The Writing Process: 20% Writing, 50% Editing, 30% Staring at my laptop

With my first book set to be published in mid-January, I have been revising my manuscript in conjunction with my publisher. When I first opened the email with their edits my stomach twisted uncomfortably into an anxious knot- I was prepared to be met with hundreds if not thousands of revisions, not just in terms of grammar but in terms of character and plot, also. I was terrified I was going to be asked to make some enormous changes to my book in order to make it worthy of being published. I am a member of different writing groups on Facebook and every day I read of authors being asked such things of their agents and publishers. I am not so attached to my book that I wouldn’t be willing to subject it to massive edits. They are the experts, after all. But on some level I do feel a little protective of it. It is mine. I wrote it. The last thing I want to do is be forced to make changes I’m not comfortable with and be left publishing something that doesn’t feel like it was written by me.

As it turns out, such fears were rather irrational. The only changes the editor made were in terms of spelling. From an Irish perspective my spellings were fine, but they didn’t meet the standards of my American publisher. Colour instead of color, favourite instead of favorite. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Camogie wasn’t underlined with a question mark. While such spellings do irk me deep down inside they were hardly the sacrifices I expected to be making, and I could at last breathe a sigh of relief. (Granted, this is merely the first draft of revisions. I will check over them and send the manuscript back, but I can’t imagine she will suggest any major plot changes this close to publishing).

On these writing pages on Facebook I constantly see people enquiring over and over about how many times a piece should be edited before it is deemed complete. I often find myself surprised by the responses. Writers in the comment section will suggest they spend thousands of dollars on editing, sending the draft to multiple different proof-readers before they dare submit to a publishing house or agent. I cannot imagine many people hoping to release a book have a few grand lying around in their bank account, especially if they aren’t expecting to make a living from their work. I certainly don’t. On the one hand I can see why this might be necessary for some prospective authors. English isn’t everyone’s first language, and not everyone has sufficient grammar. Even now I constantly find myself googling quirky grammar rules because there’s plenty we weren’t taught in school, and I was an A1 English student, often labelled the Grammar Police by my friends in our messenger chats. I am also a bit of a perfectionist, and I hate submitting anything that isn’t in the best shape it can be.

All this got me thinking about my own writing and editing process, and the truth is that I probably edited my work over a hundred times in total before I finally submitted it. Henry Miller came up with some fairly sound advice that I always try to follow; “When you can’t create you can work.” Writer’s Block is a real problem for many people but it can be overcome. I often find myself staring at a blank page with nothing at all to say before remembering there’s plenty I’ve already said that needs polishing. Whether it is my writing or my college research there is always something I can be working on, however boring it might be. I’d say my writing process is 20% writing, 50% editing, 30% simply sitting there and thinking, staring at my laptop and thinking about what I’d like for dinner. Even if I do spend far too much time procrastinating I’d still wager most of my time is spent editing, and I cannot conceive of possibly doing things differently. Writing is editing, for me.

I constantly see people asking which is better; to write first and then edit, or do both simultaneously? It’s certainly a tough question, and my answer is to do both. When I first started this manuscript it was entirely unrecognizable from what it is now. The characters were completely different, the location was different, and the plot- the plot of the book that will be published in January and the plot of the book I started earlier this year are the plots of two incompatibly different books. All that is similar is that they were both romances. That’s it. I got to about Chapter Ten of my first draft in May before I decided to make a few edits and then decided to scrap it entirely and rewrite it, keeping some basic elements while changing others. I then wrote about five chapters of the second draft and repeated the process. And then did it again and again and again before I eventually got so bored of editing that I decided I was done with the whole thing altogether. I reached what was meant to be the halfway point of the story and found myself bored out of my mind. I didn’t want to continue writing. I was sick of the bloody thing and had no wish whatsoever to carry on with it.

A couple of weeks passed by. Two or three months, maybe. I was busy with the post-lockdown euphoria, meeting up with friends, preparing for college. College started back and I got a handy job sitting around in the library with not much to do other than ask people to put on face-masks. Rather than dive into my college work I pulled up my laptop and found where I had last left off in draft fifty-something of my novel. It had been a cliff hanger, originally, before the novel was supposed to jump forward maybe five years in time. I dreaded the proposed second half of my book so much that I decided I didn’t need it. If I had opted to keep on writing that story I would have wound up with a novel about 150k words in length, double what it is now and definitely unpublishable. The proposed second half of the book was ultimately pointless to the story I was currently trying to tell, and made for a better stand alone novel- maybe even simply a novella. So I began editing what I already had again and again and again before ultimately deciding to simply send what I had to a publisher without telling anyone else, and seeing what would happen. I spend a lot more time editing than I do actually writing. I’d wager every line in my book was rewritten at least three times and even then they’re still far from perfect. Getting the words down on paper isn’t what is hard for me. It’s getting the right words. I’ve never been crazy about plot-centric books. Lyrical books, that flow almost like poetry, are what get to me, which makes my own writing that bit harder. I often spend more time trying to tie the odd ends of a ridiculous plot together than I do coming up with a plot because the plot isn’t what I focus on. I’ll write out ten pages of pure waffle and then realize it doesn’t actually fit anywhere in the book. My English teacher in school once told me I was the most eloquent waffler he had ever met. The truth is that I’d rather spend pages upon pages reading a drawn-out description of what love is to somebody than pages upon pages about somebody’s day, however exciting that day might have been. Not everyone is like that, however. Most people care more about the plot and the events of a novel than they do how pretty the words are. I’ll waste hours on end trying to perfect one sentence and then realize the plot of the book, all those hours later, still resembles a sinking ship. Finding that balance is hard. It’s probably the hardest part of my writing process. It’s why I have always feared the short story. How am I supposed to waffle for paragraphs on end about the woes of unrequited love or the pangs of grief when there’s a two thousand word limit? Even now I realize I have diverted massively off course from the blog I set out to write. Sometimes I am met with the challenge of having too much completely unnecessary drivel to share, and it is a challenge I am yet to overcome.

 About ten seconds after I pressed send on the email of my novel to the publisher I thought of more edits to make. Even now I am still coming up with things to change, and irrationally so. The more of my work I re-read the more I want to change. If I had my way it would never be published; I would simply keep editing it until there was nothing left. So how can I ever decide that my work is complete? I imagine it will be published and I’ll lie awake at night for weeks after, unhappy with all the changes I could still be making. My pillow is my muse, after all. I come up with some fantastic ideas lying in bed and simply hope that I’ll remember them in the morning. There are those who recommend putting a finished novel in a box somewhere for a year before you decide to edit it. This seems like utter madness to me. A month or more, maybe, but a year? I’d have driven myself mad if I had left my manuscript to collect dust in a box somewhere for a year. I’m sure it works for some. It certainly wouldn’t for me. I’m just too impatient.

The only way for me to be comfortable finishing my work is simply to distract myself with something new. I can’t lie awake thinking of all the things I ought to change if I’m lying awake thinking of a brand-new plot, can I? I often imagine if any writer is every really happy with what they’ve written. We look at world-famous authors like JK Rowling, still coming up with pointless little tidbits that are entirely irrelevant to the world of Harry Potter all these years later. I mean- yes, it would have been wonderful if Dumbledore was gay in the novels, but he wasn’t. Plenty of people thought Harry and Hermione should have been together, but they weren’t. Why come out and say that was how it should have been years after the books are done? Sometimes we need to decide when to leave well enough alone.

My actual writing process is hard to pin down when it often correlates with how much other work I am trying to avoid. I have never been able to work in complete silence. When studying in the library I often chose to visit what others deemed the “2:1” library, meaning if you studied there you were never going to achieve a First in your degree. I found it impossible to concentrate anywhere else because there was never enough background noise. And yet listening to music when I write is a tricky one. While I have never been able to work in complete silence, a lot of people say that music grounds them when they write; for me, it simply serves to distract. (I have also tried watching TV/movies while writing but if whatever is on screen is worth watching, the writing is simply abandoned. Multitasking definitely isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (I once tried to build a computer while my family were watching Schindler’s List in the background. Terrible and very costly idea.) Music has always been a no for me when I study as I simply don’t have the attention span required to enjoy what I am listening to and work at the same time. It is rather paradoxical that I cannot work in silence, or work with music. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe the problem is simply that I’m just horrible at working. I have made several writing themed playlists on my Spotify but tend to listen to these before writing as they serve as inspirations. I often imagine scenes in the book in terms of a movie soundtrack by asking myself what songs would be playing in the background if this was a film, and listen to these before I open up my laptop. Listening to musical theatre soundtracks helps too, although that’s probably just because I like musical theatre. It is emotion heavy, and so perfect for stirring up the emotions needed for writing particular moments and scenes. In sum, finding the perfect conditions for writing is next to impossible. If I was to try and figure out the best time of the day, the best room, the best star alignment, needed for me to produce the best possible work, I’d still be on chapter one.

During lockdown, my daily routine never varied all that much. I woke up earlier and brought Coco out for a walk, and when I got home I either played a game on Steam or did some writing. On a good day I managed to churn out maybe 5,000 words. On a bad day I reached a new level in Dragon Age. You win some, you lose some. But I have never had a set time designated to writing. For me, one day isn’t going to be the same, or even similar, to the next. Sometimes, even now, I will start off by writing by hand first. It’s easier I find to get the words in my head down onto the page with a pen than it is on my laptop, if I am feeling especially impatient. After that, I’ll type them out. That’s generally how I write notes for college work, too. My roughest drafts are always done by pen. If I’m being honest with myself I very rarely have a detailed plan of where I’m going when I start, either. I’ll know roughly what path I’m going to take but as I have already said, that path is subject to immense diversions. The only time I’ll ever really have a concrete step by step plan is when the work is done.

There are famous writers out there with rigid routines that seem almost impossible to me. Maya Angelou used to rent a hotel room when she was working, and she would arrive there in the morning to write before heading home at around 2pm. She never actually stayed in the hotel; she simply needed a different space to work in that wasn’t her living space. I’m sure when her career began she wasn’t so strict when it came to working conditions but for her, that was the only method that worked. Plenty of writers say that they cannot write in the same place they live but again, these are the professionals. These are the ones who can splurge on hotel rooms for half a year. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. I personally can’t imagine writing anywhere that isn’t my bed. There are a lot of people out there who wish they could be writers but say they haven’t got the time or the space. I’m not sure what they imagine goes into writing. Writing is hard work but it doesn’t require a person quitting their day job and forking out on a private office. In fact, the last thing any writer should do, even a published one, is quit their job. We can’t all be Harper Lee, whose friends gifted her a whole year’s salary so she could have the time to write “To Kill A Mockingbird.” If you’ve got the idea and the ambition, the time and space will find themselves. I used to think I’d never be able to write a novel unless the conditions were absolutely perfect. Writing, to me, was utter seclusion and an unlimited amount of time. (Think more Colin Firth in Love Actually than Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) That simply isn’t true, I’ve come to realise.

I see people constantly asking on those FB pages what is the best place to write, and what time of the day they should start and end. Such questions seem futile to me now when it’s all about what works best for you as an individual. It’ll be a cold day in Hell before I get up at 4am to write, as Haruki Murukami does. There are those who recommend writing every single day, even if just for a few minutes. There are others who recommend writing after exercise. There are others who swear by writing drunk and editing sober. There are probably a million different ways of writing. There isn’t one method which works for everyone, just as there isn’t one way to do anything. The best advice I could give a prospective writer is just sit down and do it. After that, you simply have to hope the rest will come.

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