Finding perspective

By: Antonia Hodgson

Tips / All / Editing, Off the page, Planning your time, Rewriting, Writing a novel, Writing habit

Finishing the first draft of a novel is a moment for celebration. You’ve made it. Congratulations! But whether it’s taken you six months or six years, chances are you’ve become so immersed, so obsessed, that you just can’t see it any more. Is it any good? What needs fixing? I finished my second novel while on holiday with a friend, oscillating between hope and despair. ‘It’s good, I think it could be good… or is it terrible, is it actually the worst thing that’s ever been written, will my editor tell me to burn it and never write again?’ I thought I’d hidden all this anxiety from my friend. ‘I did fret just a little, when I got home,’ I confessed later. Her eyes widened in horror, ‘you mean, you got worse?’

I’d lost perspective, everyone does. You have to create a certain momentum to finish a first draft. Meet a writer at this end point and they tend to have a stunned look about them – as if they’ve just come off a fairground ride and the world is still spinning. It is impossible to edit in this state. You must wait. Then wait some more. A month. Six weeks. As long as you can give yourself. Editing is all about stepping back, regaining your critical eye. There are all sorts of tricks and exercises you can try to make your work “strange” (see below), but time is by far the most effective tool in your editing box.

It sounds obvious in principle, but it can be surprisingly hard in practice. When I tutored at Arvon recently I asked all the students to bring 1,000 words with them. My only instruction was that they should prepare the material six weeks in advance and then not look at it again. The idea was that the piece would be fresh and unfamiliar when they brought it out in the workshop. The instruction was simple and very clear. And yet the students admitted that they found it really hard to resist the temptation to look. Several failed completely. They peeked. They tweaked. They tinkered. And in doing so, threw away the gift that time gives every writer.

I don’t blame them. I’ve done the same – and there’s as much to learn from failing an exercise as there is in following it. But it’s interesting to consider why this simple exercise is so difficult. Many of us lead hectic lives, full of responsibilities. We live in an over-saturated world of constant information, news updates, demands for our attention. Slowing down, stepping back, can feel uncomfortable and strange, even self-indulgent. But taking time out before you edit is not an indulgence. It is absolutely vital if you really want to interrogate your work properly. And while it may feel as though you’re doing nothing, in fact your subconscious is at work and at play. We all know the value of sleeping on a problem or taking a long walk and letting the mind drift. When we return, we are refreshed and ready to begin.

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