A few days ago I promised a blog post a day — a promise that, if I’m truthful, I’m already regretting. I’m one of those writers notorious for not finishing what they started. And not just as a writer, as gym-goer or dieter I face the same problem. My initial burst of enthusiasm gradually dwindles. I’ll start again tomorrow, I tell myself. It’s just a temporary hiatus. But five works in progress (or 10 weeks and 10 kilos) later, I’m still on the bandwagon. So, at the risk of lapsing back into bad habits, I am posting today.
It might not be the most informative post in the world. It may even make you think: “Oh she’s one of those people — those big idea types who never finish anything.” But the thing is, I’m not always like this. As well as trying to find the time to write, I’ve been working as an editor for more than twelve years, working for traditional publishing houses as my day job (as a Senior Editor for the most part but as an inhouse author for the past three years) and spending my weekends and spare time working as a freelance editor, simply because I love it. As a result, editing the work of others has often taken precedence over finishing my own writing.
When editing, I am extremely deadline driven and relish the excitement of working my way through a manuscript and the thrill that comes with finishing an edit on time and to the best of my ability. I regularly lose myself in a manuscript for hours on end, and I dislike interruptions and actively seek to minimise them. So where is the disconnect? Why am I so appalling at putting in the hard yards to finish my own work? Why am I so easily distracted by every tweet or post that pops up on my iPhone? Why do I sit staring into space cursing myself while my novel limps along? The answer is: I’m too close to my own work to be able to evaluate it successfully and I’m terrified of finishing it, which would mean I have to then subject it to a process that I know, from experience, is nerve-wracking: submitting.
My editorial training has taught me how to assess and appraise the work of others, how to pedantically mark up botched grammar and punctuation, and how to detect issues with plot, pacing and characterisation. Editing is a critical process that requires a certain kind of cynicism and circumspection, but when it comes to my own work, my critical faculties go into overdrive. Great ideas and interesting premises soon start to appear trite and unoriginal. Every word I write is wrong. And not just wrong, but WRONG! My work, I convince myself, is terrible. As a result I let trivial issues prevent me from writing and I turn instead to something I know I am good at: editing. That I am paid to edit (both as a freelancer and, in the past, for several traditional publishers) validates what I do. My own non-paid fiction writing comes with no such validation. It is subject to the whims of agents and commissioning editors just like any other author’s.
The annoying thing is that, despite my “inner critic,” deep down I know I can write. When not on maternity leave, I work as a non-fiction inhouse author and I’ve been paid good money to write more than 28 books — a luxury I am very grateful for. I’ve created funny engaging storybooks for children, travel guides, natural history books and coffee table books for adults. I’ve sold lots of books. I've won awards. I’ve been well reviewed. I can write. What I can’t do is give myself a break.
I am my own worst critic. My worst enemy. The attention to detail and commitment to “getting it right” that make me a good editor distract me as an author. They prevent me from simply sitting and writing and worrying about the technicalities later. They make me go off on tangents and research a minor historical event for hours to ensure I have my facts straight. They send me scurrying off to compare points of style between the Chicago Manual of Style, AP and Snooks & Co. They force me to go back and reread my entire manuscript again every time I have let it go untended for weeks, which invariably leads to more line edits and fewer words added to the manuscript that day.
I need larger blocks of time, I tell myself (and that is partly true). I need the money that freelancing brings in, I tell myself (again, partly true). But the real truth is: I need to stop procrastinating and making excuses — whether valid ones or those based on the low self-esteem that plagues many writers. Above all else, I just need to just shut the hell up and do it, even if I have only 10 minutes, even if what I write tonight is less than perfect. I'm sure this blog even operates as a procrastination at times! And with that, I’m off to write.