Still Life with Tall Weeds.


It happens to the best of us. That’s kind of all I have to offer today.

Almost a month ago I got the edit memo from Penguin/Razorbill, the publisher of my middle grades series: fifteen single spaced pages of structural suggestions for Darwen III. Anyone who thinks traditional publishers don’t edit books anymore haven’t been around the Razorbill folk, who are extraordinarily good at their job and as extraordinarily thorough. The downside is that such thoroughness demands a hell of a lot of work from me, and if I thought I was nearly done when I sent the first draft in, I was sadly deluded. In this case, I had known there would be some major changes proffered because we’d been chatting about them over the summer, and when the letter arrived I was actually relieved that the requested edits were not more extensive.

I should also say that a tremendous amount of thought went into this memo and while I might quibble over a detail or two, there is no doubt in my mind that it will, when implemented, make for a better, richer, pacier book.

So why can’t I get it done?

Some of the reasons have nothing to do with the edit itself. Life has caught up with me of late, and I find myself mired in the middle of a busy semester of teaching in which I’m devoting a lot of my free days to school visits promoting the books, while doing conferences, signings and festivals on weekends. Factor in the usual domestic obligations of cooking and cleaning and coaching soccer, and things start to feel pretty squeezed. I know: you, me and the rest of the world, right?

What I’m not getting is sustained periods of time to work on the edit, and because the changes are major—moving or cutting scenes and characters in ways that create ripples (sometimes more like tidal waves) through the whole book—the whole feels daunting. I’ve probably cut a quarter of the book out, including the ending, and the whole has started to feel like a boat which is getting steadily less sea-worthy with each plank I rip out. Without consecutive days to work on the project I feel like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back each time I make any changes, because I waste so much time relearning what the book currently is and what I’ve already altered. I’m inching, snail-like, forward , covering so little ground that it barely seems like movement at all.

I should say that I still have faith in the book and in my editors, and that I WILL get it done (though the November 1st deadline is starting to feel like a speeding train heading in my direction). I’ve done (and written about) radical, invasive edits before, and I’m confident I can pull this off on schedule in ways which will make me proud of the finished product.

But right now I’m in the tall weeds, lost and starting to panic, frozen in my steps, unsure of where I left the path or how I might get back on it, certain that some of the plants around me are toxic or covered in thorns. I have a machete somewhere, but I can’t seem to locate it, and the sun is going down fast.

That’s what it feels like, editing, and no I’m not here to offer (or to seek from readers) a happy little solution or a Buck-Up-Kiddo message. I’m here to say that it sucks, and I’m not sure how I’m going to get through it.

Except that I have done so before, that I will again, and that this does indeed happen to the best of us.

Remembering that might just help me get it done.


13 comments to Still Life with Tall Weeds.

  • Hi! that hand you see waving at you just over the top of the grass is me. I’m covered in sticker-grass seeds and my hair is full of burrs. Also, there are mosquitos out here. By which I mean that after resolving to be more balanced and sane in my work life and healthier in my general eating and exercise habits, I have found myself teaching an entirely new class, absolutely revising another class because the book changed drastically, serving on three committees and prepping for a fall conference. And there’s that book revision thingy I’m trying to do. If I see your machete I’ll give a shout. I may ask to borrow it too.

  • AJ, I’m in the weeds with you and, in case you didn’t notice, there are also snakes.

    Nothing I planned for this past summer worked. No schedule lasted. Everything is behind and delayed. Here it is, 3 a.m. on Friday, the day the book is due, and I’m stuck on the final action scene of the WIP. Like you, I know the editor will see and know what to do to fix it. And like you, I know it will be a better book, once she rips it to shreads and I get over the daunting rewrite that will doubtless follow. But for now, it looks hopeless.

    We’ve all been here, lost in this jungle of words. I will likely not die over this ending. But right now, I feel like I will. All I can say is what I always say to myself. Hang in there.

  • These weeds seem to be very populous. Man, I figure that I should get up and start hacking again, rather than letting the tendrils twine above my head until I can’t move.
    But after cutting more than half the book, intending to rewrite about 20k shorter, I doubt whether the craft will ever be seaworthy again. And even if it’s seaworthy, no one will be able to look past the mess of patches and sticky tar sealing that it is.

  • I’ll let you borrow my Stihl weed trimmer. I haven’t had time to use it for a while anyway. Doesn’t have a shoulder strap, but it’s pretty light…unless you gotta do the whole yard with it, then you’ll need a few stiff drinks and a dunk in a hot tub after.

    My biggest problem right now isn’t so much that I’m mired in revisions, though I am working through another on my earlier finished novel (among other projects), but that I don’t have the resources to get the things I need to make my life easier. I need a new interface for my mic so I don’t have to spend as much time repairing audio files, a mower that works, a desktop computer with more power and storage than my poor laptop has so I can run better music and recording programs, startup supplies for the aromatherapy side business, a tungsten carbide disk for the angle grinder, a few tests to find out if I’ve got arthritis in my back, neck, and shoulders, and the list goes on. I’d jump into the weeds gladly if something actually picked up and gave me the ability to get those aforementioned life easers. 😉

    But as I tell my daughter from time to time, nothing worth doing is easy. 😉 Rip them weeds out with your hands if ya gotta. Or get out your trusty Tom Mix pocket knife. 😉

  • I hear you. I have faith you’ll fix it, and won’t bother with the “buck-up” thing. I know the feeling–though rather than weeds, I’d use a drowning metaphor, but hey, that’s an authorial choice thing. 🙂 I know (to stick with my metaphor) that there’s an island out here somewhere, and I’ll get to it and be fine. Everything will get done, but the process is not particularly pleasant. Good luck on finding the machete and hacking away at stuff. I’m looking for a pair of waterwings. 🙂

  • Sometimes I feel like a Very Bad Person when I read posts like yours today. Honestly, my first reaction was “oh good, AJ is also lost in the weeds!” Of course, I’m not really happy that you and the other commenters are lost in the weeds, or that everyone sometimes feels like an imposter, or lacks motivation. I’m just happy that I’m not the only one. The fact that all of you are so willing to be open and honest about the dark times, in addition to offering such great advice on how to deal with all aspects of writing, is what makes this such a great place for writers to come, especially new writers like me who sometimes/frequently fall into the Slough of Despond.

    So thank you for this post and thanks everyone, posters and commenters, for sharing your feelings along with your great advice and good humor.

    And here’s to weed whackers for everyone–eventually we will all see the light of day. Or the light at the end of the tunnel. Or some light, somewhere.

  • sagablessed

    Lately, Sisi, my light is the oncoming train. But the weeds hide the track, so I am like so screwed. But I carry on.
    AJ, Faith: glad to hear you are human like the rest of us.
    Now, about those pedestals you two should be standing on…

  • Thanks all. I’m at another conference today so I won’t be responding much, but I wanted to say that I appreciate the support and wanted to send good wishes to all who feel they are in the same (unseaworthy) boat 🙂

  • Vyton

    I’m lost in revisions, too. But I’m not working against a deadline, which at this point, is hard to imagine how I would handle that problem.

  • quillet

    All I will say is…don’t neglect your health in favour of all your obligations, ’cause that’ll backfire. Meantime, may you find your machete and may it be wicked-sharp.

  • Razziecat


    ‘Nuff said. 🙁

  • quillet – No doubt. My own crap health (durn Crohn’s) has taught me that one time and time again.

    Razzie – Lie flat and still as possible. See if there’s anyone that can lower a vine or branch for ya. 🙂

  • Being without internet (since Sept. 30) has been a royal pain, in part because I haven’t been able to comment here as much as I usually do. Sorry I missed this when you posted, A.J. Sorry that the rewrites are giving you fits. As you say, you don’t need me telling you that you’re brilliant and skilled, though you are. And you don’t need me to tell you that you’ll get through this and wind up with a book worthy of its predecessors, though you will. I have been where you are. It’s a vicious process — one of the hardest things we writers do. But it’s part of the job description, and it might also be the most writerly thing we do. Anyone can throw down a first draft, just like anyone can throw paint on a canvas. It takes a Writer to craft that initial manuscript into a Book. Best of luck, my friend.