Drafts 2, 3, 4…

Never Good Enough

In truth I don’t know how many drafts I went through. Perhaps four or five of the entire book, but some sections were certainly reworked much more than that. Some sections have changed very little from that first draft, others are unrecognisable.

Perhaps I don’t need to tell you that I’m a perfectionist. It goes hand in hand with anorexia (though I’ve recovered from one, I’m not sure there’s any hope for the other). With that in mind, I’m sure you’ll understand that I was never going to feel ready. To go through one final draft and decide “That was it, it’s finished, now I’m ready to start drawing,” was never going to happen.

I know that’s how my brain works, but still, I was expecting the final draft to be more…done.

What decided the final draft, in the end, was time. I wanted this book to come out in 2013, the year I turn 30, and therefore I needed to set pen to paper in 2012. Or perhaps earlier than that, but it was 2012 already so that would have to do.

Graphic Medicine

Graphic Medicine

Here’s a short break from blogging about the creative process to mention this exciting conference that I’ll be presenting at this weekend. If you’re in or near Brighton I’d highly recommend coming along.

I first discovered Graphic Medicine through Andrew Godfrey, who mentioned the website to me not long after we first met. I had the great pleasure of attending (and speaking at) their conference day in Leeds in 2011, where I met many lovely people with creative and/or academic interests like mine, exploring and discussing the interface between comics and medical practice.

Graphic Medicine

This year’s conference theme is ethics, and I’ll be presenting a paper about some of the questions I faced during work on Lighter Than My Shadow. In particular my ethical concerns were about how much detail to share. I’ll talk about why I never reveal my lowest weight, but having made that decision, whether it’s then contradictory to show illustrations of an emaciated body: don’t they amount to the same thing? And my questions about sexual abuse: what do and don’t I need to show to make the story both clear and impactful without being gratuitous and upsetting? I won’t give too much away as I’ll probably share some of the presentation here after the conference: I’m sure it will also be made available as a podcast, too.

It’s a great honour to be presenting at this year’s conference, and I’m really excited about it (nervous, too). I’m part of a panel call Moral Risks, speaking alongside Andrew Godfrey and Emma Mould, Ravi Thornton and Matthew Green, and John Swogger. I’m also looking forward to presentations from Paula Knight, Mita Mahato, Simon Moreton, Sarah Lightman, MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams, plus a workshop with Hannah Berry. And that’s without even mentioning the keynote speakers, Nicola Streeten, Paul Gravett and David B! Also, if last time is anything to go by, the weekend will be a whirlwind of making new connections with people from all over the world with lots of different backgrounds, sharing ideas and enthusiasm. I can’t wait.

THE WALL CHART

wall-chart

With the time for faffing drafting and redrafting over, I had to find a way not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of drawing ahead of me. I used a very simple formula: divide the number of pages that need drawing by the number of days I have to draw (allowing myself the occasional weekend, and a week’s holiday halfway through). The number I came up with was 12 pages a week. So long as I could stick to that target, I could stop worrying about the whole massive thing and worry only about 12 pages at a time.

This wasn’t quite enough to settle my nerves, so I made a wall chart breaking down exactly when I would tackle each section. Seeing it all laid out in front of me, with clearly enough space to hit the deadline, felt very comforting.

It’s perhaps important to acknowledge that this extreme level of meticulous planning is not dissimilar to the way I used to plan my meals when I was anorexic…

ON BEING EDITED

Being Edited

The first time around, I found the experience of being edited…uncomfortable. I handed over a massive chunk of work that I wasn’t really happy with (not to mention how personal it was – there were parts of the story in there I’d never even told my therapist). The person reading it was someone I barely knew but, being an editor at Jonathan Cape, someone I had great reverence for. I left the pages with him, and I waited.

In the time between handing over the pages and our first editorial meeting, my imagination got to work on dreaming up all the possible negative feedback I could receive. Surely Jonathan Cape were now going to realise what a big mistake they’d made, and tell me they were sorry, but they longer wished to publish the book.

As I travelled to London and walked into Random House, signing my name on my visitor’s name tag, I felt like an imposter. This was something real authors did, not me. Then my mountainous first draft was placed on the table, covered in post-its and green (thankfully not red!) notes…

And my editor told me he liked it.

That’s how I remember the beginning of the professional relationship that really shaped my work on Lighter Than My Shadow. To have that input right from the earliest stages was incredibly valuable. Though it terrified me at first, he was always sensitive and professional, discussing the book almost as a work of fiction, yet never seeming to lack in empathy for it being a true story. Though it made me squirm to listen to and read comments on work I wasn’t happy with, it got easier. I came to appreciate the help and support in working towards something I felt proud of, shaping it into the book I’d started imagining almost ten years beforehand. In time, the relationship became (or perhaps always was, I just misunderstood it) less pupil-teacher, more mutually respectful. A collaboration for the best interests of the story.

Over the following two years we exchanged multiple drafts and redrafts, poking and prodding at the story here and there, taking out entire chunks and sometimes putting them back in again a few months later. Always I got nervous. Always the book got better.

I understand from a recent article written by mine that editors like “to remain invisible, for the work [they] do to be untraceable to the reader; for the book to appear, as Martin Amis has put it, ‘a transfusion from above’, direct from writer’s pen to reader’s eye.” While I value this and agree entirely that’s what a good editor should aspire to, I also think it’s a shame. I don’t like it when people are unappreciated for doing great work, and it’s impossible for me to talk about my creative process without talking about the value of the editorial input I was fortunate enough to receive.

The first time around, I found the experience of being edited uncomfortable, but draft after draft it became easier, and I looked forward to receiving that feedback and support. In the end it was a great pleasure and privilege, enabling me to craft a piece of work to a level I never could have managed alone.

Thanks Alex!

ABOUT THAT FIRST DRAFT…

First Draft 1

I felt really embarrassed by my first draft.

First of all, the drawings! People are often amazed when I say I knocked out a first draft in three weeks, but that was only possible with the most basic, gestural drawings. I was mostly only drawing for myself, and I knew which characters were which, so they had very few distinguishing features. It was really just about getting the bare minimum on paper to give the sense of the structure and pacing of a scene.  There was no point in spending any longer on what were, essentially, disposable drawings. I conveniently forgot I would have to show them
to one of the most prestigious publishers in the country!

First Draft 2

The best parts of it I could only just tolerate to read. For the most part it made me cringe. It was clumsy, obvious, clichéd and lacking the subtlety and emotional depth that I wanted to create. I sound like I’m berating myself and being incredibly harsh, but actually the process was just coming to accept that this is what a first draft has to be. As Graham Linehan said (in an interview for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe), the first draft is just toilet paper.

In addition to the (large) bits I felt were complete rubbish, there were the bits I left blank. So much of the story had been unbearable to sit with, I’d just about managed to get a sense of how long those scenes took in the story. I’d not been able to to plan to any extent beyond that, to even begin to draw what had happened. There were panels, pages, and even great chunks up to 14 pages long that had no drawings on at all.

First Draft 3

So in February 2010 I sent Jonathan Cape 500 pages of work that made me cringe, and prepared myself for hearing feedback on work in such a raw state that I would never normally show it to anyone.

FIRST DRAFT

This post is the last in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.First Draft

At the end of three very challenging weeks, after a lot of sketching and stressing and screwing up paper, I did indeed manage a first draft.

Jonathan Cape were not going to know what had hit them.

SITTING WITH IT

What happened during those three weeks tested my stability in recovery. The flashbacks, which I’d had to induce by choice, were indeed overwhelming as I had feared, and I was completely alone with them. With my mind finally going to the places I needed to write about, I couldn’t run away, distract myself, eat (or not eat) as I always had done before. I had to sit with it, sit with it, sit with it.

And write it down.

Write It Down

This post is the fourth in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.

TRIGGERS

For years I avoided triggers. For me, that meant avoiding anything specifically relating to eating disorders and recovery, any information about dieting or weight loss; anything that might upset my long-fought-for fragile balance of not hating my body to the point of wanting to obliterate it.

It also meant avoiding sex. Not only the physical act but books, movies, anything that reminded me of its existence. Sometimes even the word was enough to trigger a flashback, and words like rape or abuse had even more power. (As a result of thinking about triggers, I’ve given some thought as to whether I should give ‘trigger warnings’ for posts on this blog. This cautionary note explains my feelings on the matter.)

When I was on my writing retreat and finding it difficult to reconnect with those emotions by choice, I decided my best way forward was to try and trigger myself. I set about reading a stack of books I’d diligently avoided for years…

Triggering Myself

It worked.

This post is the second in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.