It’s been a while since I last wrote an in-depth post, or recorded a video, on the writing process. I could blame it on being ill and losing my voice, or wanting to hibernate, a sentiment probably shared by most, especially on a bleak Monday. But the fact is, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks editing my seventh novel.
If you have watched my videos and are familiar with this blog (thank you for that, by the way), you will know that I am keen to debunk the popular myth according to which one has to suffer in order to write, and more precisely, to write well. With such a pain-orientated frame of mind, editing has become for many writers the ideal tool for self-torture. In fact, in the past couple of months, I have read countless online posts and tweets from aspiring and experienced writers about editing pains, so much so, that it’s prompted me to write this post.
Before I go any further, I should say that there are writers who go through several drafts of the entire story until their novel is finished, and there are others, like myself, who gradually add chapters and only move to the next one, once they’re about 90% happy with the previous ones. I call it the ‘stacking method’. This means I always have two documents opened when I write: my text and my at-a-glance novel map (in the shape of a detailed Word table).
While the writing of my previous novel was fast, intense and fairly straightforward, it hasn’t been the case for the new one. I started writing it more than two years ago, then life got in the way of my writing and I ended up with more versions of the story than I thought was ever possible. By the time I submitted the opening chapters to a couple of fellow writers seven months ago, I had – literally – lost the plot. I can’t imagine any writer enjoying such a confession and it certainly gives me no pleasure in admitting that I had veered off-piste so dramatically.
After receiving feedback, my ego was bruised. I felt, quite rightly, that what I had submitted didn’t reflect my true writing ability and only showed how confused I had got about my own story. At that point, I could have wallowed in self-loathing or self-pity or I could have given up on my story and started something new. Instead, I chose to put my novel aside. I created an online course to help aspiring writers, which was a lot of work, and a lot of fun. And I also wrote a book about writing, coming soon, I promise! And, the week leading up to Christmas, I reopened my text and map, took the deepest and longest breath possible, and asked myself two questions: is this story worth saving and, if so, what is it about?
These two questions led me to an umpteenth reshuffling of the existing 34 chapters, to removing content and making drastic changes. The bottom line is, I love my characters and the theme (the nature of obsession) too much to abandon my story. And, more importantly, I was not prepared to start an entirely new story, feeling defeated by the one I had just shelved. My writer’s instinct was telling me that this would most likely taint my new writing adventure with an unnecessary sense of failure.
Choosing to pick up the pieces of version 11 (oh, the shame!) of my novel and shape them into a story worth reading has felt more satisfying than finishing my previous novels, because what I proved to myself, beyond the obvious fact that resilience is crucial to one’s writing practice, is that an honest and kind assessment of my novel was the only way to move it forward.
Had I felt that my story wasn’t worth saving, I would have analysed the text and determine how to re-use some of it. And I still would have seen it as a learning curve, which is what editing is all about. It is too often seen as the reflection of a writer’s flaws and imperfections, whereas it’s in fact an opportunity to improve your story, correct your writing tics, give more depths to your characters, strengthen your plot, and learn about style and punctuation.
This does not mean that, while editing, I am immune to frustration and annoyance. And it certainly does not mean that I am giving myself regular pats on the back. What it does mean, however, is that I focus all my energy and attention on the story itself, not on the process. Why else would I keep on working on version 12 on my novel?
I would be lying if I said that the first couple of days of my ‘writing surgery’ were fun or easy. There were moments where I doubted my own sanity and nearly stopped. But, as always when I’m writing, I chose to listen to my instinct. That positive, constructive voice which has grown stronger with years of practice and is my most reliable friend. By doing so, I proved to myself that I had the ability to bring my story back on track. And even though there is still a lot of work to be done, the confidence I have regained in the process has not only strengthened my writing practice, but my overall confidence as well. Editing is not pain, it is learning. And whatever changes you make will ultimately be good for your writing. Chosing to see editing as a natural, constructive step is the only way to carry on writing and to keep enjoying it.