by Cecile Beauvillard Burman
I am editing my first novel. I have never got so much cleaning done. My clothes are ironed, the dishes are sparkling clean, the tub is scrubbed, the fridge, full.
I wish The Riff Raff had asked me to write a piece about how to procrastinate because I’ve become quite skilled in this area – not that it is something I was ever really bad at.
My top procrastination tips include: reading about other writers’ routines and moaning about how shit mine is in comparison. Living out your character’s lives on Sims 4. Suddenly deciding you have to work out three hours a day. Deciding to tackle The Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs. Instagram stories. Instagram stories.
More Instagram stories.
I started to work on my first novel for almost two years now, and, at the risk of sounding smug, I found getting the first draft out delightfully easy (let me reassure you, I’m not so smug now).
I’ll even say it poured out of me (please don’t slap me). There was this magnificent sense of urgency to get the words down, a cathartic fire under my ass, like when psychotherapy goes really well. I never seemed to tire; I wrote on lunch breaks in little bursts of activity, scribbled notes on my phone during my commute, treated myself to the famous notepad-by-my-bed and wrote down half-dreams that eventually turned into real paragraphs. As with any, all-consuming love affair, you make time for it in the schedule.
Read more: Embracing the first draft frenzy >>
Now, however, I am in editing mode. When they say that the real work starts when you finish the first draft, that ‘the end is the beginning’ they are, unfortunately, right. The common advice it to leave your first draft in a drawer for a few weeks before you start revisions. Well, I left it there for six months and let me tell you, that’s way too long. By the time I picked the manuscript up again the love affair was over. I hated every other word I had written with a passion. I couldn't see the point of the book, I couldn't remember what I meant to express through it, I thought my characters lacked depth, I found the plot unoriginal and the language unrefined.
As it turns out, you need to spend a long time with your characters to understand what they're about and how they interact with each other, and the time it took to write my first draft wasn't long enough. I am now getting to know them, which means I'm also changing my ending. Falling out of love with a story also kills your faith in it.
There is an upside, however: it also makes you a better critic. I got harsher with my work, I became comfortable with killing my darlings... actually, I don’t kill them, I just put them in a coma and move them to a different document.
Editing is a fragile process where you question everything you’re doing and why, which can be difficult but important. Question everything. I often find that working from an existing chapter that needs heavy editing is paralysing; instead, I write down the purpose of this chapter, what needs to be achieved narratively, and start from a blank page so as to not get crippled by the poor words from my first draft. I usually end up writing a wildly different chapter.
I am currently working from a café in Milan, during a four-week sabbatical from my day job (thanks boss!). If you can book time off and go somewhere else, do it, even if it's just a week of your holiday allowance in Surrey – your muse doesn’t exclusively reside in a tree house in Panama. Writing a first draft can be done anywhere with passion; editing is dry and requires an uncluttered brain.
Edit in short bursts. I did my best first draft writing during punchy bouts of energy and the same is true for editing: create 45 minute windows of super focused work then reward yourself with some productive activities. Go for a walk – I created a playlist for my book, which consists of songs my characters listen to; I put it on as I run errands and get some fresh air and it helps to bring me back into the zone. Alternatively, but preferably also, read a book that you love and crave to emulate. Good artists imitate work they’re inspired by all the time. Learn how to read like a writer, or better, like an editor, picking up on technique. Study your favourite books and understand why you love them: is it the intense pace, the sparse language, the short paragraphs, the incisive dialogue?
You must do the hard work for yourself of course, but consider the people who are giving you the time, freedom and space to write. Maybe it's your boss, your partner, your kids, your friends. Whoever they are, it’s likely that they are in some way facilitating your hour a day to write – more if you're lucky. The least you can do is to show up at your desk and write, hate your writing, then re-write and re-write some more.
Good luck with your writing and editing, Riff Raff community. You’ve got this.
Follow Cecile on Twitter here.