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The loon and the prison guard

Last week, I totally forgot about my Friday email until the deadline was starting to loom in a scarily loomy way. (Overhanging by 5 or 10 degrees, and offering thin holds on sketchy protection – that kind of loomy.)

So I dashed out an email that had a single thought at the heart of it. This one:

Creative writers and, really, creators of almost any sort,
are often asked to perform their best work
without any kind of support.

That email then turned into a kind of mission statement. Very roughly: “we can’t alter the basic difficulty of your situation, but we can and will be as supportive as we can.” There wasn’t really any practical, actionable advice in the email. When we sent it out, it felt like some underweight homework rushed out to meet a deadline.

But you lot told me otherwise.

I always get plenty of responses to these emails, but last week I got double the normal volume. The general gist of those answers was summed up in one email that said my message felt like a hug, necessary and comforting. And, good: consider yourself e-hugged (in a way that respects your personal boundaries and all covid-regulation protocols in your country of residence.)

But it struck me, as I read your replies, that there are two phases to our acts of creation and each phase makes a different demand.

First, there’s a purely creative phase, one that’s all about production.

This is where we dream up the idea of the story. It’s where we nudge and tweak that (still theoretical) story into shape. It’s where we write our openings chapters (in a rush), our middle chapters (slowly and in pain), our ending chapters (with relief.) The end of this creative phase is marked by delivery of a complete manuscript, starting on page 1 and running all the way through to the beautiful words, “THE END”.

For that birthing process, I strongly recommend an attitude of slightly crazed positivity. And I do mean crazed. It’s not enough to think, “Oh, sure, I think this novel will probably be good enough to be looked at with some interest by a literary agent.” In my experience, you need to be ludicrously positive. You need to be dreaming of that multi-publisher auction, your book piled high in supermarkets, your name on bestseller lists, foreign rights deals flooding in. Whatever works for you.

You don’t have to be reasonable. Just give yourself whatever drug gets you through. You’ve got a daydream about being invited onto Oprah? Or getting a call from a certain Stockholm-based prize committee? Then good. Dream away.

Those hopes may well be unrealistic. After all, the brutal statistics say, you aren’t likely to be published. If you are, the outcome – critical and commercial – may not be all that astonishing. But those true and reasonable facts are hardly likely to sustain you through months of creative endeavour, hard labour, and false paths.

So leave realism aside. For the creative phase, be as unreasonable as you want. Give yourself whatever dreams you need to inspire you. And remember this dictum of Jane Smiley’s: “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.”

She’s right. Block out the negative. Dream your dreams. And write.

But then comes the second phase, the editorial one.

For most first-time novelists, I’d say completion of the first draft marks – very roughly – your halfway point in the whole creative process. The editorial process is likely to take as long, or maybe longer, as the writing phase. It’s equally critical. I’ve never once seen a first draft manuscript that was in good enough shape to find a publisher. My own first draft manuscripts (which I edit heavily as I go) would not be ones I’d be happy to send out.

And now you need to switch from the forgiving / dreamy / inspirational you to the pedantic / critical / perfectionist one. You need to transform from loon to prison officer.

Everything you have just written is up for review. Everything.

Your basic idea for the novel. Is that sharp enough? Attractive enough? Fresh enough? Does it infuse the entire book? Is it saleable?

Your basic plot arc. Is it clear? Does it compel the attention? Does the ending satisfy? Does the basic plot machinery work?

And does your main character engage the reader? And do your settings exist and have atmosphere? And what about your secondary characters? And was your first person / third person choice correct? And do you have the right number of viewpoints in play?

Oh yes, and does this sentence really need all ten words, or could you say the same thing just as well in eight?

For this phase, in my experience, you more or less have to drop the Oprah daydreams. Forgiving optimism isn’t the right spirit to bring to the task of constant fault-finding and error-correction.

Quite the contrary. In that first phase, you needed to praise yourself as the word counter ticked slowly up. Now you need to do the reverse. “Yay! I deleted 3,000 words today. Well done, me.”

In the first phase, you needed to think, “Yes! You know what? My Best Friend character really is funny, quirky and a delight on the page.” Now you need to ask, “Is that actually funny? Or is it just lame? Would the balance of this scene feel better if I just cut the banter?”

This process, always, is trial and error. You try one thing and see if it feels better. If not, you try another and another till you find something that pleases you.

A solid grounding in writing craft will unquestionably support this process – you’ll work more efficiently and produce a better outcome. But every editorial decision still comes down to a question of which sounds better to you, X or Y? Perhaps you settle on Y, and complete this new draft, then come back to the same place during a new round of editing, and you’ll find yourself asking “Y or Z? Or was I wrong to abandon X? Now what I’ve changed the Auntie Prue death scene, maybe I’d do better to stick with X here?” The process only ends when you read the manuscript and think that, yes, you like what’s written there. You can’t find a way to improve it.

Emotionally speaking (and in my experience, at least), the thing that sustains you through the editorial phase isn’t wild-eyed optimism, it’s a sense of relief.

You knew the first draft was problematic – of course you did. That’s why you had to keep telling yourself good-fortune fables to keep your spirits up. Now, with the editing, you can start addressing problems, and you feel the book starting to lift.

For me, that experience is of finding a faster, lighter, more purposeful book emerging from the manuscript I started with. It’s almost like you are pulling heavy, sea-going timbers from a boat, to find a sleek fibreglass hull underneath. That’s what allows you to be a brutal critic of your own work: you can see that the criticism leads to a better reading experience. You actually see it happening in front of you.

I don’t want to pretend that these observations are universal. They may not be. In the end, you need to arrange your emotional landscape in whatever way best suits you and your life and your project. If wild optimism is what keeps you going though that editorial phase, then please – be my wildly optimistic guest. If you like to edit your book as you write (and I do), then by all means bring something of the prison guard to your writing phase as well as your purely editorial one.

But forgive yourself. Find the process that works for you, and permit it. There isn’t a right or wrong as regards process. There’s only a good or bad in terms of the final manuscript. If you can navigate your little craft to the Harbour of Good Writing, then North Pole / South Pole / Panama Canal? Just take whatever route works for you.

Happy sailing, happy writing.

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Comments (10)
    • Ah... It must be Friday 'cos there's a new blogpost from Harry. I'm in a hurry now to do a bit of shopping before the office crowd comes out here in Paris, but will read all of it later.

      Au revoir les copins...

      P.S. I've sent Harry a PM last week but guess he's been super busy and hasn't seen it yet. Either that or he's not speaking to "french sounding people".

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      • At the end of any writing project, I usually just settle for 'Oh, thank f*ck for that!' Emphasis on the '*'. 😂 

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        • This struck a chord in my writing process. Personally, I think too much and too fast in the first draft. Then, the noise slows down when I edit.

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          • Hi, Harry. I hope the family is well, that bug has gone and you have recovered the lost sleep?

            I like the two-phase analogy. Is there not good reason to say that some of what happens in phase 2 should have happened already, before phase 1? If we pay attention to the story arc and whatnot before we set sail, then rather than heavy timbers to shift later we just have Jewsons best 3" x 2" softwood sustainably sourced lengths to strip away? Is this a Plotter v Pantster situation?

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            • I love Harry's e-hug, and I hope it becomes an active expression on Jericho, along with 'reader magnet', 'target audience' and 'comp titles'.

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              • A reader magnet is a multi-part package deal.

                It starts with a page in your e-book, immediately after the end of the story. Before any additional information, before any crap the publisher wants to insert to cross-sell other authors' work, before…

                That page basically tells readers they can sign up to get news from you, the author, and also get to read a free short story (5-10k words) which is exclusive to those who do sign up. (And that promise of exclusivity needs to be kept.) It links to a dedicated sign-up page on your author site - one with all the navigation stripped out - where they supply their e-mail address and in exchange get sent a link to download the free story.

                That list is then used to communicate with your reading audience (on a regular but not overbearing basis - maybe monthly or so), keeping them informed of what you're doing in the writerly world, teasing new projects, maybe giving them other occasional freebie stories…

                It's basically a tool to build you a list so that when your next book is released, you have reams of eager readers ready and willing to head straight for their favourite online bookstore and drag you, kicking and screaming onto the bestseller lists…

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                • In short, the potential reader is thought of as an iron filing.

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                  • wow, sounds obvious and yet out of my realm. I think I'll keep on trying to get the book finished first ;-)

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