Tag Archives: First Draft

Working 9 to 5

Over the past two weeks, I have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster on the work front. I say work front but by that I mean the day job. I finished my M.A. in September last year. For two years, I juggled work alongside my studies. It was tough but I did it. It helped that with the coursework submissions, workshops and lectures, I had a structured timetable to work within. Now, without those deadlines, I have been freewheeling to the point where the wheels almost came off.

I knew I needed a break after the Masters but after a couple of months off, I wanted to knuckle down to my second edit at the start of 2017. It is now nearly March and I have been faffing around. I have a couple of agents interested in seeing my finished manuscript, but even with that motivation, I haven’t been able to focus. I miss my characters, I miss my story and I want to get back to the writing.

Whatever job path I have followed in my career, and there have been a few, I have always been driven to do the best I can. Long hours have never been an issue for me. I have always derived a huge satisfaction from knowing I have done a good job, no matter how much overtime it has taken me to get there, but now there has been a shift. I love my work at the University and supporting the Professor, but if I am sitting at my desk at 7pm at night, I no longer get a sense of achievement. I am knackered by the time I get home and it is not ‘a good fatigue’. I feel empty and flat and I know why it is. I am too tired to write.

To address this, for the past few weeks, I have been battling to get out of the office at 5pm but desperately failing to do so. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, a few days before I went on holiday, I couldn’t cope. I scooped up all my workbooks, went home, and sat there for 48 hours, sobbing over my keyboard as I worked from home. I was miserable. Or as I said to my work colleagues, I was over-tired, overwhelmed and like my little nephew needed some quiet time.

Luckily, as I have mentioned, I was going on holiday to beautiful Devon, with my sister and her family, staying in the idyllic South Hams, and I got the breathing space I needed.

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With that extra time to stop and think, I soon realised there was only one thing preventing me leaving work at 5pm and that was me.

Up until that point, I had been blaming my workload, technology and the hundreds of emails that come into my inbox every week. Certainly the pace at which office work now whirls around you is exhausting and I was beginning to wonder if I had got too old for it all. I was speaking to my friend Michelle about it. She’s a high flyer, working for a top tech company in San Francisco, heading up an International PR team and living on a plane. She knows about technology, she wouldn’t have a job without it, but even she got to a stage where she had to monitor her social media activity.

‘I had to switch off from Facebook. I found myself clicking on videos of sloths sleeping on tree branches. Then I started googling about sloths and how long they spent sleeping on tree branches. Within half an hour of pressing play on a video of a sleeping sloth, I would be an expert on the animal, and the thing is, I really don’t need to know about sloths.’

This is nothing new. The amount of recent studies saying technology is bad for our health and we need to learn to switch off is huge. So it was clear, I needed to tame the technology beast, rather than letting it overwhelm me, but even so, I wasn’t confident I would leave at 5pm.

At the end of my week’s holiday, I spent the weekend with the brilliant writer Finn Clarke, at her beautiful home in the Devon countryside. We spent two glorious days plotting and discussing our writing. I mentioned my work predicament and how I was too tired to write.

‘You need to just leave at 5pm.’ She made it sound so simple but she had a point. ‘Do it for a month,’ she continued, ‘and you will become Liz who leaves at five, not Liz who sits at her desk ten hours a day.’

‘But I will feel guilty if I don’t get everything done,’ I moaned.

‘You do enough,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to do the overtime to hear how great you are. As women we so often look for the pat on the head to acknowledge what we have achieved but you don’t need to hear that, you do enough.’

She was right. I know I have always been a bit of a ‘praise junkie’, seeking that validation through acknowledgement. It is not that I don’t want to do a good job, or that I am not proud of the job I do, it is just the ‘isn’t she brilliant’, is no longer enough. I don’t want to be the office superstar, I want to go home and write. If I needed any more proof of that, the fun I had with Finn spending 48 hours working out how to circumnavigate a range of plot holes was validation enough.

Luckily for me I have a great boss in the Professor. When I returned to work and announced that I had to leave at 5pm, not only for my sanity but also because that was now the direction of my personal, as well as professional development, he met the challenge head on. Like I say, I love my work at the University and I will do a good job but I was finally embracing that office buzz phrase, ‘establishing a work/life balance’.

Ironically though, having twisted the tables and finally acknowledged the importance of my life outside of work, I have had probably one of the most productive working weeks in a long time. I am now so focused on my 5pm deadline, my prioritisation skills have hit stellar heights and I am whipping the arse of the email beast.

For five days in a row I have left the office on time and I have found myself sitting bewildered on my sofa, looking at several hours stretching ahead of me, which I now understand is called ‘the evening’, ‘my evening’ when I can do what I want. Step one has been achieved.

Like I said, everyone at work is very supportive. The Chief Operating Officer said it was important to make sure I let people know I now leave work at 5pm. So, in the interest of full disclosure…

‘My name is Liz. I work 9 to 5.’

Well on the day job anyway. As I come through the door at 6pm every night, I am met with something I have been neglecting for far too long, a story that needs to be written.

So this week step two. The edit begins….

The Post Masters Slump

According to the Professor I work for there is a condition known as the ‘PhD blues’. After two years of intense research, a PhD student writes up their five hundred page study, sweats their way through a four hour Viva, perhaps follows up with a few amendments, but then they’re done. They’ve passed. Then what?

He reckons I am experiencing something similar. After two years of hard graft I have finished my MA (fingers crossed), and the first draft of my book. Perhaps not as intense as the ‘PhD blues’, more an ‘MA slump’, but definitely I have a feeling of now what?

This feeling of uncertainty is magnified by a change that is happening at work. My day job is not going anywhere but who I work with could change and that is throwing up questions in my mind. After thirty years, could now be the time to have a break from London?

The one thing I am sure of though, whatever I decide or wherever I go, I will keep writing. Depending on the feedback from my tutors, I am hoping my next step will be to go back to the first draft and edit it into something a little more polished. There is of course the concern that my book could be a complete turkey. That being the case, once I’ve locked myself away and sobbed into a pillow for a couple of weeks, I will have a shot at a fresh story. But regardless I am determined to plug away at the writing.

Post MA I now have my weekends back; my evenings too, as I no longer need to tap away on the keyboard trying to hit course deadlines. Having banned myself from looking at my manuscript and doing any work on the book, time is on my side, and it feels very strange. I have found myself walking listlessly around, wondering what to do with myself. A couple of Saturdays ago I decided to go through my TV record box and catch up with all the programmes I’ve missed while studying. After several episodes of Poldark and the Musketeers, I rolled off the sofa, overdosed on men in breeches, knee high boots and flowing shirts slashed to the navel. There’s so much chest hair a girl can take.

Deciding I needed to get some fresh air, I wandered along the Embankment to the Tate and popped in to see the Turner Prize exhibition. There I was confronted with Anthea Hamilton’s twenty-foot high butt cheeks. It was a change from the pecs.

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Turner Prize 2016 Anthea Hamilton

The selection of artists and the work they’ve chosen to exhibit for this year’s Turner Prize is very good. I do love my art, particularly sculpture, but I approach it on an amateur level and sometimes the hanging bin bags and piles of bricks can baffle me.

I noticed there was a theme of the written word running through this exhibition. Anthea Hamilton talks about being strongly influenced by the early 20th Century French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud and his call for the ‘physical knowledge of images’. That explains the bottom.

Another of the artists, Michael Dean, starts his work with writing – which he then gives physical form. ‘He creates moulds and casts of his words, abstracting and distorting them into an alphabet of human scale shapes.’

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Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

Walking through these giant distorted letters I felt like  I was revisiting one of my ‘first draft’ nightmares.

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Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

After seeing the exhibition I went up to the members’ room. Outside of a library, it is one of the most serene and calm spaces I’ve found in London. Based up on the top tier of the gallery, beneath the large glass domed atrium, chairs and tables are nestled between the cool stone pillars and arches. Over the past two years I’ve spent many a Sunday morning sitting on one of the Art Deco sofas, tucked behind a bronze bust on a plinth, notebook in one hand, coffee in the other, as I worked through my plot.

This time though I just sat quietly with no pen in my hand. And I think perhaps that’s what I need to do. Just sit and be for a bit. Let my brain have some time off and breathe.

The First Draft

A couple of weeks ago I completed the first draft of my first novel. Everyone tells you writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. After what I have been through over the past year I understand why.

The novel was part of the MA in Novel Writing which I have been completing at City, University of London. So it hasn’t been all about the book. There has also been workshops, lectures, tutorials and other assignments to complete, but it was the novel that nearly finished me off.

In the last three months I have visited my doctor more times than I have done in the past three years.

I am lucky I have a doctors’ surgery that is patient with patients and open at weekends. There was a particularly dark moment one Sunday morning. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Gripping pain in my left arm, dizziness and palpitations. It turned out to be an anxiety attack.

‘But I don’t get stressed,’ I said to the doctor.

‘Do you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest?’ he calmly asked, unfolding the blood pressure cuff and unclipping the oxygen monitor from my finger.

‘Not so much an elephant,’ I said, although I did want to point out that if an elephant was sitting on my chest I probably wouldn’t be feeling anything, ‘Just a novel.’

I was physically manifesting symptoms of stress. The characters, structure and plot issues of my book had invaded my head and were causing anxiety attacks, night terrors and palpitations. Combine this with back pain and a frozen shoulder from sitting at a computer for hours at a time. I was a wreck.

I came out of the surgery with a handwritten five point check-list of what the warning signs of an actual heart attack are and a promise to my doctor that, if my book ever got published, I would send him a copy.

bigstock-woman-typing-madly-retro-cli-37020847Writing a book – even the shaky first draft that is my book has been hard. It wasn’t made easier by having a full-time job. Finding the mental energy to be creative after eight hours in the office was a challenge. But it was often the intensive periods when I took leave from work to focus on the writing, that I really felt I was losing the plot and not just the one on the page.

After one such week, locked away on my own, writing eighteen hours a day with no other company than my fictional characters, a close friend became concerned about my rambling online messages. He decided to mount a rescue mission and turned up on my doorstep. There he discovered a deranged writer who hadn’t slept properly for six days.

He insisted on taking me out for dinner but only after I’d taken a shower, found some clean clothes and brushed my hair. After an hour in the restaurant, and once I’d re-engaged with verbal communication, I tried to explain to him the frustrations of it all.

‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I said.

‘I had an image of you sitting on your terrace, wearing floaty dresses, sipping martinis, and typing away,’ he said.

I thought about the night before when I’d lain on the sofa, weeping, a pillow over my head, willing the neurons in my brain to come up with a solution to the crater sized plot hole I’d just discovered 60k into my book.

‘Not exactly,’ I said.

‘Then why are you doing it?’

He had a point. Why was I doing it? I couldn’t give him an answer.

In fact not until I typed the last word on the last page did I have an answer. Then I knew. I love stories, always have done, whatever form they come in, plays, films, books or day dreams. And to have my story unfold in 398 pages felt pretty special. Building up every agonising twist and turn of my plot, creating my characters and then colouring them in – the process might be hard but when it comes together it is magical.

So now what?

I have submitted my first draft as part of my degree. The manuscript is saggy and baggy like its author, but I am hoping we can both firm up in the second draft, and yes I am going back for more.

But in the meantime I am taking Stephen King’s advice in his book ‘On Writing’ – walk away from your first draft. In the UK, October is the month for pausing. Go Sober for October. Stoptober. For me it is going to be ‘Take a break from writing your book October’. I am going to use the time to rest, recuperate and get ready for round two.

I end with a short clip.

Often when I was writing, I would play this. It reminded me that as a writer, along with your protagonist, you have to keep pushing through those walls to get to the end.