I go into the kitchen and stand before the shelf with the beverage options. Should I brew myself some coffee that might set my nerves on edge or green tea to calm me down? Tough choice. I’m at a tricky juncture.

There’s something absolutely horrifyingly dreadful about editing one’s own novels. One has just finished years of work, first plotting and planning the twists and action, then hammering it out over so many months that the neck is aching and the back is breaking. Again and again, bang-bang, shoot-shoot, and then bang again. The thing has acquired a recognisable shape, finally. But before it can become a book, there is one more task to complete: the edit, the one I dread.

Until now, everything has been in a bit of a flux, the manuscript a mouldable piece of clay. But it is time to take the first print-out. This is the moment when it suddenly feels like the text has been written in stone. And one’s words are potential enemies. Danger lurks on every page. What one is trying to duck is the possible discovery that one has lost the magic touch, the one that made the previous books popular.

Over the years I’ve developed survival strategies in order to avoid having my self-confidence totally destroyed by my own prose – and its possible flaws. For luck, I usually go to the same print shop every time, a small backstreet one-printer establishment run by a friendly chap called Girish. Although I nowadays have earned enough royalties to buy my own laser printer, it feels inauspicious to print the first draft of a manuscript anywhere else but at Girish’s. His computer is a wee bit rickety and can’t handle PDF files; the printer has dubious recycled ink cartridges that sometimes add interesting psychedelic dots to the pages, unless it jams completely like Bengaluru traffic, choking on paper instead of cars. But Girish spiral-binds the manuscript nicely giving it the feel of a book, which is what takes it to the next level.

Once Girish hands this bound ‘Monster’ over to me, usually at the cost of about Rs80 including the spiral binding, the dreadful part begins. For days I don’t dare to open the manuscript for fear of finding that it doesn’t at all look like a novel. I keep it on my desk, tucked away at the bottom of a pile of random papers, and procrastinate by writing other things – newspaper columns, book reviews, food articles. I take any travel writing assignment that I’m offered whether it is to Bhopal or Taiwan. Or I just go out shopping – retail therapy in the pete bazaars of Bengaluru always works. Or I start reading other people’s books instead, preferably thrillers that take my mind off the writer’s blues. But after some time, maybe a couple of weeks, I find that I’ve exhausted all the honourable possibilities for procrastination.

That is the day when I finally convince myself there is nothing to do other than brew myself that cup of coffee or tea and simply get down to it. Earlier, however, I would buy a ticket to Goa, take a cheap room on Benaulim Beach, just sit on the porch and fight my way through the manuscript – without seeking the help of a pint of beer or a peg of caju feni, just making do with multiple cups of instant coffee or teabag tea, and my portable B&D travel kettle. At the end of the day, I usually allowed myself a few bottles of beer, down by the beach at sunset time, if I was satisfied with my work.

If dissatisfied, I went into the village and drowned my sorrows in some urak with Limca. The locals, sitting and gossiping at the tables around me in the tiny bar, might look at me and wonder – has the firang’s girlfriend dumped him? Why does the firang sit alone and mumble incoherently, as if expecting the urak to offer some life skill advice? Is he going to drown himself in the urak or perhaps in the ocean and get caught in our fishing nets? Sometimes one or the other of the drinkers would give me a friendly pat on the shoulder and say something like, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.’

A selfie on Benaulim beach.
A selfie on Benaulim beach

The next morning, after having a quick swim and then detoxifying with some chai, muesli and fruit salad at one of the beach shacks, I’d be ready to declare war on my book again. And so it goes on.

However impossible the odds may have seemed on the bad days, ultimately at the end of a week or two, I would have solved my problems with the manuscript and be ready to send it to my publisher. For example, Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, which for some reason has become popular with the sci-fi and fantasy crowd, was edited on Benaulim Beach.

I felt a strange sense of victory when, just the other day, I was invited to speak at GALF, the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, which takes place in early December. It is a comforting thought that Goa, which is a place where so much of my writing was shaped by pain and chai, instant coffee, feni and other beverages, seems to be welcoming me back.

These days, as I’ve become a more serious, or perhaps even pompous, writer, I’ve rented a house on a hill in Coorg where I go and finish my books. (Goa was beginning to take its toll on the liver, said my doctor.) There I start the day at 7am with a big mug of strong Coorgi Arabica, fresh from the coffee plantations, and work until my head starts spinning. Then I take a couple of hours’ break, maybe step out for lunch in some small canteen where the food is pungent with local pepper. Among the labourers and rickshaw drivers who frequent such places I might stand out a bit as the only foreigner around, but somehow people accept my presence. Maybe because I’m not that impressive to look at, especially not while I’m in the editing phase of a novel.

The canteen owners usually insist that I have a cup of hot chai and if I look gloomy they give me a free dessert, maybe something like a fried banana. Then I take a long walk through the hilly landscape, thinking over what I have been writing. Finally, I do an afternoon or early evening shift, when I make myself a cup of locally produced organic green tea – partly to remove the cholesterol that the coffee might have given me in the morning, but also to refocus the brain. A writer’s brain is much like a pencil, it gets dull after many hours of writing and editing. So it requires a sharpener.


[bctt tweet=”There’s something absolutely horrifyingly dreadful about editing one’s own novels”]


Now I could have described my editing process here in detail – how my latest book almost killed me, given how that murderous manuscript never seemed to want to bend in shape. Like a nightmare it was. Days on end one stares at the pages, make a change here following which one must make a change there, and one can’t help but think that one will soon go insane. There have indeed been a couple of novels that I’ve had to abandon at the editing stage, when I’ve come to realize that I’ve lost the plot.

But going into all that would be tedious, like listening to an endless story about an IT techie who is unable to crack the code, despite day after day spent before a laptop, until he himself begins to crack up. Not a thriller plot exactly, unless one goes actually over the edge – like Jack Nicholson, acting in the role of a novelist, did in that classic horror movie called The Shining. I’m simply not sufficiently unhinged, so eventually I survive and in some way or the other find myself on the last page, where I can finally write the words: The End?

Zac O’Yeah survived his most recent editing experience which resulted in the publication of Hari: A Hero for Hire (Pan Macmillan, Oct 2015)

(Visited 1,252 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply