Guest Editorial: Confessions of a procrastinating novelist by Holly Wainwright

by |August 23, 2022

Holly Wainwright is the author of The Couple Upstairs, released August 30 by Pan Macmillan. Her other books are I Give My Marriage A Year, How To Be Perfect and The Mummy Bloggers. She’s also Head of Content at women’s media company Mamamia.

Ahead of the release of The Couple Upstairs, Holly sat down to tell us about her experience of writing, and putting the book together.

Among the most perplexing things that people say to me about writing books: 

You must have so much self-discipline.  You must be really good at time management. How do you fit it all in? 

I just do, I say. Perfect is the enemy of finished, I say. Busy women get shit done, I say. 

But, just quietly, that’s not entirely true. Just quietly, I know I could do a whole lot more. 

I’m writing this on holiday. For two weeks, I have pressed pause on real life. It is a ridiculous privilege. For 14 days, I have no job, no children, no spouse, no deadlines to meet, no house to maintain, no dog to walk. Yes, it’s as dreamy as you think it is. Writing this piece is the only task I can’t put off until I get back in a clutch of unstructured days. 

But…excuse me, I just need to clean up my desktop, the screenshots are getting out of control. 

And apologies for being a little late to my desk to get started. I had to wash the lunch dishes and stack them and then I had to see if my phone was charging on the adaptor I’d found for it and then while I was at it I had to check my Instagram for urgent DMs and then the powerpoint was near the bathroom and I saw the sink and remembered I needed to rinse out that shirt from yesterday, so I did that and then I had to hang it up outside. Then I felt a yawn coming so I decided to master the airbnb’s coffee machine to make an afternoon long black, and then I was kind of hot so I needed to change. And then I couldn’t find my laptop charger so I unpacked and repacked a bag…

Anyway, I’m here now, doing the thing I’m meant to be doing, the thing I set aside a couple of hours for on a hot, holiday afternoon. 

But what was that song my brother and I loved at the cafe last night? I should google that. And then maybe we need a holiday playlist, for the memories. And God, is that really the cover of Beyonce’s new record? Wherever did she get a see-through horse?

You get the picture. 

I am a championship-level procrastinator. And to tell the truth, almost every writer I know is the same. 

I am writing this particular piece to coincide with the release of The Couple Upstairs. It’s my fourth novel. 

Typing that sentence – ‘it’s my fourth novel’ – is… 

Hold on. I’ve just finished my coffee. I think I need a tea. I’ll be right back. 

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Great. Got tea. Checked on the washing. Quick look at Instagram. The Wifi’s really wobbly here, so I needed to reconnect. I think I might have a shower, I don’t think I’ll swim again today. 

Sorry, right. So the actual writing of four novels is a blur. 

If you asked me how I did it, I’d tell you about those glorious moments between the idea and the start – the time when the thing you haven’t written yet is perfect. Every sentence is elegant, every word meticulously chosen. And that plot point that you can’t quite unknot? There will be a genius solution to unravel it that will make the reader gasp. 

Any unwritten book is the best one you’re ever going to write. 

And then I’d tell you about the bit at the beginning, when you’re drafting out what will happen, sketching characters and trying to chisel out some structure. It’s mind-bending, that bit, and never more so than for this book, The Couple Upstairs, which is  “plot-driven”, in publishing speak. That means what happens and when, matters a lot. Reveal a pivotal story element too soon and you’ve stymied suspense. Too late and you’ve lost your reader. Did I get it right? I don’t know, because it is all a blur, the actual writing part. 

This tea is terrible. I went for decaf, because of the long black, and it’s kind of like dishwater. Excuse me, I’m going to have to go and remake it. Damn it, the sink needs a good wipe down…  

Apologies. Right. And then I’d tell you that to make space for that blurry writing part, you have to let other things go. Evenings, mostly. You finish your work day, and then you deal with all the important family business, like feeding people and getting everyone to bed, and then you open your laptop and tackle the next bite of the book – colour in the gaps in that plot you mapped out. You hit road-blocks, and take another turn. 

But before that happens, there’s a consistent, almighty kerfuffle of procrastination. 

Most writers will have longed to claim that title since they were granted a pen licence. But it’s one of the job’s great contradictions that, generally, we’ll do almost anything to avoid the actual writing. Even though that’s the part we love. 

Strange, yes?

In the process of writing The Couple Upstairs – a book about obsessive love, lust, regret, choosing the wrong person, choosing the right one, and that fine line between thrilling and toxic romance – I found a million things to do instead of writing it.

But at some point, I did. At some point, the online distractions and the real-world obstacles gave way to bursts of intense effort. Some of that time was glorious. A spate of flow – where words slickly slide into place, characters say what they were created to say, plots unfurl themselves like velvet ribbons – is a beautiful thing. But most of writing is not like that. It’s work. It’s long and it’s hard and it comes with crises of confidence and brick walls that you have to chew your way through. There are tears and doubts and the constant, nagging feeling that you’re absolutely terrible at it. 

And it’s that struggle that we’re trying to avoid, I suppose, when we’re making that 14th cup of tea and googling ‘clothes for dogs’. 

Now I mention it, my dog would look good in a rain jacket. I wonder if…

 — The Couple Upstairs by Holly Wainwright (Pan Macmillan) is out on August 30th.

The Couple Upstairsby Holly Wainwright

The Couple Upstairs

by Holly Wainwright

Five months after Mel told her husband to leave, a ghost moved in upstairs.

A young man who reminds her, with eerie intensity, of a past lover, someone who changed Mel's life and then vanished.

When the man's travelling girlfriend joins him, Mel's obsession with the couple upstairs builds and the boundaries between the two homes begin to blur, with devastating consequences.

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