Editing The Author Speaks Writing

The Author Speaks: On “the wall”

A discussion about the difficulties that pose considerable setbacks in writing and editing.

At numerous times during the writing and editing of this book I have hit a wall that makes it hard to work. The wall is not always caused by the same thing. It can come from anywhere and it is unyielding. The wall is not a hurdle you can just get over, it is a blockade you must either break through or find ways around.

One of the walls I have tunnelled under is the fear of such a gargantuan task as telling the story of the Glenrowan siege. It cannot be understated how important this story is to Australian culture. Many have tried to tell it and failed – often in spectacular fashion. Many have had limited success. It is swaddled in myths and fed on other people’s misinterpretations. Yet, here I am, an unpublished author (professionally speaking) trying to do what others could not. Moreover, I had the bizarre notion to convey the history through a dramatised narrative. Is it fact or fiction? Where do you draw the line on acceptable levels of artistic licence? What does it mean to scholarship when the historical fiction is more accurate to history than most history books? Just the mere notion of such a task took the wind out of my sails for a few weeks recently and is usually what puts the brakes on each day when I launch myself at the text again.

The first wall I had to break through was writing a first draft. One full novel, rough but completed. As someone who has only ever written short form, to craft a 200+ page novel was unthinkable. I had to find a strategy to make it work. I ended up working on each chapter as a short story that I would then collect into an anthology. This became the first draft. After about a year I had a full book ready for editing. In truth, what at first seemed like the most impossible thing turned out to be the least excruciating. As it turns out, no matter how much you tried to get it right first go round there’s always going to be at least one beta reader that deliberately looks for errors and will make a point of every single one. These people are both very useful and very demoralising. It’s a good indication of what is to come.

“On page 167 there’s a split infinitive and two missing commas. Also, I think you really don’t need to describe the characters so much. Just let the reader imagine them the way they want to. Personally, I like to picture Ned Kelly as if he were played by Chris Hemsworth in a kilt. It just works better for me that way.”

The next wall is burnout, though really it’s more like a series of walls that punctuate the specs between all the others. After so much work on the novel, combined with developing the screenplay with Matthew Holmes, researching and writing articles for A Guide to Australian Bushranging, as well as assisting with An Outlaw’s Journal by Georgina Stones, I was pretty badly burnt out. There were days I wished I had never started Glenrowan. I had to leave it for a few months after the initial feedback from the beta readers who read that first draft I already mentioned. I needed to recollect my energy and my thoughts and process any useful feedback I received. At this point the novel was still very close to the way the screenplay played out, with some passages being direct adaptations of scenes from the script (some of which were scenes I had written but had been cut to keep the script short). I realised that I would need to come back with fresh eyes but didn’t know what it would take to get that freshness that not only allowed me to see the flaws that needed fixing, but also appreciate what worked. Needless to say, it was frequently too much and I would become so tired of it that even the mention of the Kelly Gang made me feel like defenestration.

The wall I’m fighting through now is faith in myself and my work. I know there’s a legion of armchair experts and amateur historians ready to nitpick, demolish or white-ant this project at the drop of a hat. There’s always going to be someone to argue about arbitrary trivia like the colour of Kate Kelly’s gloves or the size of Superintendent Hare’s moustache. These sort of things are like some kind of point scoring game for people without the drive, imagination or intelligence to do something on this scale themselves. The constant battles within the Kelly community, driven by a need for individuals to get clout or some dubious form of celebrity, has really made the process of writing a book about the subject of the Kelly Gang far more of a chore than it ought to be. Certain individuals seem to make it their life purpose to be a fly in everyone else’s ointment. These voices often drown out the more sensible and supportive people, of whom there are many though they are often less vocal. It leaves one feeling like you’re damned whatever you choose to do. Why spend years researching and crafting a book to make it historically accurate when most readers will dispute your version because they prefer the fairytale they grew up with? Why agonise over where to streamline the narrative to make it read better when there’s going to be someone to attack you for leaving something out? The more these questions rest on your mind the more you doubt yourself and the more you doubt yourself the harsher you become on your own work. In my point it often results in days where I just want to delete the work I’ve done and burn all my books on the Kelly saga because I’m so over it. I suppose this is where I really have to suffer for my art.

There are two types of self-professed experts: the one that knows mostly incorrect information but is overconfident, and the one whose niche interest borders on unhealthy obsession. Both will take any opportunity to tear others down.

So here I am at yet another wall, clawing at the firmament. I am making considerable progress on the final draft but it’s a struggle. Without having the distance to stand back and see the thing as a whole I am finding myself agonising over individual sentences and paragraphs almost obsessively. There are days when I dread turning the computer on and my head pounds harder and harder the more words I read (though that may have more to do with sleep deprivation and sinus problems.) I believe I’m mere days away from a completed draft and then I can give it to beta readers for feedback.

Who’d be an author?

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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