Out in the Woods

I quit my job a while ago for a number of reasons (including being in a rare and privileged moment where I could and still survive for a short time). The reason I cite to myself the most is that despite being part-time and mostly fine, a small amount of it was stressing me out so much that I was too mentally and emotionally exhausted in my spare time to actually write. I originally took a part-time job and the necessary budgeting constraints because it gave me time to write, so this was rather missing the point. (Also, side note, the fun times of living, working and writing with anxiety, and one of the periods of time when I have had the most extreme restrictions on my life because of it, yey)

So anyway, with the incredible support of my partner, I quit. I finished my notice period at the end of August and launched into September eager to finish the sixth draft of my work in progress before I got a new job.

Only problem was, I hadn’t realised how tough the sixth draft was going to be. I mean, writing is always tough, editing doubly so, and I had some super useful reader comments to factor into my latest draft. I truly believe it would have been just as tough and taken so much more time if I’d done my sixth draft while staying in my old job. Hell, I may never have done it, because given how much this draft is messing with my head and making me deeply anxious, the combination of that with workplace stress and anxiety would have left me constantly on a state of high-alert mixed with immense guilt that I wasn’t finishing my draft. Considering I really wanted to get my novel sent out to agents before Christmas, suddenly my deadline has got a lot tighter.

There have been weeks where I basically did nothing towards my sixth draft, and I felt like they were such a waste. However, despite that, I’ve slogged on little by little and I’ve done some fairly heavy spot editing based on feedback and made it through a third of my draft with detailed line edits. It’s galling to know I could have done so much more in the time, but I’ve proved to myself that I can push on through.

The big problem I’ve found is that suddenly it feels real. Suddenly I can’t just say, “Oh, it doesn’t need to be perfect, I’ll fix it next time round.” I’ve developed mental tricks to get past my writing anxiety for every other stage of the process, but this is a new frontier, as I’ve never got this far on a novel before. For the first draft, I repeat to myself, “I’ll fix it in post, just move on and get it finished, doesn’t have to make sense. Everyone’s first drafts suck.” For the second draft (the ‘triage draft’, a name I picked up from Writing Excuses), I say, “OK, I have it written, now I need to address the major issues all the way through, I just need to make it readable.” For the third-fifth drafts, I tell myself that I just need to fix this problem right in front of me, the others I’ll catch next time round. But I know that I need the sixth draft to be close to the end, otherwise I’ll never stop editing. My plan is to do one more draft after this one for beta reader feedback and then…you know, stop. Leave it alone. Declare it as finished as it can be without a professional look. I’m a messy and impatient perfectionist, which is a terrible combination, but being aware of my tendencies is part of the way to figuring out my process.

I have got through a third by now, which I feel proud of. I got seriously stuck early on as I revised the first 1000 words over and over again – every time I went back to the novel, I’d restructure the opening and change how information was conveyed. It was messy. I got really scared, like “Is this it? Am I going to be stuck in this opening section forever?” But then I forced myself to skip the first 1000 words and press on, and with more of a backlog, I was able to tell myself that I didn’t have the time to tinker any more with that first section.

This is the kind of stuff writing websites and books don’t really talk about. Everything’s very focused on planning, first draft, “do some editing” and then leap magically forward to sending to agents. I suspect the reason for this is that it’s a highly personal process, even more so than the actual writing of the thing. The advice on editing mostly varies between ‘find your story’s heart’ (useful but often a bit vague) and ‘fix these very specific narrative elements’. There are people like Chuck Wendig who do some very good no-nonsense posts on editing (often funny, often sweary, NSFW) but they are generally aimed at the starting points of editing rather than the bit where you feel like it’s almost there but not quite good enough, and you don’t know if you’re even skilled enough to make it good enough. They usually say “stop poking it and give it to others to read/send it out at some point”, but when you instinctively know that you aren’t yet at that point but you have no idea how to fix it, you can end up frozen in place.

That’s what happened to me. It’s been a bit tough to talk about because for a brief period of grace, I have the opportunity to spend all day doing exactly what I love most: this is me living my dream (or the bit of my dream before I actually get published)…and I’m not doing it. I’m just standing in place, which is my least favourite state of being. I did a lot of unhealthy self-talk to myself over this time, especially as I have a lovely friend who has been going through tough times (so I want to be supportive) but (important point) already has a publishing contract, and so every bit of their work is actually somehow validated in a way mine isn’t, and they are being waaay more productive than me. I hate that I can’t do the thing I love despite having the perfect opportunity, I feel like a disappointment and a failure who should just buy back into the 9-5 grind. There are plenty of people (Grant Faulkner from NaNoWriMo as a famous example) who took a year off to write and found they were less productive than when they had been working. It didn’t help that I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ in the last few days of my job and she feels that people who give up their day job to write are doomed to failure because a job gives our writing time meaning and definition. That’s probably true, but a job that is full of stress, frustration and apathy isn’t good for your writing, except as a spur to rebellion, and that is how I ended putting so much pressure on my writing to rescue me that I lost the joy in it.

I want to make this work. And I’ve made a start, but I still have a way to go. But I think with a will and a way, I can finish my sixth draft by the end of October, give it to people to read in November, and try and get the seventh draft out of the door as quickly as possible. Then, obviously, I won’t send it right before Christmas because that’s goddamn crazy. And really the whole December/January time is terrible to send out a novel, because the NaNoWriMo flood is in force (people who wrote a novel in November and feel they should send it out to agents straight away), plus then you have the new years’ resolutions people. But when it’s done, I’ll send it out, and it will get done. Not even a really terrible month of anxiety is going to stop that.

Bonus: Story Hospital was recommended by a friend and it’s really made me think about self-care for writers and how the mental game can be as important as the ‘butt in chair’ game.

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