So, I’m editing.
It would be brilliant, wouldn’t it, if we could just write and have done with it. If every word that spilled forth in our first drafts was the most perfectly crafted jewel, settling happily into place without a whimper. Sadly, however, this is not true of anyone (no matter what they tell you), and if anyone who wants to write is reading this and believes it to be true, then please allow me to dispel the notion.
Editing is what it’s all about. That doesn’t make it fun; far from it. But it’s unavoidable.
However – for the first time – I know that, right now, I am not the only person editing my work. As I labour away on the manuscript for ‘Web’ (not its real name), my wonderfully patient and hardworking agent is hacking through ‘Emmeline’ (also, not its real name), and I can’t help wondering how it’s going, whether she’s found any major clangers, and/or whether she’s now regretting with every fibre of her being that she ever offered me representation. I’m very lucky (and I know it) to be represented by an agent who likes to edit, who works with her clients to get their work as polished as possible before submitting it to publishers; as well as that, as an editor she has worked with the likes of Roddy Doyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce, which is simultaneously impressive and terrifying.
Roddy Doyle. Frank Cottrell Boyce. And me.
Anyway. It’s best not to think about these things.
Yesterday, I finished my first read-through of ‘Web’. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. I’m going through a bit of a crisis, actually, because I’m pretty certain that ‘Emmeline’ is a better book, albeit very different in style and tone; surely, one is supposed to improve from book to book, and a writer is meant to get better the more they write – right? Well, not if I’m anything to go by. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am still very much wrapped up in ‘Web’; I’ve only just finished the first draft, after all, and the first read-through is still fresh in my mind. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s my instincts telling me that ‘Emmeline’ was more original, more interesting, better structured and paced, and that ‘Web’ is far more pedestrian. Having said that, it’s reasonably interesting until about three-quarters of the way through, when it seems to fall apart a bit. I’m not sure why, yet, but I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out.
I am the kind of person who finds it hard to see other options when a first draft hasn’t gone the way I wanted – I’ve set the story down, now, and it’s a huge challenge for me to see that it can actually go in any one of thousands of other directions. It’s like my brain settles itself into a groove, like a river cutting through rock, and that’s it. Getting some distance from the text will help, but I am pretty sure that even if I left it alone for months I’d still manage to come back to it and fall into my old patterns again. This is why it’s so important to have someone else edit your work – it’s practically impossible for anyone, no matter how talented or good or experienced – to read their work the way an editor would. It’s even tough to read your own work the way a reader would. Distancing yourself from it is the best thing you can do, but it’s not foolproof.
I hope that my feelings today are a combination of my natural tendency to be hard on myself coupled with the fallout from my ‘speed wobble’ earlier in the week, and not a consequence of my disimprovement as a writer. It would perhaps be better to remind myself that I have managed to bring a story seed to a complete first draft in little over two months, and that is something I should celebrate, not lament. It’s also good to remind myself, from time to time, that working hard, and fast, means that you don’t have a lot of time for reflection, and that it’s easy to forget that simply completing a book is a great achievement. If I didn’t have a first draft, I’d have nothing to work with at all. Second drafts and third drafts and published books can’t exist without first drafts, after all.
Also, as someone very wise reminded me last weekend, it doesn’t always follow that the book you, as a writer, love the most is the book your readers will love the most. I might feel that ‘Web’ is not my best work, but something about it could appeal strongly to someone else, and they might take something from it that I hadn’t even seen. Also, ‘Emmeline’ – which is my favourite of the books I’ve written so far, even though I know it’s not flawless – may never be read by anyone but my agent and me.
Gah. This writing business is tough, y’know? And not always for the reasons you’d expect. Lucky I love it, I guess!