Editing Your Novel and the Art of Strategic Panic

So it’s a new month and along with hatters and hares, March is bringing a whole lot of new writing issues for me to talk about in what seems to be a theme of writing process vs. lifestyle this week (started with Writing – Mothering – Balancing and continued with Mothering, Writing, Pilating, Guilt).

My plan for this year is still pretty loose, but the big goal was to have the revised, polished and generally awesomecaked Nancy Napoleon novel ready to submit by the end of March. Which seemed pretty sensible to me – I had ROR at the end of January, and school holidays ended the middle of February, which gave me a whopping SIX WEEKS to revise the book at make it awesome.

But then I convinced myself that I had all these other bits and pieces of things to do, like writing my talk for the Horror film festival, and a few short stories, and… well the main thing was that at that point I’d put down very few new words since November, and much though my ‘no writing school holidays’ experiment was a great success, I was starting to get the itch. So I gave myself a different goal of writing 10,000 words on various fiction projects, and happily played with the idea of getting back into some kind of writing routine.

At least, that’s what the top part of my brain thought was happening. The public face of the brain. The secret, dingy underbelly of my brain had a whole different agenda, which I have been circling around for the last few days, waiting for the bad news to be revealed. Here we go:

The truth is, I hate editing myself.

This has come as a shock to me, let me tell you! I spent 10 years teaching Creative Writing, evangelising about the glories of editing. I constantly tell myself that rewriting is easier than writing new words, there’s so much less pressure to be creative, you have it all THERE and you just get to tease it into being better.

But, of course, that’s the problem. Rewriting *is* easier than writing new words. There’s less creative pressure. And yes, I really am this perverse… the fact that it’s easier is what makes it harder for me. The older I get, the more my writing discipline depends on creative pressure, and momentum. As soon as either is relaxed, my brain starts self-sabotaging.

Because I have not been able to convince my brain that editing is hard, high-energy work (which, you know, it is, just different to the generation of new words) I often struggle to get it done at all.

The other challenge of rewriting/editing vs. generating new words is that there’s no easy way to measure progress, or plan tasks. It’s like the government health or education budget – it takes every resource you throw at it and can always use more. But figuring out how many resources are ENOUGH is really hard.

My current way of dealing with any kind of editing or rewriting work, whether it’s done with the aid of publishers or on my own, is to procrastinate for approximately half the available time, panic madly, and then hurl myself into the task, feeling sick and stressed, and furious at myself. Because that is not my business model. I’ve never been the kind of writer who pulls all-nighters. I work incrementally, build up momentum, and create sensible, achievable regular goals. Even in my old uni days, I would leave my crazy essay writing to the last available entire free day I had, not the last minute. (ah, for the day of entire free days) But when it comes to the editing and rewriting process, my brain just goes out the window.

Partly I have known this about myself for a while – especially my ability to shave weeks off deadlines in order to kick-start the panic centres of my brain. I always call this the Lintilla Complex, after my favourite Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy character. She appears in the second series of the original radio version of the story, which he chucked away to replace with a different plot for the books, and thus she is now pretty obscure, but I love her to bits. She’s an archaeologist who has had her arm offically broken, because of a theory that having some kind of stressful obstacle put in your way actually makes you more efficient. (which, okay, now I come to think of it is probably pretty offensive to anyone with a disability, MOVING ON!) I seem to recall she has a button which she regularly presses in order to get, for example, guards finding them, therefore prompting them all to run a lot faster and secure their goals more effectively.

When it comes to editing and rewriting, I am Lintilla with a broken arm. I sabotage myself JUST ENOUGH in order to get the synapses screaming, but not huddled in a ball on the floor, and then I Get Shit Done.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it. I’ve managed to not acquire this tendency for anything else in my life (except maybe cleaning the house in the week before hosting a party) but I seem to be stuck with it when it comes to novel revision.

I was starting to suspect that I had done it again, and that for all my sensible reasons for not starting the Nancy rewrite back on February 11th when school went back, really I was Lintillaing. Then came today. Which was the 1st March, and also one of my precious daycare days. So the best possible, possible day to start rewriting the book, or at least planning what I needed to do to get the project done.

And of course I spent most of the morning frozen, circling around the task of even OPENING THE FREAKING DOCUMENT in order to get all sorts of other things done (so not a wasted day!) and realising every time I considered starting the revision work that, in fact, I didn’t want to. When I did finally open the document, it felt like a ridiculously huge achievement, because I had spent the whole morning actively ignoring the little voice in my head that was trying to move the goal posts, again.

So my plan for March, apart from REVISE NOVEL is to work on the revising of the novel every day. I’m not going to say how much time, because my time is a highly sought after resource in this house, and I’m not going to say how much I’ll get done per day because, to be honest, I have no idea what the job entails. This is one of those instances when you realise that writing books is like building houses – you think you’ve learned enough from doing it once to do it flawlessly the next time, but all you learned is in fact how to write that book which is already written, and the new one requires a WHOLE NEW TOOLBOX.

Sigh. I think I learned more about myself as a writer today, and I’m not sure I like what I’ve learned.

Time to break my arm, call for the guards to chase me, and start running.

4 replies on “Editing Your Novel and the Art of Strategic Panic”

  1. I have been writing short stories lately and by far the easiest and most enjoyable part has been the creative writing, I dread the editing. I have left the story for 10 days now and had an alpha reader go over it because a) i think its crap b) its not fresh i know what happens. Reports have come back that its good, albeit with a plot hole you can drive a truck thru…but we were talking about you 🙂

  2. tansyrr says:

    The worst part about editing is getting started. Once you find your rhythm it actually can be kind of fun, but from the outside it’s SUCH AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK. That’s why I’m pledging to do a bit each day no matter what – or I just know I’ll leave it to the last week and freak out.

  3. Amazing how different people are. See, I love editing – for me that is the really creative process because it’s about problem solving. Oh crap, x is broken – how do I fix it so it remains within the constraints of the world I’ve created yet makes the entire story even more awesome!

    I love it so much that I’ve come to hate drafting. Takes so long, I know it’s crap and will need revising, just want it on the page so I can polish and preen and pull it apart and put it back together…

    Thanks for sharing your journey – important for folks to have access to as MANY views of these things as possible, if only to reassure them there’s no right way, only what’s right for them (my new mantra).

  4. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Editing Your Novel and the Art of Strategic Panic. […]

Comments are closed.