The Dark Night of the (editing) Soul

Or how I accidentally learned to negate the bullet of hating my manuscript

I am an uncompromising editor. I work predominately with new and emerging writers and I push them hard – really hard – to produce the best possible work. I always get a sense of when I’m reaching the limit of that shove though. When I ask them to do one more draft. It’s when I expect them to tell me to ‘piss off’.

Over time I’ve learned this is the time to pile on the praise: how hard they’ve work, how well the story has developed and how much the reader is going to enjoy it. Or anything else I can pull from my hat to ease the pain of ‘just one more draft’.

FLYING SOLO

River_of_Bones2 reset

In the self-editing cycle there is just you, the page and all the broken words. No-one to champion you as writer, and your story; no-one to act as counter point to remind you of all the good in your manuscript and your capability as a writer.

When I was was working through Lesley’s structural edits on Elyora I reached the point of despair and I sat down and composed several emails to her that began: this has all been a terrible mistake.

I honestly believed the novella was shite and it would probably be best for all concerned if I pulled it.

It was Lesley’s first big editing gig and I felt it wasn’t my place to dump all of my self-doubt on her, to sift through then massage my ego.

After I deleted the third withdrawal letter in as many days, I dug deep inside to be my own editor-champion, as I had been for countless other writers. I told myself I was just looking at all the problems, all the things that didn’t work in the story and with my writing. Of course I was bound to be discouraged. Who wouldn’t be?

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

Last year when I wrote the booklet for my editing seminar, I included a section at the end of structural and line editing called ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. In there I talked about my own experiences and some suggestions to weather the temptation to just shelve the novel/novella/short story and keep working.

In digging myself out of the trough of self-doubt in 2012 I did several things:

  1. I forced myself to finish my revision (I was about 85% done).
  2. I was lucky enough to be reading Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine and no-one does internal monologue better than Kirstyn. I was able to see the internal monologue I had written into the latest draft was hideous. I wasn’t hating on the process or the narrative, what I was actually hating on was this new version of Jo.
  3. With that in mind, I read the manuscript aloud.

In reading the manuscript aloud I reconnected with it in a new way. It reinforced my suspicion the internal monologue was all wrong, and I went mad with my pink pen, striking it all out and adding in new suggestions. I made a bit of a game of redrafting the internal monologue. Many of the questions Lesley had about Jo’s dodgy motivations became Jo’s inner voice of reason: You really think it’s a good idea to let some strange man into the bathroom with you?

Dawn did come at the end of the very long night of self-doubt.

Not only did I survive the evil fourth draft, the fifth draft upon completion was structurally tight, the characters were all acting in authentic ways and I loved the manuscript again. Additionally, I was also relieved I had spared Lesley all my angst.

BECOMING YOUR INNER CHAMPION-EDITOR

IMG_7549Talking on this topic last Saturday was a light bulb moment for one of the writers in my editing seminar. Delia Strange went on to write a blog post about it.

In it she goes deeper than me just pointing out that editing is a process of picking all the mistakes and how it will consume you by definition of its brief.

Delia’s take on it was that editing becomes the worst kind of negative literary self-talk.

When we are looking for the flaws in our work, we are looking at the flaws in ourselves, in our abilities as writers.  Of course that’s going to expunge our deepest, darkest fears to the surface where we’ll have to face down those ugly thoughts and squash them back in again.

She offers up this gem of advice:

So while I line edit, every sentence that doesn’t need changing or does its job, I’m going to tell myself: “Look at that!  It’s flawless!  It’s wonderful!  I did a good job there!”

SURVIVING THE DARK NIGHT

I’m adding liberal doses of self-congratulation for the shiny bits to these other suggestions I put together as a mini survival guide in my seminar notes.

  1. Edit in steps – structural edits first, then line edits.
  2. Devise an editing schedule that maximises the time you have available and minimises the stress involved. Ensure you set aside days to rest and recharge.
  3. In that schedule specify milestones and celebrate each when it comes.
  4. Indulge in simple pleasures to offset the gruelling nature of editing. Write up a list as a ready reference in case your brain short-circuits.
  5. Be gentle with yourself when the darkness hits. It’s not the time to collude with the internal negative barrage.
  6. Burn essential oils, go for walks, use Rescue Remedy, write morning pages or anything else that brings you comfort and clarity.
  7. Have friends or colleagues who are willing to listen to you talk, rant, vent or cry if need be.
  8. Keep turning up to edit. If you feel you can’t, find a new way to engage with the process.
    • Work in a different place.
    • Ditch the isolation and organise editing sessions with another writer.
    • Change your writing soundtrack.
    • Read it aloud, or print it off, instead of struggling through it on the screen. This will let you mark up all the bits that are awesome as well as those that still need work.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT

Forewarned is forearmed to some extent. It still hard when you reach the dark point, but perhaps it’s not as hard as it might have been.

I think the dark night of the soul is a little like transition in labour. The bit where a woman screams: I. Can’t. Do. This.

The fact of the matter is: you are doing it. You are almost there. Take heart. The journey is almost over. Keeping going.

You will make it out the other side; relieved first, then happier about and more connected to the manuscript for your travel through the Underworld together.

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3 thoughts on “The Dark Night of the (editing) Soul

  1. Lovely post on the whole process, Jodi. Realise it varies for us all but letting the light in while still being self-critical was beautifully put. It’s so important to avoid those demos of self-doubt when we’re working to fine tine our work.

    Really enjoyed this post!

    • Absolutely Anthony. The process of focusing in and honing all the less than brilliant bits can cause a kind of amnesia toward all the more than brilliant bits.

      And thanks for sharing widely.

  2. article is quite interesting and hopefully true happiness rays began to warm the hearts of us all, when we can share it with sincerity. Greetings from Gede Prama 🙂

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