rewrite from start to finish because that's the only way I can feel sure about how my characters are going to react. If I change what they do or think or say or experience in one chapter, of course they're not quite the same going in to the next chapter. I need to follow the changes through - and I always find that more and more changes accumulate towards the end of the novel. Not because that part of the novel is weaker on first draft … on the contrary, it's usually the best because all the elements of character and story are fully functioning by that stage. But earlier changes require later changes … and sometimes earlier changes offer up the possibility of later improvements too.

One overall improvement had to do with sliding between the 3 parts of the story: the governess story, the story of the band's success in Brummingham, and the London story with its additional dimension of political intrigue and violent upheaval. They are separate stages in the story, and one focus of interest does take over from another, but I wove them together as seamlessly as possible.

Another improvement was to Verrol - because he'd come a lot clearer as a character, and his previous life had come a lot clearer on the way through the first draft. I love deepening a character as a novel progresses, but in this case I had to make his early behaviour more compatible with the later revelations.

My German editor - who got in very early and had some very useful things to say - suggested two changes in particular. One was to give more steampunk quality to the novel, over and above straightforward Victoriana, that is, more divergences from real history and more invented machines and contraptions. I'd been focussing so hard on getting the characters and their relationships right that I hadn't given much thought to this in the first draft, but I had great fun filling in elements ofsteampunk background in the rewrite.

< Edmund Jacoby of Jacoby & Stuart, my German publisher)

Another suggestion was to use a Prologue. For practical reasons: to bring Verrol in earlier, and to show that the novel is still a typical Richard Harland tale of excitement and action, not simply romantic and family relationships. But there were other benefits - I don't know why I'd never thought of them before. As with many fantasy novels, the story starts in a corner so that the world can be introduced digestibly bit by bit - so the main story takes a while to get under way. The Prologue as it now is foreshadows later developments right from the start - overleaping Astor's fall from her genteel background in classical music, and introducing her as a drummer for the 'Rowdies' rock band.

Then there was the … groan, the agonies we went through over the title. It deserves a special sub-section to itself …


My first idea was to title the book after the musical band, while giving them a name with a steampunk feel. So I wrote the first draft under the title The Steam Blast Band. But Aileen hated that, and I soon realised it wouldn't fly with anyone else either.

< Aileen, non-approver of title)

So, for the rewrite, I came up with Girl on Drums, which I like a lot even now. But my publisher didn't like the 'girl' emphasis … because although this novel has a female main character, it still has all the action and adventure appeal of Worldshaker and Liberator.

My next attempt was another band name title, The Original Rhythm Factory (amazing that there's never been a band called even 'Rhythm Factory', but I googled, and there hasn't). That one almost went through, but marketing felt that it was too cluttered and obscure. They came up with the suggestion of Anthem as a title, which I think would be brilliant as the title of a war book - just not this book.

Perhaps the word 'anthem' helped, though, because my final attempt - final, desperate, ready-to-jump-off-a-cliff attempt - was Song of the Slums. Praise be, everyone loved Song of the Slums, including me. It brings in the band's story, suggests the setting, and rolls beautifully off the tongue. A happy ending at last!

It's not the first time this has happened. The first draft of Worldshaker was called Juggernaut, and the second was called Leviathan. I have to admit, I think Worldshaker is the best of the three, as Song of the Slums is the best of the five. So maybe all the pain pays off in the end.

(At least I can now go to my files and recognise any draft instantly by its title. And my folder on computer for all the different versions of the text is still captioned 'STEAM BLAST BAND' So there!)

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Richard Harland.