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’.


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?


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.


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!”


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.


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.

The Art of Self-Editing and Critique

It was my pleasure to deliver the Australian Writers’ Marketplace Author IQ seminar “The Art of Self Editing and Critiquing” Sunday at the Queensland Writers Centre.

The week leading up to it had been tumultuous. The kind of life altering quake that lays in wait for epic deadlines. But I got there, with a lot of help from Dave and Mr D pulling it together to be on his best behaviour while I tried to quantify and explain things I do every day intuitively. It was an odd process. A process that involved Power Point for the first time since Uni. Need I say more?

IT’LL BE RIGHT ON THE NIGHTartofselfediting

…unless it’s day. And Mother’s Day at that!

Left home with plenty of time to arrive early, only to find the entire Cultural Centre precinct sealed off like a bomb had gone off. Yes, it was the Mothers’ Day Classic and trying to get within hurling distance of the State Library was impossible. I rather embarrassingly arrived five minutes before the seminar was to start after finally finding a car park six blocks away. First thing I said, as I huffed and puffed into the room was: You obviously all didn’t try to find a park around here. Yeah hello and welcome, gratefully I’m not here all week and they’re not serving veal!

All those already there were smart folk who were dropped off!

After some minor technical hitches and agreement we’d wait for all the other poor people caught up in the chaos beyond the quiet walls of the library, I caught my breath, tried to regain the nerve I had when I left home and hoped my voice would hold for three hours.


I had worried that banging on about ELYORA as a way to illustrate some of the points I was trying to make, would end up tedious. But it seemed to be a way to keep the dry, boring stuff entertaining and the number of people who said after the seminar they’d like to buy ELYORA–it sounded awesome–was a little overwhelming. It was also at the same point I remembered it’s actually published as RIVER of BONES!

I got to tell everyone how I wrote a sex scene as a word filler during the Rabbit Hole and then ended up with it as an important plot point in the narrative and couldn’t delete it. And how my Dad is desperate to read the novella. I think I may have managed to do it in such a way that I didn’t blush.


While there were plenty of entertaining stories, I wanted everyone to take home solid, practical skills. I wanted to inspired people, to embrace the editorial process as one of benefit, belief and growth. Definitely not something to be scared of, though a healthy dose of ‘daunting’ was okay.

As I said above, trying to bring form and order to what swirls in my head during an edit was a challenge. What I produced for the booklet and the seminar overall felt stilted and compartmentalised and really rigid. But you need a road map when you’re going somewhere unfamiliar. You can’t wing it on paper (though if you are a muppet you can travel by map!)

I went through how to move from writer to editor, explained the processes, the different steps and then broke it all down with tools, tips and insights. The first three sections were dedicated to editor and the last to beta reading (what I really wanted to shared with them!)

The hush through the room when I went through the section on beta reading had a reverent edge to it… or it was just that we’d got in trouble for being too loud?


There were so many smiling faces at the end of yesterday. And the swell and excitement of emails addresses being swapped at the end of the seminar (when everyone was told to start their beta reading circles)—heartening.

I came home on top of the world, which was a good place to be when the world had been upside down for most of the week.

Thank you to everyone who contributed in such a wonderful way. You made not just my Mothers’ Day but my week. And thank you to Meg, Aimee and the rest of the staff at the QWC/AWM for having faith in me. Also to Adam who looked through my early notes and give me the nod, Dave who proof read for me; plus all the other people (Trent, Peter, Nicky, Rob et al) who said the right thing at the right time.

Photo: Rebekah Turner and I at the break.

New Articles at Write Anything

Following in the  footsteps of the wonderful Jen Brubacher, I’m posting an update on my Write Anything articles for the month of March.

March was a tough month for all of Write Anything’s staff writers. Paul set the daunting task of a writer’s self audit, followed up by a blog post sharing what we unearthed.

Out of the process came Shall I Compare Thee,  followed up here with The Perils of Comparison and the Posse of Imposters Answered. My second article for the month, Friend or Foe: The Impact of Your Belief System on Writing, explored a slightly different area of my writing life:

In the early weeks of January I set off to find the person I knew and loved as ‘writer’. It meant a harsh process of deconstruction; demolishing what was left of myself as writer after recurrent bouts of depression, severe loss of self-confidence and long period of inactivity. I knew I had to do this, or I would never make sense of how I came to be marooned in this charred no-man’s land of writing, much less leave it for lusher locales.

With the aid of my journal and a few well-timed tarot cards, I realised it all came down to my belief system. Over the past few years I’ve become very good at creating absolute paradigms for my creative life. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I doused the paradigms in flammable value judgements and for want of anything better to do, flicked a match in and watched the whole shebang, previously known as my writing life, burn.

At the core of the mess lay the belief I could only ever write OR edit.

You can continue reading the article here.

I’m proud to say, since originally writing the article back in early February, writing and editing are cohabiting a better space. It is still a struggle, especially around deadlines, but having a new set of beliefs to fall back on, makes it far easier to move forward, to write every day and to accept the times when editing must take precedence.