If you had asked me, two years ago, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done professionally, I guarantee it would not have included anything to do with writing.
Second-nature. Always has been. No, it would have to be something else.
Let’s see: Making a documentary is hard. Filming is a laborious task but it happens at the end of a long chain of production processes. You have to think of a subject, research it, think about it, approach interviewees, assess locations for filming, prepare your travel arrangements, book crews. You finally get to film and then realise that the worst bit is yet to come. You have to go through a very similar chain of booking, rough drafts, viewings, edits, grading, sound design etc before you finally have a film file you can call completed. But it’s process. My brain never blew up doing it.
I had some spectacularly awful jobs early on in my life. I was a toilet cleaner at my old college, worked on the tills at Boots, and worked in the kitchen at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania. Boring and messy jobs.
When I was 21 I got seconded to the Employment Service division that deals in benefit fraud. My goodness, I spent a lot of time that year making excuses. Anything, rather than go out and bust doors down looking for benefit cheats. I did get threatened with a machete and, on another occasion, a baseball bat. I wouldn’t call this job hard either – just unprincipled and frightening.
I’ve co-ordinated 100 people on TV outside broadcasts. Stressful for a few hours, but not particularly difficult. I’ve co-ordinated 15 musicians in rehearsal and recording sessions. Ok. Granted, that’s a bit harder if there are egos flying around. I’ve written features and had difficult commercial clients.
No. Although I’m surprised to admit it, writing my first novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Partly, this was because I generated a lot of preparation work for myself. I rightly guessed that I was probably more ignorant than I should be about what other writers go through. Before I wrote a word of the book, I set out to read what they had to say about the process. Ten books later…
Out of that process came my realization that I was a plotter by nature. I loved Stephen King’s On Writing but didn’t quite get his distinction between pantsing and plotting. It’s more subtle than that surely.
Yes, I plotted an outline – my book is part thriller-part whodunnit – but of course, in coming up with the plot I was kinda pantsing and working out what my characters would/wouldn’t do.
My initial outline was huge 30,000 words – full of notes and hints of dialogue to come. It made writing the actual book a lot easier. The actual writing was pretty easy. Out came a first draft of 130,000. Uh oh. Way too long.
I got the wonderful Debi Alper to do a developmental edit for me. After her cuts and a few extra polishing drafts, it came down to a more sensible 110,000. After re-reading it, I found I didn’t miss much of the 20,000 words that had gone. Just one chapter, really. I bowed to Debi’s greater wisdom and took it out, but I still miss it. The other 185,00 words, not at all.
So what was so hard about it? The plotting.
I’m lucky enough to have a heated writing room in the garden. There I sat, night after night, with notes, research books and filing cards trying to work out the ramifications of every new idea I came up with.
I’m never short on ideas, but it’s true that (to invent an example) if you introduce a banana on someone’s table on p.35, it makes no sense that the same person complains they haven’t seen fruit for 10 years on p. 38, let alone revealing that they suffer from banana allergies on p.235.
Each time I introduced a new major plot idea, I found myself having to mentally unravel and re-work what had already been written. These major threads runthe length of the book. Juggling this in my head proved very tiring. On some of the bigger plot points, I found I could only think about it for 30 minutes before nodding off. I learned to write stuff down on paper immediately, in case I fell asleep.
Once I had my long outline, I did the cruelest of self-edits. If someone else had done them I would have cried. It was as if I was bullying myself. “As if that character would do that, are you stupid or something?” Scribble, scribble, cross-out, cross-out.
No job I ever had before made me nod off in this way. No job I ever had required me to truly think through every detail of what I was doing. No job I ever had felt so satisfying when I saw the results of all the hard work.
And now, I have to start all over again! Can’t wait.