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.

RECONNECTING

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.

Hard to Reconnect

Despite my fears, what I found at the start of my retreat was that it was hard for me to be affected by my past, even when I wanted to be. Perhaps I’d left it further behind than I’d thought. Perhaps I’d become so used to avoiding the difficult stuff as a way of protecting myself from the emotions it could stir up. I could reason out why I had suffered from an eating disorder, but I couldn’t remember what the suffering had felt like. I found it surprisingly hard to reconnect. I needed to find a way to remind myself.

In the earlier stages of my recovery, I had written in a journal every day, sometimes several times a day. Years later, when I was having one of my moments when I decided that writing a book would be a stupid cliché, and I wanted to forget it all had ever happened, I destroyed every single one of them…

Burning Ceremony

I wish I hadn't done that...

FEARS

This post is the first in a week-long series about a writing retreat I took in January 2010, to work on the first full draft of Lighter Than My Shadow.

Looking Back

I was afraid of being alone with all of my ‘stuff.’ I was afraid that putting myself back into an eating disordered mindset in order to write about it would make the behaviour all too tempting. I was afraid that in three weeks without anyone to check on me, I would find myself fully entrenched in a relapse.

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with flashbacks or anxiety attacks, and that the pain would become overwhelming and result in a complete nervous breakdown.

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work at all.

This illustration was created in 2009, before I signed the contract with Jonathan Cape. Some variations on the concept have appeared in the book, but this exact image didn’t find a place. However, it seemed perfectly fitting for this blog post.

AVOIDANCE

I'll just write this email...

For a long time, I dabbled. Even after signing the contract and everything becoming real and official, I think there was a level of denial. The project still felt overwhelmingly big, the deadline incomprehensibly far away. There was always something else I found to do that was smaller or had a more immediate deadline. I told myself “I’ll just do this [insert justification here] and then I’ll really get started.” It took a few months of still not starting for me to notice the pattern.

Clearing Space

I decided the best way for me to clear a space was to go away. Away from my computer, away from my part-time job, away from my friends and family and other work. To be completely alone with just pens, paper and the story in my head, and no choice but to get the heck on with it. I went for three weeks (next week I’ll be blogging about what happened while I was there).

THE BOX

Lighter Than My Shadow Display Box

In working on Lighter Than My Shadow as a college project, I knew I couldn’t tackle the whole thing. Instead I picked a few moments from different stages of the story to work up into comics, giving an example of what the finished work might look and feel like.

At that stage, I was a lot more shy about things being made public than I am now. I don’t think I ever really believed the book would be published, and I was horrified enough that my college work had to go on public exhibition. I set about thinking of a way to display the work that felt less exposing than hanging the images on the wall. I wanted people viewing the work to have the intimate, private experience of reading a book, but equally I didn’t want my exhibition to seem unenticing and visually dull.

I came up with this book-box-thing, housing each of the short extracts in a separate compartment. I think this helped the viewers/readers to understand that these were disparate parts of an incomplete project, rather than something finished. The box was displayed on a plinth, and above it I hung a wire sculpture of the snarling black cloud that appears in the first illustration. I WISH I had taken some photographs – the cloud was an unwieldy 3ft across and so I decided to throw it away after the show. Perhaps I will recreate it for the book launch…

These extracts, along with a vague synopsis and some notes about why I wanted to do the project, became my book proposal. I graduated in June 2009, and showed the pages to Jonathan Cape in September of that year. In January 2010, thrilled and in utter disbelief, I signed the contract that made everything real.