This is another post about editing. Until today, it hasn’t been going very well. A variety of things have built into a general malaise, and I’ve been struggling to get myself out of it. Yesterday, I read this from Matt Haig: “As a writer, you need to have a thick skin. But you also need to be a hypersensitive wreck to write in the first place.”
Well, for the last few days, I’ve been in hypersensitive wreck mode. I swing in and out of these phases. When a novel is going well, I’m buoyed up and float through life, with at least half my mind firmly in my story, and nothing else really gets in the way. But when it’s going badly, I obsess over and over again on all my many failings and how terrible the novel is, convinced that the universe is going to wake up at any moment and realise that I shouldn’t have made it even this far.
This is my half-term from college. Although I’d done a few line edits on The Visitors, I hadn’t had a chance to really get to work until this week, and it began really badly. I started by making the huge, ugly structural changes I was worried about, cutting and pasting and wreaking a sweeping destruction on the first third of my manuscript. And that left me really despondent. I won’t run through all my paranoias here, but I was really wallowing. There seemed an insurmountable amount of work to do, and part of the plot was now back to front. I convinced myself that I’d shattered whatever was good about it in the first place. I spent some time moaning on Twitter, and went to bed feeling very sorry for myself. At the end of the day, I listened to this about twenty times, trying to summon some strength:
…but to little avail. I started today prepared for more of the same. Scared of going back to the manuscript, I farted around on Twitter, and on Facebook, and read the paper, and spent half an hour trying to read all of the internet. I’d made myself quite genuinely scared of the novel, and was looking for distractions to keep myself away from it. Then I remembered reading about something called Freedom. It’s a program which blocks the internet completely, and can’t be disabled without turning your computer off and on again. It cost $10, and I bought it. I installed it, and I set it to run for eight hours. Then I opened the novel, returned to the redraft, and tried to spend the day at work. Here’s how it went:
There are obvious breaks – between chapters, mostly – when I used to check my email. I couldn’t do that. Instead, I had to keep writing. I used to post updates about my progress, or lack thereof – I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t build a Spotify playlist. I couldn’t read my students’ blogs. I couldn’t add to my Pinterest boards. I couldn’t check my bank balance, or look at lenses I can’t afford on eBay. I couldn’t blog about how shitty I was feeling. I could only work, and so I did. I only stopped for cups of tea and to feed the cats. I checked my email at lunchtime on the iPad, but otherwise went without. And it was brilliant. Immersed in the novel, without distractions, I worked hard, fast, and well. I was coming up with good stuff for the first time in a week, building bridges between ripped sections, smoothing out the prose, and even discovering new connections to expand and consolidate the plot. More importantly, I was feeling good about again. That feeling is so important. Without confidence in your story, it’s impossible to write with conviction.
Strange to reflect that I needed technology to rid me of technology. Freedom truly gave me freedom to work. I know it’s daft to spend money on something willpower should do for free, but Freedom even removed the choice. Even after a single session, I believe it’s the best money I’ve ever spent on my writing. To be clear, I don’t have a motivation problem. When I’m in the flow of my story, I can write continually for hours without stopping. But when I’m as full of dread as I was yesterday, I seek any reason to avoid dealing with the thing that causes me dread.
This redraft is hard. I’m making big changes, and some of them have left me feeling a little divorced from the story. One of my characters has changed her name, and it’s taken me a full fortnight to feel like I know her again. As petty as it sounds, I worked with MS Word’s ‘Track Changes’ function for the first few sessions, and it was driving me distracted, churning out balloons and dotted lines for every tiny change. Thankfully, Jane at Quercus gave her blessing for me to move onto a plain document. I know it’s daft, but that’s helped a lot.
I suppose that demolishing parts of the story was always going to be demoralising, and perhaps it’s no surprise I’ve found it so hard to stay positive about the redraft. But now most of the destruction is done, and I’m starting to rebuild, I’m feeling better all the time. When things go well, it gives me a surge of confidence in what I do, and where I want the story to go. I’m not all the way there yet, and there’s still an awful lot to do, but – for now – I’ve turned a corner.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Here’s a picture of a steampunk sperm whale hot air balloon. Writers – get Freedom. It changes everything.