Cursive Letters: write drunk, edit sober

Second draft time. I look upon my works (ye mighty), and despair. As I progress through it, I see more and more that needs to be improved, reformulated or added. This requires me to exit editor mode, enter writer mode, fix the problem and then go back to editing. It’s coming to the point where I’m not enjoying going back to my manuscript due to the negative feedback cycle I’ve enter [sic]. Should I simply whip through it, note necessary improvements (as if editing for another writer), and call it draft 1.5? Or is there another solution?

Simultaneously Writing, Editing and Despairing.

Dear SWED,

There’s a degree of identity-switching involved in writing novels, which is why LGBTQI people are so naturally good at it. Having multiple personas that enjoy arguing with each other is an asset. You need to be able to zoom into the details and out again to the structure without thinking twice about it, but it’s something only doing the work, and hence thinking seventy-two times about it, can teach you. This principle holds for writing and editing, which although you divide them here, are really two parts of the same process.

As you may know by now, the luxury of the first draft is best indulged completely. Silencing the superego/inner critic allows the story to flow out of you like unruly fans flowing out of a stadium, brimming with the intoxication of victory and mid-strength beer. Alas, you now need to get these people home.

The key to your question is the realisation that you’re not really enjoying it any more. Congratulations, you have just entered the antechamber of the vast network of sulfurous sinkholes you are going to have to crawl through to get to a book. They are filled with muck and doubt and suffering.

At second draft stage, you are out of the womb of safe self-expression. Everything is supposed to feel horrible. The trick is to convince yourself that the horrible is worth doing regardless of its outcome, which is probably failure. Despair is a necessary part of this process. If you began writing for the sheer joy of it, the writing itself will either beat that out of you, or (we hope) the momentary shafts of pure joy it provides will only be enhanced in brightness and warmth by comparison with the slimy parts and your sense of your own grit and determination in crawling through them.

Let’s face it, a to-do list is not a draft. The second draft is difficult work and it is vital not to rush through it. Same goes for drafts three through n (I average about seven). By all means break it down into chapters/categories/characters to make it bearable, but don’t list the issues as a means to avoid facing them. Sit with the tangled mess you’ve made. Not necessarily at your desk, but keep it in your head. Go for a walk, do some housework, give yourself room to think it through. It will probably feel overwhelming, but if you don’t rush through things, you will see them much more clearly. And rest between drafts for at least a fortnight.

The only difference between someone who’s written a book and someone who once started writing one is sheer persistence.

My significant other often comes along to events like book launches, festivals and prize announcements, and I appreciate their support in what can be awkward events as I am not that great at schmoozing on my own. But often at these events there is free alcohol, and sometimes they overdo it to the point of embarrassment, like trying to get people I respect and hardly know to go to some bar afterwards, or like throwing up in the bathroom at the event. I’m not sure if I should say anything, or even if I have the right to say anything – do I stop inviting them to stuff?

Plus one (and make mine a double)

Dear Plus one,

Firstly, your partner deserves a lifetime of free champagne for choosing to stake their life in the arid soil of a writer’s heart. They listen to you when you lose sleep over the fits and starts of your career and nod calmly as you rant for hours about something someone said on the internet that day. They put up with your neurotic bullshit and probably support you in some way financially. Be forever grateful to them.

If you think your partner has a drinking problem (and TBH the workplace cubicle hurl does suggest as much), you need to tell them in stages. Firstly, try the nicest possible way, which is modelling happy sobriety. Suggest alcohol free days, or sober funtimes such as hiking in a national park together. If that doesn’t work, surprise them by signing up for one of those charitable sobriety months as a couple and see how they react. If they don’t enjoy life without a drink in their hand, there’s something bigger going on for them than monkey-wrenching your schmoozefests. But if this behaviour only manifests at your work events, you need to chill for three reasons:

1. There’s not much they could do that would out-trash the average Australian poet on an average weekend.
2. The whole literary establishment takes itself far too seriously and needs to be dragged to a dive bar now and then.
3. You might get a good story out of it, and that could be your best revenge.

The source of all this could be envy of, or jealousy for, your success; an attempt, perhaps a subconscious one, to sabotage that success with their own mix of 100 proof chaos. This kind of interference-running can be maddeningly deniable, but try finding out if there’s frustration elsewhere – are you giving as good as you get in the insomniac career crisis counselling sessions, or are you holding them back from their own creative dreams?

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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  1. I laughed at this because we are currently undergoing the agony of trying to redraft a book that we wrote jointly a couple of years ago, a book that neither of us much likes, but for completely different reasons. So one is tugging one way, the other the other. If you think redrafting a book you wrote by yourself is a recipe for madness, try redrafting one you wrote with someone else!

  2. Its funny, there are so many stories in literary magazines about writers, about being a writer, writing techniques, the funny side of writing, the woe/exciting-life-etc., and how to balance relationships with children and partners etc.,. Its no wonder Aussie mums and dad’s don’t buy (or know) of Overland, or any other literary mag. Do i buy lit mags? Of course not. Why would i read other peoples stuff? I have more important things to write.

    We all wanna be writers. Just too many of us now, and we are not reading each others stuff. I won’t read Jennifer’s books, she won’t read mine (if they were ever published). Anyway 21st century stuff sucks: gimme T’stoy or Ess-beck any day, because who wants to read about writers being writers? I can just do that myself, and read my own work, heck, stuff it, i think i just had an apparition…i see the future of literature… well at least its a good idea for a dystopian novel: two classes of people those who simply live life (they run the world), and their prisoners: those with wires and anodes implanted direct into their Broca’s region, hooked into tablet like devices, OCD-eeing the writing and reading of their own story, over, and over, and over, over, over…

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